This is a test of the waters for a new project. It is not part of the Masks series, but inspired by the tabletop RPG I'm currently in. The next post will give some background information.
The Angel of Chicago
Part One: A Model of Civil Disobedience
Crunch had learned to ignore the cameras, which meant the censors for the reality show he was in (which he thought of as his reality show) had a lot more work to do when he was talking. Some - Crunch included - saw this as part of the source of the show's success. As with Jelly's frequent exhibitionism, many people tuned in just in case the censors missed something. However, for this event, here, today, he had been reminded firmly and often that some of the content was going out live and to watch his mouth. That only added to his bad humor, but he minded his manners. As one of the top empowered reality TV show celebrities for more than four years he was a seasoned professional. When he thought to act like it.
The Green Room at the theater hosting the ERTA event was currently very crowded, which had the hosts both concerned and actively working to reduce tensions. Nearly half the people in it were wearing costumes of various styles. As was common when many people are in a small space the air was filled with sounds - from voices, movement and devices - and odors. There was perfume and cologne and deodorant and expensive food and even a touch of pipe tobacco from somewhere. Fortunately, most of both the sounds and scents were pleasant and largely subdued. Even the mood was less boisterous than some might have expected. Crunch had been told by someone that the hosts put scents in the air to help people relax. Which was especially important when some of those people could level a building on a whim.
Crunch roamed the crowded room, meeting and greeting and snacking on the expensive treats laid out by their hosts, fulfilling his role of experienced campaigner. He did tend to talk too much, and occasionally act more friendly with someone than their actual relationship warranted. Some thought he was covering nervousness, but he was actually covering irritation.
After winning the top award four years in a row, he had been told that some people - meaning his bosses - wanted someone new this time. So, he'd been given the job of MC, and was supposed to play up passing the torch to "new talent." Though he and his agent - mostly his agent - had been savvy enough to only do this after renegotiating his contract, giving him a solid five more years on the show. That hadn't been difficult to arrange. So far, he'd been one of the most popular members of the cast for the entire eight years it had been on, and continued to be a favorite of both fans and critics.
Crunch wasn't just aimlessly wandering; he was sizing up the competition, and for far more than this award presentation. Most of those here were from rival shows - even rival networks - various empowered and their handlers. He'd been in serious fights with some of these people, but tonight they were on neutral ground. Also, as the MC he needed to at least look like he was in charge and impartial. He made jokes and dispensed words of encouragement and occasional advice based on his own experience. Even when what he had learned was the wrong lesson.
"How's it goin'?" said Bolter, nervously presenting a camaraderie with the older empowered which Crunch didn't like. The kid hadn't been around long enough to have earned that familiarity, even though he was on the same show as Crunch.
"Oh, just the usual chaos and confusion," said Crunch, with a fake smile and carefully rehearsed mild response. "No need to start worrying until it descends into total panic. Which it probably will about ten minutes to air time."
That was more for the cameras than to calm Bolter. As far as Crunch was concerned the little shit could wet himself on stage and run off crying.
Realizing he was getting worked up again, Crunch took several deep breaths and felt better. Maybe there was something to that pheromone stuff.
Deciding to take a break, he walked out of the Green Room and into the hallway, walking a bit before turning left towards the stage. There, at the end of this second, narrower hall someone had placed mirrors on both walls. This allowed people to make a quick, final check all around before going out. Crunch smiled in satisfaction at his multiple reflections, confirming that his tastefully colorful outfit and hair were perfect, from every viewpoint.
Then, four reflections back, someone leaned out and waved. A pale, androgynous figure with perfectly ridiculous hair, in an outrageously colorful outfit.
* * *
Blackpool didn't like these affairs, his reasons actually including some overlap with the reasons Crunch didn't, despite having a very different attitude in regard to such events. In his case, however, participation was a requirement to maintain his certification as an empowered security professional. Still, he was a professional - in more than one field - and took these shows seriously. He'd never won any of the awards - had never wanted to, had rarely even been eligible - but was there partly for show, partly for the show and partly as extra security.
Just now he was checking the podium where it stood in the wings, ready for deployment. Twice in the show's history someone had pulled a "prank" which involved placing something "dramatic" in the podium. Both times the device had been found. The second time it had been potentially lethal. Satisfied that for now, at least, it was just an empty stand of metal and hardwood, Blackpool headed for the security station.
