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Liquid Courage

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Xanadu story universe





"Liquid Courage"

I never traveled much, but the temptation of the Xanadu convention was just too much to resist. Besides, I thought I might get lucky and win one of the prizes that Mr. Winters was offering.

The idea for the costume was so damn obvious, in hindsight, that I nearly beat my head on the wall. We shared the same first name, we shared mustaches, and like him, I'd gotten torn up by idiots who should have NEVER been military officers at all.

So, I was going as Anthony Stark. Head of Stark Industries, and secretly, Iron Man, the Golden Avenger. Heh. Besides, I thought it might make Mr. Winters laugh to meet a fellow "mega-tycoon" at the con. And a laugh could easily become a winning nod in the costume contest.

But what suit to build?

I had a treasured copy of the famous one-issue "Iron Manual", printed some years ago by Marvel Comics. It detailed every one of his suits up to the War Machine, so I began to pick and choose. An original suit, yet one that combined details of all his previous designs. One that was new, yet would still say "Tony Stark designed me!" to the contest judges.

Eventually, I created the NeuroMimetic Telepresence Unit, Model 155. Based on the remotely controlled Iron Man robot that Stark had used when he was paralyzed, but a good five generations of technology past the original Model 150. My way of explaining away any errors I'd made in the design.

Yeah, it was a cheap excuse, but it was all I could think of at the time.

I even went to the trouble of making a mockup of the controlling helmet that Stark used to remotely operate the NTU. Why'd I bother? Wish I knew. I sort of regret that now.

Fiberglass and aluminum slipped together as easily as a dream. Even the helmet wasn't that hard to do, and when I ran into troubles, a call to the Denver chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism solved things right away. They'd spent years building their own armor, after all. Albeit medieval armor.

I smiled and packed it into an old steamer trunk that had belonged to my grandfather, train tickets in my hand. I knew it was going to be the time of my life.

The Xanadu convention was all I could dream of, and more. (Aside from the fact that my wallet was deflating faster than the Russian national economy...) I took the costume out, assembling it and leaving the mockup of the controller helmet on the hotel bed. I'd set my watch alarm to beep before the contests, with plenty of time to spare.

Competition was rough. There were a lot of people with a lot of creativity, and many more who'd taken the easier way of just buying a costume with a boatload of cash. I had the sinking (but not unexpected) feeling that I wasn't going to win. But I held on nervously as Mr Winters approached the stage to announce the winners.

That's when the confusion hit. I don't know about anyone else, but I felt this odd S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G sensation, as if I were the world's largest rubber band, and one end of me was in the main events hall and the other was nailed down in my hotel room. It made my head spin, and the entire world seemed to go out of focus for an eternity that lasted a single heartbeat.

When things came _back_ into focus, I could see the chaos around me. I was lying face down, with people running and jumping over me, and in some cases running ON me. Yet it didn't hurt.

I paid a LOT less attention to being trampled, and a lot MORE to the fact that I now had alpha-numeric graphics scrolling across my field of vision. They seemed to be system reports and tactical analysis of the current situation. And frankly, they scared the piss out of me.

When I stumbled to my feet, I could see people panicking around me, and what APPEARED to be folks who were either trapped in their costumes, or if the reports scrolling up my vision were to be trusted, weren't even people at all. (If people equaled human, that is.) The man I'd seen in the minotaur costume, for example. The damned reports floating before my eyes insisted that he was a non-human bovine-variant life form. They also insisted on defining his threat value/combat potential according to some scale I didn't understand.

I tried to ignore all that and remove my costume. But it didn't remove. The fittings and connectors I'd used to hold the various parts of the suit together were missing. I swore, and headed for my hotel room as fast as I could. My tools were still in the trunk I'd used to carry the costume. I was certain they'd make short work of it, and once I'd got it off, I'd get the hell OUT of here and THEN discover just exactly what the fuck had happened here.

Making my way through the halls wasn't easy. People were terrified, fighting for a way out, or just struggling, period. It was like watching a badly made disaster movie (complete with the obligatory 'cast of thousands'.). Fortunately for me, I'd hung the key-card to my room on a cord around my neck, as I hadn't wanted to strip off the costume in public. When I made it there, I swiped the card, the light on the door lock blinked green and I stepped inside. That's when I got the shock of my life.

There was someone lying on my bed. In MY clothes! I stomped over, pissed as hell that someone would have the gall not only to rob someone in the middle of a.. a.. well, whatever the hell had just happened, but they actually fell asleep on the job!

I grabbed him by the shoulders, noting the steel-gray helmet that covered his face, I slapped at it, tearing it from his head as everything suddenly went black...

...everything went bright, so painful, I couldn't see. And some asshole was squeezing my shoulders so hard, my bones ached. I blinked gritty tears from my eyes and tried to focus.

Then I decided I'd gone mad. Yup. Genuine, authentic, 200 proof insanity. Because I was lying on my bed, with my own damn costume standing over me, its gauntlets damn near crushing my shoulders in its grip. Which in itself was impossible. They were fiberglass and tin! When I squirmed in pain, the fingers opened, and the suit actually took a step back. A synthesized voice intoned "Stand-by Mode engaged, System Power Down in progress."

I stared. And stared.

I did a LOT of staring.

The only thing that came to mind was something my grandfather had told me over thirty years ago. He'd said, "Boy, there's just some times when there's nothing you can do and no other words will suffice. So use these."

So I used them.

"Oh, Fuck."

Stumbling into the bathroom wasn't much help either, although a splash of cold water across my face did help to bring me back down to earth.

The mirror was something of a shock, however.

If you were to believe my drivers license, I was five foot eight inches tall with (thinning, damn it!) black hair and brown eyes. The fictional (?) Anthony Stark was six foot one. Now, standing there in my stocking feet, I seemed to be five foot eleven. My hair was still black (although it had the strangest blue sheen in the bright bathroom lights), but my eyes were blue!

I ran my fingers through my hair with a shell-shocked grin. "No more male pattern baldness for me, you bet!" I giggled. The jagged edge of incipient hysteria in my own voice shocked me.

Fortunately, the hotel had those little "make-it-yourself" two-cup coffee machines in every room. So I tried to concentrate on the mundane task of fixing myself a hot cup of java. Strange, how such a simple thing can help people to focus.

I stepped out of the bathroom and sat down heavily in one of the over-stuffed armchairs, warming my hands with the coffee cup. The light glittered off the dark surface of the coffee as the cup trembled in my hands. I hadn't been this scared since the Berlin Wall.

I could still hear scared, frantic sounds coming from the hallway outside my room. Okay, that _was_ something I knew how to deal with. A distant corner of my mind blessed a long dead drill sergeant and the training he'd beaten into my head as I set the coffee aside, and locked, then dead-bolted, the door. I braced a spare desk chair against it for extra measure.

Then I sat there, slowly drinking my coffee and staring at the new 'roommate' I'd somehow acquired. Slowly finishing the first cup, I started a second.

"Either I've gone totally insane - in which case the boys in the white coats will be showing up soon - or I'm not," I muttered. "If I'm NOT insane, I need to find out what just happened and why I look like Tony Stark." Then a grim thought hit me and I did a slow walk- around of what had been my costume and NOW seemed to be a fully functioning NTU-155.

I'd spent a lifetime in the military. I *WAS* military, so much so that a close friend had jokingly told me that when I was cut, I bled olive drab. And that part of my soul was telling me something I really didn't want to hear.

"If this thing is for real, Uncle Sam's going to want it. The perfect fighting tool. The perfect weapon." Scenes from the very first issue of "Iron Man" flashed through my mind -- or were they memories now? -- of how Stark had built his very first suit at gunpoint for a Chinese Communist war lord named Wong Chu. "Oh gods.. this could get very ugly. Fast."

That's what decided things for me. If this... thing, could be reproduced, governments all over the world would go to war for the technology it represented. And there wasn't any way for one man to stop them. I needed help, and I needed resources. I might look (and from the current clarity of my mind, probably think) like Anthony Stark, but I didn't have the backing he did. He had his father's company to start with. He had the tools to build the tools to build the tools. Me? I had a retirement pension. Not quite the same.

I couldn't allow them to get their hands on this. Running away wasn't an option.

I reached for the helmet, and took a deep breath. Then I put it on.

And my world suddenly exploded into an entirely new universe.

SE Iron Man NTU Model 155

STANDBY MODE Reactor Nominal All systems 100%

  • Request Diagnostics*

SE Iron Man NTU Model 155

DIAGNOSTIC MODE All Weapons Secured All Targeting Links Secured All Power Couplings Secured ALL SYSTEMS 100% OPERATIONAL

  • List Available Weapon Systems*

SE Iron Man NTU Model 155

Repulsor Rays - Utility Arms PULSE Bolts - Utility Arms Flamethrower - Utility Arms Taser- Utility Arms Tear Gas Jets - Utility Arms

Disrupter Beam - Torso Mount Micro Missiles - Torso Mount Decoy/Sensor Probes - Torso Mount

No Modular Weapons Are Currently Mounted At This Time.

  • Bring Taser and Teargas Jets on line*

Taser and Teargas Jets Are On Line.

I carefully tucked a light cover around my body, an eerie feeling to say the least. Then I headed out to try to find out what had happened to Eric Winters. Like it or not, I was about to apply for a new job. As a bodyguard.

The irony wasn't lost on me.

The clamor in the hallway had subsided, thankfully. Most of it, anyway. When I stepped out, locking the door behind me, the hallway was empty. Signs of what had happened were clearly evident. There were deep gouges on some of the walls, while the carpet was littered with a scattering of leaves (leaves?). One doorway was webbed shut by what the NTU's sensors kept insisting was spider silk! That wasn't exactly the most comforting information it had given me. But it wasn't the worst, either.

As I turned one corner, there was what appeared to be a Klingon warrior, slumped drunkenly on the carpet. In what felt like an almost instinctive action, a twitch of thought caused the NTU to give him a thorough sensor scan. The information scrolling up the screen told me that he definitely was NOT a human in a costume. His physiology was completely non-human, yet quite humanoid.

It also gave me another bit of unpleasant information. I wasn't the only one that this.. event.. had affected. I'd seen over thirty Klingons of various types at the costume competition, along with Michael Dorn himself. (Someone had talked him into attending the contest in costume and in character, as it were.)

Did it mean that EVERYONE in costume had changed? If so, I wasn't the only person who'd be on Uncle Sam's Christmas shopping list. I'd seen superheroes - both generic and specific - and aliens of all sorts at the contest, many of whom might prove useful to a person if they happened to be the sort of hard-assed super-patriot who firmly believed that America's Manifest Destiny was to Rule The World.

I know. I've met far too damn many of them.

I decided to head for the center of the Xanadu dome, and towards the food courts. People always needed to eat. Well, USUALLY they needed to eat. And habit is everything. With luck, I'd find someone there I could talk to.

A young woman with slitted eyes and a now quite real coating of snake scales on her skin was seated at a table in the otherwise empty restaurant. Her deep auburn hair seemed naggingly familiar. When I stepped up to her table, she began to giggle hysterically.

"Iron Man, right?" she managed to get out between boughts of uncontrolled laugher. "Now isn't THIS ironic!" She held out a hand. "Princess Python. At least, that's what half of me thinks I am."

The NTU couldn't blink, at least I hadn't designed it to. Then I caught myself. *Damn it, STARK designed it. Not ME!* I took her hand and bowed politely to the young lady. "Do I know you?"

She giggled some more, then with what I could tell was a supreme effort, choked it down and smiled at me in a much more rational way.

"Indirectly, yes. I'm one of Iron Man's lesser known enemies," she said in a somewhat calmer voice. "I .. I mean SHE, kidnapped Anthony Stark once, asking for a million dollar ransom."

"You too, eh?" I cursed myself as my voice literally boomed across the eatery, causing her to flinch. The NTU was set for combat mode, and its synthetic voice was designed to intimidate opponents. A quick dive into the on-line menus showed me there was a setting for - of all things! - a voice made for comforting and consoling hostages and victims. So I set it to that and tried again.

"I'm sorry, I forget how harsh the speakers sound. Are you all right?"

She nodded, a slow shudder rippling through her. "I'll be all right. I'm just a little confused as to who I really am."

"Join the club," I inclined my head. "I'm having moments when I can't decide if I'm me, or if I'm Stark." I took a quick look around. "Seems like there's no one here at the moment. Would you like me to get you a drink, as there aren't any waiters available?"

She smiled. "Thank you. A soft drink would be nice."

I stepped behind the counter and got her a ginger ale. Then I chuckled as I automatically reached for a wallet in a pair of pants that I wasn't wearing. She saw the motion of my gauntlet and laughed along with me.

"Ah, well, they can charge it to my room, eh?" That broke her up completely. Bringing the drink over, I handed it to her.

"Aren't you going to have anything?" she asked.

I darted a quick look over towards the racked wine bottles that lined the counter behind the cash register. She noticed and followed my gaze, confused. Then her face lit up, and she winced. "I'm terribly sorry. I wasn't thinking."

"Not your fault. And I don't want to risk it, you know?"

"I don't blame you. A friend of mine is in the AA chapter at home. You think you got the addiction with the suit?"

I shrugged. "It's not really something you want to test for, is it? After all, the only real way to test it is to take a drink, and if you ARE an alcoholic, that's not too bright an idea. Anyway-- HEY! Look out!"

A long, green, and very muscular looking shape had just slithered up to the table and wound its way around one of her ankles. I raised a palm, about to take a shot at it when she caught my hand in hers.

"No! It's my friend!"

The faceplate of the NTU didn't have very much in the way of expression, but I think my voice served to display the doubt I was feeling at the moment. "Interesting.. choice of friends, Miss. That IS a full grown rock python, isn't it?"

"It is." She paused for a moment, a confused look on her face. "At least I think it is..."

"And they let you bring that into the hotel? Wow, I'm surprised. I thought they had a strict no-pets policy. Where did you get him from?"

"I don't know where he came from, really. I.. just don't."

"Ex-Squeeze Me?" I said in my best Steve Martin voice. (And a darn good one, too, given that I now had a voice synthesis unit to work with.)

She tittered, a happier sound than her earlier nervous laughter. "Please, I'll spill my drink."

"Oh, we can't have that now, can we? But what DID you mean?"

Her smile faded slightly. "He was.. part of my costume. I didn't have a live snake to work with. And rock pythons are almost impossible to buy these days, thanks to the laws regarding exotic pets. So I made a fake one to go with my costume. I bought eight meters of flexible tubing from a hardware store and decorated it as best I could, making it into a snake. Then that.. that _thing_ happened." A shiver ran down her back, sending an *ahem* interesting ripple down her front.

Hey, I might have been using what amounted to a remotely controlled robot at the time, but that didn't mean I lacked testosterone. No matter how you looked at it, she was a beauty.

"And now he's alive," she continued, gently stroking the ophidian head that gazed so trustingly back at her.

"Strange," I mused. "So it isn't just costumes and the people who wear them, it's inanimate objects as well."

"I guess," she offered. "He's certainly not air vent tubing any more." She stroked him under the chin, while his tongue flickered in and out. "Isn't that right, my beauty."

"Well, far be it from me to come between a woman and her snake," I grinned, and waited a moment for her to take a deep sip from her ginger ale. "Shall I get him an apple?"

