Helder worked quickly; a man who seemed at ease, as he divested Dark Owl of her black costume and mask. Setting her costume carefully on the display case, he dragged the unconscious Melody into a chair and display case matching mine.
With a practiced hand, he set titanium clamps around Melody's nearly elfin wrists and ankles. He stroked her cheek and brushed a reluctant red curl from her face, then smiled in satisfaction. Stepping back out of the small display case, Helder pressed a red button on the wall. Melody's case clicked shut and a blue glow emanated from the floor, limning her nearly nude form. The blue light glowed along all the edges of her case, yet Melody didn't respond to the lights.
I continued watching through slitted eyes. Helder picked up Melody's costume and opened a new shadow box. He carefully arranged Melody's outfit in the case, then carefully locked the door. The display lamps illuminated both her costume and mine and I couldn't help but think of the little display cards we hung in the museum for such displays. "White Owl's costume" and "Dark Owl's costume". I wondered if Helder had a full bio and guide book planned out as well. Were we to become exhibits in some freakish travelling show? Or was this strictly a private museum, and only invited guests were allowed admission?
I faked being asleep as Helder unlocked my case and came back inside. But I felt something jab my shoulder and heard the hiss of a hypo gun. "I know you're not sleeping White Owl," said Helder. "So these muscle relaxants ought to keep you at bay while I make some changes to your environment." He stepped back as the medicine worked through my system. I felt my arms go heavy, then it became hard to hold my head up.
Helder tilted my chin up and I stared at him with eyes that seemed to shimmy in and out of focus. "Not so high and mighty now, are you White Owl?" he sneered. His free hand found my bra strap and he pulled it free, pulling the cup from my left breast. He held the breast in his hand, kneading and massaging it. "I've been hearing all those leering fan boys talk about this and they're right--you're remarkable."
"Yo..you...you're taking a....lot for granted..." I slurred.
Helder jumped back like he'd been shot. "You can still talk through all that? I was assured that dose would stop a moose in it's tracks."
I forced a grin--but could only feel the sides of my lips tremble slightly. "N...northb..ound? Or Sssouthbound Moose?"
Helder frowned and wasted no more time. He held up a sinister pair of bracers. "Do you remember these?" he asked, chuckling. I could sense the nervousness in his voice, that of a man who suddenly realized the situation was no longer under his control. Helder continued, "Of course not--at least not in this form." I kept my mouth shut, allowing him to think I was still weak from the drugs (which I was) and not in control of my mind (which WASN'T true),
Unlocking the left wrist restraint from the chair, Helder took my limp arm and snapped a bracer over my wrist. "There are the power dampers that Techno used on you." I must have looked puzzled because he added quickly, "No, not the originals. You destroyed them too thoroughly. But I found Techno's notes at a con 6 months ago and traded them to the Salvager in Angel Falls. He retro-engineered them and made them a little nicer looking."
As the bracer snapped onto my arm, a green light glowed, indicating the damper was draining my strength and flight abilities. The process was swiftly repeated for my other arm. I felt my hopes dashing, because Techno's dampers had done the job all too effectively. As I was lost in my reminiscing, Helder unlocked my leg restraints. I couldn't even muster the strength to stand. Whatever he was using as a muscle relaxant, it was effective.
With my hands free to move, though, I forced myself to stand and on shaky limbs I pointed to Melody. "Whaaaat abooutt hrrr?" I slurred again.
She'll be locked into her chair for about a week," Helder replied. "Long enough for the X-45 formula to wash out of her system. Of course her brain will fry as well, but those are the chances one takes collecting. I'll still have ONE intelligent Owl though. His hand squeezed my breast again, and my eyes narrowed in fury.
"I'll get past these restraints Helder," I said--my voice suddenly clear and intense. "And when I do you'd better be off planet, because no where on earth will be safe for you if Melody is harmed." Helder's hand moved back and the startled man moved from my case, closing it tightly and pressing the red button matching Melody's. A similar light glowed from the floor of MY case and I pounded futilely on the walls.
Time passed slowly, and with no outside light I couldn't tell if it was day or night, or how much time had passed. Melody roused and jerked in her restraints, but the soundproof cases meant I couldn't hear her. The best lip read I could do though indicated that she was blaming me for her troubles again.
I settled into the chair again and tried to sleep. I would need energy to try and escape. I had no hopes of getting past Techno's power dampers, remembering all too well how they'd kept me helpless before. Despite all my relaxation and calming techniques, I had a hard time falling asleep.
I blinked into alert wakefulness though, when I noticed Helder standing above me, holding my toolbelt. His face was contorted in anger. "Where is it?" he demanded, slapping my face with the back of his hand.
I felt the pain, and resolved not to cry. "Where is WHAT?" I responded.
"The mask remover."
I smirked. "You don't think I carry it with me? That's a special solvent and if it fell into the wrong hands, my identity would be compromised. It's in my home in Queen City."