"Hey, Blackpool," said Daedalus, as the shadowy empowered walked by him. "Come take a look at something."
"What?" said Blackpool, curious, as he moved beside where Daedalus was peeking around the edge of the curtains at the house.
"Look at the back of the theater and tell me if you see something... odd."
He moved aside and Blackpool took his place. The younger man scanned the nearly-full theater, looking for trouble, paying particular attention to the far wall. He noticed something potentially very troubling there.
"Damn," he hissed, quickly letting the curtain close and hurrying away.
"Is that who I think it is?" said Daedalus, at the back of the exiting empowered. He got no answer.
Quickly, Blackpool headed towards the security station in the wings, going around or pushing past multiple people, some of whom called angrily after him in protest. Blackpool ignored them, and went directly to Empowered Agent Sturgis, whom he had worked with before, both on these shows and otherwise.
"Malak is at the rear of the theater," he said, without preamble, while he was still approaching.
"Are you sure?" said Sturgis, startled.
"How many people with thirty-foot wingspans are there?"
"He hates these things!"
"Yes. It's definitely him, though. He's invisible, plastered wings and all against the back wall to keep out of the way. It's definitely him."
"All right," said Sturgis, after a moment of hard thinking. "Are you on good terms with him?"
"Okay. Go... ask him what his intentions are."
Blackpool nodded. He turned, stepped into a shadow, and stepped back out in a corner at the rear of the theater. Quietly, he moved towards the bewinged man.
"Hello, Blackpool," said Malak, not looking around, eyes not even open, his deep voice quiet.
The crimefighter was not surprised Malak had spotted him; he wasn't being particularly stealthy, and the grey-winged pseudo-angel could analyze ambient sound to detect movement and the presence of objects. That came in useful when flying through the infamous fogs in his home town of Chicago.
"What are you doing here?"
"I have been tracking Mannequin for three days," said Malak. "I lost the trail on the outskirts of New York city, but this is the most likely destination."
"I understand," said Blackpool, nodding. He glanced around. No-one in the audience seemed to have spotted either of them yet. He wanted to keep it that way. "I'll notify security. If Mannequin does cause trouble, please let us handle it."
"No promises," said Malak, his tone serious. "Mannequin needs help, not prison. I also doubt normal security can handle Mannequin; even empowered LEO have difficulty. However, I'll give you first crack. If any of those idiots in the 'reality' programs get involved, though..."
"I understand," said Blackpool, again.
Policy required him to tell Malak firmly to leave here and let the professionals handle things. With a bit of amusement he didn't show, Blackpool realized Malak probably didn't even have a ticket. However, he had a good idea of what Mannequin could do, and realized that despite policy having Malak standing by to help was probably a good thing. Despite the winged man's official status.
Malak was a rogue; had been for decades. However, the government tolerated him, partly because he could handle people like Mannequin. Sometimes through sheer force of personality. That charisma being another reason he was allowed to act without official supervision, despite multiple laws prohibiting the empowered from using their powers outside of government oversight.
Blackpool again stepped into the shadows and back out at the security station... and into chaos.
"Damn it, Crunch!" one of the show's managers was yelling at the huge man. "You put your fist right through the wall! An expensive mirror broken, glass to clean up, we're just lucky the audience didn't hear it! Just because you've got a case of nerves!"
Blackpool was glad he was already at the security station. The hallway was crowded with costumed figures, uniformed security, plainclothes Empowered Agency personnel and theater staff. Some were frightened, some were amused, some were confused, but the most worrying were those who seemed eager. Too many empowered enjoyed brawling, and all the tournaments and staged fights the government and networks arranged weren't enough for them.
"I know what I saw!" yelled Crunch, whirling around, his clenched fists in ready position. People who were already giving the large empowered a wide berth reflexively crowded back against those a bit further away.
"Mannequin," said Blackpool.
There was a startled silence.
"Yes! In the mirror!"
"Malak warned me Mannequin might be targeting the ceremony."
"Oh, great," said Crunch, raising his fists and eyes to the heavens as he roared. "Two of those freaks here!"
Blackpool turned towards agent Sturgis.
"Notify security. Put everyone on alert. I mean everyone!"
Meanwhile, the show must go on. Crunch's handlers got him calmed. There were no other reports of Mannequin, though that meant nothing. Like many empowered, Mannequin generally went unnoticed until taking blatant action.
