It was a cool night at the beach where Maria Chavez and Josh Tweed were standing. Maria was wearing a two-piece yellow bikini and had flowing brown hair which reached to her shoulders as well as a natural dark-honey complexion. Josh meanwhile wore simple swimming trunks. “Are you sure this place is safe?” Maria was asking. “You've heard the rumors about this part of town. People have been disappearing.”
“Relax, would you Maria?” replied Josh. “We're the only ones here, and we'll hear anyone who comes up this way. We're as safe here as we are in our own homes.” Maria was not so sure and considered saying something when her mind suddenly became a blank slate. It was at moment that both felt a touch on their backs and then felt no more. Their skin became hard and shiny, their mouths froze and turned solid, their eyes glazed over. They stood there completely immobile. They'd been turned into mannequins.
Cackling with glee, a yellow figure emerged from the shadow underneath the stairs that led to the shore from the parking lot. He looked like a man, but his skin was a bright yellow, he had no hair anywhere on his body, his nails were black, his eyeballs were red and his skull was far too large for that of a normal human. His right arm was also twice the length of his left and gradually shrinking. He wore only a pair of green slacks.
“Hello kiddies,” the man told them, knowing fully well that they could not hear him. “I guess your friends didn't warn you about Mister Mannequin, did they? Then again, by now they're probably all plastic like you are.” Mister Mannequin then stopped speaking and began to admire his latest victims. Maria was in the perfect pose, her right hand on her hip with her left out to the side, the arm bent at the elbow, making it look like she was inquiring about something a bit dramatically.
The villain barely glanced at Josh for a time as he felt Maria's plastic body. “Yes...” he seemed to purr, rubbing his head against her back as his fingers caressed her chest. “You will make a fine addition to my collection, my dear.” He then glanced up at Josh. “Sorry, but I have no desire for men and I don't think I'll need you as a hostage,” he told the new mannequin. Then Mister Mannequin's left hand suddenly grew big enough to wrap around Josh's waist which is promptly did, lifting him up and throwing him into the murky waters.
“Your boyfriend is lucky that mannequins made by me are virtually indestructible,” he told Maria as he stroked her hair, which remained unchanged though it was now a part of a plastic head. “Now I”ll need you to come along with me, as I have some very lovely ladies to introduce you to...”
Not far away in an abandoned warehouse, Mister Mannequin dragged his subject in by her heels and found her a place on the floor. Aside from a few wooden crates and the contents of a small living space the only things covering the floor were mannequins. There was over a dozen of them, all women. Many were merely normal women Mister Mannequin had seen walking home and attacked, most of them frozen with a look of horror or surprise on their face. However, he'd also had the good fortune of capturing two women who were in a heated argument, neither noticing him at all.
“Welcome to your new home Maria,” Mister Mannequin told his newest victim. The young woman was standing next to another motionless woman Mister Mannequin had been most pleased to acquire: Saeko Tachibana. The Asian news reporter who'd been fired from Channel Six for endangering her crew and the loss of her van now worked for the Daily Scoop newspaper and had been hoping to find leads on the disappearing women. She now stood on the floor of the warehouse, reaching out as if trying to turn a doorknob, her skin a sheen of plastic. “It looks like you may finally have some competition for being the prettiest flower in my garden,” Mister Mannequin told Saeko.
* * *
“Great, just great,” muttered Jessica Wendell as she read the paper in the coffee shop. “We've just finished with Fire Eyes and now we have disappearing people in the warehouse district. We know Gorgun was there at one point. I swear, that place is becoming a deathtrap.”
Looking up from her magazine, Victoria Hamilburg frowned. “Do you think it's her again?” she asked her mentor. “We never did find her after she broke out, and it does sound like something she'd do.”
“They've been over that area with a fine-tooth comb,” replied Jessica. “Last time Gorgun went on a rampage we found a few of her victims. This time, nothing. It's too perfect.”
“Maybe Jason or Tick and Tock?” suggested Vicky. She was hoping neither, as she was getting a little sick of all these strange villains they'd encountered.
