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March 2020 

Alpine, Texas 

 

There's not much in the Big Bend region of Texas except space. The city of Alpine is relatively large; almost five thousand people, with a state university in Sul Ross, and the remotest AEGIS base in the Lower 48 States - tucked away inside an old gas station on the edge of town, the one most of the locals think might be haunted.

 

There are a lot of old hippies in this area, people who liked the isolation better than the California or Nevada deserts, or just wanted to be able to disappear into the mountains, so when news came of robot reptiles appearing all over the area, originally the local office treated it as just more poppycock. At least until the twenty-foot robot crocodile crawled out of the sewers and tried to make a nest in the country club's golf course. 

 

So now there's a veteran AEGIS agent on the scene! But on the other hand, even a robot crocodile is just a crocodile. So this is a good mission to bring super-teens along; especially those who know a thing or two about machines and giant reptiles - or perhaps those careers might not take them into conventional superheroing. 

 

-

 

Eira hadn't said much to Danica on the flight to West Texas, but she hadn't been quite the cold fish that she'd heard. She was dressed in an outfit suitable for West Texas - denim jeans and a blue and gold patterned shirt, dark glasses against the glare (though why would a robot need those?), and a white cowboy hat perched on her head. The Freedom League Javelin (albeit one disguised as a regular Learjet to avoid attention) had covered the 2000 miles from Freedom City to Alpine in about two hours; and had left early enough that it was still only about eight-thirty when they landed at Alpine–Casparis Municipal Airport. There had been very little signs of towns below until they got here; even now this was still obviously very remote. 

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It was quite a few degrees warmer than New Jersey.  But, Yves was positive that Texas had not gotten the memo on it being a warm March destination.  She had spent the past week visiting the Southern state.  An effort that the freed drone was positive was merely to humor the local AEGIS branch.  As she had seen neither hide nor robotic scale of the alleged crocodile.  And for as small as Alpine was, Yves was positive she had already seen it all.

 

The mother of three wasn't entirely sure about the idea of bringing in the super-teens on board.  Not that she doubted their abilities.  After all, her youngest had gone through the Nicholson system.  And Claremont was supposedly more of the same.  But, Yves Zermeño wasn't exactly going to win role model of the year.  And if the higher ups really wanted to sell the idea that agents were the lifeblood of the organization.  Maybe they should look for someone that actually experienced adolescence on Earth to be their salesperson.

 

Still, an order was an order.  So Yves waited at baggage claim, dressed in a chocolate brown pantsuit with a blue blouse.  All the while holding a metallic suitcase with one hand and staring at her phone with the other frequently refreshed her phone's browser.  Giving the image that she was among the arrivals waiting for a ride, rather than picking anyone up.

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Danica had spent most of the flight playing hidden object games on her tablet or talking about how exciting it was to be finally going even close to the Southwest again. She'd grown up there, spent an unusually long time growing up there apparently, and found the climate much preferable to cold, wet New Jersey. She'd also shed her shell for the trip, since it was both eye-catching and entirely inappropriate for flying in a plane. It looked a little weird to see Danica without her shell on, she seemed very small and almost naked in a t-shirt and jeans. It didn't make her any faster, though, so she'd gate-checked her Segway and waited until all the other passengers had disembarked before making her very leisurely way out of the plane. 

 

As a result, it took a little while before she and Eira made it to baggage claim, even with the Segway speeding Danica up considerably.  "Do we know who we're looking for?" she asked Eira as they neared the correct conveyor belt. "I don't see anybody with a sign... oh, suitcase!" She sped off to the belt to snag her suitcase before it slid back into the wall for another trip around. 

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Eira seemed on edge as they stepped out of the plane, unfocusing her eyes and looking around with a tense expression on her pale face - slow enough that she was actually not that far ahead of Danica as they reached baggage claim. Once there her narrow shoulders seemed to relax inside her jacket. Her only suitcase was a small valise, one she went to pick up before beginning to scan the building. "Agent Yves Zermeño. The picture was low-resolution," she hissed, sounding less angry at Danica than at the universe at large. She looked around, scowling, and then snapped her fingers, the scowl falling away.