With the audience none the wiser the preparations continued. The network connections were confirmed, cameras and microphones checked, the theater's PA system tested. All was ready.
The lights in the auditorium went down, and those on the stage came up. The audience quieted. There was a palpable air of anticipation. The curtain rose on the opening act, which consisted of a song and dance man backed by shapely women in costumes far more revealing than anything worn by licensed empowered. The number concluded and the curtain lowered. A moment later it rose again; now the podium for the Master of Ceremonies was front and center. There was a drumroll. An unseen announcer spoke.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present the thirteenth annual Empowered Reality Television Awards!"
Applause and cheers broke out as the band struck up the lightweight if energetic theme of the show.
"Our hose tonight is the legendary Cruncher!"
Few seemed to notice the two small mistakes in that announcement. A spotlight hit stage right. Waving and smiling, Crunch strolled out, his dress cape streaming behind him, his outfit glittering, the spotlight following.
The band resumed playing. The number was now supposed to be Crunch's theme. However, what came out was "The Stripper." People started tittering. Crunch made it all the way to the podium before he seemed to notice. He stood there, looking confused as the song played out.
"Yes, vaudeville has come a long way since the era of the classic stripper," said the voice, now taking on parodic tone. "Today's performers prostitute themselves in entirely new ways!"
"Mannequin!" screamed Crunch, the podium shattering under his hands. "I'll rip off your fucking head and stuff it up your scrawny ass!!!"
He looked around frantically, trying to find his quarry. Crunch heard someone backstage yelling something about the production booth, which he recalled was high up at the rear of the auditorium. Swerving his gaze to the windows up there, he saw activity. He had no way of knowing whether it was normal operations or not, but threw himself at the booth anyway.
* * *
"The director's booth isn't responding!" yelled Sturgis.
"I'm on it," said Blackpool, lunging for a shadow.
He came out in the booth, and immediately stopped breathing. Because everyone there was unconscious. Mannequin sometimes used a mostly harmless anesthetic gas, so he had a good idea why the men and women in the booth were out. The door to the hallway - normally locked and guarded - was open, the guard nowhere to be seen. Blackpool lunged out of the booth, still not breathing.
He hadn't gone far when he heard what sounded like an explosion behind him. Glancing back he saw Crunch had crashed through the heavy windows into the small space Blackpool had just vacated. Blackpool winced, and hoped the idiot hadn't killed anyone.
Returning his gaze to the direction he was running, Blackpool saw a fleeing figure. The person at first looked like one of the theater guards, but the uniform they were wearing shifted into the colors of Mannequin's outfit. Deciding it was safe to breathe again, Blackpool restarted and poured on the speed.
Mannequin looked back, grinned and made Curly Howard noises. Then began pulling away. Blackpool began searching for a shadow connection, in vain. However, ahead of Mannequin a gray wall swept across the corridor, blocking it. As the odd empowered slid to a frantic stop, another gray wall cut off the his retreat; the portion of the hallway between Blackpool and Mannequin.
Blackpool likewise stopped. The grey barricade of feathers came through the wall on the left, completely blocked the narrow hall and went out through the wall to the right. Blackpool had seen this before, and couldn't help but marvel at the control Malak had to make solid just the portions of his wings actually in the open, while keeping the rest of himself dematerialized.
Mannequin also knew what this was, and was starting to worry. A bit.
* * *
Back in the booth Crunch was just realizing that none of the people there were moving, even though some were obviously bleeding.
"Mannequin!" he shouted, certain the freak had murdered them.
He took a deep breath, the better to curse his prey, and lunged for the door. Crunch started feeling a bit dizzy as he ran, but ignored the sensation, too angry to be analytical.
Crunch came upon Blackpool, standing before a strange, grey barrier.
"Where is he?!"
Blackpool quickly evaluated the situation and decided to minimize the chance for trouble.
"Assuming you mean Mannequin, gone."
Unfortunately, Crunch was determined to cause trouble. With a howl of rage he slammed his fist against the feathery wall.
* * *
The grey barriers shifted, repositioning as the central part of Malak's body came through the wall. Mannequin started to say something.
Mannequin couldn't move, couldn't speak!
