by Immortalwildcat and Starsky Hutch 76
“You’re insane. You know that, don’t you?”
“Not just you. She is, too.”
“Hereditary, you think?”
“Very funny, Pat.” Lynda Dugan looked out over the fields behind her parents’ home. A small figure flitted about over the waving grasses. “You’re sure that thing is safe?”
“You designed the failsafes, hon. It can’t approach the ground without slowing enough for a gentle landing, it automatically orients itself to keep her head up, and if she loses consciousness, it goes into a null-lift mode, neither ascending nor descending.”
“OK, you read the white paper I prepared on it for Knight Industries. But you know why Ted wouldn’t approve it, right?”
“Needs exposure to sun or starlight to keep it charged. Shouldn’t be a problem on the campaign trail.”
As they watched, the figure came toward them. They could hear squeals of laughter in the early-morning Nebraska sky.
“You’re crazy, Pat.”
“Look, she’s two years older than Sylvester was when we started out, and she’s a lot better prepared. Nine years of gymnastics, six years of karate and judo… heck, even the twelve years of dance classes are a help. She handles her body better than anybody else I’ve seen in a mask, except maybe Batman and Robin.” Pat crouched down and reached into a duffel bag. “The gravity harness also generates a force-field that will repel most small arms fire and take most of the kick out of anything short of a cannonball. And these will help out in the offense department.” He held up two sets of hoops with three large, silver hoops in each set.
Lynda raised an eyebrow. “The neural-burst generators? When did you get those working?”
“Couple days ago. Meant to tell you I worked out the field couplings.”
“What about controls? Kind of clumsy if she has to reach over to grab her right wrist with her left hand to use it.”
“Motion detectors. Make a throwing motion with the hand, and zing!”
“Sounds like fun. Good thing she doesn’t throw like a girl.” Lynda wrapped an arm around her husband. “I almost wish it was me going with you.”
“You have a baby to take care of, and Mike as well. Sylvester’s letting you guys stay out at the studio with him until I figure out who sent those clowns last week and take care of them, but there’s no way he and Jonni would take care of the kids.”
“At least he’s set up so I can keep working. Between the upgrades for your Americommando armor and some requests from Red Arrow and Red Robin, I’ve got plenty of work to do.”
“Hey, you guys!” called Courtney Dugan as she came down to land in front of her mother and stepfather. “This is so cool!”
Around her chest, a metallic mesh vest glowed faintly. “I almost forgot — I added a little light-effect on it, too. Tap that plate in the middle and take off again.
Doing as Pat instructed, Courtney took to the air again. This time, a glowing stream of red and white bands trailed behind her.
“Whoa! Nice job, mister. Charged particles?”
“Yeah, just a prismatic effect; fades out in about seven seconds.”
“Trying to get her to take up your old name, Stripesy?”
“Aw, knock it off. Until Sylvester taught me to read, I actually thought that was a real word.”
Above them, Courtney flew in gleaming circles, a big grin on her face.
“Remember, keep it low, or else you’ll scare some poor radar operator.”
“What, you think I’m going to play ground-skimmer with kids in here? I filed a flight plan!”
“Flight plan? For your minivan?” Pat Dugan scratched his head.
“Of course, silly. I took a tip from Uncle Sylvester and registered each of our specials as personal aircraft months ago. You two were out of your minds flying the Star-Rocket Racer around so close to the ground.” Lynda Dugan laughed as she watched realization settle in on her husband’s face. “The FAA recognized special personal aircraft for mystery-men back in the ’50s. Nobody ever told you?”
“Nope. I tell ya, skipping a couple decades can be a real pain sometimes.” He looked in the backseat of the modified van. “You better get going before they start to fuss.”
Lynda slid into the driver’s seat and started the van. “You’re joining up with the campaign tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah. I’m taking Courtney out to the compound today so she can get some practice against the automatic security systems there.”
“Are you sure that’s safe? You never did figure out who built that thing, did you?”
