by Cobalt Jade
Cal groaned and tried to sit up. Must've been a helluva party, he thought. His head hurt, his whole body hurt. He was lying on something hard, a scratchy surface rubbing against his cheek. A blanket? God, whose couch did I crash on? Lori's? Jason's? He tried to stretch, his limbs oddly sluggish. I'd better get up before I'm late for soc class...
In a flash he realized he wasn't about to leave for sociology class, he'd been bicycling to sociology class, and just a few minutes before. Before the black girl stepped out in front of him, waving a bottle of soda...
His eyelids sprang open. Before him crouched a bald woman on her hands and knees, her ass thrust up into the air as if she was doing a couch dance. Her eyes were wide and blank, her skin shiny and oddly smooth.
"Holy fu --" He tried to scuttle backwards, falling over on his back. His wrists were handcuffed behind his back... and so were his ankles, the two sets of cuffs connected so he had no chance of standing on his own.
A second figure suddenly loomed over him, replacing the blanket with which he'd been covered. "Hey, I'm just trying to keep you warm," his captor said, shrugging. He had a crest of blonde hair hanging over one eye and the lean, debauched look of an LA club-hopper. "What, you think I was going to molest you?"
Cal stared back at him, not knowing what to say.
"You're right," the other man said with an evil grin. "But you're really not my kind of guy." He detached a small cell phone from a clip on his belt. "Yo, Plastica. He's awake."
Cal inched himself up into a sitting position, realizing that the 'exotic dancer' who had spooked him was nothing more than a mannequin. In fact, the whole place was full of mannequins; he must be in a store fixture warehouse. He noted with disgust that there was a huge blood stain running down the front of his shirt... and that it had come from his nose, which was still caked with the gore. Must've got punched in the face, he thought dazedly. The black girl, the soda. What was it about her. He remembered he'd gone round the back of the van with her to look at the --
I've been kidnapped. The realization rang with awful clarity. His father was a lawyer for the California Department of the Environment; could this be connected to one of his cases? "What am I doing here?" he said, trying to keep his voice steady.
"You'll see," the other man grinned. "Let's just say you're chick-bait."
This sounded even more ominous, though the man had done nothing to hurt him. The mannequins watched him with blank, neutral eyes. They were so eerily lifelike it gave him the chills, as if they were not inventory of the warehouse but fellow prisoners like himself. "Is it my father? Is this your way of getting back at him?"
"What? No," the man said, dismissing him. "I told you to sit tight. You'll see." He turned his head as a series of sharp, staccato sounds came down one of the shadowed aisles. "Hey, Plastica. 'bout time you got here."
"Go suck a lemon, Tiger." Plastica said. Her voice was creamily feminine, but there was a gleeful note of power within it, as if she was used to having people jump to her orders, even the most ridiculous ones. It was also familiar. "Or go suck something else. If you haven't already."
"Ehhh..." Tiger made a rude gesture, but moved out of her way. Plastica moved into the light.
Holy shit! Cal scrabbled back until he hit the wall and could go no further. She was a living travesty, something that shouldn't exist, like that Wildenstein woman who'd had so much plastic surgery she looked like a freak... impossibly tall and lithe, with basketball-sized tits and bee-stung lips the size of banana slugs. And now she was crouching before him, looking him in the eye through her fuchsia-colored bangs. "Well, well, well," she said in a mock-playful voice. "So Lover Boy is finally up. Hello, Romeo. Missing your little blonde girlfriend?"
"How do you know about Lori?" Cal squeaked.
Plastica pursed her inflated lips in a coquettish way. They looked even more freakish, like the collagen was about to split them at the seams. "Awww, poor baby wants to know. Well, since you're so curious, I'll let you know we've been watching you two for quite a while now. For a golden opportunity just like this." She pulled a handgun out of her belt. "Tiger. Get the trap."
Tiger moved off, but Cal couldn't focus on anything except the gun. Don't kill me, don't kill me, he repeated, a silent mantra, as she -- Plastica! -- continued to stare at him, an awful, almost seductive smile on her Barbie doll face. Why was she torturing him -- them -- like this? What were they to her?
