Masks VI: Part 9

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Part Nine

The meeting the next afternoon in the Oval Office was uncomfortable for all involved. President Thurlin had five of his people on one side of the low table which had been brought in; Vice President Gould had five of his on the other.

"Malcolm, you're not going to win this," said Gould, flatly. "The past fifteen months, while you've been obsessed with supers, I've been building a power base. If you don't resign, impeachment will proceed. I already have far more than enough votes. It would be better for both you and the country if you avoid being kicked out of office and leave gracefully."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you, Oliver?" said Thurlin, snarling. "Oh, yeah, you'd really like that. Taking my place!"

"For a little over a year?" said Gould. "No. And you have my word I do not plan to ever run for elected office again."

"Your word! Your word! Since when does anyone take someone's word for something important!?"

"Some of us did... before you came along!" said Gould, hotly. "You've just about ruined this country. Its reputation, its economy, the trust of the people in the government, in large part because you - being dishonest - don't believe anyone else is honest. We'll need decades to get back on track. To keep things from getting worse you have to go. One way or another."

"Big talk! But let's see you back it up!"

"I am backing it up," said Gould, darkly. "I'm doing it entirely within the law, by the rules laid down in the Constitution."

"The people won't stand for this!"

"The people are almost unanimously in favor of it! As I said, the best action for all involved is for you to resign. It's your choice."

Thurlin, purpling, started to rise. One of his men, worry showing through his carefully schooled expression, put a hand on his shoulder. Thurlin allowed himself to be pushed back into his seat. The man leaned in and whispered something. Thurlin looked surprised. Then petulant.

"This... isn't something you can expect me to decide right away."

"Take your time. Just keep in mind that the impeachment proceedings are going ahead at a record-setting pace. They don't even need me, now."

* * *

Meanwhile, several people with a personal interest in the outcome of the impeachment proceedings were having a quiet conversation in a rec room at a federal prison. A room hurriedly equipped with neutralizers. To make certain there were no shadows in the effect, more than were strictly necessary had been installed.

"Damn," said HighTop, as he saw a familiar costume. "I'm surprised to see you here, Guardsman. Pretty distressed at that, too."

"I'm glad to see you, too," said the other mask, warmly shaking his hand. The two men were similar in build, age and manner, though one was Caucasian and the other Black. Both were highly respected in the super community, and among those who supported it. "This is the first time they've let me out of my cell. I haven't seen any other familiar faces, don't even know what happened to the rest of the Guardians."

"Grapevine has it they're splitting teams, to reduce the chance of cooperation in an escape attempt. Problem is, they have so few facilities which can hold supers, they've had to transfer dangerous non-super prisoners to less secure facilities just to have someplace to put us."

The Guardsman nodded, looking slowly around the room.

"All heroes. All still in costume! I thought Thurlin stated he was ordering those going after masks to ignore Coltman v. Dachshund and remove masks."

"Most people didn't bother unmasking the captured heroes even with those instructions," said HighTop, sounding tired. "Or if they did, didn't bother finding out who they were. They weren't interested in who was wearing the costume, they just wanted it off the street."

"Image vs. substance," said Tumbler, approaching the older men. "Most people don't care who's inside the outfit. They only see the outfit."

"Still, there were many known masks whose identity was illegally revealed," said the Guardsman, quiet but deep anger in his voice. "Not publicly, yet, but the government knows. Several of us were already taking legal action on this, before my team was brought in."

"There will be retribution," said the Deacon, ominously, as he joined the group rapidly forming around the Guardsman, "and it shall be dire."

* * *

"Nobody appreciates me, or what I've done for this country," said Thurlin, actually pouting. "Well, what I've done will stand the test of history! Mark my words, long after I'm gone people will look back on this as a terrific time to be an American!"

Thurlin had officially resigned less than an hour before. This press conference had been called presumably for him to announce the act. So far there had been no mention of the words "resignation" or "resign."

"I will be back! You can't keep a good man down. And I am a good man. History will tell you that. Like Lincoln or Roosevelt. I helped hold this country together in its hour of greatest need."

"Well, he's right about that," said Rapscallion. "He united the nation against him!"

"Hush!" said Colossa.

The speech didn't conclude so much as just stop. Thurlin gathered his papers, thumped the edge of the stack on the podium with a vindictive gesture, gave the cameras a final glare, wheeled around and stalked off.

"How long until they swear in Gould?" said Bowman, glancing at his watch.

