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(I decided I needed to give Gamma Girl a full three-chapter storyarc, so we're backtracking a bit in Metro City continuity. This story takes place soon after Gamma Girl's origin in Gamma Blast.)

Quite a hectic week I've been having. Only a few days ago, I was boring old Renee Windler, Human Resources manager at Metro City Power and Light, stuck in the hospital for treatment of a brain tumor. Now I'm also Gamma Girl, blue-skinned radioactive superhero, completely healthy, and I can fly and punch out supervillains and all kinds of awesome stuff.

I got some extremely wonderful news a couple days back -- namely, that I was definitely cancer free. I got some almost-as-wonderful news soon after that -- yes, I was radioactive, but it was that weird kind of metahuman radiation that's not actually harmful to human beings, so I could go back home and live a hopefully more-or-less normal life with my family.

All that, plus I got my official superhero costume delivered the other day. The girls had been hoping I'd get something garish and colorful, with a miniskirt, butterfly mask, 40 yards of ribbon tied to my arms, and spikes on the shoulders. Well, honestly, I'm too old for that stuff, and even if I wasn't, I'd say I was anyway. I got something professionally tailored and designed, thanks to the designers Daphne Diller sent me to. Anyway, it's a nice blue and white bodysuit with cuff-top leather boots and gloves. There's a white metallic belt and a white logo on the chest with the letters "GG" inside an atomic symbol. The logo is similar to the one that the girls drew up right after I got my powers, and I think they're pretty charged up about that.

Today is my first day back at the office. I was expecting a certain amount of excitement and upheaval -- it's not every day that a coworker comes back from medical leave with superpowers.

The first person I see when I get in the door is the office secretary, Vanessa, who is actually hiding behind her desk.

"Vanessa?" I ask as gently as I can. "Is there an emergency in the building, or are you hiding from me?"

"Hiding from you," she says quietly.

"Well, I'm glad there's not an emergency in the building," I say. I had my doctor write up a note the other day saying that I was absolutely not a danger to anyone, then printed off about a hundred copies. I put several copies on her desk and say, "I've been checked out by plenty of doctors, and they say I'm not emitting any harmful radiation. You don't have to hide from me. Tell everyone else that they don't have to hide from me. And this could be construed as coworker harassment, Vanessa, so please warn everyone, or I'll have everyone re-take the harassment training workshop again."

Oh boy, today is going to be all kinds of fun. I really hope I'm not about to get fired for being radioactive.

As I head down the hallway toward my office, a happy voice chirps up from over my shoulder. "Your compatriots are awed to be in the presence of Earth's new Radiation Elemental! This will be a day of glory!"

That's Sparky Isotope, the Spirit of Radiation, a glowing blue ball of enthusiastic optimism who only I can see or hear. I'd hoped to be able to persuade him to stay home, but it appears that was not to be.

"Sparky, I'm really, really going to need you to stay quiet all day," I said. "It's one thing to talk to me at home or when I'm doing superhero stuff, but here at the office, I don't want everyone thinking I'm talking to an imaginary friend. I have to be professional, so you need to zip it and keep it zipped."

"I will do my best, Glorious Queen of Elemental Radiation!" Sparky says. "But it is so exciting to be here learning about your life!"

I stop by the mailroom to pick up any mail that's come in since I've been out. Not too much -- a couple newsletters, a few forms that should have been delivered to Diane or Rose, the other two HR folks, and the usual bundle of junk mail.

On my way to my office, I see only one other person -- Oliver from maintenance -- and he just makes a loud squeak, runs into his office, and slams the door.

This is going to be a rough week.

I finally get to my office, unlock it, move the dead flowers into the trash (I'm glad my coworkers got me flowers to wish me well, but I wish they'd watered them while I was out), and power up my computer. While it's booting up, I go look for my supervisor, Wayne Hollis, the company veep.

"Wayne, is everyone in this building going to completely freak out at me?" I ask when I get into his office. "Or am I about to be fired or something?"

Wayne looks surprised to see me -- not disappointed, just surprised. "Holy damn, Renee!" he says. "I knew you were, well, blue now, but seeing you in person is -- holy damn, that's amazing. Are you radioactive or not?"

"You want to know what my doctor said?" I say, handing him one of the notes I brought. "I am, but it's not harmful radiation. I'm completely safe, if only everyone will stop running away from me."

He scans the note quickly. "So you are clean of the tumor, too? That's fantastic news!" He comes around his desk, grabs my hand, and pumps it. "The docs say you're safe, that's good enough for me. Welcome back. Sure you're not running a fever? Feels like you're burning up."

