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Continued from >Leaves from the Vine

 

Well hell doesn't want you

And heaven is full

-Tom Waits

Earth-Z-Omega-1

Edge froze in shock as the toppling tower came down right where he was! Unable to dodge in time, instead he stood his ground and fired back. "NO!" His eyes glowing black, he fired straight upwards as the reality of this dead world warped around him at his will. He would not die because of a falling building! Mark Lucas would not let this, or anything else, stop his friends in their efforts to save all of existence from the dark machinations of Omega! At his command, the falling debris broke around him like a tide breaking around a rock, the so-small clear zone around him the only island of sanity beneath the avalanche of falling steel, concrete, and glass.

A falling brick bounced against his back, knocking him to his knees, but Mark did not fall as the collapsing debris fell around him, his powers warping the very air and very rocks to keep his friends from being buried by the avalanche, even if he wasn't able to save all of them from the damage produced by the collapsing Needle. Before he even focused on the aerial battle, he called out over the echoes of the collapse, "Young Freedom! Sound off!"

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"I'm over here," Wander called from over on the edge of the rubble-strewn area. She was dusty but untouched, though her face was even whiter than usual. "Seattle on EZO1," she said, then uttered a few entirely unheroic words. "Is everyone okay?" She began scrambling carefully over the fallen needle, looking for her comrades. It was easier to concentrate on that than on the battle nearby that shouldn't be happening, or on the rotting city beneath it. "Midnight, Sage, CT? Anybody hurt, anybody stuck?" Because Mark was there, she wasn't too worried about catastrophic damage from something as pedestrian as falling scenery, but it could slow them down.

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Throwing himself sideways to avoid being struck by a larger piece of the tower, Trevor rolled into a ball as smaller debris rained down across him back, coming up in a low crouch with his arms covering his face. As the worst of it subsided, he rose and took stock of their surroundings, making a short but clear response for the benefit of his teammates. "Here. Fine." Beneath his featureless black mask, the young man frowned. Seattle... It didn't make any sense; Freedom City was a focal point for interdimensional occurrences, that was why it had been the site of Omega's invasion, why the reality bombs had to be placed there. There was no reason for them to be in Erin's home city. Unless... what the cat was saying...

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Cobalt Templar stood there in mild shock for a couple of precious seconds; the war in the sky and the rapid transit between worlds had left him feeling a bit outpaced. And then a building tried to fall on him. Unfortunately, he wasn't quite quick enough on his feet or in flight to avoid it. He got a bit closer to the edge, but a lot of debris still fell on him. It didn't take long before his form was covered in rubble.

Once the major debris had settled, the pieces of building around where he had stood started to shake, before they were punched out of the way by one of Corbin's arms wreathed in energy. He pulled himself out of the wreckage, floating just above it. The young man in blue grimaced as he rubbed his left shoulder.

"I'm intact. Took some good bumps there, though. Guess it takes more than a building falling on me to knock my hard head out."

His smile was a bit forced as he carefully made his way towards the others.

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The telepath fought to will her limbs into motion as the tower collapsed around her and her teammates, but Eve's fatigue made her reaction time painfully slow. The former gymnast leapt backward, her movement still practiced and graceful despite how tired she was, managing to avoid the worst of what came her way but there was just too much falling to avoid it all. As the dust settled around her Eve looked up from the low crouch she adopted, arms raised protectively in front of her face and her heart leaped as she heard each member of Young Freedom sound off.

Rising to her full height, the white haired telepath surveyed the wreckage around her. "Here, uninjured." Eve started to brush the dust off her uniform but gave up with a sigh. "I need a bath."

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As the haze cleared all around them, the heroes of Young Freedom saw a winner in the struggle overhead: the big gleaming dot suddenly was in a death spiral towards the Earth, towards their location, in fact, while the half-dozen others in the sky turned and headed east. As the heroes pulled themselves out of the debris, the fallen craft crashed to Earth nearby, plunging into an assortment of rusted red pipes that had once been an abstract sculpture hereabouts. Keeping his distance from the broken-off stub of the Space Needle, Mark made his way towards the crash site where he found a bizarre figure and craft waiting for them stretched out on the ground.