"At least three more hours," said the Black Mask. "There's a lot of protocol involved."

"I won't feel safe until he's declared President," said Colossa, uneasily. "Maybe not then. The government - several governments - have a long way to go to regain my trust."

"I won't feel safe until two administrations from now," said Solange.

"I won't feel safe until several different cases reach the Supreme Court and are decided in our favor," said the Black Mask, direly.

They all jumped as an alarm sounded. Bowman quickly jumped up and answered.

"Gould wasn't quick enough," said Steel Lace, angrily.

The Bay Area Guardians were currently one of the largest teams still in their base, and were therefore acting as a communications center for most other free masks. They were helped in this by the fact that the few members of the Planetary Guardians who had escaped capture were there as well.

"A group - a very large group - of super criminals has organized under the leadership of the Broker and is planning to attack DC. They figure that during the confusion following Thurlin's resignation and before Gould takes the oath they can literally take over the capital. Failing that, they can do enough damage that the nation would need years to recover."

"So what do we do?" said the Black Mask, concern showing through his usual air of calm.

"We're calling for everyone who can make it to go to Washington now. We can organize faster than the National Guard or the police. NightMist is assigning everyone who contacts her a rallying point. We have fifteen, scattered around the city near expected targets."

"I'll spread the word immediately," said the Black Mask, reaching for the controls.

"One last thing," said the Steel Lace, quickly. "Some police and military have stated they will continue following Thurlin's orders until Gould is sworn in and rescinds them. So not only will they not cooperate, they may actively hinder."

"Right," said the Black Mask.

* * *

Some of the bad guys apparently jumped the gun, or perhaps were independent opportunists taking advantage of the more organized effort. The attack was supposed to be synchronized and coordinated, but by the time the first heroes arrived there were already sporadic reports of super criminals in a few areas. They were quickly and decisively apprehended by the early-arriving masks.

Roughly half of the active hero masks in the US had been imprisoned or were in hiding. Many of the rest had trouble of one sort or another making the trip, or simply refused to help. Still, within an hour and a half there were sixty costumed heroes stationed at the fifteen gathering points. This was due in no small part to those who had transportation picking up some who didn't.

The turnout was impressive. Lord Hammer had come out of retirement. Stagger, not seen for over eight years, was there. The Wrath swallowed his ire over politics in general and DC specifically to participate. Even Sword was there, despite her repeated declarations to have nothing to do with "costumed weirdoes."

There were nearly twice their number of known super criminals already approaching in a unified wave, from several directions.

"I hate to say it," Steel Lace told each group, as they made ready to defend the nation's capital, "but this is a killing situation. I'm not telling you to go out there with the intent to kill; just that the potential for civilian casualties from extended battles is outrageously high. Also, you do have the right to protect yourselves. Just remember, the effort you expend to take someone down in a non-lethal manner might mean two others get past you."

There was an uneasy stir at those words, but Steel Lace was a veteran mask and her judgement much respected.

Small groups were assigned to each land approach into the heart of the city. Other small groups were sent to specific targets. Most of those who could fly were assigned to four groups; three sent out to surround the governmental center of Washington in a triangular formation, the fourth held in reserve, with that reserve placed in the heart of Washington, the National Mall. Also held in reserve were several of the most effective fighters. All those could either move quickly on their own or were light enough to be carried by a flyer or speedster.

The speedsters were their communications corps. There wasn't enough commonality among the various com systems used, as well as expectations of eavesdropping or interference by villains. The word "runner" had taken on a whole new context for this conflict.

To improve function, people who had worked with each other before were assigned together. As she approached her assigned assembly point, not far from the Capital building, Template was pleased to spot among the early arrivals a couple she hadn't seen since the Katrina cleanup. They were already standing there, just east of 7th Street.

"Magni! Fireburst! It's good to see you!"

Template gave them both welcoming hugs, which the other supers returned. They chatted a bit, standing there on the grass, as the rest of their impromptu team assembled. Then they waited, an uneasy silence falling over the eleven.

"This isn't enough," said Template, worried.

She looked around, at the Smithsonian buildings, the monuments and memorials, the famous government structures. Surprisingly, there were many tourists about... but no police! Though she could see Park Service personnel and building security guards.

Template was very glad Eve and those of the staff staying at the school - which was most of them - were making certain those students under the age of consent also stayed there.

"Not enough," she repeated.

