Masks 18: Part 1

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This is finally finished. It came out a little shorter than originally planned at 51,800 words, but it's completed. I thought about making it longer but it ends at a good point and I didn't want to add padding. Hope you folks like it.

Masks XVIII

by

Rodford Edmiston

Part One

Only a few people were present in the central area of the dorm floor as the two supers entered, the one in the rear walking and the one in the lead flying. Those already present were used to both of the people and the fact that Energia always wore her signature costume... as well as that she could fly, and sometimes did so indoors. However, this time her outfit of green and blue was a fancier, more elaborate version of her usual garb, and included her medal and ribbon, and her hair was down instead of in the accustomed ponytail. Meanwhile, Vic - trailing casually behind her friend - had the whole cap and gown ensemble. One thing both women had in common was that they were obviously very fit, though it was more obvious with Energia, due to her snug costume.

"I am so glad that's over," groaned Energia, as she swung her legs up and landed - already in a seated posture - on the nearest couch, her green, roll-top boots settling on the coffee table. "I'm still pissed they wouldn't let me wear a cap and gown!"

"Well, you're a war hero!" said Vic, who couldn't fly but was actually more graceful as she moved into fatigued repose beside the other new graduate. She looked over at Energia's fancy outfit, which the other super had repeatedly complained about the discomfort of wearing, and not just today. "Your regular costume is like a uniform. That version is like a dress uniform."

Energia gave a tired laugh.

"I have to admit, there were several people graduating in uniform," she said.

"Well, I am very glad I could wear regular clothes under mine."

"Wimps," said Alex, grinning viciously as she entered the common area. Vic wondered how long she'd been listening before making her dramatic entrance. "Oh, and pants, t-shirt and running shoes aren't regulation garb for most girls, Vic, though I guess folks didn't notice what you were wearing underneath, with the robe and all."

"Don't tell me," said Vic, dryly, "you're completely naked under there."

Alex flipped her tasseled cap across the room like a Frisbee - aiming for the big coffee table but being too enthusiastic and sending it skimming onto the floor beyond - and quickly slipped out of her own gown. To reveal a complete Hello Kitty outfit. Something she had put together specifically for graduation.

"Tah-dah!"

"No; it's something worse," said Energia, grinning. She sighed and relaxed from turning to look at the younger woman, letting her body resume its previous posture. "Also, that still doesn't address the fact that I wanted to graduate in graduation robes; not my costume."

Though she was still complaining, Energia's mood was obviously now lifted.

"You're not just a war hero; you saved the President!" said Vic, firmly; to Energia, not to Alex. She flipped her own cap to land exactly on top of Alex's, even though she had no line of sight to the target from where she sat. "The costume counts as a uniform. I guess the medal and ribbon go better with your costume - especially the fancy one - than with a gown, too. So, they wanted you to wear your good costume."

"You're a war hero, too!" said Alex, in a defensive - and perhaps possessive - tone, to Vic.

"Yeah, but I wasn't in uniform!"

"Yeah, but you also deserve recognition for what you did!"

"Right now I just want to rest for a bit and let it sink in," said Energia, with a satisfied smile, paying little attention to the banter. "I'm a college graduate!"

Vic's family and Michelle had attended the ceremony openly, which was potentially trouble; there were still people with grudges against her for many reasons, and even against the rest of her family for a few. Fortunately that had been avoided. Energia's family had attended, though she had been very careful not to look at them and they had been careful not to show they were connected to her. There would be celebratory dinners later, for graduates and their families and close ones. Energia and her parents, uncle, aunt and cousins already had reservations at a nice restaurant in her parents' home city, with the force-energy manipulator planning to attend in civvies as Jenny. Vick and her group were going to a different fancy restaurant, a bit further away than most of the celebrants, where people hopefully wouldn't recognize the super. After that, Vic planned to take Michelle to something more student-oriented. Then somewhere much more private...

