Lori and Darlene sat down to afternoon dim sum at the Dragon Pearl, the largest restaurant in Chinatown. Smiling waitresses wheeled heavy metal carts up and down the aisles, each steaming with a bewildering variety of treats: steamed dumplings, noodles, soups, fried delicacies.
Darlene looked at everything with amazement. She'd clearly never eaten dim sum before. "What's that?" she kept asking. "And that? And that?" Lori finally warned her off when over a dozen dishes had accumulated in front of her. "You don't have to pick everything they recommend, you know," she said gently. "You'd need a very big stomach. There's hundreds of dishes on the menu."
"Oh, but I want to try them all," Darlene said aplomb.
Lori laughed. "Well, I don't think you'd like the deep-fried chicken feet."
"Chicken feet? Yuck!"
"Relax," Lori said, nodding at a waitress to give her a dish of eggrolls. "They haven't brought them out yet."
As she hoped, the meal gave them time to relax and get to now each other. She found out the Fem-Fantastique team operated in a way very similar to her own, save their equipment was more high-tech. Besides Darlene, there were four others: Flamestar, Shadow Lady, the Crimson Sorceress, and Transparency Girl. Darlene had received her superhuman strength and stamina on a space flight with Transparency Girl.
"You mean you were on the space shuttle together?" Lori asked.
"Well, no, it was a bit more complicated," Darlene said evasively, nibbling on a barbecued rib. "Anyway, we made a good team. We all enjoyed working together. Until recently, that is..."
"Oh, what happened?" Lori said.
"It all began three years ago, when we came into contact with a race of reptilian aliens called the Mok'tn." She lowered her voice, though the many different languages around them--Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean--insured that the other diners wouldn't understand the fantastic things they were talking about. "Think of the creature from the black lagoon crossed with a spitting cobra on a three-day bender, and you have the Mok'tn. They had a device called the molecular transformer with them that allowed them to transmute any substance into any other substance, including living matter. They used it on us," she said matter-of-factly. "Shadow Lady got turned into a platinum statue."
"Sounds horrible," Lori said, imagining what it felt like to have her body instantaneously transformed into metal.
"Actually--no," Darlene said with a secret smile. "But we--I-- didn't find that out until later. Eventually we got away from them, taking the device with us back to earth. We kept it at HQ to study, thinking we'd eventually be able to duplicate it. Imagine all the good a device like that could do. We discovered that it operated by thought waves, and that the interspecial differences between human and Mok'tn were not too great for a human to learn how to use it. But we never completely understood how it worked. "
"A device like that could be very dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands," Lori remarked.
"That's what we found out later," Darlene said ruefully. "I don't know why we were so naive in thinking we could protect such a thing from ever being used for evil."
"Do you think it could help Cinnabar?" Lori asked.
"I don't know; that's why I'm here. The device could works on a different principle than Plastica's chemical-based formulas, but they may be similar on a molecular level. We'll have to do some experimenting."
Relieved, Lori poured herself another cup of tea; there was some hope after all. "You said that you've had some trouble working with your team?"
"Yes," Darlene said. She glanced down at her placemat, which held a design depicting the creatures of the Chinese zodiac. "About six months ago, I began to...well, realize that I was gay, or bisexual. Working with my friends and living with them the way we did made it very hard for me to hide it. They were all straight, they had no idea what was going on with me. That was the first bombshell. There was another. " She paused.
"In the Fem-Fantastique team we've fought more than our fair share of villains who, like Plastica, are...fetishists, for want of a better word, about transforming people into stone or gold or other substances. In the course of fighting against them we were frequently transformed, and I...oh, this is so hard to admit...I found I enjoyed it. I began to use the Mok'tn transforming device to do it in private."
Lori gasped at the private revelation. That someone could actually enjoy what Plastica did to her victims surprised her so much she forgot to curb her shock. "Why?"
A crooked grin appeared on Darlene's face. "Well, because it's arousing. You become the ultimate sex toy. Touching yourself, then freezing yourself just before you reach orgasm...it's fun, imagining what you look like in that position, imagining what other people would think if they saw you." Lori blushed. "Oh, come on. You have a cute boyfriend. Haven't you ever posed for him, pretended you were a lingerie model or whatever? The principle is the same."