"There's more coming," said Tiger.

He was, once again, in the combat suit Ike Kenniman had made for him. He seemed oddly calm.

"Aren't you worried?"

"Sure. No use wasting energy."

He started to say something else, but suddenly stiffened and looked up.

Template looked as well, but saw nothing unusual. Still, one of the few powers she didn't have was heightened senses, while Tiger...

"Scatter!!!" he suddenly yelled.

They all - barely, with some requiring assistance - got out of the way of the something which suddenly appeared, hurtling down at them. It struck with a thump and crash which jarred the ground, the shock actually knocking some of the defenders off their feet. The collapsed mound of debris lodged itself at least a meter deep in the soil of the Mall.

"Is that a piece of... building?!" said Falcon Eddie.

Tiger abruptly jumped onto the top of the thing, and from there bounded upwards. He swatted at something only he could see. There was a shrill scream, and suddenly they could all see the roughly two dozen villains dropping towards them.

Tiger's target was Redwing, who was carrying Demento, a mind controller and illusionist. The former had been so startled - and injured - by Tiger's clawing strike he nearly dropped Demento, breaking the mentalist's concentration.

Their surprise ruined, the villains were quickly engaged. Template, Falcon Eddie and Rocket Bob took to the air. Template quickly developed the tactic of swatting less powerful fliers down to where her ground-bound teammates could reach them.

"These are all second-stringers!" Falcon Eddie shouted. "Third-stringers, a lot of 'em!"

"I'll show you third-string!" a flying super Template didn't know shouted, as he rammed Falcon Eddie.

However, the bewinged mask's evaluation proved correct. Most of the attackers were handled quickly. The remaining few weren't likely to last much longer. Unfortunately, that was just the opening salvo.

A massive figure came charging across Independence Avenue.

"Erfit!" shouted Magni.

They braced themselves. Count Erfit was a long-time bad guy, a major force, not too bright but actually stronger and tougher than Energex, though slower and unable to fly and lacking energy projection. This would be a bad fight.

Suddenly "Along Came Jones" blared over all the speakers in the area. The Coasters version.

"No..." said Count Erfit, stumbling to a stop to look frantically around. "It can't be. He's dead! Dead, I tell you!"

The heroes didn't know what was going on with that, but took advantage of his confusion. Multiple attacks of many types landed; most served only to further unbalance Erfit, but one actually stunned him, and another of the same then dropped him. Two doses of the Mad Baker's calming pie had done the trick. The assembly of heroes made certain he wouldn't get back up for a long, long time.

"Scatter!" yelled Dogpile, on seeing their brick down.

"What is with that music?!" shouted Falcon Eddie, melodramatically covering his ears.

"Psychological warfare," said Tiger, as the music abruptly stopped. "Used the suit to interface with the PA systems around here."

The Black Mask quickly prioritized the super criminals according to how much trouble they were likely to cause how quickly and sent people after them, usually in groups. The exception was Demento. Since Tiger was strongly resistant to the mentalist's powers and Demento was physically a normal human, he figured just Tiger would probably be enough.

"Template, you Fargo and Arizona go after Dogpile, Deadlock and Scurry. Magni, Fireburst, Sculpy, after Succor and TrainBust. The rest of you, stay here and help make sure none of these get loose."

* * *

Within minutes, Template, Fargo and Arizona had returned with their three targets; they were immediately sent after Thud, who had gotten past Colossa and Sizematic and was battering at the doors of the Capital. The second trio also quickly captured their assigned pair of targets. Almost all those who had attacked them were soon being securely held, there on the Mall. One of the few exceptions was Demento.

"Shouldn't have taken Tiger that long to find and subdue him," said the Black Mask, starting to worry. "Unless he ran into someone else..."

That appeared to be the case, a few minutes later, when Tiger returned alone to the group. He looked considerably the worse for wear, his combat suit heavily damaged.

"Wow," said Rapscallion. "You look horrible."

"I just took a house to the face," said Tiger, sourly. "Constantine showed up and decided he didn't want me capturing Demento. He owes that guy a lot, remember. He also really doesn't like me."

"Constantine!" said the Black Mask, startled. "It's... not like him to become involved in something like this."

"Unless he's decided to take advantage of the confusion," said Bowman. "He could get rid of a bunch of super criminals and super heroes who have given him trouble in one operation."

They needed time to finish subduing the few remaining attackers in the area, and more time to arrange pickup. Only then, in groups of no fewer than three, did they begin the search.