“I’ve been all through it, testing my armor. It’s just some old military post, I’m sure. All non-lethal; those systems were just meant to knock out any intruders until the M.P.s get there.”
“All right. Call me tomorrow night, OK?” She leaned her head out the window to kiss her husband goodbye.
Three hours later, Pat Dugan and his stepdaughter Courtney Whitmore Dugan descended near what appeared to be a long-abandoned cattle barn about twelve miles from the Whitmore farmhouse. He wore the red and white Americommando armor, while Courtney was clad in a navy blue leotard, gray leggings, and a white vest. Under the vest, the gravity harness was barely visible. On each wrist, three large silver hoop bracelets jangled.
“OK, first thing — take a look around. What’s wrong with this picture?”
Courtney looked around her, lifted into the air about twenty feet, and looked some more.
“Abandoned barn, overgrown road leading up to it, rusted-out truck, fence is out about two hundred yards to the east.” She bent and dived toward the ground, leveling out at about eight feet as she tracked back and forth along the barely visible drive. “How long did you say this place has been sitting here like this?”
“About twenty-five years. Maybe more.”
She pulled up, then came back over to Pat. “Then we should at least see a foundation or a depression in the ground where the house was. Nobody builds a barn out in the middle of nowhere, not by itself.”
“I guess you did learn something from your grandparents. Good reasoning. Now, I want you to go in the barn and check it out.”
“Ground floor, or the loft, too?”
“All levels.” Something about the way her stepfather said this made Courtney suspicious.
Still, she trusted him, so she approached the closest barn door. However, she approached it from the side. She pulled a pair of lined work gloves from her waistband and put them on before reaching over to try the doorknob. As soon as she touched it, she heard a dog barking inside. She released the doorknob and waited. When the barking subsided, she reached for it again, and again heard the dog. While the dog was still barking, she quickly released the knob, then grabbed it yet again. The dog stopped in mid-bark and started barking again.
“A recording,” she mused, turning the knob. She pushed the door inward while keeping herself off to the side. When the barking stopped, she listened for any other sounds from inside. Hearing nothing, she slowly moved over to look through the door.
Inside, it was similar to the barns on her grandparents’ old ranch, only not as well-kept. She could see tracks in the dust, probably from Pat’s own forays into the building, but otherwise it matched the outward appearance of the building — old and unused. She looked upward and saw that the open hayloft was empty. Lines of cattle stalls lay before her, extending the full two-hundred-foot length of the building. In the corner nearest her, an area was walled off. She knew that this would typically be a storage area for feed and equipment. Since everything in the main portion of the barn looked normal, she thought she would check the storage room first.
The floor bore the outline of a ten-by-ten trap door. She didn’t see any sort of handle on it, but there was one oddity — a single hay-rake stood in the corner. She grasped it and tried to lift it, but it wouldn’t budge. She pulled, and it moved slowly in her hand, the base of it attached to something unseen on the floor. As she pulled, she heard gears moving, and the trap door swung open. Lights came on below, and from where she stood, Courtney could see gleaming metal.
A strained expression crossed Marty O’Brien’s face as he stretched his arm, spanning the distance from the corner of the hospital room where he sat to the nightstand on the other end, to grab the glass of water. He still half-expected the pains he used to experience when he first started his treatments. (*) Those first few days, it had felt as if his muscles were tearing in half. As his powers began to rejuvenate, every day was like spending hours in the gym without any recovery time. Everything hurt. Now, it was getting easier. His muscles were becoming accustomed to the stretching again.
[(*) Editor’s note: See DC Universe: The Race, Book 1, Chapter 6: Running Mate.]
As his arm began to retract, the latest in the long line of special agents assigned to him entered the room. “Looks like Plasticman is back!”
“I hope you’re right,” Marty said. “This still all seems too good to be true.”
“It’s for real, all right.” The agent said. He pulled out a piece of paper and said, “Hey, could I get your autograph for my kid?”
