When We Dead Awaken

 

A Round Robin Story

 

Begun by Brantley Thompson Elkins and others at Superwomenmania, continued at The Bright Empire

 

 

I

If she’d been in her right mind, she’d have realized the fundamental absurdity of her situation. But Caramel Fox wasn’t in her right mind. She didn’t even know what being in her right mind meant; she could remember no other existence.

Had she really been eaten alive by the Slime Monster just yesterday? Or torn to shreds by the Black Devil? Then what was she doing here now, still intact? She knew that she had been violated; she was still sore down there. It must have been the Black Devil, then; since the Slime Monster didn’t even have a….

At that very thought, the soreness faded. She sensed it was a bad omen, a warning that her respite would be brief. A new assault was surely coming, although she could see no sign of it. She looked around her: all seemed normal. She was in her bedroom; the bed on which she lay was in its proper place. The night table, the dresser, the lamps, the mirror and the other furnishings were likewise in their proper places.

She saw that she was wearing her costume, a skimpy caramel-colored affair. Her breasts nearly overflowed the top, and the bottom barely covered her nether parts. She must have slept in it, she supposed, after whatever had happened to her before. Had she been out on a mission before the Black Devil…?

She suddenly realized she couldn’t remember having been on a mission, although it was her duty to… Wasn’t that what superheroines did: use their super powers to… What were her powers? She couldn’t remember. Strangely, she couldn’t even remember wondering about such things before. How could this be?

While she was trying to focus her mind on that, a man stepped through her mirror.

They usually came through the door. They were usually monsters.

“We’ve got the webcam on a loop,” the man said. “You’d better come now.”

“But?”

She wasn’t objecting; she was just confused.

“You’ll see them again, in due course. But the next time they see you, it won’t be you. Not the you they know.”

He held out his hand. Because she was used to obedience, she took it.

 

II

She’d expected to find herself in a dungeon, or some mad doctor’s laboratory, or even aboard an alien spaceship. That was how it always was.

Instead, she seemed to be in some sort of private office.

The room was large and spacious, one wall lined with flat screen monitors. Some showed what appeared to be news or educational programs, others tables and graphs with equations of some sort running across the bottom.

In the center of the room was what looked like a cross between a desk and a circular table, with a personal computer on a dolly at the center. Instead of chairs, there was a ring of seats attached to the central axis. There were storage slots between the seats.

One of the other walls was apparently a picture window of polarized glass; she could see the sun against it without discomfort. Yet another was devoted to displays of objets d’art in no form or style she recognized. She looked behind her, at the fourth wall. There was no sign of the mirror, only a shimmering in the air that quickly faded. Against tha wall, a sofa.

“You’re safe now,” the man told her. “Dr. Conroy,” it said on his name tag. She had no idea what kind of “Dr.” he might be. “You’ll be able to return to that other world if you wish. But only when you’re ready to face them.”

Conroy was tall, about her own height, six feet or so. Dark hair, chiseled features, well toned body, but not overmuscular. He looked the big screen secret agent type. But where had she ever seen the big screen secret agent type?

“Return? Where am I now? Where is this?”

“New York. Earth W27. One of the better timelines, as the one where you were stranded is one of the worst.”

“Stranded?”

“You really don’t remember, do you? Damn them! If it were up to me, we’d go in there with heavy weapons and clean out the whole lot. But it isn’t up to me. Even though we can get them now for trafficking in stolen technology.”

“Stolen?”

“The mind control stuff they used on you. They could never have thought up anything like that themselves.”

He must have seen the confusion on her face.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You can’t believe how sorry I am. We should have found you long before this. But it’s going to be all right. I swear it.”

The man took her in his arms, tried to comfort her, but she began to tremble uncontrollably. So he released her.

“They really got to you, didn’t they? That bad.”

There were actually tears in his eyes.

“Well, they’ll pay. And you’ll make them pay. I know you can’t believe that now, but it’s true.”

 

III, by Argonaut

The dark-haired man sat at his desk, sipping cold coffee from a styrofoam cup. Files and dossiers -- all demanding his immediate attention -- were stacked by his left elbow, but for the past fifteen minutes he had been staring at a single sheet of paper positioned neatly in the center of the desktop.

“SUBJECT: Caramel Fox,” was written at the top of the sheet.

The rest of the page was blank.

“REAL NAME ... TIMELINE ... PERSONAL HISTORY ... KNOWN ALLIES / GROUP AFFILIATION ... NATURE AND ORIGIN OF POWERS ...” Except for a name whose authenticity he doubted, absolutely nothing was known of the young woman whom he had rescued the previous afternoon. She was tabula rasa -- a blank slate.

He frowned, remembering the fear in her eyes -- constantly darting back and forth, never meeting his own. Instead of feeling relief at her rescue, she appeared to think it was a cruel deception on the part of her tormentors, intended to make the next round of pain and humiliation seem all the more acute. As Janet, the Crosstime Center’s head psychologist, had conducted the trembling young woman out of his office and toward the dormitory wing, the man wondered whether in rescuing Caramel Fox he had merely replaced one kind of torment with another.

That’s when he had sent for Arda Gand.

Arda Gand was a third-generation Legionnaire whose forebears included Mon-El and Saturn Girl – and who had inherited the powers of both. An experienced superheroine and a skilled telepath, she was uniquely qualified to serve as a consultant on the Center’s more difficult cases. And the year she had endured in Darkseid’s dungeons had given her a very personal interest in the Center’s mission.

The man drank the last of the coffee and turned to drop the empty cup in a wastebasket. There was a tap at the door.

“Good morning, Steve.”

Arda Gand -- a tall, strikingly attractive blonde wearing an outfit similar to her grandmother’s Saturn Girl costume -- stood in the doorway.

“Ah, good morning, Arda.” The man rose and extended his hand. “Thank you for coming.” He gestured at a chair and they both sat down. “So ... how are things in the thirty-first century?”

“Fairly quiet -- though of course I can only speak for my own timeline. But I’ve got to be getting back soon. There are rumors that the Emerald Empress is recruiting a new Fatal Five.”

The man nodded. So much for small talk, he thought. “So what can you tell me about our mystery woman?”

“Very little, I’m afraid,” Arda Gand replied. “Whoever did the mindwipe was very thorough and covered their tracks very carefully. This girl’s mind is a labyrinth of firewalls. I could penetrate them easily enough, but not without doing irreparable damage to her psyche.”

The man looked down at the sheet of paper on his desk. A wave of hopelessness threatened to engulf him as he contemplated the blank spaces.