"I guess," stammered Lori.
"Each substance had its own flavor," Darlene continued. "Gold makes you feel heavy and sensual and languorous, while marble is smooth to the touch, but hard and cold. Chrome is high-tech and wickedly sexy. Ice and crystal are beautiful, but so fragile. One push, and you shatter into a million pieces." She shook her head, sending her dark curls flying. "Yes...that was part of the appeal too, the vulnerability and danger gave me an *incredible* adrenaline rush. I became addicted to the device. One of my teammates had a younger sister who found out about my experimentation. We began to use it together, and became lovers. Around this time the Mok'tn came back into the picture. They wanted their invention back and they wanted revenge on Fem- Fantastique."
Her voice became even lower, as if whatever she was going to say would pain her incredibly. "The Mok'tn made an alliance with a villain called Electron who wanted a personal revenge on *me,* and together they pooled their technology. They turned me into a human transformation device who was mind-controlled to obey them completely." She made a choppy motion with her hand. "Sue, Dee, Wanda, Angie--they were all gone. I turned them into statues with my touch...by making love to them on the command of my captors."
For the second time Lori gasped.
"I've never forgiven myself for that, that...that my secret desires would be brought out into the open, that I would put my friends in such danger because of them," Darlene continued quietly. "After I transformed them the Mok'tn ordered me to make love to myself. I couldn't resist. I became a white plaster statue and the Mok'tn took my friends away with them in their spaceship...after destroying their transformation device to make sure we would remain statues for eternity.
"That adventure cut very close for us. If Tiff and Artie hadn't managed to fix the transformation device I'd still be plaster and the others would be decorating a Mok'tn trophy chamber back on their homeworld.
"But Tiff and Artie were able to transform me back, and together we went to the Mok'tn moonbase to rescue the others. We blew up the place and escaped by the skin of our teeth. Everyone came out of it unharmed...except for me. The effects of my Mok'tn enslavement turned out to be permanent, and it soon became clear I had no control over the power."
Darlene's voice broke, and she momentarily covered her face with her hands. "Even since then, I don't dare have a sexual thought, for fear of what I'll do to my partner. And while we still had the safety net of the Mok'tn device we couldn't rely on it completely, because what if it malfunctioned or was taken away? I could turn someone into plaster or...or...vanilla fudge and they could stay that way forever.
"It was my own decision to take a sabbatical from the team, because I felt I was a danger, to both to myself and to others. I felt incredible guilt that my weird addiction had gotten so out of control, even if it hadn't been my fault. What if someone found a way to control me again and forced me to turn everyone I cared about into statues?
"The only way I can live a halfway normal life is to take a drug called Xangine--it's a sort of anti-Viagra--that keeps me from getting aroused and accidentally transforming things, but it makes everything feel so flat and lifeless. I used to be such a sensual person, I had a high sex drive, but now I feel like a drone." She wearily rubbed her eyes. "Sue suggested that I help you as a form of therapy, and I agreed. No one knows as much about these villains or their devices than I do--from *both* sides."
Lori found herself touched by Darlene's courage and honesty. "I'm glad you decided to help us," she said. "I know it must have been a hard decision, being as you have such painful memories about it."
"That's why I want to see Plastica put away," Darlene said. "I don't want what happened to me and my friends happen to anyone else." She drained the last of her tea. "You know, some fantasies are better off staying fantasy."
It was almost midnight when they unloaded the trucks. The new mannequins made two neat rows across the factory floor, one of women, the other of men. Plastica found herself admiring the male mannequins. There'd been some real studs in that batch.
Bet they'd look great bronzed, she mused. Like Greek statues. She'd been experimenting with different finishes lately, displaying some of her gilded and pearlized creations in a Santa Monica art gallery, which had been more than happy to take them. If they sold, they'd bring her ten times as much as a normal mannequin would. Perhaps she was in the wrong line of work.
She turned her attention to the Chrystar mannequin, which she had placed in the center of the floor. Iza, Phanxine, and Tiger had gone back to the agency to clean it out, giving her the privacy to play with her newest prize. She moved Chrystar's left leg forward and placed one hand on her hip, then bent her slightly forward at the waist in a classic 'come hither' pose. She then placed Chrystar's other hand on the back of her neck so her arm was bent.
