Paragon vs. Plastica

by Cobalt Jade

Chapter 10: Trapped

Lori sighed and rolled over in bed, brushing her cheek against Cal's motionless shoulder. Why do things have to be so complicated and ugly, she thought. Why had she ever chosen to be a superheroine in the first place? She could be living the normal life of a student now, blissfully ignorant of the ugly issues costumed superpowers dealt with every day. Cinnabar had always told her knowledge was power, but sometimes it brought only sadness. She was suddenly envious of Cal. How little he knew.

She kissed his shoulder, inhaling the slightly sweet, slightly pungent man- smell. She wasn't quite ready to go back to HQ yet. He stirred, letting out a deep breath of his own, and her fingertips snaked over his hip to tell her was indeed aroused, and rising fast, warm and solid in her hand.

"Wake up," she whispered. He made a slight noise sounding like hmrgh? and she whispered again, louder, and gave his a cock a squeeze. "Wake up. I want to fuck you."

That got him going, as she knew it would. Ordinarily she didn't care for dirty talk in bed, but it had its uses. She opened her mouth to receive his kiss, parting her legs to accept him inside her. His hips brushed the inside of her knees and she spread herself wider. She wasn't too young to realize that every time she made love could be her last.

He entered her, and she was warm and wet enough for it to feel delicious. He started to move and she heard herself giving little mews of passion like a hungry kitten. His rough beard and mouth were everywhere, her neck, her lips, her nipples. She heard herself cry louder and suddenly her whole body shook. A few seconds later he came too.

Sighing, spent, she let him encircle her with his strong arms. She didn't want to leave here, but she had to...she had to see if the others had found a way to free Cinnabar yet. If they couldn't find a way to counteract Plastica's formula, she--like Darlene and her friends--might remain a statue forever. "I've got to go," she whispered. "Early class, remember?"

"You can stay here and have breakfast," he said. She heard the slight note of pleading. Only on rare occasions, when Team Paragon had one of its dry spells, did she dare spend the night.

"My books are back at the apartment," she lied. She kissed him again, softly. "But I'll see you this weekend, all right?"

"All right," he said, assuaged.

She quickly dressed before she could change her mind.


Darlene and Allison peered over the formula Artie had printed out. "This *looks* doable," Allison said. "Going by what little I know, anyway. Xenon was our chem expert." She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "Can Artie mix up the antidote?"

Darlene nodded. "No problem--as long as he gets all the ingredients."

"ALOSH can help us with that. They can get hold of anything." Allison looked back at the printout. She'd lied when she said it looked doable; the complicated formula actually looked more like Greek or Martian to her. Yet it was the only chance they had for turning Cinnabar back to normal. She had the sudden, nasty intuition Plastica hadn't left them much time to do it.

"That bitch!" she swore. She looked down to see she had crumpled the paper in her fist.

Darlene retrieved the formula and smoothed it out. "Careful," she warned, even though Artie could easily print out another one.

"Sorry," Allison said sheepishly. "I just bet Plastica's back at her factory right now, laughing at us."

"She wouldn't waste her time," Darlene said. "If anything, she's meticulously plotting her next move. All petriphiles are control freaks."

"Petri-what?" Allison said.

Darlene's girlish lips curled in a smile, but her eyes contained an awful, hard-won knowledge. "Petriphile. She likes to statuefy people, turn them into objects, does she not? Why else would she choose an old mannequin factory as her hideout?"

It was the first time Allison had heard of the word, but it described Plastica exactly. Arch-criminals tended to made themselves over into their fantasies, and they chose criminal activities that let them carry out those fantasies; that much she'd learned in Crimefighting 101. "OK, she's a petriphile. But why does that maker her a control freak?"

"Because petriphiles like having the ultimate power of life and death over other human beings. And that's a lot easier when they can't move or talk...when they can treated as if they are disposable or interchangeable, a work of art or a utility object. I should know, I've studied them for them for years. Was their *victim* for years." Darlene gave a short, humorless laugh. Their conversation had taken a definite turn towards the sinister. "Did I tell you I learned to like it?"

