In the nurse’s office, Mario Ortega lay on a cot, fans blowing over him. Jefferson Pierce and Melinda Denley conversed as they watched him.
“Luisa Ortega called me this morning and asked me to watch out for him,” said Melinda, a portly, middle-aged woman in a starched white nurse’s uniform. “She told me that he was among the people kidnapped by the space aliens this summer. He didn’t know where they took him, but he’s apparently been having nightmares ever since he returned.”
“From what I gather, he has a reputation as a troublemaker and a tough guy.” Jefferson flipped through a file provided by the school office, while thinking that he had thought the boy looked familiar. As Black Lightning, Jefferson had been on the rescue mission that had freed Mario and thousands of other captives on Pluto. (*) “Looks like he’s had his share of trouble, all right.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See DC Universe: Invasion, Book 3, Chapter 4: Liberation.]
“So, what happened out there, Pierce?”
“Heck if I know. He was running, and started showing signs of heat exhaustion. He collapsed and said that he felt warm, though his skin was cool to the touch. He was sweating, but if I didn’t know better, I’d say the sweat was freezing on him. Then he reaches for the water, and it freezes in his hand.” Jefferson glanced at a bowl on the desk, in which the frozen cup of water was now thawing.
“You don’t suppose those aliens did something to him, do you?” asked Melinda. “You know, like they talk about in the Inquisitor?”
“You read that thing, Mel? That’s the paper that’s been printing stories about Superman having a love child with Goldie O’Neal, isn’t it? The one that tried getting Child Services to go after Batman, because they said he was–”
“Yeah, that one. Still, they were right about the Atom leaving the U.S. and going to live in South America with some little fairy princess.”
Shaking his head, Jefferson went over to the cot. Mario’s eyes fluttered open, and he looked at his gym teacher. “Hey, Mr. Pierce. What happened out there?”
“That’s the magic question, Mario. What do you remember?”
“I was out there running.” He looked down as Jefferson cocked his head. “OK, I was out there, schlepping along, and it started getting hot in the gym. Really hot, like when my mom took us to Baja over spring break. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in here.”
“You don’t remember talking to me out there, then? Or when I gave you that cup of water?”
“No, man. Just, like, nothing.” The teenager shuddered.
Jefferson reached for a cub of water on a table near the cot and handed it to Mario. “Here, take this.”
Mario wrapped his fingers around the glass. Immediately, the water started to freeze. “What the–?!”
“This happened in the gym, Mario. Somehow, your body temperature is so low that normal air feels hot, and your touch is like ice.” Jefferson turned to the school nurse. “Miss Denley, you don’t happen to have any of those forehead thermometers, do you?”
“In the cabinet.” She opened a door and pulled out a small, paper-wrapped item. Tearing it open, she handed a strip of plastic to Jefferson. “Here.” He placed it on Mario’s forehead.
“See. The temperature-sensitive strip should glow somewhere in the ninety-five-to-one-hundred degree range, but the glow is at the bottom of the scale, around eighty-eight degrees. That’s as low as it goes, but I’d bet the actual reading is even lower than that.”
“So, what do I do about this?” Mario was trying not to panic. Jefferson gave him credit for showing courage in the situation.
“If you don’t mind, I know someone who might be able to help.”
Black Lightning stood outside a run-down brownstone, checking the number on the door against the slip of paper in his hand. “Looks like the place. Hey, I appreciate your doing this.”
The tall, dusky-skinned woman standing next to him reached out and laid a hand on his arm. “It is no inconvenience, my friend. From your words, I understand that this young man may be greatly troubled, both by the events of the past few months and of his life. Any help I may offer is of little consequence to me.” Arani Caulder, better known to the world as Celsius, tossed her head. A great fan of long, black hair splayed out behind her. “Shall we?”
They went up to the door. Before they could knock, they heard a loud crash from inside, followed by a high-pitched scream. Black Lightning grabbed the doorknob and, finding it unlocked, opened the door. Inside, they found a surreal sight. The living room was like an ice cave, with gleaming stalactites hanging from the ceiling and several inches of ice coating the floor and the few pieces of broken-down furniture. In one corner, a slender, dark-skinned woman crouched, still screaming. At the other end of the room, Mario Ortega stood, sheathed in ice that moved with him.
“That’s him, Celsius. He’s more powerful than he was this afternoon.”
“I think I can handle him, Black Lightning, if you wish to see to the woman.” One of the East Indian woman’s hands emitted a reddish glow, as wisps of vapor appeared around the other. She spoke louder as she turned to face the young man. “Mario, listen to me. I think I know how you are feeling. Please, calm down and let me help you.”
