Karen waited nervously in her gynecologist’s office. It’s been twenty minutes, at least. What’s the deal?
Again her eyes darted from the rhododendron, to the window overlooking another window, to the other vivid orange chair, to the pinewood desk stacked with manilla folders and loose papers. In the seat of the doctor’s faux leather chair lay a folded newspaper, and for something to do she walked over and picked it up.
ULTRAGIRL SAVES 14 IN FERRY DISASTER, screamed the headline. Below that, the subhead screamed only slightly less quietly, “Terrorist activity suspected”. When ISN’T terrorist activity suspected? Karen asked herself.
The accompanying picture told less than a thousand words: Coast Guard cutters circled a badly listing ferry; uniformed officials escorted, or sometimes dragged, each passenger across a gangway to one of two cutters. A glowing person-sized ball of magenta light hovered on the port side, and a dark humanoid shape within gripped the hull as if keeping it from sinking altogether. In the few closeup pictures Karen had seen, Ultragirl always wore a black domino mask. Not that she needed it; her so-called vril aura, even at its lowest, washed out her face and her exact hair color. Ultragirl favored baggy, cheap clothes over comic-book-babe spandex, so no one really knew her measurements, if it was anyone else’s business.
“Huh”, Karen said aloud. I bet Ultragirl wouldn’t sit around in a gynecologist’s office for twenty freaking minutes. Nope, she wouldn’t steal old newspapers or stare into space to avoid thinking about cervical cancer or some godawful STD –
The doorknob turned, and Karen quickly replaced the paper and sat back in her seat, pretending she’d never moved.
“Sorry about that, Karen”, Doctor Meacham said, as he came in. His bald head and salt-and-cinnamon beard usually made him look like a middle-aged Santa. At that moment, though, his eyes didn’t twinkle, and his forehead crinkled with worry.
“What have I got?” Karen blurted, before she could stop herself.
“What? Ah, no.” Meacham chuckled, all too briefly. “Your exam went fine. Nothing to worry about there; you’re as healthy as anyone. Healthier, even.”
Karen sighed with relief.
Dr. Meacham didn’t look so relieved. “No, it’s just … well, when I ran your insurance, it flagged an irregularity on your US-5187 form. Probably just some minor bureacratic screw- … uh … ah …”
Karen followed the doctor’s deer-in-headlight stare. A man in a black suit and black tie stood in the doorway. He had a blond crewcut, blue eyes,and square-jawed All-American features. Karen thought he might be kind of cute if he ever removed the steel rod from his ass.
“… what I mean is, Agent White will discuss the problem with you.” Dr. Meacham stood up and edged around the desk toward the door, waiting politely until White moved to slip out.
“Agent White, Department of Homeland Security.” He smiled and held out his hand. Karen shook his hand but stayed seated. White’s smile didn’t warm his eyes, and Karen had a sudden image of miniature cameras embedded in glass eyes. No, not cute at all.
White sat in the doctor’s chair and casually pushed aside a few folder. He drew out a palmtop and touched a few onscreen buttons Karen couldn’t see. “Manning, Karen. Yes. You last updated your US-5187 form on April 17th of last year, correct.”
Karen couldn’t remember exactly. “That sounds about right.”
White stared at her for a moment, as if anything less than utter certainty was a sign of a guilty mind. “The form lists your next of kin as a father and mother, in Des Moines, Iowa, and a brother also in Des Moines.”
“Your current residence is an apartment on 16th street. Your workplace of record is the Sanderson Temp Agency, on Post.”
Karen nodded, mystified.
“You also list an alternate emergency contact address on Wilson, the residence of a Mark Laidlaw and Craig Krasny.”
“Mark’s my boyfriend.”
“Any other emergency contact addresses?”
“No. Um, I hate to interrupt, but-”
White apparently hated interruptions worse than uncertainty. “Ms. Manning, the Emergency Contact Service has two main functions: to provide a single database for locating next of kin in the case of injury or death, and to provide up-to-date contacts should one of your next of kin meet with some misfortune. In these uncertain times, it is vitally important -”
“Yes, yes,” Karen snapped. What Karen hated more than inexactness or interruptions were pre-rehearsed speeches that assumed she had been dropped on her head at an early age. “I know what the US-5187 is for. What seems to be the problem?”
White glared at her a full second before continuing. “The Emergency Contact Database Act provides for spot-checks to make sure all information is complete and accurate. Two weeks ago, you spent 36 hours in the Montfort Building on -”
“Good heavens! That was a temp job! I’m a temp! Are you saying I have to change the US-5187 every time I get a new assignment?”
White’s jaw tightened, and he ticked off something on his palmtop. Slowly, he said, “Temporary workers are exempt from listing their physical workplace as a Workplace of Record, as long as their Workplace of Record can provide a physical workplace immediately upon request.”
“Good. Sorry if I’ve been rude, this has been -”
“Last week,” White continued, “investigators could not determine your whereabouts for 58 hours. You were not at the 16th Street address or the Wilson address during those hours. The Sanderson Temp Agency claims you had no contracts that week. Would you care to explain these discrepancies, Ms. Manning?”
Karen stared at him, trying to think what to say? You were following me? sprang to mind, but saying it aloud wouldn’t be at all helpful. If they wanted to follow you, they could. The courts had consistently sided with the Feds, and lawyers wouldn’t even take cases anymore. “Well, I don’t know. I mean, I can’t sit around all day watching KNN. I go shopping, I see movies, …”
“I see. Just yesterday, you left the house at 11 PM, and were not seen again until 3 AM. Was that shopping or a movie, Ms. Manning?”
“Uh, neither. I couldn’t sleep. I went for a walk.”
“The investigator’s report stated you were running.”
“OK, a run. To tire myself out.”
“At night? The report also stated that they attempted to follow you, but they lost sight of you. Why would you want to lose any pursuers, Ms. Manning?”