Allison could not imagine Darlene, so solid, muscular, and alive, as a mute frozen statue; yet Lori had told her earlier, in private, about Darlene's peculiar fetish. Well, it happened. More than one superhero found their sex lives reflecting the dangers they faced in real life. One costumed crimefighter was notorious for his bondage and torture escapades; ALOSH had to step in when he began to involve his teenage sidekick in them. She glanced at ARTIE, seeing herself reflected in his chrome carapace as a steel statue, an iron valkyrie.

"Another trait petriphiles have is an appreciation of human beauty," Darlene continued. "A frustrated aesthetic sense often drives their 'creations,' so to speak. Marble, crystal, chrome, you name it. The more exotic and precious the material, the better. Some petriphiles liked precious materials like gold, others fragile ones like glass. To think you could destroy someone forever with one small push, or a tap of a hammer..." Darlene shuddered, suddenly wrapping her arms around herself. "They liked us fragile, precious, and helpless...and naked and aroused, too."

"That's true of a lot of men, still," Allison cracked, hoping to inject a note of humor.

Darlene's mouth compressed in contempt. "I would hardly call them *men.* In fact, I think most of our enemies were impotent. They liked to collect women to leer at...not to have sex with."

"But then how do you explain Plastica?" Allison said. "Unless she's a lesbian, why is she turning young women into mannequins?"

"Because she wants to be a mannequin herself," Darlene said with surety. "Oh, she wouldn't actually do it, mind you. She has too much to lose. Nor would she ever admit it. But deep down, that's her secret desire. And that's why she inflicts it on other women, because it gives her a voyeuristic thrill she can't get any other way."

Allison felt slightly nauseous listening to Darlene's theories of criminal pathology, but she had to admit what she said made sense. Plastica's obsession with the fashion industry, with models and mannequins, and the awful, fetishistic manner in which she had captured Cinnabar...she had to be stopped!

The lab door clicked open as Lori came into the room. Allison knew she'd spent the night with Cal, but she didn't look too happy because of it. In fact, Lori looked even more worried than when she'd left. She brightened when she saw them talking, however. "Did you--?" she asked.

Allison nodded cautiously, indicating the formula. "This may be it. I'll call ALOSH for the rarer ingredients, and then we'll set Artie to work on it."


The cell phone beeped softly. Phanxine answered it, her eyes tense. "Iza says he just left the house," she whispered.

"Start setting things up," Plastica hissed. They'd parked the van on one of the streets Lori's boyfriend took on his bicycle ride to the UCLA campus, a street mostly deserted of other traffic once rush hour was over. Phanxine pulled her Fruit-en-Fusion t-shirt over her head and opened up the back doors to the van. That was their ploy; they were company reps giving away free samples of a new herbally enhanced soft drink. The bottles were actually filled with kool-aid, but that wouldn't matter to that young man, of course. Plastica smacked her lips at the thought, enjoying the thrill of the hunt. It had been years since she'd pinned such an innocent.

"Free samples..." Phanxine called, waving a cold bottle in each hand. Other students were taking the same route, and the cool drinks attracted attention. Some passersby were eager to get a free drink, but others ignored them. Plastica began to worry; Phanxine was less successful than she had thought. It seemed many of the students weren't that interested. Precious minutes ticked away. Plastica tightened her grip on the binoculars, keeping them aimed over the dashboard. God, let him come this way today! She couldn't let a change in routine fuck this up now.

"He's rounding the corner," Tiger called.

Sure enough, there was the bicycle. Plastica quickly stuck her head out the window, catching Phanxine's eye. "Make him stop!" she ordered. "This is our only chance!"

She ducked back inside as Cal's bicycle whizzed past the fender. She heard the brakes squeal as Phanxine stepped out in front of him. "Would you like a free bottle of Fruit-en-Fusion?"

