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So Atlas and the Chrome Cobra got me an interview for an internship with the Alpha Alliance, one of the biggest superteams in the country, and I'll be heading out to Los Angeles for a day or so to let them decide whether I'm worthy of making copies for them.

I got a suitcase packed with more stuff than I'll need. I got an overnight bag filled with toothpaste, deodorant, makeup, nail clippers, Tylenol, and Pepto. I got a sack lunch with a sandwich, an apple, a can of soda, and a bag of Skittles. I got a dozen copies of my resume, which basically reads "Hi, I'm Squid Kid! I fight crime! And I do work-study in the Psychology Department office!" I'm wearing my best costume. And since my costume is really just regular clothes, I mean I'm wearing regular clothes.

My parents came to the dorm to see me off, and my mom is crying like I'm about to die.

"Oh my poor baby," she sniffles. "What will you ever do in California? What will I ever do with you so far away from me?"

"I'll be back tomorrow night, Mom," I groan. "And you did this same thing when I moved into the dorm across town. You'll do fine."

My dad shakes my hand like he's just met the new dean. Awwwwwkward. Then he gives me a little flat package, inexpertly wrapped with paper that has pictures of teddy bears all over it.

August Derleth's "The Trail of Cthulhu." I've been looking for this forever. And it's a first edition -- must've set them both back a bit. My turn to blubber a little, but I stop before I mess up my makeup.

There's a beep of a car horn as the Wheelman and Iota pull up in a fancy silver four-door Maserati.

Doc Denziger's dressed in a tailored suit and tie -- Greg's in his usual designer gear. They both get out of the car so they can put on a proper show of putting my luggage in the trunk. My folks have never met Iota, so they all meet-and-greet. Greg turns on the schmooze, kisses my mom's hand, and hits my dad with all the charm he can.

My dad soooo thinks I should be dating Wheelman, but aside from the age difference, there's just the fact that we're totally not into each other. Greg likes his girls way shallower than I am, and I like my guys a bit less prone to driving to all the clubs on the weekends and acting like a douchebag. Doesn't mean we're not friends, 'cause he's hilarious and fun to hang out with, but nope, nope, dad, ain't gonna happen.

Anyway, we get the trunk packed up, and I get into the back seat for the trip to Iota's jump-jet at the airport.

"I really appreciate getting a free flight all the way to the West Coast, Iota," I say.

"My pleasure, Lenore," he says. "I was heading out there anyway for a tech conference, but I'm always looking for an excuse to test out the jump-jet, so I would've taken you out there anyway."

"What kinda new inventions you got to demonstrate up there, Doc?" asks Wheelman, adjusting his rear-view mirrors.

"Not a thing this year, Greg," says Iota. "I just want to see what new stuff is being released. Besides, it's fun to watch how paranoid Apple gets when I get close to their releases."

"What, like they think you're gonna shrink down and go inside their new iPhones?" I ask.

"No, nothing that complicated," he says. "I'm just going to wave a ballpoint pen at their booth and say, 'Gee, is that the best Jobs can do these days? Are you planning on releasing it with that many bugs?' It'll drive 'em nuts."

"I'll tell you what you should do," says Wheelman.

"Okay, hit me," says Iota.

"Go into the exhibit hall, take out a package of Life Savers, eat one, then carry on a fake phone conversation."

"Nice," says Iota. "Like it's an edible cell phone?"

"It'll be even cooler if you leave the package somewhere afterwards," I say. "Someone'll sell it to AT&T for a couple hundred grand."

"Yeah," says Iota with a grin. "And the phone company would study it for six weeks before they figured out it was just a package of Life Savers."

"I'm serious, though," says Wheelman. "What I wish I could see is Lenore's interview. Think they'll tape it so we can see how ya knock 'em dead?"

"Yeah, I'd like to be a fly on the wall," says Iota. "Which I would be if I didn't have a conference to attend."

"Oh, what a scene it will be," I say. "I'm sure they'll all join me in a victory lap for my lame-ass internship. They'll be so glad to have someone to get them coffee and paperwork."

"You done any research on the Alpha Alliance yet?" asked Iota.

"A little bit," I say. "I looked up their website, which is about a year out of date. Looked 'em up on Wikipedia, Superpedia, and Gawker. Did my best to memorize names and a few other details."

"Let's hear the list," says Greg.

