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Air Force Two
By Michael Hutchison
Illustrations by Kurt Belcher
except for Giggling Gremlin by Erik Burnham

If, at any point, you are confused (or offended) by this story, feel free to read my notes on it. Beware, these do contain some spoilers for the story.

"We'll be touching down in Des Moines in approximately five hours, Mr. Gore. The pilots are trying to avoid the worst of the weather."

From his private desk on Air Force Two, Al Gore put down his speech to the AFL-CIO and touched the speakerphone. "Thank you, Kerry. And you can call me Al." His new aide was still calling him "Mr. Gore" after two months.

Kerry snorted when she laughed. "You remind me of Paul Simon!"

Al smirked. "Kerry, I don't wear ugly bow ties."

"Oh, not that Paul Simon. I mean-"

"The guy from Simon and Garfunkle, right."

Kerry was caught off-guard. "Er, no, I meant that singer who did 'Graceland'!"

Al Gore sighed, wondering how he got so old. "They're the same one, Kerry. Thank you. If you see Tipper around, let her know I need to talk to her." As though there was anywhere on Air Force Two that she could disappear to. As though their movements weren't tracked by people every minute of every day. It was an old habit that the Vice President still hadn't broken after six years.

A sharp electronic siren echoed through the hall, bringing two Secret Service agents hustling into the room, pistols drawn. The larger one, "Max," stood close to Gore with his eye on the door, while the other one, Fred, punched keys on a wall-mounted computer system. Twenty tense seconds later, Fred holstered his weapon and cleared the screen.

"The computer identifies the bogey as Booster Gold; 95% match, according to D.E.O.'s most recent costume records. He probably never even knew we were here. Didn't come closer than fifteen miles. Good thing. No flight plans, no accountability, just charge through whatever airspace like you own it all…friggin' metas. No offense, Max."

"Max Manning" shrugged it off. Few agents outside the detail knew that he was once the superhero Maxi-Man, and almost no one knew his real name. Having been hired away from the Conglomerate, he'd become a celebrity bodyguard for a high-profile security company, which had brought him to the attention of the Secret Service. Ever looking for new ways to protect the Executive Branch in a world where men walked though walls, ran at the speed of light and shot lightning from their armpits, they immediately employed him at a handsome salary for a rookie agent. Rushing him through training, Maxi-Man had been serving in the Presidential detail until just three weeks prior, when he had been quietly re-appointed to Gore's team at his own request. Of course, it meant a cut in pay due to the almost nonexistent threats to a measly VICE President.

Max had made the request when he realized he might not "take a bullet" for Clinton; considering bullets wouldn't harm him, that was saying something. Secret Service agents couldn't allow personal opinions to interfere with their duties. The Agency was disappointed but respected his decision. It was better for him to recognize his sentiments and take himself off the team than to fail when the time came for action. A rock-ribbed but fair-minded conservative, Max had no problem with Democrats in general, but he was rather disgusted with the President's actions. He wasn't a William F. Buckley when it came to discussing political matters such as perjury. He simply felt that the President of The Greatest Nation On Earth should be someone you could look in the eyes and respect…or at least trust to keep his hands off your daughter, as he'd once let slip to Fred. Max deeply respected Al Gore, all politics aside, and hoped to serve him if he became President in 2000…or sooner.

"Stand down alert, gents," their superior, Agent Halfner, ordered as he entered the room. Neal Halfner had been busily deactivating the airliner's defenses after the alert was over. "That was indeed your old buddy, Booster Gold. Sorry you didn't get a chance to say 'Hi' to him, Max. His costume's onboard computer, Skeets, just coordinated with ours and lead him on an alternate course. I apologize for the ruckus, Mr. Gore. Air Force One has this fully integrated system that will run the check and make contact on Justice League Standard Channel Alpha. It would have detected him about eight minutes sooner, too, even in this storm. But, until we have the budget to upgrade, we'll have to deal with costumes this way."

Air Force Two was always behind Air Force One in terms of defensive technology, usually because they were decommissioned A.F.O.'s. As soon as Star Labs, Ferris Aircraft, Magnus Robotics or LexCorp invented some new, major countermeasures for dealing with attacks by terrorists or supervillains, a new Air Force One would be commissioned and the Veep would get the hand-me-down.

Halfner plunked his security code into the monitor's access panel; the system smoothly receded into the oak paneling. Three seconds later it was impossible to tell that the wall contained anything besides a working Dr. Pepper dispenser. Halfner continued his muttering. "A lot of these superheroes find it cute to freak out airline passengers by waving from right outside the window. Mark my words: one of these days, one of 'em's going to do it to Air Force One and cause an incident."

Tipper Gore glided into the room carrying the evening edition of the Boston Globe and lobbed it to her husband. "Neal, I think Clinton would be happy to have any Justice Leaguer within 100 miles of him right now!" The Globe's sidebar headline was ominous enough: "SUPERMAN REBUFFS CLINTON." "Rebuff" was a rather strong word, as Superman was notoriously non-political. The incident was being blown out of proportion by a press that was reading way too much into it. At least, that was the defense being offered by James Carville on the "Larry King" show.

Whatever the Man of Steel's opinions on the issues of the day might be, he was careful to keep them to himself. The Washington pundits had long ago correctly deduced that the man who fought for Truth, Justice and the American Way was held in astonishingly high esteem by the American public, and his opinions could easily sway the vote one way or the other. This was why his few speeches were always fairly mainstream and non-partisan.

More importantly, it was why he was extremely cautious about being photographed with politicians. Superman was a strong patriot and he obviously felt like a heel that he had to refuse a photo with the President of the United States, but 1996 had shown the justification for his stance against pictures. In 1995, Superman had attended the Scott Fischer Memorial Leukemia Charity Banquet and been seated next to Bill Clinton. A year later, a photograph from that banquet of the two smiling had been used in nationwide TV spots for the Clinton campaign. For five days, he asked Clinton to stop running the ad, but Clinton insisted that he didn't control the groups paying for the spots. So, Superman finally posed for photos with billionaire Ross Perot of the Reform Party, Republican front-runner Bob Dole, the African-American conservative Alan Keyes (by that time, ex-Senator Dole's only remaining opponent for the GOP ticket) and on and on, stopping short only at the Nazi and Communist parties. And he made sure that they were all professional photos that put the 1995 paparazzi picture to shame…although Superman's features always seemed rather blurred.

Two days previous, Bill Clinton had asked Superman to use his x-ray vision to scan for bombs in a convention center, claiming that they'd gotten a threatening note from the Joker. When Superman reported in that the area was clear, the President offered his hand in gratitude. Wary that several photographers seemed to be standing ready, Superman turned away and declined at the moment the flash bulbs went off. The resulting picture, of Superman wearing a slight frown, turning away and eyeing Bill Clinton's out-stretched hand with suspicion, had been plastered across every newspaper for the past day. Despite being taken slightly out of context, it was a damning picture that no editorial cartoonist could top, and most of the captions for that photo were sure to mention that Superman never lies, allowing the reader to make the resulting conclusion.

It did not help that the administration wasn't able to produce the note from the Joker, who was currently sealed in Arkham Asylum and not allowed any writing implements.

Al Gore slid the paper away. "I've already seen the headlines," he groaned. More PR nightmares for him to handle. As one of the least scandalous members of the administration (and that only because the public found campaign finance scandals very boring), it was his job to put on a good face for the Democrats and try to throw more suspicion on the Republican Congress. All of which had very little to do with actually accomplishing anything. He'd spent the previous months on a hectic itinerary across the country, stumping for Democrats who didn't want their picture taken with Bill Clinton any more than Superman did…and there were a lot of them. Al sank into his chair and asked for some quiet time to study his speech.

As soon as Halfner and the other advisors had left, Tipper gave her husband a hug. "Kerry said you needed to see me?"

"Have you heard from Marilyn about getting together for dinner when we're in Indiana?" There was no need to say Marilyn Who. The Quayles were longtime family friends of the Gores. Many people were looking forward to a face-off between the two in 2000 just because it would probably involve little mud-slinging. "I hope they're free. I'd like to have just one meal where I didn't have to give a speech."

Tipper laughed, albeit with a sympathetic weariness. "I'll check with their people again. Marilyn thought Dan had a speaking engagement, but it was tentative. I think Dan's still upset that you called Minnesota 'Missouri' without being the butt of Letterman jokes for six month! Give me five minutes, okay?"

As Max Manning shut the door behind her, Al grabbed his remote and flipped the TV to WTBS, hoping to catch a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Instead, the loud announcer interrupted the louder commercials to shout that "Twilight Zone: The Movie" would be on right after this message. Al reduced the volume to 8 and leaned back in his chair, watching the freezing rainstorm outside. By the time Agent Webb arrived to relieve Manning, the Vice President of the United States had drifted off to a fitful nap.

