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June 3, 2011

9 AM

 

Stripped to the waist and wearing only his orange prison leggings, the Bee-Keeper stood in the central core of Blackstone Prison, a mile-deep panopticon that showed cell corridors streaming down into darkness beneath him and towards the light above. The red lights of the prison on high alert were flashing, and the mad apist was shouting to be heard over the resounding sirens. "I AM AN INNOCENT MAN!" he boomed, pointing straight at the camera. "FALSELY ACCUSED BY A SYSTEM THAT SAW ONLY MY REPEATED CRIMINAL SCHEMES AND WAS BLINDED TO MY INNOCENT HEART!" Behind him came the sound of enormous mechanical droning, growing louder as he spoke. "I AM TIRED OF BEING JUDGED UNFAIRLY AS A MURDERER! I AM NO KILLER AND I WILL PROVE IT!" Behind him, rising in chorus, finally came the owner of those booming drones: twenty gigantic flying robots, each as big as a schoolbus, roared behind him: each one looked like a gigantic robotic honeybee, each one with a kindling flame at their mouths. "THE AGENTS OF THE DARK MAN ARE EVERYWHERE! I WILL SPEAK TO NO JUDGE AND NO JURY THAT MIGHT BEAR HIS MARK! I WILL SPEAK ONLY TO FLEUR DE JOIE AND HER ALLIES! WHEN SHE HAS PROVED THAT I AM INNOCENT OF MURDER, THEN AND ONLY THEN WILL I RETURN CONTROL OF BLACKSTONE FEDERAL PRISON TO ITS GUARDS!"

Secure in his locked-down office, Warden Drummer stared at the broadcast again, his mouth a tight line of pure rage. "When I find out how he managed to build twenty robot bees in solitary in my prison, I will find whoever is responsible and I will murder them. I have been in the corrections business for twenty-five years. I know how to make it look like an accident!" He sighed, looking again around his office. Too bad there was no one around to hear it; that had been one of his more satisfying rants. With a curse, he picked up the secure landline on his desk and dialed the Freedom League...

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Despite the fact that the Beekeeper was probably the last person on earth she wanted to deal with today, Stesha was almost grateful to get the priority message from the Freedom League in her home on Sanctuary. Anything was a welcome distraction from the fact that she was now at T+1 days and counting for baby, she was sore and tired and cranky, and Derrick was gone again. She knew he wouldn't be gone if it weren't a matter of life and death, and she had the communicator to get in touch with him even halfway across the galaxy if need be, but it still didn't make her at all happy. She thought back often on the words his future self had shared with her, and wondered if he was going to miss everything. But first time mothers averaged forty-one weeks, she reminded herself. She could go do this mission, Derrick could do his mission, and they would both be home on time.

But for all her optimism, she wasn't going without a backup plan. Touching the flowers in her hair, she teleported herself to the floating castle that was her neighbor's impressive home. Stesha paused at the door long enough to rub the nagging ache of a practice contraction from her back, then knocked on the door. "Tarrant, are you home?" she called.

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Tarrant blinked, glancing up from his work and chuckling. "Back here!" he called out.

The earthshaping hero was...well, shaping earth, but he was doing it the old-fashioned way, having made himself a little stone table on the far side of the 'courtyard' from his front door - and partially hidden by the large tree he'd grown for Stesha's easy access. The table currently held a large lump of clay that was halfway to being a dragon, and the assorted tools that would help it complete the journey. "You...don't look awfully happy, no offense. Did something happen?"

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Stesha gave him a rueful smile. "Well, the baby didn't come yesterday, for one thing," she pointed out, resting her hands on the mountain of her tummy. The most she could manage for a uniform these days was a green tunic and her domino mask shoved in a pocket, nothing else was going to fit. "And Derrick's out defusing another border skirmish in Lor space. But the big problem is the Beekeeper. He's back in action again and causing a lot of trouble. He's demanding to see me again." She sighed. "I could use a little backup, if you're available."