That had been no spaceship in the air, it had been a bike! Though scored with plasma fire and damaged from the crash landing, the gigantic motorcycle still hummed with the power of an engine that had let it fly through the air, its body large enough to hold a half-dozen people and the alien writing on its surface showing it came from no Earthly garage. Not that any garages on Earth-EZ01 these days were making anything...unable to make heads or tails of the machine, Mark concentrated on the fallen driver: a tall, muscular humanoid with a solid build, his shiny red outfit torn by crash damage and his body equally battered and broken from the fall and wounds that unmistakable came from Omegadrone pikes.

Weakly, ignoring the concavity in his stomach that bled an alien purple blood, the rider looked up as the heroes approached. "Young...Young Freedom..." He coughed, his voice a shadow of what had once been heartiness. "I greet you on behalf of the Furions...my apologies for my appearance, but I was...I was not quite as clever as I thought I was over Freedom City. But the enemy will think me dead, and not trouble you here for the moment...and I think a moment is all I have..."

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The alien bike caught Midnight's attention immediately, but it was the vehicle's rider he saw to first. "No one dies today," the shadowy figure intoned in a flat, grating tone that dared anyone or anything to dare contradict him as he reached into his belt and withdrew basic first aid supplies. He could only make educated guesses about the fine points of Furion physiology, but it was enough to see to the pike wounds and immobilize the broken limbs until they could be treated properly. Wiping purple blood from his gloves, he nodded brusquely, indicating that their new ally could now take the time to tell his story in full.

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Wander stood guard as Midnight worked on the fallen Furion, alert to any hint of danger on the horizon. A subtle change had come over her since they landed on this dead world, a twitchy sort of watchfulness like that of a wild animal treading through ambush territory. She was alert at the best of times, but now it was ratcheted up a notch, rather like the Wander who Edge had met two years ago, but even more so. "Why Seattle?" she demanded tersely, even as Midnight finished his work. "There's nothing here to fight over!"

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"Hah! Good work, shadow-warrior," said the Furion, a smile on his bloody lips as he shifted his weight around. "I may yet see another sunset and more, if we are lucky..." He patted Trevor's shoulder with a hand nearly as large as Midnight's head. "My name is Red Falcon. Many years ago, when the heroes of your world came to the Terminus to fight Omega," he said, referencing the aftermath of the invasion of '65, "I met a man named Rick Lucas. He came to me recently and alerted me, and all the Furions, to Omega's most terrible plot yet." His eyes reddened with rage at the name of the dark lord of the Terminus, subsiding as he winced at the pain.

"I was to greet you here and alert you to the danger on the coast, where the forces of the Terminus rule what was once your home, but...I was careless, and forgot that even Omegadrones have eyes. I killed many, and more pursued, but now they will think me dead and report as such to their master." He studied the teens as he said, "Within days, Omega's last great bomb will be ready. If you have come this far, the multiverse may, and I say _may_, yet live if this world dies...but this world, and all stacked on it in this axis, will fall to the lord of the Terminus if he is not stopped."

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"Where is the bomb located? What sort of defenses surround it?" Sage inquired with little preamble. A part of her felt a twinge of remorse at pressuring someone for answers who was so nearly killed, and an unspoken apology briefly showed on the telepath's fair features.

Red Falcon was right, Sage reflected as she cast a sidelong look at her teammates, her friends. They had made it this far, and though they still had further to go, each step they made increased her confidence that they would see this through. As tired as they were, as bruised and battered they were both emotionally and physically, Sage couldn't think of a finer group of people with which to face Armageddon.

"And, I know this might be a small thing," Sage quietly added, "What with the stakes and all, but I don't suppose you know of a place I can close my eyes for a couple hours? Containing a runaway reactor is exhausting work."

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"Sounds like we just need to make sure this world doesn't fall."

He frowned a bit.

"I guess my one big question is...if they've got a beachhead here, what's to stop them from making another bomb and putting it here again? I mean, the other dimensions, they'll probably be on higher alert. Harder to get these things in. But..."

He lapses into silence, glancing towards Erin. He didn't know the full depth of her story. He'd caught edges of it, and could infer this place was bad memories for her. But there was a lot at stake.

"But it sounds like they've got a base or something here. Just how large are the forces of the Terminus in this place, right now?"