In the miniscule quarters allotted the Secret Service agents, Henry "Maxi-Man" Hayes picked up a pen and tried once again to finish a letter marred by scratches, bad attempts at poetic prose and the rare teardrop. Odd how he'd once been able to write award-winning ad copy to sell appliances, but he couldn't write what was in his heart to save his life.

"Donna, I don't know if any of the things I've said can convince you to give me another chance. I can only tell you that I've changed. I've become the responsible man that you needed me to be. I've been a member of a superhero team, and now I'm protecting the life of the next President of the United States…and if that isn't good enough for you, maybe you need to ask yourself exactly why you ever threw me out. I've never stopped loving you…and the thought of another year without you or Nathan is driving me nuts. Whatever you decide…just let me know, so I can either come back home…or put our past behind me."

Henry picked up a picture of his son, now in pre-school. It was amazing how fast time passed once you had a child. It seemed like only last month that he'd kissed his son for the last time, but seeing the photo made him realize that he'd missed many important firsts in his son's life.

Henry mulled over the last lines of his letter and avoided his instinct to chuck it in the garbage can. Finally, he folded it as neatly as possible and lettered an envelope to his estranged wife. Placing a Sylvester and Tweety stamp in the upper corner, he set it on the desk and began chanting, "I WILL send it, I WILL send it…" Odd how putting paper in a mailbox could require more strength than smashing through a brick wall.

Tipper Gore finished coordinating the next month's calendar with Kerry and grabbed one of the many available portable phones. She tried Marilyn Quayle's office number, only to be greeted by sharp static. Redial. Now the line was dead. Grabbing another phone, she caught bursts of static and silence.

Catching the aide as she passed by, Tipper asked, "Kerry, is there a problem with the communications array? I can't get an outside line."

"Some reporters just asked me the same thing, Ms. Gore. The pilots did say we were having rough weather. I'll check to see if that's the cause," Kerry said, as she trotted to the front of the craft.

Agent Halfner appeared at Tipper's side. "I think that's the likeliest case. If it were just the phones, we'd be worried; jamming communications is usually the first stage of an attack. But all of our instrumentation is experiencing problems. Phones and Internet connections are pretty much out, and the "E.T." can't get a lock on the S.T.A.R. Labs satellite. Reception on your husband's TV has been going out, too. But it all seems very intermittent; we're moving north of the storm and should be out of the worst stuff within a half hour."

Tipper was impressed as always. Neal Halfner always seemed to have done ten minutes' research before anyone else ever noticed a problem. She supposed that came with having to anticipate everything from Quraci terrorists to Durlan shapechangers.

"There's a man on the wing of the plane!" came the excited shout of John Lithgow. Al Gore awoke with a jump to glance at the TV. His nap had been fitful, and through the haze he'd caught glimpses of the movie. The screen had been jumping from a faded picture to the blue screen denoting "no signal," but it had suddenly come back with a vengeance. Noting that the volume was at 30, he supposed that he'd sleepily increased it when the sound was faint.

Al glanced outside at the sleet. Against the dimmed lights of his study, he could see out the portal and watched the storm. He pressed his face to the glass and tried to look in the direction of the tail, where the sun should be, but saw only the faint outline of the wing.

And then a figure darting from the wing to the fuselage!

Al Gore leapt back, shaking the sleep from his eyes. Could he have seen that?

"…how, how could he survive? The air is so thin! The crush of the wind! It's…it's impossible, isn't it?" Al looked back to see a stewardess comforting the anxious John Lithgow, and chided himself. He'd almost summoned the Secret Service to tell them of a nightmare! His sleepy mind was obviously influenced by his watching a movie he'd seen numerous times. The storm on TV, the storm outside the plane…it all had just put him in a suggestive state, so that his drowsy mind was playing tricks on him.

Al poured a mug of coffee and thought about it. How ridiculous. A man outside the plane. As Lithgow said, it was impossible. Of course, that movie had been made before Superman appeared, hadn't it?

From her position on the rear fuselage, Gigi Clavier leaned against the tail of Air Force Two and stretched like a cat in a sunbeam. She idly scratched the hull with the claws of her feet and let the 450 mile-an-hour winds whip at her loose clothing. Only a year ago, she would have been killed any number of ways. The thin air, the hurricane wind speed, the freezing sleet which impacted like tiny bullets…all of it was intolerable to a normal human like her. Like she had been, Gigi corrected herself. Before.

Before, she had been just one more junkie. Before, she couldn't get more than a few hundred dollars selling her body on the streets of Brooklyn and had to resort to robbery. Before, she'd amassed such an arrest record by the age of 25 that the police force knew her by name. Before, she would have been considered trash, common…and could never have realistically become anything greater. Before a man with a Texas accent told her about the Complex.

The Complex had existed for years, but hadn't made any major breakthroughs until the Dominator Gene Bomb alerted Earth to the existence of the metagene. With the knowledge that 14% of the human population could develop superpowers under the right circumstances, genetics companies had exploded in productivity and innovation, and the Complex did the same. The Complex used its genetic advances to further a singular goal: designer supervillains.

Do you want to become a supervillain? For the right atrocious price, it was now possible. Would you like a specific power? They could do that. Every week, industrial spies in the D.E.O., LexCorp and Cadmus laboratories gleaned new ways to influence a metagene just so to achieve the desired effect.

The Complex found out that this enterprise wasn't as lucrative as it initially appeared. The effects of the metagene were still risky enough that few dared to undergo the procedure themselves, and you practically had to BE a supervillain already to afford the procedures. But a surprising new market had appeared, in the form of interested parties who paid for the transformation of others.

Established supervillains such as the Penguin and the Ventriloquist paid to bulletproof their henchman. Megalomaniacs such as Kobra and Ra's al Ghul offered exorbitant sums to supe-up their armies of followers.

And still others paid to endow volunteers with mission-specific abilities. We give you superpowers, you do this one job for us, we make you rich. Disposable supervillains, essentially.

And so it had been with Gigi. Strung out for two days, she'd been curled up in a drug den when a man combing the underworld arrived asking for blood tests. The right person would be given the opportunity to earn enough cash to be doing heroin until the day they died. (Now that she was off the stuff, Gigi realized the joke; heroin didn't assure a long life-span.)

Once she'd signed the papers and taken the cash advance, her benefactors had promptly locked her up and gotten her off the heroin…a requirement of which she had not been told. After a hellish period of unwilling detox, the Complex's "doctors" (most of whom had lost, or never had, a degree) submerged her into a vat of fluids and tailor-made amino acids. And then they electrocuted her. At the moment of extreme duress, her metagene activated and her body bonded with the waiting genetic matter. In one step, she'd become a metahuman with a series of pre-determined powers. Supervillain-in-a-can. They'd even triggered a genetic sequence which overrode her withdrawal pains.

Gigi glanced at her watch. It lay tight against her skin, where her personal distortion fields lessened the hammering winds to a minor gale. She had to wait five more minutes.
Giggling Gremlin

The activation at the Complex had been the work of a half hour; the development into her present form had taken longer. The doctors never told her that she'd lose her humanity in the bargain, although she couldn't honestly say whether her old self would have cared. In any case, the grey-green scales, the oversized eyes, the bat-like elfin ears…there was almost something sexy about it! She wondered if there'd still be any business as a prostitute after this mission. Who knows, maybe more demand than ever. There certainly were enough kinky people in the world.

The thought of it made her burst out in a series of snorting giggles. Her laugh, her looks, the nature of this mission…all of it had brought her new name to the front of her mind, as though it couldn't be anything else: The Giggling Gremlin.

Actually, with her ability to partially disrupt electronics, she wanted to be called Stealth, but Merl had assured her that that name was taken by an obscure alien hero. C'est la vie.

As the plane reached the edge of the storm, Giggling Gremlin used a painted fingernail to tap her wrist communicator. "G.G. to Tex! G.G. to Tex! Have you got a lock?"

"Tracking! You're out of the storm?"

"Just about. Your teleporter shouldn't have any problems, anyway. If we wait any longer, they won't be able to attribute the system failures to the storm. I say, 'Go for it', Electro-Guy!"

In the command center, Agent Halfner was trying to re-establish the security sensors. They fuzzed and spat and occasionally registered faint signals. A bright flash one mile ahead of A.F.T.'s nose caught his eye, but the monitor went back to blue screen. It didn't matter, the signal was in the computer's memory. Hands darting across the keys, he brought back the image and processed it. The computer's analysis systems knew what to do, zooming in and refining the image while simultaneously cross-checking against Department of Extranormal Operations files. The entire operation took 10 seconds.

A blurred face appeared and was identified at a 65% certainty. It was a man in a black body-stocking, his costume bearing an electrified skull on the chest. He hung in mid-air and was obviously flight-capable. The face wore a stern demeanor, topped by lightning-shaped goggles.

Bolt.

Halfner swore and hit the full alert.