Plastica held her breath as Cal steadied himself at a halt. He couldn't run her down, but she was keeping him from his classes, which, by the hurried look of him, he was obviously late for. He glanced over Phanxine's shoulder at the tower of the Arts and Sciences building. "Um, I really don't have time for this," he said, stammering, in a way that implied he was too polite to press it further, and hoped Phanxine would do the nice thing and let him go by. Plastica grinned gleefully. Such a vulnerable little cutie, so well-mannered! Imagine the fun she'd have with *that* one. Her toes curled in anticipation inside her spike-heeled vinyl mules.

"It will only take a minute," Phanxine said quickly with her most winning smile She turned to the side, showing off the profile of her well-shaped tits, nipples erect inside the tight t-shirt. Damn that girl was good. She saw Cal hesitate. "What flavor would you like? We have Mangoberry, Oralengerine, and Wizardblizzard with taurine and vitamin B6."

"Um, Mangoberry," he said as if he'd forgotten the others. He was still looking towards the campus and made no move to get off his bike. Damn; that thing would take him further and faster than his feet, if he got scared and decided to run. Phanxine reached in back of the van to get to the ice chest, taking out the drugged bottle they'd prepared earlier. "Get him closer to the doors, and off of that bike," Plastica ordered.

"I'll try," Phanxine said, swallowing. She suddenly jerked away, sensing Cal had been about to ride off. "Wait! Don't you want your drink?"

"Thanks. I'll try it later." He tucked the bottle in his bike bag. Shit! Plastica blinked hard, then steadied her eye above the window jamb. Phanxine you ass, do something! Don't let him get away!

"Want a free t-shirt too?" Phanxine said, thinking quickly.

"OK," Cal said, surprising her. They should've tried that in the first place. College kids *always* needed t-shirts.

"Come on back then, pick out a design," Phanxine purred. Plastica crouched down by the doors. She heard the kickstand of the bike go down and the scuff of sneakers on concrete. "What size do you want? We have medium, large, extra large--"

She steeled herself as Cal looked into the van, and into her eyes. Amazement and raw surprise washed over his face. For a split second there was no fear, no comprehension of the danger he was in; she found that rather touching. But he saw nothing more as she struck out with the heel of her hand, hitting him hard above the bridge of the nose. As she expected he crumbled like balsa wood. Cruder than drugging him, but effective nonetheless. As he fell Tiger grabbed his left arm, and Plastica his right, and Phanxine gave him a hefty shove from behind. In two more seconds Tiger had hit the gas and they were pulling away with a screech, the abandoned bicycle their only witness.


Cinnabar watched the activity in the Paragon Lab through dry, open eyes. Lori and Allison had a strange machine with them now, a shiny, crablike robot with prehensile arms, and were clearly working on a chemical formula of some kind. Dear Goddess, let it be her antidote! But as much as she wanted to know their progress, she could only watch. The stasis field surrounding her turned all outside noise into static. It blocked telepathic contact too, so she couldn't even communicate with Allison, with whom she shared a link.

And she had to communicate with them...she had to warn them.

A third girl came to join Lori and Allison. Cinnabar did not know her. The stasis field slowed her perceptions, so they seemed to scamper like mice, while the digital readout on the wall ticked like heartbeat. She tried to moan, wiggle, anything to get their attention. But her mouth had been filled with chrysteel when Plastica lowered her into the tank, solidifying into a permanent gag the same shape as her oral cavity. As for moving her limbs, that was impossible too. She could only clench her muscles a little, and the tiny motion was spread so far out in time by her slowed motor responses that it might as well be nothing.

Tears of frustration gathered at the corners of her eyes. They would take many years to accumulate, and many more years to evaporate. Time was slowed inside the stasis field so a single second took centuries, bringing her metabolism to a virtual standstill. But her mind was still active, if a little slow, and if she couldn't talk to her teammates, she would go insane!