"I run a temperature of 133 degrees now," I say. "Or higher, if I want to. I can almost cook my own lunch without the microwave now."

"Alright, we'll put you in charge of reheating the coffee then," Wayne says with a grin.

I'd like to say the rest of the day went swimmingly, but of course, it didn't. There were too many people who dodged me everywhere I looked. A couple of secretaries came to my door just to gawk at me. I got a half-dozen e-mails from people, including a couple of people I always considered close friends, telling me to never visit their offices again. One woman threw a religious tract on my desk and ran away. One of our meter inspectors came in, took some pictures of me, then walked out.

So a lot of my day is taken up with sending e-mails to employees reminding them about harassment and tolerance policies within the company. Not particularly fun, and not something that will endear me to people who've decided they don't want to like me anymore.

Of course, it's not all bad news. There are plenty of people who come by to tell me they're glad I'm back or to marvel over how things have changed for me. But it's so depressing that so many have gone full-on metaphobic over me.

A little after 12:30, I leave to take my lunch break. It doesn't go particularly well. I end up attracting too many crowds at every place I stop by, including the little hole-in-the-wall Italian place where almost no one goes. I end up having to go to a grocery store deli for a grab-and-go sandwich, and I hate grab-and-go sandwiches. I guess I'll have to start bringing my lunch from home from now on.

I've been back at the office for ten minutes, still finishing up the last of my sandwich, when I get a call from the Chrome Cobra. Yes, I've already met her. Like Defender predicted, she paid a late night visit and was entirely unnerving and terrifying. You can really feel that disapproving glare all the way through those goggles of hers.

Anyway, the Chrome Cobra calls me and says, "Renee, I need you to help take care of a small problem downtown."

"Oh," I say. "Oh, well, okay, Ms., um, Ms. Cobra. What time will you need me down there?"

"Let's say ten minutes," she says. "Metro Federal Credit Union on 76th."

"Um, ten minutes from now? Or ten minutes after quitting time?"

There's a short pause on the other end of the line. "Ten minutes from now."

"I really don't think I can do it," I say. "I'm really sorry."

"You don't think you can do it," she says. It's not even a question, just completely flat delivery.

"I just started back on the job this morning," I tell her. "And I just got back from lunch. There's already a certain amount of freaking out going on with my coworkers, and they really won't react well if I leave again. Isn't there someone else you could bring in on this?"

"I suspect there are plenty, Renee," she says. "But I asked you. You do want to be a superhero, right?"

"Well, yes," I say. "But I also need to keep my job. I've got a family to help support, you know."

"Part of being a superhero is being willing to drop what you're doing so you can take care of crises," she says. "We can't have you prioritizing your TPS reports over the rest of the city every time we need to hit the Panic Button."

"But no one's hit the Panic Button," I say. "We're not talking a major emergency -- there's not an alien invasion or time warp or demon outbreak. This is just a bank robbery, right?"

"Renee, I haven't gotten a chance to see how you do in action," she says. "I need to know what sort of tasks you're going to be able to do, and what things you'll need assistance from the rest of us. This is for your benefit."

"Well, I can't just tell my boss I have to skip work unless there's a really good reason for me to leave," I say. "I don't know what kind of arrangement the rest of you may have with your employers, but I haven't even had time to discuss that with mine yet. I mean, I'll help you guys as much as I can, but you can't ask me to jeopardize my job, or keep me away from my family. You just can't."

"We can discuss this later," she says and immediately hangs up. Just great, now I've got the Chrome Cobra mad at me.

Half an hour later, one of the local news sites has a blurb about the Cobra, Defender, and Gearbox stomping on some of Johnny Staccato's gang while they were robbing the Metro Federal Credit Union.

And you know, I'm sorry I wasn't able to help them out, but -- well, for goodness sake, how can these people just take time away from their jobs to go stop bank robberies? I'm sure I'd be able to convince Wayne to let me leave the office to deal with serious emergencies, but if I did it too often, he'd have no choice but to fire me. Do none of these people have jobs? Are they all independently wealthy? I realize that crime can happen any time, but is this really going to come down to me making a choice between being a superhero and keeping a job?

By the end of the day, I'm exhausted. All the stress has just been intense almost all day.  Not as bad as chemo, but still really unpleasant.

I stop by the grocery store on the way home. I'd been thinking of making spaghetti for dinner and was out of noodles and tomato sauce, and running low on onions.

