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I get the impression we were lucky to get out of that cavern in one piece.

See, Daphne Diller, Miss Mega, Iota, and I had gone in for what was supposed to be a fairly simple task -- beat up the giant plant monster called Flytrap. Well, Flytrap almost kicked our butts and even tranked and swallowed Miss Mega before Iota managed to freeze it solid.

And by the time we dug Miss Mega out of its guts, we got surprised by some kind of trans-dimensional time cops who stepped out of a portal. And apparently, they came from an alternate dimension where dinosaurs were the dominant species. Everything seemed to be going well, until another time portal opened up. I assume the people who came out of it were time-traveling criminals who all happened to be Neanderthals, but we didn't have time to ask, because they all started shooting at each other, and we had to run for the exit. We were in the middle of a blossoming time war, and all of Metro City was about to be the front lines.

Believe it or not, my life used to make perfect sense.

Anyway, we get out, mostly thanks to Miss Mega and Daphne being bulletproof, along with a lot of adrenaline so Daphne, Iota, and I were able to haul the extremely heavy and still extremely tranquilized and frozen Miss Mega back to the cave entrance, where Daphne was finally able to phone for help. Of course, by then, the dinosaurs of the Time Patrol and the cavemen of the Tempus Fugitives had started opening up time portals all over the city, so it was already a huge crisis.

Once we're out of the cavern, we all hide behind some rocks out of the way of the cave entrance, and Daphne and Iota have me turn up the heat to thaw Miss Mega out faster. She's still kinda drugged and woozy, though, and there's just too much time cop and time crook heat too near Daphne's SUV for us to be able to sneak over to it.

So Iota tells Miss Mega to super-jump over to his lab so he can try to get Flytrap's tranquilizing pollen completely out of her system -- and he flies along with her to make sure she doesn't go off track somewhere. And I fly Daphne over to her office across town.

Daphne's office is pretty low-key. It's a smallish couple of rooms in a not-particularly-ritzy office complex, with a stenciled "Diller Investigations" sign on the door. There's a small waiting room, decorated with garage-sale paintings and ten-year-old Newsweeks, and an inner office that's barely nicer looking, with a desk, a few plaques and photos, a plaster Maltese Falcon on a bookshelf, and a dorm fridge, microwave, and folded-up cot stuffed away in a corner. 

Daphne goes straight to an old tape-deck answering machine plugged into her desk phone and starts playing her messages.

"Do we really have time for that?" I ask. "There are probably tons of emergencies to take care of."

"Yeah, probably so," she says. "But I'm gonna check and see if anyone wants to pay me to help keep 'em safe from the time travelers."

"Oh, you're joking," I say.

"Renee, I know I already told you I'm not a superhero, right? I got a business to run, and if some nice rich guy or a stuffed-with-cash megacorp wants to pay me to keep time cops from the dinosaur dimension or time raiders from the world of evil Neanderthals off their front lawn, well, I got bills to pay."

"Okay, fine, it's your life," I say, heading for the door. "But I don't have to sit here and watch you let greed lead you around."

"Like hell you don't," Daphne says. "I don't have my car. I need you to fly me out to wherever I need to be."

"No way!"

"Yes way!" she says. "Whose indestructible body got between you and all those lasers the dinos were shooting?"

"Well, you. And Miss Mega -- probably mostly her, 'cause she's so much taller than you."

"Well, fine, you can owe her a favor later," says Daphne. "But you owe me a favor now, alright? And I want you to fly me out somewhere. Pretty please, alright?"

"Okay, alright," I say. "But try not to take too long with the messages. I don't want to spend too long hiding out in here."

After another couple of minutes, Daphne finishes listening to her messages and calls one of the people who left their name.

"Alright, GeeGee," she says as she hangs up the phone. "You know where Outcault Marketing is located? Out on Plympton Road in the industrial district?"

"Yeah, I guess so," I say.

"Great, let's get going," she says.

I'm not real enthusiastic about this, but I fly her out there anyway.

One of the things that's been the strangest for me since getting powers is that my strength seems to be increasing a bit, but not necessarily for every task -- specifically, I'm able to carry more when I'm flying. Before I got my powers, I never would've been able to carry a full-size adult like Daphne in my arms -- heck, I couldn't even have managed it when I first got my powers. I don't know if it's how my powers are developing or if this is something that all metahumans can do.

"I really don't know how you can do this," I say. "There have to be things we're needed for all over the city. How can you take payment to guard a business?"

"Give me a little credit for doing things right, Renee," says Daphne. "All these businesses know my rules -- I can't guarantee there'll be no property damage, I only watch over businesses that have employees on site, so I'm protecting people, not just property, and the companies have all got to have evacuation procedures or secure, safe areas for employees where everyone goes if I give the order. They know my powers aren't the most spectacular and won't do much good in a lot of situations. I'm part security consultant, part prestige object."

"It still doesn't seem right."

"Seems fine to me," Daphne says. "Outcault Marketing is a telemarketing firm, so they keep staff in their call center all the time. I'll go out there and wait to see if any time-cavemen show up, then I go out there and distract 'em by being all invulnerable to whatever they shoot me with. If they're overwhelming me, I radio in a signal that tells 'em to head for their underground storm shelters. And I make enough to take care of another few weeks of rent. No harm, no foul."

