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Avenger Assembled

Ghosts In The Shell (IC)

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Z-Day

Ten hours after Zephyr's departure from 2039

The big Dakanan hovership powered its way through the massive black rain clouds like a bull in a china shop, the huge daka-powered engines cutting through the massive turbulence in the middle of the atmosphere. There was good reason for the clouds. Not too far away, all things considered, all that was left of Freedom City and all the land for miles around was burning. A powerful nation, more powerful now that a chunk of the American east coast had been blasted and irradiated, Dakana had sent a fleet of ships to help with the relief efforts in America in what promised to be among the worst disasters of the heroic age.

Without planning or thought of his own hardship, one man had come with his sole companion to help save the day. There was no time to land; as the great ship lowered itself down to within a few hundred yards of the Manor's roof, Mark Mason Lucas rappelled down a grappling line to land firmly on his feet. At fifty-six, Mark's face was lined with cares, more so now than on perhaps any day of his life. His wife joined him a few seconds later, Argent Psion-Lucas flying down under her own power. The teenage psychic had gone from one half of a "creepy-twin set" to a mature, responsible woman in her early sixties who had adapted her grandfather's philosophy to an understanding that one day the superhuman would simply supplant the human.

Arthur, her son with Mark, was watching the family house and Mark's younger kids, the ones he'd brought with him from his marriage to the late Tess Atom. They were far too young for such horrors. This was a place for family. And maybe, if they were very lucky, for one family member in particular. "ZOE!" Mark put his hand to his lips, walking away from their landing site in the browning front yard, his unstable moleculed costume protecting him from the dangers of fallout as surely as Argent's force field protected her.

"ZOE HARRIS! It's Uncle Mark!" Overhead, the Dakanan ship pulled away, speeding towards Freedom City and the relief efforts there. Mark was confident they'd be able to find transportation there. Surely his luck would hold. "And Aunt Argent!"

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As he crossed the front yard, he caught sight of a silver hover-cycle with government insignia parked near the front door. At the noise of the shouting, the door opened and a familiar figure emerged. Erin White, once Erin White-Lucas, had changed surprisingly little in the more than twenty years since their short-lived marriage, thanks to the superlative metabolism that granted the rest of her powers. She was looking worse for wear today though, with her black jumpsuit coated with gray dust, body streaked with soot, and her face entirely bleak. As much as Wander had wanted to join in that last desperate race for humanity, the oaths she'd taken had kept her in Washington DC, making sure that no one took advantage of worldwide chaos to stage an assassination. Even after it was all over, it had been more hours before the president was in a secure location and she could fulfill one last promise to the best friends she'd had in this world. And now it was looking like it might be too late for that.

"Mark," she said as she crossed the front yard, her voice already going hoarse from shouting. "I can't find her anywhere. She's not answering her comm, there's no sign of her in the house." She took a deep breath, looking towards the plume of smoke that was Freedom City. "Mark, her uniform is gone."

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"God." Mark stared bleakly at the remains of his childhood home, rising high into the sky. He'd seen that column of smoke from near-orbit as they approached, and knew it would be a pillar of fire when the sun finally set on this terrible day. He was glad, terribly glad, that neither of his parents had lived to see this day. "Did you check the medbay? I wouldn't put it past Alex to put her to sleep if she was fighting it...Honey, can you sense anything?" Argent took a step away from the other two and concentrated, opening her mind wide to encompass the depths of retrocognition. Studying the past was never easy for her.

"Is Clara all right?" was Mark's first question for Erin when Argent was occupied. "I only caught her for a second or two as she was getting back in the air with the team from Japan when we were in transit. Something about their trans-booth going haywire?" There'd once been trans-mat booths linking together every Freedom League regional office. Maybe there still were, except that their central hub was gone. Along with so much else...

