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Cyroa

One of These is Not Like the Other (IC)

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Deep in the farthest reaches of space, far from any life, many months ago a strange device had appeared through a wormhole. Shortly after, that device had detonated and formed for a brief moment a small tear in the fabric of the universe. What was formed was not the ‘standard’ wormhole. This was a rather rare and special type of wormhole that didn’t bypass distances so much as dimensions. It was only open for a brief moment but that was enough.

As the tear closed, something drifted through in those last moments. It was a close match for the machine that had just detonated except this one wasn’t about to explode. This one wasn’t a weapon though. This was a prison. Inside a black figure of energy railed against the container that held him. Normally it would have been a futile attempt but the ‘trip’ through the portal had weakened those barriers just enough…

With a surge, the dark energy being forced itself through the barrier with a roar of triumph. “FREE AT LAST,†he yelled into the darkness not that any could hear him. He turned back to his prison thoughtfully. Now that freedom had been achieved and the exultation of the event had happened, he was already thinking and planning. Rather than destroy the prison, he moved closer and began to repair it. He would need this and soon. Already he could feel him, the link growing…

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Dark Star

Dark Star, besides his numerous duties and responsibilities, occasionally just flew through space. It was kind of like ‘patrolling’ that some Heroes did around the city. But for him, instead of the city and it’s streets, he did that with the galaxy. Most of these trips were fairly pleasant, with nothing unusual happening. More like just being seen, reassuring races, helping out with minor accidents, that kind of thing.

But this time he felt something…different. It was freakishly familiar but he just could figure out what it was. And strangely enough, it was pulling him back to Earth. He altered his course until he felt he was headed the right way, curious as to what new mystery waited on his planet of origin.

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Dark Star

He flew down into the atmosphere, being drawn almost, to the Himalayan Mountains. It was close now, whatever it was. He could feel it. He let his senses extend but saw nothing that sparked his recognition. But ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ was, was here, he was certain. He slowed, moving close to the mountains and clefts in the rock, trying to focus on what was drawing him so.

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Suddenly, directly in front of Dark Star, a large container device shimmered into being as it ‘de-cloaked’. The energy being instantly recognized it, even if was a little different from the one that held him previously. It wasn’t connected to the ‘cannon’ but it was close enough that it was obvious the device was meant to hold him. Indefinitely.

Before the hero could flee backward, a very important switch seems to flip up and on all by itself. While the last one was just meant to hold Dark Star, this one was a little different. As soon as it was turned on, it drew the energy being into it. Despite his powers, he couldn’t fight it. It ignored his energies and struggles, drawing him into the container steadily. Within moments, the container sealed itself with Dark Star trapped inside. Another difference was immediately noticeable as well. The last one wracked him with pain. This one…nothing. Though it was also apparently immune to his energies as he attempted to force his way out to no avail.

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Another form slowly appeared as its own concealment was lifted. For Dark Star, it was like looking at himself. For he was. He knew instantly it was true. This was also Dark Star. If he hadn’t spent so much time around Phantom, he might actually wonder what was going on. But those experiences combined with images flooding into his mind from the other Dark Star, left little to doubt. And those images were not pleasant ones. He felt and experienced what this other version of himself had done and thought and lived.

And it was very unpleasant. He was so repulsed and shocked, it took him a moment to realize the other version was doing the same thing with his own memories and experiences. He quickly tried to close his mind, being friends with Scarab helped with that, but this other copy had already learned a great deal.

Dark Star wasted little time with the unknowns and asking questions. He’d seen enough from this other version’s mind to know this was not good. This other copy was a bit more vocal however. “What a waste! All this power and you limit yourself by protecting these pathetic solids. What a waste! And you _love_ one of them? You have got to be kidding. I can’t wait to meet her and turn her into fertilizer,†this other, this Evil Dark Star, said half to himself as he reviewed the memories he had stolen.

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Dark Star frowned. He knew there was no point in fighting against the cage that held him. After all, it had been built by the heroes (those left anyway) to contain and hold the evil being before him. And looking at those memories left little doubt of the depths of evil this other Dark Star had fallen. Lives taken by the hundreds of thousands. More. Entire worlds destroyed. Being tortured and obliterated simply for offending the ‘great’ Dark Star and daring to stand up to him.

