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(OMTB) The Young These Days Are Glued to TV Screens


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January 2021 

FCTV Studios 

 

Richard had honestly been a little surprised when Kinsley and Darin York had agreed to meet with him at the FCTV Studios instead of the home studio-cum-library where they usually shot their Tiktok videos. Normally conspiracy theory types liked the homey atmosphere of where they usually did their work, and got nervous about coming into the lion's den of a professional television studio, particularly the types who were worried about mind control rays on the television (which was BS, Paige had checked) or secret conspiracies in the media (which was right but they usually had no idea about who was conspiring to do what). Of course, that didn't apply to the two young Millennials who were out there in the studio getting set up with the crew right now. As they'd mentioned on the way in, they didn't even have a television. 

 

They were a married couple, a couple of years older than Will, who favored the sort of casual business attire (Darin, for example, was in white dress shirt and red tie) that made them look ready to work in one of the TV offices rather than be interviewed in it. Karen the social media girl (as Richard called her in his head) had sent their messages to the show's staff for years and Richard had found some of it, well, some of it interesting! For two kids who didn't have powers themselves, they'd figured out at least a few things that Richard knew for a fact were true. 

 

When his own makeup and hair were done, he thanked the staff because only an asshole doesn't do that, zipped out to the seat he preferred, in front of the green screen background that would provide color for the kids, then waited for them to make their appearance. 

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Almost as soon as Richard sat down, Frank the first-unit director poked his head around the screen. He looked mildly stressed. "Hey Richard, they've got...a lot... of AV equipment out here. I know you like their whole Lone Gunmen vibe, but how hog wild do you want us to let them get with this? We might have to do some restaging." 

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Not one to make one of his people deal with something that was his job, Richard was on his feet before he'd finished speaking. "Let me see what they've got. Hey you kids," he called sociably as he came around the corner, "what's cooking?" 

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"Fast Forward, hi!" Darin spotted Richard right away and waved him over urgently. "Look, we don't mind coming out here to meet with you, but we can't do anything without our stuff! You can't _see it_ without the visual aids." Darin's eyes were just slightly wider than normal, his eyebrows just a little bit higher, so that he looked slightly manic basically all the time. It fit well with the personality Richard had encountered in previous conversations. 

 

"We really streamlined the graphics, I promise," Kinsley put in. Both she and her husband had rolling carts filled with equipment and rolled charts, plus a portable projection screen and what Richard would swear looked like an honest-to-god overhead projector. Judging by the laptop bags they were also toting, there'd also be a computerized component to the presentation. "We have twice as much at home." 

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Richard blinked a few times and came to some fast decisions. At least some of that had to make it onto the show, because it looked great and anybody using retrotech was okay in his book. The other thing was that he sure as Hell couldn't ask his people to do all this by themselves. "I love it! This is really gonna give us a great vibe, you guys. But we've got to cut it back a little bit, or my people have to put in overtime for it." He zipped around, helping unload some gear and getting the rest of it arranged properly, saving the crew the work of handling too much of what was after all his own pet project. 

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It took a lot of rearranging to get the stage set up for the duo's equipment, and even then they had to content themselves with setting up a laptop for Richard to look at and giving a thumb drive to Frank so any images could be put directly into the show as needed. The show's tech team had stayed back in the California offices since the plan was just for interviews, so they were a bit shorthanded in the computers department. "It's all right," Kinsley said bravely, "we can make this work!" The overhead projector was set up to face the green screen, looking very much like it belonged in an elementary school classroom circa 1995. Three empty tripods waited next to it for the ample stack of posterboards in Devin's cart, and each of them had a stack of index cards. They were definitely ready for this, the presentation of their lives. 

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"Okay," said Richard, taking a seat and watching the kids at work like an indulgent father. Where did they even get half this stuff? he marveled. "Now you know we are going to cut some of this," he said frankly, "that's the reality of television. We'll let you give your opening spiel, get footage we can cut up and use, and then I'll go ahead and start asking the actual questions. We get final cut, but if you pull out, we drop you, no questions asked." That particular rider in their contract wasn't quite how it usually worked on television, but given the reality of secret identities, it wasn't the first time the show had done something like this. "You got everything?"

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The two looked at each other, notecards already in hand. "Mr. Cline," Kinsley said quite seriously, "I know we've sent you a lot of emails trying to get on your show. We've made audition tapes and wrote spec scrips and sent emails-" 

 

"And did that podcast," Devin chimed in. 