"Okay, so if you do all this for money, why have I still seen you around town doing normal crimefighting stuff?" I ask. "Fighting Dr. Zapgun or Smokestack doesn't pay anything, does it? Neither did helping me out after I got my powers, right?"

"No, you're right," she says. "I do plenty of stuff for gratis. I like all you superheroes, and I want y'all to like me, too, so I can get you to do stuff like fly me around to jobs. But a girl's gotta make money, and when a crisis pops up, this is a good way to make a little extra scratch when I'm not working on a snoop job."

Soon enough, we make it to Outcault Marketing, which is built like a flat, ugly brick in the middle of a bunch of machine shops and tire services and scrapyards. I drop Daphne off by the front door, we wish each other luck, and I head for the downtown area, where I figure most of the action is taking place.

It isn't long before I run across the Chrome Cobra and Express in the middle of a couple dozen armored dinosaurs and cavemen on 84th and Everett. They're doing alright, but I swoop down and drop some radiation blasts on the cavemen. Another minute or two, and the Tempus Fugitives are all either scattered unconscious around us or fleeing back where they came from.

One of the dinosaurs, an eight-foot-tall duckbill, turns to us and says, "We're the Time Patrol. We'll need you to --"

"I know who the Time Patrol are!" shouts the Cobra. "Last time I checked, you were all homo sapiens! What the hell happened to you?!"

"They're from an alternate universe where dinosaurs are the dominant species," I say. "They were here to pick up Flytrap when the Tempus Fugitives showed up and started trouble."

"Oh yeah?" says Cobra. "It's not like the Time Patrol to let things get this out of hand. Since when did you guys and the Tempus Fugitives start time wars in the middle of entire cities anyway?"

"Sorry we don't meet with your approval, egg-stealer," says the duckbill. "We 'thunder lizards' haven't gotten along well with the Neanderthals for a couple millennia. Not like you Cro-Mags are any more peaceable in this era, are you?"

"Whatever," says Express. "Please clear them out as quickly as possible, and try not to get any of us Cro-Mags mixed up with your Neanderthals, okay? We didn't ask to be put at Ground Zero of a time war."

Once the dinosaurs clear off, Express and the Cobra turn toward me.

"Hey, Renee," says Express. "Thanks for the hand -- good to see you tonight."

"Gamma Girl," the Cobra says stiffly. "Nice to see you'll turn out for some emergencies."

"I told you before," I say. "I have to keep my job. They'll fire me if I just leave all the time to fight bank robbers. I don't know why you'd even ask me to make that kind of choice."

"We don't have time for this," Express says. "Didn't you want to get in touch with Iota and Miss Mega? Give 'em a call while we've got a break."

"Fine, sure, I'm going to get 'em on speaker" says Cobra, tapping one hand against the side of her helmet, then fiddling with some controls inside a small compartment on her glove. After a moment, we hear Iota's voice coming out of a small speaker in the palm of her hand, where her hard-light weapons normally come from.

"Hey, Cobra," Iota says. "Can we make this quick? Things are a little hectic here."

"I hope you mean you've got Miss Mega ambulatory again," says Cobra. "And that you're already out beating up on chrononaut cavemen."

"No, not particularly, and I've got my doubts either of us will be able to help out on this," Iota says.

"You'd better have a damn good reason, Dr. Denziger," Cobra says. "We really need our strongest hero and most inventive one helping out on this situation."

"Unfortunately, Flytrap's tranquilizing pollen that Miss Mega breathed in is actually growing in her lungs," says Iota. "Unless you want her turning into a superstrong plant monster under Flytrap's control, I'd advise that you handle the Tempus Fugitives without us."

"Hey, Stephen, you need any help from the rest of us?" asks Express.

"I'm not anticipating any problems, Derek," says Iota. "I've got Mega in a hyper-gravity generator that should theoretically keep her from moving. And the dehydration beam and pesticide spray should take care of the plant spore infestation without causing her any actual harm."

"Okay, well, any way you can speed that up, please do so," says Cobra. "Again, there are literal time bandits out here, and we need some more people out here helping out, okay?"

"I'll do my best, Cobra," says Iota. "But I can't offer any guarantees."

As she powers off the communicator, Cobra says, "Well, that sucks. I was hoping Iota could reverse-engineer time- or dimensional-travel so we could take the fight to these Neanderthal guys."

"I'd just like someone to punch some of these guys around," says Express. "Atlas is pretty good at it, but Mega probably hits hard enough to scare 'em all back to whatever Future Caveman World they came from."

"Well, we'll just have to do what we can," says the Cobra. "Plenty of emergencies to go around anyway. Express, go help Squid Kid and Hypothermia up on the north end of Boothby Street -- they've been trying to shut down one of these dimensional portals that the Tempus Fugitives are pushing tanks out of. Gamma Girl, I need you helping shuttle injured people to Metro City General with Gearbox and Jonni. I'm heading over to Falk Avenue. They're trying to put up some kind of communication tower, and Atlas and Defender are not making any damn progress slowing 'em down."

So we split up, and I head for the hospital. It takes a minute to find Gearbox and Jonni Rotten, but I finally catch up to them as they're bringing a couple injured people into the emergency room. Gearbox has shapeshifted himself into a motorized gurney to transport a man with a broken leg, while Jonni is riding on top. The man won't stop screaming at Jonni, which seems like an overreaction.