In the cockpit, Captain Marquardt had seen the momentary flash, but the figure was gone by the time he focused on its location. Then he heard the alert and grabbed the microphone to signal Des Moines. Before he could open his mouth, a hand clapped him on the shoulder. Marquardt felt an odd sensation, like several hundred static-electricity shocks in a row; mild but painful. Though he couldn't turn, he saw the reflection of yellow goggles in his instruments.

"Any a' you boys does anything besahds keep flyin' the plane, and ya'll be barbecue. Got it?", Bolt drawled.

Marquardt nodded as much as he was able and hoped that it stood out in contrast to the involuntary jerks his body was doing.

Behind him, Bolt brought up his rubber-shielded wrist communicator and pressed a button which sent out his coordinates. "Materialize about 10 feet aft. Go, Warp."

The agents were scrambling to siege positions. Agent Tisha Neary flipped her Glock's safety off and ran for the cockpit. It was her duty to ensure the safety of the flight crew during an attack. This duty assignment limited her lifespan to a few more seconds.

As she approached the secured doors of the cockpit, a dull flash appeared a few feet in front of her. Tisha skidded and fell backwards. As she tried to regain her footing, the flash expanded to form a cascading six foot circle. Out of it stepped a golden-garbed man with a circular headpiece. He noticed her as she began to bring up her firearm.

Emil LaSalle, known to the newspapers as Warp, was not only capable of opening gateways through space, he was a master at it. In a wink, he'd figured out the placement for the warp hole, its destination and diameter. And then he executed it.

Agent Neary had her firearm aimed at his chest. "Don't mo-" she began.

The two-foot-wide warp opened inches above her head and exited a half mile away from the plane. The effect was like that of an industrial vacuum on a hamster. The explosive decompression forced Tisha Neary upward through the already-closing hole. A second later, the warp dissipated and only a few airborne papers denoted that it had ever existed.

"Au revoir," Warp eulogized. He had to grin. He loved the way the suction sound said his name. HWWWORP!

Giggling Gremlin saw the warp open slightly above Air Force Two. A Secret Service agent hurtled upwards from it, then was reclaimed by gravity and fell. Gigi was shocked to see that the agent was a woman. She had to remind herself that the woman was just a cop and had chosen to wear the uniform. The agent's shriek was quickly lost to the wind and the howl of the engines. Gigi wiggled her fingers at the shrinking figure and giggled, "Hope you had a nice flight! Buh-bye! Buh-bye!"

Gigi soothed what little conscience she had with the thought that the agent would be unconscious from asphyxia long before impacting in some Midwestern farmland. Probably.

Bolt unlocked the door to the cockpit while Warp opened another shimmering yellow portal to their base. From it stepped fifteen gunsels in dark turtlenecks and trousers. One gunman kept an eye on the cockpit. Three secured the communications center. The others waited until a black-garbed bowman with a goatee emerged from the warp.

Merlyn the assassin carried his bow at his side, confident that he could thread and fire an arrow in the time it took an agent to sight an Uzi. Three arrows waited in his left hand. "Gentlemen!" he said, in his clipped, precise accent, "The final member of our party awaits. Shall we secure the plane?"

Bolt rolled his eyes at his pretentious companion. "Naw, hadn't planned on it. Jeez, why don't ya just get on with it, Bow-butt?" Bolt vanished in a burst of lightning.

Merlyn clucked. "No sense of panache, that one," he murmured as he slunk off in the direction of the lower compartment

Warp proffered a piece of paper to the pilot. "Messieurs, you will re-route this craft to follow this course. I assure you that my friend with the machine gun knows how to read these instruments; if this is not done within two minutes, he will kill your co-pilot. Understood?"

Captain Marquardt again nodded.

Behind them, a dark-robed figure carrying a large black briefcase stepped from the warp field into the hallway and nodded to Warp, who promptly closed the connection to their base. The figure ducked into an alcove and waited.

At the moment Agent Neary was facing off against Warp, Al Gore and Tipper had been herded together by the Secret Service team. Guns drawn, the group raced for the stairs to the lower compartment. Halfner ran to a computer console while the Gores stepped to two small platforms.

"Checking…checking…DAMN! Sir, we're going to have to do this the old way. The Emergency Teleporter can't establish a firm link to either S.T.A.R. Labs or the Washington facility! This way," Halfner shouted as the team reassembled and proceeded to the escape pod.

One of the agents guarding their escape shouted, "Sir there's someo-…" His shout was cut off by an arrow emerging from his neck. As he fell, the others opened fire in the direction of the stairs, though the shadowy figure had already somersaulted into a side corridor.

Al and Tipper had been thrown to the floor by their respective agents, but now Agent Halfner was struggling to get them back up and into the pod a mere thirty feet away. Gurgling cries and dwindling gunfire at their backs told them that more agents were being picked off. As they raced for the pod, a blinding flash signaled the arrival of Bolt. Bolt took two seconds to get his bearings, then promptly electrocuted Agent Halfner. The Vice President stepped in front of his wife to protect her, uncertain as to the intentions of the known assassin.

Bolt grinned and glanced toward the corpses of the security detail before clicking his communicator. "Bolt to Warp: the V.I.P.'s are secured. Do a final check for any other agents and secure the staff."

"Max Manning" had been caught in the middle of showering when the alert went off. He'd leapt into his pants, donned his jacket over his bare skin, slid his feet into his shoes and grabbed his firearm. Then he'd stepped on his loose laces and rammed his head into the wall. He'd been hastily tying his laces when he heard the first gunfire and headed for the hallway. He'd taken four steps before realizing he'd dropped his firearm when he stumbled. He darted back into his room, found the gun, raced up the hallway…and came face to face with Warp.

"Doing that now, Bolt," Warp calmly said to his wrist.

As a member of the Conglomerate, Maxi-Man had seen Warp's file. The team's leader, Booster Gold, had stressed the importance of recognizing all known supervillains. Although he'd never found it useful as a member of that team, that knowledge now saved Henry Hayes' life. Maxi-Man embedded his fingers in the metal of an inner wall just as Warp opened another portal to the depressurized atmosphere. This portal was six feet wide and only two feet to Henry's left.

Maxi-Man gripped the metal for all his life and watched as papers and loose items flew by. Ahead of them, reporters and staffers screamed and clung to their seats. Warp was using his flight ability to stay relatively stable.

Warp's smug expression fell as he finally noticed the way the security agent had anchored himself. He flew forward and attempted to pry Max's fingers loose. "Mon dieu! You're strong!" he exclaimed as he hovered close to the struggling agent.

Maxi-Man knew that the decompression wouldn't last much longer…if he could just hang on a few more seconds. Another piece of paper flew past his nose. The brightly-colored image of Sylvester and Tweety caught his eye as it disappeared into the warp hole.

Maxi-Man was mad now. Anchoring himself with his renewed right grip, he swung his left hand backwards and was satisfied to see Warp carom off the walls. The warp hole closed. Warp lay still on the floor.

"Ah, rats! Of all the lousy days to attack…you know how long it took me to write that letter?" Maxi-Man shook Warp's prone figure as he double-checked that the villain was unconscious. He grumbled as he checked for a way to disable Warp's abilities, hoping that it was something technical and not an internalized ability. "Stupid helmet-wearing frog! Now I've got to start all over and…"

"And DIE!" Max heard, as thousands of volts struck him from behind.

Bolt stepped over Maxi-Man's body and lifted Warp by the collar to drag him into an empty conference room. Bolt checked Warp's pulse. Sure enough, the insulated costume had protected him from the lightning blast which had killed the Secret Service agent. Not that he cared about Warp, but Warp's abilities would be handy when it was time to make a get-away. Actually, given Bolt's own teleporting powers, he'd be able to escape no matter what. So what did he care if the others were stuck here? Bolt pressed his comlink.

"Gremlin? It's time."

The musical voice came in loud and clear, despite the rush of wind and engine noise. "Ya got it, cowboy!"

Giggling Gremlin nimbly skipped to the center of the fuselage, kneeled and spread her arms. She closed her arms and concentrated. In a moment, she'd mentally enabled the "relativity tube." The plane was enclosed in a tube of energy that extended to the horizon in both directions. Through the red haze of the tube, she could see the Earth racing by. Inside the tube, the plane traveled at 450 miles an hour…but Air Force Two now circled the world every five minutes.

Bolt proceeded to the passenger area, where the staff and the reporters had gathered. "Howdy, people," he drawled, "I'm hopin' you all'll hush for a minute so's you can come out of this alive."

Silence immediately ensued. Bolt searched their faces, committing them to memory so that he'd notice if any disappeared later. They seemed, for the most part, extremely frightened…with the exception of a woman who was caring for an injured aide.

"Here's whut's happening: we've taken control of this here plane. Siddown and shut up. Ummm…that's all."

