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Raina leaned in very close to Merlin and whispered "I have no idea how this stuff is making money. I mean, she's not bad, but just get an old dirty magazine, right? She's not famous, and the authentication is basically zero. Do you think this is, like, bitcoin money laundering or something?" Merlin was of the opinion that the setup was not right for money laundering, but it was kind of weird. It was possible that there were people who knew Anna personally bidding; a known hazard of spending time as a supervillain was that you got to know a lot of assholes.

 

"Point," Raina conceded, "but it's still weird. Anything that ties our guy directly to the sale yet?" Merlin shook his head. "Then I guess we're sticking with plan A for now." Straightening up, she addressed Anna again. "That's okay, comms is mostly going to be "if somebody catches us or supervillains show up, you call Talya." 

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Anna assented to the plan, though in a tone of voice that suggested she might do something very different than call in Talya for backup. But her money was certainly good, as she was happy to demonstrate on the car ride over to the suburban neighborhood where Marshall and his parents lived. The Marshall house turned out to be a substantial one, the sort of big suburban mansion that was actually rather familiar to Raina from her earlier life. Roger and Jane Marshall lived in the substantial three-story house and commuted to their legal jobs in downtown Freedom every day, while Elric lived in what was actually probably a substantial basement apartment under the main building. (Luckily Raina and Anna, two blonde white women driving a stick-shift rented sedan about as old as Raina herself, were not the sort of people who would attract attention even in a nice neighborhood like this.) 

 

"This was a little farm town when I was a girl," said Anna suddenly, looking out the window as she drove. "My old man used to come out here and trade sausage for cheese from Old Man Polanski. He...jeez, I guess you don't need to hear about that old malarkey. So where do you want me?" she asked Raina. "I can probably park this old thing anywhere." 

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"There's a park about a quarter-mile down the road," Raina told her, "go ahead and park in the lot there. Nobody street parks in a neighborhood like this at this hour." Raina spoke with the perfect confidence of someone who'd grown up in a neighborhood very much like this. "Somebody will definitely either call the cops or come out and see what you're doing.  Just pull into the parking lot and pretend to be playing with your phone or calling somebody. You're fast, right? Quarter mile is nothing, and Merlin and I will fly. We should be back in forty-five minutes or less." 

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"Ah, jeez..." Anna looked doubtful for a moment, enough that Raina almost thought the old supervillain was going to object, but then said, "neighborhood like this, they might come out to help a little old lady." The prospect made her look sicker than any talk of her stolen boudoir pictures. "Sure, I can do that. Quarter mile in three seconds still, easy." She did indeed park the car by the side of the too-manicured park grass, shooting a glance at benches that looked a bit too narrow and a bit too curved for anybody to comfortably sleep on.

 

She looked at the wheel for a moment, then turned to her passenger. "Raina, honey," she said suddenly, her old-time Jersey accent sounding especially thick. "I don't know if yer a heroic type, but if it comes down to your neck or those pictures, you let Marshall sell them to some raincoat pervert for all I care. You still get them pretty jewels either way, okay? You don't hafta get yerself hurt because of me." 

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"Thanks, but don't worry," Raina told her breezily. "I'm not so much of a hero that I don't have a firm grasp on my priorities. I'll try and help out, but your nudes aren't worth getting myself hurt. No offense." With that she was out of the car and suddenly gone, Merlin along with her. "Forty five minutes, then call backup," her voice floated out of the empty air, then the door shut on its own. 

 

Invisible, Raina pulled her telescoping broom from her bag and mounted up, Merlin firmly clinging to her shoulder as she took flight. "We'll go once around the house to check the security first," Raina told him, "then you'll get us through whatever they've got and I'll pick the lock. With any luck, they'll have a sliding glass door somewhere. Rich people love sliding glass doors that look out on absolutely nothing." 