“I wasn’t trying to lose anyone. And, uh, well, there’s other people out at night besides Homeland Security Investigators, Mr. White.” Karen smiled, nervously, hoping even a weak joke like that would lighten the atmosphere. White’s expression didn’t change even a micrometer. So definitely not cute.
“I see. Do you have any other contact addresses you forgot to list on your US-5187, Ms. Manning? Any other … activities?” He stared at her intently, like a nun at St. Theresa’s waiting for a last minute confession before bringing forth the ruler. “All information on the US-5187 is strictly for government personnel only. Your family and your boyfriend will never know any … embarassing details.”
Karen’s mind raced … if she told, her life as she knew it would be over, no matter what this White person said; everyone knew the government leaked like that ferry last night. What could they do? she thought … and immediately remembered Mr. Habib, and Sunshine Wallenberg, and that harmless little tech support guy from Messner and Gold’s.
White sighed. “Well, I have tried to see your side. Your behavior was blue-flagged last night, and I have no choice but to upgrade you to yellow. Karen Manning, I must ask you to accompany me to the bureau office for further questioning.”
“Hello, this is Chet Martindale at the KNN News Center in Nashville.”
“And this is Casey Williams. Good evening.”
“Today the Office of Homeland Security released its quarterly report. For the fourteenth quarter in a row, acts of terrorism against American interests is at an all-time high. The sharpest increase is in computer-related sabotage, up 2.4%. Terrorist drug trafficking declined by 0.5%, but intellectual property crimes rose again by 1.3%. The report cited five confirmed acts of terrorist violence against American civilians or property at home or abroad, three of them in the Iraqi Protectorate. However, the report added that sixty-two incidents of unconfirmed but suspected terrorist violence are currently under investigation, including a fire in an abandoned warehouse in Chicago last February; that fire claimed six suspects.”
“In other news …”
Karen tried not to meet the stares of the receptionist and other patients as she and Agent White left the doctor’s office. His hand was firmly clamped on her bicep; she let him steer her into the elevator and out to the street. Part of her mind concocted horrible scenarios of being shut away forever in solitary confinement, where her friends and loved ones would never know what happened to her; another part tried to pretend this was a simple bureaucratic error, and as soon as Agent White’s supervisor heard about this Karen could go back to her life and White would get reassigned to Anchorage. A small part of her mind kept yammering, Ultragirl wouldn’t take this crap, she’d know how to handle these creeps, she wouldn’t just trot along like a stupid cow …
“What’s going to happen to me?” Karen asked White, as they approached a black sedan double-parked on the curb. Another man, practically White’s clone, waited by the car.
White sighed. “Once we get to the office, we search suspects to make sure they’re not carrying any weapons or explosive devices. To insure your privacy, we use a new technique based on MRI, like the machines your doctor would use.”
Karen’s legs locked; even Agent White came to a stop. “MRI? You can see right into me?”
White blinked. “Of course. Sometimes a suspect will hide a weapon in a body cavity; one suicide bomber swallowed his C4 and detonator. The new scanners allow a quick and painless –”
Karen rammed her fist hard into the agent’s solar plexus, and head-butted him in the nose as he bent forward. His fall helped her twist out of his grasp, and she sprinted away from him, his clone, and the car.
“Stop! Homeland Security!” shouted a voice not White’s. The voice inspired Karen to sprint even faster toward the mouth of an alley. As she ducked into the alley, she heard a gunshot; a chip of brick scratched her neck.
He’s shooting at me! a crazed voice in Karen’s head began chanting. He’s freaking SHOOTING at ME!.
Her lungs felt like they were breathing smoke, not air, and her legs felt like they would cramp any minute. Another shot rang out, and another; the second felt like it passed by her … but she could see daylight, and crowds, and even a taxi to take her away from this nightmare.
And then a truck started backing into the far end of the alley.
“NO!” she screamed, or thought she screamed, but the truck kept coming, with its idiot beeping, with its red and white parking lights and crash guard like two eyes and a mouth of a metal beast chasing her back to men who didn’t care whether she died or was merely entombed.
“I said stop! Or we’ll shoot!” shouted the White-clone, and Karen saw no choice but … daylight, still shining in the cracks around the truck, and if she could just squeeze by it …
Two shots rang out, and the vril globe sprang up around Karen seemingly from thin air. She turned, then, and through a magenta filter watched White and the Other White gape for a moment, and then pump four more rounds apiece at her. Five ricocheted off the surface of the globe, one missed entirely and hit the truck; two hit dead center, and flattened themselves against the surface of the globe before clattering back to the agents.
Damn. Damn damn damn damn. Karen ground her teeth in frustration. So long, anonymity. Sayonara, lame little Clark Kent life. With a last angry glance at the pair from Homeland Security, Karen “Ultragirl” Manning vaulted into the sky.
“I’m Casey Williams, with a breaking story: another sighting of the mysterious woman calling herself ‘Ultragirl’, this time in San Francisco. This comic book fantasy come to life first burst into the public consciousness four years ago when she rescued ten people from a hotel fire in Las Vegas. Since then there have been seventy-three confirmed sightings of Ultragirl, including the brief interview with KNUZ in Tampa in which she first gave her name.”
[File footage: Ultragirl interview with Rosalita Takayama, KNUZ Tampa]
[Takayama] “Why have you come to our planet? What is your purpose?”
[Ultragirl] “Uh, I don’t know. Same as everyone else’s, I guess. Try to make the world a better place?”
[File footage ends]
“This latest appearance follows an incident yesterday, when she saved fourteen people from a sinking ferry in San Francisco Bay. Terrorist involvement is suspected.
“Ultragirl’s true origin, or the secret of what she calls her ‘vril powers’, is unknown. Scientists at Los Alamos speculate –”
“Sorry to break in Casey, but I’ve just received an update on the Ultragirl story …”
Karen turned her vril field to its lowest level, and fell at one-half Earth gravity into a grove of trees in Golden Gate park. From there she caught the N Judah back to Mark’s place, not meeting the eyes of any other passengers.