I didn't make it any farther than the produce section before the crowds just coalesced out of nowhere. One moment, there was the normal after-work crowd -- the next, there were dozens of people surrounding me. It wasn't like at work, where half the people in the office seemed afraid of me -- everyone here was enjoying a celebrity sighting.

Sparky Isotope had been pretty good about being quiet all day, but having a crowd this big was too much for him. He started in on a sermon on the wonders of radiation and how radiation will lead Earth to a golden age and all that. It didn't matter that no one else could hear him -- he was just enjoying making his speech. I doubt he would've listened to me, even if I tried shushing him. Which I wasn't about to do while I was surrounded by gawkers.

I tried a couple of "Excuse me's" that everyone ignored. It was clear that I'd be lucky to get to the onions, much less to anything else on my shopping list, much less to the checkout counter. It was only a matter of time before someone started taking pictures of me, or a news crew showed up, or someone got trampled while they were trying to catch a glimpse of me.

So I took off. We'd have to settle for baked chicken. Dan can't get enough chicken, but Becky and Melanie are both at a stage where they hate it. And god knows what we're going to do for groceries in the future. I can't ask Dan to do all the grocery shopping from now on. Hell, I'd attract the same crowds wherever I went, and I certainly don't want to spend the rest of my life hiding inside the house to avoid sightseers.

I call Dan from the road, so by the time I get home, he's already thawing the chicken. The girls are both sullen -- they had lousy days at school. And it turns out, it's my fault.

Becky spent the day getting bullied by other kids in her class. They started calling her a mutant freak, and one of the kids dumped blue chalk dust on her. Charming kids she's stuck hanging around with. She's gone from being wildly enthusiastic about my powers to wishing they'd never happened so she wouldn't have to be tormented at school.

It's the exact opposite with Melanie. Her teacher sent a note home with her because she'd been acting out all day. She hit four different kids in her kindergarten class because she was pretending to be a superhero. And she threw an eraser at her teacher when she told her to behave. She spent half the day in time-out.

So dinner isn't a whole lot of fun. The girls aren't getting their favorite food, and they're having to listen to lectures about being nice to classmates and not fighting except when it's pretend. And then they have to listen to Dan and me undermine everything we'd just said when we start talking about how much we hated bullies when we were in school and fantasizing out loud about what we want to do to bullies now that we're grown up and supposedly mature.

By the time we've finished dessert, I'm really not sure whether Melanie is going to try to beat up Becky's classmates, or if Becky thinks her parents are going to show up at school to shoot radiation blasts at her classmates.

And the evening doesn't actually improve much after that. After Becky's gone to her room to do homework and Melanie has gotten on the computer to play Dora the Explorer games, Dan and I start washing the dishes.

"I got a call from Edgar Vane this afternoon," says Dan. "You remember, the associate professor from the mechanical engineering department?"

"Yeah, we're having dinner with him and his wife next Friday, right?" I say.

"Well, we're not having dinner anymore," Dan says. "His wife insisted he cancel."

"Please don't tell me it's because of what I'm afraid it's because of," I say.

"She's a class-conscious social climber," he says. "Apparently, she thinks superheroing is low class. And I think she's afraid of radiation."

"There is never a need to fear radiation!" chirps Sparky Isotope. "Radiation is our best friend and will lead us into the glorious future!"

"God, will you shut the hell up?" I bark.

"There's no need for that," Dan says. "Don't shoot the messenger."

"I wasn't talking to you," I say. "I was talking to Sparky."

"There's no need for that, either," Sparky says sulkily. He drifts out of the kitchen making exaggerated whimpering noises.

"Renee, I wish you'd talk to a doctor about Sparky," says Dan. "I don't think it's healthy to talk to him, and it feels like you're using him as an excuse for other issues you've got with these new powers."

"Dan, I'm not going to see a psychiatrist," I say. "Sparky isn't a hallucination. He's apparently a package deal with the powers. He's a bit irritating, but he's not a delusion."

"You can't possibly know that," Dan says. "In fact, that's exactly what I'd expect to hear a delusional person say."

"Don't you start saying crap like that," I say.

"What do you want me to say?" he asks. "What would you say if you saw someone on the street talking to people no one else could see or hear?"

"There's random people on the street, and there's your wife," I say. I'm trying not to get angry, but it's been too rotten a day to have this kind of discussion. "I'd expect you to have some kind of trust in me."

"I trust you implicitly," Dan says. "And you should trust me when I say you've gone through too many changes in only a few days..."

"Are you saying you want me to change back?" I ask, good and angry by now. "Don't know how I'm going to manage that."