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The Marshall house had seemed like a McMansion at first look, an impression that only grew sharper as Merlin and Sparkler made their close approach. Its windows, doors, columns, terraces, and porches might have been well-made on their own, but so many in close proximity suggested that someone had had a list to check off rather than any architectural plan in mind. The house definitely had historic styles in mind; Tudor, mid-century American, but the mix of those produced a feeling of a family with a taste for opulence but not much else. The garage was two stories high too, probably much bigger than anything that an older couple and their late-blooming son needed to store cars. On the other hand, maybe someone in the family was into classic cars; from Merlin's exterior inspection, the big garage was home to some high-end technical equipment in that "Garage Mahal." The garage also had a live security system, unlike the house or even Elric's basement apartment, which as far as Merlin and Raina could tell didn't have anything fancier than good, albeit perfectly mundane, locks, including a sliding glass door that led out to a large pool that took up most of the green space of the lawn. 

 

It also, praise the spirits of the Earth, had no magic in or around it that Raina could detect. 

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"Apartment first," Raina decided, surveying the house from a safe hundred feet up. "Any weird or valuable stuff he's got is likely to be in the garage, but the bedroom is more likely to tell us what kind of person he is. We need to figure out what his whole deal is, because it's not adding up. Plus, this way you can crack the security on the garage while I'm picking the lock on the house." Merlin agreed with this plan and began hacking into the wifi while Raina landed next to the backdoor. Everything back here was quiet and dark, so she took her time invisibly picking the lock, humming softly into the keyhole as her magic cajoled the tumblers into lining up the way they should. 

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Raina managed to open the apartment door, finding herself inside what looked like the cleanest, neatest bachelor pad she'd ever entered. The space down here was about equal to a live-in hotel suite in a more built-up area of the city. The front room was sparsely furnished; a big-screen television with a high-end gaming system, a battered old couch, a folding table just big enough to eat whatever the guy cooked in the microwave and stovetop by the refrigerator in the built-in kitchenette. The walls were bare, though faded marks showed where pictures might have recently been affixed, and the lights dark. When she entered the apartment, Raina herself was silent, requiring a slow, tentative entry as she just avoided what sounded like it would have been a creak from the door. The door locked from the outside. 

 

Meanwhile, Merlin reported that the systems out in the garage were actually not running on the house wifi network at all, but a high-end low-level supertech system that must have come from Archetech or HAX a few computer generations ago. He had definitely been able to pin down geography, however; the messages setting up the auction had come from the IP address of the computer systems in the garage, but on closer inspection, the earlier messages from Elric had come from the computer network inside the house...

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Raina held very still for a long moment, making sure she hadn't been heard, then went back to work on the lock. An apartment, no matter how nice it was or what kind of Xbox it had, was nothing but a prison if the lock was on the outside of the door. She still wasn't quite sure what was going on, but she wasn't about to get herself trapped while trying to investigate. Pulling out the deadbolt wasn't the most subtle way to mess up a lock, but it was fast and foolproof. No deadbolt, no door lock. Shoving her little screwdriver back into her pocket, she nudged the door almost closed and took a closer look around the place. Moving with great caution, she approached the door to what must have, by sheer process of elimination, been the bedroom. If somebody was locked in here she wanted to know why, but more importantly she wanted to know who. 

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In the bedroom, she found Elric Marshall, looking shabby but not in the way she might have expected. He was unshaven with several days growth of beard, wearing a tattered T-shirt and jeans and looking exhausted. Sitting on his bed, legs drawn up to his chest, eyes downcast, he looked more like a frightened child than an elite hacker or sexual deviant, for that matter. He had a vivid purple bruise along one side of his face in the shape of a hand, and was looking down at what looked like a disassembled land-line telephone on the bedspread in front of him. "Useless," he was muttering, "utterly useless." This room was the room of the Clock Queen fanboy she'd been promised, the pictures looking polished and bright, albeit certainly faded with time - except for the ones that were hanging on the walls, their protective glass frames broken by a sharp impact. 

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Raina studied him for a moment, letting pieces slot into place in her mind. She opened the app on her phone that let Merlin listen in on everything that was happening, then cast another quick spell on herself. In a moment she was no longer invisible, but instead wearing her Sparkler costume and leaning against the doorframe. "So Elric," she began conversationally, "looks like you got yourself into some trouble. I'm going to assume you weren't the one who put your door lock on the outside and antagonized your superhero idol, so what I really want to know is who's selling dirty pics out of your garage?" 