Tiger returned with a rodent trap, a captured rat pacing inside. "Watch," Plastica commanded. She aimed the gun through the mesh and squeezed the trigger. A thin stream of pinkish gas hissed out, paralyzing the animal. Unlike a normally tranquilized animal it didn't flop or bend over; it remained as stiff as a dog's rubber chew-toy. Cal shuddered as she flicked the rubbery tail across his cheek. "Plastic," she said. "Forever. Understand?"
Cal shook his head yes.
"The same thing happened to all of them," Plastica said, gesturing at the mannequins. "The same thing will happen to you, if you don't do exactly what I say. Got that?"
She's insane, Cal thought. Completely and utterly off her rocker. But he'd seen what happened to the rat, and then there were the mannequins... each one unique, despite their bald heads and blank faces. They hadn't been cast from the same mold. They had been distinct individuals... individuals who'd gotten zapped with the gas that insane woman had rigged to her gun!
Plastica produced a key and unlocked the handcuffs around his ankles, then pulled him upright to stand. Like her appearance, her strength was freakishly exaggerated. There was no way anyone as attenuated and slender as she was could have muscles to pull him around him like a rag doll, but she did, and now she held the gun to his head. "Walk," she ordered. Whatever he'd gotten involved in, his chances of escape were looking slim.
She marched him down a hall and onto a catwalk that overlooked the main part of the warehouse. She kept a grim silence, digging the gun into his face every time he tried to talk or even move his jaw. Finally they reached a spot where she jerked him to a halt. Still holding the gun to his head, she flipped a series of switches, illuminating the factory floor beneath her.
"Cal!" Lori cried, caught in the spotlight.
Cal started forward. "Lori? I'm -- mmph!" as Plastica slapped her hand over his mouth, digging the gun into his jawline.
"Enough of the happy reunions," Plastica snapped. "As you see, Miss Frosty Freeze, I've got your boyfriend. Whether you get him back is up to you. And don't try anything, or you'll be playing with a life-size Ken doll. Or something worse." She shoved Cal forward so he nearly tripped. He was very close to the edge of the catwalk, and below him was a bubbling vat of a viscous, amber-colored substance. There was no guardrail. "It would be a pity if he fell, wouldn't it?"
What the hell was going on here! Cal tried to inch backwards, but Plastica held him firmly; without the use of his arms, he was helpless. Lori remained caught in the spotlight, her face an anguished mask. She was wearing an outlandish costume that looked like it came from the Cirque de Soleil, all pale blues and sequins. Had she been going to a masquerade party? "He's bleeding!" Lori accused. "You said you wouldn't hurt him!
"It's nothing," Plastica said. She removed her hand from his mouth. "Tell her!"
Cal tried to swallow, but his mouth had gone dry. "I'm okay. It's old blood." It came out much fainter than he would have liked. "Lori, what is this? Why are you--"
"Enough!" Plastica snarled, slapping her hand over his mouth again. He hadn't finished talking and one of her fingers slipped inside. Acting on instinct, he brought his teeth down, hard.
Plastica shrieked, jerking the gun away from his head. A cold wind suddenly roared up from below. It hit them with the force of a blizzard, separating them and driving them back from the edge. Stunned, Cal found himself crumpled against the opposite guardrail, the front of his shirt covered with frost. He was even more stunned to see Lori hovering in mid-air in front of him. "Cal, are you all right?" she said with concern.
He didn't know whether to laugh or scream. Plastica lay a few feet away, motionless, her black vinyl catsuit hoared over with ice. Her blood had left a bitter chemical taste in his mouth. "I...I...think so," he said, climbing to his knees.
Lori still hovered as if weightless, without any wires or trickery that he could see. "I'm sorry about the iceblast. I didn't think it would catch you as much as it did." She tried for an apologetic smile.
"I--" he began, but Plastica's thighs snaked out and caught him around the neck, pulling him down again. His head slammed against the catwalk floor, and he saw stars.
"Not so fast!" Plastica hissed. She scrabbled for her gas gun.
"Don't even think about it, Plastica!" Lori warned. "Another iceblast like that and I can destroy all your precious research!"
