by Dan Swanson
It was dark, and Bonnie Marlowe Drake was hidden in the shadows in a neighborhood near the now-abandoned DuPaul Chemical facility in Chicago. Something in this neighborhood was capturing and possibly even eating animals — and she wanted to put a stop to it before whatever it was moved on to eating children.
The animals’ disappearances had begun unnoticed by the neighbors, who didn’t really miss the squirrels, pigeons, and rats until later — in fact, when the alley cats stopped howling at night, it even seemed like a good thing. But then family pets started to disappear — and now people were afraid to go out at night.
In her costumed identity of Lady Victory, Bonnie was staking out a dog — or what appeared to be a dog. But she couldn’t be sure of protecting the animal, which was actually an animatronic dog, a remote-controlled robot built by her partner and husband, Red Rocket. Sparky, as they called it, had chased some pigeons toward the fence surrounding the boarded-up DuPaul facility, and then found a bone; now it was lying contentedly in a dark corner, worrying that bone to shreds. She hoped something would happen soon, or Sparky was going to have to head for home.
When it happened, it was so unexpected that she didn’t react right away. Something — a rope? a snake? — reached over the fence, wrapped twice around Sparky’s neck, and jerked the robot back over the fence. If Sparky had been a real dog, she doubted that he would have had time to do more than yelp once. The tentacle-like thing wrapped around its throat would have silenced it, and the jerk was violent enough to break the neck of a real dog.
Bonnie had seen a lot of weird things in her career, but this tentacle baffled her. It had to be intelligent or at least intelligently controlled. What it resembled most was an impossibly long, incredibly pliable human arm. Maybe magic could create something like that, but she didn’t have time to ponder.
She switched her costume to internal air supply and burst from the shadows running at full speed, then smashed into the fence, shield first. The shield burst easily through the chain fence where she had previously cut some of the links, and she found herself in the abandoned factory, running as fast as she could to catch up with whatever was dragging away Sparky’s mechanical “corpse.”
The enormous fenced facility, over a mile on each side, had been gradually abandoned under pressure from the city government after a hostage crisis in 1956. The hostage-takers had threatened to blow up the plant, and official estimates suggested that about a quarter of the city populace could be killed by the explosion or sickened by the toxic chemicals that such an explosion would release. Civil authorities had started an evacuation of Chicago, and chaos had ensued.
Fortunately for all involved, the villains had been killed or captured in a battle with the fledgling super-hero Captain Democracy, working with Captain Tony Spinelli and a Chicago Police Homicide unit. Both Democracy and Spinelli had ended up in the hospital. (*) While Spinelli had recovered completely and was now rising through the police ranks, seemingly destined to become commissioner of police before too long, Captain Democracy still needed crutches to walk. No more super-heroics for him.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Red Rocket & Tom Atomic: Times Past, 1956: Right and Magic.]
There had been rumors of people living in the old plant. In a square mile completely jammed with tanks, buildings, towers and vats, crisscrossed with a maze of pipes, cables, and open conveyor belts, they would sure have a lot of hiding places. And without regular maintenance, a lot of buildings, scaffolding, pipes, and cables were starting to deteriorate.
Nobody official would go onto the abandoned facility, not only due to the danger from the failing physical infrastructure — by now, who knows what hazardous chemical toxins might have been released? There were, of course, plans to demolish the whole place, but it was always judged to be “too expensive.”
Lady Victory was aware of the dangers and had taken precautions. She was wearing a variation of her normal costume which entirely covered her, and included a full face-mask with built in four-hour air supply. She was on the clock.
As soon as poor Sparky had cleared the fence, a second tentacle had ripped the body from the head, and both were being carried toward a dark alley between a battered shed and a giant chemical tank. When Lady Victory burst through the fence, both tentacles immediately disappeared, along with the mangled robot. Bonnie switched on her infrared goggles, and the world changed from a dark place to a weird landscape in ghostly shades of gray. Rounding a corner, she stopped, stunned by what the infrared goggles showed.
In front of her was a giant living… something. If you put a dozen mannequins into a jumbled heap, and partially melted them together into a blob, the result would look something like the monster she was facing. She was right — the tentacles were arms, grotesquely elongated and seemingly boneless, as well as mismatched, but clearly arms — and there were more than just the two she’d seen originally, sticking out in all directions. Legs stuck out of the blob at all angles, some of them pointing into the air, and there were heads sticking out at random as well. Bonnie felt sick — she had never seen anything so hideous or disgusting in her life.
The many mouths of the blob gibbered in frustration when it realized that the dog was mechanical and not suitable for eating. It screamed in a dozen different voices, and chills ran through Bonnie’s body, and then it threw the head and body of the robot at her. She easily dodged the smaller missile and blocked the larger with her shield.
“Two can play at that game!” she hurled her shield, and it hit the beast in the side. Instead of rebounding strongly as she had expected, it sunk in somewhat and then popped out, falling yards away from her. Before she could react, one of the long flexible arms whipped out and wrapped around her, then started pulling her closer.
She was surprised at how weak the pull was. But a half-dozen other arms were now snaking toward her, and she wasn’t going to be able to fight all of them. Instead of fighting the pull, she sprang forward, and the other arms missed — and she used the slack she’d created to dive for her shield.