"You know what I mean."

"I sure as hell don't," I say. "All these changes have been for the better. I don't care if I have blue skin and white hair and radiation powers and glowing eyes and an invisible sidekick. 'Cause at least I don't have a fucking brain tumor anymore."

"Don't you even start," he says. "You know I'm as overjoyed about that as you are. But you know there are downsides, too. The girls are having the first real school trouble they've ever had. Our friends are afraid to be around us. And you now spend half the night flying around the city risking your life fighting supervillains. Do you have any idea what that's like for me and the girls?"

"STOP ARGUING!" shouts a voice from the hallway. I barely see Becky duck her head back into her bedroom.

Dan and I shut up for a moment. Maybe more than a moment. I'm still not happy. He's not happy. And obviously, the girls aren't happy either. What a terrible day.

The phone rings, and Dan picks it up as quickly as he can. "Windlers," he says. He listens a moment, makes a face, and hands it to me. "It's for you."

"Hey, Renee, it's Daphne Diller," says the voice on the line. "I know it's a little early for the regular patrols, but we had something interesting come up and thought you might like to come check it out. You free?"

"Just a second," I say. "Dan?"

"You don't have to ask my permission," he says. But he turns right on his heel and heads for the home office. God, I wish this day was over. I wish this week was over.

"Where do I meet you?" I ask.

"I'll come pick ya up," says Daphne. "Look for the sweet black SUV."

Ten minutes later, I'm in my costume, I've said my awkward good-nights to Dan and the girls, and I'm sitting on the curb next to the mailbox. The rest of the neighborhood probably thinks I look completely surreal.

Sparky Isotope hovers next to me. It's weird to think that his weird blue glow is completely invisible to everyone. To me, he puts off enough light to read by, but to anyone else, it would be completely dark.

"You don't have to hate me all the time," he says.

"Oh, come on, Sparky, not you, too," I say.

"You always tell me to shut up, to leave you alone," he says. "And when you're not shouting at me, you're just ignoring me."

"I kinda have to," I say. "People think I'm crazy when I talk to something they can't see."

"It's rude, and you have no good reason to be rude to me," he says. "I am the Spirit of Radiation, and I exist only to serve the Earth's Radiation Elemental. It is my only real purpose, and to be repaid with rudeness and scorn is a terrible thing."

"Yeah, well, getting Earth's Radiation Elemental locked up in the loony bin would be a pretty terrible thing, too," I say. "Try to have a little understanding for how that could affect my life, okay?"

"Spare me," he says with surprising vehemence. "Do you have any understanding for what my existence is like? You're the only person in the world who can hear me. I have no one else to talk to. No other of your species can hear what I say, and none can speak to me. I praise you as my reason for being, and you respond with... hurtfulness."

"I'm sorry, Sparky," I say. "I can try to be nicer, but you've got to know there are some times when I just can't chat."

"We've never chatted," he says. "And in the days since you've gained your powers, you've had nothing kind to say. Am I such a burden?"

"No, I... don't guess so," I say awkwardly. "I just haven't had time to chat."

"You have time to lie," he says. "I cannot leave you, Mistress, at least not permanently, but I can stay away from you for this evening. I will watch over your family -- at least their silence to me isn't a product of contempt."

"Ah, come on, Sparky," I say, but his light disappears, and the neighborhood goes from a blue-lit twilight to just another dark, sleepy suburb.

"You don't have to be that way, Sparky," I say, standing up. "We can chat right now if you -- Sparky, are you out here at all?"

Daphne's SUV pulls up next to the curb. "Hey, girl, you ready to go?" Daphne  says as she rolls down the passenger window.

"Yeah, I guess so," I say.

"You okay?" she says. "Did you need to go back inside for something? You look like you forgot the oven was on."

"No, it's okay," I say, opening the car door. "Let's get rolling."

I jump in the passenger seat, knock fists with Daphne, and get introduced to the passengers squeezed in the back seat -- Iota, the gadgeteer shrinker, and Miss Mega, the insanely tall, immensely strong woman who fights the villain Splatter every time she comes through town. They're both entirely pleasant and nice, but I feel completely intimidated by Miss Mega. Really kinda terrified.

I mean, let's face it, superheroes are kinda scary -- they've got bizarre powers and abilities, they're all designed to dish out incredible amounts of damage and destruction, and they're just not quite human. And Miss Mega is someone who can punch down a skyscraper -- that's a tornado, an earthquake, a nuclear missile in a human-sized package.