The last words roused his ire and he quickly spoke as he threw himself against his prison, despite knowing it was futile. “You will not touch her! If you go near her, so help me I’ll…â€

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The other Dark Star barely even acknowledged the protest as he continued his ramblings of disgust at Dark Star’s ‘wasted potential’. “Oh please. You can’t hurt me any more than I can hurt you. Why do you think you’re in there? Hmm, perhaps we’re not quite equivalents after all. You certainly are a pale, pathetic version of me…†However, the evil energy being suddenly paused as he came across a certain memory. “You have a dimensional guardian apparently, in addition to those typical heroic clods…This Phantom. That will never do. I think I will need to deal with that particular annoyance. Sooner rather than later.†He glanced over at the bottled hero and chuckled. “I hope you’re going to ‘watch’. I wouldn’t want you to miss anything as I destroy your ‘friends’ and then this insignificant little mudball.â€

With a laugh complete devoid of any humanity, the evil Dark Star rose into the sky, concealing himself, before heading towards Freedom City in a flash.

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Taking off for an afternoon a week before Valentine's Day wasn't a great idea for a florist, but luckily for Stesha, not sleeping had its advantages. Now that she had a key to the shop, she could come in at night to work, with the bonus of having privacy to use her powers. Besides, she had priorities. Baby shopping with Taylor was more important, and certainly a lot more entertaining that putting together one more boring bouquet of roses. Guys were so unimaginative when it came to Valentines Day. That made her think briefly about Derrick, and wonder what they should do for the holiday. Chances were good that some idiot villain would come out of the woodwork and ruin half the day, but they could always plan a nice dinner at home, and not have to worry about missed reservations and secret identities. That would work fine.

Stesha had worked enough baby showers to have a pretty good handle on the fancy baby stores in town, for all she'd never really thought about shopping at one. But why not, when Jack was loaded anyway? Might as well have some fun and ignore the possibility that some crazy monster was growing in Taylor's tummy instead of a baby. The first place they ended up was a chic little place in the middle of downtown called Butterfly Kisses. It smelled faintly of baby powder and was filled to bursting with tiny clothes and accessories guaranteed to get the estrogen flowing. "Oh, look," Stesha cooed as soon as they walked in, picking up a pair of tennis shoes so small they both fit on the palm of her hand. "Aren't they adorable?"

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"Adorable as they are impractacle." Taylor agreed with a smile, touching the heel of the shoe with one fingertip. She trailed after Stesha in what she was coming to think of as her new uniform. New jeans, loose black top. Eventually that wasn't going to be enough to cloak her changing silohette. If she was entirely honest with herself, it wasn't enough to cloak her shape now. "I don't think I was ever that tiny. Not if you hear my mom's birth stories, at least."

She took another hesitant step in, her expression flickering to a looking as lost as she felt. Give her an interdimensional invasion any day. At least that was straight forward. Taylor shook off the overwhelmed moment, her face screwing up with determination. Lists. This was why she had lists. Also, why she had Stesha. "Babies have so much stuff."

Taylor reached out to touch the impossibally soft blanket draped artfully over an open chest of baby socks rolled into tiny bundles.

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"They don't really need all this stuff," Stesha confided with a grin, "a lot of it is more for mom's benefit than the baby. But you've got the room and you've got the money, you may as well get a really nice layette." She looked around for the clerk, but both the pastel-clad ladies who seemed to work there were in the back of the store, attending to an enormously pregnant woman who looked like she was having a panic attack over several colors of crib sheets. Shrugging, Stesha began to look around on her own. "We can start with the big and basic stuff. Crib, rocking chair, bassinette, changing table, playpen, carseat. That's the stuff I'm pretty sure you can't get by without. And, you know, baby clothes, but people will buy most of those for you, if you have a big enough shower. You're having a shower, right?"

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Taylor let out a sigh, her fingertips playing over the silky edging of the blanket. She summoned up a wry smile, "I don't know. I don't think most people really want to celebrate this baby. There's the added 'who knows when it'll be born' factor. I honestly haven't thought about it."

She shrugged and dismissed the melancholy with a shake of her head and picked up the blanket. She was certain you could never have too many baby blankets. "I'm glad you could come with me. I could have dragged Jack... but I think you'll be a better shopping buddy."

It was a nice way to say that Taylor didn't think she could take an afternoon of Jack's thousand yard stare without beaning him with an overly large teddy bear halfway through the day.