As expected, the NTU was showered with her drink. She gave me a pointed glare, then smiled as she reached for a napkin. "That was the worst joke I've heard in days."

"It's the worst joke I've _told_ in days, so that makes us even, I hope. Besides, it made you smile. And you look much happier when you smile, Miss.. Miss.. Oh, bother! Introductions are in order, right?" I stood, and gave her a florid bow. "Anthony Edwards, at your service."

"_Anthony_?" she snarfed.

I shrugged expressively. "The first names matched, and that gave me the idea for the costume. And you are?"

"Zelda-- NO!" She shook her head _hard_, like a thoroughbred trying to dislodge a persistent and very painful fly. "I'm _not_ Zelda DuBois."

"And I'm not Tony Stark. I understand. Give it a moment. Rest if you need to."

That earned me a grateful smile.

"My name is Dominique. Dominique Simone. From Louisiana." She sighed deeply. "Funny, it's the first time in a long time that I'm NOT upset with my given name."

That threw me. "Pardon? Did I miss something there?"

She cocked an eyebrow at me. "You don't watch adult videos, I take it."

A lightbulb went on over my head. "Oh!"

"Yeah," she nodded ruefully. "Just my bad luck that one of the most popular black actresses in the adult movie industry picks MY name as her stage name."

"I can see where the jokes and crude comments would get old very fast," I agreed. I stood and offered her my arm. "I was exploring the dome in the probably vain hope of discovering just what on Earth has happened to us, Miss Simone. If you're not too terribly busy at the moment, would you and your rather lengthy friend there care to accompany me?"

Her eyes lit up. "I'd be delighted, sir." She stood, and the python, almost appearing to understand our words, coiled itself up in several undulating loops and followed close behind her, its unblinking eyes somehow seeming to stand watch over its mistress.

I took a look around the otherwise empty restaurant. "It's a shame."

"What's that?" she asked.

"Well, the carpet's a nice shade of yellow you see."

"I beg your pardon?"

I wished the faceplate of the NTU could smile. "All we need to find is a Scarecrow and a Cowardly Lion, Miss Simone." I pointed at her python. "There's Toto, and I'm _obviously_ a Tin Man."

She completely lost it and collapsed to the floor in breathless, helpless laughter. Even the python looked like it was groaning.

As we stepped out of the restaurant, I noticed a bit of abandoned kipple on the floor, Curious, I touched Dominique on the arm. "One moment. I want to test something." I bent over and picked it up.

"What's that?" she asked.

"One of those knives the Klingons are always carrying around," I frowned. "Interesting. Dominique, have you ever heard the old saying that once is chance, twice is happenstance, but three times is enemy action?"

She nodded. "I remember hearing it once in a movie. Why?"

"Well, these things," I brandished the knife, "are usually made of foil-wrapped cardboard, or aluminum. Sometimes cheap steel. But this one isn't."

She gave me a questioning look.

I rapped 'myself' on the chestplate. "The built-in sensors in this thing are telling me that this blade is an alloy of titanium, tungsten, and a VERY rare element called rhenium. One that's denser than uranium, harder than the best steel, and so rare it makes gold seem as cheap as copper." I held the blade up before her eyes. "The amount of rhenium that went into this blade is only a few grams, yet it could probably buy a new car."

"Ahhh," she breathed. "Transformations. Your suit, my snake, and this knife. One, two, three."

"Ayup. I think we just got an answer of sorts. Can't say how far it spread, but it probably nailed everyone in a costume."

She went a little pale under the fine scales on her face. "The MASKS!"

I blanked. "I don't understand."

She tried to shake me by the shoulder, then ouched as she bruised her hand on the metal. "Didn't you see? They were selling cheap animal face masks for people who wanted to attend the costumes-only events but didn't bring a costume of their own!"

It took me a second to work out the implications of that, then I felt my body, still back in my room, begin to sweat. "Oh, Hell."

She nodded, still rather pale. "And most of them were mundanes," she said, using a rather derogatory term for people who weren't truly devoted fans.

"Which means that they're probably even more likely to panic," I noted. "And that means cops. And trouble."

We stared at each other. "The main desk!" we chorused.

We didn't run. Running headfirst into a situation that you don't know or understand is _stupid_. I'd had that pounded into my head more than once by drill sergeants. But we _did_ hurry. I dived into the NTU's on-line menus again, looking for the sensor and alarm settings.

Whoever had done the programming on this machine had a nasty sense of humor. I found a menu for "Defense Condition Level". Def-con. Arrg.

I immediately reset it from DefCon 4 (the apparent default) to DefCon 3. The system immediately threw a tactical diagram of the Xanadu dome in front of my eyes, with all potential opponents in scan range highlighted. Their combat abilities were listed as well as suggested methods for dealing with them.

It occurred to me that if *I* was the person responsible for the suit's programming, I REALLY needed to cut down on my daily dose of paranoia. And that if Stark had done the programming, the man should have seen a good shrink years ago.

The display wasn't too worrying otherwise. Most of the blips seemed to be of low threat value to the suit, though it did note that they could be dangerous to an unarmed civilian. (Trust the Golden Avenger to always worry about innocent bystanders. At times Stark could be as annoyingly noble as Captain America.)

What _did_ concern me were the several blips that the suit had painted bright red, signifying a serious threat. One was uncomfortably close by. I double checked the location. It was airborne?

Princess Python, Dominique, stopped and pointed at a window. "Look! Up in the sky!"

I resisted making the obvious smart-alec comment and looked in the direction she was pointing. In the sky beyond the window was a man in a red union suit, apparently flying under his own power. Before he flew out of my line of sight, I zoomed in on the emblem on his chest. To my surprise, I recognized it.

"Did someone come as Superman?" Dominique breathed softly, awe in her voice.

"Maybe, but that wasn't the Last Son of Krypton," I frowned. "The emblem on his chest was a rectangular shield with a torch superimposed upon it. The Greatest American Hero, I think. Seems I'm not the only schmuck who ended up with a super suit."

"You sound upset," she said curiously.

"With myself. I should have realized there'd be more... well, meta-humans as a result of this, Dominique."

Her eyes widened as she came to the same conclusions I had. "You think maybe more people are having trouble remembering who they are?"

"I think we'd better hurry to the main desk and find out."

She nodded, and we both picked up the pace.

The hallways weren't as congested as they had been earlier when I had struggled to reach my own room, and when we did reach the main concourse, I could see the flashing lights of police cruisers and rescue vehicles.

They weren't much better off than we were. The police, the paramedics, and the fire fighters seemed to be in as much a state of disbelief as we were. I could see a stunned EMT bandaging the bloody ear of a woman dressed as a Playboy Bunny. Trouble was, it was one of her _rabbit_ ears that was bleeding, and the EMT was having a little trouble with the concept.

Not that I blamed him.

Dominique clutched at me, and her python eased up behind her in a defensive posture. "My god, it's EVERYWHERE!"

I zoomed out with the optical sensors. I was quickly becoming enchanted with the capabilities of the NTU. "No, I don't think so. It looks like it began and ended with the hotel and the rest of Xanadu." I looked over the scrolling text carefully. "People in the nearby office buildings appear to be unaffected and totally human. But it looks like there's at least two hundred emergency workers out there in the parking lots. Probably more. This is bad." Something else caught my attention, and I pointed. "They're trying to herd people back towards the hotel. Not a good sign."

"Do you think we should..." Her voice trailed off, uncertain.

"I'm a bloody walking arsenal, and you have a snake that looks like he could probably eat a entire police car if he's hungry enough. You think a nervous cop is going to stop to think before he shoots?"

She looked at the python, and her jaw tightened. At that moment she looked less like a terrified partygoer and a LOT more like Zelda DuBois, former member of the Serpent Society and a stone cold criminal. "They hurt my baby, and I'll feed them to him in little bloody CHUNKS!" she hissed.

I could see another set of vehicles rapidly approaching. "Then we'd better get back to your room. That's the Department of Animal Control headed this way. They'll probably want to take him away from you."

"No, I don't have anything in my room that I need, and you should get out of that suit. I can help. Please?"

Oh hell, I thought. I should have seen this coming. I came to a quick decision.

"All right, but you'll to have to try to hang on. You're going to be in for a bit of a rude surprise."

"I've got slit-pupil eyes, scales, and a giant python that was a length of hardware store tubing just the day before. What more's left to surprise me?"

"Just remember you said that, okay? And speaking of which..."

We slipped back into the main entrance, trying to avoid notice. Not that a six foot two inch combat telepresence unit is exactly a low profile sort of thing. Fortunately most of the people were in emergency mode, concentrating on treating the injured and restraining the panicked. As we didn't seem to be either, most of the police and medics gave us a glance, then ignored us as just another couple who fortunately weren't contributing anything to the immediate problem.

Things were quieting down now that the authorities had arrived. Not that they knew anything more than we did, but people seemed to respond to the uniforms and the implied sense of order that went with them. Looking around, I could see that the people around me who hadn't been injured or transformed TOO far from their normal selves were beginning to calm down and co-operate with the cops and medics.

Heading down the damaged hallways, we stopped at my room and I swiped the cardkey through the slot. When the light blinked green I turned the handle, but didn't open the door.

"Hope you can deal with this," I said. "I'm not entirely sure

  • I* am." Then I opened the door and waved her and her python inside.

She stepped in, then gasped. "There's someone already here," she said, backing up against me.

"That's me, I'm afraid." I pushed past her gently, shutting the door behind us and seating the NTU on the bed, which creaked in protest. Then I tried to open my OWN eyes. A mistake, as the stereo images I was seeing made me _very_ dizzy. The NTU collapsed across the bed, and I slumped deeper in the chair. I managed to wave at her.

"Hi, I'm Tony."

In retrospect, it wasn't my brightest moment.

Dominique helped me get the headset off and had brought me a glass of water from the bathroom. In the comics, Stark had been able to control both his own body and the NTU at the same time with seeming ease. All I could assume was that he'd gotten a LOT of practice off screen that Marvel had never shown us. I made a personal note to send Stan Lee a nasty (but safely anonymous) poison pen letter when I had the time to spare.

"Why didn't you freak?" I asked when the dizziness had passed.

She laughed lightly. "I might not be a fan of Iron Man in particular, but I'm still a Marvel fan. It took a moment, but when I saw the headset, I realized what was going on. It's an Iron Man robot, right?"

"It is now," I nodded. "It was a costume the other day, though. Speaking of which, how about you? I don't recall Princess Python as having those eyes or that skin."

She began to twiddle her fingers nervously, and the python, sensing her unease, wrapped itself around her comfortingly. "I.. ahh.." she blushed. "Well, you see, she doesn't wear glasses, either."

"Glasses?"

"I'm near-sighted. I didn't want to spoil the costume, and since I wear contacts anyway, on occasion, I thought I'd have some fun and order some custom contacts from a firm that supplies them to Hollywood. And then I decided to add a scaled skin to go with them. I was going to tell everyone that as Princess Python, I'd visited Dr. Malus."

I snapped my fingers. "Dr. Karl Malus, right? Unethical scientist who illegally experimented on humans, and once worked for Power Broker, Incorporated, a business that offered to augment anybody for the right price. I remember that." I raised an eyebrow. "Get anything else?"

She blushed, then sat on the floor, her python uncoiling and looping itself around the legs of the bed. Once it was out of her way, Dominique proceeded to assume a position that made ME blush, and would have put a professional Yoga master into traction for weeks.

"I seem to be triple jointed, and very flexible," she said, as she dislocated both shoulders, then popped them back into place without a single sign of pain. I tried to control my own flaming face.

"Ahh.. yeah. Could you, you know.. not do that?" She looked up at the quaver in my voice and giggled as she saw the ruddy flush I was sporting.

"Aww, how sweet! A gentleman in this day and age," she smiled.

"Whatever. Could you please..?" I sweated.

"Oh, poo." She gave me a wicked grin, then unfolded herself and stood back up. "Spoilsport."

I took a deep breath and popped the joints in my spine. "Would you like me to walk you back to your room?"

She looked down for a moment, then attacked me with that EVIL lost puppy-dog eye look that I honestly believe all women are issued just as soon as they're born. "Can't I just stay with you tonight?"

I _knew_ that this was one fight I wasn't going to win. When it comes to some females, I have all the backbone of an overcooked jellyfish. But I DID manage to get her to agree that she'd take the bed and I'd sleep on the floor.

We spent most of that night comparing various memories before we went to sleep, trying to match up who and what we'd seen, making guesses as to what they might have turned into given what they'd been wearing.

Her most vivid memory was that of a woman who'd come as the human version of Demona from the Disney cartoon, "Gargoyles", complete with blood-red hair and tiara, dressed in an appropriately ragged loincloth and halter-top combination. I told her of a cosplay group of eight players I'd spotted who were dressed as Men In Black, complete with neuralizers.

"Do you suppose they actually work now?" she wondered.

"I have NO idea," I frowned. "But I plan on buying a gross of Ray-Ban sunglasses, first thing tomorrow morning."

"I don't blame you," she snickered. "I wonder if they'll try to set themselves up just like the movie?"

"If they do, Washington will become a MUCH more interesting place. And probably for the better." I smirked. "At least they'll have a job watching all the new Klingons and other aliens we have now."

She nodded, then sighed sadly. "I feel sorry for 'Demona', though."

"Why?"

"She came as the Demona from the episode 'The Mirror'." Dominique winced. "That's the one where Puck bespells her so that she changes to human by day, not stone."

"So? That sounds like a good thing to me," I puzzled. "Better a human than a statue."

"Yes," she agreed, "But the change is horribly painful, if you go by the cartoon. She's going to be in agony with every sunrise and sunset."

"Urrrgh. I hadn't thought of that. Going to be a LOT of people hurting something fierce come morning."

"And even more confused folks when the word gets out," she sighed.

"Well, as a wiser man than I'll ever be once said, 'sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof'."

Dominique gave me a confused look.

"Short version: No need to go looking for trouble, trouble will come looking for _you_, soon enough."

With that, we both rolled into our blankets and went to sleep.

I woke the next morning to a sharp rap at the door. The python, which had twined itself defensively around Dominique during the night, raised its head and glared in the direction of the sound.

Stepping quietly across the floor, I carefully looked out of the small bulls-eye peephole the hotel had provided. Then I raised an eyebrow. A clean convention hotel was to be expected. A convention hotel that supplied French maids to do that cleaning was a bit much, I felt.

Had to be one of the convention attendees, I thought.

"Bon jour, M'seur. I 'ave come to clean ze room."

"We're busy at the moment, but if you come back in an hour or so, we'll be ready for you."

"Merci, M'seur. I weel return zhen."

She continued on down the hall while I mused over some of the less pleasant implications of magically-induced compulsive behavior patterns. The word 'geas' took on a whole new meaning for me.

Dominique yawned and stretched right about then. "What's up?"

"Well, I am, at the moment. And you should be too." I looked to her python. "I'm after thinking we all need food. Question is, what do you feed a 25 foot python?"

"Anything it wants?" she giggled.

I blew a raspberry in her general direction. "Seriously. I think it's time to see what we can do and what we can't." Looking up, I pointed at the lights. "Power's still on, so's the water, and the air conditioning. So things haven't fallen apart completely."