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Freedom Angel was actually doing his League monitor duty when the call came in from Blackstone. He'd taken the message, watching with some horror from Freedom Hall as he saw the robotic takeover of the prison, then he'd quickly contacted Fleur de Joie. He remembered the Bee-Keeper well, and had taken good time to examine the man's soul on his last visit to Heaven. He was mad, mad as few men could be, but a genius beyond all that. He remembered the attack that had temporarily warped his own personality, and decided they needed a backup in case something like that happened again. Under normal circumstances he'd simply have flown to Gabriel's window, but he knew his friend cherished his secret identity. So instead he flew just slowly enough to take out his phone and call. "Gabriel," he intoned, conscious of the usual stares from the ground that he got while flying: who wouldn't stare at the magnificent angel overhead? "The city and its people have need of you. How quickly can you be at the near jetty for the Blackstone ferry?"

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Gabriel had been enjoying a good novel when Heyzel called; he'd already eaten and cleaned up from breakfast by that point. He raised an eyebrow at the request that was, at the moment, out of the blue.

"Hold on, let me look at the map...Okay, I see where it is. As for how long? Minute, two tops. I'm pretty quick in the air when I want to be, and I change pretty quick. But what's got you so worked up?"

He could tell this wasn't a social call. On a whim, he turned the television on, and it started back at the beginning of the sketchy information the networks and news channels had.

"Oh. Well. That would do it. Man, poor Fleur. They cant' keep this guy pinned down, can they? Also, giant robot bees...ugh. Give me 120 seconds or so, and I'll be at the location."

With that, he hung up the phone, turned off the television, and raced into the bedroom to make a quick change of clothes...

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Tarrant blinked again. "The Bee...as in made-the-giant-bees Beekeeper? Crazy guy? I thought he was in Blackstone. Who the heck let him out? I didn't think he had many fans...."

Questions or not he was already moving - a lady and friend had asked him for help and that was clearly enough. Fortunately, his things were on the ground nearby; the breastplate was on with practiced ease, his sword and his coat not far behind. "Ready when you are," he said, pulling his goggles and face cloth out of his coat pockets. The earth wrapped up and around his project, forming a little shelter for it in case it rained while he was gone. "Your 'car' or mine?"

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"He's still in Blackstone," Stesha replied grimly. "There was a security breach, and he was able to create or smuggle in a large number of robot bees. The Beekeeper's greatest asset has always been that people don't take him seriously, including me, until it's too late." She pressed her lips into a frown. "Either someone got lazy or someone was paid off, but either way, he's created a standoff in there, and he's demanding to see me. If he did anything drastic in there, it could start a riot, or an escape, and people could die. I'll take us," she told Tarrant, "I know the way. Freedom Angel is meeting us at the jetty." Taking his hand, she teleported them both back to Earth Prime.

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Freedom Angel was already on the jetty when Fleur de Joie and Gaian Knight stepped out of one universe and into this one, the angel of freedom looking concerned at the sight of them both. "Gaian Knight," he said with a cordial nod, his halo just a flickering ring of golden fire against the emergency. He was more concerned with Fleur de Joie, who was just as far along as he'd expected. "Gabriel will be here momentarily. Fleur," he said, "we can handle this crisis with a shapeshifter if we have to." He didn't like that sort of deception, but could handle it if it were not him telling the lies. "Do not place your safety and your child's safety hostage to a madman's whims. Do you think you are in physical and spiritual condition for this?" he asked her with great seriousness. If she said she was, and meant it, he'd leave the subject be, but he could hardly let her go without asking.

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"After last time with Ace, I don't think he's going to buy that again," Stesha told Heyzel, sighing at another twinge in her back. Who knew that carrying around an extra 25 pounds of shifted center of gravity would cause so many spinal problems? "Anyway, I can't help but feel just a little curious. The thing with the murder... I know there was proof, but it just seemed so completely out of character for him," she said, a little reluctantly. "This is the same man who carries an epinephrine pen when he commits crimes, just so no one goes into shock on accident. Cold blooded murder doesn't seem like him. This on the other hand," she added, waving towards the prison, "is right up his alley."

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Gaian Knight blinked, resting his hand a little uneasily on his sword as he glanced toward the prison. "It sounds like I missed something...which is probably what I get for never watching the news, I guess, but could somebody give me the short version? So far I've got, 'Beekeeper killed somebody, but not really, maybe, and now he's taken over a prison.'"

Really, he observed to himself, frowning at the prison, this is what I get for never turning on my television. Or reading a newspaper, I guess....I suppose I should see about arranging for one or the other. Preferably television, but goodness knows how that'd work at the castle. "A prison that, presumably, isn't very easy to take over."