Energia still thought it a bit odd that she was graduating with some folks who had started the year before she came to Ramsey. It just happened that some of them had needed an extra year. For Vic and Alex this was due to taking remedial classes, since both of them missed a lot of high school. Of course, the Shilmek War had also been a factor, along with the post-war cleanup affecting Vic's schedule.

"Remember," said Alex, with a demonic grin, as she leaned over the back of the couch between the two supers and swiveled her head to look at them alternately, "you've both still got that press conference, along with several of the other members of the super program..."

"Oh, God..." wailed Vic, head thrown back.

"Hey, you, my friends, are part of the college's second batch of openly super graduates, which is the first batch with war heroes in it. Including Energia. Of course, she's a bigger name in the super community than the rest of you together, so they'll likely focus on her."

"Joy," said Energia, with a tired sigh.

"The government, the college and the press are gonna make a fuss over all of you. Energia, especially, though."

"I'd almost rather deal with the fuss caused by the protestors," said Vic, sourly.

"Well, the cops are making sure you don't have to. Anyway, you've got a couple of hours. Be sure you rest, eat and thoroughly hydrate!"

"She is entirely too cheerful," said Energia, in a dangerous tone.

Cackling madly, the hyperactive genius vaulted over the back of the couch, bounced off the seat and onto the floor between the couch and the coffee table, then Groucho-walked to her cap and Vic's. She tossed her roomie's cap to her, then bounded away, down the hall to her room.

"Try rooming with that," said Vic, rolling her eyes as she absently spun the cap on a fingertip.

There was a short period of silence between the two supers. The others in the room took little note, being caught up in their own celebrations or just glad this semester was over. There were people coming and going, some offering congratulations to Vic and Energia. More of the recent graduates began to filter in, most already out of their caps and gowns. Elsewhere in the building the celebrations - or at least the relieved relaxations - had already started. Vic thought she could catch an occasional whiff of pot, and there was definitely a tang of alcohol in the air. As a federal agent she was supposed to enforce the laws of the land, several of which Vic could easily tell were being blatantly broken, thanks to her heightened senses; as a very recent college graduate she didn't see the need.

"So, you going into the graduate program?" said Energia, eventually.

"Thought I'd already told you. Yeah. Bureau's paying for it, just like they are for you."

"That's good. We were both lucky, considering the budget cuts."

"We've both also demonstrated that we can be very useful."

Vic leaned her head back and closed her eyes, sighing tiredly. Energia felt an urge to giggle.

"I thought you were physically superhuman. Not to mention a regenerator."

"I'm not actually physically superhuman; just right at the upper boundary of human capabilities," said Vic, melodramatically. "Also, this is a fatigue of the soul."

"Well, this soul is going to go shower, change into something less formal and get some food before that press conference."

"I think I'll join you," said Vic. She suddenly blushed. "Uh, I mean, I need to shower, change and eat. Not that I..."

She stumbled to a stop at the realization that Energia was already flying towards the exit. Vic sighed, hoping the costumed super had either been too distracted to notice her faux pas or knew her well enough to simply discount it.

"Just remember to thank a veteran for his service this weekend!" someone shouted cheerfully, as Vic rose to head for her room. Said person might have been at least a little drunk.

"That's Veteran's Day," said Vic, angrily, to the startled young man. "The holiday coming up is Memorial Day, in two weeks! Don't forget the women who gave all for their country, either!"

She stormed off while the fellow was still trying to shift mental gears.

* * *

There was a significant karaoke celebration that night in the bar closest to the college. The majority of students in attendance were too happy, too drunk or too combined to worry about anything. The main problem in the world as far as most of them were concerned was keeping Apparat kick from modifying the rig. Other than that, a good time was had by nearly all. Of course, there are always a few who are not satisfied with their accomplishments...

Harvey Bailey had managed to stay in school and even to graduate, though with a delay. At first he had been as happy as any of the others graduating today. However, as the alcohol level in his blood increased, his mood decreased. He currently wanted to talk politics. Even though everyone else at the table where he sat kept ignoring him. Or tried to.