Not to take anything away from Iota. He's got his neural stunners and worlds of inventions, and he wouldn't be a superhero if he couldn't handle himself in a fight. But it's hard to be afraid of someone whose power involves shrinking.

And yeah, I'm one of them now. It's going to take a huge adjustment in my thinking. It's going to mean I have to start remembering how other people think about me now.

"Sorry to call you out for the patrol early," Daphne says after we get settled in. "Hope you got in at least a little relaxation time before this."

"I think I'm kinda looking forward to getting to zap some bad guys," I say. "It's been a rough day."

"I heard you had one of those discussions with the Cobra," says Miss Mega. "You did the right thing, trust me."

"What?" says Iota. "What happened?"

"You heard about the credit union robbery this afternoon?" says Miss Mega. "Cobra tried to get Renee to leave work early to help take care of it."

"Oh, hell," Daphne says, rolling her eyes. "She's tried that with me a few times. If I don't have time, or if it ain't an emergency, she gets the same answer from me every time -- Show me the money, and I'll pencil you in."

"I got suckered in by her a couple of times," says Iota. "Granted, the nature of my work means I can take time away to help out with lots of stuff, but she called me away from several time-sensitive experiments to take care of minor robberies and other incidents that she or the police could have handled perfectly well without me. In fact, the cops thought I was trying to grandstand them for a while."

"She tries it with everyone," says Miss Mega. "Sometimes, you'll get someone who'll go along with her a few times, get in huge trouble at work about it, then realize they can tell her to buzz off. Makes her furious every time, and it's really kinda funny."

"Yeah, if you were able to hold up against Cobra's superhuman powers of guilt-inducement, you're gonna be alright," says Daphne.

"So I'm not in trouble over this?" I ask. "I don't think I want her mad at me."

"I wouldn't say you're completely in the clear," says Daphne. "Cobra holds a hell of a grudge, at least over the short term. She'll give you the cold shoulder for a few days, but she'll get over it."

"Well, I can live with the cold shoulder, I guess," I say. "I'm getting that from everyone today. Work, home, you name it."

"Transitions can be tough," says Daphne. "Well, I assume they are -- I've had powers all my life, so I don't guess I'd know. What about you, Doc?"

"Minimal difficulties, I'm afraid," says Iota. "I'm not often recognized when I'm in my civilian clothes. And even if I am, it's easy to avoid crowds when you can just shrink small enough to be overlooked. I've been working in the hard sciences since I was a kid, and discovering my mutant powers was pretty uneventful, too. My parents thought I'd invented a shrinking device, so they barely noticed. What kind of trouble did you have, Mega?"

"I'm afraid I've still got my secret identity," she says from the back seat. "I've had a few physical adjustments to make, but nothing yet on an interpersonal level. Maybe you should talk to Express? He has a public ID. Maybe Hypothermia or Squid Kid..."

"Oh no, not Hypothermia," says Iota. "I really don't think you'd want to talk to him about this, Renee. He's a worst-case-scenario for superheroes with public IDs. I love the man like a brother, but talking to him about this would probably just depress you even more."

"And come to think of it, Squiddie's still in college," says Daphne. "I think your situation is probably way too different from hers."

"Hmmm, yeah, that's true," says Miss Mega. "Well, maybe Express can help out some. He's been a public hero for ages. I'm not sure about other married heroes, though."

"I assume there are some married heroes in town," says Iota. "But I have no idea who they are. How 'bout you, Daph?"

"Mmmm, not really sure," says Daphne. "I don't know everyone's secret identities, but the ones I do know aren't married. Sorry, Renee."

"We should probably start including you and your family in some of the Metro City superhero social scene," says Miss Mega. "You think so, Daph?"

"We have a social scene?" asks Iota. "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this? Who does a guy have to kill to get an invite?"

"I don't know anything about a superhero social scene," says Daphne. "You mean something other than punching bad guys? When did we start a social scene?"

"Ahh, I just kinda assumed everyone else had a social scene," says Miss Mega. "I was really hoping to get an invite, too."

"It's a great idea," says Daphne. "But I don't know of any superhero social scene going on in Metro City. And I'm not volunteering to start one either! I don't have enough money to host any damn parties for people who'd kick out the walls on my apartment!"

"I'm not sure I'd be into superhero parties anyway," I say. "I think Dan is already upset about people cancelling on our dinner dates -- I don't think he's ready to start exchanging our old friends for a bunch of super-friends."

"Hmm, maybe," says Daphne. "But isolation won't do y'all any good either."