 

"And the podcast," Kinsley agreed. "We would love more than anything to be part of your show just because it's been a huge part of our lives for so long. But for this?" She gestured around to all their paraphernalia. "It doesn't matter if we get a second of airtime, just so long as you please, please listen to us. Something weird happened after the Curator's infiltration, and nobody is paying attention." 

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"Trust me," said Richard seriously, "I am paying attention." It had actually been Holly who'd gotten him started on the podcast, not that he was going to admit that to anyone except Paige, and that mostly because she'd persuaded him that it was time to listen to something new on his morning run. (It was true, he really had listened at least twenty or thirty times to all his favorite albums - and that was just if you counted this year.) And weird is our business!" That was one mission statement he'd always believed in. Making a little gesture to the crew to start rolling with the handhelds, he said, "Before we get to the big spiel, maybe you can start with some background on yourselves. How'd you get into this line of work, anyway?" 

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"Um, okay," Kinsley began, some of the certainty giving way to nerves. "Well, I grew up in Freedom City, so it's pretty much been growing up with superheroes my whole life. Devin and I met each other when we were basically kids, in a Yahoo group for superhero fans and superhero sightings. We got along right away because we loved to read about hero stuff, but we could both tell a lot of it was just bull- um, baloney. We started talking about all the weird stories, how the whole Liberty League was in jail for three months in 1954 for being Communists, or the Patriot faking his own death, the secret confederation of aliens and superheroes that keeps alien tourists off the planet. Nobody ever talks about any of that stuff, but people ought to know about it, you know?" 

 

"So we started doing our own research," Devin put in. "We found out we both lived in the City, so we got together and formed an investigative  society. We did research into all kinds of weird superhuman stories, just like you guys do! We watched your shows, like, all the time. There's a ton of bizarre stuff going on just under the surface here." 

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"Oh yeah! My ma and her whole gang tried to knock over Fort Knox when they locked up the old League. That was way before I came along, though." Technically not all of them had been locked up; Midnight I in particular had simply refused the suggestion that the League turn themselves in for government interrogation, but that was a conversation for another time. "So you two are both pretty young," he said, deciding it wasn't worth the trouble to zip over and check their ages, "when you talk about getting together in the trade, we're talking, what, about 2010?" 

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They both scoffed at him politely. "We actually uploaded our first video to YouTube in 2006," Kinsley informed him. "It was an expose of the terrible photoshop job the Freedom League did that year on their "Be a Hero: Stay in School!" booklet." 

 

"Our theory was that with the majority of the League off fighting the shadow war against the forces of Omega, they weren't able to get the pictures they wanted and had to repurpose old photos," Devin explained. "But they did a really bad job of it. I mean, Siren had three arms, and you could clearly see that Captain Thunder was cut in from a different photograph entirely." 

 

"We stayed on YouTube for a long time, and we still have a presence there," Kinsley continued, picking up seamlessly, "but we found that to really bring in viewers, we had to be short and to the point. We started our "Unbelievable Superhero Facts" series on Vine, and then moved over to TikTok when they shut Vine down."

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Richard didn't remember there being a shadow war with Omega in 2006, but he and Paige hadn't exactly been close to hero central back in those days and they weren't really on anybody's confidential list until they'd moved back into town. "You guys must have good eyes," he said, "I don't think I'd ever have caught that." He had no idea what Vine was but he was familiar with the show's Youtube channel. Jeez is it really that old? No wonder the suits thought we were behind the times. "Yeah, some people just have short attention spans," he said breezily. "So what was your biggest find before all...this?" 

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The pair regarded one another for a moment. "Probably the demons," Kinsley decided, turning back to Richard.

 

"Definitely the demons." Devin agreed. "It's not every day the entire city gets completely wiped out by the forces of hell, and then suddenly nobody even remembers it happened! Or they do, but then they're like, going to therapy because everybody around them says 'you're crazy, your mom never got eviscerated by a gibbering thirty-foot tall monster from hell right in front of you, she's right over there!'"

 

"It was way messed up," Kinsley added. "If you look at the statistics, the whole end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 there was a huge increase in suicide hotline calls, psychiatric holds, crimes against the person, 911 calls where there turned out to be no threat. The psychology department at FCU started a study to try and understand a sudden rash of patients with symptoms of acute post-traumatic stress disorder but no apparent trauma to point back to."