One of the reporters grabbed his hand-held tape recorder, which he'd fortunately clipped to his belt, and pushed it close to Bolt's mouth. "Mr. Bolt, could you tell us more about your plans?"

The bravery of this reporter bolstered the others. They scrambled for papers, writing instruments and recording devices, trying to dig them up from the junk which had been flying around. The horde converged on Bolt.

"Are you kidnapping the Vice President?"

"Is Al Gore okay?"

"Who are you working for?"

"Why are you going after a Vice President?"

"Did you mean to board Air Force One?"

"Is Mrs. Gore all right?"

"What do you think Clinton's chances are of staying in office?"

"Is this an environmental statement?"

"If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"

"Can you tell us if Batman exists or is just an urban myth?"

"Are you working for the auto industry?"

"…the Republicans?"

"…Judge Starr?"

Bolt held up his hand to call for silence, then said, "Okay, I'll give an exclusive, career-making story to the first reporter who volunteers." In the front of the group, a glasses-wearing reporter thrust his hand into the air.

"Me, sir! I'm Tucker Nickelatti of the Des Moines Register!"

Bolt fried him. "Fine! 'Reporter First Hostage To Die on Air Force Two' by Tucker Nickelatti. You folks be shoor to give 'em credit, got that?" The other reporters nodded assent. Bolt continued, "Good! Now, siddown and don't get any ideas about playing Die Hard. Your only chance to live is if our plan succeeds. This plane has been hyper-accelerated to where no one can touch us, and we're the only ones who can slow it down again. I don't want to hear a peep."

Dmitri Pushkin Gorki was vacationing near Vladivostok when the call came in from his government. A vehicle was crossing through Russian airspace every five minutes, following the same course each time. The vehicle traveled at a speed that barred interception by MiGs. It was hoped that Dmitri's armor from Apokolips might be able to catch up to it.

Dmitri was airborne within minutes, and he kicked his engines in the buttocks, as the Americans said. Although the Rocket Red Brigade had copied his armor's design, most of the equipment was far beyond the ability of Earth's technology to duplicate and the Brigade models were only pale imitators.

Rocket Red's sensors located the object, which appeared to be a Boeing 747. He couldn't reach its position for another two minutes, by which time it was a third of the way around the world. But it would come back in a moment.

Hovering, Dmitri reacquainted himself with the sensors and controls. Not reading Apokoliptian – he had it rough just studying English, French, Quraci and Chinese – he'd never truly mastered everything this armor could do. He'd never flown as fast as this jet and hoped he could match the 747's speed. He also wondered if the suit's inertia buffers would keep pace or if he'd wind up a super-sized can of jelly.

He couldn't see the plane, as it would cross from horizon to horizon in a blink, but his sensors anticipated its presence and he accelerated along its heading. His sensors detected a shimmering, rippling smear of energy arcing across the sky, no doubt a residue of this strange plane's energy source. He boosted his suit to the maximum and gritted his teeth. It was close…close enough to pace the Boeing for a moment and make contact or shoot it down if necessary. As the plane came up behind him, he crossed into the red energy trail…and screamed.

Dmitri fell.

"Oh, Lois, that feels so good. My muscles have been aching for two days!"

Lois kissed her husband's neck as she rubbed his shoulders. "Clark, explain to me…" she said, between nibbles, "…how it's even possible for you to feel my hands? I mean, this should be like massaging one of the Metal Men, but your skin just feels like skin. How can you ignore bullets and yet feel my fingers?"

Clark Kent twisted in the recliner to look at her…and smiled his good-natured grin. "I'm not entirely sure, but I think it's because my powers are slightly psionic in nature. I know that's true of my flight and my ability to support huge objects, but it all comes naturally to me. I don't have to think about it for it to work. In the same way, I think I can feel things IF I want to…but I'm not sure how it works, exactly."

Lois stopped as a sudden thought came to her. "But…um…if your invulnerability is energy-based, why wouldn't Cadmus be able to dissect you once you were dead? I mean, your body couldn't process sunlight and your brain couldn't be creating a protective field…"

Clark cut her off. "Hon, I don't know all the answers about how my powers work. I'd have to guess that it was because I wasn't 100% dead. But if you're complaining because I can feel your body against mine just 'cause I can't explain it," he said, spinning around and taking her in his arms, "I can always stop!"

Lois wrapped her arms around the broad shoulders of her Superman. "Oh, don't you even try to get away. I've been looking forward to this weekend for too long. You are mine for an entire three…"

Clark winced and clutched his ears. "Agh! What the—"

Lois knew in an instant that his super-hearing had picked up a signal of some kind. She had already developed the habit of stepping back so as not to lose an arm if he raced off at the speed of light. "The J.L.A.?"

Clark was already in his Superman outfit as he responded, "Worse. The White House Priority Signal. I can't reveal the details, but you'd better get ready; this will be a pretty big story when it breaks!"

In a blink, Superman had left their apartment and raced for the upper atmosphere. Forming a parabolic arc, he cut down his travel time and was in orbit above Air Force Two's last reported position by the time Lois finished saying, "Be careful."

Superman found the strange energy trail with his wide range of optic senses. Tracing the faint energy tube with both his telescopic and X-Ray vision, he spotted Air Force Two several thousand miles away. It would be above Missouri in a few moments. Superman dropped to the 35,000 foot altitude and waited for the plane, examining the strange tube that hung in the air.

Air Force Two shot past him, but it took Superman only a second to catch up and pace the vehicle. He put out a hand hesitantly, unsure as to the nature of the energy field which separated him from the Vice President's plane. Now that he was traveling almost 300,000 miles an hour, it was difficult to study the tube. As he got within five feet of it, a sharp voice caught him off guard.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Superman!"

Superman spun in the air to see the gleaming metal body of Captain Atom right behind him. He should have expected the Captain to show up. Captain Atom was a hero trusted by the government and was often called in on cases of national security. Many members of the Pentagon trusted a human American military officer more than a humanoid, cape-wearing alien with a wider worldview.

Captain Atom was actually Captain Nathaniel Adam, part of a government experiment in the 1960s. As part of a dangerous test involving an alien metal, he'd been thrown through the quantum field and had merged with the metal. This new being had emerged into the 1990s with vast energy powers. Unbeknownst to all but Captain Atom, Nathaniel Adam's consciousness had been imprinted on the living metal, but the real Nathaniel Adam had remained in the quantum field. Captain Atom wondered if the Pentagon would trust a living gob of metal with delusions of sentience anymore than they would a Kryptonian, should the secret ever get out.

Captain Atom pulled alongside Superman. Atom wore a durable S.T.A.R. Labs headset and handed another one to Superman; it made conversation easier at their current velocity.

"Captain Atom! I see the Pentagon made good time in calling you in."

"Actually, Superman, they called me a while ago. I'd raced Air Force Two across the Pacific and caught up just in time to see Rocket Red get knocked out by that energy field. Dmitri'd be a crater in the Baltics if I hadn't caught him! I had to take him to a hospital or I'd have been here sooner."

Superman wasn't able to hide the concern in his voice. "Is Dmitri going to be okay?"

"He's a tough old bear, so hopefully, yeah. I've got the doctor reporting his findings to me on this channel. It appears Dmitri tried to cross the energy field and didn't get very far before he was knocked out. From what we can tell, this is a relativity field. The space inside it is going a very different speed. So trying to cross it, you suddenly get hit with this blast of inertia that tears you in different directions. If it wasn't for that superior armor…and the inertia buffers inside it, which lessened the blow to his body's systems…Dmitri would've been torn in itty-bitty pieces as he crossed the threshold," Captain Atom reported, wincing at the mental image it had conjured up. Dmitri had become a member of the old Justice League International the same week that Captain Atom joined, and the two had been good friends ever since.

Superman regarded the energy field and moved a few more feet away from it. "Now I see what you mean," he mused, "about the different speeds. Outside, we're going about 290,000 miles an hour. The tube is forcing the contents of the field to move at almost the same speed, while Air Force Two is flying about 450 miles an hour through the still air inside it. That pink glow is from burning air molecules on the fringe of the field. Were you and I to cross the threshold, we'd leave our stomachs behind…but I bet you and I can survive it. Are you game?"

Captain Atom grinned. "I don't really have any stomach to leave behind, so a solid hunk of metal shouldn't have a problem crossing. What about the field's integrity? Think we'd do any damage by going through it?"

Superman looked back at the tube of energy, then paused. "Probably not, but we should try to gather more information from out here first."

Atom drew closer to the field so as to look through its translucent "surface". "Your X-Ray vision will come in handy. We can find out exactly what we're dealing with before going in."

"Unfortunately not," Superman said, shaking his head. "The Pentagon had all Executive Craft and government buildings lined with lead…I guess so that I couldn't steal state secrets and sell them to the Quracis."