"Listen, I hope this isn't a dumb question," I say. "But it's something that's kinda been preying on my mind for the past few days."

"There are no dumb questions..." says Miss Mega.

"She's lying," says Daphne. "I've been an investigator long enough to know that. But ask it anyway."

"Okay, do I need to start doing any worrying about my family's safety?" I say. "Are there going to be supervillains coming out of the woodwork to try to kidnap or kill my husband or kids?"

"Probably not," says Miss Mega. "That's not a guarantee or anything. But probably not."

"I'll say there is a chance for kidnappings," says Iota. "My last girlfriend was kidnapped twice while we were dating. She came out of it completely unharmed, but she was not amused by the experience, and it's why we broke up. Talk to your husband and kids about it, get them some martial arts training. I'll get you the contact info for a consultant I know who specializes in teaching people how to deal with kidnappings. You may want to get some guns and teach the family how to shoot."

"No guns in my house 'til the girls are older," I say. "Maybe I'm a softy, but I don't want my kids playing with guns."

"Fair enough," says Daphne. "I think kidnappings of metahumans' family members are getting more rare. Blackmail possibilities are actually pretty limited -- you kidnap Captain Justice's kids, and you might be able to persuade him to leave you alone as long as you have them, but the moment you let them go, he's going to be after you relentlessly. And the longer you keep them, the higher the risk that you might hurt them, even accidentally, and then you're really up the creek."

"How come?" I ask.

"You ever heard of Mr. Ultimate or Professor Panic?" says Miss Mega.

"Umm, I'm not sure," I say. "I don't think I know all the superheroes I should at this point."

"Well, this was all the way back in the '60s," says Daphne. "Early '60s, actually. Mr. Ultimate was pretty prominent in Los Angeles, and Professor Panic was his arch-nemesis. Panic had found out Mr. Ultimate's secret identity before he went into prison, and when he broke out, he went right out and shot Ultimate's girlfriend dead."

"And two days later," says Iota. "The guys in the Federation of Injustice show up at their supposedly secret hideout to find Professor Panic nailed to their front door, with all of his ribs removed."

"Oh my god!" I gasp.

"Two of 'em quit immediately," says Iota. "The whole Federation had to junk every scheme they were cooking up and look for a new hideout. No one heard from Mr. Ultimate again."

"And most importantly," adds Miss Mega. "Word spread around the underworld. And there haven't been more than a handful of cases since then where supervillains or other criminals did serious harm to a superhero's loved ones."

"That's kinda messed up," I say. "If someone hurts my family, I'm just allowed to go out and kill people? That's kinda anti-heroic, isn't it?"

"Well, that's the funny thing," says Daphne. "The bad guys who've harmed superheroes' families tend to get the crap beat out of them and turned over to the cops by other bad guys. The same thing happens when it's heroes who target villains' families. Hell, when Nightscourge went rogue, bombed Mindhammer's home and killed his grandmother, the Assembly of Goddamn Order were the ones who -- kinda sorta by accident -- broke Nightscourge's trigger fingers before turning him over to the cops."

"It's turned into one of those rules you don't break," says Iota. "You can go after each other all we want, but no one hurts family or loved ones. It's -- it's rude, for lack of a better word."

"As heroes, we go after criminals," says Miss Mega. "We don't attack others just because they have a relationship with a criminal. It's unfair, even needlessly cruel."

"And while the bad guys tend to be more cruel or even psychotic," says Iota. "There is a certain... fellowship among thieves, I guess you'd call it. They'll hold each other to a certain level of honor, even if a lot of them don't want to be held to that standard. And they recognize that they benefit from not having superheroes so fearful for the well-being of their families that they embrace Mr. Ultimate's methods."

"You want me to get you that consultant's name, Renee?" asks Daphne. "He can check your house out for weak security points, review your family's routes to and from work or school, point you toward some good martial arts instructors, you name it."

"Well, let's talk about that after patrols, alright?" I say. "What's the big emergency anyway?"

"Well, here's the deal," says Daphne. "Phantasmo got word from some of his ghosts --"

"Or what we like to refer to as his 'underworld contacts,' har-de-har-har," says Miss Mega.

"And they said there was a disturbance underneath the cemetery," Daphne continues. "We were a little worried we might be looking at another zombie uprising or an invasion by the Underearthlings, but Phantasmo had some of his ghosts prowl around, but it turns out it's just Flytrap."

"You mean that giant flytrap monster that tears up downtown every couple of years?" I say. "Are just the four of us going to be enough to handle him?"