"Okay, there's Aegis, who's the team leader as of two months ago. He was in the Assembly of Order with Atlas and Star. Flight, forceblasts, and projection of protective forcefields. Has very important hair."

"Met him once," says Doc Denziger. "Very briefly. It was during the last Daemontron invasion. I'd just stolen some datachips from their mothership with blueprints of their ships, and I handed them off to him so he could take 'em to the rest of the Assembly. I doubt he'd even remember me."

"Never met him," says Wheelman. "Looks like a dork."

"There's also Mountain Man," I say. "About 12 feet tall, made of rock, long-time member of the Alliance. Standard down-to-earth rocky guy, I think."

"Met him," says Iota. "Seems personable."

"Met him," says Wheelman. "Stepped on my ride. I had the right-of-way, too."

"Steel Panther wears a tiger-themed battlesuit," I continue. "Claws, agility, conversion into a panther-mobile, for lack of a better term. No ranged attacks at all, which is kinda rare for a battlesuit."

"Never met him," says Iota.

"Met him," says Wheelman. "The dude does not like to party."

"Hot Stuff is a fire blaster," I say. "Flight, heat control, most of the standard fire blasting abilities. Very pretty. Has a reputation, if you know what I mean, and I think you do."

"Met her," says Iota. "Seemed entirely professional to me."

"Met her," says Wheelman. "Likes to party even more than me. Actually, likes to party past the level I feel comfortable with."

"What, seriously?" asks Iota. "Is that even possible?"

"Whatever, Doc," says Greg. "Keep going, Lenore."

"Okay, there's also Doc Matter," I say. "No one really seems to have a good grasp on his powers. He wears a full-body black costume that hides his face, and a brown trenchcoat. Other than that, I guess he's kinda the mystery man of the group."

"Haven't met him," says Greg. "I understand he's a gravity controller."

"I've met him," says Doc. "He does have gravitational powers, but he has more beyond that. He basically has control over the four fundamental forces of the universe -- gravitation, electromagnetism, strong interaction, and weak interaction -- you know, beta decay in nuclear phenomena, protons, neutrons, quarks, gluons, quantum chromodynamics, the behavior of nuclei in atomic... You guys don't actually want to hear any of this, do you?"

"No way, man," says Greg.

"Sorry," I shrug. "I came this close to flunking freshman biology."

"Fine," says Iota. "Basically, if something goes wrong with the universe or the fabric of space-time or something like that, Doc Matter goes out and fixes it. All by himself. The guy really isn't that fond of dealing with superhero-supervillain stuff -- it's all a bit below his pay grade, ya know? When you spend your time keeping stars from going supernova on entire inhabited solar systems, it's a little hard to care about bank robberies."

"You think I'll even see him at all?" I ask. "If he's juggling planets all day, what's he got to say to the intern, right?"

"You never know," says Iota. "Just because he spends half his time teleporting around the universe doesn't mean he's an aloof bastard. I understand he attends all the team meetings, too, so he may even be at the interview. Oh, and always ask if it's okay to shake his hand -- what you think is a black costume is actually the spatially-displaced interior of a black hole. He keeps it shielded most of the time, but it never hurts to ask for permission first."

"Great, one more thing to be nervous about in the interview," I groan. "If I trip and bump into him, I'll get crushed into a pinprick and zapped into a parallel universe..."

"I need to give you some books on general physics," says Iota. "Black holes don't work that way."

"Anyone else on the list of Alliance members?" asks Wheelman.

"Okay, I know there are six of them, but I can't remember the last," I say. "Can I get a hint, Greg?"

"Wings," he says.

"Right, the angel!" I finally remember. "Chastity, right?"

"No!" laughs Iota. "It's Purity!"

"Purity, Chastity, what's the difference?"

"Well, every girl I ever knew named Chastity was usually not very pure," leers Wheelman.

"TMI, Greg," I say.

"I didn't say I was responsible for any perceived lack-of-purity," Greg protests. "Just that they were generally rebelling hard against their own names."

"Anyway, what did your research find about Purity, Lenore?" Iota asks.

"Hmmm, she says she's an angel, which most people doubt. Has wings and a flaming sword and mostly unspecified magic abilities."

"Never met her," says Iota. "But she comes across as an over-the-top religious clown."

"I never met her either," says Wheelman. "But I get the same impression."