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"Guys don't know how to shop for baby stuff," Stesha agreed, picking up and examining a classic-version stuffed Winnie the Pooh. "As for the rest... well, maybe you should give people an opportunity to celebrate with you, and you might be surprised. I mean, what are they gonna do but say no? And if they did, you wouldn't be any worse off than just feeling bad because you didn't try." She passed the toy over to Taylor for inspection. "Have you thought about a theme for the nursery yet? I've done three jungle theme showers this year, a Winnie the Pooh, one with trains, and a couple that were just color-themed. Or you could always go eclectic and just find what looks nice to you."

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Taylor shook her head, shifting the blanket to one hand and accepting the toy. "I don't really have theme in mind. I'll probably just go with things I like. I've never really been a theme-sort of person. I don't want it dripping in blue either. I've never understood the color coding once you know the baby's gender. I've painted the walls cream and the carpet's a dark green. It really doesn't go with the rest of the apartment's theme of 'black,red, white, silver'."

She sat Pooh back down with a pat and nodded over to the cribs, "Maybe we can start with a crib and go from there. That's the first thing on my list."

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"Okay," Stesha said affably. "I don't know much about cribs, my folks used the same one for all six of us, but I'm sure someone can help us out after you've gotten to look at all of them. Oh, look!" Grinning, she wound up a mobile of little plush monkeys swinging from vines, sending them swaying around in a circle to the tune of Brahms' Lullaby. "Kinda reminds me of those kids we rescued out of the tree last year." There were several different kinds of cribs, with various staggering price tags, as well as different mattresses for each, and a dizzying assortment of crib set options. Stesha could sort of appreciate now why that other woman had started hyperventilating. Eventually one of the clerks made her way over and cheerfully began explaining the features of the various cribs, the safety mechanisms and the ways they could unfold to become bigger beds. Cribs had come a long way since she was a baby, Stesha decided.

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Dark Star flew though the city, concealed, as he looked for a certain gravitic signature. Spotting it, he changed course and smiled. He passed through the ceiling into the building, closing in. He dropped his concealment energies, appearing before the two shoppers. While he had no mouth to smile with, it was easy to tell from his happy tone. "Well, well, well. Both of you together. This is just perfect! Well, almost perfect. It will be perfect in a moment...when you're both dead. Starting with you Phantom." Dark Stars white eyes glowed more brightly and dark spheres of energy swirled around his hands as he summoned forth his power.

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Stesha gaped at him blankly, trying to process everything that was wrong with this picture. She was in her civilian clothes, they both were, and she was holding a lamp shaped like a teddy bear, for crying out loud. What was he doing here in "costume," acting like he knew them? He was more discreet than that, even if he was sometimes a little iffy on the social niceties. When he started talking, well, that only raised more questions.

"Derrick," she asked, forgetting herself about secret identities for a moment, "what are you doing? Why are you acting like this?" She glanced towards the clerk, who was wisely scrambling away, still a little more concerned with the spectacle they were all presenting than with any current danger. After all, this was Dark Star, the cosmic boy scout, it was Derrick, her true love. He was acting strange, but he wasn't going to hurt anyone.

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There were few things that made Taylor's blood run cold like the idea of facing down an utterly and completely a moral Dark Star. With her dimensional sixth sense screaming its warning, Taylor hissed a warning to Stesha even as she touched the warm amulet nestled in the hollow of her throat. "That's not your Derrick."

Her costume exploded outward from the jewel. The weight of her cloak settled comfortingly around she threw her hands up to defend from this Dark Star's attack. Their powers were similar in effect but not in nature and Taylor had hoped to never have to test herself against the cosmic entity.

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Stesha watched Taylor change into her costume, then looked back to Dark Star. She was right, Stesha quickly realized, even with no facial features, no outward physical differences, there was something very wrong with this version of the man. She couldn't put on her costume in an instant like Taylor could, but Stesha reached into her pocket and pulled out her bag of seeds, holding it like a shield while she reached inside it. "Who are you?" she demanded, taking a step forward into the space separating Phantom and this doppelganger. "Where's the real Dark Star?"

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Dark Star laughed coldly, haughtily. "Stesha, I AM the real Dark Star. That pathetic version isn't worthy of the name! Debasing himself, stripping himself of his power willingly, not even trying to reach his potential. Letting his almost limitless power stagnate. Just pathetic." He shook his head almost sadly. "Ah well, I'll absorb his energies soon enough. Now where was I....Oh yes, killing you two!" He thrust his hands forward, launching a massive energy strike at Phantom.