"Or maybe to keep you from peeping in on Bill's liaisons with Monica!" Superman shot a glance at Captain Atom. Atom's metal hull blushed. "Sorry, Superman, I guess I've been hanging around the Blue Beetle too much. Go on."

"All I can see is through the windows," Superman continued, "and I think I've spotted Bolt. He's an electric-powered assassin with flying and teleporting abilities. He must have flown close enough to get a lock on its position and teleport inside; Air Force Two probably doesn't have any countermeasures for that."

"I know Bolt. I don't think he has the power to do this kind of warp field, though. Or the brains, really," Atom said, glancing back at the plane. Suddenly, Captain Atom spotted something. "Ummm, Superman, I could just be mistaking this, but…is that a woman in a babushka?"

Superman scanned all of the windows. "Which part of the plane?"

"The outside of the plane!"

Superman pulled back his telescopic vision and saw her. Sure enough, a woman was clearly standing on top of the plane. It hadn't even entered Superman's mind to check the exterior. "Yes, it's a woman…of sorts," Superman reported, "wearing a lot of gypsy clothing. She has some oversized facial features, claws and scaly skin, but I think she's human."

Captain Atom relayed this on a private channel on his headpiece, then turned to Superman as he summed up. "So, we've got an unknown woman on the outside and at least one known supervillain on the inside. They've put the plane in a position where almost every person on Earth can't reach it. They haven't contacted anyone to make any demands, and we've no idea who's alive on the plane." Captain Atom waited. Superman found it difficult to not eavesdrop on Captain Atom's conversation. Finally, Captain Atom reactivated his link to Superman and said, "Here's the deal. You and I are supposed to take flanking positions around the plane to make sure no one else tries to intercept it. We are NOT to cross the field; if we do disrupt the relativity field, the plane's toast! Meanwhile, the D.E.O. has got a…specialist…putting a team together to board the plane and re-take control."

Superman noted the hesitancy in Atom's voice. "Who's the specialist?"

"She's got a lot of experience at this kind of thing."

"Who?"

Captain Atom reluctantly muttered, "Amanda Waller."

One Half Hour Earlier

Amanda Waller's new office at the Department of Extra-Normal Operations did not have a title on the door. Even amongst the shadowy activities of the organization, Waller's role was not popular.

Amanda Waller was the genius behind the Suicide Squad, a team of operatives that carried out covert missions for the United States government. The fact that this team was mostly composed of supervillains who used the service to negotiate parole or pardons did not sit well with the politicians who had discovered it, and Amanda had privatized the team. Recently, the D.E.O. had quietly brought her on board to fill the same role…but the Suicide Squad's penchant for high-profile snafus made it a risky proposition for a government organization that would rather keep out of the newspapers. In the Suicide Squad's history, the number of operations that had gone off without a hitch could be counted on one hand that was missing a couple fingers.

Word of Air Force Two's disappearance had just begun circulating through the building, and Amanda had already contacted Oracle through the Internet in anticipation.. Oracle was a young, mousy, red-headed, handicapped woman who spent most of her life on the Internet gathering information; she was tremendously useful when it came to contacting superhumans. That was as much as she knew about her on-line friend…and it was surprisingly little for Amanda, given her reputation for being a control freak. An essential part of their relationship was that Amanda agreed to not dig any deeper. Surprisingly, although they'd met only once, Amanda trusted her about as much as she'd ever trust anyone in her life. She'd even suggested Oracle as a replacement leader for the Squad, should anything happen to her.

Amanda activated the speaker system on her computer so that they could talk. Oracle's typing speed was amazing, but Amanda preferred talking. It was harder to be intimidating in print…and "being intimidating" was Amanda Waller's only superpower. Amanda grabbed a celery stick and gestured to the speakers, saying, "Am I coming through OK, Oracle?"

"Fine, Amanda. What do you need?" came the electronic response. Amanda Waller found it amusing that Oracle wouldn't use her real voice, even after meeting in person. Oracle preferred a synthesizer program that simulated her actual voice quite closely but not enough to be evaluated.

"The Secret Service has lost contact with Air Force Two, and air defense has detected a super-fast object orbiting the Earth every five minutes. We think they're one and the same. We've got Captain Atom checking up on it, and it sounds like the Russians have already summoned Rocket Red to do the same. Keep this hush-hush, as it hasn't been made public yet," Amanda added.

Oracle answered, with some amusement, "I already know about it."

Barbara "Oracle" Gordon sat back in her wheelchair and wished she could see Amanda Waller's reaction. Once known as Batgirl, a bullet had taken her out of commission and she now served her superhero friends as an information broker on the Internet. It was a career that had developed from her service to the Suicide Squad, and she continued to assist Amanda Waller from time to time. But now she was an official member of the Justice League, which gave her access to very high level reports…such as the disappearance of the vice-presidential plane. She idly wondered if Amanda would deduce her JLA membership, then dismissed the idea. Most likely, Amanda would conclude that she'd hacked the information from government sources.

"Girl, you got a direct connection to God or something? I swear, you're the most highly networked person in existence!" her speaker growled at her.

Oracle's fingers danced across the keyboard: "It only seems that way. What are you doing to resolve the situation?" With one sentence, she not only got the conversation back on track but also deflected Amanda's concentration from her identity.

The loud crunch of celery came across the speaker. Oracle pulled up Amanda Waller's file and added a new entry: "Dieting again. Back to old weight now in desk job?"

"Hmmm. I haven't been officially contacted yet…you never know when the JLA or the Teen Titans might interfere…but this is probably going to require metahuman involvement. We don't have any technology capable of reaching that plane's speed, assuming it is Air Force Two."

"I can tell you for a fact that the JLA cannot intervene as an entity. Only a few of the members are on-planet at the moment. I was in touch with one just this morning, so I can attest to that," Oracle wrote, hoping she was keeping it ambiguous enough. She couldn't give too much away about the JLA's current operations for security reasons, nor did she want to reveal her dual role as JLA's Data Central. "Aside from Superman, the only others are The Flash, Big Barda, Aquaman and Orion, but they wouldn't be much help in this situation."

"Okay, so the JLA are out, and practically all of the other superteams have disbanded. That means we don't have to contend with unsanctioned meddling from overpowered amateurs. I hope, anyway. The thought of Impulse and Superboy interfering is a powder keg I hope to avoid!" Amanda said, repressing a shudder. "That means I'll probably get the call to assemble a team in a few minutes, and I'd like to be loaded for bear."

Oracle accessed her database of current metahumans, ranked by attributes, competence and availability before replying. "What are we talking: overt or covert?"

Amanda tapped her chin with a piece of celery as she thought, then replied, "I think covert, unless Captain Atom gives us new information. Presently, I'm assuming that Gore is on that fast-moving object and he's alive. I'm assuming that this isn't a hostage negotiation, as no one has claimed responsibility or made demands. Therefore, Plan A is to somehow board Air Force Two with a strike force of competent, trustworthy covert agents. Which eliminates most of the people ever in the Suicide Squad. Most of them would kill everyone on board and then punch through the hull. But a few ex-Squad agents come to mind."

"Nightshade and Nemesis," Oracle replied, without missing a beat.

"Yep. Nightshade can get the team aboard and Nemesis can infiltrate by masquerading as someone aboard the plane. They're perfect. Unfortunately, they both hate my guts and refuse to work with me. Eve Eden's been mad ever since I used her secret identity as leverage to get her father to drop the congressional investigation into the Suicide Squad. And Tom Tresser's disliked my leadership style since day one. I haven't really talked with either of them since the Eclipso mess," Amanda said, bitter at the memory. The 'mess' had been nothing less than a massacre of a half-dozen fine super-agents by the monster known as Eclipso. Only two of them had since turned up alive, which was a shockingly low level of resurrections for the superhero community.

Oracle's reconstructed voice seemed excited. Amanda wondered if Oracle had "emote" icons that told the synthesizer how to act. "Amanda, wait! I just opened a message from Robin. Nemesis is dead! He was killed on an undercover mission. I was the one who put him in touch with Catwoman, and Batman heard Catwoman say that he bled to death on the floor of a crimelord's mansion when…"

Speaking of resurrections… "Girl, you don't go believing everything some burglar says, okay? Tom Tresser was on a special mission for the D.E.O. to learn Catwoman's identity and any other secrets she may possess. That 'crimelord', his flunkies, the supposed renegade agent…they were just C.B.I. operatives. Tom's fine, aside from some stomach injuries when his blood pack burst. Or did you really think that a government agent had to go to the best thief in the world just to study basic safecracking?"

"Agh!" Tom Tresser exclaimed as he bent to pick up his disguise kit. The explosive burns on his stomach had faded, but he could feel them whenever he flexed his gut. Some salve would be nice, but he'd have to find some at the D.E.O. headquarters. There was barely enough time to jump into his Nemesis uniform and grab his equipment. Nightshade was due to pick him up in two minutes. Tom straightened his black shirt so that the stylized Scales of Justice were right over his heart.

