All was quiet in the PrincessForce secret base. It was not a restful kind of quiet. It was the kind of quiet where one of the people in the room was trying really hard not to be offended by something one of the others had said, one was trying to design an improved restaurant kitchen on a drafting table in the corner, one was trying to sneak a large rabbit into the room by a side door onto a gallery, and all the others were trying not to look at each other.
"Fine," said The Belle finally, in the sort of tone that made it clear that it was not fine in any way. "If that's your opinion about my powers, Water Sprite, I suppose you're entitled to it. Thank you so much for being so honest with me."
"All I said was that your powers aren't exactly the strongest in the team," said the Water Sprite, splashing offended bubbles in the bottom of her tank. "I mean, Cinder Woman has all that alien stuff and her pyrokinesis..."
"Oh, you've finally learned the scientific term for that, have you?" said The Belle, putting on her spectacles. "I suppose all those weeks of following her around asking asinine what is a fire and why does it – what's the word – burn questions actually paid off. Colour me astonished."
"... and Showboat's strong and smart and has all those river-related powers, which I respect, and BioSentinel's a healer and does all her shaman stuff, and BloodRed's a vampire..."
"Reformed vampire," said BloodRed, leaning over the long polished table and showing her teeth. BloodRed was the oldest member of the team and had been the team's first leader way back in the Silver Age, but she had passed the job to Cinder Woman, who was next in seniority, after the debacle that went down in history as the Dwarf Incident. The newer members of the team didn't know what the Dwarf Incident was – the files were sealed – and they had learned not to ask. All anyone really knew for sure was that BloodRed had let her vampirism get out of control, and now PrincessForce had seven auxiliary agents called Bitey, Slurpy, Sippy, Drippy, Batty, Sparkly and Renfield.
"Reformed vampire, sorry, BloodRed. And even I can... well, I can breathe underwater, and I can..."
"Selective mutism is not a superpower!" snapped The Belle.
"It's more of a superpower than advanced librarianship!"
"Don't fight, you two, I can't bear it," said Aurora Borealis, slumping wanly back into her upholstered chair. There were ten chairs along the polished table in the centre of the great underground hall, and eleven young women in the room. One of them was creeping along the gallery, beside the dark bookshelves, and motioning to the rabbit beside her to do the best it could to keep quiet.
"Let's stop the chit-chat and get this meeting started," said Cinder Woman, taking her place at the head of the table. "And as for you, Aurora, I know suspended animation is a superpower, and everyone was extremely grateful to you for using it during that poison-gas attack at Thanksgiving, but if you could for once get through a council meeting without dropping into a coma I'd be even more grateful for that."
"Hey, don't boss her around," said Showboat from the other end of the room, reluctantly leaving the sketch of her ideal restaurant and patting her Afro puff back into shape. "And can we get the council meeting over with in less than five hours this time? I know Aurora needs her sleep and BloodRed falls into a mystic slumber as soon as the sun comes up whether she needs her sleep or not, but some of us have day jobs."
"Some of us are chronic overachievers," said the Water Sprite with her usual lack of tact. "There's you with your chain of restaurants, and Phoenix Blade with her self-defense classes, and BioSentinel with her community garden, and..."
Showboat propped one hand on her hip and fixed the Water Sprite with a questioning eyebrow. "You have no idea what it's like outside that tank of yours, do you?" she said.
"Well, no, I don't, because I had a very overprotective father, and..."
"Shut up and let Showboat talk," said Belle gruffly.
"Thanks, though I don't need you bossing everyone around on my behalf..." Showboat spread her hands in a frustrated gesture. "Times have moved on, is what I'm saying. It's perfectly OK these days for a superhero to have other interests. I find it keeps me balanced. And besides, if Aurora Borealis sleeps seventeen hours out of the twenty-four, everyone thinks oh, that's just her way. If I hung around the base all day, not only would I get really, really bored, I'd have supervillains making jokes about welfare. And so would Phoenix Blade and BioSentinel and Al-Yasemeen,"
"Actually, the main problem Phoenix Blade and I have is that people think we've come to steal their jobs," said Al-Yasemeen with a sigh. "But we keep rescuing them all the same, because that's what superheroes do."
"There, you see? It's complicated, Water Sprite, and what I'm saying is, you have absolutely no idea what it's like to be a superhero of colour."
"But I'm green." The Water Sprite looked down at the back of her own hand.
"You're not human, you're part of an aquatic species where green skin is a mark of high status, so it doesn't count!" said The Belle in exasperation.
"Racist," said the Water Sprite with another offended column of bubbles.
"Item one for the next council meeting: diversity training for everyone on staff and especially the Water Sprite," said Cinder Woman. "Make a note of that, will you, Belle?"
"Already on it," said The Belle, taking notes on her iPad.
