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...for Christine...

My name is Renee Windler, and I'm in the hospital.

They've got screws in my head, and this big metal head brace around me, and radioactive cobalt being shot into my head, and I'm tired of it, and I want to go home, and I want a normal life, and --

Let me start over. My name is Renee Windler, I'm 38 years old, I'm married, with two kids, and I work in HR at the electric company downtown. I've only lived in Metro City for about six years, ever since Dan got a position as an engineering professor at Metro State University. Becky is nine, Melanie is six, and they seem to do really well at school.

I've got a brain tumor, and I'm too damn young to have a brain tumor. Everyone in the universe is too damn young to have a brain tumor.

I started having headaches a few months back, figured they were just, you know, headaches, no big problem. Happened to mention it when I saw my doctor recently, and his trouble alert went off. Turned out it was an ugly one, almost an inch long, right where they'd never be able to operate. I've updated my will, written some stuff for the girls, been trying to finally finish reading "Jane Eyre." Me and Dan and the girls are all pretty much completely cried out.

I'm in Metro City General Hospital, and I'm getting radiation therapy. I've been shot full of drugs, they screwed a head brace into my skull, and they're shooting something called cobalt-60 into my brain.

It's not very interesting, and I can't move around, and it's a bit tough to keep from thinking about how awful things are.

And then things actually get a heck of a lot worse.

There are screams out in the hallway, and both the doctor and the nurse go to see what's up. They don't have time to do much more than look out the door when there's this loud sizzle sound and a flash of green light, and both of them and the door get blown backwards.

I can't really see much of anything from here. I can't see the doctor or nurse, I can't see if they're okay, I can't see what else happened.

"Hellooooo," says a voice, light and breathy. "What have we here?" Whoever she is, she sounds... not normal, like she's doing a really good job of impersonating Hannibal Lecter from that movie.

She finally comes all the way into the room where I can see her. She has green skin, long green hair, a weird stitched-together black-and-green leather costume. Psycho-killer smile.

Strych-9. I hear she used to be a college student studying chemistry. She caught someone burglarizing the lab one night and got shot and drenched in a cocktail of plutonium, toxic chemicals, and hallucinogens. Came out of it seriously radioactive and homicidally insane.

We saw a news report about her a while back. Becky had nightmares about her for days. I didn't tell her, but I did, too.

Strych-9 is standing right next to me, grinning like the most lethal Cheshire Cat ever. She opens her mouth a little and runs her tongue across her front teeth. If I could catch a breath, I'd be screaming right now.

"Do you know where they keep the radioactive material in here?" she purrs. "Me and my sugarlump need to get a lot of radioactive material. I mean a lot of radioactive material."

A gasp, a gulp, a swallow. "I don't know," I whisper. "Th-They didn't show me when I was brought in."

She straightens up and sighs. "I guess I shouldn't have blasted that doctor," she says. "Or the nurse. Or the technicians."

She leans back down so I can see her face again. "Hey, whatcha doing? You wanna get outta here? We could go get Thai."

Another swallow. So scared, dammit, so so scared. "I kinda h-have to stay here," I whisper. "I'm getting treatment." Maybe she'll just leave, maybe she's crazy enough that she'll forget me and just leave.

"Oh, yeah?" she says. "This is one of those radiation therapy things, right? For brain tumors or something?" She straightens back up and sniffs the air loudly. "Ugh, cobalt-60. Lamest and least explodey of all the radioactive materials."

She leans back down and grins at me. "Tell ya what, lady, we're gonna speed this little puppy up, okay? We're gonna crank this thing up to 11 and blow out the brakes and overload the safety protocols. Ya ready?"

"What? N-No, I don't think we should -- let's just leave it the way things are. Please?"

"No, no, this'll be great." She stands up and grabs the accelerator machine with both hands. "This is going to be absolutely beyond awesome."

I don't know what she's doing, but it can't be good. I think I'm getting a fever, or the heater's been turned way up. I feel like I'm really bad sick, like I need to throw up, pass out, hallucinate, maybe just go die somewhere, anything to make this sudden fever go away.

