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Avenger Assembled

(IC) Against All Of Me: Barren Immensity

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April 2018 

The Castle 

 

Aquaria climbed her way up the side of the skyscraper, sticky pads clinging to opaque panels rather than translucent windows. She didn't normally indulge herself in this way, but it was much too dark for Surfacers to see clearly outside - and the driving rainstorm outside disguised her from any prying eyes below. The warm wet wind, thick with ocean-scented rain, felt wonderful on her skin. Freedom City was never quite as comfortable as her home waters - but at times she could dream, and imagine a better place. Once she reached the floor where she and Jessie lived, she wriggled her way to one of the secret access panels installed for the benefit of flying superheroes or outdoor maintenance and made her way through a supply closet to the secluded floor where she and Jessie lived. Padding her way nearly silently down the corridor, as usual careful not to alert their neighbors, she took only a few seconds to nimbly lope down to the rooms that she and Singularity shared. She had a fish under her arm, thick and juicy, and there would be frying tonight! 

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The apartment was dark, which was not totally unusual. Jessie had good night vision that let her see well in the dark, and sometimes she had bad days where she liked things dim and very quiet. Her sister-not-sister (the relationship was difficult for Aquaria to define, even among complex Surfacer family affairs) had given her a pair of large headphones to block outside noises, so that sometimes Jessie would spend many hours in her dark bedroom, listening to calm music or rainfall. But Jessie's door was open tonight, and her headphones sitting on the coffee table in the living room.  There were heartbeats and footsteps all around in this large building, but none of them were close enough to be within the apartment. Jessie was not at home. 

 

This was not an immediate cause for panic. Jessie rarely went anywhere without Aquaria's enthusiastic encouragement, but she did occasionally venture out on her own. Aquaria poked very carefully at her phone until it disgorged her recent text messages: none from Jessie for days now. Their shared calendar in the kitchen was also empty. A look into Jessie's sparsely decorated, always neat room didn't reveal a note, but it did look... strange. It took a moment for Aquaria to realize that the walls were entirely bare, without any of the precious family photographs or carefully rendered sketches that usually decorated them. The dresser top was also bare, no stuffed animal or jewelry box. Wherever Jessie had gone, she'd taken everything that was important to her. 

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Croaking nervously, Aquaria decided to call Jessie's sister-not-sister - a dicey proposition. Her fingers and the shiny screens beloved by Surfacers usually did not mix, and neither did Surfacer machines enjoy the sound of her voice. So instead she picked up what she understood was an old-fashioned wallphone and quickly dialed the code of numbers that would connect her to Erin and Trevor's house. The machine rang and rang and rang, until at last the cold voice of a machine meant that there was no one on the other line. She called again, the machine pressed to the side of her head, her feet padding nervously against the kitchen tile floor. This time she did get an answer, from the water-manipulator who had recently spawned. "Another...what? Realm? Oh...oh." She hung up the phone, not sure what to say next - and not sure what to do! After a few moments of consideration, she made a point to do what a Surfacer would do - call someone else rather than run up to the castle singing her fears. This time, she called Project Freedom. 

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Even after the end of the Surfacer "work day" it did not take very long for Aquaria to be put through to Ms. Wainwright's phone. That suggested, in Aquaria's experience, that somebody had probably been expecting her call. Her unexpected calls tended to take a lot longer for people to understand for some reason. "Hello, Aquaria," came Ms. Wainwright's friendly, soothing voice. "I expected we'd probably hear from you tonight. I want you to know that we're going to do everything we can to investigate the situation and understand Jessie's relapse. I know this must be upsetting for you, would you like to come in to the Center tonight?" 

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Her relapse! 

 

Horrific visions of the so-fragile bodies of Surfacers torn apart by her friend's hands and teeth entered Aquaria's mind. She knew how much she could hurt one if _she_ was so inclined - and Jessie had four times her physical strength. She knelt in the middle of Jessie's room, eyes flicking from sight to sight. The abandoned bat and shield. The backpack full of the writings for learning that were so important to her, and all the rest. Where would they go now? Where would she go? "...did someone die?" she croaked softly. 

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"Oh, no, nobody died," Ms. Wainwright reassured Aquaria hastily. "Didn't someone call and tell you what was going on? I'm sure I assigned someone... but then, we were so busy dealing with STAR Squad and Blackstone and the local police this afternoon, it must have slipped through the cracks. I'm so sorry, honey!" There was a moment's pause while the woman gathered her thoughts. "But no, there were no deaths or serious injuries this time, which is a huge relief. Jessie was seen on half a dozen surveillance cameras this afternoon, robbing two museums and breaking into a bank through the back wall of the vault. We aren't sure how she was able to fool the tracking bracelet, but we're going to talk to her more about it when she's a little more rational." 