The thought of seeing Eve again was painful. He still loved her, but she refused to go any further with their relationship until she defeated the demon inside her. Unfortunately, the demon was quite real and quite determined to never give up possession of her soul. The Succubus was the basis of her magical powers, and using those powers only weakened her control.

Nemesis tightened his shoulder straps and holstered his gun as he heard the familiar "Tzee-tzee-tzee-VOOMP" of Nightshade's portal opening behind him. He took a deep breath and turned.

Nightshade was as frighteningly beautiful as ever. Her dark black lips against her pale white skin were always the first thing he noticed. Her cascade of body-length hair wriggled and writhed like the living shadow it was. Her shapely figure was quite visible beneath the blue velvet-and-black body stocking that she called a costume. Personally, he'd always liked her older outfit, as it made it easier for him to relax around her.

"Tom," she said, as a way of greeting. She tried to distance herself, and he knew it was for his sake. He wanted to take her in his arms and vow to protect her, but modern knights had to balance chivalry with sexual equality. Besides, there was nothing an inventor with a penchant for disguise could do against a demon. It pained him, but her fight was truly up to her alone.

"Eve," he agreed, pointing to the dark circle that hung in the air. "Did you repair the dimension, or do I still have to close my eyes?"

"I've managed to stabilize the Nightshade dimension so that it won't drive a visitor insane, but I'd still recommend that you close your eyes. I'll be your guide. Just take my hand and we'll be at the D.E.O. offices in a moment," Nightshade said in her whispering voice.

She extended her left glove to Nemesis. He looked at the hand that seemed as delicate as that of a music box dancer and wondered when he last held it. Finally, he placed his hand in her deceptively strong grip and she led him through the portal to the Land of the Nightshades.

Presently…

"Captain Atom reports that some unknown woman has put Air Force Two into a sort of warp field inside the atmosphere. There is also at least one meta-criminal, Bolt, on the plane. I'm betting that we get called in within five minutes. Have you found anybody, Oracle?" Amanda asked as she flipped through the latest inter-company e-mails.

"Nightshade and Nemesis are both on their way. As far as covert types go, I recently made a new friend who'd be perfect. You've heard of The Atom, of course."

"Wonderful!" Waller muttered to the speaker, "I'm sure Professor Palmer would love to work with me, considering I got a good friend of his killed. Anyone else?"

"Plastic Man's off with the JLA, so I'm trying to raise Elongated Man."

"E-LONG-ated Man? I figured he was dead."

"No, just semi-retired. He and his wife are vacationing in Europe. Sue's a big Net-junkie like me, so we stay in touch. I'll see what I can do."

"Anyone else?"

"Blue Beetle's available. His latest Bug ship is fast, but it's still not fast enough to catch up to the plane. Still, should anything happen to Nightshade, he's standing by to assist if he can."

"Last time I saw him, I put him in a coma. This just keeps getting better," Amanda fumed.

The phone on Amanda Waller's desk buzzed. Line 1. The Director of the D.E.O.

"Hello, Director. This about Air Force Two?" Amanda asked, wishing she'd wagered money on the call.

"Indeed it is, as you've surmised," the raspy voice of the Director said, issuing from the speakerphone. "With the report from Captain Atom, we've opted for a covert approach. I'll send you all the data needed to let your Squad go at them. I only ask that you make a smart decision as to who you choose for this mission. "

"I'm already on it, Director! I'll have my initial plan within ten minutes."

"Why am I not surprised?" the Director said, severing the connection.

Nemesis and Nightshade

The dimensional gateway opened in the lobby of the Department of Extra-Normal Operations. D.E.O. employees raised nary an eyebrow as Nightshade emerged, leading Nemesis by the hand.

"…to join I.N.T.E.R.sect in the hopes that a group of inter-dimensional travelers might be able to help me heal my own dimension. As you can see…or would, if you could open your eyes…it's slowly recovering from its chaotic instability, but it's still draining for me. Every time I enter, the dark forces start clawing. It's all I can do just to make it through for a minute's walk without the Succubus taking control of me. If this wasn't a national emergency, I'd never even try it."

The hole closed and the two headed for the nearest elevator. As they waited, Nightshade looked at Tom and noticed his new hairstyle. "Wow. You look nice with a buzz cut." She gingerly ran her fingers over the shaved side of his head, much to his embarrassment. She withdrew her fingers, regretting the intimate contact.

"Um, yeah, it's easier to disguise myself if I'm not tucking all that hair into my wig. So, will you be going back to I.N.T.E.R.sect when this is done?" Nemesis asked.

"No, science has done about all it can for the Land of the Nightshades. I think the rest of my fight is going to be a mystical one. Why?"

The doors opened, and the two stepped in. Inside, a short D.E.O. agent with dirty blonde hair and dark rings around her eyes glanced away from them and did her best to pretend that they weren't there. Nemesis glanced at the agent and wished they were still alone.

"Well…I was hoping maybe you'd gained a little more control of your shadow powers…you know, so we could try to work around them?" Nemesis said, delicately.

"Tom, it's very hard to share a bed with someone when my hair might come alive and rip him apart. I'm not even going to risk that!"

The agent in the corner of the elevator snickered, despite her best attempts to silence it.

"So we get separate bedrooms!" Tom continued, as the two stepped out. That was the last straw for Agent Cameron Chase, whose laughter echoed through the closing doors. Nemesis shot an angry look behind him, then caught up to Eve and grabbed her by the shoulders. "I'm serious. You're still the most important thing in the world to me, and we can overcome this if you're willing to try."

Nightshade's cool exterior didn't falter. "Tom, we have a mission. This isn't the time. End of discussion."

Tom Tresser didn't hide his disappointment as he stormed away to Amanda Waller's office. "It's never 'the time' to talk about it with you!" he grumbled .

Nightshade stood with her back to the corridor wall, her emotions hidden. She thanked God that Tom couldn't see her eyes through her goggles.

Amanda heard her door open. "Nemesis! Good, you're here. Is Nightshade with you?"

"I keep wondering that myself," Nemesis muttered as he plunked himself down into a chair. A moment later, Nightshade shyly stepped inside.

"Incoming!" Oracle said, and the tiny figure of The Atom sprang from the computer's speakers. The microscopic hero had the ability to ride the electronic signals of telephone wires, allowing him to be anywhere in the world in seconds using a normal touch-tone phone. The Atom adjusted his size controls until he was normal height and sat down next to Nemesis.

Amanda made a few introductions and spent two minutes briefing them on everything she knew of the present situation.

"Your primary role, Nightshade," Amanda concluded, "will be in transporting the team inside Air Force Two. Once inside, the four of you will…"

"Excuse me, Amanda, but I can't do it! I need to get a fix on my destination…"

"I've thought of that already, and we have everything needed to get a mental picture. Blueprints, photographs, schematics…"

"No, it's not that! My powers don't work that way anymore." Nightshade again interrupted, gesturing with her hands as she tried to explain the mystic forces that came naturally to her, "I'm much more powerful and can go places even if I haven't been there before. But I…this is all hard to put into words. It's…it is a matter of opening the portal in a precise area of space. In the case of Air Force Two, that destination is ever-changing. It's not occupying the same region of the universe that it was seconds before. I don't think I could do this even if the plane were traveling its normal speed."

"DAMN!" Amanda shouted, throwing her files to the floor. "Isn't there ANY way you can pull this off? I mean, you must be able to accommodate moving destinations! Technically, every spot on this planet is not occupying the portion of space that it was before. You must have a way of compensating for planetary movement. So…can't you work with that and expand it?"

Nightshade concentrated. The others in the room stayed silent. Finally, she spoke. "I've opened portals while in moving vehicles before, and they hang in place. I guess they keep a movement relative to the position of my body. If…IF I was traveling next to Air Force Two at the exact same speed, so that I could perceive it in my mind as a fixed destination…then I could possibly do it. And I know that's not the solid answer you want, but I think even that's going to be risky."

"Well, we'll have to try that. Now we need a way to get you and the team close to the plane at a speed of 290,000 miles an hour. The only people I can even think of are Green Lantern and Starman, and they're both out of range! What about the other Green Lantern, the older one?"

Thirty seconds went by before Oracle responded, "He's not answering his phone."

"Figures. Heck, if he was, he'd be able to handle this whole thing by himself. That leaves us without anyone who can fly an energy bubble at that speed, and we don't have a single vehicle that fast."

"I have an idea, Ms. Waller," Oracle said. "Blue Beetle's Bug can't go that fast. And while the Flash can't fly, he can lend his speed to objects…possibly even one as big as the Bug."

"Brilliant! Oracle, you oughtta be doing this for money. Call in the Flash and Beetle; tell them of our plan and have them discuss the possibilities. Any luck with the Elongated Man?"