Strych-9 leans back down to talk to me. "Okay, lady, all done. You may notice some melting of the machine, but it shouldn't be anything to worry about. Now I'm no doctor, but I'm betting that, one way or another, you won't have to worry about cancer before very long."

She laughs like a hyena and heads for the door. "See ya 'round! Gotta go find the pediatric unit!"

God, it's so hot. I'd kill for a cup of water. Can't even get up to get it -- the head brace is strapped down. Feel like I'm going to sweat to death, like I'm roasting alive, like I'm on fire. I don't know if the accelerator could really melt, but it sure feels like I'm going to.

The pediatric unit -- don't you have to go past the family waiting room to get there? Weren't Dan and the girls waiting there?

I think the heat is making me delirious. I smell something burning, and I think it's me.

I sit up, the head brace slowly bending and curling in the heat as the screws drip down my face. I wipe a dollop of melted plastic from the accelerator out of my eyes, barely registering that my hand is burning with bright blue flames, and get to my feet.

There's screaming down the hallway. Kids are screaming. I hear Dan's voice: "Melanie, Becky, get down!"

Strych-9 is standing in the doorway of the waiting room, laughing her head off, her hands smoking with a sickly green glow. "Watch this, watch this, I'm gonna make that candy machine blow up!"

"Get away from them, you green-skinned bitch!" Oh god, was that me? That was really loud. Everyone's going to think I'm a Sigourney Weaver fangirl.

Strych-9 turns and gawks at me. "Whoa, wait a minute, does this mean I just cured cancer?"

I start running at her, then thrust out one hand toward her, like a reflex, and a blue jet of energy -- part fire, part smoke, part laser -- leaps out, hits her in the chest, and pushes her away from the waiting room door. I should freak out now, right? I mean, I'm hallucinating for sure, right? When I stop being angry, I promise I'll have a good freak-out.

The jet doesn't really seem to hurt her much. "Did you just shoot me with radiation?" she says, midway between anger and disbelief. "I mean, seriously, did you just shoot me with radiation? An 'A+' for effort, lady, but an 'F-' for shooting me with goddamn radiation!"

Her eyes glow bright green, then a couple of blasts of radioactive energy shoot out and hit me. I barely feel them.

"Crap," she says, "I shoulda listened to my previous speech!"

By that time, I've gotten across the hall to her. Shooting each other with radioactive beams isn't doing any good, so I do the only other thing I can think of: a right cross to her temple, followed by a left cross to her other temple.

She folds right up and goes to sleep.

"Mom?" I hear Becky ask. "Is -- Is that you?"

"Renee?" Dan says. "What happened to you?"

I turn around and smile at them. They're okay! I'm okay, too! Everything's... everything's kinda spinning around and turning black...



When I wake up, I'm in another hospital room, laid up in a bed and wearing a hospital gown. There are two other women in here with me. I recognize Defender from TV -- sleek, form-hugging white body armor with a pattern of blue circuits running all over it, topped with a mirrored white helmet. She's lounging in a chair at the end of the bed, reading an old copy of "Condé Nast Traveler." There's a glowing blue ball of light hovering just in front of her.

The other is a black woman with short dreadlocks. She's wearing a navy blue sportcoat and slacks with a red necktie. She's sitting next to the window typing on a BlackBerry. She puts it away when she realizes I'm awake.

"Mrs. Windler, glad to see you're awake," she says. "Do you feel alright? Do you need a glass of water or anything?"

"Greetings to you!" says the ball of light in a bright, happy voice. "Greetings! Greetings to you!"

"Uh, yeah, greetings to you, too," I say. "I'll take some water, I guess. I think I've got a fever of some sort."

Defender gets up, runs a glass of water, and brings it to me. I almost drop the glass when I see that my hand and arm are actually colored light blue and glowing.

"Wh-What happened to my hand? What happened to my skin?"