Cinder Woman took a deep breath. Some days, the weight of responsibility hung heavy on a team leader's shoulders. It had all been a lot easier back on her own planet, before it burned to... but she never talked about that.
"Okay," she said on a deep breath. She didn't need to breathe in Earth's atmosphere, but somehow it helped. "Will everyone please take their seats? All team members present? Aurora Borealis, I swear that if you nod off I will... oh, thank you, BioSentinel," she said to BioSentinel, who had just presented Aurora with a large and spiky plant in a pot which, Cinder Woman calculated, would keel over and poke her if she fell asleep. "I declare this meeting of PrincessForce in session."
Cinder Woman looked down both sides of the table, at the faces of her team mates. Some of them had saved her life in the past; some of them she'd saved, and with some, like BloodRed, there was so much history that they'd both stopped counting.
Some of them were still untried. Two, to be exact. One new member last year and one this year, when previously the roster had been unchanged since Phoenix Blade joined twelve years before and the Creme de Menthe Fairy left to start her own superhero team. Cinder Woman looked down the table at Showboat and Hightower. Hightower was new; Showboat had proved herself time and again over the past few months, but still hadn't had to face a really big crisis as part of the team. Cinder Woman hoped they had what it took to be members of PrincessForce. Not everyone did. It was a tough job, but the planet depended on them, and they had to stand ready.
"Item one. Orientation," she said, leaning her hands on the table. "Showboat, can I rely on you to show Hightower the ropes? It's traditional for the second newest member to help the newest find her feet. Or foot substitute," she added with a minatory glance at the Water Sprite, who looked like she was meditating another remark about anti-green prejudice, or possibly a song.
"Ropes?" said Hightower nervously, scratching her head. "Are we supposed to provide our own?"
"All equipment will be supplied," said Cinder Woman firmly.
"And also – excuse me, Cinder Woman - while we're on the subject of Hightower, can I say again that however desirable an addition to the base an astronomy tower for her to continue her research would be, there's no room for it in the budget," interrupted The Belle, adding up figures in her head and checking them on the iPad. "Maybe next year. If we don't have to expand the living quarters again."
"I think we should do all we can to make Hightower feel welcome," said BioSentinel.
"You always think we should make everybody feel welcome, that's your problem," said The Belle acidly. "If I wanted people trilling be our guest whenever a supervillain came crashing through the ceiling, I'd have stayed at home."
"Oh, leave BioSentinel alone. Everyone knows you're just sore because the space for Hightower's rooms had to come out of your precious library stacks," said the Water Sprite.
The Belle looked up and down the room. It was a high, vaulted hall, with bookshelves lining the walls, and BioSentinel's plants snaking up the water-filled columns that comprised the Water Sprite's transport system around the base. One of the columns bubbled. Down at the far end was a set of double doors, and that was where The Belle's gaze lingered. "Yes, and talking about things coming out of the stacks..."
"The astronomy tower is item three," interrupted Cinder Woman. "Can we please get back to the agenda? Item one. Orientation. Showboat, Hightower, are both of you OK with that?"
"Welcome to PrincessForce, Hightower," said Showboat with a salute. "Hope you survive."
"Thanks," said Hightower. "I think."
Aurora started snoring. The plant toppled sideways and poked her. She woke with a sneeze.
"Item two," said Cinder Woman. "Borrowing without permission. In particular, Al-Yasemeen's magic carpet is personal property, and so is my spaceship, whose resemblance to an Earth pumpkin is entirely coincidental, by the way, and I wish you'd all stop making jokes about it, and..."
"So are my books," said The Belle, looking the Water Sprite straight in her elaborately masked eyes. "Could I see what you've got at the bottom of that tank, please?"
The Water Sprite stirred up more bubbles. "Um, no?"
Cinder Woman summoned up a handful of blazing cinders from the parallel Cinderverse which was now her sole domain, and held them menacingly over the water. It steamed. "Don't make me do this."
"Oh, all right." The Water Sprite dived sulkily to the bottom of her tank and retrieved a battered-looking lamp, a comb and a grievously soaked leather-bound book. "Happy now?"
"Actually, you can keep the comb," said Hightower, shaking her short hair to and fro.
"And the lamp," said Al-Yasemeen with feeling.
"My first edition of the works of Voltaire!" The Belle loomed over the tank. A shadowy, beast-like form began to manifest behind her. "I'm going to fillet you and give you to Showboat to serve as sushi!"
"You have a serious problem with kleptomania, young lady," said Cinder Woman in more measured tones. "Now, we can work this out and you can still be a valued member of the team. BloodRed has learned to overcome her vampiric urges – most of the time – and everyone has learned to stop making prejudiced remarks about Phoenix Blade's gender identity. But you have to do some work, get with a registered program. And as for you, Belle, we know about your problem, but I recommend anger management..."