Helder raised his hand again, but I just stared calmly at him. His hand lowered and he waved the toolbelt in my face again. "I think you're lying to me White Owl. I think you keep some of the solvent in here in case you need to change in a hurry." I kept my face neutral and my gaze steady.
Helder reached into the pouches and pulled out several balls. "I know these are bop balls, and net balls. But this one is smaller. This is the solvent, isn't it?" He shook the ball and a bright spray of orange paint coated him from the top of his thinning hair to the bottom of his Dior suit.
"No," I replied calmly. "That's a paint ball; one of my newer inventions" Looking past Helder, I could see Melody laughing at his misfortune. But when she saw me, she stopped and rancor once again filled her eyes. I ignored her and stayed focused on Helder. With a fluid motion, I rose from the chair, and did a front kick into his stomach. The collector doubled over, falling out of my display case and I raced after him. My second kick caught him in the knee and I saw Helder buckle, with his knee dislocated.
I dove to the other control panel and pressed the green button. Melody's case went dark and the metal latches on her restraints fell off as well. Like a woman possessed she pounced from the display cube and landed on Helder, pounding him with powerful blows to the back of his head.
"Melody, calm down!" I shouted, grabbing her and throwing her off of Helder. She pinwheeled into the display cases and suddenly I realized that the Salvager's reproduction dampers were just so much junk. I returned my attention to Helder.
"Not much of a Gentleman are you?" I asked, grabbing him by the seat of his pants. Helder whimpered, and I grabbed my belt from his orange hand. "Mr Wickersham is going to have a fit," I thought as I saw the orange on the finely tooled leather.
I whirled Helder around, slamming him into the far wall. "What did you mean when you were jabbering about the X-45? That was a failed super soldier formula in World War 2. "
Helder stammered..."An...and Hellfire made sure Melody got several doses. She's addicted now.
She got powerfully strong and athletic, like you; but the X-45 destroyed her moral compass. She's completely amoral now. She needs to renew her 'fix' every other day or the drug starts to wash out. And all the benefits of X-45 go with it--her strength, her intelligence and so forth. What's worse, anything she had BEFORE the drug goes with it too."
I clenched Helder's tie and pulled the knot tighter. "How long has it been since she's had any?"
"A..at least 36 hours." he stammered. "She's done for. I don't have any X-45 here."
"She's not done for," I said. Then KLANNNNGGGGG!!!!!! I staggered backward as the heavy chair from Melody's case careened off my cranium." I drooped on one knee and then to the floor as the chair struck home again.
"That's MY man, you whore," said Melody. She was clad in her black suit again, and evil stretched out over her face. I sagged to the floor and Melody grabbed Helder by the neck, squeezing it oh, so gently.
"Hello lover, remember me?" Helder trembled as he hung suspended from the floor. "You were very naughty to lock me in the box. Mama may have to punish you."
"For the love of God White Owl, Save me!" cried Helder.
"Neither God NOR that bitch will save you, lover boy. You're at my mercy now and I have n..."
Melody staggered and waved an arm over her face. She dropped Helder and swooned. Helder tried to stand but found himself once again snared by a powerful arm.
"Not so fast, Mr Helder, we still have unfinished business." The collector squirmed again and I sat him down in the chair that had formerly held me, bending the restraints tightly around him.
"I'd love to take you in now, Helder," I said. "But I have an old friend who needs my help right now." I quickly donned my costume and felt a sense of both identity and relief as the NuSilk settled against my skin. I buckled my belt around my hips and scooped Melody into my arms. Looking over my shoulder, I told Helder I'd send the police.
Three days later, I was sitting down to breakfast in Empire City as Stirling fussed with the Java blend that Virgil's company had named "Athena's Gift" I poked at my scrambled eggs and looked sheepishly at Virgil. "I'm still not sure I understand the passion you have for collecting," I said.
"I'm not surprised, considering you almost became an artifact yourself," replied Virgil with a chuckle. "But think of it like your archaeology digs. You're looking for something in particular, something that ties you to the ancients who once walked that site. It's something like that."
I considered that and nodded. "I can certainly understand why some people call archaeologists 'grave robbers.' It's disconcerting to think that great times 1oo grandma's things are being picked through by strangers. And its MORE disconcerting when one is treated like an object oneself--dispassionately I mean."
"Well I consider you passionately," said Virgil. Behind him, Stirling rolled his eyes. I giggled.
Virgil smiled too. and said, "It IS true though Athena. But what happened in the end?"
"Well, I got Melody to Dr Emerson at Meadowbrook, and they thought they could help cure her with a judicious dose of X-47, weaning her off X-45 then stepping down the dose of the other without the side effects. But she escaped two days later."
He'd just gotten free from the chair when the sheriff and his deputies showed up. He's in detention in St Matthews right now for kidnapping and larceny. I also understand a certain hero from Empire City is trying to have several racketeering and robbery charges brought in too--so he may wind up in federal court soon." I looked out the window and sighed.
"She's out there again, Virgil. And it's my fault."
I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. "You did the right thing, Theena. You helped an old friend. And her escaping isn't your fault."
I buried my head in his shoulder and cried...