“But I can tell you this much,” Arda Gand continued. “Whoever she is, whatever timeline she comes from, she’s a dedicated and experienced superheroine. That’s so fundamental to her self-concept -- so inextricably woven into her psyche -- that not even these bastards could wipe it from her mind. There’s a thought that keeps running like a bass line through all her fear and confusion -- I’m supposed to be helping others ... even though the only ‘others’ she can remember did nothing but torture and humiliate her.”

Arda Gand paused. She knew what had driven the man to make this his life’s work – and it didn’t take a telepath to know what he was thinking right now. “You’re right,” she said gently. “Karen was like that, too.”

The man cleared his throat. “So what now?” he asked. “What can we do for her?”

Arda Gand leaned forward and put her hand over his. “I know you want to make things better right away,” she said. “But believe me, this won’t be a quick fix. She will recover her memories, she will be ready to return to her own timeline – but she’ll have to do it herself, and it will take time. But I promise, it will happen. This girl has tremendous strength of will. The fact that she’s managed to hold on to even a shred of her identity during her ordeal is proof of that. Hell, I’ve met Green Lanterns with less will-power than she’s got.”

She stood up. “I’ve got to be getting back to the thirty-first century,” she said. “I’ll talk with Janet before I go, and I’ll be back for a follow-up as soon as I can.” She paused. “Actually, I do have one suggestion.”

The man looked at her expectantly.

“Find her a mentor,” Arda Gand said. “Someone to be her friend, her confidant, her supporter. A supergirl her own age, to help her re-establish her identity as a superheroine. Someone sympathetic yet outgoing, to help her re-connect with the outside world -- when she’s ready.”

“Something tells me you have someone in mind.”

“As a matter of fact,” she said, “I do.” She picked up a pen and memorandum pad from the desk. She wrote down a name, tore the page from the pad, and placed it face down on the desk.

“One last thing,” she said. “Whoever did this to her didn’t go to all that trouble just to get away with robbing banks. I sense that her abduction is part of something huge -- and that Caramel Fox will play a crucial role in the ultimate fate of her timeline. Call it my superwoman’s intuition.”

The man sat, deep in thought, as Arda Gand left his office and the sound of her footsteps faded down the corridor. Finally, he turned over the memorandum page she had left on the desk. The corners of his mouth twitched as he read the name she had written.

“Perfect,” he said. “I wonder if she’s available?”

 

IV, by CK

She’d tried to come up with a better phrase, she thought long and hard, but nothing else came to mind, at least that could displace this.

How can this be real?

Only weeks before she’d been walking down the same streets of New Amsterdam, now she was told that she was in New York and every fourth building was different. Neighborhoods which she knew were crime ridden places to avoid were amazingly clean. The World Trade center was gone, but the Statue of Liberty was intact.

She looked like a tourist, her head moving around like a nodding dog’s, her eyes wide and mouth open in reaction to the latest revelation. Her rescuers had judged her ready to leave their protection, at least for a day so she could walk around and perhaps get her bearings or trigger a memory. It’s been a couple of weeks since she’d been brought here, and they admitted it might take awhile for her memories to return, but Caramel didn’t feel that she’d ever remember being the Her they claimed she actually was... were... is...

She clutched her head and groaned. Things weren’t getting easy, but she’d always jokingly referred to thinking with her fists and had a hard time with thinking things out. Now though she didn’t know if the mind control had made her this way, or that she was always like this. The second guessing was driving her batty.

She spent most of the remainder of the day in the City Library, in an effort to learn more about “home,” even if dread settled in her heart. Like the city itself, large portions of history were as she expected, but just as things seemed sane she’d hit upon something that jarred her senses like a tooth ache. She couldn’t get her mind around the fact that here that instead of America desperately bombing Germany to stop nuclear powered V2’s, here America used a nuclear bomb against the Japanese.

The finally straw that caused her to look no further was when she learned that on 20th of July 1969 that Alexei Leonov of the Soviet Union didn’t land on the Moon, that the Americans beat them, she ran.

When she stopped she discovered she was in Central Park, seemingly her Central Park. Like everything else in this New ‘York’ there were a few differences, statues dedicated to different people, but enough was the same, clinched when she saw the hot dog vendor outside Central Park Zoo in the same place he always was, who didn’t recognize her but was still able to tell by looking at her preferred fare.

So she sat at a bench overlooking the water, slowly eating and reflecting that something so simple as a Coke and Hot-Dog with the lot minus onions made her feel more at home than anything to date. Despite the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, there was much to like here. This might not feel like ‘home’, even if it was meant to be, but it was certainly better than where she was before and for the moment that was enough.

As the sun began to set, Caramel made her way back, almost walking straight past two thugs threatening a young college student. Acting entirely on instinct, she almost tore open the sweater she was wearing until she remembered the only thing under there was a rather plain if overstrained sports bra.

A little voice at the back of her mind said she couldn’t engage in superheroics if she wasn’t wearing her costume, but the screaming of the girl...

“Get away from her”

Everybody stopped dead. Caramel blinked as she realize she’d actually said that, three pairs of eyes turning towards her. The two animals stood and released the young woman they were molesting and let out wolf-whistles at the sight of her, but that was nothing new given-

“Jeez! Look it the size that whore’s boobs! Get ‘em out baby, I want to suckle!”

It ran like script, as always. Criminals appeared to be a breast-obsessed lot, and she knew what was next to come, they’d grope them and it’d all be over. Yet what else could she do?

Once again she blinked as she realized she snatched his hand out of mid-air before it could come into contact with her chest, beginning to crush it in her grip. As her would be attacker screamed she snapped her arm back and released, sending him across the alley to a hard landing against a brownstone wall.

She spun on her heel as her right leg snapped out and caught the other thug in the chest, sending him skidding down the pavement and out of alley. Back in the other place her powers had seemed to be spotty at best, fading at the worse possible times, but here she had no trouble in dispatching them with ease. Thus she waited, waited for what normally occurred, only to have the victim hug her and give her an endless stream of thank yous.

Once again Caramel Fox began to shake as she was confronted with things which didn’t make sense. The two thugs hadn’t turned into sex crazed demons, aliens seeking to probe her, tentacle beasts or anything. Nothing attacked her from behind. Hell, even the woman she saved hadn’t insisted on giving her a “special” thank-you. As the police arrived and the woman received proper attention she wavered unsteady on her feet as she tried to take it all in. She turned and soared into the sky, tears streaming down her face as that same phrase rebounding in her head

How can this be real?