She nodded. "The hotel must still be running at some level. Do you suppose it's Mr. Winters? He's got enough money to buy a small Central American country. Taking over a convention center would be pretty small by comparison."

"I don't know, but it seems likely." I donned the control unit, woke the NTU up and put 'myself' into the steamer trunk. With its knees brought up to its chest, it just fit. Then I shut it back down, put the helmet in with it, and locked the trunk shut. "That should be safe enough for now. Time for breakfast."

A quick cleanup in the bathroom, and we headed to Dominique's room so she could change to something a little less obvious. The python still got plenty of stares from the few people in the halls. The occasional hotel employee we encountered seemed a little shell- shocked still, though a few had a calculating, greedy look in their eyes. I was suddenly glad that Grandpa's old steamer trunk was built in the old-fashioned - and very solid - style. I'd put a Master lock on it, so now the only way a thief could get into it would be with a fire-ax.

Sure enough, a few of the restaurants were still working, though the waiters and cashiers looked like they'd woke up on the other side of the looking glass and desperately wanted to find the way out.

Breakfast was a surreal affair. No menus, no ordering. They'd laid on a simple buffet, and that was all. Though simple might not be the right word. I saw the young woman from the day before, the one who'd been transformed into a living Playboy bunny, shoveling her platter full of carrot sticks. Her face was a story in contradiction as she ate them. Part of her was obviously enjoying them, the rest rather confused. A plate of bacon and eggs had been pushed to one side after a few determined nibbles on them had evidently nauseated her.

I'd just finished a stack of pancakes when the shouting started from the front desk. Without thinking, I rose from my seat, and started towards my room. I caught myself, wondering what the hell I was thinking.

Damn it, I'm NOT Anthony Stark. I don't have to ride to the rescue every moment an emergency arises, I berated myself.

The police officer who came cartwheeling through the air to strike the wall with a sickening thud changed my mind. Dominique's, too. "Go!" she hissed, and I _went_.

I wasn't the only one, and a tiny corner of my mind wanted to burst out in broad, inappropriate laughter as it placed a face or two in the small group of men and women who'd risen from their seats and charged towards their rooms.

One I noticed clearly was the William Katt look-alike who'd been flying around in the "Greatest American Hero" suit the previous day.

We're going to have to start a Superheroes Anonymous Support Group if this keeps up, I thought.

Moments later, I had the NTU up and running. Literally running, in this case, headed towards the front desk. What I saw next threw me for a loop. I wasn't the only one, either. At least four or five other 'heroes' were standing there, dumbstruck at the sight of a highly belligerent Barney.

Yeah, Barney. Purple skin, goofy voice and all.

The poor bastard was shrieking at the top of his voice that he hated EVERYONE. "I hate you, You hate me, I want to DIE!" he sang dementedly. From the clutter on the floor, the police had tried to stop him with a variety of non-lethal projectiles (I could see some crushed pepper-spray paintballs and a few foam rubber bullets scattered around the carpet) to little effect. The room reeked of propellant and capsaicin.

I could see two bruised and battered officers who were trying to pull back from the enraged dino, who'd just thrown an hotel armchair at them as if it were no heavier than a feather.

The guy in the GAH suit (I was beginning to think of it as that now; Greatest American Hero was just too damn big a mouthful to constantly repeat) caught my eye, and silently mouthed *You take his right arm, I'll get the left.*

I nodded, and we made our move. GAH-man grabbed Barney's left arm, I got his right, and some guy wearing bright blue spandex made a heroic dive (what else would he do?) across the carpet, tackling the faux dinosaur's legs while shouting "Never fear, Captain Convention is here!"

Now THAT was embarrassing. I mean, damn, couldn't he have thought up a better name? _Really_.

'Barney' thrashed pretty hard, but the NTU was several hundred pounds of iron, titanium, and polycarbonates. Even a human-sized dinosaur had a little trouble with that much weight on one arm. GAH-man wasn't exactly a midget, either. Captain Convention was doing pretty good himself. He had an armlock around Barney's ankles that the purple creature didn't seem able to break.

About that point, a woman in a jumpsuit with a dizzying, Escher-like pattern printed on it stepped up in front of 'Barney' and stared him directly in the eyes. From the corner of MY 'eyes', I saw hers. I was almost pulled into their mesmeric blue depths. Barney WAS pulled in, and he went limp in our arms almost instantly.

And DAMN, he was heavy. When he collapsed, the unexpected weight threatened to pull GAH-guy and I over for a second.

"Thanks, Miss," GAH got out, while we held Barney up, waiting for the police, who were running over with BIG restraints.

"I second that," I added. "This could have been bad."

The restraints were big, but they weren't big enough. So the cops tied 'Barney' up with wet sheets and duct tape, a harsh way to restrain someone, but they just didn't make handcuffs or straight- jackets in his size. As Captain Convention assisted the police in carrying the unconscious dinosaur away, I knew they had to do that, but it gave me the uneasy feeling that the concept of Civil Rights was going to take on a new and unpleasant flexibility from now on.

Well, I thought, deal with it later. First things first. There was no sense in borrowing trouble from tomorrow.

I made a mental note to call the ACLU sometime soon, though.

"So what do we do now?" GAH asked. "Look for phone booths and start changing?"

I let out a laugh, and slapped one knee with a loud clang. "Don't you think we're just a little bit pregnant in that respect? The hotel DOES have a guest register with all of our names and home addresses in it," I pointed out. "Twenty bucks says that's the very first thing the government going to grab when they start dealing with this situation in a less than stunned frame of mind."

"Mmm.. good point," added the woman. "Maybe we should arrange for the guest book to have a little.. accident?"

GAH shook his head. "It's all in the computer these days, and this hotel chain makes off-site backups. I know, I used to work for a company that did computer maintenance for them."

"Oh, joy," muttered the woman.

"I think introductions are in order?" I asked, sticking out a gauntlet. "Hi, I'm not Iron Man. Who aren't you?"

GAH grinned boyishly and shook my hand as the woman laughed. "I guess I'm not the Greatest American Hero. Hmm, I really need to shorten that, don't I?"

"And I'm not Hypnotica," added the woman. "I know it's not very original," she laughed, "but it was all I could think of at the time." She frowned then, a worried look on her face. "Deep Purple there wasn't the first to snap, and he likely won't be the last," she stated baldly. "Look."

She pointed down the hall, where another set of paramedics were carrying the first injured officer out to a waiting ambulance.

GAH nodded somberly. "But what can we do about it?"

Hypnotica tapped him on the chest with a slender finger, dead center of his emblem. "We do what we've already done. We start hanging together, or we'll end up hanging separately."

"You mangled Ben Franklin there a bit, but I get the idea," I replied. "She's right, Hero. I think we need to borrow the hotel's public address system for a few minutes."

The desk clerk was unwilling at first, but a few minutes spent explaining things to the day shift manager (who must have been a TOWER of emotional strength - he hadn't fallen apart in the middle of all this chaos) got us to the microphone.

"*cough, cough* This thing on? Oh. Okay, people, listen up. Will all persons who were wearing hero or superhero costumes come to the Aspen conference room in about thirty minutes? This is.. Ahem.. Iron Man, sort of, and we'd like to get all the heroes together for a quick briefing and an important message you should all hear. This isn't something we can make you do, but it IS important that we do it. Thank you."

The Aspen room was one of those rooms set up like a theater, with a low stage down forward and rows of seats rising gradually as they marched back towards the rear of the room. The table and chairs set up on the stage for the moderating panel of a discussion group hadn't been removed. A small bit of luck that I hoped was a good omen.

Dominique, GAH, Hypnotica and I were standing behind the table as we waited for people to arrive. We had some luck. I could count at least twenty people in various brightly colored costumes (Or were they? If the powers were real, _were_ they just costumes any more?) in the theater type seating. There were others dressed in street clothing, but who held an indefinable look in their faces. More were filing in.

When it looked like there were no more coming, I tapped on the table for attention, and began.

"Folks, we have a problem. I don't know if any of you have heard yet, but another victim of whatever's happened to us just had a mental breakdown. Unfortunately, he attacked some police officers, and he was _winning_." I shook my head. "This isn't good."

GAH took it up. "Frightened policemen are dangerous policemen. And triggerhappy ones. You all remember the Rodney King riots. If the police think we're a threat, they'll panic, then call in the SWAT teams. And if that's not enough, the National Guard, then the Army."

"So what's that got to do with us?" asked a voice from the back row.

"If we can control _ourselves_, they won't have to," pointed out Hypnotica. "And for those of us who aren't... well, rational at the moment, we have to come between them and the police before either side gets hurt."

"But why us?" insisted the voice. I finally spotted the speaker, what appeared to be a living metal statue of a woman.

"Who else?" I asked. "Look, we all know that there's bound to be some idiots in the world who'll see us as things to be used, weapons, tools. Right now, the only real advantages we have are the powers we seem to have gained, and _TIME_. Everyone out there is stunned and confused-"

"They ain't the only ones," heckled a rubbery-looking man wearing a red leotard and a set of dark-tinted goggles.

"Point taken. We aren't exactly paragons of mental stability ourselves. But do YOU want to end up in some government or corporate lab, being poked and prodded or even _dissected_ in order to discover what makes you tick? Or worse, having some fat-assed general tell you that you've just been drafted into the US Army, to help Uncle Sam 'remove' some petty dictator from office the 'easy way'?"

The room went painfully silent.

"Look," I pleaded. "I'm not asking you to save the world. We just need a little crowd control for a few days. We need to buy some time. A few days. Just enough that we can figure out a _peaceful_ way of dealing with this."

"And just who chose YOU to lead us, eh?" This from a darkly dressed man with a square-cut goatee, his black hair pulled back in a thin ponytail. He raised an eyebrow, his sardonic smile somehow increasing his resemblance to an elegant satyr. There was something very familiar about him, but I couldn't quite make the connection. I brushed the thought aside, thinking that I could worry about it later.

"No one. I don't _want_ to lead. If someone can do it better than I can, I'll step down right away."

A tall young man in a red sweater and khaki slacks stood up at the back of the room. "I've heard enough."

Ah, shit, I thought in despair. He's going to walk out, and they'll all follow him. But to my surprise, he started down the steps towards the stage.

He smiled at the four of us. "I think you're right, and I'd like to be the first to volunteer."

I gave him a closer look. "You look _very_ familiar. Do I know you?"

"Maybe," he smiled. "Most people do."

"I'm afraid I-"

He grinned then, a cocky, confident grin, and said one word. And when he spoke...

Seven thunders answered him.

"SHAZAM!"

Fear is an interesting word. You can open up a thesaurus and find at least half a dozen synonyms for it. Terror, horror, dread, dismay, alarm.. yet there's one very special word for it that is unique among them all.

Awe.

The dictionary also defines it as a feeling of overwhelming respect or reverence.

I'd seen many things this past day. Heroes, villains, people who'd become animals, and things that had crossed the line from unliving matter to living beings. I thought I'd seen it all. But nothing affected me like the man standing before me.

Captain Marvel.

The purest, most noble hero of a more innocent age. A man, a _hero_, who personified the chivalrous ideal that every Boy Scout aspired to. Everything I once wanted to believe in, and no longer could.

I stepped towards him, resisting the urge to drop to one knee. "I.. Captain Marvel. Thank you. Thank you very much."

"I'm glad to be of service, sir," he smiled.

"I'm no sir, Captain, I'm just-"

"Just the first person to ACT, instead of reacting, Iron Man."

God, he even sounded as noble as the Captain I'd known from my childhood comics. "That's not saying much, Captain."

He grinned, a smile full of self-confidence and cheer. "You under-rate yourself. Besides, don't we have work to do?"

"Yes." I inhaled deeply and stepped back. "Okay, people, the idea is simple. Those who want to help, step forward. We take your _new_ name, not your real one, and your room number. Then we'll take turns spending two hours each sitting in the main lobby looking sufficiently foreboding in an attempt to discourage people from running amok. The rest of the time, we stay where we can be reached, in the case that more than one of us is needed to help quell a disturbance."

Marvel cocked his head, then nodded thoughtfully. "A good plan. It's flexible and doesn't try to be everything at once. Where do I sign up?"

I gestured at a clipboard and pen that the day manager had helpfully provided. Marvel looked back at the rest of the room. "Line forms to the right. Let's do our duty." Then he picked up the clipboard, filling in his name and room number.

People rushed the stage in their eagerness to line up behind him.

Nearly thirty people signed up after they realized that Captain Marvel approved of the idea. There was simply something special about him. You could feel it in his presence, like a hot desert sun. He radiated a nobility the world hadn't seen in a painfully long time. In another person, it would have seemed outdated, laughable, even ludicrous.

But not from him. Never from him.

A tiny, ugly little corner of my heart wanted to hate him. Envy him for being what he was, what I'd always wanted to be, and had failed to be. There was an old Christian prayer that asked God to forgive you not only for the wrongs you'd done, but also for those things you'd left undone. Captain Marvel brought all that rushing painfully back to me.

I pushed that aside. There were more important things to do than picking at old wounds. We'd arranged two hour shifts for everyone, which was easier than we thought. After all, it wasn't like we were going anywhere right away. The next thing was the phones. The room phones were still working, but by now, the police had already spoken to the hotel switchboard, and calls outside the hotel were being diverted to the police dispatch.

That wasn't the best of news. It meant that sooner or later, we'd be facing angry people who wanted to let their loved ones know they were alive and safe. Well, safe in a flexible sense of the word, anyway. And at least a few of those angry people would be capable of taking that anger out on the police they held responsible.

Worse, some people were more lost in their costumes than others. 'Barney' was apparently rather fortunate. HE could remember who he was, and his rage sprang from that. Others seemed to have totally forgotten who they'd been, and could only remember those things that the person (or being) they'd come dressed as could be expected to remember. And now we'd have to DEAL with them, with people who hadn't done anything wrong, people whose only crime was being lost in their own minds.

I could sympathize. Stark's memories seemed almost brighter, almost more REAL, than my own at times. I could look around the room, and a portion of my mind would begin to catalog how 'I' would redesign and improve it with 'my' inventions. Frightening.

And of course, there would be people who hadn't been villains before, but would come to the sudden realization that as they now held powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men.. hey, why MAKE money when you can simply TAKE it?

I wanted to rub my aching temples, then thought, why not? I carefully considered what I was doing, and then, slowly, awkwardly, managed to raise my OWN hands to my head without the NTU aping those actions. Success! A small one, perhaps, but I'd take my victories wherever I could get them.

That's when the bloody comic relief arrived. Right on time. I could hear a hammering at the door of the conference room. Oddly enough, it seemed to be coming from low on the door.

"I DEMAND to be heard! It is my DESTINY!" came a shout in curiously cultured tones from the hall outside.

"NARF! You tell 'em, Brain!"

I wanted to cry.

Captain Marvel very kindly dealt with the pair of would-be world conquering mice for me. I think the wisdom of Solomon was telling him that I was pretty close to the edge of insanity myself. I honestly think that if those two were anything like the cartoon, I'd have ended up feeding them to Dominique's python out of sheer frustration.