 

She pointed directly at Yves after taking another moment to scan the crowd, her big blue eyes hazy and unfocused, then walked directly towards the AEGIS agent. When she was arm's length away she stopped and said cooly, "We have arrived." 

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The AEGIS agent had no reason to doubt that these were the teenagers she was waiting for.  Yves formed a stiff looking smile as the techno organic skin stretched with enough effort to make Aphex Twin proud before stretching her right arm out to welcome Eira.  "I hope the flight was not too uncomfortable."  Not that they had an actual airline to complain too if it were.

 

But, the last time she had boarded a Freedom League Aircraft of any manner it was with that insane Geckoman in the pilot's seat.  Which had given her a poor impression of how their vehicles handled.   As her hand came in for the handshake, Yves made sure to slightly lean forward and lower into an almost whisper before moving her eyes between the pair.  "We should hurry to the office.   Tourists or not small towns talk."

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"Hi, nice to meet you, be right there!" Danica caroled. She seemed completely unconcerned with the spectacle she was making of herself, driving her Segway one handed in a manner that looked frankly dangerous while towing a large wheeled suitcase behind her with the other hand. She was doing a good job of it at least, navigating deftly through the small crowd as she made her way over to her erstwhile teammates. "I'm Danica!" she told Yves, balancing no-handed for a moment as she extended a hand to the agent. "Or Chelone, but you can call me Danica. Wait a second!" She blinked, then grinned. "I know you, you're Anna and Sophia's mom! Anna and I graduated from Nicholson together!" 

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Eira looked back and forth between Danica and Yves for a moment, her eyes narrowing. "Yes. what a coincidence. May I?" She reached down and took Danica's suitcase, casting her gaze over it before nodding and taking the extended handle in hand. "Eira Natt och Dag," she said, her Swedish accent noticeable without actually overwhelming her words. She headed straight for the outside at Yves' suggestion, where as soon as they were actually through the airport doors she picked up the bag one-handed and carried to the rear of the AEGIS-issue unmarked brown van that was going to be their main transportation. Once they were there, she paused, frowned, and looked around, but said nothing until they were inside the van. "You are also a superhero, yes?" she asked of Yves as she took the front passenger's seat. 

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Yves' eyes widened while Eira was looking back at Danica.  It was Stephanie and Charles' daughter.  It was obvious that the possibility existed she would recognize the student helpers.  But, it was her days of being assigned tasks from room moms were such a separate part of her life.   That Yves felt an emotion she didn't often openly express.  Surprise.  She bounced back quickly, and resumed her greeting.  "Good to see you, Danica.  How are your parents?  Hej, jag hete Yves Zermeño"

 

Yves also took her own moment to pause as she stepped into the driver's seat.  The suitcase she carried around wasn't for business.  She wasn't as cavalier with that aspect of her life as the other freed Omegadrone.  Though she could certainly use one of those bartending robots from Steve's wedding reception about now.  "Superhero?  Hm.  I suppose I've been called worse things.  I give a helping hand when I can.  Sometimes, I give that hand while wearing a different set of clothes."

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"My folks are good, they're keeping really busy!" Danica told Yves as they headed to the car. The Segway was a new thing for Danica, back at Nicholson she'd mostly relied on being carried or teleported when she needed to get anywhere fast. Getting wheels had obviously been a big quality of life improvement, even if the upright scooter was a little tough to fit into the back of the van. "My mom's writing another book about tortoises, and my dad is doing a visiting professor thing at the university. I don't get to see Anna so much now that she's a senior, what's she going to be doing next year?" Ever the peacemaker, Danica left Eira the front seat without comment and climbed into the back, carefully buckling herself in for the trip. 

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"Anna's started applying to college.  Or rather she's applied to a college.  The University of Navarra."  Yves transitioned to starting both the vehicle and placing her seat belt.  The suburban vehicle wasn't too far from what she usually drove.  Inconspicuous enough to not draw attention.  Even with West Texas' large propensity for people driving trucks.  "I really do wish she would have picked a school closer to home.  But, it's where her father and birth mother met.  It'd be silly to try and talk her out of wanting to go."  Yves also reasoned that it would wind up cheaper than a domestic education.  But, her own student experience decades ago in Lor Space didn't exactly have finances involved.  