"And I can destroy him!" Plastica's thighs tightened around his head. Whatever they were made of, it was definitely not normal muscle. There were hundreds of guys who'd give anything to be in this position with their favorite supermodel, but for Cal it had just lost its glamour; she was perfectly capable of strangling him, or crushing his skull like a walnut.
The catwalk pounded as Tiger and another henchman came running, weapons drawn. "Good thing I wore my thermal undies today, huh?" Plastica gloated.
"What do you want?" Lori said, realizing they were at a stalemate.
"I think you know that," Plastica said silkily. "Bring me Scirocco."
Lori's eyes went wide. From her expression, it was something she didn't think Plastica would demand. "I can't --"
"What do you mean, you 'can't' ?" Plastica said, her voice rising. "It's simple. Get the cube, and bring it back here. Or he dies." There was a strain, perhaps from pain, in her voice that hadn't been there before, and she no longer sounded so brash. She was only using one hand, and Cal guessed he had mangled her finger pretty badly.
Lori looked around helplessly. Tiger waited at one end of the catwalk and a slim black-haired woman at the other. They held massive Uzi-like weapons with slim cylindrical tanks... full of the mannequin gas, Cal surmised. But they kept a good fifty feet between Lori and themselves, rightfully fearing another icy blast. Below them, on the factory floor, was a small control center with a desk and several computer consoles. From the nervous way Plastica's eyes kept darting to it Cal knew it contained something of importance.
Lori's eyes flicked back to him. He saw a great sadness there. There was so much he wanted to ask her: What are you? How did you get your powers? Who or what is Scirocco, and why is it so important? But there was no time. Lori gave him one last, tortured look, her lips moving in what might have been 'I love you.' Then she spread her hands and aimed a massive blast of ice at the control center below.
"NOOO!" Plastica shrieked. She scrabbled to her feet as the air exploded with ice and a pale, pinkish gas. Gunfire crackled from the cloud, and Cal knew what Lori had done: she'd given him time to escape... at the possible cost of her own life. He rolled to his feet and began to run.
"There he goes! Get him! Get him!" Plastica shrieked.
"Stop!" Tiger shouted, aiming his weapon in Cal's direction.
Cal bared his teeth; he wasn't about to let Lori's sacrifice go for nothing. He charged like a linebacker, hitting Tiger square in the midsection and knocking him aside. He continued down a flight of stairs, the chaos increasing behind him.
"I'll get him, Tiger!" The black girl from the van stepped out of the shadows, pink gas spraying from her weapon, but he was already past her, headed for the open door at the end of the factory. And there it was, the blessed freedom and safety of the night.
But his left leg had gone numb below the knee. Had he been shot, was adrenaline masking the pain? With increasingly laborious movements he staggered through the door to an abandoned yard bound by a twelve foot fence. No way could he climb that with his hands cuffed behind him. The top was protected with razor wire, and there were no gates... and running footsteps were coming from the hallway behind him. He was trapped.
"Over here!" He squinted into the darkness and was just able to make out a hole cut in the fence and a figure that beckoned. He limped over, every step threatening to send him falling. The figure was female, dressed in black from head to toe. She looked familiar...
"Darlene!" he gasped.
"Jackpot," she grinned. "But we've got no time to talk. Your friends are coming."
"Lori is... Lori's been..." he panted.
"Tell me later," Darlene said grimly. "For now, we've got to get you to safety."
"I can't run anymore," he stammered. "I've been shot, or something. My leg is... uh!" as Darlene suddenly picked him up and heaved him over her shoulder. If Plastica's strength had been freakish, Darlene's was supernatural.
"Quiet!" Darlene ordered. "We may be able to lose them in the woods."
She ducked through the gash in the fence and quickly but silently ran into the trees. Her gait was smooth and elastic. Branches swished and cracked as she raced through the trees, making superhuman leaps over dead logs and tangled bushes. Curses in the distance told him they were being followed, but their pursuers had no chance of matching Darlene's speed. He should have felt relieved, but fear exploded afresh as he thought of Lori alone in the factory, doing battle with Plastica and her henchwomen. Was she all right? What was she mixed up in?