After they get their charges dropped off with the E.R. docs, I get them to slow down enough to tell me what's going on.

"We're mainly trying to avoid the cavemen and the dinosaurs for now," says Gearbox. "The mission is to get injured people to the hospital, and that's good enough for me."

"Whatever," says Jonni. "I'm useless out here. Gearbox is doing all the work, and I'm not getting to fight anyone."

"Well, I'm sure every contribution is helpful, right?" I say.

"Oh, hell," Jonni says, rolling her eyes. "A goddamn optimist. You and your happy thoughts can burn in hell, Gamma Geek."

"I didn't mean to cause any offense," I say.

"And what's with the blue skin?" she says, getting right in my face. Oh god, she smells like a slaughterhouse. "Funky colored skin is my gimmick. What kinda crap are you trying to pull?"

"I -- I'm not trying to pull anything..."

"Jonni, shut up," says Gearbox. "Last thing any of us need is you picking fights for no reason."

"God, superheroes in this town are such sensitive babies," Jonni sneers as she stalks off.

"First contact with Jonni?" asks Gearbox. "I won't insult either of you by claiming that you'll eventually get used to her. But I do think you'll learn what to expect from her. She never acts like it, but she seems to be a good person."

"Fuck you, robot!" Jonni yells.

After that, we all head back out again. Gearbox takes the shape of a small car, Jonni rides in him, and I fly overhead, near enough to talk to them, but just far enough away so I don't get treated to Jonni's stench.

"Shouldn't that Wheelman character be doing this, too?" I ask. "If his powers are all about driving cars, he'd probably be pretty good behind the wheel of an ambulance."

"Greg doesn't have the patience for driving an ambulance," says Gearbox. "Too much waiting around for paramedics to stabilize patients. I saw him leading some rocket-pack cavemen on a chase up and down some skyscrapers earlier."

There's a loud explosion off to our south, and all three of us start moving toward it. It's weird, but it feels like a hundred years ago that if I heard an explosion, I would've looked for somewhere safe I could hide -- now, I head for them so fast I don't even think about it.

We don't even get very close to the site of the explosion when there's a second, smaller explosion -- a low, heavy whump that rattles through my teeth and makes my hair feel weird. Immediately, Gearbox starts slowing down and weaving back and forth.

"Gearbox, what's the matter?" Jonni says, a sharp, nervous tone in her voice. "Talk to me now, what's the matter?"

"Localized EMP," Gearbox says slowly. "Don't worrry, I hhave shhielddding to hannndle thiiss sorrrt of thhhiiii"

And then he goes into a skid, flips over, and collapses into a pile of loose metal. Jonni rolls once in the street, then pops right back up onto her feet, both tonfa clubs already in her hands.

"Keep your head together, Windler," she snarls. "We got serious trouble. Might be those damn cavemen, might be the cops or someone who wants to get their hands on Gears. Might even be the dinosaurs. Can't trust a damn dinosaur."

I kick my radioactive aura up a few notches and hover a few feet higher, taking a few turns around to look for anyone watching us.

There's a second whump, and this time, a metal canister bounces into the street next to Jonni. It beeps and starts spraying a yellow cloud of mist into the air.

"Idiots," Jonni says from inside the cloud. "I don't even breathe. I'm going to hurt you assholes so goddamn hard."

The cloud is heavier than air, so I'm well above where it can have any effect on me -- but then there's a pop from behind me, and I feel thick, rubbery cables wrap around me and knock me out of the air, right down into the middle of the gas.

I don't know what this gas is, but my vision goes blurry almost as soon as I'm in it. I'm conscious just long enough to see a furious, bellowing Jonni get brought down by the wraparound cables, and then I'm fast asleep.

By the time I wake up, I'm tied up in a big blank room, all by myself except for a couple of plastic boxes, both about the size of laundry baskets, on the floor. Whoever had me must have been monitoring me, because a loudspeaker clicks on.

"Cro-Magnon female, remain calm and quiet. You are being held hostage by the Tempus Fugitives. When the Time Police and the creatures of this dimension pay us your ransom, you will be released."

"Like hell," I say, a little too groggily as I sit up. "Lemme go now, and I won't kick your butts."

"You're tied up," said the voice on the loudspeaker. "We have nothing to fear from you."

"You don't know anything about superheroes, do you?" I say.

I kick the radioactive heat up nice and hot, and it doesn't take more than a couple of seconds before the ropes crisp up and burn away.

"Yeah, real impressive," says the voice. "We figured you'd do that. We've got our doubts you can burn your way through that door, and even if you can, we know we can flood that room with more knockout gas. So don't try anything sneaky, Cro-Mag."

I get to my feet, rubbing my wrists where the ropes were tied.

"Where are Gearbox and Jonni?" I ask. "I want assurances they're okay."

"Frankly, you're in no position to make demands," says the voice. "But the Tempus Fugitives are very nice kidnappers. Check those boxes at your feet."

Oh god, this can't possibly be good.

I open the plastic top on one of the boxes. It's Gearbox, still disassembled. There's no movement, and I root around in the loose mechanical parts 'til I find his head.

