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A few weeks after the events of Everything They're Asking For And More

 

It had been an eventful few weeks of show prep, interrupted by chaperoning Holly's very first trip to Sanctuary with the rest of her Claremont class and Bryant waking up with one of those high fevers that goes and comes quickly in small children. But Richard and Paige had gotten a lot done despite all of that. They'd talked a little bit about their respective interviews, but they had been too busy to do their usual repeated comparing of notes. Some of what Richard had heard and seen had stuck with him, hanging like a dark cloud around his head as he sat at the dining room table, coffee in one hand and yellow legal pad with giveaway ballpoint pens in the other, writing names and question marks, a frown on his face. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

"You're thinking hard," Paige observed, sitting down across from him with a mug of tea in her hands. It was late enough in the evening that she'd changed into yoga pants and an oversized Universal Studios shirt that was older than several of their children, but she was awake enough as she glanced at the legal pad. "Which episode now? Oh, finale stuff. I thought we were tossing the interviews to the editing team so they could get us some good clips to stitch together?" 

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Richard looked up at Paige and took a moment to smile at the perfectly familiar sight of his lovely wife before he responded, "Hey babe. Yeah, I've just been going back and forth on some of this." He looked at her then said, "Hey, when you were talking to that Welsh girl with the sword and Jill O'Cure..." He wasn't going to ask if she'd read their minds without permission; he might as well have asked if she'd grabbed their ass when they weren't looking. But sometimes Paige got impressions even when she wasn't actively looking. "...did you get any vibes off them?" he finished, tapping the side of his head. 

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Paige raised her eyebrows and took a sip of tea. Almost thirty years of marriage to a psychic and Richard still couldn't discuss psychic phenomena without resorting to hand gestures and spooky noises. She'd given up and decided it was part of his charm ages ago. "Vibes?" she asked anyway. "They both had some trouble during the interview, needed to take a few moments to regroup during difficult portions. Ellie especially, but she was kidnapped into space so I'm not too surprised." She tilted her head to study him. "Did you notice anything weird in your interviews?" 

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"Just a few stray comments. Nothing from Crimson Tiger, I think she was as baffled by what was going on as anyone else. I thought it was weird that Miss Americana said she never examined her boyfriend after she got him back from the Curator, but I guess...she must have done something since then. The guy's a cyborg from Hell, he can't exactly go out to Jiffy Lube when he needs a check-up." He got up and started moving around the room, zipping around in the short bursts that meant something was driving him besides super-speed. "I just started thinking. You and I know a lot of heroes, but they don't always give us a straight answer, even in private. You ever wonder what they're not telling us, or anybody else, about this?" 

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Paige furrowed her brow. "I've always been under the impression that Miss Americana is the chief mechanic for most of the cyborgs and robots in town," she pointed out. "I would assume she's pretty familiar with her husband by now, yeah. Though I don't know," she added with a grin, "you do still say 'vibes.'" She frowned a little at the last question. "I'm not sure what you mean. I'm sure there's stuff they all want to keep private. I'm about seventy-five percent sure that we have some archival footage of Miss A's civilian identity in the press videos we've pulled, and we're going to have to decide what to do with that, and we're going to have to be careful in how we cut interviews in order to avoid blowing a couple other secret IDs. We've always agreed that heroes deserve their private lives." 

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"Oh yeah," said Richard with a nod, "we've got to sit on that until we get a reason otherwise." He'd gone his whole life without a secret identity as such, but that (and being a father) had just made him understand the need for privacy all the more. "I've just been thinking...doesn't it seem weird to you that nobody ever took a close look at this before we did? Half the heroes in Freedom City either got kidnapped and replaced by crazy robots or they know somebody who did, and everyone just sort of shrugs it off afterwards! Miss A said she doesn't even know any robots who got grief over it, which is nice, but....weird. I think there's something going on they're not telling us." 

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"What did you expect people to do?" Paige asked, raising an eyebrow. "Fourteen kidnappings is certainly a lot, but when you compare that to the total population of heroes and villains in the city, it's closer to what, five percent? Less? And I don't think anyone exactly shrugged it off, not really. Of all the abductees, hardly anybody wanted to speak with us, even after ten years. Hardly any of their loved ones or associates wanted to speak with us either, and you know how unusual that is. I got the feeling that being replaced by a robot or having a loved one replaced by a robot was something that doesn't really get any easier to talk about, even with the passage of time."

 

She took another drink from her tea. "Hell, Duncan Summers retired over the whole thing, and nobody ever thought that was going to happen. Poor Dorothy and her family were in sessions with the Claremont psychologist until she graduated, and I think it was the only reason they didn't pull her out of the school. People needed time to heal." 