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Erin nodded, pursing her lips tightly as she watched the smoke rising. It hadn't blotted out the sun this far yet, but that was coming too, without intervention. "Her whole team was diverted to Jakarta before the system failed out. They never made it to Freedom City. A stroke of luck." She might have laughed, but there wasn't anything in her to do that right now. "A teleporter got to them just a couple hours ago, she's helping with the recovery effort now. There's nothing there," she continued, her voice very quiet. "Not even remains, not for miles. I told her to come home."

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"Our car broke down," Mark murmured, his voice painfully quiet. "Every car in the Dakana airport broke down, Erin. And I tried them all." He shook his head, remembering how well his former wife took it when he blamed himself for anything. "They found Chris's family," he said suddenly, looking at her, his eyes outlined by the shape his goggles had left beneath his grimy face. "Their airship met up with one of the Dakanan ships over the Atlantic. He put them all on board, his wife and his kids, and sent them off. It must have just been minutes before..." He shook his head again.

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A long time ago, Erin might have reached for him and held on, more recently she still might have given him a hug or just a comradely pat on the arm. But now, even on a day like this, there was too much between them, and with his latest wife standing right there, even zoned out, it was too strange. Instead they stood inches apart, looking away from each other, each locked in their own pain. "Alex and Mike would've done the same thing," Erin said after a long moment. "They never would've let her come with them. She might have gone out afterwards, hoping to find something. I thought... I thought I would hear something, when it happened. Some sound in my head, or just emptiness, after thirty years. But there was nothing."

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"She shouldn't be out there unprotected," Mark murmured. "You know how fragile she is. It..." The words were too painful for him to say, so instead he simply stared up at that black cloud for a long, uncertain moment. "I was so...so happy that we'd caught the bomb in Dakana so fast. When Star of Africa blasted it apart, I thought we were done until we caught the broadcast from America. And then when the cars didn't work, all we had was the live feed. And when the signal went out and the EMP wave hit, we knew it was the end."

"I sense her recent presence," said Argent suddenly, her head coming up. "She was here. She was frustrated and angry, and fearful for her parents. She came out and ran but...but it is not like the others." Unexpectedly, the former supervillian who had so often bedeviled both Erin and Mark (though evidently in different ways) scrubbed her hand across her face. "I felt them. There is a psychic presence at the house that is making it difficult for me to scan. I think...yes, it is Alexandra Harris. She has left a message."

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Erin raked a hand through her short hair, dislodging the mirrored sunglasses she'd absentmindedly shoved up on her head. They fell to the ground with a clatter, but the super-tough material didn't so much as scratch. Ignoring them, she focused on Argent. "She left a psychic message? How did she do that?" Shaking her head impatiently, she focused on the more important question. "What did she say?"

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"Not psychic. She left a psychic aura around a physical message." Argent led the way back inside the house, the usually nigh-pristine structure scarred by the shockwave and by what Mark guessed were the effects of Erin's search. Argent led them not down to the facilities beneath the house, but to the vid-screen on the wall, black with the connections to Freedom City severed. As the three adults approached, though, the image crackled to life.

The vid screen crackled to life with Alex's image. Sometime in her mid to late twenties the Terminus energies that powered both Mike and Alex's powers began to retard their aging processes. There was no real way to tell how old the image was as the face was the same one they'd seen for the last twenty years of their lives. Alex's somber hazel eyes, however, held the weight of her years behind them.

"If the manor is running the omega program, then you're currently seeing a prerecorded message geared to the bio-signs of the remaining living occupants of the manor. Yes, of course, I planned for this contingency. Did you really think I wouldn't?" Her lips flickered in a tiny smile. "I've recorded a message for everyone but I knew it would come down to the two of you. I don't have volumes to say as I've always known that we picked the dangerous path and I'd rather you remember my life than this all too brief message."

"I do, however, have a few things I felt were important enough to record. Zoe's going to be a handful. Even more so than usual. Make sure she knows she was loved. That she is loved. That we have always been so very proud of her."