Much later, we were to discover that a young, and rather short, woman decided to capitalize on her lack of height, and had come dressed as that animated horror, Elmyra, from Tiny Toons. Part of her costume included a small cage with two stuffed mice inside that she'd pet, pat, fondle and otherwise pretend to torment, reinforcing her act.

It reinforced the act, all right. She was now the same age, mentally and physically, as the cartoon character. And the mice, of course, were now quite real.

I later hired Brain myself. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Besides, we had other worries far more important than a deluded mouse with an itch to prove his self-worth. About thirty people had signed up, but even MORE had walked out. Some didn't want to take part, some were afraid, some insisted that we should just sit tight and trust the government to solve things out.

On top of that were the uncounted numbers who hadn't appeared at the meeting at all. Most weren't dangerous - the woman who'd been turned into a living Playboy bunny came to mind - but the number of people who _did_ have enough power to be (or become) serious threats was uncomfortably high.

There were even a few (a VERY few, thankfully) who insisted that the Golden Rule should be applied. That is, them as has the Gold, makes the Rules. Or in this case, those who have the Powers, rule the commoners.

I was beginning to worry more about some of the convention attendees than I was about my government.

It was fortunately that Hypnotica had come to the realization of what we needed to do as fast as she did, as the next serious challenge was already taking place.

We were headed back to the main lobby when a shout went up. GAH rolled his eyes. "Already it begins." He dashed down the hallway ahead of me, only to come staggering back. He hit the wall, bent over and began to retch.

I looked on in shock and wondered just what the hell he'd seen that affected him so strongly, then charged ahead to confront.. whatever.

What I saw next was _seriously_ disgusting. People around the lobby were crawling on the floor, gagging, vomiting, and desperately trying to get away from the young man in the green spandex leotards and "Lone Ranger" style mask, also in bright kelly green.

Not that a costume was unusual, not here and now. But the fact that he'd cut out the seat of the costume so that both of his rear cheeks might hang out, was. Bleah.

He was cleaning out the cash drawer and gloating over the take when I held up a gauntlet and shouted "Stop where you are!"

He turned, spotted me, then to my surprise, turned his back on me and bent over! That's when I found out why GAH was busy upchucking in the hall. The next thing I heard was a terrifically loud ripping noise, and realized what he was doing.

"There!" he shouted as he stood upright and returned to looting the register. "That'll take care of YOU, tin man! No one can stop Mister Methane!"

Mister Methane?! And I thought Captain Convention was bad.

He didn't even bother to check to see if I'd fallen. His mistake. My body was still in my room, nowhere near Flatulence Boy. I couldn't smell a thing. So I smirked to myself and advanced on him. Grabbing him by one arm, I threw him to the floor, hard.

"Get a clue, windbag. You want to be stupid, do it on your own time, and your own nickel. Return the cash and _maybe_ I won't play the xylophone with your rib cage." A crass way of putting it, but I was a little angry at that moment.

But I suppose it's a union rule for supervillains that they refuse to go quietly. Maybe there's something in their contracts about dramatic confrontational scenes. Maybe they're terminally stubborn. Or stupid. Who knows?

As it was, instead of surrendering quietly, this rather disgusting supervillain wannabe spread his legs and passed a five foot long jet of flame from his rear!

Now _I_ wanted to go somewhere and upchuck. This was REALLY gross. And I didn't blame GAH in the slightest.

The overhead fire sprinklers hadn't gone off yet, but if he kept this up, they would at any moment. I fired some flame-supressant foam at.. well, at his ass, hoping that it would keep things from getting worse. Right about then a ripple of stealthy movement across the carpet caught my eye, and backtracking the motion, I grinned. One of my new friends wanted to join in the fun. Why not?

I stepped into "Mr. Methane"'s line of sight and aimed a boot at his head. He quickly rolled out of the way of my kick, as expected. Unfortunately for him, rolling out of my way, rolled him INTO the path of a rather irritated (and very large) rock python.

He screeched in terror, and began to thrash wildly as the python wrapped itself around him. A mistake on his part, as that's what a python's natural prey usually does, and pythons expect it. Big Green threw two loops around his chest and a third set around his legs for an anchor. Then he slowly began to apply pressure.

I walked over and looked down at the thief. "Looks like you're in a bit of a spot, fella."

"..hlp muhhh.."

"Well, now, I'd LIKE to help you, but this isn't MY pet snake. He belongs to someone else, prolly won't listen to me, you know."

"..pls.."

"Of course, if you happened to feel like surrendering yourself and going peacefully, I might have a chat with the lovely young lady who IS the owner of the critter that's currently mashing you to a pulp. I might even catch her in a good mood."

From across the room, out of range of the stench, Dominique smiled over at her pet. "Oh, I don't know. Sssaaahh hasn't been fed lately. I was thinking about buying him a live pig, but long pork will do just as well. And it's cheaper, too!"

For a guy in a kelly green costume, he went bone-white with remarkable speed. Sssaaahh added to the effect by coiling his head around and opening his mouth. It's amazing just how wide a python's jaws can spread. And rather terrifying, if you're the one who's looking directly into them, expecting to take a one-way trip inside.

"..."

"Now, now, Princess Python. We can't kill them if they surrender first. Rules, you know," I said in dry tones. "We MUST uphold the standards of civilized behavior. If we don't, who will?"

Sssaaahh - a rather fitting name if ever I'd heard one - paused to adjust his coils slightly, and our thief got enough of his wind back to gasp out "I surrender!" in a strangled squawk.

Dominique smiled nastily, and Sssaaahh loosened his coils just enough that Flatulence Boy wouldn't suffocate. But no looser than that.

That's when a pair of police officers came in wearing gas masks and carrying riot shields. They spotted the idiot on the floor and the large snake wrapped around said idiot, and the younger officer reached for his service pistol. Fortunately, the older officer had a better head on her shoulders and grabbed at his hand before anything serious happened. She stepped forward cautiously.

"Pardon me..." She paused, not quite certain how to address us. "Sir? This individual is under arrest for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. Are you going to ... contest this?"

I snorted at the thought that a person's bodily functions could now be considered a deadly weapon, but I got her point. "No, Officer," - a quick look at her nameplate - "Officer Ross. We're just seeing to it that our fragrant friend doesn't try to scurry off before you take appropriate steps." I nodded to Dominique, she nodded back, and Sssaaahh slithered off Mr. Methane.

Officer Ross's eyes lit up behind the gas mask and she cuffed the green-clad idiot before he could get his wits back. She looked over at her partner. "Call for a wagon, Jimmy. I don't want this.. thing.. in our unit. He might go off again!"

Her partner turned a little green at the thought.

"Might I suggest a call to the city's Hazardous Materials team, Officer?" I interjected. "They've more experience in dealing with toxic fumes, and they have the gear to deal with this putz in a safe manner."

Ross brightened at the thought, and nodded to her partner. "Give 'em a call, Jimmy. Let's let THEM haul this pervert to the station." She turned back towards me and inclined her head. "Thank you."

"For what?" I asked.

"For a helping hand when we needed it," replied Ross.

"Just common sense, Officer." I looked at her a little more closely. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I know this, Officer Ross. The world's just been turned upside down and given a hard shake. And unlike a snow globe, it won't just settle down peacefully."

Her eyes sharpened, and she looked back, as if she were trying to see through the metal mask that (she thought) must cover my face. "You sound like you've put a lot of thought into it.. Mr?"

"Iron Man, for now. Yes, I have." I paused for a moment, trying to understand her thoughts. "You have too, I'd wager."

She nodded, then reached into a pocket. Withdrawing a small card, she scribbled quickly on the back and handed it to me.

"My private cell phone number. You might find it useful."

I quickly tucked the card inside a storage compartment. "Don't mistake me, I'm grateful, but why?"

"I'm no Commissioner Gordon, Iron Man, just a beat cop. But I've seen enough corruption to know that ugly things are going to start happening soon. You could use a friend inside the Department." She grinned. "But if you use that number, do me a favor. Don't call collect."

Her partner returned at that point, his voice cheerful. "Hazmat's on the way, and they're bringing one of their transport trucks to handle the Ass Master here."

"..tha'zz mither methane do yuu coppuh..." mumbled said would be robber.

"Hmm.. maybe Sssaaahh cut off the oxygen to his brain for just a bit TOO long," I mused out loud.

In an odd way, I was almost grateful to this idiot. After all you almost always need a loudmouthed fool to make the hero look good by comparison.

Officer Ross laughed. "If that's the case, three cheers for the snake!" She tugged at her mask uncomfortably. "Is it safe to take these things off yet, Jimmy?"

Her partner shook his head. "I don't know, and you _ain't_ getting me to guinea-pig for you."

I held up a gauntlet. "One second." A moment later, the heads-up display gave me a bio-toxin scan of the surrounding air. "I wouldn't. He's still pretty whiffy." I looked at Ross, then grinned to myself. "You know, officer, this hotel DOES have some emergency fire hoses."

"What's that got to do.. OH!" I could hear the evil grin in her voice, even through the gas mask. "Jimmy, let's drag him outside. And while we wait for the HazMat team, we might consider giving the poor gentleman a quick bath, Marine Corp style."

A few moments later, you could hear Mr. Methane screaming from half the hotel away. "CCCOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD!"

That's the trouble with spandex, you know.. no insulation value. None at all. Heh.

Everyone who'd signed up were taking two hour shifts sitting around and looking menacing. Or at least implacable. It seemed to be working, too.

The combinations were hilarious, at times.

For example, at the moment, Master Qui-Gon Jinn and a young Luke Skywalker were giving a demonstration of swordsmanship with their light sabers. And not so incidentally, illustrating how if anyone got foolish, they too could be reduced to barbecue pork should the need arise.

Heh. It did cut down on gratuitous episodes of stupidity.

At the moment, I was grabbing a bite to eat at the main restaurant. I, at least, had the option of not looking like my alter-ego. Others weren't so fortunate.

I'd already spotted a tall and painfully thin man dressed in a stereotypical 1950's labcoat (complete with mandatory briar pipe clenched tightly between his teeth) shepherding a trio of color-coded young girls. I recognized them and shuddered slightly. Then made a mental note to start investing in construction and contracting companies. We were going to need it.

You know, I've always wondered.. Why does every mad (or at least dangerously brilliant) scientist wear a white lab coat everywhere they go? Is it some sort of bizarre fashion statement?

Feh. Probably one of those questions that will never be answered. Oh, well.

Dominique was in her own room again, feeding her snake. The expression on the face of the day manager when he was asked to obtain a live pig for Sssaaahh's consumption was a real Kodak moment. Still, I had to credit him for his self-possession. He just carried on and got the job done. The man deserved a medal for holding himself together the way he did.

Meanwhile, I was eating with one hand, and writing with the other. I'd discovered that I wasn't as immune to being subsumed by my character as I thought. Stark, or at least that part of myself that _thought_ it was Stark kept trying to rise to the surface. But I'd found that inventing (or at least TRYING to invent) was enough to keep it happy.

At the moment, my left hand was busy scribbling down a formula for an optical fiber based not on the usual glass, but on a type of rubber. It looked as if it should work, too. The range was limited to about 500 meters, but if I could somehow bring it to market, it would solve the so-called 'last mile' problem most optical fiber networks were facing. The TROUBLE was, how the hell was I supposed to produce samples and test them without any damn tools or even a laboratory?!

About that point, I saw a cat-man walk past, recognizing him from the initial chaos of the first transformation. Eric Winter's personal assistant. And again, the lightbulb went on over my head.

Rising from the table, I intercepted him. "Excuse me, Mr.."

"Felix, Felix Hendrickson."

"I'm sorry. I hadn't caught your name before," I nodded. "I have something for Mr. Winters." I handed him the paper I'd been writing on. "Would you please give this to him? I think he might find it of some use."

The cat/man frowned at the formulas on the paper. "Please?" I asked. "All that I ask is that he see it. My room number's on the back."

"What is this?"

"Hopefully, it's a way for Mr. Winters to recoup his expenses, Mr. Hendrickson." I shrugged. "Or maybe not. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Besides, your boss is a good man."

A number of sailor-suited warriors for Love and Justice (seems we ended up with quite a few of them, thanks to the Event) entered the restaurant at that moment. Felix and I waited a bit for the noise to subside.

I rolled my eyes. "Japanese anime," I sighed.

Felix's whiskers twitched with suppressed humor. "You should see the people who came dressed as Pokemon Masters."

"Urgh. No, thanks." I winced, realizing that their Pokeballs probably worked now.

"Wise of you," commented the cat. "I'm sorry, I can't stay. I have work to do."

"De nada, Mr. Hendrickson. And thank you for your time."

I turned back to my meal. As I ate, I opened my copy of "Pocket Ref", by Tom Glover. A small 500 page manual of all sorts of useful information in the fields of general science, it fit nicely in a hip pocket. I'd taken to carrying a copy around with me some years ago to help settle bar bets and other arguments. Now, it was serving to help me in a new way. One chapter had a listing of most of the major natural constants in mathematics and physics. I _hoped_ that comparing those numbers to the constants 'Stark' remembered would help me to tell what inventions I... he... well, whatever. Anyway, what inventions we could make that would still work in this reality without the help of magic.

Because it HAD to be magic. I knew that now. The changes were too great and had come too fast for it to be anything else.

And wouldn't THAT put the cat among the pigeons. I could see the President ordering an immediate crash research program into magic, and attempts to turn it to the 'defense of our noble nation'.

God save me from politicians.

I'd just finished my meal and was considering trying to sneak into the smoking section to have a cigar (my one remaining vice was a good Cuban cigar) and try to relax when a woman came over and sat down across the table from me.

"Hello, 'Mr. Stark'."

I started to automatically deny it when she tossed a small pasteboard card onto the table. I winced as I saw it. I had one just like it in my own wallet.

FOOM. Friends Of Ol' Marvel. An old club for Marvel Comic fans who wanted a little more than the ordinary 'Rah-rah for my favorite comic' fandom. FOOM'ers didn't read Marvel comics, they LIVED Marvel comics. She could probably recognize any major Marvel comic character by face alone. Including the face that was now mine.

I spotted the name scrawled on the card. That's when I saw past the civilian clothing and recognized the officer I'd seen before.

"Officer Ross. What a... pleasure, meeting you again."

She grinned, the cold, toothy smile of a predator. "Cards on the table, no?"

"That's a TERRIBLE joke," I groaned.

"I suppose," she said. "Mind if I order a soft drink while we talk?"

"And what makes you think we're going to talk?"

Her face tightened and her eyes bored into me. "I didn't give you my number on a whim. And unless you're totally stupid, which I don't think you are, you already KNOW why I gave it to you. So cut the crap."

"It's happening already, isn't it?"

"It is," she nodded. "Some of the brighter ones are already slipping out of Xanadu. Not that it takes much effort. The 'quarantine' around here is about as tight as a greased slip-knot."

"That bad?"

"Worse," she shrugged. "But it's going to get a lot tighter, very soon. The Federales are finally getting their act together. They STILL think it's some sort of hoax, or bizarre publicity stunt, but they're beginning to take it seriously."

"You're suggesting it might be a good idea to pull a vanishing act of my own before the goverment decides to do it for me?"

She raised an eyebrow at me. "Of course not! As a duly sworn and authorized officer of the law, advocating the commission of such an obviously criminal act would be against my oath of office."

