Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, mid-afternoon
The Opening Ceremonies started well, in Vicki's opinion. The convention executive, all five of them, introduced themselves and let the opening video play. Vicki wasn't enamoured with the music chosen, but whoever put the video together knew how to put the lyrics together with the spliced images. The house lights came back up and Stuart, the exec designated to perform the ceremonies, returned on stage. The guests followed him out in front of the crowd, the only one in costume being Peregrine. Seeing how the heroine stood, shifting from foot to foot, Vicki felt some sympathy. This is so not her. Why did she agree to come out? No wonder she didn't give many interviews in Rochester.
The guests were introduced one by one, each being given a round of applause when they waved to the audience. On Peregrine's intro, the crowd went wild. The heroine took an involuntary step back from the sheer enthusiasm. They're going to eat her alive tomorrow. I hope someone is going to help her with her appearances. She won't survive.
"Well, that's all for the Opening Ceremonies. From all of us who've worked on putting the CHC together, we hope you have a great time!" Stuart waved to the crowd, who clapped as he left the stage.
Vicki let the crowd disperse a little before she even stood up. She kept an eye on Peregrine, making sure that she didn't look lost. The red-haired heroine's friend joined her on stage as she talked to one of the female exec. With the crowd down by half, Vicki decided to leave. This would be so much easier if I just shrunk down and flew over everyone's head. Except for leaving my clothes behind, that is. I think Dad would be upset if he found out I was flying around nude. The traffic slowed as the doorways became bottlenecks for the crowd. He should be back by now. How long can he take at the museum?
Finally out of the main ballroom, Vicki went with the flow of traffic until she found a spot where she could break off and be out of everyone's way. She pulled her schedule out of her purse. Let's see. Four o'clock, nothing I really want to see. Meeting the guests could be interesting, just avoid Peregrine for now. I wonder if Dad's ready for dinner. Vicki put away her schedule and got out her cell phone. She typed a quick text message to her father, then made her way to the elevator. When she got off on her floor, her cell vibrated. She read the message her father sent, giving her his location and directions. Ha! He's already ahead of me. I'll just ditch everything and head out.
Vicki unlocked the room she shared with her father. Dropping all her con related stuff on her bed, she ran around to gather what she thought she'd need. She stopped in the bathroom to make sure her makeup was decent and to give her hair a quick brushing. As she started to wash her hands, she heard a knock at the door. "Coming!" Vicki quickly towel dried her hands and dashed to the door. She peeked through the peep hole to see who might be on the other side. Peregrine? Well, well, now. Vicki opened the door. "Hi!"
Peregrine stared at her star-spangled boots. Her male friend stood two feet behind her. "Look, about earlier," Peregrine started. "I didn't mean to be like that. Nerves."
"It's okay," Vicki said. "First time to something like this. I've seen your press conferences. Crowds aren't you."
"Hey, want to come to dinner with me and Dad? I'm heading there now."
"I have to stay here at the hotel for now. Thanks, though."
Vicki shrugged. "Alright. Feel free to call me if you want to talk."
"Sure, thanks." Peregrine and her friend left.
Vicki closed the door as she made one last tear around the room to make sure she had everything she needed. She made sure that the emergency doll clothes were still in the side panel of her purse. Satisfied, Vicki ran out the door to go meet her father.
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, mid to late afternoon
Nasty returned to the her and Eric's hotel room. After a bit of fiddling with the electronic key, Nasty opened the door. She went directly to the couch and fell into it. Eric took the chair at the room's desk. "That wasn't so bad," he said. "What's the story between you and her. It sounds like you two know each other."
Nasty sighed. "We do, kind of."
"I don't know if I can tell you. It's complicated."
Eric shrugged. "She seems nice."
Probably why I don't like her. She's nice. She's polite. She's persistent and hitting someone nice and polite makes me the bad guy. Nasty adjusted her position on the couch, stretching out on it. "You'll have to ask her about it." Changing the subject, she asked, "Hey, what's on TV tonight?"