“What are you, nuts? How the hell can you know what I’m feeling?” Mario brought his hands up to his head, as if there was pain at his temples. Ice formed around his hands, as he massaged the sides of his head. “Just want to cool down, man. It’s so hot in here.”
“A shame that you don’t know of me, but not surprising.” Reaching out with one hand, Celsius focused her inner energy and channeled the cold feelings of despair that lay deep in her spirit. Just as she had been taught by a wise woman of her native land, she let that feeling flow. A swirling cone of cold erupted form her splayed fingers, channeled by her will into a hollow cylinder of ice around Mario. “You see, we are much alike, you and I.”
That’s right, Arani, keep talking, keep him focused on you, thought Black Lightning. Moving to the woman in the corner, he reached for her hand. “Let me get you out to the other room, ma’am, so we can talk.”
“But my son, what is she doing to him? What is happening to him?” asked the woman, even as she rose and followed the hero.
“She’s here to help, ma’am. Don’t worry, she’s very good at what she does.” As they exited the room, Black Lightning looked back and saw the cylinder shrinking, closing in tighter around Mario Ortega.
After they left, the cylinder continued to shrink, until Mario was caught in a rounded block of ice not much larger than himself. “I’m not here to hurt you, Mario. Do you understand that?” asked Celsius.
“Yeah. Yeah. How, how do you do that?” asked Mario as Celsius gestured with her other hand, and the ice throughout the living room melted and dissolved into water vapor under a swath of controlled flame.
“My powers come from within, a channeling of spirit,” replied the Indian woman. “Your power, however, was induced in you by somebody else — somebody, I think, who did not have a proper understanding of human physiology.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“You will notice, young man, that you are no longer feeling warm. So long as you do not feel overly warm, your body does not generate the waves of cold. When you feel warm, your body reacts by producing cold and ice to combat it, like another person might perspire when warm.”
“You mean I sweat ice?”
“Yes, you might say that. And, you should be able to control it.” Celsius let the ice around Mario dissipate. “If you feel warm, focus on producing the cold as an aura around yourself. Picture it in your mind’s eye, like a shell of frigid air around your body. Do you think you can do that?”
“I… yeah, I think I know what you mean.”
“Excellent. Begin now.” Flame erupted from Celsius’ hand, low-intensity flame encircling the younger man. “Focus, Mario, focus.”
Sweat beaded on Mario’s forehead, but he withstood the waves of heat washing over him. To the trained eye of the heroine, the air around him shimmered faintly as the heat met the aura of cold around him, but he appeared otherwise normal.
The following day, Mario was walking home from school. He was feeling pretty good; he had made it through the whole day without any problems. Nobody even noticed the layer of cold air next to his skin, perhaps because he never came in contact with anyone.
As he walked, he saw that Tonya Beville, Katie Ingram, and Parcus Powell were just up ahead of him. He was debating whether or not to let them know he was there when he saw the car. It was old and beat-up looking, but it was quiet. Too quiet. A car that old didn’t run that quiet, unless someone put a lot of work in the car. It was coming up the street toward him. Mario saw it start to veer over toward his side of the street, then he saw the glint of sunlight reflecting off of steel. Without thinking, he stretched out his hands and let the ice just flow out of him. It streamed at the car fifty feet away. First it struck the windshield, shattering the glass. Then he directed the ice downward, to lock the car in place. He let it build up into an impenetrable wall around the car.
“What the hey?” asked Marcus, as he realized what was going on. “You do that, Ortega?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess I did,” said the young man, wisps of vapor curling around his hands.
“Damn, that was cool!” said Marcus. “Um, I mean, ah…”
“Yeah, I get it, man.” Mario Ortega smiled. “Figured I was just a freak now, but, hey, maybe I can do something good with it.”
“It’s worth looking into.” Mario turned and found Black Lightning and Celsius standing behind him. “You’ve got the instincts for it.”
“But, like, I can’t do something like this all on my own.”
“Hay, man, don’t you get it? The Outsiders are right here in Cinci now.” Tonya put her hand on Mario’s shoulder, then withdrew it when she realized it felt like putting her hand in the freezer. “You could be like a Junior Outsider, or something.” She looked up at the heroes. “Right?”
“Or something, yes,” said Celsius with a smile.
“So, whatcha gonna call yourself?” asked Katie.
“I don’t know. Iceman or Polar Kid sound kind of lame, you know, and Captain Cold is already taken.” Mario saw Tonya rubbing her hand. “What’s the matter?”
“Like to freeze my hand off, when you gave me the cold shoulder there.”
Mario’s head cocked to one side. “Hey, there’s an idea. Cold Shoulder. Yeah, I can handle that.” He turned back to Black Lightning and Celsius. “What do you think?”
They looked at each other and smiled. “Works for me!” said Black Lightning.