There was an election coming up. While President Sievers was still riding the crest of a huge wave of popularity for winning the war - despite critics who said there should never have been one, and, besides, their person of choice could have done a lot better - she was reaching the end of her second term. So, both major parties and several minor were organizing campaigns.

On one side, presidential candidate Harold Gibbons was strongly supported by influential Senator Andrew Wyler and a favorite in the polls. Gibbons was charming and charismatic, handsome, tall and athletic, his hair still solid black at age fifty. His campaign didn't mention supers often, but his most famous proclamation about them was that they shouldn't expect to be given any sort of privileges for helping defend the Earth against the Shilmek. That they were only eligible for the same reward as all the others who participated: The nation's thanks. Half those hearing this cheered him on; the other half asked what privileges he was talking about.

On the other side was Milton Garber. He primarily proposed continuing the policies of President Sievers. Which led to accusations that he either had no agenda of his own, or that he was keeping it secret. Though he had done a decent job as first mayor of his home town and later governor of his state, he was seen as bland and lacking charisma. He was nearly twenty years older as well as shorter and obviously less fit than his opponent. Yet to the well-informed he made the most sense.

"You still going on about the election?" said one of the tablemates, whose name Harvey didn't recall. He appeared to be well on his way to blackout.

"Yeah. Everybody should be."

"Gibbons reminds me of a character played by James Garner," said another - and only slightly drunk - guy. "Problem is, Garber reminds me of a character played by Jack Lemon. Neither strikes me as particularly suitable to the job, but would you rather have a straight-laced moralist who is otherwise bland, or a casual sinner who is charming?"

"Just remember," said the first tablemate, sagely, "no matter who you vote for, you always end up with a politician."

Harvey was very definitely in favor of Gibbons. Unfortunately, almost no-one else at the bar that night was. He went back to his off-campus apartment early, and surly.

* * *

The emergency meeting at the headquarters of the Bureau of Special Resources finally came to an end. As the others drifted out of the conference room Brade sighed and pushed her massive, custom chair back from the table, but made no attempt to rise.

She really liked this room. It was an addition made right after the war, specifically to take advantage of both Lunie and gadgeteer contributions and salvaged Shilmek equipment. It was big, more than roomy enough for this small meeting, and had advanced audiovisual facilities. That included holographic conference call equipment which could handle over a hundred channels. Still, that had been one of the few improvements made to Bureau facilities before the first of the budget cuts had hit. Much of the rest of this building was actually looking a bit worn.

"Oh, come on," said Dr. Piano, smiling at her as he stood beside his chair. "It's not that bad."

"Gremlins in the halls of Congress is pretty bad," said Brade. She gave a humorless laugh. "Real gremlins, I mean."

"We are keeping up with the incursions."

"Yes. Barely. You and others have said they'll get worse, though."

Piano hesitated, then came to a decision.

"I have something to tell you, off the record."

"Okay," said Brade, puzzled. "Shoot."

"Even off the record I can't give you many details, but... many in the magical community know what to do to reduce these invasions from other planes. A few are actively working on doing it."

"So what's the prognosis?"

"Good, actually. Though not swift."

"Why is that so secret?" said Brade, angrily. "Why not just tell the rest of the world you're working to make things better?"

"The magical community is a smaller minority than even the masks community. We're also more heavily persecuted. I think the secrecy is both practically necessary and a matter of habit."

"I guess that's fair," said Brade, relaxing and leaning back in her oversized chair. She looked up at the wizard. "I can also see people blaming you for causing the problem if you announce you're working to solve it. Just... keep me as up to date as you can, okay?"

"I promise," he told her, smiling.

* * *

A few days later and a couple of states away, three good friends were rooming together in a very different structure from a college dorm, though in many ways their situation was similar. In other ways they were more like firefighters waiting in their station, for a call they actually hoped would never come. Tricorne was back together for another Summer.