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"The case happened while I was away," said the angel, "but I investigated later, remembering the man and his deeds. Emma Twill, a wealthy superheroine, was found murdered in his cell at Providence Asylum: her throat cut, and her body covered in bee-stings. He swore his innocence, claiming an armored figure had brought her dying body to his cell in the middle of the night and that his guards had interrupted him in the life-saving process. The guards found no evidence of any such figure, but found no way she could have come dying to his cell any other way. I have met Barry Bowles, and looked into his heart. I do not believe him capable of murder, even in the depths of his madness. But I cannot know for sure until I ask him myself."

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There was the sound of slowly rolling thunder, then a white speck appeared in the sky above them, spiraling down towards the position of the three. After perhaps 15 seconds, the speck resolved itself into the speeding figure of Gabriel. With a strangely silent set of motions, he landed on the ground near the others, ending up in a slightly crouched position. He straightened and walked over to the others with a slight smile on his face, one that grew a bit at the sight of Fleur's condition. He moved to give her a gentle hug.

"Glad to see you're doing as well as can be expected. Hopefully we'll get this wrapped up quickly so you and the little one can get back to resting and preparing for the, ah, "big event"."

He moved over to Freedom Angel, a grin on his face. He offered the winged warrior of virtue a firm handshake.

"Heyzel, a pleasure to see you. Glad to hear you're back in town. Nasty business with that big wolf a bit back. Sorry we couldn't reunite under less trying circumstances."

Finally he moved to Gaian Knight, offering another firm handshake.

"Glad to work with you again as well. Looks like we've got a very solid team here."

He took a couple of steps back and glanced towards the prison for a moment, before his gaze returned to the little group they had assembled.

"Do we have much in the way of a plan yet?"

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"With the island's defense systems active, we can neither take the League's teleporters, burrow via Gaian Knight's terran abilities, or step through Fleur de Joie's plants. I recommend we fly in and rendezvous in the fort atop the central hill," he said, scratching onto the jetty with his sword a crude map of where they were going. "There is a secondary guard post there as well as the pathway down. From there we can plan our journey into the heart of the island and our meeting with its temporary master. I have been inside Blackstone to mission, but never when the facility was locked down. The League is not kept appraised of all the prison's abilities," he admitted, "in case of corruption above."

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Fleur hugged Gabriel back, giving him a rueful smile. "I'm afraid there's not much resting these days anyway, but I appreciate the sentiment. We aren't really going to know what's going on until we get in there, so we're playing things by ear, but with a team like this I'm sure we'll be fine. Not to mention the entire resources of the prison itself behind us. So," she continued, looking around at the three men, "Who wants to give me a lift?"

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Gaian Knight chuckled, gesturing at the nearby ground; a rather familiar-looking platform-mounted chair built itself out of stone and earth, decorated with etchings of vines and roots. "Your chariot, miss," he offered, gesturing grandly at the dirt-padded seat; the humor in his voice was a little more strained than it might have been, however, given the circumstances. "I'm sure it'll fall apart if we get too close to the prison building itself, but the other option is to just build a land bridge to the island...and somehow I don't think the warden would appreciate that much."

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Gabriel nodded as Freedom Angel outlined the plan.

"Sounds good. Keeps us flexible, and considering how chaotic things likely are, that's a good thing. Hm. Are any of the other prisoners loose, or just Bee-Keeper?"

He glanced towards Fleur, worry evident on his features.

"Hm. While you probably have to come along to help placate him, perhaps Heyzel and I could do much of the initial talking? I've heard some about what happened, but if you guys say this guy didn't kill that woman, I believe you. So if we go in there, telling him we know he's innocent...maybe this won't get too ugly."

He frowned at that thought, his gaze on the ground. However, he was not standing idle. Gaian Knight would suddenly hear a voice whispering in his ear.

"Hey, try not to react too much. You're the only one who can hear me. Listen. You've got that sword of yours, however good you are with it. And you've got hefty body armor. If things do go south, and I'm praying they don't, do you mind making sure Fleur gets out of there alright? I'm sure Freedom Angel and myself could manage to get out. Just nod once if you agree, or shake your head once if you decline."

With that, he returned to speaking normally, even as GK summoned Fleur de Joie's noble ride.

"Better than any ride I can offer, Fleur. Guess we're heading out?"