"So is she going to be hard to deal with?" I ask. "She's not going to try to convert me, is she? Or just be really, really irritating and tacky, right?"

"Irritating and tacky? I don't know," says Wheelman. "If you can handle Jonni, I bet you can handle the most irritating and tacky people on the planet."

"As for if she starts witnessing at you," says Iota, "Just deal with her the way you'd deal with any other religious proselytizer."

"You mean tell her to shut the fuck up and get her Jesus-screeching ass out of my face? And then lay a liplock on a girl just to piss 'em off?"

"WATCH THE ROAD, GREG! WATCH THE ROAD!"

"Whoa, whoa, sorry 'bout that. Got, um, distracted by something."

"Okay, don't do that, Lenore," says Doc. "Please try to be polite. Don't antagonize people you're interviewing with, okay?"

"Crud, I never get to have my bad fun," I say.

"You probably have way too much bad fun already," groans Iota. "Hey, shouldn't we be at the airport by now? Where are we?"

"Ohio," says Wheelman.

"OHIO?!" Doc and I yell together.

"Yeah, I figured you'd make better time if I just drove you there," says Wheelman. "Besides, I haven't been to the L.A. club scene in a month or two."

"Greg, for god's sake," Iota groans. "I'd already gotten the jump-jet ready to fly. I'd installed a new fuel cell last night."

"Sorry, Doc," says Wheelman. "Kinda a last-second decision. Hey, you can use that fuel cell for something else now."

"I wish I could've at least plugged some sensory devices into this car," says Iota. "You know I'd like to study how your powers work."

"I'm the greatest driver in the world, man," Greg grins. "How you gonna study something like that?"

Doc sighs theatrically and rubs his eyes. "Okay, how long 'til we get to Los Angeles?"

"Mmmm, probably another hour or so," says Greg. "Plenty of time to get you to the conference and Lenore to Alliance HQ."

"Sounds great to me, guys," I say. "Sure beats hiring a taxi to drive me back and forth."

And so, 71 minutes later, Greg pulls up next to the curb in front of the Alpha Alliance's headquarters. Greg's going to keep my luggage 'til I can get to the hotel later this evening -- no reason to drag all that stuff into the interview with me, right?

Greg and Doc both tell me to give them a call whenever the interview's over or if I need a ride back. Iota doesn't have a car, but he's got the money to call a cab for me.

I take a moment to take in some of the Los Angeles atmosphere -- well, "atmosphere" may be the wrong word, what with the smog. But really, my first visit to L.A., I don't want to feel like I didn't try to experience the Southern California experience -- the sun, the palm trees, the movie stars, not that there are any around, the beaches, not that I'm anywhere near a beach, the sun...

This isn't going to work. I think I'm already getting a sunburn. God help me if I run out and buy a surfboard. Gnarly waves, dude. Hang 10. Totally tubular.

So I go into the Alliance's HQ. It's a short, squat little building -- not the space-age golden tower you'd expect -- and leave my name with the secretaries sitting at the front desk. After a few minutes, Aegis comes out, shakes my hand, and escorts me down an elevator to the team's meeting room.

All of them take places around a big wooden table with a double-A logo carved into the center. They all look pretty much like their pictures on Superpedia. Aegis is tall, handsome, and blond-haired. Steel Panther looks like an eight-foot-tall metal cat-robot. Hot Stuff has long red hair, looks like a pin-up girl, dresses like a hooker, and is on fire. Mountain Man is a great big slab of rock. Purity has short black hair, wears a suit of medieval armor, has huge white feathered wings, and wears a colossal flaming sword strapped to her hip. And Doc Matter is a humanoid pool of darkness wearing a brown trenchcoat and fedora.

They have me sit in the last chair at the table, I hand out my crappy-ass resumes, and they start asking me questions.

"Ms. Pittman, thank you for coming out here on such short notice," says Aegis.

"Thank you for inviting me," I say. "It's a pleasure to be here and to meet all of you." Man, I am so good at this schmoozing. Somebody give me a prize or an internship with a major superteam, please.

"Excellent," says Aegis. "First things first -- what is your super-name?"

"It's Squid Kid," I say.

"I'm sorry, is that really correct?" asks Steel Panther. "I'd understood that was something of a joke or a nickname."

"No, that's the name I go by," I say. Jeez, guy, way to make a first impression. "I've used it almost since I got my powers."

