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Avenger Assembled

The Stars Went Out (IC)

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April 30 2011

Murdock sat alone on the park bench, its sturdy steel and wood holding up even his great weight without a creak, and waited for his contact. He'd gotten word through his contact in the community, namely Miss Americana, that his old acquaintance Fleur de Joie was looking for him as a technical expert. The request had been for Harrier, not Caradoc, so he'd come in his own skin to avoid causing a panic. The last thing he needed was for that very nice young woman with the gravitic husband to be frightened at the sight of him again. So instead he closed his eyes and sat on the bench, smelling the sweet flowers of spring all around him. Nature untamed really was a glorious feeling, especially since he had so little experience of it outside this place. Could any city be more beautiful than Freedom City?

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He wasn't kept waiting long, though it was hardly an unpleasant occupation. Within a few minutes, he heard a soft noise nearby and turned his head to see Fleur de Joie approaching, also in civilian garb. The plant controller looked substantially different from the last time he'd seen her. Her long green hair, done up in braids and clips, was still the most striking part of her appearance, but now her popping stomach vied for the honor as well! At nearly nine months pregnant, the petite woman seemed almost as round as she was tall these days, but she still looked as cheerful as ever as she spotted Harrier and headed over.

"Hello!" she called as she approached. "Thanks so much for meeting with me today. I know you're awfully busy, but I was hoping to get your expert opinion on a few things, if you have a little while. I've made lunch," she offered with a winning smile. Stesha suspected that Harrier wouldn't turn her down anyway, but the always-pensive-looking Murdock could use some meat on his bones anyway.

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Harrier accepted her offer graciously, in fact looking quite grateful. Skipping work on a Saturday was easy enough with the long hours he worked through the rest of the week, but it did mean that he'd have been looking at eating at the charity kitchen, or perhaps beans from a can again: he'd eaten much worse in his life, but eating so well was far better. "Thank you for the meal," he said, his voice its usual quiet, steady beat. "I will give you whatever technical assistance I can." If the sight of a pregnant woman fazed him, well...he'd dealt with those ancient pains a long time ago. "Congratulations on your successful breeding."

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Stesha paused for a moment, then laughed, her whole face crinkling up with amusement. "That's a new one!" she told him, "and here I thought I'd heard them all. Thank you!" She looked around to be sure no one was watching, then touched Harrier on the shoulder. In an instant, they were in her cozy cottage on Sanctuary, and instead of a park bench, Murdock sat on a comfortable and surprisingly sturdy couch. The air smelled of Italian spices, melted cheese, and warm bread. "I made meatball subs and a nice salad," she told Murdock, walking over to where the table had already been set. "I hope that's all right with you. Coffee, tea, pop, water?"

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Harrier started at the sudden transport, his hackles going up as he felt a sudden feeling of dislocation...but luckily sense reasserted itself before he could do more than startle the extremely pregnant heroine before him. "I have had experiences with perspective shifts before," he said after a moment's awkwardness. "That was surprising." He blushed furiously and looked away, afraid he'd offended her, but she still offered him food he accepted a place at the table and took subs and salad and soft drinks alike. "That was more than just teleportation."

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"I'm sorry," Stesha said, sounding genuinely apologetic. "I really need to start remembering that not everyone is used to traveling like I do. You're not the only one I've surprised," she admitted ruefully as she sat down at the table. "This is Sanctuary, my headquarters dimension, and this is my cottage. Sanctuary is what I wanted to talk to you about, actually. Something awful happened here in the long past, and I'm not sure what. I was hoping you might be able to take a look at the ruins and, well, tell me if Omega or the Terminus had anything to do with it. If they did, I'm concerned about the long-term effects of Terminus radiation, and the possibility that they might come back someday."

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"I will look as far as I can," said Harrier, relaxing now that he knew he was in safe company. "It is unlikely that a world as habitable as this one was a victim of a direct attack. Worlds that do repel direct assault, or that close their dimensional barriers to mass bombardment, are usually deliberately poisoned by chemical transformation of their atmosphere, or by fusion suppressors fired into their star, or..." His voice was flat, as if describing something that had happened a long time ago, to other people. And indeed, it had. "...But since this world is habitable, that seems unlikely. However," he added, "the chance must be investigated. If they closed their barriers after the initial assault, but before the installation of the transmission towers, a habitable, if devastated planet, is still possible. The changes of radiation poisoning in such a case are high. You are right to be concerned."

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"What you see here," Stesha told him, gesturing to the lush forest visible outside the window, "is all new. This place is barely habitable anywhere outside the radius I've been rehabilitating. The air isn't very good, there's hardly any plant or animal life... there are a few survivors, but they barely hung on this long. As far as I can tell, the whole world is like this. I've had testers for more mundane radiation and poison out here and they tell me that it's safe enough, but I don't think they detect Terminus radiation. If you can tell me anything, it would definitely ease my mind. But first, we should eat!"