“Kidnapping doesn't sound like something either one would do,” pointed out Jessica. “Jason wants power, Tick and Tock want chaos. And it certainly isn't Fire Eyes because nothing has been set ablaze. No, I hate to say it, but this has to be someone new.” Sighing, she plopped down the paper and took a sip of her coffee.
Just then Nathan walked over. He'd entered a minute ago and had been ordering. He now had himself a cup of green tea, probably the one thing Jessica about him she found to be unmanly. She knew some men liked tea, but first thing in the morning... “You guys going to investigate those disappearances today?” he asked the two superheroes as he went to sip his drink.
“Naturally,” replied Victoria with a mix of concern and amusement on her face. “Jess was just telling me how that whole area is getting out of hand. At this point we might as well call the National Guard or something.”
“You two had better be careful,” he told them seriously. “Whoever is doing this isn't discriminating based on gender. If you're going to confront someone, don't be direct. Your track record with that has been pretty bad.”
“Don't worry, we're done being that reckless,” Jessica assured him, taking his hand and squeezing it. “We're both going to carry utility belts now, which includes molecular re-alignment devices, tranquilizer guns, and a few devices that should shield us from certain rays. At this point they'll pretty much be left with trying to hit us, and they'll never get close enough to do that.”
“Good to know,” Nathan told Jessica. “Well, don't let me keep you two. I'll swing by Elsa's lab and help monitor the area.”
“Well, Lilly already offered to, but at least now she'll have some help,” Vicky informed her combat instructor. “You think you can handle being around her for a while?”
Suppressing a groan, Nathan shrugged. “I suppose I can,” he muttered. He may have gone out of his way to save the girl once or twice, but he certainly wasn't a fan of her company. While she was generally a good person she still had a bit of a bratty teenager personality left within her and could be extremely annoying when pissed.
The group parted ways and Nathan took his bike over to the lab. When he arrived at the door, however, he was surprised to find Lilly outside. “Why aren't you inside?” he asked the younger woman.
“Elsa hasn't shown up yet,” Lilly explained to Nathan. “She was supposed to get here early, but the parking guy hasn't seen her all morning. The clerk in the lobby offered me a key, but I don't really know how to use anything in there so I decided to just wait.”
Suddenly concerned, Nathan decided to go get that key. It was a good thing the guy at the desk knew them, or they'd of been stuck outside. “We'd better contact Lady Justice and Judgement Girl about this,” he told Lilly upon his return. “I'm not fully versed on everything in there either but I am familiar with a few of her toys. She showed me once how to track a person if their DNA was on file during her genetics machine in combination with the radio node.”
Minutes later Lilly and Nathan were in front of one of the lab's terminals as Nathan tried desperately to find the program he needed. “I know she had it set so you just needed to pick a person then his the scan command,” he muttered as he searched the files. “Dammit, she really needs to quick-link more programs.” Upon finding the program he ran it. Fortunately Elsa had kept her DNA on record. “Call them,” he told Lilly.
A minute later the program finished the scan. Nathan's eyes went wide when he saw where Elsa's signal was coming from. “Wow, it's faint,” he commented as he turned to look at Lilly. “Tell them she's in the warehouse district. It looks like the one at the end of the row in the condemned section. The city map labeled it as number 14.” Lilly nodded and relayed the information into the phone.
“Why is the signal so weak?” the young woman asked after ending the call. “I saw her run this before as well and the signal was much stronger. What does it mean?”
“Something bad,” Nathan muttered, standing. “I hope you don't mind riding on the back of a bike, because something tells me they're going to need our help.”
* * *
“Why would Elsa be around here?” asked Judgement Girl as Lady Justice pulled the SUV into a parking spot.
Lady Justice glanced at Judgement Girl with surprise. “Isn't it obvious?” she said to her sidekick. “Whoever the hell is doing this nabbed her too! While I'm grateful that it helped us find whoever is behind this, she's still in danger. After this I'm going to find out why the heck the police failed to check this place earlier.”
Grabbing their belts, the two superheroes exited their vehicle and headed towards the warehouse. It seemed quiet enough, but both saw a small glimmer of light through the boards that covered the window. The building wasn't even supposed to have electricity for one thing, and even if it did there was no logical reason for the lights to be on. Drawing dart pistols, the heroines prepared for trouble and entered the warehouse, carefully sliding open a door rather than breaking in.