"Mrs. Windler, let's take things a bit slow, alright?" says the black woman. "I'm sure you know who Defender is. My name's Daphne Diller -- I'm a professional investigator."

The name rings a bell. "You're Daffodil, the indestructible private eye?" I ask.

She looks irritated. "Call me Daphne, please," she says, a hard edge in her voice. "Not Daffodil. Not ever Daffodil."

"Oh, sorry about that," I say. "So who's the ball of light?"

"What ball of light?" asks Defender.

"That one right there," I say, pointing at it.

"Greetings!" it says. "I'm Sparky Isotope! I'm the Spirit of Radiation! I'm here to guide you on your path to becoming Earth's new Radiation Elemental! They can't see me!"

"Oh, great," I groan. "It says I'm the only person who can see it. Or I'm crazy. One or the other."

"Oh, sweetie," says Defender. "You know I'd never tell you to your face."

"Mrs. Windler, I wouldn't blame you for thinking you're crazy," says Daphne. "But maybe you should try to hold it together 'til you can talk to a head shrinker. I take it you haven't seen a mirror yet?" She pulls a hand mirror out of a cabinet drawer and hands it to me.

Well, it was quite a change. When I got to the hospital this morning, I'd been a 38-year-old white woman with short brown hair. Now I have light blue skin that emits a smoky blue glow. My hair is completely white. My eyes glow white, too, and there are wisps of white smoke coming out of them. I can't see if I have pupils any more. I used to have really nice green eyes.

"The looks aren't all of it, Mrs. Windler," says Daphne. "Whatever Strych-9 did to you gave you radiation powers, too. Can't tell you exactly what powers you have, but we know you have 'em."

"I can't believe it," I say. "Can I see my family? Can I see a doctor?"

"Not quite yet, darling," says Defender. "You're a bit radioactive, and the doctors have you under a short quarantine 'til they can find some good radiation suits and test you out. Luckily, my armor blocks radiation, and you couldn't hurt Daphne if you tried, so we offered to sit with you."

"Yeah, and Defender's suit can analyze you, too," Daphne says. "It's not enough to make her a doctor... but tell her what the suit says, Def."

"Well, medically, you're in perfect health," says Defender. "That brain tumor is gone, and I haven't detected any other health problems either. You scratched up your knuckles playing that little game of chin checkers with our jade-hued friend..."

"Very nicely done, by the way," Daphne says.

"Oh, yes, definitely," Defender adds. "But you'll note those scratches have already healed up. I don't even think you'll have much trouble with radiation. You're only mildly radioactive right now, though I expect you'd give off increasing amounts of heat radiation the more you used your new powers. Still, you've got a current body temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and I've no idea whether that might have ill effects on close family members or not."

"Wait, are you saying I'd be a danger to my kids?"

"No, not at all," says Daphne quickly. "But we do hope things go better for you than they did for Hypothermia, that's all."

"Things will go great!" said the ball of light. "It's a great new day for Earth's new Radiation Elemental!"

"And you should give it a rest, Mr. Spanky Bassalope, or whatever your name is," I say. "I'm in no mood for nonsense about elementals."

"I'm Sparky Isotope!" sings the ball of light.

"We probably should have a psychiatrist check you out," says Daphne. "I hope you haven't caught whatever broke Strych-9's mind..."

About that time, the doctors finally show up, kitted out in radiation suits, Geiger counters, fire extinguishers, the works. We all take a walk for a more secure examination area away from other patients -- a big, glassed-in room usually reserved for patients with compromised immune systems. Daphne and Defender tag along, as does, unfortunately, Sparky Isotope. I try to avoid talking to him, just to keep everyone from wanting to send me to the funny farm, but it's hard to just ignore him all the time.

We haven't even started any examination when my family finally finds me. I look up to see Dan standing next to the window, holding both Becky and Melanie up so they can see in. The doctors won't let me go outside, and they won't let them come in, but we spend a few minutes touching hands through the glass. They had gone home and gotten me some more comfortable clothes in case I'm here for a while -- pajamas, sweats, my exercise clothes, my toothbrush, all that stuff. They couldn't give 'em to me directly, but the doctor said they'll let me have them later.