If her tongue had been any further in her cheek, she probably would have strangled on it. As it was, you could cut the sarcasm with a chainsaw.

I fiddled with my cigar, an old nervous habit. "Why you?"

She laughed humorlessly. "Everyone at the precinct house knows about my little hobby. That's why I was assigned to be on duty during the con. A round peg in a round hole sort of thing. I wasn't able to trade shifts, either. If it hadn't been for that, I'd be on your side of the mirror right this minute."

The admission surprised me, and it showed. She glared at me. "What, cops can't dream?"

I held up a hand in a placating guesture. "I didn't say that. It just caught me by surprise, is all." I gave her a measuring look. "Who?"

She didn't pretend to misunderstand, Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a black leather mask that would have started just under her eyes, and stopped at the crown of her head. A small icon was molded into the leather right between and slightly above the eyes.

"A police officer who feels that sometimes you do have to step beyond the reach of the law, eh?" I nodded thoughtfully. "You'd have made an excellent Black Scorpion."

The hopeless hunger in her eyes made me wince. I changed the subject immediately.

"How long do you think we have?" I asked.

"Three days more. Four at the most. By then, they're going to start getting professionals in here and setting up investigations, medical testing, the whole nine yards. Give them five days, and they'll probably start insisting on 'protective custody' for all the people who look like they might be of interest to them."

"Yeargh," I grunted. "Fuck me HARD. With a rusty chainsaw. It's the Army's experiments with LSD all over again. And this time, they don't even have the feeble excuse of an Evil Empire to blame things on."

Right about then, a three-foot tall Yoda toddled past our table, and we both went bug-eyed at the coincidence. Ross began to laugh so hard tears started from her eyes. I couldn't help but join her.

We both calmed after a minute or two, and wiped our eyes. I grinned at her.

"You really needed that. And so did I," I snickered.

"Yup," she nodded.

"So, assuming I'm such an selfish, unpatriotic bastard that I run away before my country's duly elected representatives can tell me how it's my God-given duty to help them establish a world-wide Pax Americana, complete with Amerika Uber Alles..." I let my voice trail away.

"Take others with you, Mr. Clueless." Her eyes bored into mine. "They'll need help. And so will you. There's safety in numbers."

"Done. Got any suggestions?" She looked surprised at my instant acceptance. "Dear lady, I was a GI for a great many years. As many years as you've been a cop, I'll wager. And along the way, I've learned that there are some battles you can't win. That sometimes, all you can do is sound the retreat, regroup, and hope that you can win the next battle."

She shook her head. "Just that you might want to take a hero or two along, if you can manage it. God's usually on the side of the big battalions, it seems."

I nodded. "Point taken. Will it be safe to call you, if we find a spot to hole up in?"

"It should be. But ask for Marion Ross. If I answer to that name, the call's a trap."

"Okay." I stuck out a hand. "For what it's worth, Officer Ross, you've got big ones. Great big brass ones."

"Gee, thanks a LOT!" she snorted. "There's an image I'll carry with me." Rising from the table, she picked up her membership card, tucking it back into her purse. "Watch your six, 'Mr. Stark'. Be safe."

I watched her walk away, hoping she was wrong. But knowing she was right.

The rest of that evening was quiet. I wandered from room to room in the hotel, looking up certain people, quietly sounding out their feelings on things, searching for folks who might feel the way I did about things.

Dominique was a given. She wasn't about to let ANYTHING come between her and her snake, and if anyone did, they'd probably end up having to kill her, or the python, or both.

And to my surprise, while I was busy approaching others, I was approached myself, by the Brain. He might have been an annoyingly arrogant, over-confident little megalomaniac of a rodent, but he wasn't stupid. After being ejected from the conference room by Captain Marvel, he'd taken the time to educate himself on what had just happened here at Xanadu. He learned the facts (what few there were), and had come to a number of conclusions. Foremost among them was that he had NO intention of returning to a cage. Even if his memories of the cage back at Acme Labs weren't quite.. real.

I didn't blame him one bit.

But I made ONE thing _perfectly_ clear to the would-be world ruler.

"You're welcome to come along. But you touch the suit, rat-boy, and I feed you to Princess Python's snake for an appetizer. You got that?"

I had to admire his courage. He merely sniffed in that stuck-up way he had from the show, and told me that he'd NEVER bother with such _primitive_ technology. Heh.

"And one last thing."

The mouse raised an eyebrow at me. "What now?"

"The goofball coming with you?" That actually caused him to pause for a moment.

"I.. am not certain. Would it be a problem?"

"Up to you, Brain. He's your problem. You bring him, you're responsible for him, and for anything he does. But I won't ask a man to abandon a buddy, and I won't ask it of you. Your choice."

"I see. May I give you my answer later?"

"Yes. But we only have a few days. Keep in mind time is something we're short of."

"Indeed."

"To be able to fly? To be smoke, or a wolf... to know the night, and live in it forever? That's not so bad. You call us monsters. But when you dream it's of flying, and changing, and living without death."

- Rachel in "Nightbreed"

"It's said reality hangs by the thinnest of threads...."

- "Nightbreed"


When I got up the next morning, I heard the news. The first suicide had taken place that night. It hit me harder than I thought it would. A young woman had come as a comely vampire. And when she realized what it would mean, she quietly vanished into her room, broke a leg from a table, and fell forward onto the makeshift wooden stake she'd created.

The note by her body begged that she be cremated with the stake still in place. The stake was left in her chest as she'd requested. The police weren't taking any chances.

I remembered another time, another place, and wept.

But crying wouldn't help me, and it wouldn't help the others. So I forced myself to eat breakfast, and started making plans. There were four people who'd chosen to go along already. Dominique, the Greatest American Hero, Captain Marvel, and the Brain. Transportation wouldn't be a problem, I'd driven here myself, as had GAH. That meant one car (mine) and one pickup truck with a camper top (GAH's). Room for about eight people, if we squeezed tight. Maybe more, if need be, and neither the Brain nor his rather dim-witted companion would take up much space.

The camper was a bonus I hadn't expected. We could take turns sleeping and driving, without having to stop for anything other than gasoline or food (and the occasional restroom break). I suspected speed was going to be important, even if only to stay ahead of the reporters.

GAH intended to head for home. Los Angeles, in his case. That made things a little easier. Dominique wanted to return home too. Lousiana, which meant that if we took the southern coastal route, she could ride all the way there with GAH. As for the Brain, well, he had nowhere to go. This wasn't the world he knew, ACME Labs didn't exist here, and returning to his old job as a lab rat lacked a certain appeal, as it were.

So, what the hell. I decided to offer him a place to stay until we could figure something out.

But before we arrived, I'd really have to do something about my cat.

Captain Marvel, however..

His case was almost as painful a blow to the gut as the young woman's suicide.

When I'd gone to see him the night before, I'd asked him if he had any family to return to. I figured, unlike most of us, his magical word made resuming a (semi)normal life possible. I was mistaken.

I felt like such a total fool.

The boy brought out a small case, showing me the contents. Syringes, needles, vials with hospital lables, and bottle upon bottle of pills. I was no doctor. But I recognized several of the names from that dreadful year when my mother had fought her desperate battle with cancer. And lost.

Steroids, some of them. Others were drugs to promote and increase the production of T-cells. Several powerful anti-nausea drugs. And AZT.

I looked at him.

"I don't have many memories left, sir. I think it's because I didn't want to." He fished in a suitcase and showed me a letter with the logo of one of the minor "Make A Wish" groups. "I think I was dying."

Juvenile HIV, inherited at birth from a mother long since dead. The letter was a little sparse with the details, but it was easy enough to read between the lines. He had no one left, and nowhere to go.

"Any symptoms?" I asked.

"No, sir," he replied. "I seem to be entirely healthy now, if you discount the fact that I can only remember a life as Billy Batson. But I seem to have been given a second chance at life. And I want to make the very best of this chance."

"I suppose having the wisdom of Solomon helps." I tried to shake off the depressing feelings the letter had brought on. "You sure you want to make a total break with your past, kiddo? It won't be easy, and I can guarentee it'll be damn painful."

"Yes, sir. I can build a new life, and maybe I can help give back some of what people gave me in my previous life."

"Okay, you're in. I'll let you know when we're ready to make our break for it."

Billy beamed. "Thank you, sir!"

"And one last thing.."

"What's that, sir?"

"Don't call me _sir_!"

I was headed away from breakfast when Mr. Hendrickson found me.

"Mr. Edwards? Do you have a moment? Mr. Winters would like to speak with you."

"It would be my pleasure," I replied. "And it's not like I have to hurry off somewhere."

We both laughed at the inside joke.

Soon, we were in Mr. Winter's suite, and I was trying to deal with the very odd sight of a large raven busily rattling the keys of a laptop. It nodded politely to me.

"Good morning, Mr. Edwards. I'd like to ask you about this." One talon pointed at the sheet of paper I'd given to Felix the day before.

"It's a formula for an inexpensive substitute for glass-based optical fiber, Mr. Winters."

"Please, call me Eric." The raven cocked his head at me. "Why do you think this would interest me?"

I shrugged. "If it works - and it should - it's worth a tidy sum. I think we both are aware of the costs of what's happened here. Insurance companies are going to scream 'Act Of God' and refuse to pay off claims, lawyers and judges will argue if we're really human or not, governments are going to see us as things to be studied and used.. we've all landed at the bottom of a VERY deep pile of shit, and we just haven't realized it yet." I waved at the paper. "I can't sell that, but you probably can. You have the business contacts I don't."

"And how much of the profit would you want?"

"None."

"None?" A raven's head wasn't built to express human emotions, but it was clear that he was quite skeptical of that.

"Money's a weapon, Mr. Winters. You know that better than I do. Like I said, we've all landed at the bottom of a deep pile of shit, and a buttload of money can go a long way towards getting us all out of it."

The raven laughed, a harsh caw. "A remarkably pragmatic attitude."

"Pragmatic, hell. Selfish." I dug through my wallet, looking for one special card, one I hadn't used in years. I set it on the desk where he could read it easily.

"They used to give those to the troops stationed along the East German border, Eric. The Russians had a right to have a military liason group in West Germany. A fancy way of saying 'spies'. Heh." I paused from a dry throat, and asked if I might have some water. Felix got me a glass, and after a few swallows, I continued.

"We all got copies of that card, instructions on what to do and how to handle them.. spies who had the advantage of diplomatic immunity. It was rather eye-opening, in its own way."

"And it made you a little cynical, didn't it?" said the raven.

"Yeah, I suppose it did. But it also taught me that Ben Franklin was right. If we don't hang together, we're gonna hang seperately. At the ends of government-supplied nooses. Anything I can do to help everyone is going to eventually help me. Only common sense."

I scratched at my mustache. "Anyway, originally, I was going to see if you needed a bodyguard and gofer." I nodded over towards Felix. "But you already have a loyal and efficient dog-robber." The cat-man looked mildly offended at the term, while Mr. Winters laughed again. "So, I thought I'd give you that. And maybe ask you for a way to contact you in the event that I can invent something else that you can turn into cash to help all of us."

"Are you headed home, Mr. Edwards?"

The sudden change in subject threw me. "I.. ah.. what makes you think I'm leaving?"

"I'm a raven, not brain-dead."

"Okay, stupid question. Yeah, I was planning on doing a quiet vanishing act along with some others. I don't fancy ending up in Area 51 as an experiment, or becoming a goverment-controlled 'asset'."

"So where is home?"

I eyed him suspiciously. "Somewhere between the East and West Coasts."

He shook his head. "I'm not trying to pin you down. I'm simply wondering if you could do a better job if you had better tools."

"Excuse me?"

"I've invested in small start-ups before." The raven eyed me. "And this time, I was able to get inside your head, so to speak. You signed the paper 'Anthony Stark'. It didn't take me long to look that up on the Internet."

Suddenly I knew EXACTLY how Homer Simpson felt when he went "DOH!".

"I have to admit that Iron Man is an interesting character, and Mr. Stark seems like a rather fascinating fellow, someone with whom I'd enjoy discussing business strategies. But while you seem to have some of his gift for invention," Winters poked the formula with his beak, "You don't have any of the assets he inherited from his father."

"The tools to build the tools to do the job," I nodded.

"If you have even half of his fictional gift for invention, then any money I invest in you will return many times over. A risk, perhaps, but worth the gamble. Now, where do you live?"

I took a deep breath and rolled the dice. "Colorado."

Eric nodded to Felix, who moved over to the laptop and began to rattle the keyboard at a rate the raven couldn't match.

"I'm not as rich as your fictional counterpart, or even Bill Gates, but I do have some liquid assets. And more important, a few businesses that I scooped up when they failed and folded." Felix' flying fingers paused for a moment, and the raven looked at the screen, letting out a satisfied sound.

"A small piece of property near Larkspur, Colorado that's been abandoned for several years now. It was once a private boarding school for women, then later a failed reform school. It's remote, yet has power, water, and phone access. There's no one there at the moment but a caretaker. Would that do?"

I raised an eyebrow, surprised. "Frontier Boys Village?"

"Why, yes. How did you.." The raven paused, and then gave me an avian sort of smirk. "You're an alumnus, eh?"

"I was a bit of a hellraiser in my youth," I ground out, embarrassed.

Even Felix laughed at that.

"I'll need equipment," I cautioned.

They both nodded, and Felix went back to rattling keys. Eric watched the screen closely. "PC's won't be a problem, but laboratory gear.. wait.. go back, Felix. One more page.. there! A laboratory supply company that's going under. It probably doesn't have everything you'll need, but what it does have, I can get below cost."

"You're GOOD," I said admiringly.

"Oh, you're going to pay for it, and no mistake," the raven warned me.

"I'd rather be working for you and paying off a debt, than end up building robot super-soldiers for Uncle Sam, Mr. Winters. I love my country, but that doesn't mean I'll blindly obey some of the folks trying to run it."

"Fair enough. Come back in a few hours, and we'll have the papers ready to sign."

I grinned at him. "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, shweetheart."

"Oooo... bad Bogey impressions," groaned Eric. "Get a stick, kill it, kill it."

I left while Eric proceeded to write up a gentleman's contract. I supposed I should have watched him to make certain he wasn't trying to screw me over in a legal fashion, but I didn't see any point to it. It's not as if I'd understand most of the legal jargon, anyway.

Or would I? I'd begun to notice that the financial pages of the newspapers the hotel supplied as a courtesy were holding more and more meaning for me. Anthony Stark wasn't just an inventive genius, he was a businesman's businesman who'd fought off more corporate raids than I could remember. At least, that I could remember at the moment. I suspected that as I had time - or maybe if WE had time - I'd find myself something of a corporate shark whether I liked it or not.

In the meantime, I headed back to my room to check on the Brain. He had no place to go after they'd grabbed and sedated the little horror show his former 'owner' had become, and I very reluctantly offered him and his 'partner' a place to stay, provided he could keep Pinky under some sort of control. I hoped I wouldn't regret it.

When I swiped my cardkey and opened the door, I got something of a surprise. There on the floor was Pinky, in a mouse-sized straightjacket, rolling around on the floor in an animated way (no pun intended), trying to escape the restraint. I heard a small "Hisst" from down near my feet. There was the Brain, nodding towards the door. We both stepped back out into the hallway.