"I'm not going to ramble on and on. You're the dearest friends I have in the world and so I trust you with the one thing in the world I value most." Her smile turned wry, "And probably the only people who can figure out wherever she's run off to."

"Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay, again. Someday. Even if our battles are over." Alex reached for the button on the screen and paused one last time, "Freedom forever. Alexandra Harris - Psyche - Out."

Mark staggered at the words and nearly fell, his hands clenched tight to the wall for support. "Oh, God..." There were no words. There was no space for them, nothing beneath the crushing wave of grief. He'd seen so much death in his time, but this was more than anyone could absorb without flinching from it.

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Erin stood like a statue with one hand gripping the opposite wrist in front of her, staring at the blank screen and letting Mark's wife tend to him. It felt like her heart was bleeding inside her chest, but the time for tears and grieving would come later. Alex and Mike would understand that; they'd want it that way. The mission always had to come first, especially a mission with this kind of importance. Pulling a shuddering breath into her lungs, Erin turned to Argent. "You said you caught a trace of Zoe running away from the manor, but that you lost it. Can you take us as far as where the trace disappeared?" she asked crisply.

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"I can," agreed Argent, her arm around her husband. Mark had recovered already, but what could he say? He had nothing to add now. Outside, there was room for all three of them in the motorcycle, Argent taking a seat that popped out of the side to better guide their travel. Mark should have expected that she'd point them towards Freedom City, but even so it was another blow when his wife pointed that way. Together, the three of them headed off into the darkness, the darkness in the sky spreading wider as they approached it.

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The air got thicker and darker as they flew into the burning waste of what had once been home to all of them. Erin turned on the high beams and the searchlight, sweeping the midday dusk for any signs of life as Argent pointed the way. Even with her natural protection against the worst environmental conditions, the clogged air was poor enough that she was reduced to sucking in a breath every couple of minutes and hoping not to choke on it. With each passing moment, she expected Argent to tell them to stop, that it was the end of the trail.

When navigating by sight became useless, Erin concentrated on radar and GPS to tell her where they were, her heart sinking with every yard closer to the city that they came. The buildings even this far out were rubble, and she was sure that if she were breathing, the unforgettable smell of hundreds of thousands of death would be in the air beneath the smell of burning. How could anyone have come this far and survived? Zoe was strong for her age, and fast, and so very reckless... "Anything yet?" she called back to Argent.

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Mark had changed by now into emergency survival gear, fitting the air filtration unit over his face and passing one to Argent as well. Though she had good genes, Argent didn't have the same kind of protection against aging that Erin, or for that matter even Mark had. She was too old for this; they all were. But they had no other choice than but to be where they were. "It..." Argent called through the mask on her face. "Here! Here is where the trail changes! Stop moving!" At her words, Erin brought the bike to a stop, and the three of them all exited together.

"The trail, it...it begins to phase here!" Mark was the first to switch on his torch, the light from the three of them cutting through the smoke and ash around them. "As if she was...running up invisible stairs! Or running elsewhere!"

"Could that be an effect of the bomb?" called Mark to his wife. "Changing the profile?"

"No...no." Argent shook her head, her voice muffled by her mask. "No, this is something different. This is something she was doing herself!"

At those words, Mark reached into his jacket, pulling out a portable sensor he'd just thought to bring along. "Alex showed me how to tune this!" he called, peering close over the shining controls as he tried to keep his eyes through the darkness around them. "It's tuned to Zoe's powers! Not enough to track her in all this, maybe, but enough to see what was happening..." But none of them were scientists, and putting words to numbers wasn't easy without Psyche there.

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Erin studied the atmospheric readings on the bike, peering into the smoky morning twilight. "She can't be anywhere around here now," she told the others, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. "She doesn't take after her folks that way, she wouldn't be able to breathe out here. The air would burn her skin." Even so, she jumped off the bike and pulled out a powerful handlight, sending the beam cutting through the smoke as she walked along the trail Zoe must have taken. "Could she have been picked up by someone else?" she asked hopefully. "There are so many still unaccounted for..."