 

V, by Spulo

Caramel sat on the roof of the highest building she’d been able to find, staring down at the city hundreds of feet below. Her tears had long since dried up, and had fallen silently into a world that seemed too busy to notice her.

The darkness of the night felt somehow comforting to her - like a blanket she could wrap herself in to disappear from this strange world. Nice, compared with what she was used to, but still strange.

One phrase kept replaying itself over and over - This isn’t your world. No matter how nice it felt not to be abused and violated at the hands, claws, and tentacles of her enemies, she still felt like an alien, and she knew she always would.

As alien as I did when I first...

...when I first...what?

A very small part of her wanted to tear the city apart out of sheer frustration, to find some answers...some clues as to who she was...but she knew it wouldn’t do any good. No-one down there knew who she was.

Nobody cared.

“Caramel?”

The sudden voice had brought Caramel out of her thoughts, but she didn’t turn around. Gentle footsteps approached her, until she became aware of another woman sitting down beside her. “Do you mind if I join you?”

Caramel turned her head...the woman was like her, she realized. A superheroine. But her eyes weren’t examining the woman... Caramel was more interested in the costume she wore. Silver top, silver shorts... and a long blue cape. Her hand reached out for the cape, and the woman didn’t try to stop her as Caramel took hold of it, running the material between her hands.

“I had a costume...” she said quietly.

The woman smiled. “Tell me about it, Caramel. What was your costume like?”

“It was...it...” Caramel fell silent, unable to remember. “It had a cape. I remember that...” Then she realized something. “How did you know my name?”

“They sent me.” the woman explained. “To look after you.”

This was what Caramel had been longing for - they’d promised to find someone her own age that she could talk to, a superhero like her...but now that that person was here, Caramel felt nervous. “Oh, no, you don’t need to trouble yourself-”

“Hey, it’s no trouble at all.” the woman replied. “They’ve explained to me about you, and...well, I wanna help.”

Caramel looked up, and studied the woman’s face for the first time. She seemed... nice. Friendly and gentle... Caramel wasn’t used to that. “You’re beautiful.” she whispered.

The woman smiled warmly. “That’s very sweet of you to say. Thank you.”

Caramel suddenly shook her head. “But this is wrong!”

“What is?”

“You, me...us, talking like we’re...”

“Friends?” the woman suggested.

“Exactly, friends! You should be... humiliating me, hurting me...”

“Why on Earth would I wanna do that?”

Caramel paused – why should that be the way it is? She gave the only answer she could. “Because...that’s all I know. That’s what I’m used to...”

She flinched a little as she suddenly felt the woman’s hand on her shoulder. “I just want to touch you.” the woman told her quietly. “Hold you. Not hurt you.”

Caramel looked into the woman’s eyes...and saw nothing in them but honesty, and concern for her. She gave a little nod, and the woman put her arm around her. “You’re a nervous little thing, aren’t you?”

“Who are you?” Caramel asked.

The woman smiled. “Omega Girl.” she replied proudly.

“No... you. The person inside the costume. The real you.”

“My real name is Ezusi.”

“Ezusi...” Caramel whispered the name to herself a few times. “It’s an unusual name.”

“It’s not an Earth name.”

“You’re not from Earth?”

Ezusi shook her head. “My world... my world is gone. Sucked into a black hole. I came here because I had nowhere else to go...”

Caramel felt terrible. “I... I’m sorry...”

“I could count on one hand the number of people who know all that...”

“Oh, I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

Ezusi smiled. “Thanks, Caramel.” Caramel felt Ezusi’s hand rub her back softly...it felt nice. “It was all a long time ago...but it still hurts. That’s why I want to help you. I remember what it’s like, arriving here and knowing nothing and no one. I’d rather you didn’t go through all that alone.”

“Ezusi?”

“Yes, Caramel?”

“...for the first time that I can remember... certainly for the first time since I’ve arrived here... I trust. I trust you. Oh, don’t get me wrong, everyone’s been nice to me, but—”

“But it helps to know there are others like you.” Ezusi smiled. “Believe me, I understand, and I’m glad I could help. Now...I know you already have a room at the Center, and they’re looking after you...but...well...”

“I would.” Caramel said quickly.

“Would what?”

“Would... like to stay with you... I’m sorry, I-I thought that was what you were offering...”

Ezusi smiled. “That is what I’m offering. You can come and stay with me, and... and we’ll find out who you are, OK? I promise you that.”

Caramel had heard those words before, but...this was the first time she actually believed them. “Thank you.” she whispered.

Ezusi smiled, and got to her feet. “You can fly, right?” Caramel nodded. “Good. Follow me.”

Ezusi… Omega Girl took off into the night sky, and Caramel followed close behind... happy that she now had someone she could call a friend.

 

VI, by Brantley

“I love this city,” Ezusi said as she soared over New York with Caramel. “There’s no other place like it on Earth. There wasn’t any place like it on… Maailma.”

“That was your world?”

“Yes.”

“What was it like?”

“Post-industrial. Like one huge park, homes made of glass, personal flyers to get around, everything solar and wind-powered, underground nanofactories to supply all our needs. It was… nice. And safe. So safe there wasn’t much for people like me to do.”

“Still, it must hurt.”

“Of course it hurts. I lost my family. Everyone I knew. But I didn’t really know that many people. Not personally – all the rest were virtual. That’s what’s different here. There’s people all around. Real people.”

“I can’t remember… just people… where Steve took me from. I can’t remember where I came from in the first place. Just my name.

“It must hurt to lose your very self. They told about that. And somebody did it to you. Maailma  was… just a cosmic accident. Unless you think the universe—”

Something below had suddenly caught her attention.

“There’s a crash down there at 14th and Broadway. A bad one. Better get on it.”

It was a bad one, all right – an SUV had crashed into the left side of a limo. Police and rescue workers would be on the way, but they weren’t there yet.

“I’ll separate the cars,” Ezusi told Caramel. “You tear the doors off the limo. But let me get the people out; I’m used to this.”

Caramel did as she was told, wrenching loose the limo doors as Omega Girl, after pulling the SUV back, saw to the passengers in that vehicle. A crowd had gathered, and people were pointing at her, although she wasn’t sure why.

Exusi had carefully freed the driver of the SUV and the woman next to him, probably his wife or girlfriend. Their airbags had worked; they didn’t seem to be badly hurt, but she laid them down carefully on the pavement and told them not to move. But they too looked strangely at Caramel.

“They’re not used to seeing a superheroine in civvies,” Ezusi explained quickly. “Anyway, everybody already knows me.”