The girls both show me pictures they've drawn. Melanie's has a blue colored woman with white hair shooting blue lasers at a green woman. Becky's is a bit more sophisticated, but still looks a bit too much like those anime cartoons she likes so much. She used the fancy neon markers she bought from the hospital gift shop.

Dan and I write some notes to each other. All of us cry a little, but we also smile, too. The docs better damn sure give me the all-clear to go home soon.

After that, they don't even have much time to start the examination -- just long enough to confirm my temperature runs about 133 degrees and that I make Geiger counters click a lot -- before the doctors learn that someone got into the hospital and stole all their radioactive material while everyone was still preoccupied with the aftermath of Strych-9's capture.

The doctors and police are both nervous about radiation contamination of the crime scene, so they want Daphne and Defender to go up and take a look around. They're both about to head out the door when Sparky pipes up: "Mistress of Elemental Radiation! Do they know that you can sense and track radioactive emissions? You would be a boon to their investigation!"

"Um, hey, Sparky Isotope wants me to tell you that I can track radioactive emissions," I say. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's what he said. Let me know if you want my help, okay?"

Daphne and Defender share a look. Then Daphne shrugs. "It's worth a shot," she says. "You got a problem if we bring her along for a little while, doctors?"

The doctors grumble a bit, 'cause they went to all the trouble to put on those hot radiation suits, but they give the okay.

"Can I have something to wear other than this hospital gown?" I ask. "I don't much want to run all over the hospital with my big blue butt hanging out."

One of the doctors fetches the duffel bag Dan brought with my spare clothes. I start to get my sweats out when I notice something on my favorite blue exercise leotards -- someone has drawn two letter G's on the front of them.

"What the hell is this?" I ask. "Did my kids go and draw on my clothes? They're too old for that."

Defender looks over my shoulder. "That's kind of cute, sweetie," she says. "You haven't seen the news yet, have you? One of the TV stations filed a report about the Strych-9 situation and referred to you as 'GammaGirl.' Looks like your daughters made you a superhero costume."

Daphne looks at the leotard, too. "Uh, I can get you the names of some designers to get you a real costume later, if you want it," she says. "Nothing against your daughter's artistic skill or anything, but... Well, I can get you the names of some real good designers."

I look back out the window. Becky is standing on a chair so she can look in. She's grinning ear to ear and holding up her new neon markers. I give her a thumbs-up.

Well, I think I've got to wear it now, don't I? But there's definitely got to be a better name -- "GammaGirl" is a little clichéd. Besides, it's been 20 years since I'd tolerate people calling me a girl, so that's absolutely getting changed. And that's if I'm actually crazy enough to try to be a superhero.

Once I get my clothes changed, the hospital clears the corridors (they're still nervous about how radioactive I am, which Defender thinks is an over-reaction) and the three of us (four of us if you count Sparky) head for the radiotherapy labs.

"Do you think Strych-9's attack was just a distraction for an accomplice?" Defender asks Daphne as we go. "Or was this a crime of opportunity?"

"No way to tell yet," says Daphne. "I can't imagine her working with someone -- I'm not under the impression that she plays well with others."

"When I saw her in the treatment lab, she mentioned something about her and her 'sugarlump' wanting to get a lot of radioactive material," I say. "Does she have a boyfriend or something?"

"Not to my knowledge, but -- here, hold on," says Daphne as she digs out her BlackBerry. "I can't keep track of all the superhero and supervillain ins-and-outs, so the Chrome Cobra gave me a database of the info she's compiled on the supervillain community. That girl is damn obsessed with all that metahuman crap. You know to expect her to show up at your house sometime soon, right, Renee?"

"Yes, probably at some ungodly time of night, too," said Defender. "God knows, patrol schedules are rough enough without having her wake you from a proper rest."