With that, Gabriel lifts into the air, waiting for the others to get moving. When they do, he matches pace with them, making sure not to race ahead, despite his urge to do just that.

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The short flight out to Blackstone would have been pleasant under any other circumstances; it was a blue, sunny day, the sort that made flying over open ocean peaceful. But none of the heroes felt peaceful, not today when innocent lives might be at stake. (One in particular, Freedom Angel thought, shooting a glance Fleur de Joie's way). As the League representative on the scene, he led the way as they touched down in the refurbished old Civil War fort that was Blackstone's topside command post, landing in the courtyard full of prison personnel: when lockdown had come in, non-essential personnel like interns, family members, and guards not needed for combat duty had been evacuated to the surface where they would be safe from any mass breakout. Meeting them at the surface was Abigail Wallace, the doctor and scientist who was, as she told them, the highest-ranking person to get out. "Drummer's still in his office, as far as I know. The man doesn't leave unless he's dragged out," the scientist said sourly.

"What are Bowles' demands?" asked the angel, trying to keep her on track. He didn't mind the sun overhead, and stood there as sunlight streamed down on his halo, making it seem to glow with special brightness. Or perhaps it was just a sign of how worried he was, and concerned for how the mad Bee-Keeper had come so far already. "How was he able to construct those machines we observed on the camera footage?" It was no idle question of judgement: if Bowles' powers had grown to include shaping matter, they had to know that now before they went below without access to their own abilities. He was going to miss the sword of truth, he reflected, remembering how readily he'd volunteered to help the prison learn to block his own connection to the angelic chorus while below.

"So far you know almost as much as we do," Wallace grumped. "Bowles is on psych watch, so they let him out of solitary to talk to our shrinks. He shouted so much he was bothering the other psych prisoners, so they put a steel plate around his cell to keep him from causing more trouble. One day, he demands to see his lawyer, and when he's being taken out these damn robot bees just burst out of his cell. Somebody's head's going to roll. I'm just glad my people all managed to get down and lock up the heavy weapons along the way. All he has access to is whatever he somehow cobbled together down there."

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As the group conferred with Wallace, the rising sound of heated argument eventually drew their attention to young woman in crimson and black in animated discussion with one of the guards. Setting her shoulder and clenching her fists at her sides, Jill O'Cure turned and stormed away, catching sight of the newly arrived heroes. Eyes lighting up, she hurried over with a wave. "Hey! Finally, excellent." The acrobatic Interceptor stood next to the ranking scientist with her hands planted on her hips. "Dok Archeville had me here helping in the infirmary, but when everything went all pear shaped they made me come up here even though, hello, mask and tights and everything over here!" Jill had obviously gotten herself a little wound up trying to convince the prison staff to let her lend more direct assistance, testily blowing an unruly lock of dyed black hair off of her bandana mask. "I've put bad guys in prison, y'know. I'm just saying." Calming down enough to really look at the assembled familiar faces, she blinked at Fleur. "Dios. Uh... shouldn't you be, y'know... lying down somewhere not full of supervillains?"

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"That would be my preference," Fleur admitted with a rueful smile, rising from her stony chair and sighing again over the back pain that pretty much everything was causing lately. "Unfortunately, we already used the "get a shapeshifter to play me" trick once, and even if we could somehow get a shapeshifter in there whose powers would keep working, I don't think he'd buy it. And we need to get him out of commission before somebody really gets hurt. I've read about escapes and riots here, and it's never pretty."

Rubbing her side absently, she stepped down from the rock platform and smiled at GK. "Thank you for the lovely ride," she told him with a smile. She turned to Wallace then. "How are we going to get down there, she asked, "and what sort of support will we have?"

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Gaian Knight started to break the chair down into rocky fragments, and then paused as he realized that probably wasn't going to do him any good at all. Right. This place was designed to hold supervillains - somehow I don't think I'm going to fare any better than they will. Ah, well.... What little of the chair had started to break apart re-assembled itself, though he drolly plucked one piece out of the air and put it in his pocket.

"Thank you for the lovely ride," she told him with a smile.