At last the train stopped near Mark’s apartment. Despite her aching legs she ran to his building and leaned on the buzzer.
“Hello?” said a tinny version of Mark’s voice.
“Mark let me in please I don’t know what to do oh God what have I done –” It took Karen a moment to recognize her own voice.
“Karen? Just a minute.”
The door buzzed, and Karen limped up the stairs to find Mark waiting for her on the second landing. Her adrenalin had long worn off, and without a vril field she felt horribly naked. Mark was warmth, and safety, and a sane voice in an insane world; she couldn’t help but collapse in his arms, sobbing, ignoring the horrible voice in her head that kept prattling, Ultragirl wouldn’t go to pieces like this, Ultragirl wouldn’t blubber like a baby in her boyfriend’s arms …
“My God, Karen, what happened?”
Ultragirl would stop crying this instant, and start acting like a grownup.
Karen took a deep, shuddering breath, and said, “I screwed up. I … Today, Dr. Meacham discovered some irregularity with my US-5187 form, and he called the Office of Homeland Security.”
“Well, it’s the law, right? And then …” The story spun out, in calm, sensible sentences, with Mark’s arm around her shoulders and both of her arms around his waist. As they strolled back to his apartment, she told him about White, and his arrest, and her flight, and the alley, and … and then she stopped.
“And then what?”
“And …” And I can’t tell him, Karen thought to herself.
“I mean, jeez, they shot at you. Even these days that’s got to be illegal; we’ll need to get a lawyer, then you can voluntarily go to their office or something … I don’t know. We’ll let the lawyer decide. I’ll ask Doug to recommend someone.”
They were inside Mark’s apartment, and from Craig’s room Karen could hear a television. Karen noted the pizza box on the coffee table, and shirts on the couch, and the musty smell of two bachelors who only cleaned the apartment when they remembered to.
“But I still don’t get it, honey … why did you run in the first place? Was it that machine? Did those agents do something or say something? What was it?”
“I … there’s some things I haven’t told you, I … oh, please don’t look at me like that, it’s not –”
“No, of course you’re not a terrorist, but you were in one of the Watchlist organizations, right? ACLU, EFF, CBLDF?”
Ultragirl wouldn’t beat around the bush like this, she’d just say –
“Shut up! Oh, not you Mark. It’s …” Karen started giggling. “It’s just the voices in my head. Nothing to worry about.” Karen kept giggling, and realized she couldn’t stop.
“Stop it!” Mark, stable rational Mark, was shaking her. “You’re not making sense! Stop talking crazy!”
“Why can’t I? It’s a free country, right? Don’t answer that.” As she spoke the same corny joke she’d used the last eleven years, she felt her panic recede. Mark’s the sensible one, Karen told herself. He’ll probably take this better than I am.
“OK, enough hysteria, right?” Karen sighed. Her voice still shook, but apart from its inescapable mousiness it sounded better in her ears. “I’m just going to say it, all right? I’m –”
Craig’s door burst open, “Whoa, dude, you have to see what’s on KNN! It’s …” He stared past Mark to Karen, and turned deathly pale. “… oh crap …”
Mark stared from Craig to Karen. Karen shrugged. “I’m Ultragirl.”
Ultragirl would have made it sound more impressive.
“To repeat, Karen Manning, aka Ultragirl, is wanted for suspicion of terrorist activities. She was last seen above Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. If you see her, contact the Office of Homeland Security immediately. Do not approach; she should be considered armed and extremely dangerous. Casey?”
“Reactions from Washington have been mixed. Bob Carleton, Secretary of Homeland Security, who once commended Ultragirl at a press conference outside his home in –”
“Pardon me, Casey, but those reports are unconfirmed.”
“Oh! Uh … Bob Carleton, Secretary of Homeland Security, had this to say:”
[Bob Carleton:] “For a long time, this office has been concerned that one individual of unknown status and ideology can wield such terrible powers, free from the rule of law. Now it would appear our worst fears have been fulfilled.
“Accordingly, I have instructed the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Department of Justice to launch a nation-wide manhunt for Karen Manning, the so-called ‘Ultragirl’. As we speak, the Atomic Energy Commission is working on a suitable containment facility. I ask all citizens to cooperate with the authorities and help us remove this threat to our national security. If Miss Manning herself is watching, I appeal to her to turn herself in peacefully, for the sake of America and the world.”
Mark shook his head. “Wait. This doesn’t make sense. I’ve heard Ultragirl, and you don’t even sound like her.”
“Oh.” Karen wrapped a vril field around her, and said, “How about now?” Apart from making her impervious to flame, bullets, and falling masonry, the vril field also turned her mousey little voice into Amazon Princess Warrior Woman.
Karen let the field collapse, and looked from Craig’s gaping mouth to Mark’s stunned expression. She shrugged, self-consciously.
Mark blinked. “Ultragirl. My girlfriend is Ultragirl. I’ve been dating Ultragirl.”
“When we first met at the anti-copy-protection rally, you were really Ultragirl?”
“I’m really Karen. Ultragirl’s just something I do. But yeah.”
Mark leaned in close. “And last Memorial Day, when you, uh, um …”
She smirked. “Yep, you got uh-um-ed by Ultragirl. Bet you can’t wait to tell your friends.”
“Oh, they’d never believe me.”
Craig cleared his throat. “Uh, guys? Manhunt?”
Mark winced. “Right. Gotta call Doug.” He walked to the phone, leafed through an address book next to it, picked up the receiver … and stopped, staring out the window. In a quiet voice he said, “I’m on your US-5187, aren’t I.”