"Just what is going ON in there, Brain?" I asked.

The mouse had the audacity to grin at me. "You asked that I keep him out of trouble, correct?"

"True, but I didn't think you were into bondage."

The Brain bridled at that. "I am NOT a sexual deviant. I simply tried to use my intellect." He frowned slightly. "From what I'm told, I'm merely a character from a cartoon, that the life I remember is nothing more than a fantasy created from whatever did all of THIS to all of you."

"Your point?"

"I seem to be thinking more clearly NOW than I ever have before, Mr. Edwards. I can remember all the times I've tried to deal with Pinky, and how miserably I've failed each and every time. It's as if I am viewing my lifetime from an outsider's perspective. Such an unusual sensation." He shook his head. "So, I tried something different." A slightly superior smile lightened his features. It looked oddly out of place on a face that had seen mostly frowns. "This time, I asked Pinky to HELP me."

"Help you?" I boggled.

He laughed. "I told him the truth, of a sort. That I was trying to invent an escape-proof restraint system for the mentally deranged, and that I needed someone to test it to see if it was truly escape proof. Pinky immediately volunteered to test it for me.

"I remember all the times I tried to exclude him from my plans, and each time I failed. Somehow, I never managed to see that I was repeating the same error over and over again. Now, I can. And this time, I'm actively including him in what I do."

"In the hopes that if you reverse everything, you'll also reverse his habit of ruining things," I nodded.

"That, yes. But it's also quite true. I _am_ trying to design a better straightjacket. And if Pinky can get out of this one, then obviously I need to rethink the design. Thusly, I make him an asset, instead of a liability."

Right about then, we heard a faint, triumphant "Narf!"

The Brain shook his head and sighed. "Would you please open the door for me? I fear my room-mate has found a way to free himself. It's back to the drawing board, I suppose."

"All right. Be ready to leave at a moment's notice, though. I think I've found us a way out of this." I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. "And pick yourself a new name, why don't you? 'The Brain' is descriptive, but it's rather awkward."

He nodded. "And one for Pinky, I think. Though I doubt he'd use it."

I shook my head, and let him back into the room, hearing a faint yet happy cry of "BRAIN!" before the door swang shut. I hoped Brain had found the right way of dealing with his friend. Pinky had the potential to be a very large monkey-wrench, and we did NOT need him throwing himself into the proverbial gears.

As for me, I went on my way. There were a few last people I wanted to talk to before we made our getaway, and time was running painfully short.

I'd found Hypnotica again and fortunately learned that she lived in San Francisco. She'd flown in to attend the con, and was without a car at the moment. When I offered her a ride to Los Angeles with GAH, she accepted eagerly. She'd been having her own worrisome thoughts about our current situation, and didn't much trust the government either.

I was happy because she gave us a non-lethal weapon, just in case the police stopped us. Like my grandfather often said, you NEVER attacked cops if there was any possible way to avoid it. Police had long arms, longer memories, and they knew how to carry a grudge. The ability to cause a cop to simply forget we'd ever been pulled over would be a godsend.

These aren't the 'droids you're looking for. Heh.

Checking my watch, I noticed that it was almost time to go back and see Mr. Winters about the contract. I hurried down the hallway, not looking where I was going. A moment later, I ran into someone. And BOUNCED.

I didn't see anything at first, until I looked down slightly. Then I saw the spikey hair, the black jumpsuit with the white chest plate, and the arrogant sneer to go with the short stature. It wasn't as if a Saiyan warrior was hard to recognize. Particularly THIS one.

I'mgonnadieI'mgonnadieI'mgonnadie, was all I could think. I'd just run into Vegita, Prince of the Saiyan people, villain/anti-hero from the Japanese martial arts action-adventure cartoon Dragonball Z, and a seriously DANGEROUS hardass.

To my surprise, he extended his hand in friendship. "Heya, Tony! Long time no see!"

Being the elegant, suave and self-possessed person that I am, I immediately replied, "Bwah?"

Okay, so it wasn't very classy. YOU try being classy when you're confronted with a warrior from a warrior race, capable of destroying an entire _planet_ when he's at the height of his powers.

It isn't easy.

"Uhh.. do I know you?" I got out.

"Vegita" slapped himself on the forehead. "ACK! I forgot. We never met face to face, did we?" He grinned at me. "Rob Chaynie."

"Rob? ROB CHAYNIE?" I shook my head. "You.. uhh.. got a little shorter, bud."

He laughed. "Well, everyone looks taller in a 'net chat room." He looked me over closely. "You've _gained_ a little height, I see. But you still look a lot like your photo. Including that scar on your forehead."

I'd met Rob some years ago, when he'd been a furry artist. And a damn good artist. I'd collected his works. Later, he'd been hit by a progressive and little understood neurological disorder that had robbed him of the fine muscle control he needed to draw. So he turned to writing as an outlet for his creative energies. His stories "Ghoul Days" and "Dedheads" were considered classics in their field.

"Jeeze, Rob.. you came as VEGITA?! What the hell were you THINKING?"

"Well, I certainly wasn't thinking I'd be TURNED into a Saiyan, Tony." He blinked and grinned. "Although I think I got the better part of the bargain. You should see Gray."

Gray was another author I knew, who'd invented a HUGE (and slightly infamous) story concept that he'd called "The Bet". I swallowed. "Please.. don't tell me..."

Rob nodded. "Ayup. He came as Son Goku."

I held my head and promised myself an aspirin for later. "He didn't."

"He did," grinned Rob.

"At least tell me that you didn't come as Super-Saiyans.."

"Nope."

"Thank God for small favors," I groaned. Then my brain kicked in. "Do you have the chi powers from the cartoon?"

"What do YOU think?" smirked Rob. He concentrated for a second, and a aura of golden flames snapped into existence around him. It was identical to what I'd seen in the Dragonball episodes.

"What about Gray?"

"Him too, though right now he's busy trading techniques with someone who came as Ranma Saotome. He's swapping the Kamehameha and the Kaio-ken for the Hiryuu shouten-ha and the Moko Takabisha."

"That's not good," I muttered.

"Could be worse."

"Just HOW could it be worse? Please tell me that."

"They're discussing it over a table full of food," he shrugged. "You know what THAT means."

"Oh, wonderful. That's ALL we need. An Anything Goes School of Martial Arts Eating Contest. Saotome Ranma AND Son Goku. The restaurant will never know what hit it."

A pair of overjoyed squeals interrupted us.

"An eating contest?!" "Where?!"

Rob and I looked to one side with a certain degree of Looming Horror. There, a Sailor Moon and a Lina Inverse stood, practically drooling on the carpet.

"Let's go!" "In the name of the moon, I'm hungry!"

The two girls dashed away with incredible speed.

"Tony?"

"Yes?"

"I think that might have been a mistake on our part."

"Yeah."

"Should we...?"

I shook my head HARD. "Pfeh. Worry about it later. Anyway, what I was getting at is, can you _fly_?"

For the first time he looked uncertain. "I.. don't know. I haven't tried."

"You'd better try, and I mean NOW, Rob." My voice was harsh. I gave him the condensed version of the same info that Officer Ross had given me. "I'm almost GONE, buddy. I'm picking up a piece of paper in a few minutes, then I'm in the car with a few friends and vanishing. You should do the same, as fast as you can."

"And a flying human body wouldn't have much of a radar image, would it?" he mused.

"Well, I wouldn't call it a HUMAN body anymore..."

"Hey!"

"Just kidding," I smirked. Then I went serious again. "Rob, you need to get going while the going's good. It won't stay that way for long."

"What for?" he countered, flexing a muscle and effortlessly summoning a small ball of chi in the palm of one hand. "I could probably take out the entire US Army by myself. The real Vegita did."

"Yup. And a whole lot of innocent bystanders at the same time."

He gave me a dirty look. "You sure know how to take all the fun out of this, you rat."

"And you're surprised?"

"Nah," he laughed. "You always were funny that way. Say, guess who else came?"

"Besides you and Gray?" I began to get that old familiar sinking feeling again.

"Mage and his wife, as well as Kara and a few others."

"Did the entire damn Anime Fan Fiction Mailing List decide to take a vacation?!" I groaned.

"Seems like it."

"Okay. Here's my room number. Meet me in one hour. I won't leave before then, but that's all I can promise." I chewed on my mustache (an old annoying nervous habit I really needed to break). "Rob... trust me on this one. I have a funny feeling, and it isn't coming from the change."

I'd made it back to Mr. Winter's suite without any further incident, and the contract was ready. I moved to sign it without reading it, but the raven prevented me.

"I want you to understand what you're getting into, Mr. Edwards. I've added an item that we hadn't discussed." He hopped over and poked his beak at one page. "Paragraph 28."

I read it through and began to laugh helplessly. It was a clause that required me to offer succor and sanctuary at the Larkspur compound to any victim of the Xanadu Event.

"What's so hilarious?" queried Felix.

"The fact that I'd planned on helping out some other folks here at the con with or without Eric's approval, and was busy racking my brains to find some way to hide it from him!"

This got a laugh from both of them. When it ended, Eric gave me a look of measured regard. "Not many people in our situation would be worrying about what might happen to total strangers, Mr. Edwards."

"Call me Tony. And I did it for years while in the Army. Why should I change at this late date?"

"Point," agreed the raven.

"All right, I'm about to vanish." I scribbled a number on a notepad and handed it to Felix. "I have one of those pre-paid cell phones. I'll leave it turned on until I reach Larkspur."

"You expect something to happen?" asked Eric.

"No, I expect EVERYTHING to happen." I looked around the room. "Wouldn't even surprise me if Rod Serling stepped out and went into his old routine."

Felix began to whistle the old "Twilight Zone" theme, causing Eric and I to break up laughing. It was nervous laughter, but better than none at all. And it shattered the tension, thank Goodness.

"I do have one more question to ask of you, Tony," Eric noted.

"Fire away."

"You seem more anxious than anyone else about the possibility of government.. 'intervention'. Why?'

I frowned. I really hadn't wanted to get into this so early, but I owed him. "May I borrow the laptop for a second?"

"Certainly. Felix?"

Felix turned the laptop towards me, and I quickly skipped to a web page I knew well. "Take a look at this."

He hopped closer and examined at the picture I was pointing at. It looked like a walking 55-gallon drum with stovepipe arms and legs, a rounded bucket on top with eye and mouth-slits for a head."And this is?"

"Stark's first suit. It would take me years, probably decades, to reproduce the NTU, Eric. But THIS suit, his very first, was built while he was a prisoner of the Chinese Communist warlord Wong Chu. And he did it with nothing more than a second rate laboratory full of inferior ChiCom equipment. Granted, he had the able assistance of Professor Ho Yin-Sen, an imprisoned dissident and world famous physicist, but still.."

Shrugging, I continued on. "The original suit was built during the mid-1960's, you see. I admit, at the time, technology was more advanced in the Marvel universe than it was here. And that suit is a piece of _crap_ compared to the NTU. Its weapons are pathetic, its power is low, and its endurance is pitiful. But I CAN build _that_ suit, and I can build it _today_. In fact, aside from some parts that were proprietary Stark technology, I could build 90% of it from off the shelf components. That's mostly due to the tremendous advances made in microchip technology the past forty years. And I could have a working prototype done in less than a year. As little as nine months, perhaps, if the military treated it as a crash priority project, as they did with the first atomic bomb."

Winters' head bobbed thoughtfully. "An unsettling thought. And it could start another international arms race."

"Then you see why I'm uneasy."

"That I do. I agree, it would be to the best interests of all concerned if you were to vanish for a time." He clacked his beak once or twice. "I'd offer you my hand in farewell, but I seem to be a trifle short of arms at the moment. But I do wish you good luck and godspeed."

"Thank you, sir. And good luck to you. I don't envy you the media hell you're about to go through. You or your friend Felix." I turned and threw a quick salute to the cat-man. "You have my deep respect, Mr. Hendricksen. Eric's very fortunate to have a friend like you."

With that, I signed the contract, accepted the papers I'd need, and took my leave.

Hurrying through the main lobby on my way to my room, I ran into Officer Ross and her young partner again. They each had an armful of squirming, squalling child.

"What the--"

"You IDIOT! Now you got us arrested! And you STILL owe me a new bike, Ash!" shrieked the girl.

"But MISTY--" whined the boy.

Ross flashed me a quick glance that her partner missed. "Excuse us, Mr..?"

"Edwards, Officer. I'm sorry to be in your way."

She nodded politely. "We're looking for their parents. They're in a little trouble, I'm afraid."

"It's not my FAULT!" sniveled the boy. "I just wanna be the greatest Master! I gotta catch--"

"Say it again and I'll wash your mouth out with soap, brat!" snarled Ross's thoroughly frazzled partner.

"But--"

"NOT ANOTHER WORD!" he glared. "God, I hate that game."

Ross nodded. "These two tried to hold a 'match' in the parking lot, sir. I'm afraid that a few cars were damaged. You might want to check to see if your car is safe." She flashed me a quick wink.

"Thank you. Officer. I'll do that right now." I turned to head for the parking lot for a quick inspection, leaving just as the boy whimpered "..but I just wanna be the greatest.."

Working Pokeballs. I wanted to pound my head on a wall. Well, the holidays would never be the same again. I knew EXACTLY what kids would demand for Christmas.

(Mommy! Daddy! I wanna Pikachu! I wanna Pikachu! NOW!)

God help us all.

"ROAD TR-IIIIIP!"

- Any college student, any college, when Spring Break starts.

Ross hadn't been kidding about the cars. Several had their paint burnt off, and one poor SUV was now a metal pancake. From the ripples in the metal, I guessed it had been flattened by an Onyx.

I didn't even want to THINK about how the owners would try to explain this one to their insurance agent.

(Dammit, I'm telling you the TRUTH! It was crushed by a giant snake made of stone!)

Yeah, THAT would be fun. Not.

But my battered old Merc was unharmed, as was GAH's equally shabby pickup/camper combination. Our luck was still holding. Now, all we had to do was get the hell OUT of here.

I hustled back into the hotel, heading for my room. As I did, I noticed someone else quietly leaving. His thick red hair had an ashen streak running down the center. It rang alarm bells deep inside my mind and when I placed the face, I suddenly realized that it wasn't just the good guys who'd started to jump ship.

That thought unsettled me. But I told myself to deal with it later.

When I got to my room, there was a surprise waiting for me. Rob was there, as was Gray. That Gray had brought along "Ranma Saotome" wasn't TOO surprising.. but that he'd brought along a PAIR of Ranma's was. One of each gender, to boot. And that wasn't the least of it. There was a small crowd in the hallway clustered around the door to my room. At least half a dozen people in addition to the ones I knew.

GAH, Dominique, Marvel and the others were looking curiously at the newcomers, while I was beginning to get another headache. At this rate, I was going to single-handedly improve Bayer's profit and loss statement for the year.

"Uhh.. I suppose you're wondering why I called you all here tonight?" I joked, trying to lighten the mood. Then opening the door, I started waving everyone into the room.

We all found seats on chairs, bed or table and I passed around some glasses of ice water. Turning to Rob, I got things started.

"Okay, Kenk, who's who and what's what? Am I gonna need a score card?"