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"Geez, that poor kid," agreed Richard with a nod, briefly losing his train of thought. "That was about the worst thing I've ever heard happening at that school, and that includes that kid with the car." He shook his head, then added, "No, I mean..." He stepped to the window, then across the room to adjust a book on the shelf, before he said, "It just...it just stinks. They get penetrated that deep by robots from space, and they don't even set up, I don't know, blood screenings? Deep tissue scans?" He spread his hands and added, "And yeah, I know, that sounds weird coming from a guy who thinks all cops are bastards, but come on, they could have burned the city down if they wanted to. Maybe they still do," he added. "Even the real smarties don't know for sure exactly what the Curator wanted, and none of them have even tried to ask." 

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"Who still does what?" Paige looked completely baffled for a moment as she tried to follow Richard's train of thought from Claremont to Freedom City as a whole to some nebulous They who should be guarding against an equally nebulous Them... Her eyes narrowed as she studied him. "Oh my god. You interviewed the Conspiracy Kids. Damn it, Richard, I told you not to let them get inside your head!" She put her face in her hands with a strangled half-laugh. "What were they on about this time?" 

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"They made some - some good points!" said Richard defensively. "They pointed out that for all we know, there are still secret robots running around Freedom City, maybe the whole planet, right now. The Curator could take people out from under the noses of everybody from the world's greatest detectives and scientists, not to mention Claremont for the love a'Pete, and nobody's really gone looking for any drones since then." He considered a moment, then said, "And you know, those two aren't all crazy. They told me there was an infernal invasion of Freedom City back in '09 that everyone just forgot about afterwards. I talked to Erik at the PTA meeting last week and you know what, he said the damn thing really happened! Had to make me promise it wouldn't come up on the show, though."

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"I should've known something was up with you when you actually volunteered to go to the PTA meeting!" Paige accused, only half removing her hands from her face. "You hate going to the PTA meetings! Did you back that poor man into a corner and start spouting conspiracy theories all over him? Do I need to send them a card or something?" She sighed and pulled his notebook over towards herself. "I give up. What do demons in 2009 have to do with the Curator?" 

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"I will have you know it was not in a corner, and we were having a very normal conversation about raising teenage girls when it came up." Richard decided that Paige didn't need to hear the details before he said, "Because if the Conspiracy Kids, or whatever you want to call them, can figure out something like that just from looking in on the outside, that's evidence they're not so crazy." His notebook was written in the big, loopy, multilayered script that meant he'd been at it for a while. He'd also been turning it sideways to write when he ran out of paper, a 19th century writing trick he'd picked up that was a great way to keep out snoopers but didn't make it any easier to follow his train of thought. "And it's a big, ugly thing that the hero community kept from people so they wouldn't freak out. Especially since the whole thing was started because of some Claremont kid. If they're willing to cover their asses about that, what else are they covering up?" 

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Paige put her hands down and gave Richard a long, level look. "All right, let's slow this way down," she told him. "So you got some evidence that there was a demonic invasion of some sort in 2009 that most people don't remember now. And that evidence is that a hero who was here back then told you at a PTA meeting that it happened. He told you that at the PTA meeting, with two dozen other parents in the room. That doesn't exactly sound like an Area 51 level cover-up, hon." 

 

She held up a hand before he could rush in any more explanations. "It's possible that there is something there that's being kept out of the public eye. We both know that sort of thing happens all the time. Even you and I understand that people don't need to know all the dirty details of how close we occasionally get to being wiped out. It's possible that those kids got wind of it and strung together a whole sordid story about how and why and where and who. It's even possible," she added, her hand still raised, "that against all the odds and every morsel of logic, that they got something entirely right and that story is true. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. It has nothing to do with our story!" 

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"If they could find something big, something city-shaking like this, it's evidence that they're somebody we should take seriously," said Richard stubbornly. "Some things are big enough that you take it seriously and you check it out, even if you don't think the source is 100%." He spread his hands. "You and I have both seen things a lot crazier than the idea that the hero community circled the wagons and covered up something serious, or just didn't dig into it enough because it meant they'd show their asses. Come on, honey, there's no harm in looking into it as long as we're not throwing around accusations. If it turns out they're full of crap, I'll eat dirt, and there's no harm done to anything except my front teeth." He grinned. 

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Paige leaned back in her seat. "Okay, let's drill down on this then. Your 'theorists' believe that, what, there are a bunch of Curator robots still running around pretending to be superpeople? And they have some kind of nefarious long range plan to... do something bad, I guess, but probably not connected with the Curator that nobody's heard from in a decade? And the reason nobody knows about them is that there's an organized coverup by the heroes of Freedom City for some reason related to it making them look bad?" I can see about seventy ways this could blow up in our faces if we start demanding every hero in Freedom City prove they're not an evil robot, starting with the fact that we're gonna look like assholes and ending with a witch hunt against innocent metahumans who just want to preserve their secret identities. What evidence have we got so far?" 