They burst out of the woods and onto Industrial Road. A yellow cab with its lights off waited. Darlene flung him into the back seat, seating herself beside him. The driver looked around: it was Allison, a friend of Lori's whom he'd met a few times before. She raised her eyebrow in an alarmed way. "He's been hurt," Darlene said shortly. "We've got to get him back to Headquarters, and fast."
"Right," Allison said, and put the cab onto gear. "Where's Lori?"
"I don't know," Darlene said. She sounded worried. "She's still in there." She examined Cal's handcuffs. "Be still for a second. I'm going to break these."
Cal braced himself, but felt nothing except a slight pinch, and a second later he was able to bring his hands around to the front. They were shaking. His whole body was, the fine, almost imperceptible trembling that comes after a bad shock. He'd forgotten about his wound while they'd been running, and realized now, with alarm, that the strange numbness had reached his thigh. He reached down to pull up his jeans leg.
His fingers brushed plastic. Not flesh; plastic. It was as if an artificial leg had been grafted onto his flesh. The skin was smooth, shiny and poreless, and totally inflexible. It was part of him, and it was spreading further. "No..." he moaned.
"You've been hit with the mannequin gas," Darlene said. "It came in through that tear in your jeans. If it's only skin contact, it acts a lot slower. But the end effect is the same."
He couldn't help touching his leg again. He didn't feel a thing! What if he became a mannequin before they reached Headquarters, wherever it was? "Take me to the hospital!" he demanded.
"They can't help you," Darlene said. "Cal, Plastica and her henchmen are criminals. They're running a secret operation that kidnaps people and changes them into mannequins. Only we -- Team Paragon -- are working to stop them. Lori works with us. So does Cinnabar. We're superheroes. We've got the antidote waiting in the lab at home."
Cal couldn't believe his ears. "Superheroes? Like in the comics?"
"The same," Allison said. She must have been a professional race car driver at one time, for it fairly flew through the normally crowded freeways.
This was too much. What had he stumbled into! He glanced out the window and saw a neighborhood that looked familiar. They were close to the block where Lori and Cinnabar lived. That couldn't be Headquarters... could it?
It was. They parked the car and took him upstairs, into the living room he was familiar with from his visits with Lori. But now Allison pressed a panel on the wall and a whole new room opened before his eyes, a shiny high-tech command base combining the functions of laboratory, library, and communications center. Darlene laid him on a cot and went to fetch the antidote while Allison, businesslike, pulled his jeans and underwear off. "What are you doing?" he said. It sounded strangled.
"Cal, I'm sure this is all very strange to you," Allison said as she folded his clothes. "There's probably a lot of questions you want to ask. But we haven't got much time. The more flesh the plastic gas converts, the quicker it works on the rest of your body. If you want to have at shot at recovering, we have to inject you now. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Cal said, even though the syringe Darlene was preparing looked very big.
Allison licked her lips. "Now, another thing you must know is that we haven't tried the antidote before. You're the first subject, the guinea pig. We don't know what harmful effects it could have. If it does work, we can use it on Plastica's victims. Like her." Allison indicated a silent figure in the corner of the room. Cal had taken it for some clothes tossed over a chair at first. Now he realized it was a human being, albeit an unnaturally still one -- a mannequin. "She's alive. They all are. But they can't move or speak. Scirocco -- whom you know as Cinnabar -- is trapped inside the same kind of plastic. She's the leader of our team. Without her, we're crippled. Three other members of our team have disappeared and we believe Plastica is to blame. They may be mannequins now too. So could Lori."
"Lori..." Cal groaned.
"...if you want to save them, or save yourself, we have to test the antidote now!" Allison urged.
"But what if it doesn't work?" By now the numbness was nearly to his hip, and he was terrified of what would happen once it reached his crotch.
"Then you will be no better than what you would be anyway," Allison said. "A mannequin. The only other alternative is to amputate your leg before it spreads any further."
Losing his leg? No... He eyed Darlene again, who was standing silently with the syringe in her hand. "Are you sure -- ?" he asked.
"I'd trust Artie with my life," Darlene said solemnly. "I already have, dozens of times. He's never let me down."
"Please, Cal," Allison urged.
He didn't know who Artie was, but Darlene's tone told him she had total faith in him. "OK. Inject me," he said, and steeled himself.