Karen flew to the window, literally flew in a trail of magenta light. Outside were a half-dozen black vans, and a S.W.A.T. team surrounding the building, blocking off traffic. “Oh Mark, I’m so sorry …”
“It’s OK.” He ripped a page out of the address book, and gave it to Karen; she stuffed it into her jeans pocket automatically. “Just get out of here. When you’re somewhere safe, call Doug Kramer. If he can’t handle it, he’ll know someone who can. All we need is a cool head –”
“Homeland Security! Open up!” shouted a voice on the other side of the door, two seconds before a battering ram slammed it open.
At the first sight of armed police Karen thrust out her hand. A wave of force knocked the frontmost pair of officers backward into the next four, and slammed them all hard into the wall behind them. She cringed as the doorframe buckled.
“Mark, what about –”
“We’ll be all right, just GO!”
Karen watched the officers picking themselves off their feet. Ultragirl wouldn’t assault police officers in the course of duty, yammered that damned voice in her head. With a last anguished look at Mark, Karen launched herself through the window.
She was dimly aware of glass shattering on the vril field, and the rattle of machine gun fire. For a second she looked back to see Mark and Craig with their arms up, surrounded by cops, and then she tearfully fixed her eyes on the sky above.
“We have with us Dr. Wilhelm Rosencranz, a Harvard-educated psychologist whose new book, Terrorism and the Hero Complex, will hit the stores next month. Dr. Rosencranz, welcome.”
“In your book, you state that, while terrorists frequently cite real or imagined injustices as rationalizations for their antisocial acts, their real desire is for notoriety, is that true?”
“That is correct. All terrorist leaders I have studied use these grievances to attract followers. However, such grievances are exaggerated and frequently irrational, appealing only to psychologically unstable individuals who want to justify their own unhappiness. There is a parasitic relationship between leaders and their followers: followers need a leader to reassure them that others are to blame for their own problems, and leaders need followers to validate their fantasy dramas in which they are the struggling hero.”
“I see. Speaking of heroes, KNN was first to report that Ultragirl had join– had allegedly joined the tide of terrorism sweeping our nation. Can you speculate on her motives?”
“This ‘Ultragirl’ is an interesting case. Originally she chose to attract attention through apparently benevolent actions. Although we must consider the possibility that she staged these incidents, to attract attention.”
“She seemed to arrive on the scene pretty quickly.”
“Exactly. This would indicate a Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Usually such cases are mothers slowly poisoning their children –”
“… so that the mother appears like a saint, caring for her sickly child. It is apparent, though, that Ultragirl’s ‘Good Samaritan’ pretense did not satisfy her particular psychosis. Her attacks on legitimate authority raise a possibility that she simply thrives on violence and destruction; she needs to physically brutalize people and property in order to feel superior. Dr. Frederick Wertham identified this aptly named ‘Superman Complex’ in 1948 …”
Karen had flown halfway across the Bay when she heard the sonic boom.
She stopped and spun in first horizontal then vertical circles, until she sighted the two fighter jets. Slightly dizzy from spinning, Karen saw two brief flashes of light from the wings of one fighter, and wondered if it was having some sort of mechanical difficulty. She drifted forward a moment, wondering whether to help.
Then she saw the missiles.
They’re FIRING at me!, her mind screamed, as she twisted around and hurtled in the opposite direction. Why does everyone keep FIRING at me?
Behind her, she heard one missile approaching. She desperately wanted to go into “overdrive”; she could be halfway across the continent in fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, the last time she went at top speed in an urban area she nearly punched a hole through a 757.
She looked behind her to see where the missile was, and watched in horror as it collided with her.
The blast knocked her backward, spinning uncontrollably. Dazedly, she watched the Transamerica building coming nearer, and nearer … LEFT! screamed a voice in her head, and she bent all her will toward accelerating left. Straighening out and dodging another building, she heard the other missile gaining on her.
She veered toward the Bay, checking below for any boats underneath her. When she saw none, she spun around and pointed her hand at the other missile. A lance of vril shot from her fingertips and the missile exploded in bright orange flame.
A sonic boom reminded her of the planes, and she turned to see two more missiles headed for her. “QUIT IT, YOU ASSHOLES!” she screamed, as she pointed each arm at a missile and detonated them both.
The fighter that fired the missiles banked, and in frustration she pushed at it. The wave of vril caught it under one wing, which buckled, and the fighter tumbled out of control. Karen watched it in shock, and sighed when the pilot ejected.
She turned toward the sound of the other fighter, and watched it fire two more missiles. “I said QUIT IT!” she shouted, uselessly, as she detonated those as well. One detonated in the path of the fighter, and she watched in horror as the jet caught fire and nose-dived.
Karen rocketed after the flaming jet, grabbing the fuselage just behind the cockpit, and peered in the window to see the pilot apparently unconscious. She planted her feet firmly and ripped off the canopy, extending her vril shield around the pilot. Using a beam of vril to cut him free of his harness, she hoisted him out of the wreckage a few seconds before the flaming jet slammed into the Bay.
When Karen reached Alameda, the pilot woke up in her arms. His eyes fluttered open, and he gawked first at the vril aura surrounding him, and then at her. “Oh god, please don’t hurt me …” he whimpered.
“Yeah, whatever.” She landed outside of a bank, set him on the ground, and hurtled back into the sky.
“An update on the Ultragirl Crisis.”
[Cue Ultragirl Crisis musical motif and graphics.]
“The ter- … alleged terrorist Ultragirl escaped from a raid of one of her safe houses. The suspect then engaged two Air Force fighters above San Francisco Bay, and destroyed both planes. The pilots escaped unharmed. Two members of her network were apprehended in the police raid.
“In related news …”
Karen dared to fly full speed for twenty minutes, then doubled back, flying more slowly near tree level. At last, she ended up at the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri.
She didn’t need precognition to know the FBI or somebody would be waiting at her parents house. She’d probably never see them again.