Edited by HGM
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Eira shifted uncomfortably in their seat as they went, scowling unaccountably during the conversation about Nicholson and family as she looked out at the rather bucolic streets of Alpine. Once they were at the AEGIS office, she moved quickly, rabbiting out of the front seat so fast that she had Danica's Segway out and ready for her (having hauled it out one-handed) by the time Danica herself was about ready to exit the car. She seemed to relax now that they were actually at their destination, parking her cowboy hat on her head again as she studied the concealed facility with a sigh. To the untrained eye, it really did appear as though they were parked in an alley behind a long-deserted Shell station. "Ridiculous," she muttered without much heat. 

 

While some AEGIS installations had deep, multi-story fortresses beneath them, the Big Bend AEGIS station had two levels - the divided office space of the upper-tier, and the lower tier that was mostly used for storage and in the event of tornados. Or so they were assured by Agent Larrikin, a stocky, dark-haired woman with a complexion slightly darker than Yves, who was technically the agent in charge of this generally-three-person squad. "But with Agent Xavier on paternity leave, and Ryan on quarantine for another week, it's just, ah, us." She glanced at Yves and smiled ruefully. 

 

With Yves at her side, Larrikin showed the teens the reports they had of the sightings - reports of robot geckos, horned lizards, and snakes from a few hippie communes on each side of the town, then pictures of the robot gator that Larrikin and the local law enforcement had battled a few days previously. "No pattern so far in the sightings we can see, though they are drawing closer together. We have pieces of the robot-" 

 

"I am reviewing the still images you took now," said Eira evenly, seeming to stare off into space with unfocused eyes. "The workmanship is fascinating.

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"Now, now.  Just us is plenty."  Yves tried to reassure Larrikin.  Her eyes following Eira's movements towards the photos.  "I see you appreciate quality engineering.  The world could certainly use more women in STEM fields.  Actually, I work directly with Dr. Doris Volk, she's designed the MAX armors that have found its way from AEGIS to the many the STAR Squad initiatives that cities have undertaken."  Although Yves' sales pitch was obvious.  Short of actually outright offering an internship, as it was mostly information vomit.  Yves actually put no emotional weight into the words coming out of her mouth.

Her mind was focused on the actual job.  Someone creating a mindless machine with the sole purpose of harming others.  Her bionic eyes narrowed at the sight of the machine parts they had collected.  Having already incinerated the scraps in her mind.  Outwardly Yves would not stir and instead she took a moment to scratch the back of her head.  Acting as if her wig was itching as she collected her thoughts back into being a proper chaperone. 

 

"Now the last thing we want is the locals forming a posse.  Alligator hunting season is not for another month.  And I would like to not be the agents that put up the question whether that only held true for organic alligators just because someone decided they wanted to mount a robotic crocodile."

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"They wouldn't hurt anything," Danica pointed out thoughtfully, "alligators don't live in this part of Texas. We're way too far west. I'd be a lot more worried about people killing any small reptile they saw just because they thought it might be an evil robot. Snakes have a bad enough reputation already, they're in way more danger from people than people are from them!" She looked over at Eira. "If they're robots, they're probably being controlled from somewhere, right? Could you, like, trace the signal or something, figure out where it's coming from?"

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Eira had been staring fixedly at Yves as she spoke, pale blue eyes slightly unfocused. When Danica spoke, Eira said "Yes." Then she added to Yves and Agent Larrikin, "I need access to your communications system." Turning to Danica, she said matter-of-factly, "This is going to take about two hours. You might enjoy looking at the robot parts they have preserved - they are very well-made. Or maybe going to the hotel?" she hazarded. 

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Yves watched the interaction between Danica and Eira.  As she didn't quite know their social dynamic yet, she felt it wasn't her place to step in and say anything in regards to their interaction with one another.  "Hunters travel towards population of what they're hunting, but they wouldn't have to worry about that if their target instead came to them.  Especially, if it's a robotic version of a similar reptile.  You are most likely correct about the natural wildlife in the area and their behavior.  I'm no ecology expert,"  Yves openly mused in regards to Danica's concern.  