"Sorry," says Steel Panther. "It's just -- it's not very impressive. It's really a bit silly, don't you think? I suspect you could do better."

"Thanks, but I've got no real complaints with my current super-name," I say, biting back what I'd really like to say. "I'm happy with it, my friends are happy with it, my family's happy with it."

"Let's just continue with the prepared questions," says Aegis. "What is your philosophy of crimefighting?"

"Oh, I don't know that I've got what you'd call a real philosophy of crimefighting," I say. "I go out on patrol as many nights as I can, help catch bad guys, and do what I can to help people in trouble. I don't know if that counts as an official philosophy or not."

"Okay, so you go out and do the right thing," Mountain Man rumbles like an earthquake. "But why do you do it?"

Iota warned me about this kind of question on the trip up here -- it's considered a really difficult question to answer, 'cause most superheroes never really consider why they go out and fight crime and rescue people instead of robbing banks or just sitting home in front of the TV. But it's not really that hard -- I get asked the same kind of question at almost every kegger -- some drunk waving a red plastic cup around will ask me why I bother being a superhero when I could be a celebrity or a crook or a construction worker or just a normal student who happens to have superpowers. Heck, I had a philosophy professor ask me the same thing once, and I didn't have the heart to tell him he'd been scooped by a dozen different undergrads with too much bad beer in their systems.

"I do it because it's the right thing to do," I tell Mountain Man. "I don't think I could do differently if I wanted to."

This seems to satisfy Aegis and Mountain Man, but Purity wants more. "So you've never considered other paths?" she asks. "If you've never examined your motives, how can you be sure this is something you want to do with your life?"

I tell her the same thing I tell the drunks and the philosophy professors. "I don't need to think of a reason to breathe or eat -- I do those things because I don't really have a choice. It doesn't matter if I want to do them or not -- I was born needing to do them. Superheroing is what I do -- I can't conceive of any reason why I'd not be a superhero."

"Thanks, nicely answered," says Doc Matter. His voice sounds a little like someone playing a theremin. He reads his question off a sheet of paper, not even making it sound like anything other than a script. "What are your goals for the future, both personally, professionally, and as a superhero?"

"A lot of my goals really revolve around getting good grades and graduating from college," I say. "After graduation, I'd like to get an advanced degree in developmental psych or, barring that, a good job working with schools. As a hero, I want to continue helping people on whatever level I can, and in the short term, learn whatever I can from you guys."

"And what do you hope to learn from us?" asks Hot Stuff.

"I don't actually know," I say. "I know doing an internship is a new thing for the Alliance -- it's an entirely new thing for me, too. I didn't even realize there was a such thing as a superhero internship until Atlas told me about it two days ago."

"Well, alright," she says. "Do you have any expectations about what an Alliance internship would entail? What sort of things do you want to learn, if you could pick the features of the program?"

"Oh, hey, way to put me on the spot," I say. "I don't know whether to go with a bunch of nice easy assignments -- paperwork and coffee -- or take the harder route -- like going out and beating up the Ahnenerbe."

Aegis clears his throat. "We don't anticipate -- wait, was that a joke? We'd rather you didn't joke about the Ahnenerbe. They're a very serious threat. We don't believe that crimefighting is an appropriate venue for humor."

"Really?" I say. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I make jokes all the time. Sorry if that's going to be a problem, but humor is really important to me. I don't think I could quit with the LOLs if you paid me."

"There's nothing funny about the Ahnenerbe," says Aegis.

"Sure, there is," I say. "They're notoriously thin-skinned Nazis, and it's hilarious to see them completely lose their shit when you sing 'Der Fuehrer's Face.' I mean, seriously, they've got a redneck Frankenstein called Bubbastein, and Kommandant Gorilla's real name is Jo-Jo Bananas. Come on, making fun of Nazis is as American as apple pie or making horrible movies based on terrible young-adult novels!"

"We're not in general much of a jokey organization, Miss Pittman," says Steel Panther. "We'd expect you to keep the inappropriate humor to yourself. No need to go flipping off the press."

Oh, man, these guys are utter twits. But I tell 'em, "Okay, okay, I'll do my best to keep it under wraps," and that seems to satisfy them.

Mountain Man takes the next question. "Could you tell us what you believe are your greatest strengths?" he rumbles.