"Not by Internet. I'm dialing their voice mail right now."

"Good! And I've got one more person I want on this team. Let's try to get them all together within 15 minutes. If you can get Dibny, send Flash to get him; if not, we leave without him. If Beetle can't get his Bug here in time, we'll teleport to his location…" Amanda glanced up to see Nightshade glaring at her over her goggles "…using the government teleportation pads in the basement."

Nightshade relaxed. She sometimes worried that everyone regarded her as a taxi cab driver with nice legs.

Oracle grabbed her phone and pulled up the Dibny file again. Although the Dibnys had been Justice League members throughout much of that organization's history, neither of them carried JLA signal devices anymore. Or if they did, they were locked away in a suitcase somewhere. Ralph Dibny, a.k.a. the World-Famous Elongated Man, and his wife didn't have a home. Die-hard world travelers, the two lived out of suitcases, steamer trunks, a P.O. Box, voice mail, e-mail, a web site and fifteen storage bays filled with Sue Dibny's clothing purchases. Their publicly-advertised voice mail told their friends and fans where they were in the world at any given day of the year. Barbara Gordon had never tried it before; she quickly punched in the number.

The boisterous, charismatic voice of the Elongated Man boomed from her speaker. "Hi! You've done it, you lucky devil, you! You've dialed everyone's favorite superhero, Elongated Man!"

"And his wife!" Sue interrupted.

"So if you want to leave a message for Ralph…"

"…Or Sue…"

"…Dibny, please stay on the line! If you'd like an autographed picture of the two of us in Paris, press one. If you'd like an autographed copy of our tastefully nude Rolling Stone cover, press two. If you'd like to purchase Sue Dibny's travel guides Stretching Across America and Stretching Around The World or her autobiography The Life of a Superhero Wife, press three-one. If you'd like to purchase my mystery casebook, The Dibny Files, press three-two. You can also purchase any of these books at www.amazon.com! If you'd like to purchase a reproduction of an Elongated Man costume, press four. If you'd like to hear my rendition of "Welcome to the Jungle," which is currently available on the latest Golden Throats album, press five. All of the previous merchandise can be purchased from our web site, www.elongatedman.com. If you'd like to report a weird mystery and request my services, press six. If you'd like to find out the present whereabouts of Ralph and Sue Dibny, press nine! To leave a message f--"

Oracle pressed nine and jotted down the sequence of buttons in her files so she wouldn't have to listen to the damn message again.

"Welcome to the Dibny Locator. We'll be appearing at HeroCon '98 in Metropolis this December 18th through the 20th. January's DetectiveCon '99 show in Gotham City has been canceled due to the recent cataclysm. For further information on these and other convention appearances, press one. To find out our schedule of upcoming book signings, press two. Our current location and contact information are available to those fortunate individuals who have been given a password. Press five and then the pound key, and please have your password ready."

Oracle hit 5-#, then punched in "335744228", a number combination that equated to DELPHI BAT on a standard phone.

"Hey there," Elongated Man said. Then Sue's voice was inserted, speaking in a flat monotone: "…Oracle…," Then Ralph's jovial voice continued, "glad you're keeping in touch with us! We are still on the French Riviera, but we had to move out of Le Negresco hotel in order to get some privacy. It's nice to know that I'm beloved by the French, but the mobs get tiresome after a while. We're staying in a beachfront cottage outside Nice. You can get a hold of us via phone, or just look for us lying about on the beach. The address and phone number…"

Oracle jotted down the phone number and began ringing it with her third line while she contacted the Flash. She wished that the Dibnys still carried signal devices; this voice mail had already consumed enough of her fifteen minutes!

Ralph Dibny had been the first active superhero to reveal his true name to the world, and he'd used the publicity to become a major celebrity. Despite the relative inadequacy of his powers in comparison to those of Captain Marvel, the Flash or even Metamorpho, Elongated Man's name was recognized by most of the public due to his constant media appearances. In turn, he'd used both his powers and his celebrity to his advantage, accumulating enough money in his first year to never have to work again…provided he and his debutante wife lived within a generous budget and didn't touch the principal.

"Using powers to accumulate wealth" had been a strike against him on several occasions when he was considered for Justice League of America membership. Most of the JLA'ers considered metahuman talents to be a responsibility, not a source of income. He'd had to work beside the JLA on several occasions before they realized that he had a thirst for justice that equaled their own, even if he did stick around to sign autographs after solving a case.

Under the hot sun of Southern France, Ralph massaged SPF 15 sunscreen into the middle of his back with his left hand. His other hand balanced a Jonathan Law mystery novel, Web of Deceit, the third installment in the popular Web of… books. Next to him on the beach blanket, Sue put down her Tom Clancy book and began to take a nap.

Ralph extended his head upward ten feet to see how Duke Donald was doing. The haunted suit of armor was building a sandcastle for some delighted children; he appeared to be using his helmet as a bucket. Ralph and Sue's life had gotten even weirder since the ghost had asked to join in their globetrotting. Barry Allen used to joke that the Dibnys' lives were an endless series of Thin Man movies. That was still true, but now there was a healthy dash of Topper mixed into the recipe.

"And while we're on the subject of recipes," Ralph thought, "it's about time for my daily dose of Gingold!" Ralph set aside Web of Deceit…carefully, as it was an autographed 1951 first printing he'd recently bought from a collector in Opal City…and got to his feet. He walked to the cooler (sure, he could stretch there, but a guy has to get some exercise now and then) and rummaged past the Coke cans and the martinis to find his beaker of elixir. One glass per day of the distilled gingo fruit enzyme kept his skin nice and stretchy.

Sue Dearbon Dibny wolf-whistled at her husband's tush as he rearranged the cooler's contents. He twisted his head around to give her a scolding grimace. The way the couple flirted, it was difficult for strangers to accept that they'd been married for almost ten years. Sue watched as her husband grabbed a glass and measured out 10 fluid ounces. Sue loved to just watch him sometimes. She had a hard time convincing people that she really loved him. Some assumed that it was just a celebrity marriage, each using the other to snag spots in People magazine. Some thought she'd married for money, which was ridiculous since she stood to inherit more money than Ralph could ever earn.

Most…the vast majority, really…assumed it was sex. Her husband's claim that he could stretch and mold any part of his body never failed to get people wiggling their eyebrows Groucho-style. The Dibnys had been making love in the dark ever since a porn company called "Sleezy Larry's" offered three million for any footage of them fooling around and people with video cameras had begun crawling out of the woodwork. And, in an age where the comedians never let a dirty joke go untold, she'd fast grown tired of the innuendoes and outright snide remarks. Two months prior, Craig Kilborn had introduced them on The Daily Show as "the most sexually satisfied couple in history," then proceeded to ask them some very embarrassing Five Questions. She doubted that they'd ever be invited back after the icy responses they'd given.

"Cheers," Ralph said, raising his glass of Gingold in her direction. She raised her can of Coke right back at him, and he quickly extended his arm five yards in order to clink his glass against it. He smiled his silly grin at her and brought the glass back to his lips.

She loved him. While they may have married impulsively, she now regarded it as the best decision she'd ever made. He may be irritating and ridiculous at times, but she couldn't imagine him not being in her life.

Ralph disappeared.

It had been a long time since Ralph had been picked off the ground and ferried across the water at super-speed. In fact, it was something that he hadn't experienced since the death of his best friend, the Flash, Barry Allen, almost five years before. Now, Ralph was watching once again as the vast panorama of the ocean raced by and the sun began disappearing to his back.

Ralph swiveled his neck to see behind him. Sure enough, there was the Flash, carrying him in his arms. Of course, this was a different Flash; Wally West, nephew of Barry Allen, who had taken up the role. Wally possessed essentially the same powers as Barry, including the ability to run across the surface of a body of water like it was a concrete running track.

"Walter, my good man, how delightful to see you. I trust you have a reason for being so abrupt."

Wally's eyes were unreadable behind the white eyepieces of his mask, but Ralph suspected that they were rolling at his Dean Martin impression. "Ralph, you know it's Wallace, and this isn't a good time, we have an emergency. There wasn't time to stop and talk."

"But it can wait a minute or two, right? I mean, the world won't blow up, will it?"

"I suppose not, but we're on a tight schedule. Why?"

"Well," Ralph said, extending out a finger and then crooking it back at his waistline, "if I'm being called to action I'd rather not do it in a bikini swimsuit. Especially one covered in Batman symbols."

Flash skidded on the water and turned around so fast that Ralph's arms, legs and neck telescoped out 100 feet.
" WAAAAAAAAHHHH DON'T DO THAT!!! " Ralph exclaimed as his head returned to the vicinity of his body. "Are you trying to give me a major case of whiplash?"

"Sorry, Ralph. We'll have to make this fast. Al Gore's plane has been hijacked and we're sneaking a team on-board. We need you to be part of it."