By now, Daphne is working on her BlackBerry. "No indication that she has a steady," she says. "She's a bit too crazy, even for most villains. Beelzebambi will work with her, but they're both equally nuts. Malice has worked with her, but Malice is just meaner'n spit."

"Perhaps someone from out of town?" Defender says.

"If that's the situation, this database probably won't do any good," says Daphne. "There are just too many villains out there, and no telling which ones are loony enough to think partnering up with Strych-9 is a good move."

We start to enter the radiology lab, and Sparky suddenly speaks up. "Glorious Queen of Elemental Radiation! Behold! A trail of radioactive energy!"

And sure enough, there's a stream of little sparkling particles hanging in the air, all kinds of colors, leading toward a stairwell. I can even smell the radiation -- like a combination of lemons and gasoline and that weird smell when the dentist is drilling on your teeth.

"Hey, radiation trail heading off this way," I say.

"Great," says Daphne. "Let's see where it takes us."

Where it takes us is down. When we get to the first floor, there's a door leading out, but the radioactive trail leads through a solid wall underneath the stairwell.

"Defender, can you generate some sonics for me?" says Daphne. "I need something between 20 and 1 Hertz."

"Sure, sweetie, just a moment," says Defender. She points a glove at the wall and stands there silently for a few seconds, then there's a click, and the wall slides down into the floor. There's a passageway leading down, lit every few feet by small LED lights.

"How'd you know what was going to open the secret door?" I ask as we walk down the passageway.

"General guesswork," Daphne says. "Sonic triggers aren't particularly rare, especially among the mad scientist set, and I figured infrasonic frequencies were more likely than ultrasonics or something within the normal range of human hearing. You don't want to risk having your secret door open when someone's cell phone rings."

"What if it hadn't been a sonic trigger?" asks Defender.

"Well, I think we would've called in Atlas or Miss Mega to punch it down," says Daphne. "But that would've been a lot noisier."

"No other aid is required!" chirps Sparky. "Only Earth's new Radiation Elemental is needed! Truly, her glory is infinite and radioactive!" I decide to ignore him for as long as I can.

"Maybe you should've called for them anyway," I say. "If it's a mad scientist, that means robots or something, right?"

"Not likely," said Daphne. "Robots are passé for most mad scientists nowadays. And we're talking someone who had to rob a hospital to get radioactive material -- he's either flakier than normal or -- well, that's the only option, really. Medical-grade radioactive material isn't useful for much beyond radiotherapy. Besides, I think this is just an escape route here. Once we find out where the tunnel leads, we'll know where he parked his car or hover-flyer or whatever, and we'll know where to start the next phase of the investigation."

"All for the best, I suppose," says Defender. "I've had entirely enough of mad scientists, mad magicians, and sundry lunatics for a while. What I wouldn't give for a simple embezzling case."

"You superheroes never get the embezzling cases," Daphne snorts. "Seems like that's all I ever get, that and missing persons cases and snoop jobs."

"I thought you were a superhero, too," I say.

"No, no, just because I have superpowers doesn't mean I'm a superhero," says Daphne. "I can't fly, I can't run at superspeed, I can't shoot radiation rays, and I'm not particularly strong. Being indestructible isn't that great a power, all by itself. Anyway, I like money, and superheroing don't pay for shit."

"Those are excuses," says Defender. "Excuses don't absolve you of a duty to others, darling."

Daphne winks and jerks a thumb at Defender. "The idealist reveals herself," she says. "She affects the airy, aristocratic tone, but at heart, our cream-of-society golden girl is a gung-ho justice-for-all geek -- not all that much different from Atlas, the Star, or Penitente."

"Idealism is wonderful!" says Sparky. "I love idealism!" I ignore him again.

"Nice speech, Diller," says Defender. Her voice has a hard edge it hasn't had before. "How long have you been saving that one up?"

"Ohhh, a while," Daphne says mock-innocently.

"I thought so," says Defender. "You say all that like it's something to be ashamed of, and it isn't. I'm more fortunate than a lot of people, and I'd prefer to pay my good luck forward. I'd rather stand for something other than myself and my expense account, darling."