Ahh, the classics. I'm not even out of college yet, and this one's already been drilled into my head. "I'm a hard worker, I'm responsible, and I'm a team player."

"How would you know?" says Hot Stuff. "You're not on a superteam. None of you Metro City heroes are."

That kinda catches me off-guard. Most of their responses have been professional, some have seemed a bit clueless, but this is the first one that's sounded actively hostile.

"We -- We may all run solo," I say, probably a bit more hesitantly than I'd like. "But we cooperate together a lot. Someone phones in a request for assistance, and we all try to help out. And quite outside of superheroing, I work on plenty of team projects in my university coursework -- I hope you noticed that I received research credit in a paper published last year in the Journal of Educational Psychology -- not a lot of undergrads get that kind of opportunity."

"Childhood psychology won't help you against the Nazi supervillains you think are so goddamn funny," says Mountain Man.

Aegis saves me from saying the funniest but rudest thing I've ever said to a 12-foot-tall superstrong rock-covered superhero.

"Okay, okay," he interrupts. "Keep it civil, please. Doc Matter, what's the next question?"

Doc Matter shuffles his papers. "Oh, alright, umm, what do you believe are your weaknesses?"

I know this one, too, 'cause it's one of the ones you get warned to rehearse, but I'm still flustered and angry, so it takes me a minute to get it together.

"Okay, as far as superheroing goes," I say. "I haven't been doing this all that long. I got my powers a little less than a year ago, I'm not as experienced as lots of other heroes, and I can always use more training. I'd hope that an internship like this would help me learn more of the things I need to know to be a more successful superhero."

"Could we talk a bit about how you got those powers?" asks Purity drily.

"Purity, this is not the time for that," says Aegis.

Ya know, at this point, I'm not real fond of the snide act I've been getting, so fuck it, let's get all this crap out in the open.

"I would love to answer your questions about how I got my powers," I say as brightly and sarcastically as I can.

"We've read your profile," says Purity. "We've read that you got your abilities while participating in a pagan ritual designed to call upon dark powers. You may have done it accidentally, but you somehow made some kind of bargain with something terrible, and in exchange, you received these powers, which may be completely and irrevocably evil in nature! You can't deny any of this!"

"Do you have a question or not?"

"Yes, I have a question," she says. She stands up, draws her sword, and points it at me across the table. "Can you tell me any reason why I shouldn't gut you right now like the demon-tainted whore you are?"

"PURITY!" Aegis shouts. "Sit the hell down NOW!"

"I'll give you several reasons," I say, with my best over-the-tops-of-my-glasses-if-I-wore-glasses glare. "First, I doubt you could actually kill me with that. I've been stabbed and burned before, and I got better. Second, you would come out of it looking like a great big shitbag, 'cause I'm adorable and can do the puppy-dog eyes when I really want to, and I'm betting the local press would love to talk more about what a psycho bitch you are. Third, it would be a hugely douchebagational move, even if I couldn't heal up and even if I wasn't a cutie-pie. And fourth, the Chrome Cobra would find out, and she would fuck you up bad."

"So you're going to hide behind your Metro City friends?" sneers Purity.

"I'm not the one holding a flaming fucking sword on a fellow superhero, am I?"

"Purity, put that sword away," Aegis says. "Ms. Pittman, we do have a few more questions."

"I've got some questions of my own," I say.

"We'll take your questions at the end of the interview, I promise," says Aegis. "But we want to make sure this all stays on schedule so we'll have time to tour the facility afterwards."

Tour the facility? I'll tour his facility. Whatever I mean by that, 'cause my brain stopped working because of RAGE RAGE RAGE. But believe it or not, I actually get myself settled down again. Atlas and the Cobra went to the trouble of getting me in here, so I can finish the interview. I can be professional, I swear I can.

And as it turns out, I don't even have to worry about being a good interviewee for long. Aegis asks me his next question -- "What has been your biggest challenge?" -- and I start to give my rehearsed answer -- "College: Term papers in College Algebra and Racquetball; Superheroing: Helping fight off the Skinwalker last time he hit town" -- and right about then, a big klaxon alarm starts going off.

"Great, we've got an emergency downtown," says Aegis as they all get up from the table. "We'll have to try to find time to finish things up later."

"Okay, do you need me to wait in your lobby 'til you get back?" I ask.