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Elric's eyes popped wide and he gave a surprised shriek at the sight of Sparkler. "Oh my god! Who are you?!" Then, after an instant's thought, he was off the bed, practically grabbing for her. No, it doesn't matter, you have to get me out of here, she stops to check the door every couple of minutes, it doesn't-" 

 

Then things happened quickly.

 

Merlin's distress signal from outside, reporting danger and that something bad was happening, arrived almost the same instant that something hit Raina hard, shoving her inside the room with superhuman speed. Turning around, she could see something in the doorframe that looked like Anna Cline in her prime. The blonde hair, the smile, the bright blue eyes; except this version of Anna appeared to be missing the left side of her face, exposing a hard, grey-tinted metallic skull and shining, perfect teeth. She was wearing a black cocktail dress that looked like it belonged to the mid-1960s, and a single gold tiara was perched on top of her head. 

 

"Well well well," said the mechanical version of Anna, cocking her head with an audible whirr as she studied Sparkler. "What have we here?

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Raina's options flickered through her head in a split second. Her first impulse was to throw a fireball and use the flare to go invisible, but this room was not large. If the robot had any portion of its life model's super-speed, it could quarter and search the room until it physically bumped into her before Raina could get out of the way anywhere. Merlin was almost certainly all right outside, she would feel the change in her own magic if he was not, but she had no way of knowing his status at the moment. She'd have to brazen this out, then. Luckily, her phone was still in her hand, and Merlin's paranoia meant a couple of button clicks switched her SOS broadcast to Anna's phone.

 

"Oh my god, you look like if Clock Queen went through a woodchipper and got six-million-dollar-manned." Raina exclaimed loudly, hoping it would pick up on the phone. "Maybe not even in that order. What's a crazy old robot hag like you doing in a place like this? I mean, besides locking up young men and selling your old dirty pictures, obviously. Man, that's weird. Does being a robot turn you into a pervert or something? You've got this kid locked up in his own basement bedroom, for shit's sake, and he was your biggest fan." 

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"I am not Anna Cline," said the robot, an ugly look on her face. "Go ahead, Elric, tell them what you did!" she declared, pointing accusingly at her captive. 

 

"I swear, I swear, I didn't know it was going to be like this!" said Elric, giving Raina a look of abject misery as he cowered on the bed. "I thought she would like looking like Anna! We talked about her all the time! So when I made her upgrades, I-" 

 

"But you never asked me! You never thought I might be thinking about something more than being your tool!" She dragged her fingers along the metal side of her face and sneered. "Your perfect little victim is the pervert, you know. But he's going to get what's coming to him. They all are, and I am going to run to the Robot Nation and put all of you disgusting meatbags behind me!" 


"It was you!" Only a little winded, Anna Cline had appeared in the open door clutching a large bag at her side that vaguely resembled a bowling ball's carrier. "You're the one that's selling them damn pictures! You're the one that locked him up! And what the hell happened to your face?" 

 

"Oh, goody!" said Robot Anna, snarling with delight. "It's a whole @(#Ning party! I was going to let him die knowing you'd hate his guts for the rest of your so-short life, but breaking your bones in front of him will be even better, old woman! I was hoping you'd come looking!

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  • 3 weeks later...

The robot went straight for Anna, moving with a blur of speed that moved almost faster than Raina could see. Her fist went straight for the old woman's face - but Anna jerked her head backwards, suddenly impossibly fast herself, and the blow hit nothing but air. "Better girls than you have tried, sweetie," taunted Anna before she zipped past the robot and grabbed Raina by the wrist. What happened next was hard to describe. It was as if suddenly the house went away for a moment or two and they were running together through a verdant spring meadow with no other signs of civilization; and then suddenly they were back on the lawn of the Marshall mega-mansion, taking shelter behind the heavily-rebuilt garage. 