“What would he want with an old has-been’s autograph?” Marty said with a grin as he signed the paper.
“Has been? Heck, he watches your old cartoon all the time on Toon Television. They give you royalties for that?”
“Not as much as you’d think. I had to sign a lot of rights away over the years to pay the bills,” Marty said wistfully. “You think I’d have been working as a security guard if I were getting rich off that?”
“That reminds me — someone’s here to see you,” the special agent said.
A slim, fit, middle-aged Hawaiian man in a sharp suit walked into the room. “When I got the news, I had to see it for myself.”
“Hula-Hula!” Marty said excitedly, grabbing him in a bear hug. “Damn, you look good! In the old days, I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around you without stretching!”
“Well, they kind’ve tightened up on the fitness requirements. And it’s just Agent Hukoko now.”
“Yeah, I see you’ve gotten all respectable now,” Marty said, grinning. “Nice suit.”
“I’ll leave you two to catch up,” the special agent said to the two older men. He held up the autograph and said, “Thanks, Marty.”
“Nice kid,” Agent Hukoko said. He turned to Marty and said, “Except for the gray hair, you don’t appear to have aged a day.” His hand went up to his own graying temples subconciously.
“Don’t let the lack of wrinkled fool you,” Marty said. “They were there before the treatments. Once the powers returned, everything just seemed to snap back into place and smooth out.”
“Nice side effect,” Agent Hukoko said with a grin. “Makes me wish I had powers.”
“No, you don’t,” Marty said, suddenly somber. “So how’s Penny?”
“Divorced. You should look her up when you finally have some free time, Plas.”
“I don’t think she’d want to see me,” Marty said sadly.
“You’d be surprised.”
“I think when the cartoon folks had Penny and I married and having a kid together, that was the final straw. They always did assume too much where we were concerned.”
“They didn’t assume too much about how Penny felt about you,” Agent Hukoko said. “You should’a taken the time out to see what was in front of you instead of trying to work things out with Rita. The baby thing on the show was probably painful, because she wished it were true.”
“Yeah. Probably,” Marty sighed. His somber expression suddenly broke into a grin. “Remember Stretch’s reaction to Baby Plas suddenly appearing on the show?”
“I thought your kid was gonna have a stroke,” Agent Hukoko said, grinning. “So how is Stretch, anyway?”
“He’s trying to get his life together. It’s hard, though. He just recently found out he and his wife are having a baby. They’re so young… so young, Hula! And me, a grandpa! Can you believe that?”
“Wow!” Agent Hukoko exclaimed softly.
“Look, I may be a simple guy, but I ain’t stupid. The government didn’t just give me these powers back as an act of kindness. They’re expecting me to go back to work for them. If I do this, can I be shown some consideration? … for my boy? No one was killed at the Keystone City Museum, after all. Or even hurt, for that matter.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Junior JSA: The Junior Injustice Society.]
“I’ll see what I can do. You know, it’s not like he won’t still be on the run even if the feds aren’t looking for him. He’s made some dangerous enemies over the last couple of years: Ape-Face and Franko Morelli, to name a couple.” (*)
“Somehow, I think Stretch can handle himself,” Marty said.
“He always could. How many kids did he give black eyes for calling him Baby Plas?”
“Too many to count,” Marty laughed. “So, what’s the assignment going to be? Are we firing up the old Plasti-Jet?”
“Nah. After I tripped over my feet one too many times, the NBI finally realized I was better cut out for mostly desk-jockeying,” Agent Hukoko said. “You’ve got something bigger this time. Helping guard Presidential Candidate Jay Garrick.”
“The Flash?!” Marty exclaimed. “How am I supposed to watch him?”
“Well, you won’t be doing it by yourself. We’re recruiting others as well. Sort of a Super Secret Service. We’ve already got a leader of that team in mind. You ever hear of a guy named Pat Dugan, AKA Americommando?”