Things looked a lot worse for the limo driver and his left side passenger. They were bleeding, and in obvious shock. “Broken left shoulders, the both of them,” Ezusi called back to Caramel.

There was the sound of sirens, and flashing red and blue lights came into view a few moments later. Caramel saw that Ezusi was being extra careful with the two victims from the limo; a second passenger had managed to get out on his own. Ezusi was staring at the driver, and it took another moment for Caramel to realize that she was using her heat vision to cauterize the bleeding wound. She did the same with the passenger.

Caramel was vaguely aware that her clothes had been torn from dealing with the limo doors, but only now did she look down and realize that her shirt was torn and her breasts were hanging out. Some of the male onlookers had pulled out their cell phones – she’d learned what those were only after coming to New York – and holding them up at her. They were grinning.

When the ambulance people took charge of the victims, Caramel asked Ezusi about that. “Are they all calling their friends to talk about the accident?”

Ezusi glanced at them.

“Shit,” she told Caramel. “They’re taking your picture.”

Then she turned to the offenders.

“You know who I am,” she barked. “Is that how you’d treat me?”

They started dropping their cellphones like hot potatoes, because they really were getting hot. Heat vision again. None of the offenders protested, except for the yelps when they dropped the devices. They just slunk away.

“Thanks,” Caramel said softly to her friend as they were about to take off.

“I may have been too late,” Ezusi said. “Even even one of them had already left… well, your assets are about to go viral.”

“What’s viral?”

“Oh,” Caramel said after Ezusi explained.

“Not that they’ll be able to do anything besides beat off to the pictures. This isn’t like the world you came from. But we’ll have to get you an outfit. A real outfit that’ll stand up to anything, like you can. Anyway, it could have been worse – like, if this had been a fire and your civvies had been totally burned.”

“Oh,” said Caramel again.

“Of course, some of us expose ourselves in magazines; helps pay the rent. Or we cater to special admirers.”

“You mean…”

“They can do more than look, if we choose to enfold them in our auras.”

“Auras?”

Ezusi explained, about how superheroines could briefly share their powers with men who appealed to them and thus share hot sex without risking any… damage to their egos, not to mention their male members.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Caramel said. She didn’t even want to think about men… touching her. In her mind she knew that things were different in this world, but in her heart…

Ezusi was disappointed, but understanding. “It must have been worse than I could imagine,” she said.

Caramel only nodded, trying to suppress the terrible memories of that other world. Maybe if Conroy and Arda Gand had some new leads about where she had come from, or what had really happened to her…

But when she checked in again at the Crosstime Center, Arda still hadn’t made a return visit from the 31st Century and the good doctor didn’t have any more leads. Conroy was apologetic, and invited her out to dinner at an Italian restaurant. She didn’t even bother looking at the menu before telling him she’d have chicken francese with psketti.

“Psketti? You mean spaghetti?”

“No, psketti.”

“Only children call it that.”

“Everybody calls it…”

And then it dawned on her.

“Where I come from, everybody calls it that.”

“There aren’t many timelines where that’s happened,” Steve said. “Although there are other examples of what’s called metathesis, where letters are reversed. Some people in the South here and elsewhere say ‘aks’ instead of ‘ask.’”

Caramel shook her head.

“Not where I come from.”

“That narrows it down… where you come from, do they ever say ‘a whole nother thing?’”

Caremel shook her head again.

“The thing is, there are regional variations in each timeline – after all, they aren’t just cities, they’re entire worlds.”

“I told you right off about New Amsterdam and the Statue of Liberty.”

“Only, we know about hundreds of New Amsterdams, and in more than half of those… well, the Statue of Liberty was a more obvious target than the World Trade Center. It’s the same with most of the thousands of New Yorks we know about.”

“Can you possibly…”

“It will take time. It would easier if there were some way to unlock your memory. Arda had a suggestion that might help.”

 

VII, by Brantley

It was six months later, in Washington Square Park.

Caramel Fox was out for a walk during a break with Brian Stinson, one of her classmates in a freshman course on Cognition at New York University. Arda Gand, on here last visit to W27, had thought it might help her understand how to recover her lost memories.

Brian didn’t know that. He didn’t even know she was Caramel Fox. Steve had set her up with a secret identity, Tricia Braverman, and advanced her the NYU registration fees. She had felt nervous about that, until he explained that she could pay the Center back from earnings for work so dangerous ordinary people couldn’t or wouldn’t touch it.

Like rescuing motorists trapped in a surprise blizzard in Wyoming, or retrieving the black box from a plane that had gone down in 20,000 feet of water in the Atlantic. That second mission had taught her something she should have known all along but had somehow overlooked: superheroines couldn’t be everywhere, or anticipate everything, or save everyone.

She’d tried to avoid looking at the dead bodies at the bottom of the sea, but some were visible from the broken tail section where the black (actually bright orange) box was located. It gave her the shakes, but she’d done her job, and maybe the data would prevent another such crash. She hoped so. She’d also managed to avoid photographers, even the cell phone fanatics, on both those major missions and on more routine outings with Ezusi here in the city. It was Ezusi who had gotten her the black wig on the sly, and taught her how to use makeup to the best effect in disguising herself.

Brian was an odd young black man from Queens, odd because he didn’t seem to have any interest in rap or basketball or any of the other things young black men were supposed to be interested in. He seemed to be a loner, and that drew her to him because she too was a loner herself in the campus environment.

She soon discovered that Brian was really into the Cognition course, and that was another plus for her. He’d bend her ear with arguments about epistemology, like whether Wittgenstein had trumped Aristotle with the observation that a “game” can’t be defined as precisely as a triangle.

“Isn’t the Aristotelian definition of a triangle is still valid?” Caramel asked. That sort of thing had been new to her; she’d never been into philosophy – at least, not that she could remember. “A triangle is a three-sided, closed figure, the sum of whose interior angles is 180 degrees.”

“But Wittgenstein showed that a lot of things which may seem to be connected by an essential common feature may really be connected only by a series of overlapping similarities, with no one feature is common to all. What do card games, board games and ball games have in common? Or X-box games, for that matter? It’s all a matter of family resemblances.”

“Only, whenever we’re talking about games, we know which games we’re talking about.”

“Exactly. It’s all a matter of context.”

They’d had a few study dates. Strictly study dates. She was still nervous when it came to men, although she didn’t want to admit it. Ezusi had tried to get her to come to some dance parties – raves, they were called – where the men invited were only the kind who were into superwomen and who superwomen wanted into them, but she had begged off.