"Well, you already know Gray," he nodded towards the tall Saiyan who was doing his level best to drink six thick milk-shakes at the same time. "The tall and rather grumpy blond here is Andrew Morris, and the lovely red-head is his wife Kimiko. You know them both from the #ffirc chatroom on IRC."

Kimiko was muttering something about how her family would NEVER recognize her now, and what had she done to offend the gods so? I could relate. Drew had told me his wife was ethnic Japanese. Now she looked positively Celtic.

I looked at the next two, short, furry, and just SO darn cute they could give you cavities just from looking. Cabbits from Tenchi Muyo in the semi-humanoid form they could assume, looking like two adorable, if slightly fuzzy, children. "June?"

"Miya! Grrr.. MIYA! Miya miya miYA!"

Thinking quickly, I tossed her one of the courtesy notepads from beside the hotel phone, along with a pen. Her face lit up, and she began to scribble quickly.

[It's me, Tony! And that's my brother, Tom. But we can't seem to say anything but miya!]

"Oh, bother." I shook my head. "Well, it could be worse, June. You probably don't have your diabetes anymore. I know my arthritis is gone."

That caused her face to light up. [You think so?]

"I don't have proof, but from what my friends and I have seen, yeah, I think so. There seems to be a pattern to it." I jerked a thumb in Gray's direction. He was still wrapping himself around his six milkshakes with a single-minded determination that verged on the awe- inspiring. "Didn't he used to be lactose-intolerant?" Then I slapped my forehead. "Oh! Damn, I'm sorry. Introductions all around, right?"

I introduced GAH, Dominique, Hypnotica and Captain Marvel to the others, noting to June that Cap also had a physical problem vanish, though I didn't specify. (It was his life, and his privacy. I respected that.)

"Ahem!"

"Oh, yeah. I'd also like to introduce the Brain and his friend Pinky."

"About time," huffed the indignant mouse. "I was beginning to feel rather short with you."

The still a little out-of-it Kimiko murmured something in Japanese that made Drew laugh and the Brain 'humph' irritably.

"What'd she say?"

Andrew sniggered. "That given his height, he probably feels pretty short with _everybody_."

"Hey, don't tease, Drew. We're all in the same lifeboat here." I chewed on my mustache again. (I REALLY needed to break that habit.) "Who's the guy with his hands over his ears?"

"It's Bob Doors, you know, DA? He's still having a little trouble with the new ears."

I ouched in sympathy, and grabbed my shaving kit. Rummaging around inside it, I pulled out a small plastic pill-bottle with an attatched chain. "Ah! I knew I still had these!"

Drew grinned as he recognized the black-painted bottle. "Still got the service-issue earplugs, eh?"

I tossed them to Drew as an answer. "Give 'em to DA. They might help."

Bob Doors was someone else I knew from IRC chat and the anime fan fiction mailing list. He'd been born deaf and it was easy to see that he was finding his rudely swift introduction to the world of sound painful, to say the least. As Drew helped him with the plugs, I could see the tension ease from him.

"Who'd he come as?"

"Tenchi, from _Tenchi Muyo_," replied Rob.

"Oh, joy. And these two?" I nodded towards the Saotome twins.

The pair bowed. "Watashi wa Saotome Ranma desu," said the boy. "Watashi wa Saotome Ranko desu," added the girl.

"Oy vay iz mir," I groaned. "Another two stuck in character? Can't they speak English at all?"

"Just what little you'd expect from a class in high school English," replied Kimiko. "But I can translate for them."

"Thank you, dear lady. Nice jumpsuit, by the way. Black leather becomes you." She blushed, and Drew growled slightly. I frowned back at him. "Who'd you two come as?"

"Can't you guess?" he smirked. Then he reached behind his back and hauled out a metal shield that nearly any Westerner born since World War II would automatically recognize.

"Jesus X. Bushmaster! You came as Captain America?"

"And Kim-chan as the Black Widow. Got a problem with that?"

"Only with the fact that you're gonna have the same recognition level as a bottle of Coke, Drew." I shook my head. "Deal with it later. And the little girl?"

To my surprise, both Drew and Kim suddenly looked nervous. Something I'd never known either of them to be. If fact, if ANY words could describe Andrew Morris, they would be blunt ones.

"Okay, you're thinking about hiding something. Fork it over," I told them.

"Ahh.. yeah. Kim-chan?" This got him an elbow to the gut, and a sotto-voice comment in Japanese that had the Saotome twins laughing. (I later found out she'd told him to suck it up and take his lumps like a man among men.)

"Look, can't it wait until later, Tony? We really should be thinking about getting OUT of here if the situation's as grim as you're painting it."

I wanted to grind my teeth, but he was right. Worse yet, with this many people we lacked enough transportation. "Not enough cars, and I have the funny feeling that the airport might just object to some of us. We're not exactly Joe Average any more."

"That's true, but some of us can still pass," pointed out Dominique. "All Mr. Morris and his wife need are a change of clothing, and if we can do something about their hair, the same is true of Rob and Gray."

Hypnotica (I discovered her real name was Ria Forester) grinned. "I have an idea. A couple of them, actually. And I think they just might work."

I didn't believe it would work, but Ria was right. I'd used my credit card in the hotel's ATM machine for some ready cash and we'd crept quietly to our vehicles.

Ross wasn't on duty (she was exhausted, the idiot in charge of her precinct had tried to keep her going til she dropped). So the escape itself was laughably easy. We were approached by a pair of local officers who tried to politely turn us back to the hotel.

A moment later, they were commenting on how nice the weather was, and escorting us out to the parking lot. Then they forgot they'd ever seen us.

"These aren't the 'droids you're looking for." Heh.

It was tight. Damned near impossible. If it weren't for the fact that June and her brother were now cabbits, it would have been impossible. Fortunately, with a great deal of concentration, they were both able to reduce themselves to the cat/rabbit base form that was now a part of them. Considerably smaller, they fit nicely in the space just below my rear windshield.

Brain and Pinky grabbed the glove compartment for themselves, while Gray, Bob, and Rob took the backseat. Ria took the passenger seat next to me.

GAH and Dominique took the front seat of his old pickup while the othes piled into the camper along with Dominique's python.

About fifteen minutes later, we'd arrived at an 24 hour drug store. Ria and I went in, and came right back out with a pair of two pound tubs of "Dippity-Doo!" and some combs.

I still remembered Dippity-Doo from my childhood.. my mother loved it. It was a thick, gooey hair gel that you had to experience to believe. It had the same holding power as a tube of super-glue.

It took the sacrifice of both combs and the use of half a tub a piece, but when we were done, the newly Saiyan hairdos that Rob and Gray sported were lying down in a semi-normal fashion.

A rather quiet Goodwill store got Andrew, Rob, Gray and myself clothing that was a little closer to our new sizes and didn't deflate our wallets entirely. We raided the children's section to get some that would fit June and her brother.

That helped a lot. GAH still fit his own clothing, as did Ria, Bob, Dominique, and young Billy. A pair of inexpensive sunglasses hid Dominique's new eyes, but there wasn't much we could do for the scales. She decided to pass it off as an exotic skin condition.

When you think about it, isn't that exactly what it was?

Thirty minutes later, we were at the bus station. Funny that it hadn't occurred to me, but Greyhound had NO security checks. None. Ria pointed that out, as well as the fact that you didn't need to present any ID at all to buy a bus ticket. When she said THAT, I felt about as smart as a garden slug. Even Brain looked astonished. We'd all missed the totally obvious.

The stupidity wasn't entirely on our side, however. The police hadn't considered the bus station either. The only security there was a single Greyhound rent-a-cop whose sole purpose was to keep the peace.

We just walked right up and got bus tickets for nearly everyone. Rob decided to head to Arizona with Gray, and the Saotome twins wanted to tag along. Arizona was full of nice empty deserts and a number of abandoned ghost towns from the days of the Old West. Rob pointed out that it would be the perfect place to practice all-out martial arts techniques, as well as experimenting with chi blasts.

"After all, if we blow up a few square miles of desert, who's gonna care?" he commented cheerfully.

"The US Air Force, if you're not careful," I retorted, but he had a valid point.

Needless to say, after Gray had explained things to "Ranma" and "Ranko" in his fractured Japanese, they were all for it. You could see them drooling at the thought of learning new attacks and new uses for chi.

Rumiko Takahashi would have a LOT to be held accountable for in the weeks to come.

Drew and his wife decided to return to California in the hopes of retrieving their most personal belongings before heading to Colorado. Andrew had heard my plans and the description of the old campus, and thought it would be an excellent place to raise a child. (Though the paranoid old bugger STILL wouldn't tell me who the child they'd found was. "Need to know basis, old buddy," he said. It made me want to brain him with a lamp.)

Bob went with them. His mother apparently lived in Phoenix, and he wanted to visit her first, in case he had to vanish in a more long term way. Also, Drew planned on working with him, and maybe learning a little American Sign Language along the way. Pen and paper could take you only so far, and the communication gap was annoying on both sides.

After we saw them on their way, Hero and I loaded everyone else up in the cars, heading for Interstate 10 and as far away from Orlando as fast as we could drive.

We'd taken the state highway 408 that connected Orlando to I-75 when I noticed Ria giving me odd looks. She brushed her hair (that couldn't seem to make up its mind what color it wanted to be) out of her eyes, cocking her head in my direction.

"Mind if I ask a question or two?"

"Fire away," I told her, concentrating on the road.

"What have you got against magic?"

The question, coming from left field the way it did, almost blew me away. I didn't know what to say. Or even if I should say anything at all.

She waited patiently while I considered the question for a mile or three. I sighed, and decided that when in doubt, honesty wasn't THAT bad a choice.

"Whatever the hell happened to us wasn't my _first_ run-in with it, Ria. I _HATE_ magic. And I promised myself a long, long time ago that I wasn't going to be sucked back in to a world of bibbity- bobbity-boo shit."

I could hear the rising fury in my voice and throttled it back, HARD. I had no right to vomit my personal rage on her, or anyone else for that matter.

"'Once burned, twice shy'?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said quietly. "Something like that. Everybody's got a story, Ria. Mine's just a little weirder than the usual."

She nodded slowly. "I see. And a woman was involved."

I whipped my head around, and damn near ran us off the road as my hands jerked spastically on the wheel. Everybody clutched their seats and squawked loudly. I yanked the wheel back around and got us in the right lane again. "How the FUCK do you know that?" I hissed at her.

She released her deathgrip on the arm rest. "Maybe that wasn't the best idea I've every had. Personal note... psychoanalysis is best done when one is NOT traveling at sixty-five miles per hour."

"You're a _shrink_?!" My tone made the word sound like an obscenity.

"I prefer the term 'licenced therapist', actually," she replied dryly. "Care to talk about it?"

"No."

"Come now, it can't hurt to-"

I cut her off right there. "It can't hurt? How many deaths do YOU have on your hands, Doctor?"

"Deaths?! What? I-"

"When you can count your own dead in the dozens, Ms. Forrest, feel free to shrink my head for me. Until then, kindly stay out of my mind." I turned my eyes to the long black ribbon in front of me and pointedly ignored her presence in the next seat. My jaw was so tightly clenched, my teeth ached.

I could feel Brain looking at me curiously, but thankfully he held his tongue. We'd grabbed some doll-house furniture while we were at the Goodwill's, along with a hot glue gun. I'd merely cleaned out the glove compartment and hot-glued a pair of doll-sized armchairs inside of it, giving the pair of genengineered mice a reasonably safe and comfortable place to sit.

"Narf! Are you upset, Mr. Tony?"

It figured. I wanted to beat my head on the steering wheel.

"Welcome to my world," murmured Brain quietly.

I drove on, gradually calming down. Then a thought occured and I glanced over at Brain. "Have you chosen a new name for yourself yet?"

The mouse raised an eyebrow. "I was considering Mr. The Brain, but it lacks a certain something. Besides, it's been done to death, as I recall. So I believe I will go with Theodore Edward Brain."

"Teddy Brain?" I blinked.

"I prefer Theo, myself."

"Theo Brain.. The O' Brain," I winced. "You've got a wicked sense of humor, my friend."

"I like to think so," he grinned.

His smile helped, but I was still angry at Ria for reminding me of what might have been. Maybe that's why my hand fumbled, reaching for a tape to put in the stereo, grabbing the worst possible choice. Emmylou Harris' smooth, sad voice filled the car with "1917".

~The strange young man who comes to me ~A soldier on a three day spree ~Who needs one night's cheap ecstasy ~And a woman's arms to hide him ~He greets me with a courtly bow ~And hides his pain by acting proud ~He drinks too much and he laughs too loud ~How can I deny him?

~Old world glory, old world fame ~The old world's gone, gone up in flames ~Nothing will ever be the same ~And nothing lasts forever.

I ripped the tape from the player, throwing it out the window.

Pinky's voice somehow surprised me when he spoke again. "Why are you crying, Mr. Tony?" Odd, how gentle he sounded.

"Just have a speck in my eye, Pinky. That's all."

Strange how old wounds can bleed as brightly as new ones.

And nothing lasts forever.

The Merc was deathly quiet for some time after that. We cruised up I-75 until we reached Lake City and the intersection of I-75 and I-10. Turning east, we headed for the Alabama border. The silence was beginning to prey on us all, and this time I put the radio on.

By the time we reached Chattahoochee, the first news reports were begining to hit the air. I'd been right in what I thought when I'd seen Jason Blood slipping out of the hotel. The villains, or at least those who were lost in the character of the villains they'd came as, had begun bailing out long before I'd even thought of the idea.

The first news - or at least the first _we_ heard - was about a bank robbery in Tampa, with a take of just under a million dollars.

What confused everyone was that the two thieves, both women, had actually POSED in front of the security cameras and given their names. The police thought it was just a feeble attempt to throw false clues into the investigation. But when we heard the names, we knew better. With the names they gave, I didn't even need to know that they were wearing costumes. Hell, everyone in the car, aside from Billy and the mice, knew them.

"When the reporters ask you all what happened," the blond with the twin pony-tails had instructed one of the tellers, "Tell them Harlene Quinzelle and Pamela Isley robbed this bank. And that they'll NEVER be able to catch us!" Then the chestnut redhead threw down a bag full of a fine powder that had everyone in the bank unconscious in seconds. When they came to moments later, the pair had vanished.

June tapped the back of my seat and passed a note forward to me. [Harlequin and Poison Ivy, right?]

I nodded. "From the descriptions, I'd say they came as the pair from 'Batman: The Animated Series'. If memory serves, in the cartoon version, they happened to meet and become sisters in crime, because they were both equally pissed at finding male chauvinism at work in the criminal world, too. The cartoon Ivy had greenish skin and the reporter did mention something about the redhead wearing what he thought was some sort of body makeup."

[Looks like maybe you're going to get a chance to be a real hero after all, Tony.]

"No," I snapped. Then immediately regretted it as June looked hurt. "I'm sorry, June. I'm just not going back. I have a second chance now, a chance to make a PEACEFUL difference in the world. And I don't want to lose it."

Billy, who'd been mostly quiet all these miles, spoke up then. "But I will. I've got a second chance too. And this is what I was _meant_ to do. I know. I can feel it. Captain Marvel WILL make a difference in the world."