She knew she should feel anxious, but her neurons were firing too slowly for fear. She felt only a slowly mounting dread, a sense of the inevitable...which was shamefully amplified by the hard set of the plastic that cupped her bowed, hogtied flesh, and the slow but steady pulse of pleasure from the vibrator still sealed inside her. That was the worst of it, that she should feel such arousal while being so helpless, so trapped. Never had she thought she would wind up like this, an insect specimen sealed inside a solid cube, thighs spread wide like gossamer wings. If she didn't warn her teammates, they would all be in terrible she was sure, by their absence, Blue Cymbidium and Chrystar already were.

How could she tell one of the drivers behind Plastica's plot was Kaylashat the Damned? And that Kaylashat never rested until she got what she wanted?

Cinnabar Steele had freed the ancient witch-queen from her tomb years ago, and nearly died...but she'd emerged from the wreckage with a new identity, that of Scirocco, and a new mission. The naive grad student she was had become a superhero strong enough to face the sorceress, and won. And she thought she'd had. But a few years later, she encountered the sorceress again, and again, she'd nearly paid the ultimate price...


Team Paragon had been investigating a ring of international art thieves in Germany. The thieves had broken into a Berlin museum to steal a long-neglected artifact that had not even been on display. Relic #471700 was a piece of metal about two inches long looking a bit like a section out of a dagger or sword. It never had been dated accurately. Some archaeologists thought it came from Babylon, others early Egypt, but the makeup of the metal pointed to a more recent origin. Ordinarily the theft would have nothing notable...but the thoroughness and professionalism of the operation, and the fact a similar artifact had recently been stolen from the Smithsonian Institution in the United States had set off warning lights, and Team Paragon -- then consisting of Cinnabar, Xenon, and White Rose -- had been called in by Europol.

The leader of the ring was called Black Mamba. But no one knew what he or she looked like or what their usual modus operandi was; even ALOSH's files had come up empty. The missing information made the team more cautious than usual. They tracked the thieves to a factory on the outskirts of Stuttgart and took separate routes inside, staying in constant contact with each other using specially designed sub-frequence radios -- channel hoppers. Anything could happen, so everyone's nerves were stretched to wire.

Cinnabar found herself walking through a massive, disused industrial space dimly lit from narrow windows far above. She heard a few squeaks from disturbed rats, then rustling as they ran off...nothing more. Probably the main base, if there was one here, was hidden deep inside...or underground. Yet her heightened senses, far stronger than a normal humans', brought her other impressions. She could not see as well as Xenon did in the dark with her goggles, but her sense of smell compensated. She stopped to take a whiff of the stale, motionless air.

At first she smelled nothing but greasy dust and decaying metal. But then she caught a whiff of fresh lubricant -- machinery had been operating here recently -- and a fainter one of warm human musk, with a tantalizing note of perfume or aftershave. Someone had either been here very recently, or was still here.

She began to move in a stealthy, practiced crouch. And faintly, in the air, and under feet, she felt the current of live electricity. Power had been shut off at the factory for years, so it had to be coming from a generator somewhere.

A wide, open door to her left beckoned her through. Nerves stretched taut, she entered the hall. She walked in a silent glide; only she, with her superhuman senses, could hear the shuffling noise her footsteps made as she tested the composition of the floor. It was something very smooth and hard, not metal, not concrete. It wasn't slick, she noted; she could gain a footing. But it was abnormally hard.

As soon as she thought "abnormal" she stumbled forward; her next step had landed not on the floor but in a pool of warm liquid. She fell into the pool as the floor pulled away on all sides, leaving her to sink like a stone in a thick, viscous substance like latex paint. Panicked, she thrashed her legs, trying to drive herself to the edge where she might haul herself over. But in a heartbeat the liquid had thickened around her to the consistency of melted marshmallow, trapping her arms below the surface while holding her upright. And in another fraction of a second the tarry substance had solidified completely. She was trapped with her chin just barely above the surface of a smooth block of...whatever, which had swallowed her body completely.

The lights blinked on.

There was a row of spotlights on the ceiling in front of her, illuminating her like a actor on the stage, and she blinked. She heard bootheels clicking across the floor, and realized that this had, in fact, been a trap, and that her radio was entombed in the rubber beneath her, along with the rest of her specialized tools.