Brian had never tried to come on to her. At first she had thought he might be gay, but she had later caught him staring at the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.  And he’d glance furtively at other women – perhaps he was just shy. Whatever. He still hadn’t made any moves on her. She should be grateful for that. And yet... 

It was the usual sort of afternoon crowd, people out for the air and the trees and the playground, if they were so inclined. Some were walking their dogs; others were gathered around the fountain. Right by the Arch, about 30 feet away, there was a bunch of Lyndon LaRouche supporters demanding the impeachment of President McCain.

A rather surly-looking man carrying a book bag had been glancing at a LaRouche flyer. He suddenly looked in their direction, stared at Brian as if he recognized him, then seemed to come to some sort of decision.

“I am driven by the fury of my own momentum!” he shouted, and reached into the bag, pulling out a gun.

Caramel stepped in front of Brian before the man could fire, and felt the bullet dimple her left breast. His second shot hit her in the belly.

“Drop it, before you hurt somebody!” she yelled, fearful that ricochets might hit bystanders. The man appeared rooted to the spot, uncomprehending, and kept firing. She began to move forward to reach for the gun, then held back, fearful of exposing Brian.

Of a sudden, the man put it to his head and blew his brains out.

I should have gone for him, Caramel chastised herself.

But then she thought of Brian

She turned and saw that he was staring. The bullets had torn into her clothing – exposing her flesh and her true nature...

The crowd was reacting, people were scattering. Even the LaRouche people had ducked behind the Arch, leaving their table with its signs and flyers behind.

Had the man really been after Brian, or was he just crazy? And could there be any more shooters somewhere in the square?

Brian was exposed. So was she. And in a few moments, it was going to be a mob scene, with cops and then the media…

Caramel made a quick decision.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” she told Brian; then, taking him in her arms, she rose into the air – slowly at first, then with gathering speed.

She could tell that he was terrified; he was shaking against her, he had closed his eyes tight and seemed unable to say a word.

Caramel flew him to an isolated spot in Palisades Park, across the Hudson River. Only when she set him down did he recover his wits… and his voice.

“My family…”

“Where?”

He told her, and she called the cops on her wristphone. She identified herself by name and code, and she could practically imagine them snapping to attention at the other end.

“We’ll get right on it,” the lieutenant she was transferred to said after she told him about the situation and asked him to have a watch put on the Stinsons. She asked him to hold a minute, and turned to Brian.

“Do you know anyone specific who might be after you or your family?”

Brian shook his head.

“You never know who you might piss off, without even knowing you’re pissing them off,” he said. “My father drives a bus, had a run-in with a while back with a rider over a transfer. Bus drivers have gotten shot over stuff like that. But only then and there. And the guy on the bus wasn’t… white… like the one at the park… Even if it had been the same guy, how would he know who I was, anyway, or where to find me? None of it makes any sense.”

“Not to me, either. He must have been delusional. Cognitive disorder.”

That drew a smile from Brian. He must be over his fear. But now he was staring at her again, as he had in the park. Staring, not in shock or surprise, but in wonder and…

Her civvies were much the worse for wear, her slacks torn from the flight, her top peppered with bullet holes, some torn larger by the rush of the air. She glanced down at herself; she hadn’t been wearing a bra, never having needed one, and her left breast was exposed.

Looking back at Brian, she could tell that he was embarrassed. And not because his own clothes were a mess.

“I thought… back there… that I must be delusional. But this has to be real. You have to be real. One of them.”

“Well, my secret identity worked,” she said, trying to make light of the situation. “I was always afraid I might give myself away.”

“You never did. Did I?”

“Did you what?”

Was he blushing? It was hard to tell with black people. She was wondering how she knew that as he spoke.

“Ever give away how I was thinking about you?”

“It took me a while to figure out that you were straight. It was when I saw that you looked at other women. And pictures.”

He was definitely blushing, just a slight shade darker.

“I just thought that… a woman as beautiful as you… she must get stared at by so many guys she doesn’t know and doesn’t even want to know, some real assholes. There were guys from the Hood who’d stare at my sister Keisha like that, before she moved out West to take a job – she found a husband there, too. Anyway, I thought you deserved… better than that. And those girls I’d look at… I’d never make a show of it, never get in their faces. But you were face to face with me a lot. That made a difference. It really did. Only now it’s worse.”

“Worse?”

“You know what I mean. That you’re one of these superwomen. Everybody’s hot for them, even if they’re unattainable.”

 

VIII, by Brantley

“What do you mean, I’m not helping?”

“I mean, you’re not helping. Why is that, Hillary?”

The front runner for the Democratic nomination managed to keep her composure, even though he’d just thoroughly trashed her economic recovery plan. That pissed off Vick Walters, but he managed to keep his own composure.

“I think it’s up to the voters to decide who can help the country and who can’t,” Clinton said evenly, ignoring his taunt. “Shall we leave it at that?”

Walters didn’t want to leave it at that, but his half-hour show was almost up and he didn’t have much choice. If McCain didn’t get his ass in gear, this… woman… might end up in the White House. There’d be no stopping her if the economy tanked again.

If only she knew that he was diverting himself with a fantasy of raping Chelsea while Hillary watched helplessly. Chelsea was no prize, but to utterly humiliate her and her mother – that really got his juices flowing.

“Thank you,” he said – not to her, actually, but to his millions of fans. “It’s been a pleasure having you here.”

Nobody would get the double entendre. Nobody would even suspect. This was all about politics, not sex. He was thinking about sex, of course, but not the kind that Hillary Clinton could imagine – or that he could actually indulge in, here or anywhere. Walters and others like him had to be very careful, keep everything offline, use unknowing mules to transport the videos from timelines where they weren’t illegal – any more than child sex trafficking.

The DVDs came by snail mail from one member of the group to another, and they were always disguised as business and industrial promotions. Anybody outside the group who, by very remote chance, happened to load one of them, would see nothing but puff jobs for products like infused grapeseed oil, artichoke pizzas, champagne shower gels and squid casseroles. You had to click on a contact icon and enter a password to…

When he got back to his Upper West Side apartment, which was as soon as he could without seeming too much in a hurry, he hunted up the DVD for Mamma Mia’s Meats, which was supposed to be about retail promotion of its spicy meatballs – and how its PR agency, Catalytics, “can help you achieve the same great results.”