Eric shuffled through the flyers and magazines on the desk before finding the TV listings. "You sure you want to stay in tonight?"
"I kind of need some time to myself. Even just an hour or so. I wasn't expecting so many people to be here."
"I understand," Eric said. Her flipped through the listings. "Baseball game, no, wait, blacked out. Would have been the Indians' game against the Toronto Blue Jays."
"I like my baseball where the pitchers take their turn at bat."
"You'd give up an at bat and a chance for a real hitter to score several runs to let some guy who bats a career .100 take three swings or, worse, tries to bunt his way on base?"
"The designated hitter is just one guy paid to specialize and doesn't do much else to help his team win. You can score as many runs as you like, but if the fielders can't stop the other team from doing the same, you're not going to win. And how many pitchers are going to use brush back pitches when they know they might have to face the same thing?"
"You need to see baseball in a proper stadium."
"Shea isn't a proper stadium?"
"It's missing a sense of history."
"And cheap home runs to right field."
Eric returned his attention to the listings. "Not much else on. Well, Mythbusters, but that's more my speed than yours."
"What's it about?"
"These two guys take all sorts of myths and urban legends and see if they are true or not. Usually ends with something getting blown up."
Nasty got off the couch and walked over to peer over Eric's shoulder. "Doesn't sound like much of a plot."
"It's more of a reality show, except with more explosions. I should track down the clip of them vapourizing the cement truck."
Eric shook his head. "It was awesome. Oh, and never try to loosen dried cement with dynamite."
"I'll keep that in mind." Nasty returned to the couch.
"Nothing else really interesting." Eric tossed the TV listings on the desk. "Are you interested in the dance at all, Tash?"
Nasty shrugged. "Depends if I'm allowed out of this later tonight."
"Looks like it." The sound of Micki's voice caused Nasty to jump.
"Christ, don't do that!"
"You know I'm listening," Micki said over the radio link. "As interesting as your conversations are, you do need to focus a little more."
Nasty tried to get comfortable again on the couch. "Any news about the breakthrough?"
"When the Foundation team arrived, all they could get on their scanners was residual energy. The time that the window was open was long enough for several people to get through, but not enough for an army."
"What does that mean? Only one person got through? Ten? Were any of the alties?"
"No idea, Peregrine."
"If it's a defection, only one person would be going through," Eric said. "Maybe two. Tash, can you ask how long the window was open?"
"Micki, did you hear that?" Nasty asked.
"I did. From first burst to the fade, no more than ten minutes."
"Ten minutes," Nasty relayed.
"Assuming that both sides have similar technology, I'd say that whoever came through doesn't want to defect. If we can track the signature, so can our duplicates."
"Your boy is smart," Micki remarked.
Nasty ignored the comment. "Eric, does this mean that you think that whoever crossed over has something else in mind?"
Eric nodded. "If it was someone who the other side didn't want defecting, they'd have sent someone to retrieve him or her. That's what I'd do. That would mean a second energy signature."
"Oh, fuck. Guys, I think there's at least two of them over here now."
"Peregrine, please watch your language," Micki admonished. "How do you know that?"
"Who is better to send over, an altie or a normal person?"
"I see," Eric said. "Yeah, I'd send someone with power over. Less equipment needed, requires this side to use more resources to stop. Tash, why two? There's you."
"I can't say how I know. I just know."
"Peregrine, you should have told the Foundation when you got reliable psychic flashes."
"I'm not psychic, Micki. There is someone else here with powers. I just can't tell you who. Secret ID and all that shit."
"Alright, Peregrine. I'll tell the Foundation team of your suspicions. Have either of you eaten yet?"
"Not since lunch," Nasty answered.
"Go off duty, get out of the uniform, go get dinner, but keep a Foundation radio handy. If there's a spare, give one to your boy. I'll meet you in your room at six."