"Georgia, you really need to stop doing this," said Malak, in a sad tone, his voice now its normal deep, resonant baritone. "Not for my sake. Not for the sake of the innocent bystanders. Not even for the sake of those idiots in the ceremony. For your sake."
"I know," said Mannequin, sighing, that paralysis fading. "If I stop, though, who will point out the follies of the fools?"
Malak started to say something, but instead winced at a solid thump from the other side of his right wing.
"The natives are getting restless. Will you come with me to get help?"
Mannequin hesitated. There was another thump, and another wince.
"Okay!" said Mannequin, quickly. "Yes, I'll go with you!"
Malak curled his wings in and around himself and Mannequin, and the pair vanished.
"Hah! Got that done!" shouted Crunch, as the grey barricade curled up and disappeared, leaving only a few stray feathers he had knocked loose to float to the floor. "Now, where's Mannequin?!"
"Gone, like I said," said Blackpool, relieved to see that was actually true.
Crunch snarled, and marched down the corridor, looking in vain for Mannequin.
On the roof of the theater a strange apparition materialized. Malak opened his wings and let his passenger out. He looked curiously at the strange figure as Mannequin recovered from the disorientation their trip had produced.
"Wow. You could sell tickets for that ride."
"Are you serious about getting help, or did you just say that to get out of there?"
"I..." Mannequin swallowed, the lack of Adam's Apple quite noticeable. Mannequin's head dropped. "I want help. I can't stop! I manage to direct the compulsions in ways that are harmless, but it's getting harder and harder. Sometimes I want to hurt people!"
"All right," said Malak, satisfied, his tone now gentler. "I'll take you to a place which was created to help empowered with problems."
He grimaced, and looked down at the roof. Perhaps seeing through it, if only in his mind's eye. He flexed his right wing.
"Oh, and you're not alone in sometimes wanting to hurt certain people. Now, let's get you to the clinic."
"You're not taking me to your village?" said Mannequin, disappointed.
"That's for ordinary people who need help, and those - normal and empowered - who want to help them," said Malak, firmly. He relented, smiling a bit. "Maybe when you're better you can come to visit. Sanctuary is a nice place, and I'm not saying that just because I helped build it."
"I think I'd like that," said Mannequin, quietly.
"Now, let's get out of here before someone spots us."
He gathered the slim figure in his arms, spread his wings and flew into the night. Once safely high enough the winged shape suddenly burred to the west, and was gone.
* * *
Later, approaching Midnight despite being a time zone to the west of New York, Malak finally reached his home. He slowed to normal flying speed well above the town and spiraled down, at the last moment pulling up, cupping his wings and stalling to a stop with his sandaled feet just off the ground. Despite the late hour there were several people waiting for Malak, though they did not crowd him. Given the room his wings needed, that would have been folly. Some of those waiting had reports and questions about operations of the town; some just wanted to see him, to reassure themselves he had returned and was there for them.
Malak dealt with each group appropriately - in most of the cases putting off decisions about people or equipment or regulations until he could get more data the next day - and bid them all a pleasant good night.
His home - a gift from the citizens more that thirty years before - was modest, but the main entrance was not. The double doors rose high and spread wide to accommodate his wings. Something more symbolic than practical, as were the unusually high ceilings of the entrance hallway and two biggest rooms inside. That symbolism being demonstrated by Malak shifting to his base form once he was alone. The wings retracted, the golden robes became jeans and a flannel shirt, the sandals became athletic shoes. Aaron Labelle sighed, glanced at the mail his assistant had left on the dining room table, and decided to leave all that for tomorrow.
As he walked slowly through his home, making sure it was secure for the night, he noted that it needed cleaning. There was dust on some of the shelves, a bit of debris in a corner of the kitchen, some of the trash was going sour... He made a mental note to find a new housekeeper. The previous one had married and moved out of state over a month ago, and he wasn't able to keep up on his own. That was a success for the town, but a defeat for cleanliness. Given the keenness of his senses that also meant a defeat for him.
A quick shower, a quick meal, and he prepared for bed.
The bed, itself, was another gift, and also huge, taking up most of the floor space in the bedroom. It was the same custom bed and custom mattress which had come with the house. It seemed too large, these days, as it had for all of the nearly twenty years since his wife had died.
Arielle is supposed to visit in a few days, thought Aaron, as he drifted off to sleep. The place will feel more homey then.
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