Walters didn’t waste any time entering the code, and in a few seconds he was watching the Black Devil tear Caramel Fox to shreds. Not literally, of course; she’d have to be available for other videos. But the tech people in this timeline – members called it World 666 on occasions they met one another – were as skilled in trick videography as they were in mind control. What Caramel believed she was experiencing was faithfully captured on screen.

He came hard as he watched the Black Devil rip off her right leg and gnaw on it, and came even harder when he tore off her breasts and ate them. Hunger satisfied, he popped out the video, repackaged it, and squirreled it away in his collection – most of which consisted of perfectly legitimate dramas, situation comedies and documentaries.

Only then did he catch up with the snail mail. One seemed to be a fund-raising appeal from the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Foundation. No such foundation existed; it was a cover for essential contacts among members. But it looked like a real appeal, with all sorts of presumably authentic statistics on in the incidence of the condition, and how it wasn’t covered by most insurance plans. There was a URL for a video on YouTube.

It was from a couple of months ago. Freelance reporting on a fire at a brownstone in Brooklyn; the reporter said there was a girl still trapped inside and the Bravest were gearing to go after her and live up to their name. But one of them was suddenly looking up, past the building. The freelancer panned up to catch a flying woman heading for the fourth story window of the apartment. She entered through the smoke and flames and, moments later, emerged with the girl – she looked to be Hispanic, five or six – cradled in her arms, and descended slowly and gently to the street. The girl’s mother cried in relief, took her child in her own arms, and kissed the superwoman. The crowd cheered.

The superwoman looked dirty and bedraggled, and she was wearing civvies rather than a proper costume. But there was no mistaking her. The freelancer didn’t know her name, but it was Caramel Fox. Had to be. Walters felt a stab of fear in his heart. Nobody was supposed to escape from World 666. Nobody. Was there some conspiracy behind it – was a government agency involved? The U.N. was officially in charge of cross-time and up-time relations, but there were also NGO’s that played by their own rules, and avoided publicity… could Caramel be working with them?

How long had she been here? What had she told the people she worked with? Walters silently cursed himself. We should have been keeping tabs, he thought. Millions of people here followed the exploits of superheroines, and a few were even superheroine groupies. It made him sick to think about that – which was why he and those of like mind habitually avoided watching anything to do with them.  

There hadn’t been any warning from the Group’s base on World 666. Somebody there must have fucked up, big time, and they weren’t about to admit it. But if World 666 had been compromised…

 

VIII, by Matt Reyes

 

 

Brian paced around his apartment. It was large for a New York apartment. The space was decorated by a man who lived by himself but tried really hard to give it a homey feel.

But that was just a faćade, part of his cover. He really felt horrible conflicted even. He spent all night talking with Caramel, trying to get her to remember. But so far, there were only little things, like smorgasbord, that were common to many timelines even if they had originated on only a few. Several fragmentary memories seemed to relate to northern Europe, but that covered a lot of territory.

Given how little he'd had to start with, the mission was going well; the only part that bothered him were the feelings that were brewing inside him. He wanted nothing more than to go into his bedroom where Caramel was sleeping. Brian wanted to go into that bedroom and make love to her. Geez, he thought. I am in love with her.

His com-unit buzzed in his pants pocket, interrupting his thoughts. He was waiting for the call. He had transmitted a status report to his superiors in the Corp.

 “Tempest here. It looks like Texas will be in the world series again.” The cool toned female voice said.

 “The odds are long and they need to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers first.” Brian calmly gave the reply to verbal security challenge. The cosmic joke was the Texas Rangers had never won a pennant in any time line – until this past year, in a line that wasn’t of any importance. Even there, they’d lost in five. It proved logic had nothing to do with the Multiverse.

 “It's good to talk to you again, Brian,” Tempest said. “We miss you here on Terra Somnium.”

 “Same here I... miss home,” Brian said quietly

Brian sat on his couch and took a sip of his coffee. Nothing like good old fashioned Earth coffee. It was at least a perk of his current assignment. Only on an old Earth could you get a decent cup of coffee.

 “Listen Brian: Proceed as planned, do what you have to. But she must remember who she is. We can't win until she does. The situation is not looking good on our end.”

 “Tempest, do we have to do it this way? She deserves better; she has been to hell and back. I don't want to add to her pain,” Brian said and took another sip.

“Brian you know what’s a stake here, we can't sacrifice everything for one woman. Even her. We need her to save our own asses. She can't do that if she does not remember.” Tempest paused and sensed Brian's hesitation.

“Brian do you love her?”

 “Um, n... yes, Tempest I think I do. She is wonderful, Tempest; more than we ever imagined.”

Brian told her with resignation about his feelings. No use lying to Tempest. She was his boss, anyway, and best friend. Just Friends.

He heard his bedroom door opening. He stayed on his com-unit it looked like a cell phone.

 “That's a relief Momma I am glad you and Dad are safe. Maybe I can get some sleep now.” He lied for Caramel’s ears.

 “Brian watch your six you know that gun man was looking for you. Do your job first and stay focused on the mission. Take care, Tempest out.”

Tempest smiled a rare smile these days. Then it turned to a frown. It was wrong what they had to do. But then again they hadn’t tried Love.

Brian suppressed a gulp as Caramel stood in his bedroom doorway. Her legs bare and her ample bosom filling one of his jersey style shirts. Gods, there was nothing sexier than a woman in one’s own jersey shirt!

 “Will do Momma, take care and don't worry about me. I got New York's finest protection with me now.” Brian continuing his cover and indirectly complementing Caramel.

* * *

Caramel looked at Brian: Here was good man worried about his parents. She stayed the night to watch over Brian. He was ever the gentleman giving up his bed. For a moment she considered floating over to him and kissing him deeply. But she was still not sure if she was ready. She slept a couple of hours as much her Super Metabolism would let her.

 “Can't sleep? It's still a couple of hours till sunrise.” Brian said while trying not to ogle her body with his eyes. It was difficult indeed.

 “It's alright Brian I just need a … Power Nap.” She laughed a little at her inadvertent jest.

Her smile made Brian's heart leap. Not only because he was in love with her. But the fact she made a joke was a good sign of her recovery.

“Power nap. That is a good one. Well then let’s get you some coffee and Breakfast. I do a mean version of a Fry-Up or full English Breakfast.” Brian asked her with a friendly smile on his face.

“That sounds...wonderful Brian. When the sun comes up I can check in with the Police and see if they had any luck identifying the body yet.”

But she was thinking about something else. And not even about how he rated such a big apartment.

My, my. He is intelligent, handsome, a gentleman and he cooks breakfast! Maybe her luck was changing, just maybe – even more importantly – she could fall in love again.