Stesha was a pretty good cook, and the portion sizes were more than adequate. As they ate, she asked him, "So what have you been up to lately? We haven't had a chance to talk in months, it seems."

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Harrier told her all he had been up to, much of which had been outside the city. "I have been adventuring under a new name and identity," he said, "secured for me by a friend. I find that my face, and my...self can be a distraction when trying to work with others, or rescue those who have every reason to fear and hate me. Much of it has been outside the city. While things are quieter in the less populated regions, they can be more pleasant as well. To stand on a clean beach and feel the water beneath my toes, to see birds in the sky and crabs on the sand...it is quite lovely." He asked after her own fate as well, and that of her child. "When it is of age, bring your child to Champions. We have a good children's menu," he said stolidly. "And children love the little hero toys."

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Stesha smiled. "I definitely will," she promised. "The Hero Museum is one of my favorite destinations in Freedom City. And it's where I had my first real superheroic adventure myself, so it has a special place in my heart. The date I was on at the time was uniquely awful, but in a way it led to me meeting Derrick, so I can't even be too sorry about that. How do you like working at the restaurant? Do people treat you all right there, give good tips and such?" She was glad that Harrier had a job, but busboy was not really a career for a grown adult superhero.

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"It is...satisfactory," said Harrier, speaking slowly and distinctly in his metallic timbre. "Many of the men I work with in the kitchen are also displaced by war or poverty from what had once been their homes. We have camaraderie. And when I walk the aisles I can see children and families, and I enjoy that. I have considered the jobs available to men with my identity and skills, but there are none other." He smiled faintly. "When Lady Liberty gave me a list of jobs I could work upon my freedom, I thought that Champions was the restaurant where superheroes ate all the time. But it is a normal place, and I think I am the better for that. There is very little that is normal about me, or about my life, and to have some of it is...pleasant. When I am given charity, I must pay it back."

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"Have you considered going back to school?" Stesha asked him, pushing the bowl of fruit salad in his direction in case he wanted seconds. She made a mean fruit salad. "It wouldn't be fast, but I'm sure if you went to school part time you could get a diploma, even a degree. That would open up so many opportunities for you! And there's financial aid available, grants and loans and scholarships. It would be a good way to learn about Earth as well," she added encouragingly.

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Harrier ate; he'd known real hunger, real poverty too long to not eat food when it offered to him. "I have never been in school," he told Stesha. "My parents had both been educated on their world before its destruction. They taught me what they could about all they knew, but there was survival to consider first, and always. That made me luckier than most." He looked down at his reflection in the bottom of the bowl, the lines just visible beneath his skin seeming to catch the light. "I would be alien to them," he said, as if he was trying to talk himself out of a tempting possibility. "As I am elsewhere. And I am not clever or wise."

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"Don't be silly," Stesha told him, pointing her fork in his direction. "You wouldn't have lived this long or come this far if you weren't both clever and wise, not to mention extremely brave. If you're motivated enough to want to learn, you'll catch up, and I'm sure you'll do very well. And you're right, you would be different than most students, but so what? This is Freedom City, on Earth Prime. Do you know how many aliens and mutants and dimensional refugees and magical creatures and scientific marvels are wandering around this city? I know I don't, but there are a lot of them You shouldn't let the fact that you're different keep you from having the best future you possibly can."

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"I had not considered the idea. Perhaps it is worth trying." And he meant it. "As for the future," he added, "to be here, with a friend, eating good food in a safe place, is a future brighter than I could ever have dreamed. Only here, with heroes, could I believe in something more." He let her lead the way when they walked outside, resisting the urge to pop into either version of his armor. "Have you encountered any evidence of non-Terran intelligences on or near this planet?" he asked her as they walked outside.

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"We did find one Grue artifact out in the ruined city, Victory and I," Stesha explained, "but we couldn't tell if it was a Grue invasion, or a lost Grue artifact, or neither. It was dangerous, so he tossed it into space and gone. I don't go into the ruined city much," she admitted, "especially not lately. It's a sad place, and the air isn't terribly good. But if that's the best place to analyze radiation is there, we can go for a little bit."

They'd emerged into a clearing in the middle of a verdant forest full of seemingly-ancient trees. Around them were several other plant huts, none as nice as the one they'd come out of, seeming more like sheds than homes. "I don't know what you need in order to know whether the Terminus was here."

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"I will need to tour the devastated areas for signs of Omegadrone attack," said Harrier honestly. "Large areas of high technology introduced through violent artificial means. A scouring of inhabitants. Charnel pits and objects placed to reduce the morale of survivors." He felt ugly saying the words, and even more as he asked, "Have you had your unborn child medically checked for exposure to Terminus radiation? Or toxic chemicals? I can recommend an extremely competent super-scientist with a medical interest...and if you did find evidence of Grue activity, that is reassuring. No one has attempted to sterilize the planet."