The gigantic room was fairly bare except for a few old crates, making it easy to spot what they were looking for. Near the center stood several figures with what looked like a small living area nearby. “I'll check it out, you check around the boxes,” whispered Lady Justice to her partner. The older of the women then proceeded over to where the people were standing, noting all the other homely objects nearby. There was a fridge, a small bed, a microwave, a chair, a box of dishes... Jessica stopped studying the random household items when she got a better look at the figures before her.
There was easily almost two-dozen women before her, all of them mannequins. However, Lady Justice instantly knew there was something wrong, as the detail and expressions on them weren't normal. Most mannequins she'd seen had had neutral facial expressions and obviously-fake hair. She got an even bigger chill when she recognized a couple, including Saeko Tachibana. Then she saw Elsa.
Doctor Louiselle stood not far from a woman in a bikini of a Latin persuasion, her feet spread as if walking her her arms raised in front of her. Her face was a mask of horror and surprise. What disturbed Lady Justice the most was the way her plastic skin and eyes looked like they were all painted on. It was so shocking that she failed to notice the hand that snuck up behind her and touched the back of her neck.
Judgement Girl emerged from the shadows of the warehouse a moment later, having been unable to find anyone save a couple of male mannequins were appeared to have been tossed aside. None were damaged, but Victoria could make little sense of it. She arrived at the center of the room and screamed.
She had expected more mannequins which were no doubt the missing people, but she hadn't expected to see Lady Justice among them. The superhero's back was arched and she was leaning backwards with her arms spread wide, seemingly having been caught by surprise. Her face was neutral save slightly wider eyes. Her skin, eyes, lips, fingernails, eyebrows... all were solid plastic.
“Don't worry, I'll get you out of here!” promised Judgement Girl, risking danger by holstering her gun and moving to pick up her friend. Luckily the heroine's body was much lighter as plastic, so Judgement Girl had no troubles lifting her after tilting her sideways. Making a note of Elsa and few other familiar faces, Victoria started to head for the door.
“Stop you thief!” shouted a voice, causing Judgement Girl to jump and drop Lady Justice, who clattered against the floor but remained in the same pose. Victoria whirled around to see a horrific-looking man before her. Yellow skin, no hair and red eyes, wearing nothing but a pair of pants. Not even Tick and Tock had looked that horrific, as they were tiny. This new threat's lower legs were incredibly long, as was his right forearm. What's more was his head looked twice the size of a normal person as well as three times the length.
“Who are you?!” demanded Judgement Girl as she reached for her gun. However as she brought the weapon up the man's right arm extended even more, his hand slapping her weapon away.
“I am Mister Mannequin!” the man proudly announced. “And you, you are nothing but a thief! As punishment you'll join my collection!” Judgement Girl was expecting the right hand to come at her again, and she was right. But as she jumped backwards the hand's fingers suddenly extended and grazed her arms. By the time Victoria had hit the ground she'd been transformed, surprise on her face with even her now-plastic teeth showing, her legs bent forward, her abdomen backwards and her arms forward.
“Trying to start your own garden, girl?” asked Mister Mannequin as his extended arms reached out and plucked the fallen mannequins. Lady Justice and Judgement Girl were now both helpless before him, neither even aware of what was going on, their minds blank. “You certainly are a naughty little thing. Still, I think you'll find a nice home among my own flowers...”
“God dammit, another freak show?!” growled a new arrival at the doorway. Nathan had arrived, now wearing a pair of brass knuckles and carrying a truncheon in his belt. “Alright you whack-job, lets have it out!”
Placing the two superheroes aside, Mister Mannequin laughed as Nathan rushed forward. “You are not a gardener!” shouted the villain. “You are nothing but a rock which I will use to add variety to my collection of flowers!” Mister Mannequin's arms extended once more and flew at Nathan, the fingers suddenly getting longer in turn as they got close. However, Nathan was ready and struck both hands with his knuckles, causing them to deflect despite the fingers touching his skin.