"Alright, alright, let's not get all agitated," says Daphne. But she's smiling -- she enjoyed zinging her. "I'll withdraw the statement. Let's stay friends, okay?"

"Fine, whatever," says Defender. "Another door up ahead. You figure that's the exit?"

"Yeah, gotta be," says Daphne. "Let's see if that sonic trigger works again."

Well, it works like a charm, and we go through.

But it turns out it's not the exit -- we're standing in a big high-tech laboratory carved into the rock, like the volcano base in that old James Bond movie. And there are robots everywhere. Big, sleek, lethal-looking robots. Fast estimate? I'd say about 25-30. They all stop whatever they were doing and look over at us.

There's one other human in the room, an Arabic man wearing a white lab coat and blast goggles. His hair and beard are bright green. He's got the same lunatic smile that Strych-9 had. He pushes a button on the console in front of him, and the door behind us slides shut and locks loudly.

"We have so got to quit walking into ambush situations," says Defender.

"Mechatrons!" shouts the scientist merrily. "Seize them!"

Defender throws up a glowing white forcefield over us about a half-second before a few hundred lasers start blasting into it. "We got about a minute before I have to shut this shield down!" she says. "Who is that guy, and how do we get out of here?"

Daphne already has the BlackBerry out. "Irwin Khabum, a.k.a. Professor Kaboom, standard mad scientist, Egyptian national, but normally operates on the West Coast. Dosed himself with radioactive pharmaceuticals a few years back, which turned him into a genius, drove him nuts, changed his hair color. Hell, he's got almost the same origin as Strych-9 -- no wonder they were working together!"

"I -- I could try to melt the door back down," I say. "But I don't know how long that'd take!"

"There is no need to flee!" says Sparky. "Earth's new Radiation Elemental would never flee from battle!" I resist the urge to try to swat him.

"Forget it -- this is not the time to experiment with new powers," says Daphne. "Defender, how 'bout some neural stun blasts or pacification burstcasts?"

"The burstcasts won't work on robots, and neural stuns do only minimal damage," shouts Defender. "I might be able to knock out the bad professor, but it probably won't do anything to the robots."

"So the usual We're-in-over-our-heads-so-let's-go-with-a-suicidal-charge suicidal charge?" asks Daphne.

"Naturally," replies Defender. "Renee, keep your head down and stay out of trouble. You're a civilian, and I'm forbidding you to get involved. I'll put on a nice big light show and see if I can keep their attention on me."

"Yeah, Renee, try to find a room you can hole up in and try to call the cops," says Daphne. "You ready to do this, Defender?"

"I was born ready, darling," says Defender. "Get ready to start running, Renee. Dropping the forcefield in three... two... one..."

Both of them charge forward, Daphne shrugging off laser blasts and trying to overbalance robots, Defender shooting as many neural stuns and dropping as many energy nets as she can.

And actually, I'm right there with 'em.

"Renee!" Daphne yells after headbutting a robot. "We told you to get scarce!"

"Charging into battle is no way to ensure your survival, dear," says Defender.

"Seriously?" I say, firing of a burst of radiation blasts at random while Sparky Isotope sings radiation battle songs that only I can hear. "I've got a pretty distinctive appearance and a temperature of over 130 degrees -- I'd be easier to track than either of you. And running or hiding has got to be at least as suicidal as fighting. So as long as I'm going to die anyway, I may as well shoot some robots."

"Goddamn crazy superheroes," Daphne mutters.

"Don't blame me, darling," says Defender drily. "Clearly, all radioactive brains are inherently unbalanced."

"That is a horrible slander against radioactive brains!" cries Sparky. I figure I'm safe shushing him this time.

But you know the thing with overwhelming odds, especially when you've got one person with mostly non-violent weaponry, one who's just indestructible, and one who doesn't have a good grasp of her powers yet, right? Yeah, we get beat. I guess we're lucky they weren't trying to kill us -- as it is, all of us eventually get grabbed by two or three robots and held motionless. Sparky floats around the lab, angrily sputtering and challenging robots to duels.