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"I can't sense anyone else," said Argent, shaking her head. "I will reach out and find what minds I can." While she concentrated, walking after them slowly, Mark joined Erin at the front of the party, his handlight cutting into the smoke and ash before them.

"Erin, do you remember when those Grue shot Jenni Rocket full of Max serum and she ran into orbit?" Mark called to Erin, hoping as fervently as she was that something else must have happened. Something besides the obvious story of a girl who'd run to save her parents a second or two late. "Do you think Zoe did something like that? She ran so fast she wound up somewhere else, maybe where her beacon doesn't work?"

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"We can hope," Erin replied softly, peering hopelessly into the gloom. There were no physical tracks left to find, no sign that anything alive had ever been here, much less half a day ago. "But Zoe couldn't breathe out there, either," she couldn't help but add. "Maybe we're wrong, and she didn't come this way, or she came much later and turned back... Christ," she muttered wiping a hand across her ash-encrusted face. "Why did they have to broadcast it live? If I could've run fast enough, I'd have been there too, when I saw those last images. I just hope... I just hope it was fast."

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Even with Argent there, Mark put his hand on Erin's arm. How could he do otherwise, after so many years together, and faced with this horror? His uniform wouldn't protect him if he went much farther, but the danger to himself was the farthest thing from his mind. "They died saving the world," said Mark quietly, his voice full of conviction. But he couldn't go the other step; he couldn't pretend they'd have wanted it this way. Not with Zoe..."We can come back with more equipment," he murmured. "Something from the Lighthouse or the Manor that we can use to trace her."

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"We'll have to," Erin said, though her voice held little hope. "I have to get back to DC soon, but I can call in some markers, get people out here looking for her until I can come back. I worked with a retrocognitive down in Florida a few years ago, he might be some help if just being here doesn't burn him out entirely. But if there's anything to find, we'll find it..." She put her hand over his, her fingers tightening as she peered into the dark. "Look, up ahead... there's a light."

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Mark squeezed her hand and looked at the light, doing the only thing any hero could at that point. "Hey! Over here!" he called, waving his hands to try and get their attention. Any surviving threats in this region had become friends the moment the city burned. He believed that; he had to believe that if he was to retain any faith in the human race. "We're from the League!"

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Erin's body tensed a little in readiness as the light came closer, not ready to fight, but prepared. Argent stepped up between them, taking Mark's arm in a very proprietary sort of way. "I don't recognize the pattern," she murmured, "but it's friendly. Feels like League." A moment later, the distinctive low-visibility running lights of a League uniform came into view, confirming the guess. More lights appeared behind the first, and moments later, human forms started to become visible.

A searchlight beam played over Erin's face, making her squint as the first hero stepped into sight. Mark, who had a better view, instantly recognized his eldest daughter, a moment before she recognized her parents. "Mom!" Clara called, ignoring the protocol that called for code names in uniform. Now wasn't really the time for protocol anyway. She ran forward to hug her mother, team forgotten for a moment. Clara had inherited her mother's durability and her father's looks, and at twenty-five was a strikingly pretty young woman who could easily move through this wasteland with no more than a breathing mask on.

Erin and Clara hugged tightly for a moment, one happy reunion for the day. It was hard for Erin to let go, but the danger was past, and there was work to be done. She stepped back, but kept her hands on her daughter's shoulders. "It's so good to see you," she told Clara. "Have you found anything?"

"Nothing. No one," Clara replied sadly, shaking her head. "The whole place... it's just empty. Everything's blown to hell, not even bodies left." She took a deep breath, then looked over in her father's direction. "Hi Mark," she said with a polite nod. "I was glad to hear you all were okay."