"Perfect," she chuckled. She walked around the nude superheroine, assuring herself the pose looked good from all angles, then tapped her fingernail against one of those massive tits. "Now, what finish shall I spray you? This requires thought." She had treated both Xenon and Blue Cymbidium as puns on their identities: Xenon posed in the shape of an X, Blue Cymbidium painted blue. Chrystar deserved no less. "I know. A clear acrylic lacquer with glitter in it." She turned her back to mix the paint.
"I don't think so."
Plastica froze, then turned to see what she thought was a lifeless mannequin come to life and walk toward her, the even pink tone of her plastic flesh slowly fading until she was nearly transparent, and hard as the diamond of her namesake.
"How--?" Plastica blurted.
"Your gas didn't work on me because I turned *myself* into a mannequin," the superheroine said. "With practice, I can imitate other substances than crystalline ones."
There was a gun lying on the paint table. Plastica grabbed it and fired.
"Ouch. Ouch. Ouch," Chrystar said, grinning, as the bullets flattened themselves on her torso and pinged to the floor. "Come on, Plastica. You can do better than that."
Plastica threw a canister of smoke gas in the superheroine's path, hoping to blind her enough for her getaway, and ran. Though Plastica was no weakling when it came to fighting, she knew she would never prevail against a solid diamond. How could she have been so stupid! Now all her plans would come to nothing. She had her secret gas, but against someone who had their own way of transforming themselves, it was no use at all.
Her heels clicked on the concrete as she ran, a staccato pace that was soon followed by the heavier thuds of Chrystar's feet. "I want your formulas, Plastica," Chrystar shouted. "Including the one to break down the cube you trapped Cinnabar in. You're going to turn all those people back to normal, and Xenon and Blue Cymbidium too!"
Like hell I will, Plastica thought. She'd never even made an antidote, though she supposed she could if she set her mind to it. She kicked the open the double doors that led to her lab. A desperate plan took hold in her mind.
A bank of computers lined one wall, set five feet above the floor on a metal platform. Plastica bounded up the stairs and posed herself by the keyboard as Chrystar burst into the room.
"Stop!" Plastica shouted. "I have the antidotes right here." She tapped the computer. "They're all yours--*if* Team Paragons guarantees me immunity."
Chystar folded her arms. She was a startling, alien sight in the lab's powerful worklights, which gleamed marvelously off her bald head and melon-sized breasts. "No way," she laughed. "Who do you think we are?"
"Then I'm going to erase them," Plastica said, moving her hand towards the keyboard.
Chrystar reacted with superhuman speed, taking the direct route across the laboratory floor---which cut across a sun-shaped silver plate embedded in the tiles.
The mechanism reacted with blinding speed. Steel rang out as the metal plates sprang out of the floor and clashed together, forming a many-sided pyramid that trapped the superheroine inside. There was a loud hiss, then the plates unfolded like the petals of a flower, revealing a multifaceted crystal that sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow.
The process was a faster and more sophisticated one than the one that trapped Cinnabar, but the chrysteel medium was the same. Chrystar had been entombed in mid-stride, an action pose that showed off her body to good advantage. Her face was determined, her arms pumping like a runner's as she sprinted ahead on the toes of one foot, her other leg raised before her. Being nearly transparent herself she was only visible at certain angles, which added an intriguing element of hide-and-seek to the piece. It was the perfect complement to her name and nature.
Nice, Plastica thought as she finished her inspection. Chrystar may have been invulnerable as a diamond, but trapped *inside* a diamond-hard prism-shaped prison, she was helpless.
She went to fetch a forklift, adding another check to the mental talley in her head. Team Paragon: Three down, two to go.
And one to reclaim.
Allison didn't know what to expect from talking to Cosmic Girl on the phone, but Cosmic Girl in person wasn't it. Darlene was younger than she thought and looked more like a co-ed than a hardened crimefighter. She wore a short dress with a tight spandex t-shirt underneath and a pair of black vinyl platform shoes that only lengthened her long, tanned legs. She was bubbly and enthusiastic about settling in and putting her things away, but when she saw what had been done to Cinnabar she grew very quiet.