"Are you there, Gearbox?"

There's no answer, and the lights in his eyes are out.

"We're pumping a steady energized magnetic field through the room," says the voice. "Just enough to make sure he remains deactivated."

I pop the lid of the other container open. Sure enough, Jonni's in here, dismembered, with her head sitting on top of the pile. This is gross and disgusting, and not just because I'm looking at a corpse that someone chopped up into pieces.

Jonni opens her eyes and starts screaming.

By the time I realize the voice over the loudspeaker is laughing at me, I'm at the back of the room, screaming like I'm watching one of those damn horror movies Dan loves so much.

"God dammit, you idiot!" shouts Jonni from the box. "Get your ass back over here!"

I shuffle my way back to the box and look inside. Jonni is glaring at me very angrily.

"You are goddamn embarrassing me, Gamma Dork."

"Sorry," I say. "I thought you were dead."

"I am dead," she says. "Now sew me back together."

"I'm not actually much of a seamstress," I say apologetically.

"Crap, and I thought you were one of those lame domestic types," she says. "Well, it doesn't have to be a good sewing job. Just get my limbs stuck together and I'll do fine. Dig around in here and find the duct tape."

"Oh god no," I say. "I'm not going to start digging around in dead body parts. You can't make me do that."

"We took the duct tape and sewing needles when we cut her up," says the voice on the loudspeaker. "And we would've hit you with the knockout gas if you started gluing her back together anyway. We're not complete idiots like you Cro-Mag primitives."

"There was absolutely no reason for you to cut her up," I say. "And there's absolutely no reason for you to keep me from putting her back together."

"Well, we couldn't knock her out with the gas," says the voice. "And it's not like it hurt her permanently. We didn't cut you up because you're alive. The Tempus Fugitives know we'll get the same ransom for her whether she's intact or in pieces."

"You guys are such fucking assholes," says Jonni. "I just hope I decay slowly enough to someday be able to kill you guys in the future. Or at least your non-caveman counterparts."

Okay, we need help. No one knows where we are. I'm not completely sure we're even in our own time -- maybe they dragged us back to their future headquarters. I don't even have to check to know that they've taken away my cell phone and Jonni's communicator. I've only got one way to call for help.

I stand up. I don't say anything out loud. But I think it as hard as I can.


And almost immediately, there's a bobbing blue ball of light in front of me.

"Mistress! Glorious mistress of radiation! I could never stay angry at you for long! Your family and I have been worried about you! It was interesting to find you here, mistress. Did you know this entire facility is almost completely free of radioactivity? It is a very strange place for either of us to be, don't you think?"

I try thinking questions and commands at him, but he interrupts me after only a couple of seconds.

"I apologize, O Shining Beacon of Incarnate Radiation," he chirps. "But I merely sensed your wish for my presence. I can tell that you wish to communicate with me telepathically, but that is actually beyond my abilities."

"Fine," I say aloud. "Jonni, do you know what we need most? We need to know where the gas vents for the knockout gas are. We need to know where the antenna is that's emitting the magnetic pulses. And we need to know where the hidden door is."

"Why are you telling me this, you fucking blue freak?" says Jonni. "What we need is a roll of duct tape and superheroes who aren't complete amateur-hour morons."

"But you aren't getting that, Jonni," I say through gritted teeth. "We need to know where the gas vents are, where the magnetic pulses are coming from, and where the door is."

"I understand, mistress," Sparky says. "Excuse me."

And he darts away and passes through one of the walls of the cell.

"I swear to god, if you're cracking up, while I'm stuck in this damn box unable to run away or kill you," says Jonni. "Well, obviously, I guess I won't kill you, at least not immediately. But please put the lid back on the box so I don't have to watch your goddamn mental collapse."

Well, I can't do that -- I need someone to talk to so it won't look like I'm waiting for Sparky to come back. And I can't even tell her that, so I guess I'm going to end up irritating her and then she'll eat my brains whenever she gets her arms and legs taped back on. Sucks to be me, as the kids would say.

"I'm not cracking up," I say. "I'm just trying to keep all of us from getting tossed into the timestream before someone pays our ransom."

"Like we're getting a ransom," she says. "Maybe Gearbox will -- the government wants to take him to pieces anyway. But no one likes me enough to pay money, and you and your shallow-end suburban lifestyle won't be able to dredge up enough money for any kind of normal ransom, and I think you know it."

"You don't know what you're talking about," I say. "You're needlessly cynical and angry, and you assume everyone else is just as cynical and angry."

"You're an optimist," she says. "And fuck you."

"Could we hear more about the likelihood of us getting our ransoms?" says the voice over the loudspeaker. "We in the Tempus Fugitives would prefer to get paid for kidnapping Cro-Magnons."

Oops, that line of conversation could lead to some trouble. Luckily, Sparky makes his reappearance, phasing through one of the nearby walls.

"Anywhere you wanna dump me is okay with me, you caveman shits!" yells Jonni. "It's not like it's a lot of fun being a zombie."

"Fair mistress!" says Sparky. "I have determined that you can affect all of the required systems! I will attempt to be quick and to the point, so please give me a signal when you are ready."

"I'd be willing to bet that Jonni has a decent bank account," I say as quickly as I can. "I'm sure she could be persuaded to show me that info right now."