Darlene pushed the needle into the untransformed skin at the edge of the plastification line. He didn't feel anything at first, just a slight pressure against his thigh. The two women stared intently at the small dot of red left behind. "Is it...?" he said.
Then the pain hit. Allison grabbed his shoulders as his body jerked in reflex, keeping him pressed down on the cot as his back arched. Her strength was as alarming as Darlene's had been. He howled, unable to help himself; it felt like a band of red-hot steel was traveling slowly down his thigh, leaving charred, smoking flesh behind.
"Shh!" Allison said, and pressed her palms against the sides of his head. The pain immediately left him... because she was drawing it into herself! *Don't be afraid,* her voice spoke in his head. *I am taking the pain away for you.*
*You're a telepath,* he thought in amazement.
*That's right. Now try to relax.*
But his nose told him something horrible was happening... a mixture of acid and burning plastic, with the metal smell of blood. Darlene stared intently at his leg as if she could heal it by force of will. He couldn't see what she was looking at, but a relieved smile broke out on her face. "It's working... I can see it changing back!"
He tried to see for himself but Allison forced his head down. *Don't look. It's not a pretty sight.*
But it's my leg, he thought, as Allison sent him another mental message, a mixture of relax/sleep/heal/safety. He eyes drooped shut. The last thing he saw was Darlene fetching some bandages.
He woke with a start. It was some hours later, perhaps early morning judging by the light. He lay on the same cot covered by a warm yellow blanket, his left leg bandaged from hip to toe. It wasn't numb anymore. That meant the drug had worked. Allison had left him a cup of water and he slurped it down gratefully. Underneath the blanket he was quite naked. He knew she hadn't been out to ogle him, only nurse him; but still, he flushed.
Then he noticed a figure dressed in a long blue bathrobe standing at the window, its arms folded behind its back. The long red hair was very familiar. "Cinnabar?" he called.
Cinnabar turned to look at him. She had been frowning, but a smile appeared on her face when she saw him. But he noted her weariness, her look of... he wasn't sure how to describe it, but violation seemed to the best word. "Don't try to get out of bed yet," she warned. "You'll be needing crutches for a while."
"It worked?" he said, even though he knew the answer.
"Yes. But there were some chemical burns, mainly first degree, a few patches of second. You'll be peeling within a week. But after that, you'll be fine. Minor scars, if that." She came over and seated herself on the stool beside his cot. As Lori's roommate he'd seen her dozens, hundreds of times; they'd made small talk, socialized. But because of what he knew... and what had happened to Lori... their relationship was now on a whole other level. She was a superhero. They both were. And he was merely an outsider who'd had the bad luck to stumble into their secret lives. "How do you feel?" Cinnabar said. "Allison gave you a pretty powerful painkiller."
"I feel a little muzzy. But I'm okay." There was so much he wanted to ask her. But the distant look on her face, and the nature of his own stay here, made him think better of imposing on her. He noticed the female mannequin wasn't in its chair anymore. "Did you transform that girl back too?"
Cinnabar nodded. "Thanks to you, Darlene and Artie were able to make crucial changes to the formula. She's all right now, and sleeping in the next room. They were able to... transform... me back too. We owe you a big debt, Cal."
He laughed nervously, not knowing what to say. "Glad to be of service."
Allison came in just then with some breakfast on a tray. "Well look who's up. Cinn, did you --?"
"Actually, no," he said, scooting up on the cot so Allison could place the tray over his hips. It smelled delicious, a sausage-and-pepper omelet with four slices of buttered toast and a glass of apple juice. "I was already up. She was waiting by the window."
Allison glanced at Cinnabar in a warning way that was both concerned and proprietary. "Are you sure you feel up to walking around?"
"Of course," Cinnabar said impatiently, with an edge in her voice that seemed forced. Cal had the feeling she felt a lot less hearty than she acted.
"Just checking, " Allison said.
"Besides, we need to make plans," Cinnabar said, appropriating a piece of toast from the plate. "About Plastica."
The name sent a chill down Cal's spine. The omelet, which had seemed very appetizing before, now turned to painted clay on the plate before him. "Look, I don't mean to interrupt here," he said. "But just what is that woman? Why is she changing people into plastic? And what happened to Lori!" The last came out more forcefully than he would have liked. He noticed the lightweight fork had been bent in his hand.