"You've put her in a stasis field?" she said. She reached out her hand as if she wanted to touch the shimmering bands, but drew it back at the last minute.
"ALOSH--the American League of Superheroes--lent it to us," Allison said. "We had to use it. It's the only way to keep her alive."
Lori lifted the sheet from the Aubrey mannequin. She had dressed the unfortunate model in an old leotard of hers and sat her in a chair, not wanting to humiliate her by keeping her on the stand, though Allison knew Aubrey was beyond caring what anyone thought of her. "Plastica zapped her three days ago," Lori said. "We rescued her from the display floor, but we couldn't analyze this kind of plastic either."
"This looks like a job for Artie," Darlene said. She opened the heavy crate she had brought in with her.
"Ar-what?" Allison said.
"Artie," Darlene repeated. She lifted a child-sized robot from the foam cradle. "Or RT-10, rather. Our robot assistant."
The little droid looked like a cross between a turtle and a crab, with two optic lenses at the end of a flexible gooseneck. They were covered by metal shades that flicked up and down, making them look disconcertingly like eyes with eyelashes. "Good- afternoon-mistress. What-would-you-like-me-to-do-for-you?"
"What's he saying?" Lori said.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Darlene said. "We're used to him talking this way." She flipped a switch on the robot's back. "There, is that better?"
"Thank you mistress," Artie said in a more normal tone.
"He also acts as a portable chem lab," Darlene said. "Do you have a sample of the material?"
Allison gave her a piece of the plastic Dr. C'sungh had managed to chip off the cube, and Lori pared off a thin shaving from the sole of Aubrey's foot, where the skin was the thickest. Darlene fed them both into a slot in Artie's back. "This will take a few hours. In the meantime, can he borrow one of your phone jacks? He'll have to swap information with our main computer and database on the east coast. We have an alien molecular transformation device there--long story, I'll tell you later--that may be of use in unplastifying your friends."
They made the necessary connections, then there was nothing to do but wait.
Lori excused herself and went back into the apartment to answer the phone. Allison knew she was probably talking to that boyfriend of hers. Indeed, a few minutes later she came back with a dress and makeup on, mentioning something about a movie. Allison let her go. There wasn't anything more she could do here, and she was young enough that she needed the diversion, the same way a growing young shoot needed lots of rain.
The thought reminded her of Blue Cymbidium. Where was she? Noelani still hadn't called in, and the calls to her apartment went unanswered. "Lori didn't have any news about Blue Cee, did she?" Allison asked, wishing she had asked her teammate about it earlier.
"No," Darlene said, engrossed in a printout that was now spooling out of Artie's back. She looked up. "You really care about your teammates, don't you?"
"The same way you do, I'm sure," Allison said.
"Yes," Darlene said, looking down and biting her lip. "Especially Tiff. Heatwave. We were, um, lovers," she added, her shoulders hunching as if she thought Allison was going to deride her.
But Allison only laughed. "Why are you so embarrassed?"
"I--I'm not embarrassed," Darlene said, her blush betraying her. "Our teammates don't know about it, that's all. We were trying to keep it a secret."
"Because--?" Allison said, arching an eyebrow.
"You know," Darlene said helplessly. "Come on, we all live together!"
"Cinnabar and I were lovers," Allison said. "The Team thought no less of us."
Darlene looked very surprised. Allison guessed that the girl thought she didn't fit the lesbian--or rather bisexual--mold. But then neither did she. "Of course, we don;t live together," she said with a laugh. "And in no way did we let it affect our performance on the team."
"That was my problem," Darlene muttered. "What happened? Are you still--?"
"No," Allison said, though she couldn't keep a note of sadness out of her voice. "We both we decided we preferred men, and ended it. Though, to be frank, I was hoping it would go on for a few more months than it did. It happened three years ago, after Cinn nearly died in a rough mission we'd had. It was her way of seeking reassurance, I guess. The Team would tease us about it sometimes. But they couldn't say anything more, because we kept our private lives private."
"Wow," Darlene said.
"So my advice is, you may want to move out." A red light began to blink on Artie's back. "What's that?"
"It means the analysis is done." They both turned to the monitors to see the results.
To be continued...
Continue on to "Paragon vs. Plastica, Chapter 10: Trapped"
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