"I don't think we'll have any serious trouble," says Iota. "Not every villain in Metro City is going to require us to hit the Panic Button."

"Besides, it takes some time for Flytrap to grow back to his maximum size after we prune him back," says Miss Mega. "I could probably handle this one solo if I had to."

And sure enough, 20 minutes later, I was watching Miss Mega disappear down Flytrap's gullet.

Do I need to back up any? Well, we were all inside a cavern underneath Gaines Cemetery, and Flytrap wasn't as big as the last time he'd trashed the city -- but a 50-foot-tall Venus flytrap inside a 60-foot-tall cavern is more than large enough for anyone, thanks. No, I have no idea how a giant plant monster could grow inside a cave with no exposure to the sun, but it's not like I know how I got radioactive powers either.

Anyway, the four of us got into the cavern, we were shining flashlights around and talking about how pretty it is in there, and Flytrap just rose up in front of us. Things really didn't go very well after that.

Apparently, Flytrap ends up with a different personality every time it regrows. Most of the time, it's pretty chatty -- I remember when we first moved to Metro City, it tried to knock down some buildings downtown, and it kept singing songs from "Little Shop of Horrors." But it definitely wasn't like that this time.

"hhhhuman ffffilth," it rasped like a broken branch. "you pester me. pester like ants. i'm going to eat you so hard."

I certainly didn't have any snappy comeback for that -- partly because there was a vine wrapped very tightly around my throat.

And experience wasn't making it any easier on the rest of them either. Daphne was tied up like I was, and Miss Mega had gotten a faceful of tranquilizing pollen and was drowsing away. Iota was the only one of us who hadn't been caught yet, and that was just because he hadn't grown large enough to be tied up yet.

"Come on, Flytrap," said Daphne. As the only person in the room with an indestructible throat, she was still able to talk just fine. "This is not a road you wanna go down. You don't want too many superheroes deciding you're too dangerous and demolishing you down to your cells, do you?"

"wwwhy should i care about what mmmmeat wants?" Flytrap hissed. "and you ssssuperpowered animals have nnnnnever managed to destroy me before. i doubt you even hhhhhave the power. maybe thhhhis is the time for me to sssscrub you chordates off my planet once and for aaaaall."

And that's when it flipped Miss Mega into the air, opened its mouth, and swallowed her whole.

A couple of bright sparks flare off of Flytrap's -- what is it, a mouth? Petals? A muzzle? -- and I hear Iota's amplified voice shouting "Let her go, Flytrap! This is your only warning!"

"don't make me laugh, hhhuman," it growls. "i don't have nerve cellssss like you. that neural ssstunner doesn't even tickle."

The vine is constricting tighter around me, crushing me, choking me. I can't breathe at all now, and my vision is already swimming.

But I can still burn. I can burn pretty damn hot.

The vines surrounding me twitch away quickly, but not quickly enough not to catch fire, a very pretty blue fire that spreads slowly up Flytrap's extended branches. It sheds the burning vines -- a nice trick -- and flings them against the walls of the cavern.

It extends another couple of vines, topped by brilliant red and green flowers. This is how Flytrap got Miss Mega with the pollen, but by now, I'm surrounded by an aura of heat and radioactivity that withers and burns the flowers before they get into range.

I'm thinking I got it beat by now, but it lashes out with a flurry of vines, wraps itself around some of the thick stalactites in the cavern's ceiling, and bares a mouthful of thorny teeth at me.

"powerrrr down, or i'll brrrring the roof down on all of ussss," it says. "i'll sssurvive. dafffffodil will survive. everyone else will die. and i'll sssstill eat whateverrrr is left of your corpses."

I really don't know how to respond to that. If I power down, he'll eat all of us. If I don't power down, he'll start a cave-in, then eat us. I'm not getting paid enough to make these kinds of no-win decisions.

"you're a new entrant to the ssssuperhero club, aren't you?" Flytrap asks with a gleeful rasp. "yes, i think i'd remember a blue-sssskinned radiation blaster. if i were one of my more talkative incarnations, i'mmm sure i'd expressss some sort of regret that your end would come so earrrrly... but really, i don't care. i guess i'll get to find out how ssspicy radioactive meat is. maybe i'll even get to mutate into a more powerful form. won't that be interrresting? won't that krrrikk!"

And just like that, Flytrap turns bluer than I am and freezes solid.

A fly buzzes near my ear, then abruptly expands into Iota -- not full-size, but about a foot tall.

"Daphne, can you get out of those vines now that they're frozen, or do you need my help?" he asks.