Template, Magni and Tiger found Constantine. He was standing in the Lincoln Memorial, starting up at that face. That noble, tortured face. The heroes stumbled to a halt, as much because of that wonderful sculpture as because Constantine simply wasn't... doing anything. After a moment of mutual silence, he turned calmly towards them, the cape of his elegant, archaic costume flaring with the motion.

"You will have no more trouble from me today," he said, quietly.

Then he simply vanished.

* * *

Ironically, word that Constantine had been sighted made their work easier. Few villains wanted to tangle with him, and his disdain for them was not only well known but had been personally experienced by some of the attackers. That, plus the quick and effective defense quickly routed the attackers, even though only a quarter were actually captured.

The defenders were sent in shifts to a half dozen locations to rest and stand ready, in case the lull in the attack was merely a regrouping. There they caught the tail end of the inauguration. Though arranged in a hurry - and held inside at a location announced only minutes ahead of time due to the attack - it had not been rushed. The crowded assembly of politicians, newspeople and general public broke out in a heartfelt cheer when it was completed.

Hours later, with no further sign of attack, people finally began to relax. Their celebration was tempered by the news that seventeen fatalities had been caused by the attack, half of them civilians.

"It's so good to hear a different name after President," said Rapscallion putting his feet on the table and crossing his ankles, as they watched a replay of the inauguration on the evening news. He made a mock toast with his energy drink. "And thus we bid goodbye to Thurlin!"

"Feet on the floor!" said Colossa.

"Okay, okay," said her cousin, resignedly.

"I think he got off too easy," said Tiger, almost growling.

"Notice there was no mention of amnesty or pardon of Thurlin in Gould's acceptance speech," said the Black Mask. "That surprised me. You would think Thurlin would have insisted on that."

They were in a local meeting room at a large hotel, rented by the Black Mask. He claimed the owner was a mask sympathizer, and so far their treatment by the establishment supported this. There was no press, and a sagging table at one end of the conference room carried a rather plush buffet. Many of those who had come to Washington to defend it were staying here, as well, most of them too tired - or busy celebrating - to bother with getting out of costume.

"So there could be lawsuits and prison time in the future for Thurlin," said Colossa, sounding only a bit satisfied.

"Well, people got killed because of him, but it's not like he ordered their deaths," said the Night Master. He shrugged. "Thurlin had people arrested illegally, but he didn't have them them held secretly in camps and tortured. In a way, we got off easy. It could have been a lot worse."

"It likely would have been, if he'd stayed in charge," said Rapscallion, pointedly.

* * *

The next morning the assembled masks dispersed in their various directions. Joining them were many of those who had been held on Thurlin's orders. There was no sham of "pardons" for them. Gould stated, flatly, in his first official act as President, that their arrests had been illegal. Further, he said that the government agencies responsible would make restitution, and the individuals who had carried out the illegal orders held responsible.

Among all this good news, Template approached her appointment with the Intrepids' team doctor with a great deal of anxiety.

In the surprisingly ordinary-looking office Template sat a bit timidly in the chair across from Dr. Whiskers' desk.

"I knew already that your neurotransmitter balance was a little off from earlier tests," said the feline medico, after a bit of preliminary. "Your psychological tests were within limits, so that didn't worry me. However, I now believe that the disdain you occasionally show for normals, the ruthlessness you exhibit in fights - perhaps a few other traits - all come from one or more of the villains you included in the template you used for that form."

"Wait... You mean... I'm crazy?!" said Template, alarmed.

"No. The effect is, rather, a slight reduction of inhibitions."

"Oh," said Template, startled, as several things occurred to her. "Jumping into the hero life. Posing for that charity calendar. Mouthing off to authority figures. Yeah."

"Medication is neither advised nor necessary, in my educated opinion. Being aware of the condition, plus counseling, should be sufficient."

Template nodded, slowly.

"That's... good news. Though I also have to wonder if some of this comes from my own family."

"Possible but unlikely. Anyway, I have the details here. Feel free to consult a super geneticist if you need more information."

"You're pretty much the top super geneticist on this world," said Template, wryly. She stood. "Oh, well; thank you. I'll be in touch."

"Meanwhile, the reduction in anxiety caused by the change in the political situation should help."

"With a lot of things," said Template, as she looked back from the doorway.

* * *

That's it for Masks VI! Will try to start Masks VII on Monday.

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