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"Freedom City has become a stronghold of Omega," replied Red Falcon seriously. "The skies are black with Omegadrones, and Terminus towers have replaced the old skyscrapers. It is a city of the walking dead." With Mark's help, he sat up, leaning against a fallen piece of debris. "If the Terminus towers here are destroyed, then this universe's connection to the Terminus will be severed. Omega will not go hunting a lost scrap when there are innocents to hound; he will leave it bide. As for where to rest...I saw no living survivors as I passed over the continent, and no Omegadrones east of the furthest mountains, the Appalachians. If you can rest here, you can rest anywhere." He let out a slow breath. "Omega will be ready in days, I believe. Your time is short."

"We'll do it," Mark promised the man. "We'll get to Freedom City, we'll stop the bomb, and we'll make sure that Omega can't destroy this world or any others today." He hesitated a moment, as if trying to summon up a memory, then shook his head. "I could swear I've seen those bombs before," he admitted. "The cosmic bombs we've spent all this time dealing with. Somewhere right in Freedom City, but I wasn't...I wasn't paying enough attention. It was in the past, anyway...no matter. We'll find the ones here, we'll get rid of them, and we'll save the whole goddamned multiverse," he added with an uncharacteristic oath. "Whatever we have to do."

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Wander became very still as she listened to what had become of her world, of the Freedom City she'd spent months scouring for parts as the only living soul. She'd imagined it more than once falling into decay and then into dust, but she couldn't have imagined anything like its real fate. She hoped against hope that when the Doctor Atom here had shut down his program, he had made it completely irrecoverable. The Terminus had killed her world, and now they were infesting it, using it as a tool for destruction on an unthinkable scale.

"We'll bring them down," she promised the Furion, color returning to her face in the form of feverish blots of pink on her cheekbones. "They'll be very sorry to have tried anything here." She looked over to Sage. "I know where some camping supplies stores are in the city. Some of the stuff should still be good after a few years, but you definitely don't want to try sleeping in any of the buildings. It's not good." She looked at the others, looked at Trevor. "I have... I've got to do something quick. I'll be back in a few minutes." With a single leap she was gone, high in the sky and heading for the husk of Seattle's suburban ring.

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Midnight stood perfectly still for a long moment as Wander's silhouette dwindled into the distance. Eventually, he raised two fingers to press the comlink in his ear beneath his mask. "Can have Mark teleport me to you instantly," he noted quietly, drawing on his considerable self-control to keep his voice even. After another, briefer pause, he added, "Don't think you should do this alone."

Turning back to face the others, he rolled his shoulders subtly and addressed Red Falcon. "Let's get your bike back in the air."

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There was a noticeable moment of silence over the comm, much longer than could be explained by mechanical delay. "I have to see," Erin's voice came back over the line, tight and controlled. "We haven't got much time to waste, I know, and you've got work to do It'll just... I won't be long. I'm already there." She cut communications again, the beep on the end indicating that she'd turned off her communicator beacon.

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Edge looked a little uncomfortably at Midnight, flexing his hands in unconscious anticipation. While he'd never heard the details of Erin's world's demise, maybe because at the end of the day he just didn't want to know, it had been plain to him how tense and emotional she was here, and he knew how hard it had to have been for Trevor to see her like that and be unable to help. "What do you need, Midnight?" he whispered to Trevor urgently. Down below, Red Falcon said, a little disconsolately, "Yes, I took the brunt of that last hit, but Redbird suffered for it all the same, didn't she? Redbird, describe yourself to the shadow warrior."

The battered bike spoke in a shaky electronic voice. "Redbird is autonomic machine intelligence from the Silver Free. I have suffered 60% damage from impact including flight stabilizers and gyroscopes. Core intact. Power systems intact. Need repairs to be able to fly."

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Unseen beneath his mask, Midnight ground his teeth in frustration. Any other time, he would have jumped at the opportunity to work of such a magnificent vehicle. As it was, they needed Redbird fixed as soon possible; there simply wasn't any time for delays or distractions. The young man knew, however, that there was no way he'd be able to work properly while he worried about Erin, especially once he noted that she hadn't actually said she wanted to complete her side trip on her own. The indecision very nearly froze him in his tracks just as it had the day his own Freedom City had been overrun with the undead, albeit briefly. Since that day, however, he'd put a considerable about of his planning ability toward figuring out third options in case of similar quandaries.