"We're working on a plan, Cal," Cinnabar said soothingly. "Believe me, we are. As soon as we agree, we're going back to that factory -- me, Darlene, and Allison -- to confront that evil bitch and stop her operation!"
"But what about Lori? She could be a prisoner there, they could be planning to kill her, or torture her, or--"
"Cal, if she was captured, she is probably a mannequin by now," Cinnabar said. Her voice was full of pain, like she was admitting a terrible defeat. "As such, she'll be safe. That's the way Plastica operates. She keeps trophies of her defeats. She turned me into a trophy too, but Allison rescued me and brought me back here. That's why Plastica kidnapped you, to blackmail Lori into giving me back to her."
He understood at last. Confronted with an impossible choice, Lori had chosen to self-destruct and take out as many of the enemy as she could... while giving him the distraction he needed to escape.
"Let me tell you more about Plastica, Cal," Cinnabar said, and did.
"Is he going to be like this forever?" Iza said tearfully.
"Change him back, Plastica!" Phanxine demanded. "Hell, I didn't sign up for this gig to get turned into a Christie doll!"
The object of their furor, the denuded mannequin formerly known as Tiger, had been caught in one of the stray puffs of gas during the battle. He now stood propped against the console, a non-existent weapon clutched in his hand. The look on his face was one of mild irritation. Plastica noted the aphrodisiac effect of the gas was the same on males as it was for females. He had quite a stiffy going on there.
"Are you listening to us?" Phanxine bellowed.
Damn. She should have plastified them both a long time ago, but she'd needed the muscle. "I will," she said testily. "As soon as I finish with Team Paragon."
"But--" Iza began.
Plastica rounded on her. "Oh, stop sniveling! Accidents happen. I told you I'd fix him, and I will. Now get on the phone and give Arctica's apartment a call. That may be where her boyfriend ran off to."
"What if he went to the cops?"
"What if he didn't?" Plastica mimicked her piercing, whiny voice in a sing-song way. "Do you see any cops here? Do you think they'd believe him? Now make that call."
Muttering, Iza moved off.
Plastica returned to her work, spraying the final touches of artificial frost on the Arctica mannequin. The superheroine had been captured throwing one of her iceblasts, a shimmering vision in pale bluish-green. The expression on her face was a mixture of determination and tragedy. Plastica chuckled. If she could find a glass sphere big enough she'd make the perfect snowglobe...the kind you shook with the tiny flakes inside.
Now only White Rose was left of the team. If she could cut a deal with the telepath -- Scirocco in exchange for the other members of the team -- Kylasha would have her satisfaction, and Plastica would have a matched set of superheroines to play with. The thought pleased her. She squeezed her eyes shut, a mental picture of the proud, helpless figures flitting through her mind's eye. All so trapped, so full of heroic power... yet so helpless. A warm, jellylike moisture, generated by her finest fantasies, filled her crotch.
Iza came back to her, her face ashen. "Uh, Plastica, you're not going to like this..."
"What is it!" Plastica spat, putting her fantasies on hold. She hated it when Iza beat around the bush.
"I called the apartment with the number you found on her, and... and..."
"Get it out!" Plastica snapped.
"Cinnabar answered. I swear it was her, Plastica. I know her voice... I pretended I had a wrong number, and she told me her name..."
"Oh, shit," Plastica groaned. She'd thought there was no solvent for chrysteel... but because she hadn't come up with one, that didn't mean no one else could. Damn! Cinnabar was by no means a common name, and Iza was usually pretty good with voices. Still, Plastica had to make sure. If Cinnabar was free, then she had to get her back. Plastica's skin crawled at what Kylasha the Damned would do to her if she discovered how Plastica had let her escape.
Then she smiled. If she wanted Cinnabar back she had the perfect bait: more than half of Team Paragon...and the superheroine's precious young roommate. The odds were in her favor, as they'd been along.
This story is copyrighted 2002 by Cobalt Jade (Cobaltjade@aol.com). This work
may be freely distributed over electronic media provided no fee is charged for
its use. Charging a fee for this story, or publishing without author credit
or this notice violates my copyright.