She slammed the edge of the shield into the tentacle that was wrapped around her, hard enough to shatter bones. But nothing broke. She almost expected the tentacle to shear off, but instead it stretched under the impact, and released her.
“That’ll teach you to keep your hands to yourself, buster!” She quickly backed away.
The beast changed tactics, picking up nearby rocks and debris and hurling rocks, shattered pipes, bones, chunks of wood, and who knows what else at her. She could have dodged the individual missiles easily — Hoyt Wilhem, the knuckleball pitcher for the White Sox, threw harder than this thing. But there were always a dozen or so flying at her, and even protected by her shield, she was taking hits. The armor cloth in her costume protected her easily enough by stiffening under impact to distribute the blow, but it inhibited her movements, and she stumbled and fell. If the monster had been so inclined, it could probably have captured her.
Instead, the hail of debris stopped, and she could hear the monster running away. Well, swarming away would probably be a better description. Its arms and legs all stretched in the direction it wanted to go, and then the body followed. With that many limbs for locomotion, it moved more rapidly than she would have guessed. It quickly reached some pipes and scaffolding, and the elongated arms reached up, and it started climbing. By the time she got to her feet, it was out of sight.
Lady Victory was able to follow by turning her sound sensors up to maximum, but her infrared vision was virtually worthless. All around her, there appeared to be low level chemical reactions occurring, and in infrared, all she could see were splotches of light. She was just about to switch back to visible light when the ground collapsed beneath her feet.
Quickly twisting in the air, she managed to get her head down, feet up, with the shield extended in front of her, by the time she hit.
Lady Victory splashed into some kind of liquid. Thicker than water, it supported her easily. But as soon as her shield touched it, some kind of reaction started, and so much heat was being released that it blinded her infrared vision. She switched to visible light and triggered the powerful spotlight on the back of her right gauntlet. But she screamed when she noticed that her shield was dissolving.
Bonnie let out a terrified scream. She could see a ladder on one of the walls of this pit, and she was up it in seconds. She was able to see that the titanium alloy of the shield wasn’t being affected — only the paint and epoxy coating. And her armor cloth costume seemed to be immune as well. Not for the first time, she was thankful that the Third Reich hadn’t been able to get this miracle synthetic fabric into production before the end of the war.
She could hear what sounded like an angry crowd approaching her, and she looked up in that direction. The beast, moving faster than she had seen it before, burst from the tangled rubbish not thirty yards from her, heading her way. It was screaming in what sounded like terror and fear.
“Oh, $#!*!” Unlike her partners Red Rocket and Tom Atomic, Bonnie didn’t have any super-powers or super-weapons built into her costume. There was no way she could keep this monster from smashing into her and tumbling both of them back into the pit of caustic liquid — but she could try. Without a thought that she had earlier been fighting this hideous beast, she would try to save its life.
She threw her shield as hard as she could. It was no longer finely balanced or streamlined, but she couldn’t possibly miss. But, like before, it had almost no effect. The beast might have slowed momentarily. She dialed up the volume on her built-in external sound system and shouted.
Windows shattered, and any human nearby would have been deafened for hours. At the same time, she blasted her searchlight at the maximum eight-thousand candles — a beam so bright it almost felt solid.
The monster was already in a panic, but the noise and bright light somehow got through to it. It tried desperately to change directions, and if it had been even as agile as she had seen it before, she thought it might have succeeded. But instead it lost its balance and crashed to the ground, rolling toward her at the same high speed. She couldn’t get away, and the impact was as if the entire Chicago Bears defense had smashed into her at once. She flew backward, and smashed into the far wall of the pit.
The armor cloth of her costume absorbed much of the impact, but she was still stunned. As she fell again into the caustic reservoir, she saw the monster tumble into the pit as well, and there was an explosion of greasy yellow flame.
Sometime later, still protected by the miraculous synthetic material of her costume, she dragged herself up the ladder and out the tank. As she emerged, she saw a celebration going on. It looked like something from a Grade B monster movie — the oppressed farmers of a small Eastern European village, having just slain the terrible monster, dancing around a bonfire, waving their axes, pitchforks, and other improvised weapons, and cheering their victory.
The celebration stopped when Lady Victory climbed from the tank. In dead silence, the mob watched. The caustic fluid dripped from her, each drip exploding when it touched the ground, surrounding her in flares of fire and a wreath of smoke. She thundered as she walked.
The appearance of this flaming, booming ghost from out of the deadly pit was too much for them. They must have thought she was a demon or spirit of vengeance, and they turned and ran screaming. In instants, they had vanished into the rubble and ruins behind them. And she was too beat up to pursue. Instead, she found handfuls of trash and wiped down her costume, at least until it didn’t drop any longer, and placed a radio call to her partners.
Her costume gave her fantastic protection from harm, but it wasn’t magical. The various impacts tonight had taken their toll. She had bruises over most of her body, and once her adrenaline wore off, it was a struggle to stay conscious. She managed to relate the whole story to her husband, and then passed out. It had been a hell of a night, and she was happy to let it slip away.