"Wow! Okay, this'll only take a minute or two. I'll need my costume, mask, boots, gloves, a kiss from my wife…and I need to test something."

Wally whisked Ralph straight to the cottage, where Ralph ducked into the bedroom and appeared in his stretch-nylon costume forty-five seconds later. He was also carrying a syringe and a vial containing a pink liquid. Flash watched him set it on the counter, then pull a fork from a drawer and stare intently at the tines. After thirty seconds, Wally's impatience got the best of him.

"Ralph! What the hell are you doing?! This is an emergency!"

"Simmer down, Impulse," Ralph said, not looking away from the fork. "If I don't do this I could be jeopardizing the team."

"Do WHAT? What are you talking ab—"

"THERE YOU ARE!" Sue shouted, entering from the beach. "Wally, I should have known it was you. So Ralph suddenly becomes your friend when you have a problem, but during happy times you give us the brush-off? What kind of friend are you?"

The Flash was still trying to figure out Ralph's odd behavior, but he turned to acknowledge Sue. "Look, this is an emergencyyy-EYIIIIII! SUE! You're naked!"

Sue wouldn't be swayed from her tantrum. She continued to stand in the entryway of the kitchen, an accusing finger pointed at Wally. "I'm just topless, Wally. Everyone dresses this way here. Don't try changing the subject."

Wally's concentration was not on the conversation. "Bu-bu-but I shouldn't be seeing those! I'm an old family friend! Where's your top, for God's sake?!"

"I can't find it. You know why? Because it's sitting on top of the invitation to your wedding!"

"What invitation?"

"A-HA!" Sue exclaimed, jabbing Wally in the chest. "My point exactly! I can't tell you how wonderful it was to find out about the wedding of our 'old family friend' from a VJ on MTV!"

"I'm sorry, Sue, it was a limited guest list."

"I see you found the room to invite the entire current JLA! How many times did Big Barda save your uncle's life? How many times did Huntressl help you defeat the Turtle? How many times did Plastic Man help you find your missing mother? But they all get front-row seats!"

"Look, Sue, I…I'm sorry," Wally exclaimed, trying to shield his eyes without appearing rude, "but I don't have time for this, and I really can't concentrate with you jiggling all around like that!"

"Hmph!" Sue huffed, crossing her arms over her chest, "I figured ol' 'Captain Promiscuity' had seen enough of them that two more wouldn't matter."

That got Wally's dander up. "Hey! I'm no longer like that, okay? And I don't know who started the ridiculous rumor that I'd changed my name from Kid Flash to Captain Promiscuity…"

Ralph and Sue both glanced at the ceiling.

"…but when I find out I'm gonna…"

Ralph couldn't stand it anymore. "Knock it off, you two! You're ruining my concentration."

"Concentration?" Wally turned. "Ralph, what are you doing?"

Ralph sighed and put the fork down. "Wally, you picked me up at super-speed just as I was downing my dose of Gingold elixir. The last time that happened…"

Sue's eyes widened. "Oh, no!"

"…with your uncle Barrence, my body processed the Gingold differently and I became The Molder. I developed a split personality that found this ugly costume from Lord-knows-where and went on a crime spree. My powers changed from the ability to stretch to the ability to melt anything I touched. C'mon, your uncle must have mentioned it. I destroyed a multi-million dollar plane and then killed him!"

Wally was taken aback. "Killed who?"

"Barry! I turned him into a pile of goo. Fortunately, he was only mostly dead and your Aunt Iris was able to bring him back to life using true love. Or a cyclotron or something, I never really understood that part. He must have mentioned all of this!"

"Ummmm…no…" Wally mused, "but Barry didn't tell me about half of his adventures because they sound really lame when you sum them up. Kinda like this one."

"Lame or not," Ralph said, turning back to the fork, "…it's true. Your uncle saved me by injecting me with this." Ralph waved the bottle. "It's an extract made from a mold that kills gingo fruit trees; the extract nullifies the Gingold enzymes in my system. Barrington made up bottles of it in case it ever happened again."

"So drink it and let's get going!"

"Look, Walbert, it doesn't work that way. This serum drives out all Gingold, good or contaminated, and I'll lose all of my powers until it wears off. If I have to go into action within the hour, our only hope is that the transformation doesn't happen. Considering the differences between your super-speed and the super-speed of your predecessor, hereafter referred to as 'the really good Flash,' it's possible that the Gingold I drank today may be fine. Or, maybe not."

"Well, how long's it gonna take you to find out? We don't have time to wait for that fork to melt. Why not just give me the serum and assume that you're okay? If you suddenly go berserk and start melting things, I'll inject you and take you out of the action in a second. Fair enough?"

Ralph filled the syringe and handed it to Wally. "Deal, fleetfeet. If you goof up and get me killed, you'll have to answer to Sue!"

"Deal! C'mon buddy." Wally hoisted Ralph's bendy body over his shoulder. Ralph circled Wally's torso with his limbs to form a crude backpack, while his lips stretched out to kiss Sue's cheek.

"Don't worry, dear," the lips said, "I know I'm leaving with Wally, but I'm sure the others on this team are competent. I'll be fine!" Elongated Man slipped his wedding ring off and gave it to Sue for safe-keeping. He could never wear it on missions, since he frequently squeezed through tiny spaces. He slipped his glove over his left hand and waved goodbye.

The Flash accelerated out the sliding doors and to the ocean, running a hundred miles an hour past the kids on the beach. "Take care of Sue for me, Duke!" Ralph shouted as they passed the suit of armor and the kids. Then Flash cut loose and they vanished over the horizon.

Two of the kids watched them go.

"Il est L'homme Etendu!" one of them exclaimed, using the French version of Ralph's name.

"Oui," the other agreed, "avec Capitaine de Promiscuite!"

The Flash was already halfway across the Atlantic when Elongated Man spoke up. "Ummm, look, sorry about Sue's burst of exhibitionism. We're trying to have a baby and I think she wants to soak up as many stares from men as possible while she still has her figure."

"I don't mind, really," Wally said, hoping that didn't sound the wrong way. The sun had almost disappeared, signaling their approach to the U.S.A. "But I wish you'd quit all the digs about me not being Barry. I thought we settled that ages ago."

"We have. I guess I'm peeved that we weren't invited to the wedding, but I express it differently. We mid-westerners aren't as big on social occasions as New Yorkers like Sue, but that doesn't mean I like getting snubbed," Ralph shouted. Even with the muting effect of Flash's protective aura, he had to yell to be heard. He also had to be careful that the high-pressure wind didn't fill his cheeks like a pair of airbags.

"It was an oversight, okay? Linda and I were trying for a somewhat private event. I didn't even invite the JLA until the last minute when Zauriel dropped a rather blunt hint and I didn't want to hurt their feelings. So, sorry, okay?"

"Then I'm sorry for teasing you," Ralph said as they hit the mainland and raced down the sparsely populated highways.

"And I'm sorry for ogling your wife. I used to have a crush on her when I was a kid, so I got a little flustered. Sorry."

"Oh, hey, I don't mind! What's the point of a trophy wife if no one looks at the trophy?" Ralph kidded as Flash approached the lights of a city, "They're magnificent boobs. Ogle all you want!"

The wind had disappeared. Ralph looked up to see that they'd already come to a complete stop in the middle of a crowded office.

And his last remark had not gone unheard.

"Ahem!" Amanda Waller said, getting up from her chair, "The only pair of magnificent boobs I see are wearing costumes and late!"

Silence filled the room as Flash and Elongated Man sheepishly sat down.

A voice spoke from the back of the room. "You know, if I were Nightshade, I'd be a little insulted."

"Shut up, Beetle!" Waller growled. Blue Beetle let out a small "EEP!" and shrank in his chair. Waller beckoned to the group to follow as she lead them into an adjoining room. Nightshade and Nemesis recognized it immediately; it was almost an exact duplicate of their old Situation Room from the Suicide Squad's headquarters at Belle Reve Prison. And sitting in one of the rows of seats was a man with a mustache whom they also recognized. Floyd Lawton sat in the upper row smoking a cigarette.

"Deadshot!" Nightshade exclaimed, "I'm surprised you're here. Is Amanda trying to get Al Gore killed?"

"I wouldn't kill him. That's treason. I can get out of prison. Can't get out of a gallows." Deadshot mumbled. He wore his red costume with the wrist Magnums, but his hood with the gunsight eyepiece was tucked into his belt.

"Deadshot?" Flash asked, entering the room. "He hasn't become a superhero, has he? I remember sending him to prison a couple years ago."

"Glad ya did, speedboy. If you hadn't, I wouldn'ta met the Suicide Squad!" Deadshot chuckled.

"Did he say 'Suicide Squad'?" Elongated Man asked. "Ummm…what am I signing up for, exactly?"

Characters are ™ DC Comics
This story is © 1998 by Michael Hutchison.

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