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Aquaria's reply to Mizz Wainwright was muffled by the sound of tearing, chewing and gulping as she bit the fish in half and chewed up its head and midsection - something that the latter knew wasn't unusual when Aquaria was nervous. Or confused. Why would Jessie steal things? She has everything she wants. She didn't like having important conversations on the phone, though, so she croaked, "I will come to the Center right away and we will talk." When she left the building this time, she took her armor with her - the comforting song of alien words in her ears and warm water wrapped around her skin. There was a mystery afoot - and she was going to solve it. It was still pouring the rain when she arrived Project Freedom's building, a welcoming touch on her skin as she touched the armor down in the small green space behind the building. It was where she usually landed, where cameras could always see it - the better to make sure it, and the people all around, were protected. She was trusted now - but inmates didn't bring weapons into the building, even former ones. 

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Her ankle cuff beeped softly as Aquaria crossed the threshold, its color changing from the amber of outside to the pleasant light green of an approved location. A soft chime also sounded, and a moment later one of the staff psychologists appeared, a skinny young male whose name escaped her. "Hello there, Ms. Innsmouth," he greeted her pleasantly. "We have one of the guest rooms set up for you, we're just waiting for the wading pool to finish filling up. Would you like to talk about anything?" 

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"I do not want to rest," croaked Aquaria. "I want to speak to Mizz Wainwright." She was hitting her words hard, the way she did when she was nervous, making a point to pick out the words a Surfacer would use when speaking their language. "I want to see the things they said Singularity did." Harriet Wainwright had believed in Aquaria when no one else had - had told a Deep One huddled in the corner of a dry cell that she didn't have to live, or die, as a friendless monster among Surfacers. If anyone not of Jessie's kind would want to help, it was her. "I know it is late," she added with great dignity. "I will wait in the pool.

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The population of Project Freedom was mostly different from when Aquaria had lived here, which meant she got her share of odd looks as she made her way to the guest rooms. Most of the new Surfacers seemed at least a little wary of her, but nobody tried to pick a fight or even talk to her as they passed. The guest room wasn't much, a bed and table shoved up against the walls and the familiar blue plastic pool set in the middle, two-thirds full of tepid water. Not exactly the comforts of home, but it would do in a pinch. 

 

Ms. Wainwright came along while Aquaria was still settling herself in. "I'm not sure how much more I can tell you," she admitted. "Jessie wouldn't tell us anything when she was picked up, and none of the stolen goods have been recovered." 

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"Thank you for coming. Jessie would not steal," Aquaria croaked, pouring water down her bare back as she spoke. It was a soothing gesture and she needed to be soothed now - needed to speak calmly and clearly so that she would not be in trouble. "She does not like to take things from people even when they give them to her." Of the two of them, it was Aquaria who had been convicted of theft - though she was sure no Deep One had ever been paid for the fish taken from their waters by Surfacers. "I think she must have been framed. The men from the stars who can change their shape, or one of the others like her, they must have done it instead. There are three of her sister-not-sisters here - what if there was a fourth one no one knows about!

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"I understand that this is difficult to accept," Ms. Wainwright said sympathetically. She picked up the watering can by the pool and, after looking for permission, poured it out over Aquaria's back. "I've been so proud about how well both of you have adjusted despite very difficult circumstances. It's hard to see someone lose their way, especially a friend. I didn't want to believe it either, until she confessed." She refilled the watering can with careful deliberation. "I'm sure this isn't the end of the story for Jessie," she promised. "We're still going to find a way to help her." 

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The water poured down her back by someone else felt very soothing, especially under the stressful circumstances of the night - at least until she'd mentally processed everything Mizz Wainwright had just said. When she did, Aquaria croaked loudly in a tone that would have sounded wordless to a Surfacer but to her meant a startled exclamation of disbelief. She caught the slightly pained look on her mentor's face (Aquaria hadn't actually bellowed but her tone had not been soft to a Surfacer's ears) and added in a low, worried rumble, "Sssorry. She confessed? What did she say?

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"Not very much," Ms. Wainwright said, shaking off the loud noise and resuming her pouring. "She was back in your apartment by the time we found her, and seemed a little dissociated. But she agreed that she was the person in the video footage, and admitted that she had no clear recollection of the times in question. It's not an admission of guilt," she added, forestalling the likely objection, "but even if she's doing things without knowing what she's doing, it's a serious concern. Jessie learned to take what she needed to survive in a world where it wasn't even stealing because nobody was around to care," she reminded Aquaria. "She may not have even understood that what she did was wrong." 

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Aquaria spent the night at Project Freedom, not the first time she'd done that since gaining her release. Her friends would think little of it; especially when she returned to the castle with Jessie. And she was _going_ to return with Jessie.