 

"Fear is a different matter.  That I am quite familiar with.  If people are whipped up into a frenzy it won't matter if someone was actually hurt.  Which will lead to someone then being hurt."  Yves, examined the rather direct speaking superteen.  Time actually wasn't of the essence.  While things could go real bad, real quick as she expressed earlier.  There was nowhere near the level of panic needed for things to go quite that wrong.

Yves turned her head to Agent Larrikin and simply lifted her shoulders to give a noncommittal shrug.  It wasn't Yves permanent duty station.

 

Edited by HGM
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"No thank you," Danica told Eira with near-aggressive levels of cheerfulness. "I think I would rather stay here and participate in the group exercise!" She turned to Agent Larrikin. "Could you show us a map of where the attacks have been so far, and would it be possible to include what kind of animal robot it was? I would be interested to see if they are using animal forms adapted to certain habitats and times of day, or if they're just using animal shapes at random." 

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Eira rolled her eyes at Danica - but didn't actually seem angry at the tortoise girl. In fact she joined Danica in studying the map on the wall,  though she did roll her eyes at the discovery that the somewhat-pressed-for-budget AEGIS agents were keeping track of the robot attacks by pushpin in a terrain map of the area. She stared at the map, then then the handwritten list of dates, times, and types of animals, her eyes seeming to unfocus as she stared off at nothing. 

 

Danica did have quite a bit to look at. Western diamondback rattlesnakes cast in bronze and silver found out in the mountainous desert; along with little scuttling metallic eared lizards, actually quite a variety of small desert reptiles. The big anomaly seemed to be that robotic crocodile- a big booming marine predator that didn't seem to have any business here in the high desert. 

 

Eira stared at the list of sightings, eyes burning as if she was trying to set the paper on fire. Occasionally she stopped to ask Agent Larrikin for more information, such as the exact time (down to the second) when the various sightings had been recorded. 

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Eira tilted her head, looked at the reports, and said "Squeamish ossifrage" out loud in a throaty whisper. 

 

"What?" asked Agent Larrikin in reply, sounding thoroughly baffled. 

 

"The global positioning data for the sightings," said Eira proudly. "Look at the last significant digits..." She broke out in a smile, her teeth white against her darkly painted lips. "It's a simple alphanumeric cipher, two from each sighting....except for the saltwater crocodile anomaly," she added with a quick scowl. "And this is the raw data?" A quick check of their computer systems revealed that it was. "Then this was done deliberately," she said with confidence. "A message is being sent. - about the magic words," she added, drama creeping into her usually bored voice. She looked at the others, then said, "Ahhh...The Magic Words Are Squeamish Ossifrage? It is one of the most famous messages in the history of computer cryptography! Composed in 1977, not solved until fifteen years later. Someone is clever, knowledgeable about computers...and they know clever people will be following them.

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Yves was sorting through AEGIS case files on a separate workstation.  She typed with one hand while the other flipped through papers.  Occasionally drawing her attention between the two.  A mumbled spattering of her native Lor would come through here and again.  Until she pieced together the witnesses.  Yves attention being broken as Eira proudly declared her findings.

"Smart...but foolish."  Yves opined of the criminal.  "Braggarts who leave clues are often obsessed with looking like the smartest ones in the room.  Whoever this is may be seeking  affirmation or praise. Possibly low social awareness, insecure, or lonely."  Personally, Yves hoped it  was the last one.  As that would at least make it likely the robots were not actually created to harm anyone, though she wasn't aware if they would act like the actual creatures they were designed like Danica compared earlier.

Grabbing the folders she had been combing through Yves back to the center of the room to set a series of pages down. First  came the geographic location of the ta.  She placed it near the images of the hippie communes they had looked at earlier.   Then came the picture of their larged tooth reptile friend, for that she wrote down what AEGIS had on the Lor sculptor.  "There's an eccentric commune called Superfreaks local to the area that live by one of the sightings.  And I use the word commune loosely.  The  actual crocodile was spotted by a bit of a local celebrity, or as celebrity as it gets around the outcasts in the area, a Lor who emigrated to Alpine.  He works as a sculptor."