"Always a pleasure, miss," he replied, with a grin and an exaggerated bow. "I guess I'll just leave it here - I've apparently been volunteered to get you out of here if things go bad. Not that I wouldn't anyway, y'know, but at least you'll know why if I sling you over - ah. Hm." He paused, looking down at her stomach. "If I pick you up with care and consideration, and make for the nearest exit. And hello there," he offered Jill, with a slightly less exaggerated bow. "Jill, right? Look on the bright side: now you're out here with us, and we can march in there as a group instead of having to find each other in the chaos."

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Gabriel had kept his eyes sharp on the flight over. Thankfully, nothing attacked them during that stage of the journey. When they landed, he tried to take note of the mood in the yard. Thankfully, it seemed "tense by not panicked". He raised an eyebrow at Abigail Wallace's discussion of the Bee-Keeper.

"You mentioned he always got agitated, shouting a lot. Was it because no one believed his statement of innocence?"

He was mostly curious, but the whole situation seemed like it could have been avoided. Still, not the time for it. He smiled slightly as he saw another hero join their little group.

Jill, nice to see you. Glad you made it out safe. And they seem like they're sticklers for procedure around here. I'm sure you would have given Bowles a fight for it."

He glanced at the rest of the group, especially Fleur. He still didn't like her being here, necessary or no.

'I'm not losing the closest thing I've got to a Big Sister just because some crazy bee-obsessed man is upset.'

"Do you mind lending us a hand, Jill? I'm sure we could use your help. Fleur's right; the sooner we get this taken care of, the better."

At Gaian Knight's words on his assigned task, Gabriel was dutifully looking elsewhere, working hard to appear innocent. He turned to Wallace again.

"Just so I'm clear; you got all the staff out, you locked the heavy weapons up...are any other prisoners free, or just Barry Bowles himself?"

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"Jill O'Cure, welcome," said the angel, relieved to see the young woman who was both hero and healer. Under the circumstances, both of the lockdown and Fleur de Joie's pregnancy, she was a welcome addition to the team. "We can use all the assistance we can in this crisis." He hmmed, listening to the doctor's account. "Bowles' genius and his madness are both very great. Underestimating him would be a mistake for any of us. From what I know of his record, I imagine that so far he has released no other prisoners. Have any escaped?" he asked the doctor.

"Not as far as we know," said Wallace. "I'm not going to say none have, Lord knows we've been taken by surprise before, but from what our readouts up here tell us, all the cells are in lockdown. The only thing that'll get the prisoners out is a new code entered from the central computer or the emergency systems going off; a fire, a mass power usage, something where lives would be at stake. That'll activate the emergency teleporter which will drop them all in the League's backup facility in St. Helena. You're right about Bowles and the other inmates, though; he hasn't even tried getting them out. He's not very popular with the other prisoners, and it seems like the feeling was mutual."

"If the security protocols I read last were right," the angel said to Fleur and the others, checking with Wallace to make sure they were, "We will be able to go below via the main stairway in the central core. As that has physical rather than electronic blocks, it's all that operates when the facility is in this state. How many guards are there below?"

"About two dozen people are unaccounted for," replied Wallace. "Bowles has said he has some of them hostage...or, rather, that they are 'ransomed against the proof of his innocence', but not all of them are showing up on his feed. They'll just have tasers and body armor, but it'll at least be something. We have enough spare equipment to equip all of you that way," she added, "but nothing heavier goes into the prison while it's in lockdown and the inmates are conscious."

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Stesha looked more than a little dubious at the idea of as many stairs as would be needed to take them down into the prison itself, especially while wearing body armor, but there was no point in complaining about it now.She would just put all of this on Beekeeper's tab to settle up later. As she was fitted for some extremely poorly fitted armor, she asked Wallace, "What happens if we actually wind up finding he's got some credible evidence? Can we promise him he'll get a new trial with all the evidence? I know he's not getting out of jail just because he didn't commit every crime he was accused of. We need some bargaining chips besides me, because I'm not really interested."

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Jill felt oddly pleased with herself as she realized that she'd already met all of the assembled heroes, and apparently made a good enough impression previously that none of them argued to leave her topside. "Tch, like you could leave me behind if you wanted to, Labour Day," she scoffed with a broad grin in Gabriel's direction as the group was being outfitted with mundane equipment. "My costume's already got some protective weave," she explained as she turned down the body armor. "I'm more of a 'not get hit in the first place' gal anyway. Wouldn't say no to the taser, though. Never thought I'd miss the ol' Touch of Doom."

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