 

The next morning, as her elevator descended into the depths of Blackstone, Aquaria remembered the songs of her youth to block out the smell and sounds of her guards and of the sounds of the infernal Surfacer machine that was taking her down below. Not to the comforting pressure and wet of the Gods Below, but the earthly prison that mocked their rest. 

 

And then Kar’Kradas

will break him loose asunder

the earth will fall away 

 

The elevator was going deep; deeper than the cells at the Surface prison that had held Aquaria before she'd been liberated by Mizz Wainwright. This was where the prison put people they didn't quite know what to do with - the ones who had things wrong with their brains. If Jessie stayed here, which everyone thought she would do, eventually she'd go deep again, to the cells where she had lived before she had been free. To the places where she might die, if no one ever came to free her. 

 

And the land will be 

as the sea will be 

When the stars are right! 

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Aquaria's tracking anklet chimed every time she passed through a doorway here, a faint reminder of her own time as a prisoner for all she could leave whenever she wanted now. The psych ward of Blackstone was set off by several heavy doors, each with their own chime, and consisted of a long gray corridor with offset rooms along each side. The first room was covered over by a thick metal plate with only a small window set in it, but the others were more open, more like regular prison cells. Jessie''s cell was wide open like a dollhouse bedroom, one entire wall missing and replaced with a forcefield barrier to keep her inside. Aquaria could remember Jessie talking about that, how in her old forgotten life she had been kept in a small box and could not tolerate the feeling anymore. The barrier, which might have made anyone else feel exposed, made her feel safer. 

 

This morning Jessie was curled up on her bunk, sketching with crayons in a plain white notebook. Her tracking anklet had been replaced with power suppression cuffs, though they didn't seem to be active at the moment. She looked up as Aquaria approached, faint concern on her face. "I forgot to leave a note," she said as soon as Aquaria reached the barrier. "I'm sorry." 

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"It will be okay," Aquaria croaked reassuringly, padding up close to Jessie's forcefield. The light from it made her eyes ache, but she was fairly sure it didn't bother Jessie or the other Surfacers. "I do not understand what happened. But I do know that you are my friend." Unconsciously, she rubbed her thick neck, remembering Nereid's water talons there. She wanted to tell Jessie that she was going to be all right and that they were going to free her from this place, but she didn't think the guards would like that very much. She took shallow breaths, trying not to inhale the dry, recirculated air too deeply. "Can you tell me what happened?"

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Jessie shrugged. "I'm not really sure," she admitted. "I was studying for my sociology midterm and it was really boring, and I fell asleep. Or I thought I fell asleep, I guess. I remember terrible dreams, but not what I dreamed." She looked down at her sketchbook, then carefully closed it and set it aside. "When I woke up, I was in the living room and the police were pounding on the door. They showed me what I had done and said I needed to come in because I'm dangerous." She quirked a half smile, dry and small. "Somebody else got my old room, but this one is very close. Nobody gave you any trouble because of me, did they?" 

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"I had no trouble." Aquaria croaked. No. I had much trouble - just not the kind you mean. "I do not think that they are right about what happened. What if the other you who lives across the sea did those things? Or what if it is the you from the bad world?" She looked around the corridor and said, "This is not where you should be. You have worked so hard to be free of this cage. You should not be in a cage." She had to phrase things carefully - and to resist the impulse in the back of her head that said she should crack down that hateful barrier and free her friend from the captivity that held her. Stealing things did not seem so wrong to her - but she knew they would seem wrong to Jessie.

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Jessie's lips twisted in a humorless smile. "I am the me from the bad world," she reminded Aquaria gently. "Wander didn't do this, and the Erin native to this world couldn't have done it if she wanted." She shifted on the bunk, setting aside one crayon and picking up another one. "Logic says that if you have a bunch of possible answers, the simplest one is usually right. Half my brain is nothing but blank white space, it's not exactly surprising that it's not the most stable thing in the world." Tipping her head down, she began coloring again. "But if it isn't, if there's something out there trying to cause trouble with my face," she mused, "isn't this the safest place for me to be?" 

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Aquaria watched Jessie through the forcefield until the unnatural brightness of the glow became too much to bear. Looking away, she finally said, "Stay safe in here, Jessie. I will find what is happening and things will be better." She stayed long enough to sing Jessie a song before she left her there behind the field, looking happier than Aquaria was sure she would be. It might please some part of Jessie to be here where she was safe and where no one could hurt her, but Aquaria knew this was a false comfort. The psych ward was sealed enough that even Aquaria could hardly hear anything, or smell anything, other than Surfacer machines and chemicals. This was no place for anyone to live, especially someone who had only recently learned how to be free.