 

IX, by Brantley

It was after breakfast.

Caramel looked at Brian, and Brian looked back. She could tell what was on his mind. Yet he looked hesitant, as if he were afraid – as if he feared what might happen to him if he tried to do what he so obviously longed to do.

She had been afraid, too – there were still the memories of the world she’d come from. But she’d gotten used to being a real superheroine here. She knew men wanted her – and not for torture. She’d begun playing with herself, imagining what it would be like. It felt good. She didn’t want to wait any longer.

“It’s all right,” she told Brian. “I can enfold you in my aura. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

It took him a moment to register surprise, as if he might have heard something about auras but hadn’t quite believed it.

“You mean?”

“We’ve got business in the bedroom.”

He was quick on the uptake this time, and she followed him in.

“Take your clothes off!” she said – but said it with a light tone of promise, and began stripping herself.

When he stood before her naked, his manhood rampant, she urged him to lie back on his bed.

“Let me take care of that,” she said. “Let me take care of you.”

Joining him on the bed, she impaled herself on him, and it felt good, oh so good. She savored the stretching sensation, then began to grind herself against him, knowing it would drive him crazy.

He reached out to squeeze her breasts, their tips already rigid, and she sighed with pleasure. She began moving up and down, and that drove him even crazier, until he just couldn’t stand it any more and came inside her – she could actually feel him come, and that made her come. All the hurt she had harbored from that other world vanished like a puff of smoke as she gave herself up to pleasure.

When Brian wanted to change positions, Caramel appealed to what she knew was one of the favorite fantasies of this world. “Bullets can’t hurt these,” she said, proffering her breasts. “Your hands can’t hurt them, your teeth can’t hurt them.” She came again when he savaged them, her orgasm erupting from her nipples and traveling between her legs.

She was aching to have him inside her again, and again she teased him. “Fuck me hard!” she cried. “Fucking can’t hurt my body!” Brian pounded her ruthlessly, until she thought the very bed might break, and when she came again, right after he came, it was so powerful that she almost fainted. But there was something else as the Big One faded into afterglow.

“I remember,” she moaned. “I remember.”

X, by Brantley

 

"My name is Hladgerd," she said.

She was no longer Caramel Fox; at least she didn't have to be. Her true name had been bestowed on her by her parents on World 125, where the Vikings had conquered northern and central Europe and the Dutch and English North America, and honored a legendary Norse shield maiden. Not that she was a maiden; far from it – the epochal orgasm that had restored her memory had brought back visions of hot times with other men and even other women in her home timeline – along with pride in her deeds as a superheroine: in her timeline, as in others, there were emergencies to be dealt with.

Until the day of the false witch.

There were still those in parts of World 125 who believed in what would elsewhere be called witchcraft. Wise women who lived in their own communes but often traveled alone had long been honored as healers and oracles, trusted advisors to kings and warrior chieftains. But there were no longer kings and chieftains, and the volvur played only a ceremonial role at occasions ranging from installation of elected leadings to wedding and funerals. They also gave their blessings to the skjodur meyjar, as superheroines were known there.

With the discovery of the New World, some of the Norse had settled there and become a subculture, bringing the ceremonial functions of tthe volvur with them. Hladgerd had grown up in both cultures as part of her mixed ancestral heritage. With the advent of cross-time travel, New Amsterdam welcomed visitors from other timelines, and the volvur even shared expertise with members of shamanistic cults from other timelines like the voudoun of Caribe. It was more a matter of art and entetainment rather than esoteric knowledge to take seriously.

One day, Hladgerd encountered a woman who claimed to be a visiting volva and showed off what she described as her timeline's high tech version of a wand used in sorcery – seidhr as her own people called it, which in fact amounted to a special effect.

"Let me bless you," the woman said, raising her wand.

Only when she activated it, Hladgerd had found herself in that nightmare world, bereft of her memory.

She poured it all out to Brian, who took her in his arms for comfort rather than sex. Hladgerd welcomed that, but told him that they would have to part for a time. She had to deal with World 666, and with its sinister tebtacles on other worlds – including Brian's. But she would need help, and knew where to get it – from Ezusi and Steve Conroy and Arda Gand.

And yet the real breakthrough had already come from an unexpected quarter – a TV personality.

Vick Walters had approached Ezusi, known on World 27 as Omega Girl, seeking an interview with Caramel Fox. Omega Girl was easy to find, whereas Caramel was keeping a low profile. But Ezusi was immediately suspicious, since Walters had never shown any previous interest in her or other superheroines.

"She's the new kid on the block," he'd tried to explain.

"And I'm the old kid?"

"Obviously not," he said, leering at her crudely.

Ezusi didn't mind being lusted after; being a superheroine had its rewards, and she was happy to share her body with men, and even women, who admired her as a superheroine. But there was something insincere about this particular man. She gave him the brush-off, but decided to find out more about him – with the Internet, it wouldn't take long, and it didn't.

Walters had a serious attitude problem, especially towards women – he thought they should stick to making babies and keeping house. His interviewing style was confrontational, filled with invective and innuendo. Yet he had a strong following on the National News Network, and appearing on his show was good for exposure. Maybe that was why Hillary Clinton had accepted his invitation. Of course, Hillary may have calculated that venturing into the lion's den would gain her sympathy – and votes.

So why would he have wanted to interview Caramel?

Walters reportedly lived alone, and it wasn't hard to find out where.

"So I decided to do an illegal search," Ezusi told Caramel – she still thought of her as Caramel – a few days later at Brian's. "It seemed to be warrented, under the circumstances."

What she had found had shocked and disgusted her. And struck a raw nerve in Hladgerd.

"We should kill him!" she cried.

"I'd love to," Ezusi said calmly. "But we can do better. We can kill the entire operation. We can start with Arda; anything Walters knows will be an open book to her, and Steve and the Crosstime Center will know what to do with it."

It was her references to Gand and Conroy that prompted Brian to reveal his connections with Tempest and Terra Somnium's operation. The ramifications of the conspiracy against superheroines ranged further than Ezusi and Hladgerd could have imagined. That it should threaten the future of all timelines.... Brian's own role had come as a complete surprise to Hladgerd, and she might have felt used – but she couldn't complain. He'd been doing the right thing, and his lovemaking had been heavenly – quite apart from having restored her life and her very soul.

"We should call a summit meeting," he proposed.