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"Miss Americana has done several scans on me over the course of my pregnancy, just because I run into so many strange situations in my line of work," Stesha assured him with a smile. "No strange radiation on me or the baby, just the gravitic radiation signature that any baby of Dark Star's would be likely to have. If there is a Terminus presence here, the radiation hasn't affected either of us. And I would definitely like to keep it that way, and for the other sentients who live here."

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"Does the racial memory of the human population extend to the period of devastation?" inquired Harrier as they walked. "Even if they have lost their knowledge of the names and faces of their attackers, often those stories can survive in folk tales and ancestral memory." He offered her his arm as they walked, acutely conscious of just how pregnant she was. He could have offered to fly her, but his own condition, when put against hers, didn't bear thinking about. "If you and they show no sign of contamination, that is a promising sign. But it is best if I investigate. There have been many...exceptional cases over the centuries."

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"None of the survivors here were alive when it happened, many of them are third or even fourth generation," Stesha told him, her face grim. "Generations here have been short. I'm working to change that much, anyway. I can take you to interview them, if you like. Nothing I've heard them say really indicates anything that shouts Terminus to me, but I was just a little child and in a different city during the last invasion. I don't know very much about it." Honestly, she was happier that way, though it shamed her a bit to think it. If Harrier told her that things were all right here, that meant less research she had to do on her own.

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"I was not part of that invasion," said Harrier suddenly, feeling a stab of guilt at the worry on her face. He knew nothing of this place; he had never been here, and so far he guessed the forces of the Terminus probably had not been here either. "Nor of the previous invasion in the 1960s. My first visit to Earth-Prime was as a free man," he added. "But I...I will recognize an invasion, or an attempted one, when I see it." There were the screams of dying worlds in his ears as he looked up at the sky before asking, "Have you had anyone in to do a global survey?"

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Stesha shook her head. "I can feel the ground of the whole planet, if I concentrate hard enough and long enough. It's easier because there are no cities and so few people and plants. It's not as much to take in, so it doesn't overwhelm my mind the way it might on Prime. But I haven't had anyone take a look from the sky." They reached an incline and began climbing it, Stesha huffing and puffing a bit as she did so. "This invasion would've been much earlier, close to a hundred years ago, I'd say. Long enough ago that the land is prime for rehabilitation."

As they came to the top of the hill, Stesha stopped to catch her breath, letting Harrier have his first look at the ruins of Freedom City in silence. Not all of Freedom City, apparently part of it had already been overgrown and reclaimed, but a large chunk of it was still gone. He could see some of the ruins of the northern edge of downtown, and then the oozing sore that was the Wading River, its sluggish current unable to fight the pollutants that worked their way upstream from a bay that was so dirty a rainbow-tinted oil slick sat over the entire surface like a sullen, dirty gem. Everything north of the Wading River was blown to smithereens, old debris everywhere, dirty and soot-covered, a million broken puzzles with the pieces mixed together.

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Harrier didn't comment that his great age meant he could have been part of an invasion a century earlier. It seemed unnecessarily grim in what was already a grim moment. At least by some standards. For his part, Harrier was almost uplifted at the sight of survival among so much devastation, for all that said devastation had yet to be recovered from. "To live is better than to die," he said reflectively. "It will be faster if I fly," he said apologetically, "Will you be comfortable here? I am going to don my armor now." He armored up as he asked, his body briefly avulsing before transforming into its faceless iron self.

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"I'll be fine," Stesha assured Harrier with a smile. "Just don't be gone too long, or I'll have to pop home for a quick restroom break. I can't see to go without for more than an hour these days. It's almost embarrassing." She chuckled, folding her hands placidly on the mound of her stomach as she waited for him to go on his tour. It was actually a lovely day for flying, if one didn't count the miasma still blowing in off the ocean. Fleur's trees must have been working overtime to screen her protected area from the bad air and particle matter, since the air where they were now was crisp and clean.

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Harrier's search was exhaustive. The former Omegadrone was taking no chances on the survival of his friend and her habitation, so he went all-out in his efforts to study what had brought the devastation to this world. It was easier than he'd thought: checking the area revealed no Terminus towers, the substance of which would hardly have degraded in these conditions, and blasting away structures to study underneath revealed none of the mass graves of suicides or failed assimilations he'd have expected to find around a Terminus invasion site. And perhaps most importantly, there were no signs of the Omegadrone bodies he'd have expected to find, even after blasting away at the landscape below. After all, it wasn't as if the Terminus would clean those up. When he was done, he flew back to Fleur de Joie. "I do not believe the Terminus inflicted the damage you see here," he said. "There are no signs of attacks against civilians, and no remnants of Terminus technology. You are correct, however, to deduce that there was a conflict here that was part of the initial catacylsm. But...I cannot tell you who that was."

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