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, late afternoon
Meredith added to the pile of shopping bags on her bed with the merchandise she picked up in her first tour of the convention's Dealers' Room. There was no sign of Keith in the room at all. Meredith gave a mental shrug, then entered the bathroom, determined to take advantage of having the hotel room all to herself. She slipped out of her clothes as she let the water fill up in the bath tub, adding a cap of bubble soap. The BIKINI was the last to be removed; Meredith pressed the release button located in the middle over her cleavage. The power armour released its hold on her, forcing her to grab the upper part to prevent it from falling. She turned the device around on her so she could see the catch to open the bra part.
Ah, much better. Meredith set the piece on the bathroom counter, then began working on the lower part. She slid them over the greaves and her sock feet, then pushed them over to the corner. Clad only in her underwear, Meredith started removing the last parts, the greaves and bracers, placing them with the armoured bra on the counter. There has to be a faster way to put on and take off this contraption. Sucks having to plan bathroom breaks hours in advance.
Seeing the tub close to overflowing, Meredith shut off the water before she stripped out of her bra and panties. She submerged herself into the bubble bath, letting the heat soak into her. 'I need to do this more often. Not enough bubbles in my life.' She heard the room's main door open. "Hello? Keith, is that you?"
"Just me," Keith yelled back. "Going to be long in there?"
"Probably. I just got in the tub." Meredith waited for an answer. Hearing none, she slipped further into the bubbles. I'm just missing the champagne. Back home, where I can buy it without a hassle, I'll do this again.
"Meredith, what's all this on your bed?"
"Stuff. And why is it my bed?"
"Your stuff is on it."
Meredith laughed. Good answer. Keith is learning. "Hey, did you see more of Boob Girl at the con?"
"The girl from the elevator that you weren't looking at."
"If I wasn't looking at her, how would I know if I saw her again?"
"Because she had her bottomless cleavage on display."
"No, I didn't see more of her. How much more of her is there to see? And she's not my type."
"Oh, right. I forgot. Her breasts weren't big enough." Meredith tried to suppress her giggles. Keith, I know you have a thing for Kimberly. You don't even deny it.
"I'm going down to the Artists' Alley to look around. Back in fifteen."
Meredith heard the hotel room's door open and close. Artists' Alley? I ought to take a look there tomorrow. I wonder what he wants from there. She closed her eyes and let the bubbles drift over her.
Natasha used a critical eye as she looked over the results of the clean up effort. Nothing could be done with the walls, but all the detritus that had built up over time had been removed or scoured away. The water in the sink no longer ran black. The stove no longer had its layers of grease after a near-archaeological scrubbing. Dust still lay on some surfaces; the redhead decided that the level of overall cleanliness was acceptable. Natasha wiped her hands a clean rag. "Good work."
Tori glared at the older girl. "No thanks to you."
"I was working on the overall plan when I wasn't working in the bathroom. Oh, it's safe to use. Don't mind the smell of bleach."
"They'll be waiting for a second energy surge. If we hold off on getting more gear over until the wee hours of the morning, our opposition will be asleep or too tired to react fast enough."
Tori put a hand on her hip. "That's not what I meant."
Natasha brushed away the implied criticism with a wave of her hand. "Go and have fun. Be back by four in the morning. Try to get some sleep in there if you can, because tomorrow is going to be busy."
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, early evening
Nasty opened the door to let Micki in. The older woman was out of her usual business casual and in a cream silk blouse and a crisp pair of black jeans. Micki swept in and took over the desk, setting her leather purse on top of the papers already on the surface. "Hi, Micki," Nasty said, exaggerating the politeness. "How are you?"
"Thank you, Natasha." Micki searched through her purse. She brought out a small radio set with a Bluetooth earbud receiver. "Eric, take this. That way, I can reach one of you tonight." Micki smiled. "Congrats. You're working for the Foundation as of this moment."
"Micki, wait." Nasty looked over at Eric. "Eric, are you sure you want to do this? It could be dangerous."
Eric took the radio set from Micki. "It'll be okay, Tash. I'm just there so that Micki can keep up with you if you're busy. Right?" He looked over at the Foundation liaison.