There was a sneeze, from somewhere above on the shadowy gallery.
The members of PrincessForce looked round. Phoenix Blade drew her fiery twin swords. Cinder Woman and Showboat summoned their super strength. BioSentinel closed her eyes, and used her shamanic senses to scan the room.
The Belle looked round, her shoulders hunching up into a full-body snarl. "Aurora, I swear if you've gone to sleep again..."
"That wasn't me," said Aurora languidly.
"No, it wasn't," said BioSentinel gently. "I know you're up there, you and your little animal friend. Why don't you come down and talk to us? None of us wish you harm."
"You speak for yourself," said Hightower twitchily. "I'm not good with sudden visitors."
The intruder descended a book-lined staircase. She was about ten years old, she was wearing a blue dress and an apron, and she was accompanied by a very nervous-looking rabbit.
PrincessForce relaxed. Phoenix Blade rolled her eyes, and put her swords away. The Belle let the Beastforce dissipate, for the time being, and let the urge to change form drain away. It was kind of embarrassing being seen by strangers in her war form in any case, and it was hell on her clothes.
Cinder Woman drummed her fingers on the table. "Alice," she said kindly. "We've been through this. You're not a member of PrincessForce. You're underage. You're not ready. We took you in on a trial basis and it didn't work out. Now will you please stop sneaking into the secret base, already? You could hurt yourself."
"And what's the deal with the rabbit?" added Al-Yasemeen, leaning forward like a woman who couldn't resist hearing a good story.
Alice stood on one leg. The rabbit examined a large pocket watch and looked terrified. "Well, I really should be somewhere else..." it began. PrincessForce paid it no attention.
"'s my sidekick," Alice murmured sulkily.
"You're not a superhero. You can't have a sidekick," said Cinder Woman patiently. "Phoenix Blade, would you be good enough to escort her to the surface and make sure she goes?"
Aurora, who had fallen asleep when the rest weren't looking, woke with a start. "Item three, proposal to build an astronomy tower," she said in a hasty tone of voice, rubbing her eyes and trying to look alert. "I think we could use it to scan for evildoers."
"That's what I've come to talk to you about," said Alice impatiently. "Evildoers. They've kidnapped Prince Phillip."
There was a long and somewhat baffled pause. The Water Sprite's tank's filtration system made a noise like a hiccup. A woodworm eased itself out of the side of the table and into BioSentinel's lap, and gazed up at her with a loving expression.
"Prince... Phillip," said Cinder Woman, in the tones of a woman who knew she had a reputation as an omniscient alien life form and wasn't about to let it slip, particularly not in the presence of civilian rabbits. "Now, that would be... your boyfriend, Water Sprite?"
"I'm going out with Prince Eric," said the Water Sprite hurtly. "If you cared about my life at all you'd know that. I never knew my mother, you know, and I've made some bad choices of female mentor in the past, and I wouldn't have to take things, if you paid any attention to..."
"Moving right along," said Cinder Woman hastily. "Obviously he's not Water Sprite's beau. Sorry. And Showboat... your main squeeze is Prince Naveen, right? Of course it is. And I'm with Chudleigh Charming, the intrepid reporter. Which leaves... uh... Aurora..."
"I can't remember," said Aurora honestly. "They all look the same to me and they always have done. I think mine's Adam, isn't he?"
"Mine's Adam," said the Belle, who had been hastily checking her Facebook status to make sure.
"Well, whoever he is, rescuing princes is what we do," said Cinder Woman resignedly. "Let's go! Hightower, as a probationary member, you're to stick by Al-Yasemeen and do exactly what she tells you. Alice, you can brief me on our way to the flying carpet, but you needn't think for a moment you're coming with us. BioSentinel, do something about that rabbit, will you?"
"Would you like to come with me and see a presentation about ethical woodland management?" said BioSentinel, holding out her hand to the rabbit.
The rabbit chewed the rim of its pocketwatch nervously with its oversized front teeth. "I think I have a prior engagement."
"We can't have rabbits running wild about the base, it's unhygienic," said Cinder Woman firmly. "And before anyone brings up BloodRed's forest creatures, they're a special case, because they're all nocturnal now and exist on bottled plasma and haven't had working excretory systems since 1937. And I don't want to hear any more about it, because we've got a prince to rescue. Belle, stop updating your LibraryThing. Aurora... oh, merciful Mickey, has she fallen asleep again?"
"To the pumpkin rocket!" said Aurora Borealis, waking up with a start.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's a heraldic shape from my home planet with a lot of religious meaning for me and it's a coincidence that it looks like an Earth pumpkin," said Cinder Woman through gritted teeth. "PrincessForce! Move out! Let's be awesome out there!"