Dammit dammit dammit: why the hell did she panic back at the doctor’s office? Maybe The Egg wouldn’t show up on an MRI. As long as anyone didn’t shoot at her, she could have made up some lie about a compulsion to see midnight movies or something, or paid a fine …
No, that wouldn’t have worked. They would have wanted corroboration; they would have pushed and pushed, “torn apart her life” as that cop show says. The only way to account for the missing hours of her life was to tell the truth.
And then what would they have done, huh? Patted her on the head and told her to keep up the good work? Gave her a medal? Or would they chloroform her and ship her to Area 51, run some tests, removed The Egg the hard way …
It’s all the Egg’s fault … without that frickin’ thing in her chest she’d be just another sporadically employed college graduate, like everyone else. Damn that dig outside Athens, and damn her two left feet for making her fall on top of the frickin’ thing, and damn her for waking up from a flying dream to find herself hovering over her own bed in a shroud of vril …
She sat down hard on the sidewalk outside a gas station. Half a mile away, she could see tract houses, and a 7-11 sign. Somewhere beyond that was a shopping mall. Normal things. Normal things she couldn’t have any more …
A yard away, she saw a manhole, and a sewer drain under it where the sidewalk met the road. She should just drop the damn Egg in the sewer, right now. No more running, no superpowers for anyone to dissect her over; turn herself in and end this mess. She’d probably spend some time in prison – exploding jets and tumbling policemen flashed through her mind, and she amended that to a lot of time – but maybe they’d let Mark go, and her mom would get to visit her like Mrs. Habib saw Mr. Habib that time.
She wiped her nose and dried her eyes, and held her hand out around heart level. She concentrated, imagining The Egg outside her body, coming out the same way it came in.
A spasm in her chest made her look down, and saw a hole open in her chest, cloth and flesh and bone fade away like shadows in light, mist in a gust of wind. The Egg drifted out, and hovered over her hand. Abruptly the hole closed, and The Egg dropped through her fingers and rolled between her sneakers.
Shivering with a sudden chill, she felt her breastbone under her blouse, both seemingly solid and whole, if a little damp from sweat. She picked up The Egg, dusted it off, and in the light from the gas station studied it.
It was as black and glossy as she remembered it, and it fit easily in her hand. She had called it The Egg, although unlike an egg neither end was wider than the other; the word “ellipsoid” drifted into her head from some geometry class. Markings, maybe letters of some unknown alphabet, spiralled around its surface from one end to the other. It felt slightly cool now, although she thought that the glints of light in its surface weren’t all reflections.
There, she thought to her self. No more Ultragirl. I’m wholly, completely normal. And yet, the slight breeze seemed chillier than before, and the gas station sign a little too bright, and the shadows around her a little too dark. Her arms and legs felt awkward and wrong, somehow, and the prospect of stumbling through endless gray days of normality made her want to throw herself in the sewer too.
She looked at the egg again. Shadows and mist. To this thing, we’re all shadows and mist. Someday I will die, and the United States of America will be forgotten, yet this thing will still be here, waiting for someone to carry it.
Karen sighed. Why not me? Before she could give herself time to change her mind, she pressed the egg against her chest, gritted her teeth as it sank into her flesh and nestled once more somewhere near her heart. She felt its weight, felt its comforting and frightening heat rekindle.
The gas station attendant didn’t take his eyes off his Indian musical as she bought sunglasses, a hat reading “#1”, and a map of Kansas City. So armed, she searched the map first for her location, and then for Verdant Crescent.
By now, the police would have also gotten her phone records, and they’d be waiting at Margie’s house too. Maybe not. She had to try.
“Today the President reaffirmed his confidence in Secretary of Homeland Security Bob Carleton. The President said that Mr. Carleton was, quote, ’the best man for the job’, unquote as the second most powerful man in the Administration. Asked about enemy combatant Karen “Ultragirl” Manning, the President expressed confidence Mr. Carleton would handle the Ultragirl Menace and any other crises to come.
“When asked whether he was worried that the so-called ‘Ultragirl’ might strike the White House or other government offices, the President replied, quote, ‘Bring it on.’”
Margie and Karen had been roommates best friends during college, and even now they called each other nearly every other week. They discussed the boring minutia of Karen’s life, and the big events of Margie’s: marriage, children, divorce.
Karen walked around Verdant Crescent twice, looking for suspicious cars or vans. Unless cops in Kansas City were using Nissans and SUVs, Margie’s house wasn’t being watched. Casually she walked up a driveway two blocks down and up the alley. Quickly she climbed the chain link fence, cursing whichever dog was barking, and waited in the shadows. Should I knock? Should I throw pebbles at the window?
As Karen tried to make up her mind, the back door opened and Margie walked out with a bag of trash. She hadn’t seen Margie for a while, and was surprised that after two kids and a jerk husband she still kept that figure that made all the guys pass by Karen on their way to Margie.
“Margie!”, Karen hissed.
Margie jumped and dropped the trash bag. “Wha- Who’s there?”
Karen stepped into the light. Margie’s eyes bugged. “Kar-”
“Shhhhhhhhhh! Look, I need a favor. Two, really. Then I’ll go away and you can go back to your life? OK?”
“But … I … oh, come in.” Margie hurried Karen through the back door, and locked it. She drew all the blinds in the kitchen, looking through them for a minute to reassure herself that there were no black helicopters in pursuit. At last Margie met Karen’s eyes, and Karen saw fear in them.
“So, um, how are David and Tina?”
“Asleep. Fine. Oh God, Karen, they’ve been saying … What did you do?”
“Filled out a form wrong. No, really. It kind of snowballed from there.”
“But, I mean, you’re … you’re really …”
“I’m not really in the mood for a demo right now, but yeah, I’m Ultragirl.”
“But … KNN said you destroyed two planes!”
“They fired first. Look, I can tell you really don’t want me here, and I don’t blame you.”