I grinned crookedly. "I envy you that faith, Billy. Never had that much of it myself."

"It's become a new world, sir. Perhaps we've all gotten a second chance." His face took on a thoughtful cast. "Even if we don't have to deal with metahuman criminals, there are many powerful dangerous types who haven't any powers, and don't really need any."

"Uhm," I grunted. "Well, we can't change the world, but you're right. Just because we can't, doesn't mean we shouldn't try."

"And we can change our own small corners of it," pointed out Brain. "The lad is right. The world's about to experience a new dawn. And I, for one, am grateful to be here to see it happen."

We pulled over at a truck stop in Alabama, just short of Mobile. I suppose we all felt a little safer having crossed a state line. It would mean, at the very least, that if we were arrested, we'd have the right to an extradition hearing.

Not that it would help much, but even the smallest advantage is not to be scorned.

The truckers were discussing the news about Xanadu, with those from Florida standing up for the news and others holding out that it was just another damn fool publicity stunt of some sort.

Hero (who'd taken off his super suit before we'd left) and I ordered some takeout so that the others could eat inside of his camper. We took the opportunity to have a cup of coffee while we waited for the food, and watched the television hanging over the counter from our booth.

The news stations were showing the convention center and this morning's arrival of doctors, scientists, and a number of anonymous 'goverment experts' who refused to be interviewed. Looking at their black suits and generic appearance, I frowned. "Looks like we got out just in time," I muttered.

"Anyone ever tell you that you're just a tad paranoid?" Hero asked with a grin.

"I could write a book," I replied prophetically. "So what are _your_ plans, once you reach California?"

He looked thoughtful. "Well, I have to admit you're probably right about our lives. Won't surprise me in the least to find a horde of reporters camped out on my doorstep in hopes of an interview." He toyed with his coffee mug. "I don't think it's as black as you do; I don't really expect to wake up some morning to find secret agents kicking in my door, ordering me to become some sort of superhuman enforcer for Washington. But..."

"But?" I prompted.

He took a long pull from his cup. "But I've been wrong before."

"I know the feeling," I sighed. "So, any plans yet?"

"I've got a friend who lives in a remote desert town. Perfection, Nevada. If things get a little too crazy, I'll stay with him for a while." He grinned at me. "Bert's a survivalist. If the reporters annoy him _too_ much, they'll end up as next day's dinner."

"Ewwww. Thanks a LOT. Just what I needed to hear before a meal," I grimaced. "Well, if you need any help, remember I promised Eric I'd be there for anyone who needs it."

"Thanks," he smiled. "So, how do we do this? Follow Interstate 10 to El Paso, and go our seperate ways from there?"

"Sounds like a plan. Dominique will need a way to get home from Baton Rouge, though. Unless we swing off the highway for a bit to take her home," I pointed out. "It's not like she can take a bus, what with the snake."

"If we're not in a hurry, that's not a problem for me. I'm carrying my home on the back of my truck, so to speak," Hero replied.

"Then it's a deal." Then the food arrived and we paid up, finished our coffee, and left.

Turned out that many of the smaller, "unimportant" characteristics tended to creep over into our personalities more easily than the more blatant ones could. Cabbits LOVE carrots, and June and her brother tore into their carrot salads like a pair of furry shredding machines. June even had the audacity to wonder if I couldn't have gotten her some chocolate-coated carrots so that she might indulge BOTH of her favorite tastes at once.

Her brother just sighed and held up a note... [She's hopeless.]

I swallowed a bite of chicken salad sandwich and grinned. "Hey, she's YOUR sister, kiddo. Don't drag me into it."

[No fair! You're ganging up on me!]

"So what else is new? That's part of what being a younger brother is all about, Tom. Getting picked on by his elders."

He pouted, and gnawed on a carrot stick while June and I laughed.

Dominique giggled as she kept a watchful eye on her python, who was nosing around a few burrows in the ground of the rest stop we were at. We'd pulled over to have a sit-down meal, having changed our minds about eating inside the camper. It was simply too cramped.

Sssaaahh was idly teasing the small rodent now cowering deep within the hole. He didn't seem to have any real intention of snacking on it, he'd simply classified it as "edible, rodent, one each", and took a predator's simple pleasure in stalking it.

Listening to the radio while we ate was ... educational. By now various religious groups had joined in to add their view to the rapidly growing situation. Some hailed it as a sign of the Second Coming, others denounced it as a sign of Satan. Televangelists were ranting and raving (not that this was anything unusual), reporters were flocking, goverment officials were busy "No comment!"-ing... in short, they were pretty much behaving like any group of highly confused and utterly clueless human beings in a state of semi-panic.

Oddly enough, it rather reinforced my (cynical) faith in human nature. Heh.

Corporations were weighing in, too. DC Comics read a prepared statement that, when stripped of the legal-ese, was nothing more than "We don't know WHAT the hell is going on down there, but if anyone's wearing a costume that WE own the copyrights to, they'd better be ready to be sued for every penny they've ever earned, or ever will!"

Marvel Comics, on the other hand, seemed split. The corporation that owned it was busy issuing threats, but Stan "The Man" Lee, the founder of Marvel, said during an interview that if the rumors of REAL superheros coming to life down in Florida was true, he didn't give a damn about trademarks or copyrights. Sadly, though Stan Lee had founded Marvel, he didn't own it any more, and the holding corporation that did was trying to quash his statements with all the legal force it could muster.

Stan's statement when told that? "Bring it on, boys!"

Heh. Gotta love the man.

Paramount Studios was taking a neutral line. When their spokesman was asked to comment on the rumors that their star, Michael Dorn, had been transformed into a _real_ Klingon, they refused to comment. When asked about the large number of what appeared to be real Klingons in the Xanadu convention center, they refused to comment. In fact, they refused to comment, period. With one exception.

When one extremely persistant reporter tried to bully an answer, ANY answer, out of the Paramount representative, the spokesman glared at the member of the Fourth Estate, and snapped, "We've had ENOUGH trouble from irate Star Trek fans, and we don't intend to do ANYTHING until we know exactly what's going on down there."

Maybe they'd finally learned a lesson in Hollywood.

Naaaah.

Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner had both been spotted in Orlando as well. Rumor had it that they planned on offering appearance contracts to some of the people who'd attended the Adults Only, 18 and above costume contests. June looked a little disgusted when she heard the reporter mention that. She was a Witness, and while I wouldn't exactly call her a prude, she had strong feelings about some of the more extreme costumes we'd seen. And she hit me over the head with a carrot when I simply shrugged at the report.

"June, people will be people. The world's oldest profession is just that, and Soddom had it's reputation for a reason." I quirked an eyebrow at my friend of so many years. "People are going to indulge in their sexual kinks no matter WHAT roadblocks the world throws in their way, and this just...well, it just ups the ante a little."

She bapped me again with the carrot stick, pouting.

"An... interesting outlook, Mr. Edwards." Ria had set down her sandwich and was looking at me in the oddest fashion.

"I said I didn't want to have my head shrunk," I growled. "And I meant it. Stay OUT of my head."

The therapist shrank back from the anger in my voice, as did June and her brother. I hadn't meant to scare _them_, and now I felt pretty damn small.

"I'm sorry, June." I took a couple of long, slow breaths. "It's just..." I made small circles in the air with one hand, unable to articulate what I felt. I turned towards Ms. Forrest. "And I'm sorry to have snapped at you. It was.. uncalled for."

Ria nodded. "Force of habit on my part. I've spent a lifetime observing human behavior. What the alterations Xanadu has wrought will do to the human psyche..." She shook her head. "I could spend a lifetime merely _recording_ them, let alone analyzing them. The professional temptation.."

Now THAT I could understand, and even relate to. A small chuckle escaped me. "Been there, done that, Ms. Forrest. I've spent an entire lifetime studying the future of warfare. Now I _AM_ the future of warfare."

Hero, whose name turned out to be Steve Nichols, nodded. "No matter how hard we try, this is going to change the world. The simple fact that magic is real, and not a delusion is more than enough to rock the world's foundations, you know."

He pointed at Billy, who was playing a game of catch with Pinky. (Using a VERY small ball) "After all, HIS powers are _entirely_ magical. Straight from the gods and heros of legend and myth, you know."

I chewed on my mustache. "I'd been trying NOT to think about that, thank you. Thinking about it leads me to conclusions I'd rather not confront right now."

Ria looked nervous. "That they might be real, you mean?"

I shrugged. "SOMETHING did this to us, you know. Or someone. Unless of course, I'm merely drugged out of my mind in a hospital bed somewhere after a tramatic car accident, hallucinating all of this and all of you."

That made her smile. "Solpsism. Of course, in that case, you're not dreaming me, I'm dreaming you."

We all laughed and the tension eased. Finishing our meal, Steve and I piled into the back of his camper to get some rest while Ria and Dominique took their turn driving for a few hours.

Meanwhile, though I didn't learn of it for quite some time, Officer Ross was having a few adventures of her own. Adventures that would land her right on my doorstep, eventually.

Ross's captain was NOT having a good day. There were werewolves on the damn streets of his town, for Christ's sake! What was he supposed to do, get Animal Control some silver bullets?

And now he was being harrassed by a group of lawyers for the ACLU. That bunch of bleeding heart liberals (as he thought of them in the privacy of his own mind) was complaining about how some of the Xanadu "victims" were being treated.

Victims?! HAH! Some crazy woman had tried to destroy DISNEYLAND, damnit! Did that sound like a _victim_? He resisted the urge to tear at his hair and stomped over to his office door. Yanking it open, he yelled for Ross and her partner.

"ROSS! OLSEN! Get your asses IN here NOW!"

He glared at the two as they stood before his desk. "We got some nutter from Xanadu trying to rob fast food joints downtown. I want the two of you to pick him up and throw him in a cell so hard he BOUNCES, you got that?!"

"Are you sure he's from Xanadu, Captain?" asked Ross

"He just stuck up a Burger King with a mustard gun, Ross," snapped her irate superior. "That doesn't sound like the run-of-the-mill robber to me. Or maybe YOU don't find that unusual?" he added with thick sarcasm.

"A mustard gun?! You've got to be--" Captain Convy glared at the younger officer, who immediately shut up.

Olsen, the captain thought resentfully. Jimmy Olsen. What kind of fool name was that for a cop? Would have served _him_ right to get caught up in this Xanadu mess. Then he noticed the thoughtful expression on Ross's face, and sighed.

"You know this one?" he groaned.

"Maybe," she replied. "It sounds like the Condiment King. He's from an episode of--"

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. "Not important. Just get out there and bring him in. Today. NOW."

"Yessir!"

The two scurried out of his office to escape his glare. Convy returned to his desk and carefully opened a bottle of Pepto Bismol. Looking at the pink liquid balefully, he reluctantly drank a large mouthful of it. Sighing with relief as it reached his stomache, he shook his head and reached for another report.

"Why me?"

"Why me?"

Ross fought off the urge to mallet her partner flat. Besides, where would I find a mallet this time of day?, she asked herself. Shaking her head, she made a mental note to watch fewer Japanese cartoons.

"Don't be stupid, Jimmy. We signed up to serve and protect. NOT just when it's convienient for us."

"Yeah, but--" whined the younger man.

"You whine one more time, kid, and I'll reach down your throat and remove your tonsils for you. Bare-handed, got that?"

Olsen gave her a resentful look, but kept his mouth shut as requested.

Getting in to the patrol car, she tapped a foot thoughtfully. "Now, if I were convinced that I was a villain from a Batman comic, where would I strike next... Hmm... Jimmy? Hand me that list of places he's hit."

She ran her finger down the list, noting they were, without exception, fast food franchises. "What, no elegant restaurants?" she muttered. "Something's not right here."

"What do you mean?" Olsen asked.

A thought struck her, and she grinned evilly. "Jimmy, get us to Chez Menu. NOW."

The rookie shrugged, and pulled out of the lot, tires squealing slightly. "Chez Menu, coming up. But why _there_?"

Ross grinned. "Trust me on this one. I have a feeling."

Two hours later, a triumphant Ross and Olsen were delivering a cowed and cuffed "Condiment King" to the desk sergeant for booking.

"Howd'ya figger this one, Ross?" Sgt. Helman was desperately trying to keep a straight face as he looked over the "weapons" the suspect had carried. It was hard to take high-pressure squirt guns filled with catsup and mustard very seriously.

"Easy," she shrugged. "He thinks he's the Condiment King. A former comedian, before he turned to crime. And I KNEW that a stand-up comic couldn't pass up the chance to try to rob a place called Chez Menu." She repeated the name, using the French pronunciation and slurring the words together. "Shay men you."

Helman groaned. "Shame on you? That's _terrible_. We oughta put him on bread and water for that one. And you too."

"Try it, and I'll tell your wife about your little visits to Krispy Kreme, Helman. She'll LOVE to know you've been cheating on the diet she put you on."

The hefty desk sergeant blanched. "You fight _dirty_, Ross."

She snickered. "Learned it from the best."

"Yeah. Oh, you gotta fill out some more crap after you finish with nut-boy here." Helman handed her a sheaf of paper. "Seems the Feds want a word or two with you. Something about one of the folks who helped you bust the Ass Master. They wanna interview him, and he went and vanished on them."

She looked up from the papers, an icy cold tremor working its way down her back. "Oh?" she replied calmly. "Who?"

"Steel Guy, or Tin Man, or something like that. I forget. Anyway you're supposed to add 'your personal impressions' of him to the arrest report and I gotta turn a copy of it over to the Captain, who's gonna give it to the Feds. Could'ya get it done today?" Helman's face crinkled up in an aggrieved frown. "I know yer almost off-shift, but the friggin' suits from Washington want it yesterday, ya know?"

She nodded, keeping her expression carefully neutral. "Got it. I'll get it to you ASAP."

"Thanks," Helman said gratefully. "Them suits is a pain, ya know?"

"Oh, yeah, Sarge.. I know. I know."

"Then they wanna talk to ya, personal like. The Captain sez he'll cut you some time off duty for an interview tomorrow. They wanna spend most'a the day goin' over your report with you fer some reason."

She nodded. "I'll be back with the papers in an hour, Helman, maybe two. I'll grab you a doughnut on the way back." She turned and walked out.

Three hours later, Officer Ross was nowhere to be found. Unnoticed, a woman who bore only a passing resemblance to her was busy driving north on Highway 95 to a safe house in Jacksonville, Florida.

We'd reached Baton Rouge, and started the swing off the highway to take Dominique home to her family. She was part of a HUGE damn Cajun French clan that lived in the bayous and made their money fishing, hunting, and selling natural gas from a deposit that just happened to be right under the swamp they owned.

And to think they'd bought it cheap because it was 'worthless'. Heheh.

I was still worried about how her family would react to the changes. Particularly to her eyes and skin, but the fact that she was coming home with one BIG damn snake also concerned me. Someone might panic and shoot first, appologize later. And that would get nasty.

But Dominique had taken a few moments at the last rest stop we'd pulled over at - hey, we might not be entirely human any more, but nature STILL called, you know! - and hit a pay phone, calling her folks. We gave her some privacy, of course.

When she'd finished the call, she came back grinning and wouldn't say a word, except that Sssaaahh wouldn't be a problem. Not at all.

I _really_ hate it when people do that to me.