Edited by HGM
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"Whoever did it must have some kind of superpower," Danica decided, studying the slowly unfolding pattern. "Every single one of these was placed in an incredibly precise location, but some of them are in places that your average hiker is not going to get at." She pointed at a few, far from roads, in extremely difficult terrain. "Even if they could, there's not enough time between sightings to account for normal travel, see?" She pursed her lips. "I don't know what the deal is with the crocodile though. It's... it seems sloppy. Like, why go to all the trouble of making everything else fit so well? If they were going to use a crocodile, they may as well have used a monkey or a three-toed sloth or a panda bear. It doesn't make any sense." 

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The girls and the agents talked for a while - but it was getting late now, and despite Eira's protests that all she needed to do was  access to a secondary power source and she'd be fine, they were packed back into the car (with work to do on the way) for a ride back to the hotel. Eira sat in the back seat this time, her face set in a scowl, muttering to herself in Swedish and squirming in her seat. She did manage to add softly "That was good work. With the animal matching. Clever. I...had not thought of that" She sounded a little begrudging. 

 

The hotel turned out to be a Holiday Inn Express near the university, the power of corporate chains having even reached a small town like Alpine; by no accident the same place where AEGIS was putting up Yves tonight, in a room across the hall from the robotic and tortoise teens. Amenities were sparse; a pool, a free hot breakfast, a fitness center, a Denny's across the street, a Mexican restaurant across the street, and "Oh thank the gods" said Eira, open delight in her voice. "Decent wi-fi!" 

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"Oh, good!" Danica agreed happily, immediately pulling out her phone. "I've got so many pictures to send!" Since Eira seemed willing, she let her teammate manage her suitcase on the way up to their room, which shortened the trip considerably. In the hotel room, she pulled the coverlet off the bed and put it in the corner where it would not get anything germy, then sat on the bed to test it. "Not bad," she decided. "Do you know what we're supposed to do for supper? I packed some food, but it's just like Lunchables and stuff." 

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As soon as Yves separated from the teenagers she began to dial out to Carlos, her husband.  The conversation was artificial.  Putting on more 'I miss yous' than she would otherwise indulge in.  It was of course a cover.  Her phone sat near the entrance.  Well within reach for her to cybernetically send out a radio frequency and communicate over.  Meanwhile the freed drone would conduct a sweep of her room.  Her cybernetic vision scanning for minute details in case their location had been compromised.  Even if it wasn't routine, she had responsibilities for this assignment.  "Alright, sweetie.  I love you.  But, I need to take a shower."  It was a pass phrase to let her husband know that her per-emptive sweet was over and for the call to end.  Safety reasons aside, it was never pleasant analyzing the molecules into a motel's sheets.

Afterwards, Yves could actually begin to unpack.  Which would then mean she could check on the two girls across the hall.  Despite Eira's pouting along the way, from Yve's perspective those two didn't appear to be in the worst of terms.  That meant they could be trusted to not need someone hovering over them for something as simple as deciding bed assignments and unpacking.

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"There is nothing in this town I am interested in eating," said Eira with a smirk as she tossed her cowboy hat onto the desk, parking her traveling bag underneath it. She didn't seem terribly interested in the bed, instead parking herself in the room's chair like she owned the place.  "But I saw restaurants within walking distance. You could probably-" She looked at Danica, eyes moving in the direction of her Segway, then back to her, and shifted in her seat - then looked like she was about to say more when Yves stuck her head in. 


"Is AEGIS going to feed its 'junior auxiliaries,'" she asked archly, "or are we poor teenagers going to have to spend our pocket money?" She turned her pockets inside out as if she was a traveling hobo and cocked her head as she looked at Yves. 

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Yves watched the production in front of her.  Her eyes darting over towards Danica after for a brief moment.  Outwardly, she appeared indifferent.  Her lips flattened while taking the time to form her response.  "I see...the two of you come along.  We can have a meal at one of the nearby restaurants.  Hopefully not the Denny's unless we believe to have found the first Denny's with quality service in this town?  Because that's all of the two options available unless you want to find out if there's pizza delivery nearby."

 

Rather than wait for an answer, the petite Aegis agent pulled her head back out.  Choosing to wait for the duo with her back pressed against a nearby wall in the hallway. 

 

 

 


 

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