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"Clara," said Mark, sharp relief on his face at the sight of his oldest daughter. "I knew we'd find you here." And he had, with a simple faith that he'd never lost despite the number of times the universe had thrown it back in his face. He smiled with relief, the look hidden by his mask. "I'm glad to see you." He looked up at the arriving Leaguers, recognizing a scattering handful of familiar faces and others he knew only from their files. He'd been out of the field for so long. "Did you bring a hyperspeed scanner along?" he asked Clara. "Something that can trace the passage of someone using accelerated spatial energy?"

"Yes," said Clara without hesitation, pulling the machine out of her belt. "You're looking for Zephyr." It wasn't really a question. "I was hoping we'd pick something up at the Manor, but..." She shook her head. "The nearest signal is the Master Mage in Happanuk Hill. That's ten miles in the opposite direction, behind the heaviest shields in the state."

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"We traced her this far," Erin told Clara, her voice becoming businesslike again. "Starting from the manor. But Argent says that the trail started going strange here. We can't nail down exactly when she passed through here, if it was after the blast, or just before it. If she veered off course, or was knocked off course by the blast, we need to track her down as soon as possible. She could be injured or trapped in debris somewhere." In her heart, Erin couldn't really believe that right now, but it was all the hope they had.

Clara turned on the scanner and studied the readouts, then recalibrated and tried again. "I can't be sure," she admitted. "Normally this is sensitive enough to pick up hyperspeed passage days later, if it was fast enough, but the blast just knocked all the energy readings to hell and back. I can find the energy trace, but it's abnormal, sort of shadowed and skipping." She raised her head, her expression bleak. "It's headed straight for the crater."

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Mark reached out and put his arm around Argent, hugging her tightly in that moment of sharp grief. He was closer to Erin in some ways than he was to his current wife, but he loved Argent now more than he loved anyone else. "The same as the others?" he asked his daughter. Clara nodded unhappily, looking at first her father and then her mother.

"I am picking up the same distortions you are, Argent," she added to the ex-supervillain, "but I'm not sure what they mean. We'd need better machinery to track it down," she admitted, mostly to her mother. "And that's largely tied up now. It..." She scrubbed a hand over her eyes. "God."

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Erin pressed thumb and forefinger to her temples for a moment, hiding her face as she absorbed this new information. "I could call in some favors, try and get something freed up, but every piece of equipment is needed right now. The whole state is devastated, half of New York, all through the seaboard, they need every bit of help they can get." She looked levelly at Clara and Argent, her voice tight as she asked, "The distortion is strange, but is it enough to hang any real hope on? What are the realistic odds that a child running into that combat could possibly have survived?"

"There's always hope..." Clara began, then stopped, shook her head. "But you're right. I don't know what the distortion means, but it's clear she was running right into the blast zone, and there's no sign of her coming out." She choked a little bit. "I would send the results to Dr. Atom, but with him gone... I don't know what we can do."

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Mark had no answer to give his daughter, none that would make any sense. It was hard, terribly hard, to do more than cling to hope now when so very much had been lost. He looked from Erin to Clara to Argent, his mind leaping back unbidden to so many memories, so many faces now lost. Alex...Mike...Chris...Zoe... He looked up at the sky above, at that terrible darkling tower to the east, the sound of his respirator and the conversation of the others in his ears. This isn't right. This isn't how the story's supposed to end! A moment later, the security alarm of all the Leaguers present rang vigorously in their ears. It was a startlement in the dark and silence, especially when they'd all come off that day of hell. Mark pressed his communicator to his ear, listening to the dispatch.

A Dakanan ship had passed too close to the burning cloud over Freedom City, overloading its fuel intake and sending the big rescue craft crashing into the ruined beach. The people on board were trapped by their overloaded systems, and needed help fast. As had happened to him so many times in the course of his life, he and the heroes he was with were the closest to the crash. There were people who needed help, and they were the best ones to give it. With the announcement, the heroes all gathered themselves for the trip, the veteran Leaguers turning their flight suits back on, Erin heading for her cycle again for the quick trip up the coast. Mark and Argent went with them. After all, they were heroes. Life went on.

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