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Stesha saw the blast of energy coming in the instant before he launched it, and reacted on instinct. Taylor was stronger and more resilient than she was, but she was pregnant, too, and god knew what something like that could do to her and the baby. For the moment it didn't matter that they had no idea whether it was okay anyway, or even whether it was a monster or not. Taylor loved him and wanted him, so he was her baby and needed to be protected. Before the thought had formed into more than an amorphous concept in her mind, Stesha was taking action, pushing Taylor out of the way and dumping half her seed pouch on the floor. They all began growing at once, ready to become a defensive wall of green, but it just wasn't quite fast enough. The blast of gravitic energy picked Stesha up and sent her flying.

It hurt a lot more than she thought it would, was Stesha's last really coherent thought. The crib behind her splintered as she was knocked through it, then into the side of a sturdy maple wardrobe, and finally whipped her through the drywall backing of the display nursery and into the concrete pillar backing it up. By then it didn't hurt nearly so much, and that was good. Taylor was casting a spell, she realized blearily, one that was sending the whole room into darkness. That was a good idea, he'd never find them there... She reached for her pouch, thinking about helping, but managed no more than to twitch her fingers a few times before the spell was complete and everything got very dark.

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"Stesha, NO!" Taylor cried out as she hit the ground with a solid thump. From her prone position she had a perfect view to see Stesha take the massive blast of power intended for Phantom. The sickening crack as her friend's all too mortal body flew through layers of wood and plaster and stone. She vanished out from under her cloak, the billowing folds collasping slowly in on themselves as she ported to the broken wreck of Stesha's body. Hopefully, this Dark Star was as limited in his teleporting as the other was.

Pushing to move as quickly as she could, Taylor gathered up Stesha's bleeding form and teleported back to the safest place she could think of - the library of her apartment.

"Jack!" Taylor shrieked at the top of her lungs, "Help!"

With a thought, she shoved the books and scrolls on her desk to an untidy heep on the floor, trying to clear someplace to set Stesha. In her heart, she knew that no one could be so mangled and still survice. Taylor had seen death too often to not know it in the face of her friends, but damned if she'd not try.

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Say what you could for Jack's powers of observation, he could respond to a call for help in a hurry. He burst through the door dressed in the romance novel hero garb that said he'd been dressing when Taylor arrived; a half-buttoned white shirt and tight black jeans. His eyes were wide as he took in Taylor and Stesha, moving to her side with impossible speed. "What happened?" he asked her quickly, his short inspection of Stesha revealing what he'd suspected from the moment he saw Taylor's friend's head lolling. "Who did this?"

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Taylor set her gently down on the heavy desk, bloody fingers searching for a pulse that she knew darn well that she wouldn't find even as she answered Jack in the flatly steady voice that bespoke a finely controlled rage, "Dark Star. An evil Dark Star did this."

She reached up and peeled the mask of her costume off before she tossed it aside furiously. "He'll be back, after all, he was aiming at me but she got in the way. She shoved me and just took the blast right in the chest. A full on graviton bolt from Dark Star and it tore her apart."

Taylor brought both fists down on the desk in an expression of impotent fury as she shouted at the corpse of her best friend, "You should have let me take that blast! Damn you, Stesha! Damn you!"

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Jack cursed quietly, looking from Stesha to Taylor and back again. He put his arm around Taylor's shoulder and hugged her lightly, finding a moment of humanity in the horror. "We'll get him," he said with fervor. The thought of fighting a malevolent Dark Star was certainly frightening, but he pushed those worries aside with ruthless efficiency. "If he's coming here, I'm going to start activating the wards. Can you call someone for help? Ace, or Hellion, or someone else from the Midnighters? Hell, where's the REAL Dark Star?"

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"I don't know." Taylor said thickly. She turned away from the wreck on the table, turning her face into Jack's shoulder. Although muffled by his shirt, her words were clear, "I'll call Ace. If anyone could pull a rabbit of of his hat, it would be Ace. Maybe he can call in the Freedom League to take out Dark Star. Or a tank. Or the Freedom League, with a tank."

Taylor scrubbed the sleeve of her uniform accross her face and reached for the desk phone to call the immortal adventurer. While the phone rang, she tucked Stesha's hair back out of her face and began to try and straighten her limbs out into some sembalance of calm repose.

"Jack... could you also bring a sheet or something?" She covered the mouthpiece of the phone as she asked before she moved it back to her mouth, "Ace?"

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