“Oh ho! Perhaps you're a gardener after all!” exclaimed Mister Mannequin as he was suddenly more interested in the fight. His legs grew longer as he took big step over to get in close proximity of Nathan and lashed out again. This time Nathan failed to stop the second fist and was knocked aside but still managed to grab the other one and pulled, driving Mister Mannequin to the ground. Cackling with glee, Mister Mannequin rose and attacked Nathan once more.
While this was going on, Lilly had snuck into the warehouse as per the plan. It had actually been her suggestion since Nathan had his immunity, and he'd been impressed that she'd come up with it. Armed with a portable molecular restoration device, Lilly quickly set to work restoring those who'd been turned into mannequins. Electricity arched from the tips of the device as she directed it at one cluster of women. Moments later the plastic haze that was covering the skin and eyes of Saeko, Lady Justice, Judgement Girl, Elsa, Maria and a couple of other women faded. All remained frozen for a moment before blinking and looking around in confusion.
Lilly's efforts went unnoticed for a time until Mister Mannequin smashed Nathan into a pile of boxes. This had caused him to turn around and see what was happening behind him. “You thief!” he roared, his arm shooting out towards Lilly. “You shall not take what is rightfully mine!” Unable to move in time, Lilly felt Mister Mannequin's cool touch as she tried to leap aside, her knees bent and her right arm raised with the device in the hand, her face showing signs of worry. Her skin took on the familiar shiny look that showed she too had become little more than a window display, the device dropping from her hand.
Fortunately for those still stuck as mannequins Lady Justice and Judgement Girl had their own devices and were quickly restoring the others. Elsa in turn snatched up Lilly's device and began to use it on everyone. Mister Mannequin frequently tried to strike all those that had been returned to normal, but he was rapidly being out-gunned by the multiple devices and still had Nathan to contend with.
“Curse you, worthy foe!” roared Mister Mannequin as he dodged Nathan's kick and turned the fleeing Maria into a mannequin for the third time, freezing her in typical running pose. “Very well, I can see you have best me. But I shall return when you least expect it and reclaim what I deserve!” Mister Mannequin's arms swung out once again, this time managing to catch Elsa and Judgement Girl on his way to his real target: the microwave. It was torn from the socket and the smashed machine hit the bed, igniting it due to sparks and heat. In an instant the clothes and sheets around the living area went up and would soon spread throughout the warehouse.
Torn between stopping Mister Mannequin and saving the women, Nathan ultimately chose the latter and went to help guide them out while the villain made his exit. Moments later her found himself dragging Judgement Girl from the warehouse as the other crates began to ignite. Others still stuck as mannequins included Lilly, Elsa and Maria, but fortunately enough people had been restored to help get everyone out in time. Still, Nathan was annoyed. “I'll get you yet, you yellow bastard,” he vowed.
* * *
Fearing that the district would continue to house the odd cast of villains that had appeared in the city as of late, the mayor ordered all the abandoned warehouses to be destroyed immediately. Everyone was happy to hear that, as the last thing they needed was a gathering place for all the freaks. By now the last of the missing people had been found, mainly the men taking the longest as Mister Mannequin had left quite a few in curious hiding places. Nathan was just glad no one had died this time.
Of course, as Nathan sat on his bed that night, he still felt torn. He'd once again felt the need to fight a villain and had the ability to do so thanks to his power, but he wasn't sure if that's what he wanted. What he'd come to ultimately realize was he was just protective of those he cared for. It wasn't just Jessica, but Victoria, Elsa and even Lilly to an extent. He felt the need to keep them all safe.
Then came a knock at the door. Curious Nathan got up, left the bedroom, and answered the door. It was Jessica, who was instantly upon him, her lips meeting his as she entered, the door shutting behind them. After a long and passionate moment the two separated, Nathan a bit surprised. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked.
“You've been amazing to me,” she told him softly. “Nathan, I love you. I want to show it to you.” Nathan was a bit surprised to suddenly hear this, but wrapped his arms around her.
“I feel the same way,” he told her. The two kissed once more and slowly but surely headed back into the bedroom.
Continued in Rise of the Machines...