"Okay, Professor, you got us, but you still better clear out fast," says Daphne. "We got the rest of the heroes in the city on the way. These robots won't last 30 seconds once Miss Mega gets her hands on 'em, and Hybrid hasn't gotten to eat a mad scientist in days."

"Detective Daffodil, I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid," says Professor Kaboom. "My entire lab is shielded to keep radio communications jammed."

"Maybe we phoned 'em before we even came down here," says Defender.

"Maybe you wouldn't have said 'maybe' if you actually had," said Kaboom. "As it is, I'm hardly going to leave until I've gotten all these radioactive elements fully weaponized."

"I'm fairly new to the radioactive-superhero business, sir," I say. Dang, why did I just call him "sir?" Soooo out of my league here. "But I'm pretty sure you can't actually weaponize medical-grade radioactive material."

"Well, just shows what you know about the field of mad science, Miss Blue-Face," says Kaboom. "Mad science is all about making the impossible possible... and deadly and destructive and covered in titanium and spikes and all that. Trust me -- if I say I can weaponize something, I really can weaponize it!"

"What's the point of that anyway?" I ask. "Don't you think it'd be better to leave that for people who need it for medical treatement?"

"No," says Kaboom, sounding bored. "It's more fun to use it for more exciting things, like nuking cities."

"Kaboom, you complete idiot," says Daphne angrily. "That's not even insane in a good way. Once people find out you're going to start nuking people, everyone's going to be after you. Cops, army, superheroes, even supervillains. I know you're not one of those genocidal morons like the Legion of Malevolence, right?"

"Well, no one's ever going to find out about it, Detective Daffodil," says Kaboom. "I may not be able to kill you, but I can sure leave you here when I blow up the lab and bury you under a few hundred tons of rock. It'll take forever for anyone to dig you out.

"As for Defender," he continued. "I'd love to find out how that armor really works. I know it's supposed to be your big secret, but I've already heard that it's actually bonded to your body, so I'm going to have to cut it out of you.

"And as for you, Miss Blue-Face," he sneers at me. "I've got a bit of an interest in radioactive metahumans. I was planning on dissecting Strych-9 to see how she worked, but I guess I'll just have to use you instead."

"Did he just threaten to kill you?" asks Sparky angrily. "Mistress, this man has been touched by radiation, but he is no good at all. You should zap him."

"Guys, Sparky Isotope has a really good idea," I say as steadily as I can. "Close your eyes NOW."

And I emit all the energy I can in a really, really bright flash of light. I'm lucky this works at all -- but when a lunatic threatens to kill you, I figure you're willing to give anything a shot. I keep it up for about five seconds, then fade back to normal.

"What was that supposed to accomplish?" says Kaboom. "You just told me to close my eyes. My vision's a little twinkly, but I'll be fine in a minute or two. And who the hell is Spanky Bassalope?"

"You weren't the target," I say. "I just burned out your robots' visual receptors." Then I lean against the robots holding me and knock them all over backwards. "And I generated enough heat to cook the systems of any of them close enough to me."

"Oh, nice one!" says Defender.

"Not that I was able to fry all of them," I say, moving between Daphne and Defender. "At least not immediately." I point my fingers like guns and melt a few more robots' skulls.

"Mechatrons!" Kaboom screams. "Get her! Get all of them!"

But the robots don't do so good when they can't see. A couple of them grab each other, several more grope around blindly, and I've got more than enough time to get Defender and Daphne free from the last of the robots holding them.

"Professor Kaboom, I'm going to have to make a citizen's arrest of you right now," says Daphne. "I may also have to punch you in the face a few times."

"To hell with this," Kaboom says. There's a thunderous roar and he hovers into the air. Rocket boots! There's a robot-building mad scientist with green hair who has rocket boots! It's like I'm living in the future all of a sudden!