"Like hell," says Jonni. "I get paid a little from the government for doing full-time superhero stuff, but my cost of living is pretty low."

Sparky, meanwhile, darts to a couple of barely noticeable grates on the walls, marking both of them with a cluster of radioactive blue dots that only I can see.

"The gas vents are here," he says. "Medium-intensity radioactive bursts should melt the grates and keep the gas out."

"I mean, I used to have a lot of money lying around," Jonni continues. "But it's not like I needed it. So I, ya know, have done a little more charitable giving." She sounds embarrassed.

Sparky moves up and marks a spot in the middle of the ceiling. "The magnetic antenna is here," he says. "You will need a great deal of heat here. The ceiling is thicker, and the antenna is slightly higher. You should move the robot and the corpse away from the middle of the room."

"Oh, great," I say. "Jonni, I'm tired of listening to you whine. I'm putting you in the corner, and you better be quiet."

I grab the edge of the box and start pushing her toward the corner. She's a little heavier than I would've expected, but that's probably because of the box itself.

"What the hell?!" Jonni sputters. "Lady, I swear to god, I think you really are cracking up. You started this whole goddamn line of inquiry, remember?"

I get her box tucked into the corner and turn back toward the one holding Gearbox. "I don't have time to listen to you anymore, Jonni," I say. "And I've had enough of listening to Gearbox chatter, too."

"What?" says Jonni.

I push Gearbox into the opposite corner of the room. "No, I don't care, Gearbox. I don't have time to listen to all your silliness. No one cares about how much you love pretty pink ponies, so just zip it, mister."

"What?" says Jonni.

"Okay," says the voice from the loudspeaker. "This show may actually make up for it if we don't get a ransom."

"Oh, it gets better," I say. "Just wait for the fireworks."

And I shoot the gas vents.

Sure enough, the grates melts into slag almost immediately, and I shut off the heat before they can melt any further.

"Dammit, hit the gas!" yells the voice. "Hit the gas!"

"Outstanding, mistress!" shouts Sparky happily. "You are effortlessly thwarting cross-time villainy!"

"Wait, what's happening?" asks Jonni. "Someone tell me what's happening, I can't see a damn thing."

I point both hands upward at the center of the room and start blasting maximum heat. Five seconds, ten seconds, 20 seconds, and the ceiling is melting around me. Then there's a pop and a spray of mechanical parts, all glowing bright blue.

"You've got the antenna, mistress!" shouts Sparky. "The door is in the middle of the wall behind you!"

"Seriously, what's going on?" asks Jonni. "Gamma Girl, come pick my head up, okay?"

"Jonni, how quick can Gearbox get started again?" I ask quickly.

"What?" she asks. "Is the magnetic field off? Hell, I have no idea. He doesn't get forcibly shut off that often, ya know?"

"Rebooting," comes a heavily distorted voice from Gearbox's container. "Projected reboot time: three minutes. Rebooting in safe mode. Loading. Loading. Loading. Reboot in safe mode complete. Unit will be on decreased activity until full reboot."

"What can you do, Gearbox?" I ask.

"One moment, please," he says in the same distorted robot voice. There's a clatter of machinery in his container, then a smaller version of him, about the size of a medium-sized dog, with tank treads instead of legs, tumbles out of the box. "This unit will be operational at this size," he says. "I can transport this container and Jonni Rotten's by shapeshifting into linked carrying units."

"Like car trailers?" I say.

"Like car trailers," he says, shifting himself into a long mechanical chain, wrapping around his container and Jonni's, then pulling them back together. He immediately turns into a little wheeled mini-train, zips under both containers, and lifts them into the air.

"I regret that I can offer little aid here, mistress," says Sparky. "As a mere spirit, I fear I will be unable to carry anyone, but I shall accompany you and sing hymns to your glory!"

"Sparky, you've been a big help already," I say. "But please don't sing."

"Someone please tell me what's going on?" says Jonni.

I'm getting worried there's been too much talk already. So I ignore Jonni and blast the door open.

"Oh, shit, you goddamn egg-sucking bastards!" shouts the intercom voice.

I charge out in the hallway, followed by Gearbox dragging the containers along. I've got no idea where I'm going 'til Sparky flies up next to me and sings, "I scouted around a little before! Next right, then the next left, down the hallway, and blow the door open at the end. We are going to kick so much ass, mistress!"

"Careful with that language, mister," I tell him. "People in my house have to keep the cursing to a minimum."

"Quit with the bouncing around!" I hear Jonni yell behind me. "I'd throw up if I were attached to my stomach!"

Finally, I get to the door that Sparky had directed me to, I blast it open with another nice big radiation blast, and we all zoom inside.

It's the facility's central hub, the headquarters of the whole operation. And right now, it's full of dinosaurs.

"Oh, great," says Jonni. "Wouldn't you know, we do all the work, and the Time Cops show up to take all the credit."

"Not actually," I say. "The Time Cops were the ones who kidnapped us, Jonni."

"What?" yells Jonni.

There's a long, uncomfortable pause.

"Gearbox, pick my head up, okay?" Jonni says.

Gearbox shapeshifts into a nominally more human form, reaches into Jonni's container, picks her severed head up, and points it at me.

"WHAT?!" she yells.

"Do you want to know how I figured that out?" I ask.