"Yeah, I can manage," she says. She flexes and stretches, and the vines crumble like delicate glass. "I assume that was you, Doc, or did we smuggle Hypothermia in when I wasn't looking?"

"No, it was me," says Iota. "That instant cryonics kit was just a prototype, and I doubt I'll be able to get it to work quite like that again, but it served its purpose. Think you can get Miss Mega out of that monster's digestive tract?"

"Want me to burn her out?" I ask.

"Definitely not," Iota says. "I want to leave Flytrap under hard-freeze conditions as long as I can. I don't want to give it any opportunity to revive or regenerate if we thaw it out, at least not until we can all get out of here."

"You ain't kidding," says Daphne. "Flytrap's not much fun when he's giant, destructive chatterbox comedian -- but I sure prefer him to this murderous psychotic."

Daphne  steps up to the frozen body of the plant and delivers a few hard kicks to its main stalk. After a moment, it shatters open like a crystalline vase, and she reaches inside.

"Damn, I'm gonna need some help now," Daphne says. "Mega's frozen to the inside of this thing, and she's too heavy for me to move on my own."

Iota and I hurry over, and the three of us spend a few minutes breaking Miss Mega out of Flytrap and dragging her a dozen feet away. She's not completely frozen, like Flytrap, but she's covered in green-tinted frost, and her breathing seems shallow. It feels like she weighs a ton.

Iota has me turn up the heat to thaw her out, and we start to carry her out. But we haven't gotten far before there's a flash of light behind us. We turn, half-expecting to see that Flytrap has somehow activated some unknown weapon, despite being frozen like a popsicle. But instead, there's a large octagonal window of light that's opened up in midair about five feet away from Flytrap.

Three figures step out of the window. They're wearing heavy yellow and green armor and carrying high-tech weapons. They're all dinosaurs, swear to god. One is a ten-foot-tall Tyrannosaur, one is a seven-foot-tall Stegosaurus, and the third looks like a five-foot-tall velociraptor.

The T-rex holds a blinking metal and plastic scanner up toward Flytrap and says, "Tracking data confirmed, commander. That's extra-chronal fugitive K794EX-8DK2, right where we expected it."

"Is that ice?" says the velociraptor. "How the hell did this thing get frozen like that?"

"Hey!" Daphne yells. "Who the hell are you?"

The velociraptor spins around at us in surprise. "Commander!" he shouts. "The native species in this juncture is... Neanderthal?!"

"Look closer, cadet," says the T-rex. "This juncture's Neanderthals went extinct about 25,000 years ago, local time. These are Cro-Magnon descendents."

The stegosaurus steps forward. "Field Commander Zilbert Hozich," he says. "My associates are Lieutenant Broozh Zagden and Ensign Zizzik Zipkins. We're with the Time Patrol, Sub-Division Level Earth Quantum-Vector 43-KT-566. In English, we're from approximately 9,000 years in the future, from an alternate earth where what you call the dinosaurs never died out."

"Now wait a minute," says Iota. "I've met members of the Time Patrol, and none of them were dinosaurs."

"I expect they were from your own Quantum-Vector," says the T-rex. "Members of the Time Patrol don't often venture outside of their own universes, but in this case, we were sent to apprehend a fugitive from our time period and Quantum-Vector -- namely, the frozen plant right here."

"I doubt we've got any objection to you guys taking him with you," says Iota. "But I've got my doubts that's the one you're looking for. Flytrap comes up with a new personality every time it regrows -- and as far as I can tell, if you leave even a few cells behind, it'll probably regrow here again."

"We'll see what we can do about that," says the Stegosaurus. "But in the meantime, there's --"

But he (or she. How do you tell gender on a dinosaur?) is interrupted when another octagonal window of light opens in the air nearby. Another three figures step out, this time wearing purple and red armor. All three look like cavemen -- barrel-chested, long arms, heavy brows, face on a slope.

"Extra-chronal fugitive K794EX-8DK2," one of them says. "We are prepared to offer you sanctuary in exchange for -- oh hell, he's frozen."

"It's the Tempus Fugitives!" shouted the velociraptor, and they all started shooting at each other. And more time portals start opening all around us, with more time-traveling dinosaurs and Neanderthals pouring out, all shooting rayguns wildly.

We turn and run as fast as we can, dragging the still half-frozen Miss Mega behind us, as blasts from energy rifles spatter the cave walls around us.

Quite a hectic week I've been having. Don't know how much worse a time war is going to make things.

(Special thanks to ChristineWinter for assistance with Human Resources policies and terminology!)

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