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"If I had serious evidence, I'd be bringing it somewhere bigger than our dinner table, hon," said Richard seriously. "We know a lot of people got taken right out from under everyone's nose, and we know it happened fast - hell, some of them must have been taken just hours before the robot duplicates showed up. There's no evidence anyone looked hard at any of the returnees, and nobody ever found a master list of who was taken, even when Miss Americana was picking through what was left of the Curator's brain." He shuddered just a little as he remembered the look on her face when she'd described her sidekick's sacrifice. "And coverups don't need to be organized to work. People just need to be happy they got their loved ones back, and decide that's that, I'm done, and we don't need to talk about the time I couldn't tell my wife was a robot for three weeks anymore." 

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"Okay, the fact that conspiracy theorists on the internet don't have records of anybody taking a physical after they got rescued doesn't mean it didn't happen," Paige pointed out immediately. "Or that there weren't actually security measures put in place. They wouldn't be very good security measures if anybody could find out what they were by looking on the internet. It is a little strange that you and I haven't turned up any information about how the number of abductees was confirmed," she admitted, loathe as she was to contribute to Richard's little journey down the rabbit hole. "But it's been ten years, and after that day we have had nothing Curator-related pop up for a decade. What could the plan possibly be?" 

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"These super-geniuses, we'd have no way of knowing till it was too late if we didn't catch them in the act. But here's the real deal," Richard added. "A little while after the Day of Wrath, a whole bunch of seized Curator tech gets shipped overseas. Nanites, drone parts, the whole nine yards, and it winds up in the hands of Katastroff and Sorensen Industries out in Sweden. They lost the whole thing to some kind of industrial accident, but nobody's talking about that, not here, not in Sweden. I did some digging and picked up some hard copies of what made it to the press out there and over here, but nobody's said a word about it since the initial accident. And you know what else? Remember that gloomy teen intern who was hanging around with Miss Americana for my interview? She's a Katastroff too." 

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That got Paige sitting up straight. "What?" she demanded. "Show me." The evidence Richard had gathered so far wasn't overwhelming; a couple of shipping manifests here, some flight records there, a couple of superhero sightings, some vague police and emergency services reports. Along with an eyewitness account from someone who claimed to have been on an S&K team that delivered Curator-drone wreckage to a secret underground bunker that was now a solid block of iron two hundred feet thick. She leafed through all of it, then looked up at him. "There may be something here. I had assumed all the Curator's drones burned up like the infiltrators did, but if they didn't, if there were more and they disappeared..." 

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"And that's just the ones that disappeared that we know about," said Richard. He didn't feel triumphant having convinced Paige this was something to look into; hell, he felt a little more worried that he had been. If the most sensible person he knew thought something was afoot here..."I got this just from them, and then literally Googling stuff in the public record." He did actually know how to do that in real emergencies, even if Holly had helped him a little bit with optimization. "If we dive deep and we find something; well hell, we'll have to blow the whistle. Even if it's just calling somebody on the League." 

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"I don't think this is one we can crack on our own," Paige decided, looking through the papers again. "You've gone to most of the sources I would've thought of to go to, so we're already scraping the edges of our ability as TV investigators. We can put the research team on it, but none of them are really part of the hero community and I'm not sure they will be able to get the kind of access we'd need for something like this." She looked down at the folder, then up at Richard. "We're going to need to find somebody in the hero community, one of the investigative types, and try and get them invested in this can of worms."

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"Somebody who knows people in the game, but isn't tied to it directly. We don't want anybody who'd go into it feeling compromised, or anybody who'd actually be compromised." A lot of sneaky detective types would have relished a chance to spy on their superpowered fellows, but the sort of people who'd actually be interested in doing that were definitely not the sort of people they'd actually want to hire. Richard thought. "That new Archer kid?" The second Archer was not exactly a kid but Paige and Richard were both old enough to be his parents if things had gotten a little unlucky back in the day. 

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"Possibly," Paige allowed, still studying the papers. "Maybe even more than one person. We'll have to start tapping our contacts. I'll give Stesha a call and see if she knows anybody. She was only on the periphery in the whole Curator thing, but she knows everybody in town. I'd honestly be surprised if some of the local roboticists didn't know more than they've said already about the whole business with the drones. It might be worth trying for some follow up with Miss Americana, or give Dragonfly a push. A gentle and polite push," she emphasized. "We don't know exactly what's going on, let's not make ourselves persona non grata at school events just yet." 

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"Yeah, we don't want to burn any bridges - with our friends on the Freedom League or anywhere else." He smiled quickly, then said, "I'll tell you what, let's split it. I'll call Stesha, you call...oh geez, what was the name of that guy who used to work for Katastroff but does heroing in the city now." He snapped his fingers quickly, then said, "Voltage! We probably need one other science person just to be sure, so I'll rustle that up, and you can take Archer?" He shrugged. "Or however it works out." 

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