It turned out that even though Arda Gand had been to the 31st Century, it hadn't been the same timeline as Brian's – you could still get a decent cup of coffee there. She and Brian had a lot to share when they got together at his place with Ezusi, Hladgerd and Conroy and his staff. They laid their plans carefully before approaching the authorities here on World 27.

It was a complicated operation, and it begun at NNN headquarters, where Arda Gand was accompanied by agents of the FBI Organized Crime Unit and the Crosstime Centeer, based on a warrant issued by the Special Court for Crosstime Crime. As a certified telepath, Gand was to perform a scan on Vick Walters to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to hold him for further questioning.

The raiders bullied their way past NNN Security, and headed for Walters' office. NNN staffers looked at them in disbelief. Nothing like this had ever happened at the network office, and nobody had any idea what it was all about. Except for one man, who had to know what it was all about as he stepped out of his office to see what was causing the commotion.

Dr. Conroy had been deputized to break the news, although he had no power of arrest. It was a matter of protocol, but also of personal honor.

"Mr. Walters, these law officers are here to pursue an investigation of cross-time crime. It is a serious matter, serious enough that the Special Court has authorized the use of a registered telepathic agent."

"How dare you?" Walters protested. "Do you know who I am?"

Arta Gand bored into his mind, sickened at what she found, but maintained her composure.

"Yes, we know exactly who you are, and tomorrow the whole world will know."

She nodded to Donald Pettus, the FBI agent leading the team.

"I certify that there is sufficient evidence to detain this man."

Now it was Pettus' turn.

"Victor Roland Walters, you are charged as an accessory after the fact to trafficking in mind control technology and trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual abuse through mind control. You have the right to refuse further telepathic probing, and anything learned from such probing cannot be used against you in the Special Court. But under the Homeworld Security law, it can be used to justify a search of your effects at this office and your place of residence."

Walters turned ashen.

"Then he started whimpering like a whipped dog," Steve told Hladgerd afterwards. "He knew it was all over for him."

And indeed it was, when the news broke. Nobody else in the media, from Nancy Grace to Glenn Beck, had a kind word to say for him, and he committed suicide before he could be brought to trial. But the Cross-Time Center and Terra Somnium, knowing that the news would spread across timelines and put the prime movers of World 666 on notice, had already put a joint operation in motion to attack the Evil Empire at its source.

Well in advance of alerting the authorities, Dr. Conroy's cybergeeks had analyzed all the evidence from Walters' apartment, traced all the links from timeline to timeline, from middlemen to the men – and even a few women posing as witches – at the top of the chain. The cut-outs engaged in trafficking the sadistic videos would be dealt with by the authorities in their own timelines – or by Crosstime agents if the authorities were compromised. But for those directly involved in kidnapping and enslaving superheroines, there would be no mercy...

* * *

And so it had all come out here.

The secret masters of the mind-control operation on World 666 had been terminated. It was ironic, Hladgerd thought, that their headquarters had been in one of the twin towers of this world's version of the World Trade Center, the upper stories of which were now burning. Only there hadn't been any planes, or jet fuel. The fire would burn itself out, and she and her comrades had taken care to see that none but the criminals came to harm.

It had begun with stealth.

A team of Crosstime Center cybergeeks rented a building a mile away under a dummy corporate name, and hacked into the command and control system of Living Dolls, as the porn operation called itself. The object was to remain undetected while breaking the encryption of the mind-control units. Once that had been accomplished, a team of superheroines with heat vision but impersonating contract service personnel entered the tower and took the elevator to the floor just below the Living Dolls complex. From there, they took to the stairwells and sealed the exits from the complex to the stairwells. When they reported back to the cybergeeks, it was time to shut down the system.

Stealth was at an end, as scores of trapped superheroines awakened from their nightmares and awakened to their powers. Hladgerd herself flew to join them, as Dr. Conroy had promised, and was joined by Ezusi, Tempest and others – one for each floor.

"Jailbreak!" Hladgerd shouted as she crashed through a window on the top floor, and she could hear the others on the floors below her. They who had been prisoners moments bedfore were already breaking out of their cells, to the consternation their warders – who didn't know which way to turn. A few had the presence of mind to realize that something had gone terribly wrong, and headed for the elevators. But the elevators weren't working, and when some of them tried the emergency doors, they wouldn't open.

Freed superheroines were attacking their former warders and tormentors with unrestrained ferocity; some begged for mercy but were shown none – it was turning into a slaughter. But Hladgerd herself was after bigger game – the biggest game of all. It stood to reason that the top man would have his quarters on the top floor.

And then a panel the wall next to her slid aside and the Black Devil emerged. He was dressed in black head to toe, like a Catholic monk, save that his face was covered and his head was adorned with two horns. From his neck hung a cross, but it was an upside down version of the Christian symbol. And in his right hand was some sort of weapon.

"Slut!" the creature screamed. "Whore!"

Hladgerd remembered what Steve had told her after her rescue: "...the next time they see you, it won't be you. Not the you they know.”

"Do you know who I am?" she taunted the Black Devil. "I am your doom."

"Not so," the creature countered. "I am yours."

And he fired his weapon. A blindingly-bright beam struck her in the chest. It would have vaporized any ordinary human, but she was no ordinary human. The beam splashed harmlessly against her invulnerable body, serving only to illuminate her breasts, which shone like twin beacons. The Black Devil must know by now how helpless he was against her; his grip on the weapon began to falter, and the beam shifted from Hladgerd to the wall behind her. It tore through the plaster and wood, starting a fire that began to spread in all directions – like any place of business, there were all kinds of things that would burn: anything made of wood or paper or plastic. Something nearby, she never learned what, was flammable enoough to go up in a burst of flame.

The blowback caught the Black Devil, turning him into a human torch. Yet even as he died, he screamed at her for being a slut and a whore.

Hladgerd seemed to be alone on the top floor now; the sound of the automatic alarms had barely registered. But she headed for the exit; somebody had already unsealed the door, and freed superheroines who didn't have the power of flight were headikng down the stairs from the other stories. Those who could fly had presumably already left through the windows and made their way to the Crosstime Center's command post.

 

Hladgerd had taken flight. She stood now on that rooftop a mile from the scene. Below, the Crosstime Center agents and the other superheroines were celebrating, which included a lot of sex. Cybergeeks rarely had it so good. But she wasn't thinking about the cybergeeks. She was thinking about the future. She would have to visit her home timeline; perhaps she would want to live there again. Or perhaps not. She had found new friends and comrades on World 27, and there was plenty of work to do there.

And of course, there was Brian. He'd love the way she looked tonight, on this rooftop...

 

THE END