"Essentially," Micki confirmed. "There's no way the Foundation is going to send someone without training or innate abilities out there on his own. I don't like sending you out, Natasha, not without someone keeping in constant contact with you."
"You're just afraid I might swear in front of reporters."
Micki laughed. "You picked up a sense of humour. I don't want to see you hurt and caught somewhere without help nearby. You're still important to the Foundation, even if you did step down."
Nasty shuffled her sock feet. "What's the plan tonight? Did you want me to patrol or anything?"
"As much as that would be handy, I'd prefer to keep you in the public eye this evening. It'll be harder to frame you if you have several eye witnesses you place you here."
"You want me to stay here, then."
"I want you to be seen at the convention, at the Meet and Greet, walking through the crowd, even at the dance."
"Miss Sinisis, if Tash is wearing the Peregrine costume, couldn't someone claim that she got somebody else to wear it?"
Micki looked over at Eric, considering his words. "Good point. After mingling with the other guests, you can change back into your normal clothes, Natasha. You did bring clothes to dance in, right"
"Dance? Me?" Nasty held up her hands. "Wait, I-- I-- I'm not so good with dances."
"Natasha, this is to give you an alibi."
Eric stifled a laugh. "Sorry. You just made it sound like Tash is up to no good."
"Got a better way to put it?"
"How about, 'to let people know where the real Tash is'?"
"Not bad." Micki turned to Nasty. "So, did you stash a dress in that pack of yours?"
Nasty blinked. 'Dress? Oh, no, no, no.' She felt the blood drain from her face. "Micki, really, dancing and me don't work out."
"Oh, come on, Natasha. It's only a dance. Where are your dancing shoes?"
"Somewhere in New Jersey, with the rest of the trash."
Micki arched an eyebrow. "No, seriously."
"I am serious."
"She is," Eric confirmed. "There wasn't much of her shoes after the fight."
Micki planted her face into the palm of her hand. "Natasha, tell me you didn't start a fight at a school dance."
"Oh, she didn't start it."
"That's good to hear."
Nasty found her voice. "It's not my fault that the bitch tracked me down. The cops cleared me once they got the full story."
Micki took a deep breath. "Where was I? Oh, right, the dance. Natasha, try not to get into a fight during it. I'd prefer if you had proper clothes for it. Something other than your t-shirt and jeans, at least. You should have told me sooner. I could have gotten something else for you to wear."
Looking down at her clothes, Nasty asked, "What's wrong with this?"
"Miss Sinisis, really, have you been to a dance at a convention? Dressing up means wearing a costume, not wearing anything fancy. Hey, want to come?"
"I think it'd be best if I leave you two young folks alone there. Don't want to cramp anyone's style." Micki winked at Eric, who blushed.
Resigned, Nasty sighed. "I'll go, okay? I'll be so fucking visible that even Mom back home will know exactly where I am. I'll wave to the fucking satellites so they can see me."
"That's the spirit." Micki got up. "Go get ready for the Meet and Greet. Try to enjoy yourself. And mingle. That's an order."
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, early evening
Vicki made sure her con badge was still pinned in place as she rode the elevator down. She tried to make herself as small as possible as more people tried to get on. See, this is where being public would be useful. I could just shrink and sit on someone's shoulder and not get pressed into the wall here. Vicki took a deep breath to help make room.
The elevator doors slid open and the crush of people got out. Vicki exhaled, happy to have space around her again. She followed the crowd to the main ballroom. The chairs that had been set up for the Opening Ceremonies had been stacked against the wall, out of the way. A DJ worked on his equipment in the corner. In the centre of the room, the guests of honour chatted with several people wearing shirts reading EXEC on the back. Vicki walked around the room, checking out the costumes being worn by some of the other con goers. I'll get photos of them tomorrow. She completed her circuit of the room. Where's Peregrine?