There's a beat of silence, and then Aegis says, "No, you're coming with us."

"She's what?" ask all the rest of his team.

"This is part of the interview," says Aegis. "Let's see how she handles a high-pressure situation."

"Fine," says Steel Panther. "How fast can you get into your costume, Lenore? The clock's ticking here."

"I'm ready to go," I say. "This is my costume."

"Great, one of those street-clothes heroes," groans Hot Stuff. "Why bother with heroism if you can't devote any effort into getting a real costume?"

"Not all of us can afford fancy costumes," I snap. "And not all of us need professional designers to kick ass."

"Whatever," says Purity. "You better not screw this up, college girl."

I hitch a ride downtown -- Mountain Man can't travel as fast as the others, so he has to fly around in his own personal mini-jet. And while I can swing around town just fine with my tentacles, they're not really built for high-speed travel, especially in a town I'm not familiar with.

"We got any idea what's going on?" I yell at him over the engine noise.

"We're not completely sure," says Mountain Man. "Somebody's robbing the Page Museum over at the La Brea Tar Pits, but we don't know who or what they're after."

"They got a museum at the La Brea Tar Pits?" I ask. "Who'd want to steal that much tar?"

"Might be after fossils," he says. "But it isn't the kind of place supervillains usually hit."

"So this is a supervillain situation?" I say. "Who are the perps?"

"Wish I knew," he says. "The police and emergency bands sound confused. A lot of, well, babbling and stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense. Could be a telepath on the premises."

It isn't long before we land at the Page Museum. I've never seen the La Brea Tar Pits before, and I'd kinda love to sightsee -- they have a few models of mammoths and other animals sinking in the tar, and it looks rad. Obviously, though, no time to do the tourist stuff.

The thing is, everyone's just lying around -- the cops, the tourists, everyone. They're all basically catatonic. All of us start checking out the people outside to see if they're okay or able to talk to us -- everyone seems fairly healthy, and one or two are even able to talk a little. Like Mountain Man said, most of it's gibberish, but I actually recognize something one of them says.

"Did that guy just say 'Y'gthulu'?" I ask.

"What?" says Hot Stuff. "I don't know. I guess it sounded something like that."

"What did they say?" asks Steel Panther. "Eek solo?"

"Whatever he said, what's it mean, Lenore?" asks Aegis.

"Y'gthulu," I say. "It's supposed to sound like 'Cthulhu,' who was one of the Big Bads in H.P. Lovecraft's pulp horror stories in the 1930s. He was basically an immense monster-god worshipped by various crazy cults trying to end the world."

"So this could be something really, really serious?" says Aegis.

"Sure," I say. "Except for the fact that Cthulhu is entirely fictional."

"Okay, we get that," says Mountain Man. "So who's Y'gthulu?"

"Well, a few months back, I started hearing rumors about some organization called 'The Spawn of Y'gthulu' -- pulling heists, terrorist strikes, crap like that. Real shadowy -- no one's ever really gotten a look at them."

"How did you hear of them when we didn't?" asks Purity. "We've got global intelligence resources and criminology databases, and you've got -- what? CNN? Gawker?"

"I'm a Lovecraft fangirl," I say. "Anything relating to Cthulhiana -- even fake Cthulhiana -- is going to get my attention."

"Alright, enough exposition" Steel Panther says. "What's the threat level here?"

"Not a clue," I tell him. "My best guesstimate? You got a bunch of Lovecraft nerds who, for some reason, have turned to museum robbery. You got a telepath who can make people catatonic. And that's about all I can tell you about 'em. I'd use whatever caution you prefer to use when dealing with mostly-unknown terrorist groups."

"Fair enough," says Aegis. "Alright, people, we go in fast, we hit 'em hard. Lenore, I need you supporting Purity."

"You can't -- Oh, fine. Fine," Purity says.

"Lookin' forward to it!" I chirp as insincerely as possible.

"Aegis, do you want me to take care of this?" asks Doc Matter. "I could clear up the whole bunch in a matter of seconds. No need to turn this into a major operation."

"No," says Aegis. "This is partly a test for Lenore. And it wouldn't hurt you to learn to work with the rest of us from time to time. Just because you deal with stars and quasars most of the time doesn't mean you shouldn't deal with people when the need arises."

"Front door, back door, tear down the walls?" asks Mountain Man.