"No," says one of the dinosaurs. I recognize him as Field Commander Zilbert Hozich, the stegosaurus we met back in the cavern. "We don't need to know, nor do we care. And you won't get a chance to tell anyone else. So say your stupid primitive Cro-Mag prayers."

Well, I wish I'd thought this part through better. But Jonni can't fight, Gearbox isn't entirely functional yet, and I can't fight all these guys off by myself. We're about to end up in a Tyrannosaur's stomach -- and I don't know if even Jonni can regenerate from that. Our only chance is if I can snowball these dinosaurs the way I can keep the girls believing in the Tooth Fairy.

"You don't even want to try something like that," I say. "You know what killed the dinosaurs on our world, right?"

"Oh, you've got meteor powers, egg stealer?" says Hozich. "We know how the dinosaurs died on the Tempus Fugitives' world, and we know what didn't happen on our world. The meteor has happened on plenty of other worlds, you know -- we've checked."

"But you didn't check here, did you?" I say.

"What are you --" Jonni starts to say, then shuts up.

"We've already noticed that your facility here is pretty radiation-free," I say. "Small amounts of background energy, but not that much, compared to everything else on our Earth. You noticed the radiation levels were high here, didn't you?"

"We... had noticed," says Hozich.

Good, he sounds nervous about that. It means they didn't do any specific research on our timeline, so they really don't know for sure what killed off the dinosaurs. And it means they've been nervous about the radiation levels here.

"Well, guys," I say. "A few billion years ago, the sun started pumping out a lot more radiation all along the spectrum. Our scientists figure that killed off the dinosaurs in only a few months -- one of the most rapid mass extinctions on record -- because they weren't able to handle all that radiation. Most other animals were able to handle the additional mutations that came along with all that radiation -- though fossils indicate that the Neanderthals were unusually weak against radiation, too. You might want to pass that along to your good friends in the Tempus Fugitives."

"Sir, what she's saying doesn't make any real sense," says a nearby Triceratops technician. "It would violate several known natural laws."

"Your natural laws are a lot different from ours," I say. "We've got people who can fly under their own power, lift tons of weight, survive deadly injuries, run faster than the speed of sound, shapeshift, turn into minerals or water or air, survive underwater or in outer space... or even --" I pop my radioactive aura a bit and give them a nice toothy smile -- "Emit levels of radioactive energy that can turn your cells into jelly."

All of them take a big step back.

"So let's be honest here, okay?" I say. "I'm someone you need to be pretty nervous about. But I'm not the only one. There are lots of superheroes and supervillains who can manipulate radioactivity. There are scientists and doctors who use it, power plants and submarines that use nuclear fuel, waste dumps that are stuffed with radioactive crap we can't use anymore.

"And to top it all off," I continue, while Sparky hums radiation hymns that no one else can hear. "We've got the whole planet and a large chunk of the solar system getting irradiated almost all the time. Any ransom you wanted to get from us, any material you wanted to steal, any art treasures or money or technology or anything else you picked up here would be contaminated with enough poison to shorten your lives by at least a few months, maybe even more.

"So you know what you highly advanced intellects from thousands of years in our future need to do as quickly as possible?" I finally finish.

"Fuckin' soliloquy, motherfuckers!" snarls Jonni happily from where Gearbox is still holding her up.

"Fine," says Hozich. "But we'll be back. With radiation suits."

"And we'll be waiting," I say. "Now drop us off somewhere safe, then you and the cavemen get out. Preferably before our highly radioactive sun comes up."

Ten minutes later, we find ourselves dropped off a couple of blocks from the center of downtown. And about 30 seconds after that, all of the time travelers, dinosaur and Neanderthal alike, vanish from the city.

Gearbox does a full reboot. He comes back online after three minutes and starts to work putting Jonni back together with some heavy-duty industrial staples. And as much as she might have enjoyed the "fuckin' soliloquy" before, she's pissed off again now.

"You just don't understand superheroing, Gamma Geek," Jonni says. "There should've been fighting. Getting rid of the bad guys by smoking 'em with a line of bullshit is something normals do because they can't beat up supervillains. Not your fault I was chopped up and couldn't do any ass-kicking -- but next time, there better be a hell of a lot less talking -- especially weirdo talking to your imaginary friends -- and a hell of a lot more radiation zapping."

Gearbox just shrugs. "I'll have to review my auxiliary sensory logs," he says. "But I've got no objections to the occasional non-violent solution to evildoers. Time travelers do tend to be a lot of fun to beat up, though. You get to keep asking them if they knew how bad it was going to hurt."

"Mistress," says Sparky. "While you made radiation sound like a bad thing, I am happy that you only told such a tall tale to the forces of villainy, and that everyone got out okay. Yay, we should have a celebration in your honor!"

The rest of the city seemed pretty happy with the non-violent solution, too. The Time Police and the Tempus Fugitives had apparently pulled kidnappings all over Metro City, but they ended up letting everyone go, entirely out of fear of the radiation they might be getting exposed to. The dinosaurs and Neanderthals disappeared, and no one is much questioning what methods were used.