A long, slim body passed between her and the row of light. A person...a a form-fitting black catsuit. Black Mamba. Of course.

Her feet stopped six inches from Cinnabar's head. The boots were a deep, luxurious black, reflecting the light in a dull gloss. They smelled of well-kept leather. The heels were very, very high, and narrow as daggers.

Cinnabar steeled herself, but Black Mamba only gave a throaty chuckle, one that sounded oddly familiar, and crouched down to face her. The villainess's own face came into view, high-cheekboned, masked, the eyes narrow, upslanted slits. Only her lips were exposed, which glittered like unholy fruit. "Do you know me, Scirocco?"

That voice. Cinnabar would never forget that voice as long as she lived. And here she was, helpless and entombed, in front of the enemy she'd thought she'd killed three years before.

"Kaylashat the Damned," she said. She knew she should not show fear, but still felt herself shudder, tremble deep within whatever substance held her.

"Yes," Kaylashat hissed, like the ophidian namesake she'd adopted. Standing quickly, she made to kick the helpless Scirocco in the head.

Scirocco flinched; she couldn't help it. But Kaylashat only laughed.

"You are trapped completely, aren't you?" she gloated in her strange, glottal accent. The light reflected the ebon curves of her catsuit, shooting off highlights as she moved. "How fortunate I am. I did not expect them to send you to me." Every pronoun glinted.

"How did you survive?" Scirocco said, playing for time. If she stalled long enough, her teammates might notice her missing and come to her rescue.

"I am still a sorceress," Kaylashat growled. "Though you tried to take my powers from me. You nearly succeeded. But with every piece I collect from the Sword of Screams, I grow stronger."

Relic #471700, Scirocco thought. That's why she stole it. She knew the legend behind the Sword of Screams from the inscriptions on Kaylashat's tomb, but thought the sorcerous weapon had been lost centuries ago. That it had survived into the modern world, and could be reassembled, made her head spin. "You broke into the Smithsonian, too."

Kaylashat nodded. "I and my team. What was once mine, will be mine again."

The legend also said that if Kaylashat assembled the sword, that would mean the end of the world as humanity knew it...not just of one small college town in the Midwest, as happened three years ago. The government had worked overtime to cover that up. But Scirocco had seen what Kaylashat's powers could do...and the power-mad sorceress had been bent on ruling the world, transforming it back into her native Bubabis.

"But you," Kaylashat laughed, looking down on her. Scirocco tried without avail to free herself from the block. It had melded completely into floor on all sides of her, so from the outside, she looked just like a decapitated head sitting on white concrete. But not even her superhuman strength could tear her free.

"Scirocco, where are you?" the radio squawked. Kaylashat whirled around like a demon. Scirocco breathed a sigh of relief; her radio hadn't been trapped with her, just dropped. But the static indicated it had been damaged. Like liquid shadow Kaylashat snatched it up, turning off the speaker so no transmittals could get through.

"You have friends," she said darkly, looking down on her victim. "But they will not find you."

"That's for them to decide, " Scirocco said. She couldn't keep the note of triumph out of her voice. "Run -- if you can."

"No, my dear," Kaylashat said, throwing the radio to the floor. She kicked it twenty feet into the darkness in front of her. "Run--if *you* can." She touched a button on the remote at her belt.

Scirocco jumped as the door she came in banged loudly shut, sealing itself. It had been of metal and over two feet thick. Kaylashat then walked over to the side of the room and flipped a switch. Machinery deep inside the floor ground into life; she could feel its vibrations. The steady throbbing told her it was powerful machinery, made to drive heavy gears and elicit thousands of pounds of pressure. At the far end of the hall, she saw, in the dimness, a metal door slide slowly upward...and something huge and round moved out of it. It must weight several tons, she thought, clinically, before it moved out of the darkness and into the range of shadow, where she saw what it really was: a giant cylindrical press like the front wheel on a steamroller, glowing a soft cherry-red with its own self-generated heat. It was eight feet high, ten feet wide, and headed straight for her at the speed of a human walking.