 

"We had to dig really deep to get any answers at all." Devin took up the story, leaning in conspiratorially towards Richard. "The superheroes knew something, but they weren't telling. The trail was cold for months, until I found an account on AO3 that posted thinly fictionalized accounts of real Freedom City superbattles. That's not exactly earthshaking, I know, especially since she was clearly posting them as backdrops for really lurid romance RPFs, but these were different. These stories were full of real details, you know? The sort of thing you'd only know if you were there, or you knew people who were there. The author was either a superhero herself, or personally knew somebody who was. And that's how we learned that on Halloween 2009, demons overran Freedom City and killed nearly everybody."

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Richard blinked a few times, taking in that story. He and Paige had been far away from Freedom City in Halloween 2009, as he recalled one of their first real vacations with Will and Holly once the pressure of making the first few seasons of the show had worn off. "Well...that sort of thing has happened," he said, extemporizing quickly. "Sometimes when something is reversed or undone, the thing is so serious that undoing it affects the mind too. You probably remember that time Freedom City got turned into King Arthur's court for a little while." He sure as hell remembered that, especially his narrow escape from a version of Paige who had just been trying to bring her medieval times husband back. "But why would the Freedom League keep something like that a secret? We've had close calls before." 

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"Because it was a hero who caused the whole thing!" Kinsley explained portentously, dropping her voice and leaning towards him. "Some kid hero, though we're not sure quite who it was, opened up a portal to hell and brought it all raining down on our heads. The story is that a bunch of other kid heroes stopped him or talked him down or something..."

 

"The story was pretty weird," Devin admitted. "It said it was the power of friendship, but I'm kind of assuming, based on other stories, that it means they kicked his ass."

 

"Something like that," Kinsley agreed. "The League doesn't like having to admit when a hero screws up, especially if it's a screwup that gets a lot of people hurt. Nobody wants to go back to the Moore years, right? So when people forgot about all of it, why would they bring it up and cause trouble? They probably didn't even look at the statistics."

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"That does make sense," agreed Richard. The hell of it was, he sure couldn't laugh them off the way a mundane TV host could have. Superheroes don't always tell the truth and superheroes don't always do what's best for everyone, not if it would make them look like asses. He knew that from personal experience. "And yeah, you gotta watch out with those teen heroes." He grinned at a memory of his son and daughter before adding, "they're all right, though. So, that's your big bite at the apple..." Which I am definitely going to have to look into when I get out of here, "tell me about this new one." The cameras were rolling now, but he was going to let them cue up their presentation on their own time. "What got you looking into this thing with the Curator?" 

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"Well, everybody was looking at the Curator," Kinsley replied, sounding as though she almost couldn't believe he didn't know that. "Superheroes were replaced with _robots_ and nobody even noticed! Some of them were, like, heroes with families, and even they didn't get made, not for months!" She moved over to the laptop and flipped it open, showing pictures of the abductees obviously taken by amateur hero-spotters. "Just think about it. The Curator is so good, so smooth and so sneaky, that a person's own family doesn't know them. It's like, who couldn't be a robot, right?"

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Richard thought back to his conversation with Miss Americana and the way she'd mentioned never taking too close a look at her cyborg husband. No no, that's...that's crazy. "Hmm," he said, holding his sunglasses in his hand thoughtfully. "That's a good question, but how do you find answers?" he asked. He remembered Paige telling him something once about doubting something being different from knowing something. "You can't just walk up to someone and stick a magnet to their heads to see if they're a robot." 

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"No, but a focused EMP pulse would do the trick," Devin began, only to be cut off by his wife.

 

"Which we cannot do because some robots are real heroes," she reminded him pointedly. "Or cyborgs, or artificial intelligences, and they don't have an obligation to disclose that."

 

"Come on, you can't say it's right for somebody to be piloting a zord body for years and pretending it's their human body, that's just so weird!" Devin countered, in the tone of someone rehashing a well-worn argument.

 

"It's not weird, it's heroic!" Kinsley shot back, "but that's incredibly beside the point and we are getting off track. The point is," she went on, turning back to Richard, "there is a possibility. Do you know how much follow-up was done to chase down rogue robots after the Curator's attack?"

 

She seemed to be waiting for Richard to guess, but Devin didn't get that cue. "None!" he practically shouted, jumping up to put a posterboard on a tripod. It appeared to be a timeline of events, but it was hard to see from this distance. Devin smacked a hand against the bottom of the board. "The abductees were brought back from the ringworld, the ones kept on planet were fished out of their basement, and everybody tried to forget it all happened! Nobody checked!"