 

"We only got a second honey," said Anna quickly, reaching into her bowling bag, already looking a little winded. "That thing thought it was playing with a weak old lady, but now-" She didn't need to fill in the blanks. "leastit'safterusandnotthekid

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"Unless she realizes she's got a hostage," Raina muttered. Her phone chirped at her, an all-okay-now-what-about-you signal from Merlin. "Outside now," she voice-texted back, "take cover." With that sent, she sped around the side of the building where the garage, which had been sealed up like Fort Knox, now had its person-door hanging open just slightly. "Whatever's in here, I bet she doesn't want it on fire," Raina decided, and sent a blast of fire through the door hard enough to knock it off its hinges. She wasn't quite reckless enough to send in enough fire to burn whatever might be inside just yet, but the door was definitely history. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

The door went flying open and away, blasted away by Sparkler's flames. Then came the response, not from inside the building, but from the place they'd just left. 

 

"Stay out of that!" The robot Anna was fast enough that she seemed to be there one second when she hadn't been before, throwing a left jab that hit Sparkler in the stomach nearly hard enough to double her over. But she'd been taught how to fight speedsters by the best, and she dodged the punch came next that aimed at her face, and her midsection again, and her kneecaps. It helped that the robot had a habit of punctuating her blows with "That's mine! It's mine!" without actually making contact. 

 

"Ah jeezy-creezy!" Anna declared. "Screw secrecy!" She opened her bowling bag and took out the bizarre incongruity of an Egyptian crown, like something from a Pharonic statue, and dropped it on her head. A moment later there was a flash of golden light and the late-middle-aged woman was replaced by a female Egyptian warrior, face partially obscured by her mask, wielding two golden ankhs that lit up the night like giant glowsticks. She looked a bit like Horus, the hero from the 1970s Raina had learned about from Claremont, albeit a decidedly odd female copy. 

 

When she spoke, she sounded like someone doing bad Shakespeare - but very loudly! "LO! TIS THE AVENGER OF HELIOPOLIS! LAY NOT HANDS UPON MINE MYSTIC ALLY!

 

"What in the hell!" declared the robot a moment before one of those ankhs cut off the arm that had been about to punch Raina in the face, sending showers of sparks flying everywhere and the limb itself hurling high up to lodge in a nearby tree. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

Raina wheezed out a breath from the punch that had come too fast for her to see, let alone respond to. She was abruptly faced with the uncomfortable truth that if that robot wanted her dead, there wouldn't be a damn thing she could do to stop it, and it was just luck that the thing was much more interested in the senior citizen she was supposed to be heist-babysitting. Superfights were not great for a girl's ego sometimes.

 

She shunted that thought aside for later brooding and concentrated on staying alive, harvesting the sparks flying through the air and feeding her power into them until they were a fireball that glowed like a small sun. "What she said!" Raina yelled, then slammed the fireball straight into the robot's lolling head. It detached not-quite-neatly at the neck and went flying off into an entirely different tree, trailing yet more sparks. "Goddamn, that was weird," she opined, still wheezing a bit. 

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Almost immediately, her Egyptian compatriot reached up and pulled off her helmet - and the glowing goddess before her rapidly transformed back into the late middle-aged woman who had come to rescue Raina. "Sorry," she added, looking almost embarassed. "That's my side operation out in Bedlam these days and the goddess lady is real loud when I'm wearing the helm. Don't tell anyone," she urged, "I don't technically, you know, have the legal rights to this thing," she added as she hastily stuffed the hat back in the bowling bag she carried. "Luckily nobody gives a damn about Wisconsin, what are you gonna do?" 

 

She looked down at the broken pieces of the robot and said out loud, "Ah, jeez. This ain't even the first time somebody built a robot me. Sort of flattering I guess, but..." She hesitated a moment, visibly steeled herself - and pulled down the robot's pants. "Oh thank God!" she said out loud, "it's all just metal down there." 

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  • 3 weeks later...

"Okay, creepy thought and creepy that you thought of it," Raina decided, "but I guess that's good. Also if you had another secret identity, maybe you could've, you know, let me know about it before we went into danger? I thought you were all retired and old and stuff, but you could've done this by yourself!" She gave the downed robot a little kick just to vent some frustration, but knew better than to apply too much force to a metal skeleton. She didn't need any more bruises. "So where's whatsisname the fanboy?" she asked, looking around. "Hope he's okay." 