"What's got you so upset?" said Energia, to Gadgetive, the second morning of this period with her favorite hero team, as the mad inventor left the kitchen and entered the large, main room. This was their first get-together since Energia had graduated, and only the second since the war.

Energia had spent a week with family and friends to catch up and unwind before coming here, which had left her in a very good mood. However, Gadgetive - as usual the last downstairs and only just finished with breakfast and still not fully dressed - was obviously not.

There was more going on behind Energia's good mood than working with her friends again. She was glad to be having another session of heroing out of the old bakery. After all the changes of the past weeks - and months and years - she needed that stability. Of course, even their headquarters had undergone some changes recently. Blue Impact - in her civilian ID - had actually made a show of having contractors clean and repaint the exterior and move new - if unidentifiable in the crates - equipment in, over the past few months. This was actually the cover for another round of upgrades to the lair, all the work being done by folks from the school. At least the neighbors had stopped griping about when something would be done with the old eyesore (though it was already one of the least decrepit buildings in the neighborhood) to complaining about how it now made their businesses look bad (though most of them were already in worse shape than the bakery had been in before the renovations).

"Oh, there was a retrospective of the Shilmek War on TV the other day," said Gadgetive, as she moved to the main couch and sat beside Energia, "and the stupid interviewer kept saying B.I.G. A.L. was invented by Ike. While interviewing him, with him telling her, over and over, he just helped make the units suitable for mass production! He even mentioned me by name twice, and she kept gushing about how brilliant he was to have invented something the Shilmek couldn't jam and didn't even notice."

At least she was wearing pajamas this time. Her partners didn't feel the need to make her go put more clothes on.

"Hah! Poor, widdle Gadgetive!"

Energia laughed, briefly hugged the barely mollified Gadgetive, then sat back. In the quiet which followed, the energy/force manipulator gave their lair a thorough - and approving - scan. She had to admit the place did look better than it had the Summer before. There was panelling on all the walls inside the building, now, instead of paint over brick for the larger rooms. Of course, between the panelling and the walls was structural reinforcement, insulation and armor. Supers had learned a lot about what might be needed to disguise and defend a lair in the past few years. Tricorne was benefiting from that, in multiple ways. One of them being government support in the form of funding and equipment. Supers who had proven themselves successful against the Shilmek were getting money and first pick of scavenged alien equipment. All three members of Tricorne had been major players, with Energia arguably being the most important in terms of bringing harm to the enemy. Tricorne had actually turned down some of the offered items and services. Then had been deluged with "If you don't want it, we do!" requests from other teams. That, of course, had to be hashed out between them and those who were supplying the aid.

It was still just the three them, here, most of the time, plus the cat and the rare visitor. Right now, that suited Energia. She hoped they would have a nice, quiet Summer for a change.

Speak of the devil, the former tom who served as their informal mascot jumped onto the couch, walked over Gadgetive's lap and settled onto Energia's, purring. She smiled and rubbed his head, as Gadgetive glared.

"I built the automatic feeder and waterer for him, and several entertainment devices. Yet you're the one he goes to. Even more than Blue Impact, and she takes him with her to the school when this place is empty."

"You just have to know where to scratch," said Energia, smugly.

"What's this I hear about you signing up for guest teaching spots at Pine this Fall?" said Blue Impact, entering from the garage. With her ears, the others knew she had heard the entire, previous exchange.

"Yeah," said Energia. "It's actually part of my advanced studies at Ramsey. Learn by teaching. I get both college credit and money."

"Now that sounds like a good deal," said Blue Impact, grinning. "If I remember correctly, you also get access to the teacher's lounge."

Energia snickered.

"Anyhow," said Blue Impact, deliberately throwing herself onto the reinforced couch, which barely even scooted, "here's to a quiet Summer."

"Now I have to align the couch again," muttered Gadgetive, determined to have something to complain about.

"At least it's not due to gremlins," said Energia, snickering.

"Yeah, but that couldn't have happened to a nicer group," said Gadgetive, joining in on the snickering.



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