"Front door only," says Aegis. "Avoid damaging fossils and other artifacts, please."

"Pay close attention, college girl," says Purity. "We'll show you how real superheroes fight bad guys."

"Sure thing, wingnut," I say. "When we get done, I'll tell you about the time I whupped Domina Maleficus' fat red ass."

"You... did not."

"I certainly did. Oh, I'm sorry, is she one of your villains?" Thank you, Superpedia research!

"Both of you, stop it," says Aegis. "Please, let's focus on the task at hand."

"I refuse to believe you took down Domina Maleficus," says Purity. "It's the most ridiculous thing I've heard today."

"Purity, for god's sake, try not to be such child about this," says Steel Panther.

"Oh god, we'll never get this damn raid finished," Hot Stuff groans.

"I will pray for both of you," snarls Purity.

"Fascinating," says a voice behind us. "It is a wonder this planet hasn't already fallen into chaos a thousand times over."

I don't even get a chance to turn around. Something hits me, and I go flying. Someone -- or rather, several someones -- just came up out of the tar and attacked us.

By the time I manage to get back up, it's all pretty much over. Everyone else is standing more or less stock-still, looking mesmerized in front of a bunch of, well, monsters. I mean, a big snake man, an oversized frog monster, a hodgepodge of crab and bug parts (wearing a lab coat, no less, and holding up a glowing electronic wire in front of everyone), and a bipedal blob of tar with a lot of extra eyes.

The only Alliance member who seems to be able to move at all is Doc Matter. And he's not moving much, just standing next to the rest of them and twitching a lot while electrical charges go up and down his body. I may not know all that much about how his powers work, but that really can't be a good sign.

Someone else steps out from the monsters. He's an old man, less than five feet tall, wearing ornate robes. He stands in front of me and smiles, and his teeth have been filed down to points.

"I am Preceptor Yan Sin," he says. "We are the Spawn of Y'gthulu. You will come be part of us, yes? You will help us to eat these friends of yours?"

Well, I've been insulted by superheroes and slugged from behind by monsters, and I love a proper Soylent Green joke as much as anyone (Remind me to tell you my awesome Soylent Christmas cookies recipe sometime), but I prefer not to go joining up with supervillains. Besides, I've got my doubts whether I could manage to bite through Steel Panther's armor.

So I slug this Preceptor Yan Sin cat in the snoot.

That's what I love about supervillain wizards. They never expect the girl to get physical.

So Yan Sin goes reeling backwards, holding his nose and screaming. I wrap a couple of tentacles around him and hold him in front of me -- there's no way I can take on his monsters by myself, and maybe they'll let me use him as a human shield.

While they're all focused on me and Yan Sin, I launch another tentacle at them. It's pretty obvious Mr. Crabby-Lobster-Bug is keeping them hypnotized with his glowing machine, so I grab it, pull it out of his claws, and smash it on the ground. That should free the Alliance, and they can get busy trashing those monsters...

And that's when Doc Matter explodes.

One second everything's normal -- or as normal as things can get when you've got a bunch of monsters and superheroes in Los Angeles -- and the next, I'm a crystalline telepathoid nestled under the sands of the fourth planet in the Epsilon Eridani system -- and the next, it's 1497, and I've just finished painting Simon the Zealot into "The Last Supper" -- and the next, I'm an anglerfish swimming past some immense underwater city -- and the next, I'm lying on my back in the middle of a giant tar pit.

On one hand, thank god I'm not skipping through time and space any more. On the other hand, OH MY GOD, I'M SINKING IN TAR!

Luckily, my tentacles don't stick in tar -- something I was unaware of previously and which I'm filing away as a minor but solid chunk of awesomeness -- so I'm able to grab onto a tree over on solid ground and pull myself to safety, along with several civilians who got blown into the tar pit with me. This outfit is probably ruined, but someone ruins one of my outfits about twice a month, so I'm used to it.

Once I'm able to get a better look around, I'm relieved to see that Yan Sin and his monsters have disappeared -- either they got dumped a few dozen light years away, or they panicked and ran off. I don't see Doc Matter anywhere, but the rest of the Alliance is standing around near the museum entrance. They don't look real good -- kinda spacey and listless. Not catatonic like all those civilians were -- just... spacey and listless. Maybe the hypnosis hasn't worn off yet.