Hypothermia is worried that we may see a near-immediate re-invasion once the time-travelers check our dimension's actual history and learn that the dinosaurs were killed by a meteor -- not by radiation. But we don't -- Iota rigs up a trans-time communicator and gives our version of the Time Police a call. From there, several dimensions full of Time Cops, including the mirror-universe dinosaur Time Cops, lock down the renegade Time Cops' headquarters and start hauling them off to little shifted-dimension prisons to serve out a few thousand years' worth of penalties.

Any other loose ends? Daphne Diller earns her paycheck after she beats up a squad of Tempus Fugitives that attacked the telemarketing firm she was guarding. Miss Mega recovers from her Flytrap spore infection, but Flytrap thaws out and gets away. We'll probably have to deal with him again at some point, but hopefully with a less murderous personality.

And things are a lot better at home, too. After the much happier reunion once I get back home, we have a family meeting and talk about all the changes we're all going to have to go through. Melanie gets instructed that heroes don't hit classmates ever, or they turn into villains, and she seems happy enough with that. We tell Becky that she doesn't have to put up with bullying, and Dan makes plans to go talk to her teacher and principal after school to see if they can do anything to improve the situation.

Dan and I also decide we're going to have to start doing more research on how to deal with bullying as a family. As the girls get older, it's going to become more of a problem, and we need to figure out some good strategies other than hoping overworked teachers will have time to help.

And the girls have some interesting ideas, too. They're both very keen on figuring out how to let me go out in public to do some of the family chores, as well as how to keep Dan and me from losing our social lives completely.

Melanie starts out proving that she really does listen to us when she says, "Mom, if people stop wanting to be your friends just because you have superpowers, they were never your real friends to begin with."

And she's probably right, so Dan and I decided we'll just take the opportunity to get to know some new people from work, the neighborhood, or church. Maybe even some superheroes, too.

And Becky decides, as long as we're going to go talk to her teacher, we should go talk to the managers at our favorite stores and see if they're willing to work at making it less odious to go shopping for the privilege of keeping our business. It's a pretty good idea -- won't get rid of the crowds at the grocery store right away, but maybe it'll be a good start.

Later, after we've all gone to bed, Dan rolls over just before I fall asleep and asks, "Did you really figure out that the Time Cops were the bad guys instead of the cavemen? Or were you just bullshitting them again?"

"They were both bad guys, hon," I say drowsily. "I think they were sorta working together, but even if they weren't, they were both bad guys."

"Okay, fine," he says. "But everyone thought the Time Fugitives were the villains, and the Time Cops were the good guys."

"Tempus Fugitives," I correct him. "Like Tempus Fugit... you know, Latin for 'Time, fuck it' or something..."

"I'm not going to let you sleep 'til you tell me how you figured it out," Dan says.

"Alright, honestly?" I say. "It was mostly a guess. I couldn't see 'em, just hear the one guy's voice over the loudspeaker. And he was really selling it hard that they were the Tempus Fugitives. Every little bit, it was 'The Tempus Fugutives have done this,' and 'the Tempus Fugitives want that,' and on and on. It just seemed like they were pushing it way too hard. He finally slipped up toward the end and called us 'egg-stealers,' but I think I'd already figured it out by that point."

"Okay," Dan says. "That's kinda cool, don't you think? You could just tell the bad guys were the bad guys, even though they'd fooled everyone else."

"Yeah, I'm the coolest," I say. "Can I sleep now?"

"Yes, go to sleep, cool blue wife."

So I do.

Even then, that's not really the end of the story. A couple days after all that happened, we get a visit at home from the Chrome Cobra, Gearbox, and el Phantasmo. That was a huge thing, because we'd never had so many superheroes visit the house, and wouldn't you know it, 'cause the kitchen was a wreck.

After everyone says hellos (Cobra seems to want to debate engineering topics with Dan; she and Phantasmo are both spectacularly awkward with the girls; Gearbox is the complete opposite and spends the entire time letting Becky and Melanie reconfigure him like a tinkertoy), Cobra elbows Phantasmo in the ribs and says, "Let's get this show on the road, okay?"

"What's going on?" I ask.

"Well, see, I've got all these ghosts, you know?" Phantasmo says nervously. Phantasmo almost always sounds nervous. Are all kids his age that nervous? I'd love to know if we need to plan for that when the girls hit their teens.

"Right," I say. "I don't see very many of them tonight."

"Yeah, I -- I asked them to go invisible," he says. "A few too many of the headless-and-mutilated factions are active tonight, and I didn't want them scaring your kids."

"Oh, thank you," I say.

"Probably a good thing for Becky," says Dan. "But Melanie's been on an 'I love gross stuff' kick for a while. She probably would've loved it."

"Let's get going already, Phan," says Cobra.

"Okay, well, I can see and talk to ghosts and other spirits of the dead, even invisible ones like poltergeists," he says. "But ghosts can still see some things that I can't, including other kinds of spirits. And one of them mentioned recently seeing you with a spirit that looked like a glowing blue ball of light."

"Right, that's Sparky Isotope," I say. Then a second later, after I realize what he meant, "Oh my god, someone else saw Sparky Isotope!"

Sparky had been watching the kids play with Gearbox, but he immediately zooms up to us. "What? What? What? Someone else can see me? Hello! Hello! Who are you, say hello, please!"

"Are they going to say anything to him?" I ask. "He's quite anxious. He's really been fairly lonely."