Almost on cue, the former assistant to the American Eagle walked into the room. Her helmet gleamed from the overhead lights. A few steps behind her was the guy Vicki saw with her earlier. One of the con exec waved to her, then left his group to join the heroine. Her friend whispered in her ear, then walked over to the refreshment table. Now's my chance.
Vicki took a roundabout route to get to the refreshments. She sidled up to Peregrine's friend. "Hi."
The friend set down the can of root beer he just opened. "Hi."
"You're Peregrine's friend. My name's Vicki. Vicki Parsons." She offered her hand.
"Eric." He shook Vicki's hand using a light grip. "You know Tash?"
Vicki shrugged. "Sort of. I ran into her back in New York a few times. Has she told you about any of that?"
"Not really. Tash tends to keep her hero side to herself."
"Oh." Vicki pushed the disappointment away. "Hey, are you going to be at the dance tonight?"
Eric nodded. "I am. Hey, want anything to drink? There's a decent selection of pop here."
"Any cola? I could use a Pepsi."
Eric checked the cans of soft drink in the ice bucket. "They've got Coke. No Pepsi."
Vicki grimaced. "Any ginger ale?"
"I think so." Eric reached into the bucket and retrieved a Schweppes. He handed the green can to Vicki. "Here."
"Thanks!" The blond looked over at Peregrine. "She's not that good at this, is she?" The heroine's head snapped toward Vicki as if she heard the comment.
"Tash is a private person, that's all. She'll warm up in a few minutes."
Vicki opened her can of ginger ale. "Ever been to this con before?"
"First time. Tash invited me to come with her when she was asked to be a guest here."
'She brought him with her? Okay, don't come on too strong to him. She might have a thing for him.' Vicki smiled warmly. "Must be exciting."
Eric shrugged. "I suppose. I'm just helping her out here."
"I know, her first time. She's a con virgin."
Glancing over at the small group that had grown around Peregrine, Eric suggested, "Hey, I should introduce you to a couple of the other guests."
Vicki let herself be led to two men. Eric introduced them as Alec and Pierce, co-creators of several comic book series. Vicki exchanged pleasantries, easing herself into the conversation slowly.
"I'm just saying that Los Angeles has just a vibrant hero community as New York," Alec argued. "The only reason why New York shows up so much is that the early writers and artists were based there."
"New York has been a melting pot since before the Revolutionary War," Pierce countered. "People from all over go there. It's only after being in America for a while that they go further west."
"You can't deny that Hollywood is a draw."
"There are TV studios in New York, too."
"Movies are where the big money is."
"Um," Vicki interrupted. "Aren't most big movies filmed elsewhere?"
A brunette woman in her very early twenties joined the discussion. "Yeah, like in Vancouver and Toronto?"
"That'll change with the current economy. Hi, Alec. This is Pierce, and this young man is Eric."
Vicki offered her hand. "Vicki. From New York."
"Meredith, from Toronto."
"I can see when I'm outnumbered," Alec said.
"No, no," Meredith said. "If supers were a new phenomenon, Hollywood would be the first to get something out, exploiting them."
"My point exactly."
"Then why are you drawing for comics?" Pierce asked.
"Because I can't draw everything fast enough for TV and most animation is farmed out." Alec laughed.
Vicki kept her smile pasted on. "I assume you both pay attention to the super hero scene, then."
"Naturally," Pierce said. "Sometimes, reality comes up with new twists faster than our imaginations. Reality is allowed to not make sense. No one ever questions it. Us writers have to make sure our works hang together with no loose ends."
"And sometimes it's a kick to see what new costumes come out," Alec added. "Take this new group out of New York, the Youth Something." He looked over at his partner. "What do they call themselves again?"
"The Youth Corps? No, that's not it. Hey, Vicki, you're from there. Have you heard of them?"
Vicki kept a tight hold on her excitement. "The Youth Brigade?"
"That's their name!" Alec took a swallow from his coffee. "I don't think any of them are out of high school. They haven't done anything big yet, but they're due."