"Sage, get in my head, access mechanical skills," he instructed, removing a number of tools from his belt and jacket and handing them over to the diminutive telepath. "Should be enough to get back in the air; can't complete full repairs out in the open anyway." Then, deliberately, he unfastened his mask and let it hang about he neck. "Mark, get me to her. Please," Trevor asked his friend, his onyx and ruby eyes showing a hint of strain through the stoicism.

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Sage gave Midnight a considering look before shaking her head slightly. "You read my mind," Sage replied, "Go take care of what you need to, we'll be fine here." As she spoke in a reassuring French-accented soprano the young telepath gently started to scan her friend's mind, mentally guided by Midnight to the skills he felt were appropriate and transferring that knowledge to herself.

With a faint smile she gave a curt nod the the stoic sleuth, indicating she was finished. The mental duplication was tiring work, and Sage found herself feeling even more tired than when she arrived on this dead world. She pushed through the fatigue, though, and set to work repairing the damaged Redbird.

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"See you soon, Midnight," said Edge with a little nod. Once he had something close to the address in hand, he waved his hands, dropping the usual cheerful theater he used at moments like this, and Trevor disappeared from sight as if he'd ducked around a corner, reappearing within eyeshot of Erin and her house. For his part, Mark rubbed his eyes tiredly, focusing on the others and said, "All right, let's get to fixing this bike!" He had no idea how to do that, of course, but he could follow along, and it seemed like Red Falcon, Sage, and even Cobalt Templar had some idea what they were doing. Redbird was full of chatter as well, eager to help herself get repaired and back into the fight against Omega. Gradually, they began getting the antigravs online again, one after another with little chunka-chunkas.

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Trevor arrived on the sidewalk facing Erin's home, in the middle of what had once been a fairly affluent middle class neighborhood. The house was big, though nothing compared to his own place, two stories with a two car garage and a decent yard that was now a calf-high wilderness of grass and brush. A basketball hoop with the net rotted away hung above the garage, and a pink bike with one training wheel was rusting on the edge of the cracked and broken driveway. The mailbox next to him was leaning at a precarious angle, but the word WHITE was still clearly visible on the side. The front door of the house was hanging open and looked like it had been for a long time, but otherwise the house's structural integrity was not too bad. It was better than its neighbor, certainly, whose roof had been caved in by a tree years ago. It wasn't until Trevor looked straight down next to him that he saw the skull just behind him on the sidewalk, bleached white and laying there innocuously as a deflated volleyball.

From the look of the yard, Erin had touched down in the driveway and made her way immediately to the house, wading through the lawn as though it weren't even there. A clear path of destroyed vegetation led to the front porch, where the door creaked softly in the June breeze. Following the trail, Trevor walked into the house as well. A strong odor of mildew and mold pervaded the air as what had once been a tasteful entryway carpet that was probably not green squelched under his feet. Animal droppings littered the floors and the steps leading to the upstairs, but it was still possible to see the house as it had been, lived in and cared for, abandoned in haste and left to the elements. Clear and recent footprints in the mossy carpet led down the hallway towards the rear of the house.

He found Erin in the kitchen, which had once been a spacious and open room with sunny yellow walls and broad windows overlooking the backyard playset. It had held up a little better than the front of the house, though it was probably better not to dwell too long on the faint fetid aroma from the browning refrigerator, or what had chewed holes in the four-year old boxes of cereal and pasta on the counters. Erin was crouched on the floor in front of the sink, staring at the patterns of discoloration in the tile as though she expected it to confer some secret to her. Her head whipped up as Trevor entered, her hand going momentarily to the bat at her belt. It was a mark of her distraction that she hadn't heard him coming sooner. Her face registered momentary consternation, but she obviously had no energy to spare arguing with him.

Instead, she turned her face back to the floor. "I don't see anything," she admitted quietly. "I had a picture in my head of how it would be, but I forgot that this place would decay like everything else. I thought if I saw where he died, I would know how it was, how it happened. But I don't."

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For a long moment Trevor stood there in silence. Any tactician worth anything had to know where his weaknesses lay, and the young man was painfully conscious that that his sense of timing in moments like these was often lacking. There as no way he could make seeing her childhood home in such a state any less painful, but as Erin explained why she'd needed to come, he realized that it was the uncertainty, the not knowing that would have been most difficult for him. It was at least a place to start. "Do... you want me to... Might be able to turn up a clue," he finished lamely, unsure how to phrase the offer.