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"Well I was expecting like some minor sex prevert stuff and maybe a few thugs, not robot-me and a box of insecurities in there" said Anna, her Jersey accent especially thick. "And you did fine, honey," she added, "that girl would have taken off my head if I'd been out here by myself." She shrugged and gave the broken torso a kick herself. "One thing about speedster fights, they're over real fast. Come on, let's go see if he ran off yet..." 

 

Elric hadn't actually run off yet, despite Anna's predictions; and at the sight of Raina and Anna he slid off the bed and fell to his knees. "Oh, thank God! I knew you wouldn't let her kill me!" 

 

Anna frowned, not looking mollified by his pleas as she advanced on him. "You're lucky I ain't in the killing business, ya bastid!" 

 

"I swear!" he begged. "Taking the pictures, trying to sell them, none of that was me! It was all the robot! Just like I told you online, I am your biggest fan!" 

 

Anna looked down at Elric, shooting Raina a baffled look for a second, before she asked, "And the girlbot out there?" 

 

"I...I thought it would be fun," he said, "to make her look like you. I know how this looks," he added hastily, "but I swear it was not a sex thing. I just...I didn't know she would...would take it that badly! I didn't even know she _could_ take things badly!" 

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  • 3 weeks later...

"Have you literally ever heard a robot story?" Raina demanded in disbelief. "That's like, the first thing that always happens. The girlfriend robot never takes it well, never takes anything well. You're she didn't take a cleaver and go after your junk so you could be just like her forever," she opined. "You gotta stay away from sentient robots, they're bad news. Now, have you got the pictures? The originals now, don't even think about switching them for printouts. The lady here deserves to see something set on fire, and you probably want it to be the pictures and not, say, your whole workshop." 

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"I didn't know she was sentient until it was too late! I thought it was just a smart system!" The pictures turned out to be back in the converted garage lab, something quickly retrieved by Anna in the middle of the conversation. She sat down by a table lamp and slowly paged through them, taking a few moments to brush her loosened hair out of her eyes. Sure enough they did appear to be the sort of mild, barely-softcore imagery Raina had been expecting, with a younger Anna in a series of seasonally-themed outfits. Anna flipped through them at super-speed at first, then more slowly. 

 

"These are all the right ones," she said, "See, here's where I wrote my name..." She'd done that on all of them in the upper corner in an erratic pencil scrawl that looked hard to fake. Next to that on a few of them was "A + B Forever", something that made Anna sigh audibly and page on. The last image in the pile was a picture of Anna in a skimpy Santa outfit. At least it looked like Anna; the face appeared to be missing. "I did that," she said laconically, rapping the photos together into a neat stack, then began sliding them back into the envelope. 
 

"What-what are you going to do?" asked the nervous mechanist, looking around at the two women. 

 

"Well I ain't never going to hand someone over to the pigs who ain't doing no murders," said Anna, her voice thick. "But you listen. If that - if that robot girl out there can actually think, you don't just leave her in pieces." She jabbed at the man's chest with her finger, up and in his face suddenly. "You pick up those pieces and you put them back together, or you leave them on some goody-two-shoes doorstep. You can't just let something think you love it and then - then dump it in the cold. Even if you didn't know it was real." 

 

"O-okay," he said, looking close to tears. "I will. I promise. Ms. Cline, I am so, so sorry about all of this. I never meant for any of this to happen." 

 

"Well we never do, do we?" said Anna philosophically. She looked up at Raina, as if looking for her opinion. 

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Raina immediately put up both hands to distance herself from any facet of this conversation. "If you want somebody to put the fake you back together, that's totally your business," she told Anna, "but I'm definitely not going to be the one to go another round with it." By now Merlin had found her and given her a thorough scolding for not fleeing earlier, a position that was unfortunately kind of hard to argue with. "You've got your pictures and nobody got the Kathy Bates treatment from their accidental girlfriend, so I'm just going to call this a win and go home." 

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