“Oh, no, Karen, it’s not that, it’s just –”
Karen held up her hand, and was appalled at how quickly Margie stopped talking. Usually Margie talked over everyone else. “I need to know how Mom and Dad are doing, and you have to call them for me. You can say you were watching the news and were worried about them. But I need to hear their voices myself, to know if they’re all right. Can you do that for me? For old time’s sake?”
Margie nodded. “Yeah, OK. Get the cordless unit from my bedroom; it’s down the hall, first door to your right. And be quiet, you’ll wake the kids.”
Karen crept down the hall, in the dark, her fingers brushing the wall. She felt a doorway to her right, and peered into the pitch blackness of the bedroom. Rather than stumble around, she imagined a ball of light on her fingertip; a magenta light sprang from her index finger like a candle flame, and she found the phone easily. As she turned, she saw Margie in the doorway, staring. Margie backed away.
“Sorry, I …”
“Margie, I’m still the same Karen Manning. I still cry at the end of Casablanca, I still trip over my own feet at least twice a day. There’s stuff I can do that nobody else can, but I’m still me, OK?” She fished the mask out of her blouse, the same ratty domino mask she bought four years ago at Halloween when she first decided to moonlight as Ultragirl. “This is Ultragirl. This and another thing that really hurts to take out. The rest is still me.”
Margie nodded. “OK, hon. Hey, it’s not like the news hasn’t screwed up before. Remember the time … no, never mind. Come on, let’s make your call.”
“How big would you say Ultragirl’s terrorist network is, Colonel?”
“It’s hard to say. At minimum she’s got safe houses, probably all over the country. If the Ultragirl Network is like others we’ve seen, there might be cels in every major city here and abroad. Remember, she’s been in this country four years that we know about, and we still don’t know how powerful she is. She could have stockpiles of weapons we can’t even imagine.”
“Wow. Retired Colonel Rex Newman, thank you.”
Karen listened as the phone rang once, twice, three times, four. Someone at the other end picked up, and a familiar voice said, “Hello?”
“Hi, Carol? It’s me, Margie. I’ve been watching the news; it’s an awful thing. How are you holding up?”
“Margie? Oh, Karen’s old roommate. How have you been.”
“Fine, fine. How’s your handsome husband?”
“I don’t know about that, but Stan’s the same as always.” Only slightly more faintly, Karen heard her mother shouting, “Stan, it’s Karen’s old roommate. You remember?”
Faintly, her father said, “Ohhhh yeah.”
Away from the phone, her mother said, “Yeah, I’ll bet you do, with those tight pants she used to wear.” Loud and clear, her mother added, “Karen told us you had a couple of kids.”
“David and Tina. They’re doing fine. How’s your … other one. John, isn’t it.”
“Jonnie’s doing great; finally found a construction job.” There was a pause, and then her mom said, “And how’s your cousin Annabel?”
Margie looked blankly at Karen. Karen pointed at herself urgently, as she felt her eyes tearing up, again. Princess Annabel wouldn’t cry.
Karen had forgotten Princess Annabel, benevolent ruler of The Back Yard on weekends. Princess Annabel her subjects (a stuffed unicorn, two teddy bears, and a Barbie) with the wisdom of Solomon, and those subject adored her as much as woodland creatures adored Cinderella, as the dwarfs adored Snow White. When fat little Karen Manning went to school on weekdays, the other children ignored or teased her; little Karen learned not to cry because Princess Annabel wouldn’t have.
“Oh, Annabel. Well, yeah, she’s OK. Same as always, really.”
“Stressed out about that job of hers, I’ll bet.”
“Yeah. But it’s important to her.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess she knows what she’s doing. Next time you see her, give her our love.”
Karen heard what sounded like a third voice, and then her mother said, “Sorry to shoo you off the line, but we’ve got company. Uh, company coming, I mean. You take care, now.”
“You, too. Bye Carol.”
The line went dead. Margie hung up her phone, and Karen switched off hers. Through the blur of tears, Karen saw Margie coming toward her. “Oh, hon, here come the waterworks again. I’ve been telling you to get those fixed, but you never listen to me.” Karen gratefully accepted a tissue, as Margie continued, “Always bursting into tears. That’s why Ted Andrews wouldn’t go out with you; he was afraid you’d ruin his polo shirt. None of us had the heart to tell you, except me, and I was saving it for a special occasion.”
Margie’s arm was around Karen now. “Aw, hon, they’re gonna be OK. The FBIs gonna get bored after a week, and leave ’em alone. You’ll see. Bet they have that guy’s place staked out too, what was his name? Matt? Mike?”
“Yeah, and they’ll leave him alone too, when you don’t turn up.”
Karen looked at her miserably, and shook his head.
“What? Oh, no, you mean … that report on the two accomplices …”
“Mark and his roommate.”
“Oh, jeez, Karen, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. He’ll be OK, though. They’ll have to let him go.”
That’s what you think. Karen managed a smile anyway.
“Good. Now, what was that other favor.”
“A roll of quarters.”
“Laundry day? Well, I guess if that’s the only thing you’re wearing.”
“No, I gotta make a long distance call.” Karen pulled out the wadded page from Mark’s address book. “Just tell me where I can find a pay phone.”
“Just make it from here.”
“Oh, I’ve gotten you too involved already. I never met this guy before. Maybe his line’s tapped. Maybe he’ll turn me in. I really should just leave.”
“Don’t worry about it. Make the call. If the cops come, I’ll take the Fifth.”
“I don’t think there is a Fifth anymore. But … tell them I forced you.”
“Like you held a gun to my head.”
“No, this.” Karen held out her hand; vril energy swirled from her fingertips, engulfing her hand and arcing back toward her wrist. “More realistic.”
Margie watched Karen’s hand in horrified fascination, until Karen let the energy die down. “Oh, hon, I can’t –”
“Hey, tell them I threatened the kids. That’ll go over.”