Coolness! First time I haven't had to explain who we are. Vicki sipped at her ginger ale. "What do you think about their costumes?"
"They're an odd mix. No unifying style. Now, that could be from not having a stylist like the more established groups, like the Vanguard. Kid Inscrutable has a well done outfit. Not sure about the cloak, but that I'll leave for the panel tomorrow."
"You're doing the Costume Essentials panel?" Meredith asked. "I was planning on being there for that."
Pierce looked over the brunette. "I'd love to see you there."
"We even got Peregrine involved in the panel," Alec said. "It'll be fun."
Meredith smiled at the bearded writer. "Can't wait!"
Geez, flirt much? Vicki finished her soft drink. "I need to get more refreshment. Nice meeting you."
"Nice meeting you, too, Vicki."
Vicki slipped away, edging through the crowd. Time to talk to Peregrine. Maybe she's loosened up by now. She located the heroine in the middle of a larger crowd. People just love being around a super. Vicki bided her time, waiting to let the crowd in front of her disperse a little.
One of the exec, her name tag reading Trina, "Hi there." She peered at Vicki's name tag. "Vicki. I don't think I've seen you here at CHC before."
"It's my first time here."
Peregrine turned to face the newcomer. Vicki heard the sigh Peregrine tried to not release. "Vicki." Peregrine offered her hand, which Vicki shook.
"Hi. Enjoying the convention?" Vicki's voice remained in a innocent tone.
Trina eyed the two girls. "Can I get you anything?"
"Another Coke, please," Peregrine said.
"I'm good, thanks." Once Trina had left, Vicki continued, "Relax. I'm just mingling."
Peregrine looked around the room. She took out a pad of paper and a pen. After a few quick scribbles, she tore the page off. She leaned in close to Vicki, she said in a low tone, "Not here." Peregrine pressed the page into Vicki's hand.
'What the heck?' Vicki slipped the paper into her pocket. "Um, okay."
"I understand there's a dance tonight. Are you going?"
"Definitely," Vicki answer, her mind still trying to figure out what was going on. "You?"
In a flat voice, Peregrine answered "Can't wait."
Trina returned with Peregrine's cola and a coffee for herself. "Having fun, guys?"
"Absolutely." Vicki beamed. "I just wish I had a costume ready. I'm amazed at all the costumes here."
"There aren't any cons where you're from?"
"There are. They aren't as costume focused. The number of people dressed up is about half of what it is here. At least I brought my camera with me."
"You'll love the Masquerade, then. Peregrine, will you be around for that?"
"I don't know." The red haired heroine paused for a few moments. "I think you have me signing autographs then."
"I thought we had that scheduled for Sunday. Charles must have had to redo some slots." Trina shrugged. "Oh, well, what can we do? We have five days worth of stuff to cram into forty-eight hours. There's never enough time."
"Trina, mind if I disappear for a moment?" Peregrine asked.
"Oh, sure." The exec turned back to Vicki. "Do you have any photos of your cosplay with you?"
From the corner of her eye, Vicki watched Peregrine leave the room. "Not with me. I wasn't expecting CHC to be so cosplay friendly. Next time I'm here, I'm definitely coming in costume."
Another of the convention executive walked to the centre of the room. "Thank you for coming out to meet our guests. We have to close the ballroom so we can get it set up for the dance. It should only take an hour."
"Time to go," Trina said. "Have fun, Vicki!"
Vicki left the main ballroom, slipping through the crowd. Finding an alcove, she dove into it, grateful for the privacy it afforded. She pulled out Peregrine's note.
Talk to me when I'm out of costume.
Peregrine sat back as the waitress arrived. After giving her the order, the heroine waited a few seconds until she was sure the server was gone. "There are people from another universe coming over to ours. A mirror universe."
"What advantages? The only thing that I can think of is that I can walk around the hotel and know one would care . . .." Tori's voice trailed off. "Even better, bitch cake can't go in. If she doesn't return, I can just march in there and take over! You're a genius, Omega!"