Whatever it had been used for in the factory's early days, it was the instrument of her death now. She -- or her head rather-- would be no impediment at all to it. She realized it was going to run right over her. Panic slammed in, her mouth went dry. It had to be a trick of Kaylashat's; it had to be. Not even she would try something so low, so obscenely cruel...

The red-hot roller approached the discarded, squawking radio, passing over it with barely a crack. Then the roller stopped, backed up...leaving a melted, steaming mess on the hard white floor, easily five times the diameter it had been.

Kaylashat walked over and picked up the radio, which was now a metallic pancake barely 2 mms thick. Holding it with a cloth for protection, she walked back to Scirocco. "You see?" she said, displaying the flattened object. "You are only in the way my dear."

No, she couldn't mean that! Scirocco felt her jaw drop open. She wanted to scream, cry, but nothing came out. Her pride held her back, her pride was being broken. She could take any pain, any amount of burn, puncture, cut, or bruise; any bone could be broken, wrenched, cracked. But she could not be mangled like that! Against her will, against five years of ALOSH training as a superpower, she broke. Tears streamed from her eyes. "Please..." she sobbed.

"Did I hear you say please?" Kaylashat said, throwing the flattened radio away. It clattered into the darkness.

The smoking red-hot roller still waited. "Yes," Scirocco whimpered. "For the love of God, Kaylashat, don't--"

"I am a god," Kaylashat reminded. "A god-*dess,* remember? Remember how you worshipped me at first, when you opened my tomb?"

"Yes," Scirocco whispered shamefully, remembered how Kaylashat had overpowered her mind with her own, forcing her to be her personal slave and accomplice, and eventually discarded her to die.

"Worship me again," Kaylashat said. "I *might* let you live." She crouched before her, spreading her thighs. She fiddled briefly at the crotch of her catsuit, removing a triangle of leather, and lowered her pubis to Scirocco's face. "Worship me, Cinnabar."

Cinnabar stared at the smooth bronze triangle of flesh, the thin strip of black pubic hair that decorated Kaylashat's pussy. She saw the pubic lips were already moist and smelled the evil, musky, slightly acid smell from Kaylashat's secretions, familiar from her days as the sorceress's slave. She couldn't do this again, no, she couldn't...!

Kaylashat sensed her hesitation. "Use your tongue, or die like that radio!"

Tears streamed from Scirocco's eyes, but she knew she had to play for time, every precious second she gained might mean her rescue. Kaylashat spread her black-clad thighs wider. Scirocco saw her clit poke out of her tangled mound of curly black hair, questing upward like a little blind worm. The acid smell became stronger. Grimacing, Scirocco opened her mouth, extending her tongue to service her enemy.

Kaylashat scooted forward, raising herself on her heels slightly. With her other hand she pressed the back of Scirocco's head, her fingers tangling in her hair in a tight, painful grip. Quickly, she pushed Scirocco's head forward, into her crotch.

Scirocco was sealed in darkness, nearly suffocating in the stink of her. Biting back her revulsion, she kissed the vulva of the evil witch, running her tongue up and down her pubic lips. The stern pressure on her head told her she was not to slack off. Moving her lips, teeth, and tongue, she groomed Kaylashat's trembling pussy, sucked her clit, swirling her tongue around the tiny nubbin until she heard the sorceress groan. If Scirocco distracted her enough, she might be caught unawares by her teammates. With a new determination, she did just that.

Kaylashat began to pant, heaving slightly, and her thighs trembled. The smooth leather of her thighs tightly gripped the sides of Scirocco's head. Her sex gushed warm and wet with her own peculiar secretions, which tasted bitter and oily. Drop after drop rolled down Scirocco's throat. She tried not to gag at the taste. Many minutes had passed. Were her teammates here yet? Were they even coming at all?

Suddenly Kaylashat trembled and cried out. An extra-large dose of her fluid squirted out, rolling down Scirocco's lips like a foul-smelling ichor. Kaylashat lolled for a second, breathing hard, then recovered herself. She looked down on her victim with an inscrutable expression. Then, slowly and deliberately, she wiped her crotch several times across Scirocco's disgusted face, depositing her come-fluids like an animal with its spore.