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"How do you know that?" asked Richard carefully. "I mean, just because they never said they did doesn't mean they didn't..." His voice trailed off as he looked thoughtful, thinking about his earlier conversation with Miss Americana and how she'd never actually put her cyborg hubby back under the microscope. Had Dragonfly - or Midnight - looked any more precisely? Neither of them were what you'd call big talkers, and they hadn't wanted to get interviewed either. "But still, you'd think that'd be the first thing you'd say when you came back," he added, mostly to himself but still out loud. "Hm. Okay, so, nobody says for sure that they're clear after the robots are checked out. Take me further." 

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"It's not so much the abductees we're really worried about," Kinsley explained, gesturing to Devin. He hit the button on the laptop, advancing the powerpoint to a new page, still with abductee pictures, but now with notes attached as well. "Or most of them, anyway. Fourteen abductees, heroes and villains, gone from between seven days and eighteen months." Another press, and the pictures were in two groups. "Most of them were kept on Earth, but a few were taken off-planet for further study on the Curator's ringworld. Heroes are efficient once they figure out there's a problem, though, and all the abductees were recovered within seventy-two hours of the first recorded freakout. We're pretty sure the ones on Earth all received medical examinations, since they went straight to MacNeider when they were picked up."

 

"Yeah, except for Orion and Magni Thorsson," Devin cut in, his voice pitching slightly higher with excitement. "One of whom escaped while being transported, the other of whom left by teleporter, claiming he was needed for an emergency and just never came back to the hospital. The guy we talked to said his chart was definitely blank!"

 

"So that's two unaccounted for," Kinsley agreed, "and then the group taken off Earth. They're harder to find information for, but we do know that since the infiltration, three have married their partners, one has visibly grown up, and one, Dr. Stratos, actually got a physical evaluation that we know about. Two of them, Beekeeper III and Blue Jay, have pretty much disappeared off the radar, but that's surprisingly common with teen heroes and is hard to factor into our model. But it's basically four possibles of fourteen."

 

"Which is peanuts," Devin announced, advancing the screen again. Suddenly the laptop was crowded with tiny photos of dozens and dozens of heroes. "Compared to the folks who never got checked at all. We at least know that these folks got replaced, but what about the people who were replaced and nobody ever noticed?"

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Richard almost asked "Who?" but caught himself at the last minute - obviously if they had proof about something like that, they'd have offered it earlier in the conversation. Instead he said, "Well...let's think about this." He got up and peered at the laptop, not wanting to admit that he couldn't actually distinguish faces from where he'd been sitting. "We have a pretty good idea of why people were taken, right? So their robot doubles could all rise up at the same time and cause a ruckus while the Curator was pulling off his heist at the North Pole." He looked at the screen and picked one of the small pictures at random and said "If...oh, Blue Fox got replaced, why didn't she start with the robot wackiness back on the Day?" 

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"Because maybe she wasn't programmed to," Kinsley answered simply. "Maybe there were supposed to be waves of mayhem, but the Curator never got a chance to activate all of them. Maybe some were designed to be long-term sleepers. Or maybe some of them were activated and we didn't notice because they were villains, and villains do villainous things and disappear _all the time_. Why do you think nobody realized Stratos was gone for so long? They caught his robot, sure, but nobody was even surprised that Stratos wasn't around. Look at these heroes." She gestured to the screen. "How many of those have you seen lately? A few of them, sure, but a lot of them have just disappeared. Where did they go?"

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Richard looked at the screen, hand on his chin. "The business takes its toll pretty fast, especially here. Sometimes a new hero will come here for training and then go back home where it's easier. Like that Papercut kid, he's in Detroit, and Citizen's definitely in Vancouver." I guess replacing a robot with another robot would be easy enough, though..."And that's...no, that's his brother. I thought you had one of the people who died when the Terminus showed up again two years ago, but that's his twin." He tapped the screen, then said, "Everybody assumed that Stratos had fixed up a robot double and used it to hide out for a while. Nobody really gives a damn about what supervillains are up to if they're not actually attacking the city." He remembered his mother's thoughts on that very well. 


"So okay, you've got a lot of interesting questions, but these aren't answers. You sound like you have a theory about where they went." 

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