“No! I can’t get you into any more trouble.”
Karen sighed. “You’re right about that. You really, really can’t get me into any more trouble.”
“What targets will Ultragirl hit next, Colonel?”
“Her usual M.O., like a lot of terrorists, are targets of opportunity: hotels, bridges, ferries, office buildings … any place she can set on fire, or sink, or weaken the supports of. I’d bet the Pentagon is reviewing all the disasters and accidents of the last five years, trying to find accidents she might have caused but didn’t take credit for.”
“Like the pileup on I-45 two months ago.”
“Exactly. Where was she when that was happening? That’s what I would be asking.”
Karen sat in room 307 of a Days Inn just outside Springfield, Illinois. She was painting her toenails and watching KNN, marvelling what a criminal mastermind she was. This coral polish is a signal to my minions to bring the stock market down a few more points.
She tore her eyes away from the tube to look at herself in the mirror over the sink. What a lot of difference a bottle of peroxide and a Susan Powter haircut makes. She noted the circles under her eyes. Not to mention a week of running.
The phone rang, and she nearly jumped out of her chair. She paused, willing herself to calm down. Karen muted the TV and picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hello, have I reached Annabel Jones?” The voice … was that Doug’s receptionist, or another woman? Sounds like her, but …
“She’s not in; can I take a message?”
“Mr. Kramer regrets that he and his firm cannot take on any new clients.”
“He also wants to assure Miss Jones that he is aware of her references, and of the severity of her situation, and he regrets any … inconvenience. He believes she has a valid case, and hopes she can find representation elsewhere.”
“All right. Thank you.”
“One more thing. Tell Miss Jones that … that some of us think she’s an inspiration to us all.”
There go the waterworks again. “Thank you. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”
Karen smirked. “Au revoir.”
So. No lawyer will touch your case with a ten-foot pole. A receptionist in San Francisco doesn’t believe the official story, and maybe she won’t lose her job or her freedom over it. Now what? Canada? Mexico? How long before the Government sends some Covert Ops after her? Karen was still lost in thought when a picture on the TV caught her eye. Hastily she grabbed for the remote and turned the sound up.
“… once again, another development in the Ultragirl Crisis. Anonymous sources in the Office of Homeland Security have reported that Mark Laidlaw, a known accomplice of Karen “Ultragirl” Manning, died yesterday while in custody. No further details are known at this time.”
“Colonel, would you care to speculate …”
At a Days Inn just outside of Springfield, Illinois, a room on the third floor exploded outward, damaging adjoining rooms and sending debris up to two hundred yards from the site.
Witnesses reported a flash of red or purple light, followed by what some described as a “UFO” shooting into the sky at incredible speed. One witness reported that, as the phenomenon rose into the air, it made a sound like a woman screaming.
“We take you now live, to Grant Anderson in Washington DC. Grant, can you hear us?”
“Yes, Chet. About fifteen minutes ago ground observers saw what was described as a ‘ball of purple or red light’ originating northeast from somewhere around Springfield, Illinois, and travelling in excess of two thousand miles per hour.”
“Sorry, Grant, two thousand?”
“Yes, Chet. Sattelite tracking has picked up the object, believed to be Ultragirl. Based on best estimates from Cape Canaveral she will arrive over DC in a few minutes. The Air Force has scrambled all fighters in the area, and National Guard troops have surrounded the White House and Capitol building. Civilian agencies like the CIA and Homeland Security have also deployed helicopters and personnel. The President and Vice President have been evacuated to secure locations, and – Fred! Up there! Have you got the shot?”
“What are we seeing?”
“That dot of light might be Ultragirl … it’s growing larger … it’s – Holy –”
[Burst of noise]
“Grant! Grant! Can you hear us? Forgive us, we’ve lost the picture for a moment. We hope to restore it momentarily, so … wait, we’re getting something. Grant? What happened?”
[Blurry, staticky picture]
“Sorry Chet, there was a sonic boom as Ultragirl passed by us. All the windows in the block blew out, and my ears are still ringing. There! You can still see her; she decelerated and seems to be … Fred! Over there! That appears to be the 26th Squadron, closing in on Ultragirl’s position. Two F-15s gave her problems when she engaged them over San Francisco Bay, so nine of them – Jesus! Fred, did you get that? Tell me you got that!”
“What are those explosions?”
“Ultragirl just destroyed the entire squadron! Ultragirl emitted some sort of particle beam and cut each of the planes in half! I’m seeing chutes opening, so at least some of the pilots got a chance to eject. Ultragirl seems to have stopped … Wait! Here comes a second squadron … they seem to be hanging back. Yes, they’re firing missiles at Ultragirl, and … she’s heading straight for them! She’s shooting those beams again, and they’re blowing up before they hit the target. Wait, one got through, and … no effect! Unless she’s slowing down because … oh, God, the 28th Squadron is also in pieces, wreckage raining down on the city below! I can hear fire trucks, ambulances, some police sirens …”
“Where is Ultragirl headed? Can you tell?”
“She seems to be near the Lincoln Memorial … Fred, get a shot over there! You can see some helicopters headed toward Ultragirl … they seem to have some sort of Gatling guns mounted. The fighters had more speed, but maybe the maneuverability of the helicopters can make up for … Oh, god, this is awful! The lead copters are tumbling end over end, completely out of control. I can’t tell what happened, but it’s like a giant hand swatted them out of the way. The guns of the remaining helicopters are firing, but again with no effect – and they’re down! One burst into flames, I didn’t see a beam this time, maybe a stray bullet, but the others are also tumbling out of control …”
“We don’t have your perspective here! What’s she doing now? Is she going to the White House?”
“I can’t tell … wait, she’s heading north …”
In the living room of a comfortable and well-fenced home north of Washinton, DC, Bob Carleton glared down the hall. “Come on Edna, move!”