"Are you all okay?" I ask as I run up to them. "Where's Doc Matter? Any civilian injuries?"

I'm not getting any answers. They're just giving me fish-eye stares. "Can you hear me? Can any of you hear me?"

Still nothing. Purity is drooling on herself. This is totally not funny.

There's a high-pitched whistling noise, and Doc Matter appears in a crackle of electricity. He grabs Steel Panther with both hands, and there's a... I don't know what to call it. A sensation of shifting. Steel Panther falls on his hands and knees, and Doc Matter and I help him into a sitting position.

"What happened?" I ask Doc Matter.

He glares at me. I can't even see his eyes, and I can tell he's glaring at me. It's eerie and unsettling. And before I know what's happening, he grabs me by the throat and pushes me against the wall of the museum.

"You," he says with barely suppressed rage. "You caused this. You and your incompetence. 'Oh, they're just geek burglars with a pet telepath, nothing to worry about.' I read some of Lovecraft's stories when I was in junior high, Ms. Pittman. Did you recognize the Deep One and the Mi-Go? The rest of them were probably the same kinds of creatures, and your misguided faux expertise left us completely unprepared for them."

"Listen, I'm sorry," I say. "How could anyone ever expect--"

"Be quiet," he says. "I'm not finished. You let them get the drop on us. The Mi-Go hit us with his hypnotism generator to keep us helpless. I was working on fixing that -- but you broke the weapon and overloaded me, and now I've got to track down where in spacetime everyone's minds got deposited!"

"Wait, you mean the stuff with Leonardo da Vinci and the whatzit solar system weren't just hallucinations?"

"I was able to get to you first because you were at least on the same planet," he says. "Steel Panther was 40 light years away and 30 years in the future. You have no idea how much work it is for me to travel in time. I'm still trying to track the rest of the team down. God help you if I can't find some of them, or if they get killed while they're in an unfamiliar body."

"Sir, I didn't mean any harm," I tell him. "I was trying to help."

"And you screwed it all up because you're a superhero hobbyist, and you have no idea what you're doing," he says. "This is a business for professionals, not amateurs who think it's all a game. If you can't get serious, you'll never--"

He pauses suddenly, looking off in the distance. "Hot Stuff," he says. "Galaxy M51a, 23 million light years, only five years in the past. She's an... an arthropod, for lack of a better term."

Doc Matter jabs a finger at me. "Stay here and guard them," he orders. "Don't let anything else happen to them."

He vanishes with an electric crackle.

Steel Panther lifts his head and looks up at me. He looks really tired. "What happened?" he asks.

"I don't really know," I tell him. "I think everyone got lost in time and space. Doc Matter's trying to get everyone in their right bodies."

"Where'd the Y'gthulu guys go?" he asks.

I hadn't even thought of what happened to them yet. "I have no idea," I say. "I haven't seen any of them since everything blew up."

"Gotta keep an eye on where the bad guys are," he says. "Give a yell if they come back." And he puts his head down and goes to sleep.

Great, like I need something else to be terrified about -- a bunch of monsters on the loose. And I helped 'em get away because I wasn't watching what I was doing. And they might be coming back to get me or kill the Alliance while they're down. Maybe I got lucky, and they're lost in time and space, too. Maybe I got sorta lucky, and they just decided to take a walk. Maybe I got really unlucky, and they're gonna come back and kill all of us.

And that isn't even the most stressful part of the afternoon. After a while, Mountain Man wakes up -- or rather, the carnivorous lizard whose mind is temporarily living inside Mountain Man's head wakes up. And decides I look edible. Doc Matter saves me again. He subdues Mountain Man, stuffs Aegis' mind back inside his body, and is almost nice when he asks if I can handle things for another few minutes. And I say sure, no problem, just some cuts and contusions and cracked ribs and a broken leg and my funky black blood all over the place, I'll be healed up from this just fine in about six hours.

Upshot of the whole thing? All the Alliance members get fixed up just fine. No one knows where the Spawn of Y'gthulu ran off to. I pretend to sleep all the way back to Metro City so I don't have to answer any questions from Iota and Wheelman about how bad I screwed everything up.

I almost get a bunch of the top superheroes in the country killed, I let a bunch of genuinely Lovecraftian supervillains escape, I got dipped in tar, and I almost got eaten by someone I was supposed to be protecting.

I need to make some changes in my life.

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