Kaylashat laughed. "That was good. Very, very good. You were a good slave. So was your boyfriend. But you both were disposable, as all human slaves are."

And she turned and walked to the side of the room, pressing the mechanism that set the giant roller into motion.

"I do not let my enemies live, Scirocco," she said as the roller began its final descent. Then she picked up a can of clean white paint and a paint brush, gesturing in a playful way. "And this is to cover up the nasty stain you'll leave on the floor, my dear..." and, laughing, she disappeared up a ladder and onto a catwalk far above, and then into the darkness beyond. And Cinnabar screamed.

She was still screaming when Xenon found her, the giant red-hot roller mere inches from her face, close enough to cause second-degree burns. And her own sword, the magically summoned Sabreglass, was the only thing holding it back; she was holding it in her mouth, the cords of her neck straining to hold the roller at bay with the enchanted tip.

She'd broken her jaw, and several teeth. Sedatives were necessary.

They'd captured the henchmen and recovered Relic #471700, but Kaylashat had disappeared with the other shard. Though the mission was a partial success it was an embarrassment for Scirocco. They had found her in hysterics, Kaylashat's come still stinking in her hair. She had been careless and caught off-guard; the weird trap she was found in proved that. It had taken many hours to free her from the rubber, and many months before she regained her confidence.

Now, in a space of days, Kaylashat had taken it away from her again.

She had to get out of this cube!

Allison, Lori and the stranger were conferring now, over what, Cinnabar couldn't see. How quickly they moved! Please, she prayed, let it be the solution that would free her...


Allison stared at the tube of clear liquid she held in her hands. They finally had their formula, but the question was, how would they test it? Such things weren't foolproof. Cinnabar might wind up in an even worse state than what she was in now. She glanced guiltily toward the Aubrey mannequin. Logic said they should test it on her; she wasn't a superpower with the responsibilities it entailed. She was expendable. But that was cruel, and she immediately put the thought out of her mind.

Darlene was thinking the same thing. "Too bad we don't have any plasticized rats."

Lori winced at the flippancy, but it was only gallows humor. She glanced back at Scirocco suspended inside her transparent prison. "What would *she* want us to do?"

Scirocco wouldn't want them to test it on a human guinea pig. But on the other hand, if they used it on her, and something went wrong, the team would be severely weakened and unable to deal with Plastica herself.

The phone suddenly rang from the living space of the loft. Lori raced out to answer it.

"We can run a computer simulation," Darlene suggested. "ARTIE can set one up pretty quickly."

"It'll take time to run through all the possibilities," Allison said, half factual, half protesting. "Time for Plastica to take some action. But there's no other way around it, I guess."

Darlene went to program ARTIE, keying in a long sequence of numbers. "Don't look so down. Plastica can't be 100% ahead of the curve all the time."

"How do you know?" Allison said. She hadn't thought that mantis-hipped, candy-haired travesty of a female model had any human vulnerability, besides the need to breathe.

"Because she lets her fetishes take her over," Darlene said with surety. "Her need for control will make her lose sight of the big picture, or she'll get overconfident or careless. And that's when her defenses will be down. Sexual fantasies--of whatever kind--always tend to do that."

Allison watched her for several minutes, then realized Lori should be there, too. She went into the other room to fetch her.

But Lori wasn't there. The phone was hanging out of its cradle, emitting a beeping sound. The door to the loft was open.

"What the--" Allison began. Wherever Lori had gone, she'd gone quickly -- too quickly. The light on the answering machine was blinking rapidly, a malevolent red eye that indicated the message was unfinished. Allison hit play.

Plastica's nasal, grating voice filled the air, her Southern accent thick as grits. "Are you there, Arctica? Well, we've got that boyfriend of yours. If you want to see him again, y'all can come over for a visit, hear?"

Darlene joined her as the message ended, and their eyes locked. "Oh no, Lori!"

To be continued...

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