“I can’t leave the photos behind!” Edna shouted back.
Carleton looked at the Secret Service agent, who had pushed his earphone into his ear. “Please repeat … " The man turned deathly pale. “oh sh– … uh, copy.” He turned to Carleton, his professional calm cracking. “Mr Carleton, Mrs. Carleton, we have to leave right now! Walters, get Mrs. Carleton! Tinkerbell’s coming right –”
The roof and outer wall buckled, split, and exploded outward. Debris flew around and past a globe of searing magenta light. Carleton squinted against the glare, and saw the suggestion of a female figure, arms outstretched, short hair standing out from its skull; two white hot flames burned where its eyes should have been. It descended from the sky like an avenging angel, or, less blasphemously, a fallen angel cast from heaven.
The four Secret Service agents in the room pulled their guns; one got off a shot before a shimmering force tossed them backwards like rag dolls and slammed them into the back corners of the room. Carleton glimpsed the face of one of them as he flew past; he’d remember that man’s expression for the rest of his life.
“BOB!” screamed Edna from the hallway, and he turned to see the Secret Service man charging around his wife, gun drawn. Abruptly the hall door slammed shut, and the doorframe buckled.
Carleton looked back up into the face of Ultragirl. “You … you can’t do this! I’m a duly appointed official of the United States –”
“WHY?” roared the voice of Ultragirl. Carleton remembered his last meeting with her, the cartoonishly deep voice speaking the words of a nervous young girl; now the voice reached deep into primeval centers of his brain, commanding awe and obedience. Pagans would have fallen to their knees to worship something like the creature before him, and Carleton could barely keep his own legs from buckling.
“JUST TELL ME WHY! WHY DID YOU KILL HIM?”
After two tries, Carleton found his voice. “What? Who?”
“‘WHO?’!!” A force like an oncoming truck slammed into Carleton, knocking him off his feet and over the sofa. A table toppled over, breaking a vase over his sholder. Carleton thought he’d broken his ribs, and maybe his leg.
“MARK LAIDLAW! WHY DID YOU KILL HIM!”
Carleton dimly remembered a report on Ultragirl’s accoplices. Was one of them dead? “I can assure you his death was a tragic accident, and we’ll launch a full investigation –”
“LIAR!!” Ultragirl swooped toward him, grabbed him by his lapels, and bore him straight into the wall. Carleton found himself wrapped in magenta light; static electricity crackled across his face, and if not for the kevlar vest underneath his coat he felt her fists would have burned his skin. Carleton couldn’t meet those terrible eyes; it was like staring into two suns.
“TELL ME … WHY DID MARK DIE?!” Ultragirl’s twisted, snarling face was inches from his, now.
Somewhere far away a voice like Carleton’s said “I … I don’t … know … I … don’t …”
Carleton dropped to the floor; he landed on his ankle, and fresh pain blotted out all other sensations. When he looked up, she was standing on the ground a yard away, still wrapped in light. Her eyes were closed, and she was chuckling … a deranged, menacing sound that threatened to burst into psychotic laughter.
“Mmhm. Of course.” Her voice no longer shook the earth and sky, and when she opened her eyes the fire in them had died; she gazed down at Carleton with a merely human fury. “You almost had me. It’s so easy to become a terrorist these days.”
Carleton reflexively scrabbled backwards as she stepped forward and sat on her haunches, watching him owlishly. “I won’t play your game. Sure, I could burn you to the ground right now. I really want to, you know. But I’ve thought of something much worse for you.” She smiled icily, and then in the blink of an eye hurtled into the sky.
“KNN is here first on the scene at the home of Bob Carleton, Secretary of Homeland Security, who moments ago was brutally attacked by alleged terrorist Ultragirl. Emergency personnel have just arrived, so at this point we have no idea of whether Secretary Carleton is alive or – what? Oh god …”
“Excuse me. Is this thing on? Are we live? Good. Hi, I’m Ultragirl. After the past week I thought it was time to tell my side and … hey, you guys in the back? Come up here. If you KNN guys can move over here? Thanks. Anyway, I don’t have a prepared statement, so I’ll just answer questions if you don’t mind. One at a time please? Yes, you in the back.”
[Wolff News reporter:] “Miss Manning –”
“Ultragirl, please. I don’t think I’ll be Karen Manning for a while.”
[Wolff News reporter:] “Uh, Ultragirl, can you explain why you attacked Washington DC?”
“I didn’t attack D.C., just Mr. Carleton’s house … and a lot of people in the way, I guess. Sorry about that. The government killed my boyfriend, and I went a little crazy. I’m better now. Next? Yes.”
[KNN News reporter:] “But the fact remains you did destroy two fighter squadrons and a dozen helicopters, not to mention people on the ground. The loss of life could be in the hundreds.”
“I know. For what it’s worth, I’d really like to apologize to whoever I hurt, and I promise that when the world doesn’t need Ultragirl anymore I’ll answer for what I’ve done.”
[RNPBC reporter:] “Why have you started a terror campaign against the United States? What’s your agenda?”
“Terror campaign? Pardon me, but I think the press has created more terror than I have. As for my agenda, well … it’s hard to put into words –”
[Off camera:] “This is a restricted area! All reporters leave now or you will be fired –”
[Shaky footage of Ultragirl pointing at advancing troops, vans tumbling over, men flying backward; sounds of screaming, random gunfire grow fainter.]
“Sorry about that, they’re gone now. Where was I? Oh, right, agenda. I haven’t figured it out yet; something about defending the defenseless and speaking for the silenced. Yeah, that’ll do for now.”
[Local reporter:] “Where did you come from? Why are you here?”
“Where am I from? Iowa, but you knew that. As for why I’m here … I guess I’m defending Truth, Justice, and the Way America Used To Be. Oh, oh, more helicopters. That’s the last question. Have to go. Lots to do. We’ll talk again later …”