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Erin considered the offer for a moment, looking sightlessly down at the fading pattern on the kitchen tiles. She remembered when they were new, and how she'd gotten in trouble for rollerskating in the kitchen and scratching a couple of tiles. Now wasn't the time, she knew. If they got out of this, when they got out of this and had saved the word and gone back to Prime, then she could spend the time to unpack all the memories that were crowding in on her. For now, though, she had to stay on target.

Nodding, she stood up, moved aside to let Trevor in. Her eyes were a little wide, her blinking a little frequent, but she was holding it all together for now. "I don't know very much," she told him. "Our next door neighbor broke in the door looking for food and supplies, because the quarantine made it hard to travel anywhere. He found my dad on the kitchen floor, and it was early enough then that someone still came and buried him. There must be mass graves somewhere, probably outside the city, I guess. I just... if I knew what happened to him, then I would know."

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For his part, Mark rubbed his eyes tiredly, focusing on the others and said, "All right, let's get to fixing this bike!" He had no idea how to do that, of course, but he could follow along, and it seemed like Red Falcon, Sage, and even Cobalt Templar had some idea what they were doing. Redbird was full of chatter as well, eager to help herself get repaired and back into the fight against Omega. Gradually, they began getting the antigravs online again, one after another with little chunka-chunkas.

For a while, Cobalt Templar simply helped with the repairs, mostly by holding parts in place as the others reshaped or reattached them. Occasionally he'd mention something he'd noticed that would speed the repair; otherwise, he was pensively quiet.

"How much do we need to wreck in Freedom City?"

He was still watching the work on the bike, but it was clear he was speaking to Red Falcon.

"To cut the Terminus connection, that is. Even if this place doesn't get reality-bombed, seems like a good idea to keep them from getting anything out of absorbing this place. Or whatever it is they do."

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"The cosmic bomb must be destroyed," said the injured Furion carefully as he watched and guided the teens in their work. "That much is certain. To save this dimension, it will be necessary to destroy most of what remains of Freedom City," said Red Falcon frankly. "If the towers are made to fall and the gateways inside them destroyed, the forces of the Terminus will be forced into retreat. By the time they return, this world will have drifted and no longer be the keystone of this axis. I had planned to use Redbird's city-busting weapons to do so, but with her damage..."

"Redbird capable of destruction," said the bike a little defensively. "But not at full maximum without antimatter infusion."

"I can destroy a city," said Edge, not quite looking at the others. "I know how tough Terminus metal is," he added, twisting a smartsteel wretch in his hands back and forth nervily, "But...yeah, yeah, I can destroy something the size of Freedom City." It was a bald statement from the reality warper, but it certainly fit what the others had seen of Mark's tremendous capabilities. "Like I did back on Anti-Earth, but on a bigger scale. If we can stop the bomb first, and destroy the Omegadrones and whatever else is guarding it, I can take the city itself out."

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Trevor let out a quiet breath and nodded in understanding. For all he's been through alongside Young Freedom in the past year, he was very much still growing into the role of Midnight, and with all of the constant fighting, he was still out of practice at the more investigative aspect of the job. On a scene several years old, however, he suspected they'd only be able to discover rudimentary clues anyway. He just hoped the answers were ones Erin could live with.

Removing what looked like a long, thin flashlight from his belt, the young man shone it about the floor, casting a black light over the unmaintained kitchen tile. Simultaneously, a miniaturized camera at the tip of the matte black cylinder sent information back to his palm sized tablet for analysis, creating a portable if crude crime lab. Before long, the telltale glow of blood was revealed, and even without regarding the calculation on his handheld computer, Trevor recognized the distinctive splatter of a gunshot wound. Bending over, he peered about under the cabinets and cupboards, eventually using the light to fish out an abandoned handgun that had evidently been dropped and slid underneath. A cursory examination confirmed that it had been fired once and he looked up at Erin wordlessly from his low crouch, knowing that she could draw the obvious conclusion for herself. He watched her face intently for her reaction, raking his mind for anything he could do to make the revelation easier.

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