 

She took her armor back to the mainland from the island, flying low over the water. The armor was nice because she could wear it and because it could read to her, letting her understand things much faster than puzzling out the words and symbols that Surfacers used to communicate when they wrote. As she flew back to the mainland, she listened intently as it read to her the information about the 'robberies' that Jessie was accused of committing - the places, the names, descriptions, and everything else. What could it all mean? 

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Project Freedom was helpful in providing what information they had, though nobody there seemed to share Aquaria's theories. Miss Wainwright seemed more interested in letting Aquaria draw her own conclusions and acclimate herself to the idea that her friend was more mentally unstable than she'd seemed. At least it got Aquaria the same footage Jessie had been shown. It was grainy, blurry in spots due to the high speed movement involved, but there were still more than a few moments where Jessie's face was clearly visible. She looked strange, though. Jessie typically did not display extremes of emotion; even on a bad day her impulse was to shut down and hide rather than stomp around or yell. This Jessie showed everything on her face: anxiety as she ran down an alley behind a bodega, sudden triumph as she noticed the door, positive glee when the knob came off easily in her hand.

 

It was the same way in the other videos too. Even the last one at the bank, where Jessie had gleefully rooted through the vault she'd punched her way into, filled her pockets, then opened the door from the inside to run away. Scant seconds later she was back, looking annoyed and vaguely alarmed, then catching sight of the camera. The feed was disabled mere seconds later. It wasn't until her second watch that Aquaria realized what bothered her about the scene. Jessie had left through the vault door, but re-entered from the broken wall side of the room. That was strange. And it was really hard to tell given the light and the angle, but it seemed like her clothes changed color in just those few moments. 

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Aquaria studied the images again and again, as usual frustrated by the limits of Surfacer cameras. The ability to record things and play them back certainly was remarkable, but she might as well have been watching one of Kimber's fellow ghosts when she watched these things for all the detail they provided. Why couldn't they record sound with any true clarity, or all the colors, or smell? No one had ever given her a satisfactory answer to those questions. And she had many questions, sitting underneath the wooden pier back on the mainland where she'd found a comfortable perch. Where would Jessie have gotten those clothes? Neither of the outfits that she was wearing in the videos matched anything Aquaria had seen in Jessie's closet - both outfits were practical enough, full of belts and pouches that would let Jessie carry all sorts of things, but the colors were strange - the reds and greys of the one outfit turned greens and greys on the other. Or _were_ there? 

 

After some consideration, Aquaria decided to secure something she could understand better - a physical map from one of the tourist stands above. (She even remembered to pay money!) Spreading out the map, heedless of the staring people and the ones taking pictures of the superheroine in armor, she plotted out the locations of the robberies. The bodegas, the banks, and all the others - they made a line on the map! It had started near Aquaria and Jessie's home in City Center, following towards - the Aquarium! No, wait, she was the one who liked the Aquarium, not Jessie. Well the trail led towards Riverside, anyway. Her blood up, Aquaria left her armor under the docks to hunt briefly in the depths of the river, then headed home to catch a quick nap before her planned stakeout in Riverside. If she was right about the trail, perhaps she would find the real robber there that night! 

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Despite its name, Riverside was decidedly lacking in pleasant humidity or any dampness at all this time of year, without so much as a comfortable drizzle to make Aquaria's nighttime stakeout more pleasant. It was also a largely residential neighborhood, which did limit the number of possible targets for a thieving not-Jessie, but made it harder to get around or stand around unnoticed. Hours passed and the streets became quieter and quieter, as empty as the city of Freedom ever got. It was after two in the morning when Aquaria, walking past a strip mall with a little bank branch for the third time, heard a whispering voice  and the soft jingle of pouches from overhead. Even her sensitive ears could only pick out parts of what was being said, as though the speaker were moving, or maybe jumping. The voice seemed to be arguing with itself.

 

"-can't keep doing this, don't you-"

"-do what I gotta do to survive, right? It's not like they need-"

"-don't know that, and you're drawing attention! You're going to get-"

"-happen anyway, right? Why are you still here if I'm so dan-"

"-stop you, and it's always going to be me!" 

 

The voice began to recede. 

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Aquaria croaked softly, putting her hands to the side of her head. That voice - those voices - what? It sounded like two people speaking, but they were also the same person!? It made no sense, but she knew the sound of Jessie's voice anywhere. Whatever was happening above her head, she had to find out what it was. She ran forward on all fours and then made a bounding leap, caroming off the side of a large truck before leaping onto the surface of the rooftop where she'd heard the voices. Figuring that stealth was impossible under the circumstances, especially in her glowing armor and against a foe with Jessie's keen senses, she opted for a more direct approach. "WHAT DO YOU DO HERE?" she bellowed, her voice a booming, electronic bass from inside her face-concealing armor. 

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