He grabs a duffel bag off a console. "As long as I've got fissionable material, I can still blow up a few cities. Maybe even this one! Mad Science will never DIE!" Part of the ceiling opens up above us, revealing a metal tube leading up to the surface, and Kaboom blasts himself upwards.

I don't even think about it. Instinct has completely taken over, and I take off after him, rocketing up the tunnel only a few dozen feet behind him, and shooting up out of the ground like a missile, blazing with blue fire. And then it hits me.

I'm flying. I'm flying. I'm flying! I'm GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING FLYING!

This morning, I had screws in my skull and a lump in my brain and I'd spent last night crying into my pillow. Now I'm FLYING!

And even then, even with that sudden exhilaration and exultation, I still don't completely lose focus. There's a mad scientist trying to fly away from me in his rocket boots, and I have to stop him or he's going to blow up the city.

I grit my teeth and shoot a radiation blast over his head, just a warning blast to let him know I'm going to get him.

He turns his head to see where I'm at, and that slows him down. I get closer and closer.

He pulls out a ray gun from inside his lab coat, twists in mid-air, and shoots a blast of sizzling yellow energy at me. He's wide by a mile. And I'm closer and closer.

"Give it up, Professor Kaboom!" I yell, not caring if I sound like a dork or a badass. "It's all over!"

"It's never over, Miss Blue-Face!" he screams. He shoots again and wings me, breaks my concentration, and I veer off. He shoots again and misses.

"It's never over!" he screams again. "Science always advances! Pure, emotionless, mad science always advances, always wins! Your feeble heroism cannot stand before glorious mad science! If you have to die, if this whole city has to die to prove that, I'll do it again and again and again!"

He's got me mad again and instinct takes back over. I fly at him, closer and closer, kicking my flame aura up higher and hotter, clenching my fists as hard as I can.

"You'll never win against me!" he screams. "Mad science will destroy you once and for all, Miss Blue-Face!"

"The name's GammaGirl!" I shout, and I hit him, both fists, right in the face.

His head snaps back, he drops the duffel bag, and his rocket boots go out of control, spinning him toward the ground below.

I could draw this out for you for another few hundred words, make it dramatic and suspenseful, but I don't need to. I catch him, and I catch the duffel bag.

Because I'm a superhero.



After that, it's all over but the wrap-up.

I made the TV news again. A news copter caught my inaugural flight and ran it live, and Dan and the girls were waiting for me when I got back down. Becky and Melanie both had eyes as big as saucers. I've definitely got all the Cool Mom points I'm ever going to need now.

Daphne and me bump fists when we see each other. "That was the way you're supposed to do it, Renee," she says. "You keep that up, and they'll be putting you in the next big supergroup, just watch." She gives me her business card and tells me she'll have those costume designers she knows get in touch with me.

Defender hugs me. I had no idea superheroes ever hugged each other, but it's way cool. "There's nothing I can say that will let me maintain my aloof charm, darling," she says. "So... great work, you rock, and the Chrome Cobra is going to love you."

I even have time to have a talk with Sparky Isotope. I tell him he's got to quit all the "Earth's new Radiation Elemental" stuff and the lame hymns to my glory and all that, at least to keep me from looking like a nut every time I talk back to him. He says he'll try, but I'm not holding out much hope -- I don't think he knows how to put a check on his enthusiasm. On the bright side, he has a much better idea than I do about how my powers work, and he's going to help instruct me in how to use them.

The doctors finally get to give me an examination. They think I'm safe -- I emit radiation, but it doesn't seem to be particularly harmful radiation. I don't understand it, and I'm not sure the docs do either. Daphne gets out her BlackBerry and says that only about two percent of radioactive heroes and villains actually produce dangerous radiation. Just one of those weird metahuman things, I guess.

Still, the doctors want me to spend my nights at the hospital for another couple of days, just to make doubly sure it's safe for me to be around the girls or go back to work at the office or make love with Dan. I can't say I really blame them -- I'm a little nervous about that question myself.

But they do give me permission to go out with the family tonight and celebrate.

I think we're going to go get pizza. Just like any normal old boring family.

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