"Well, it's just one of my ghosts," Phantasmo says. "And he says he can see him very clearly, but he can't hear if he's saying anything. Sometimes spirits can only sense parts of other spirits -- it looks like mine can see, um, Sparky but isn't able to hear anything from him. Sorry about that."

"Oh no," Sparky almost wails. "Mistress, what -- oh, what shall I do?"

"Okay, the thing is," says the Cobra, "I'm willing to take this as proof that your Spirit of Radiation really does exist, and you're not just hallucinating. Hang on, need to make a phone call."

She taps her hand against the side of her helmet, waits a moment, and says, "Hey, it's me. I'd like to call in a favor. Now would be a good time. No, no, not an emergency. But now would be a good time, unless you're busy with anything. Cool. Got my coordinates? Whatever you wanna call 'em. It's a private residence, so wear your pants."

There's a flash of light from the kitchen, and a voice calls out, "Cobra, there's no way I'm going to do these dishes!"

A tall, thin man wearing blue jeans, a red flannel shirt, a blue domino mask, a beat-up straw hat, and a ridiculous high-collared blue cape walks out of the kitchen with a grin on his face.

"If we'd known we were going to have so many visitors, or that they were going to be so critical of our housekeeping, I'm pretty sure I would've washed the damn dishes first," says Dan irritably.

The man stops and looks alarmed. "Oh, I'm so sorry!" he says. "I thought this was her house!" He jerks a thumb at the Cobra, who starts to flip him off, then catches herself before the kids see, and waves him off instead.

"You guys, this is the Seventh Son," says Cobra. "He's not quite the most powerful wizard on the planet, but he's pretty close to the top. Seven, this is --"

"You're the new Radiation Elemental, aren't you," says the Seventh Son, extending a hand to shake. "Gamma Girl, it's so nice to meet you. The whole Council of Thaumaturges is pretty much abuzz about you."

"Thank you," I say. "I hope that's a good thing. This is my husband, Dan Windler."

"Sir, I really do apologize," he says, shaking Dan's hand. "If my momma could see me now, she'd box my ears for sure."

We introduce him to the kids, but they're a lot more interested in building Gearbox into a working roller coaster.

"Seven, we've got a minor problem here," Cobra finally says. "Renee has what I guess you'd call a spiritual advisor, Sparky Isotope, calls himself the Spirit of Radiation. She's the only person who can see or hear him."

"Can this one see me?" asks Sparky. "Can he hear me? He has magic in him, I can tell."

"Yes, I can see him," says Seven. "You've got to know what you're looking for. Hello, Mr. Isotope."

"Hello!" Sparky shouts. "Hello! Hello! Oh my, oh my. Hello! I'm Sparky Isotope, I'm the Spirit of Radiation! I -- I am pleased to meet you so much!"

"Ahh, you've got a loneliness problem," Seven says. "Seen it a few times. Can be a serious difficulty long term. You don't expect spirits to get mental problems, but isolation will do it to them, sure as shootin'."

"Can you make him visible to everyone?" I ask. "I haven't been the best conversationalist."

"Hmm, can't make him visible to everyone, sorry," he says. "That would change his nature too much, and you don't want to do that to a spirit."

"Can you make him visible to my family?" I ask. I catch Sparky talking to Dan and the girls from time to time, even though he knows they can't hear him. I think it'd help him a lot.

"I think I could do that," says Seven. "Shouldn't be too hard. Just a matter of expanding their perceptions a little. Do I have y'all's permission to do that?"

"Sure," says Dan. "He's been sharing my house, and I didn't even believe he existed. I guess I'd like to meet him. Girls, come here, okay?"

The girls very reluctantly -- and only with encouragement from Gearbox -- make their way over to us.

"Okay, family decision time," Dan says. "It turns out that Sparky Isotope is actually a real guy."

"Told you," whispers Melanie, pushing her big sister with her shoulder.

"Ladies, hush up and listen," Dan continues. "Mister Seven here says he can use magic to change our perceptions so we can see and hear Sparky the way Mommy can. I'm going to do it, 'cause I want him to have friends in the house, and because Mommy shouldn't be the only person who sees him. But you might not want to, okay? Other people won't be able to see him, and they might think you're crazy if you talk to someone they can't see. But it's your choice, okay?"

"I'll do it," says Melanie immediately. "That way Mommy won't have to whisper to him to be quiet. We can all talk and play soccer together, right?"

"I'll do it, too," says Becky. "If he's Mom's friend, he should be ours, too."

Man, I have the best kids.

I was a little worried that the process would be difficult or painful somehow, that there would be blood rituals, or potions to put in the eyes and ears, or something like that. But it's nothing like that. He has all three join hands to make a triangle, and he has Sparky hover in the middle. Then he says a few mystic words I don't understand and sprinkles some kind of powder over them.

"Oooo, glowy!" says Melanie.

"Is that him?" asks Becky. "He's, like, really little..."

"Are they able to see me?" asks Sparky excitedly. "Hello?"

"Hi, Sparky," says Dan. "My name's Dan. It's nice to finally meet you."

"Oh my! Oh my!" says Sparky, sounding like the happiest glowing ball of energy ever. "Have -- Have I ever told you how wonderful radiation is?"

Nothing like a big happy family, is there?

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