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The Pine Barrens
Thursday, January 4th, 2012
2:32 PM


In all honesty, Cannonade could think of better places to be on a Thursday afternoon off from work. Walking down the Boardwalk, or getting a coffee and snack at the Black Petal. But here he was, flying in a helicopter over the Pine Barrens, looking for strange trees.

Then again, he had to thank AEGIS for getting him out of work in the first place. They'd called him up with the assignment, and one call to the steel mill later - apparently cellulitis was the hot thing this year for sick day excuses - he had the next few days off, fully compensated. Which meant he was waiting for the other shoe to drop when Commander Grayston, who'd put him on the Nina al-Darsah job earlier in the year, swung by his apartment.

"Aerial surveillance over the Barrens caught these a few days ago," Grayston had said, tossing a folder Joe's way. He'd picked it up and flipped through it. First was a photo from the sky, of a seemingly endless row of the famous pine trees of the Barrens -- only the needles were ash gray, and falling out in clumps on some trees. Next came photos from the ground, depicting the trees in more detail. The branches seemed to have grown in upon themselves, swelling until they burst or wrapping around themselves, and the trunks had turned the same pale color as the needles. A before-after picture, complete with time stamp, showed an AEGIS agent, clad in an NBC suit, taking an axe to one tree -- and felling it with one chop, as a large chunk of the base seemed to turn to dust with the impact.

"...so, what, really local forest fire?" Cannonade had asked. "Budding firestarter?"

"There was no chemical evidence of a forest fire -- no smoke traces, nothing. And unless this theoretical pyrokinetic could shut off his own fires, the damage would have spread farther than this. No, we've seen something like this before. Farmland around Salem, Massachusetts, 1927. Something fell onto a local settlement, spreading effects similar to the fallout of a nuclear explosion... only much more concentrated and with more mutagenic properties."

"Great. Nukes. Mind telling me what this thing was?"

"If we knew, we'd tell you. The phenomenon... vanished, just as quickly as it appeared. All any eyewitness could describe it as was a 'color,' similar to the Northern Lights. In any case, this seems to be the highest burst of damage from whatever it is - odds are that was the impact site - but we did find subtle evidence of a trail leading east. It's only a matter of time before this thing finds civilization."

"And you want me to go in before it gets there," Cannonade had said. "All right. Mind if I make some calls?"

The rest of the Liberty League had come out at the call - well, except for Ace Danger and Bombshell, who were still tied up in some sensitive business in Saudi Arabia - and, attended by more than a few AEGIS technicians, they scanned the Barrens from the air, looking for some sign of whatever was prowling through the woods, spreading blight as it went.

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Edge looked unusually subdued today, particularly for the generally ebullient reality warper. Peering out the windows of their helicopter for any sign of the damaged trees they were concerned about, he tried to stay awake in the vibrating helicopter as he drank coffee borrowed from Midnight. Mark was many things, but not actually superhuman physically, and his UNISON work had been keeping him busy. It didn't help how cold it was; weeks of work in the tropics made a Freedom City winter uncomfortably cold even for a lifelong Freedom City native like Mark. But Mark wasn't one to complain, particularly not in uniform while on a mission, and so blinked back fatigue as he kept his eyes open.

"I wonder if we should try and recruit an alien," he said thoughtfully, not taking his eyes off the scenery as he talked. "Or someone with more experience with outer space. We all fought the last time the Grue showed up, but none of us have a lot of experience with weird magic from space." He had some personal experience with weird magic, but somehow he doubted a genie was to blame here.

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"If there's a trail, we can follow it," Wander predicted, looking out the window two rows down from Edge. In contrast to the reality warper's dour mood, she was looking more relaxed than she had been for quite awhile, maybe since summer or even before. The holidays with their load of emotional freight were over, and she and Trevor were pretty okay again, and things were looking up. She'd even consented to let Frank muscle her into a shimmering silver dress so she could ride around town in a limousine and attend several immensely fashionable parties with Trevor. She wasn't even going to pretend that had been any hardship. The Hunter scion, for all he preferred masks and uniforms, looked very, very good in a tuxedo. The sunglasses he wore for his unspecified "eye condition" did make him look a bit like a spy or a secret service agent, but that wasn't too bad either. And when they'd both relaxed enough to take a few fast swings around the dance floor at a party thrown by one of Travis' friends, she'd almost forgotten it was the holidays at all.

Now, three days later, she was rested and alert, ready to get back to hero work. She still hadn't clued Mark in to her reduced powers, but figured the occasion would arise eventually. She did worry a little bit about leaving HAX for a few days with the security still so new, but Harrier- no, Steve Murdock, she corrected herself in her head, would do a fine job looking after things for a couple of days. Last time Cannonade had called them for a job, it had blown open an interdimensional espionage plot. It seemed wise to listen when he'd called about this one. "Do we know anything about what happened to the civilians last time something like this was recorded?"

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Though perhaps not overly thrilled with their means of transportation, Midnight's featureless mask and stoney demeanor remained unreadable as he leafed through the files provided by AEGIS. He took anything from the government agency with a substantial grain of salt; Jack Simmons was very much a person non grata around the Hunter household and about the only reason Trevor agreed to look into the case at all was to imagine the look of the so-called Patriot's face when they did what his hand picked men couldn't. Still, the lab reports seemed reliable enough. "Extended exposure fatal with a week." Turning a page to review a number of disturbing photos, he continued, "Madness. Withering. Organ failure."

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"Jesus," said Cannonade. "Can't say I'm surprised, given what it's doing to the plant life, but..." He looked out over the forest, islands of green pine amongst a sea of bare gray branches. He flipped through his own folder, taking a look at the containment process that had been used the first time around. The "color" had taken refuge in the farm's well, which fortunately hadn't gone deep enough to plug into the county's water table. They'd sealed the well with an impenetrable lead cage and an early radiation detector; once the thing was drawn into the cage, it was locked up tight and sealed away for observation, but the sheer concentration of lead had caused it to mostly dissipate by the time it was introduced to a lab setting. Operating from that idea, the helicopter carried a lead cage loaded with a prototype "radiation scrubber" to help aid with the process. The problem would be getting the thing into the cage. If it was free roaming...

A pinging from the equipment brought Cannonade out of his research. "We've got something," said one of the AEGIS techs. "Eight hundred yards out." He looked out the window; in the distance, he saw a patch of pines amongst the bare oaks. Only these ones were just as gray as their leafless cousins.

"Okay. I can take the cage down on my back. Edge, you think you can whip something up to lure it in?"

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Edge had no idea what the Color out of Space would find attractive. Brief visions of a floating, inhumanly-colored mass with lipstick and long blonde hair crossed his mind, and Mark was tired enough to find that pretty amusing before he buckled down and concentrated on what he was trying to accomplish. "Okay, let me think..." He considered for a moment, concentrating hard, and holding his hands in front of him. As he concentrated, something made of shaped metal formed in his hands, an electric motor emblazoned with arcane symbols and a felt-lined bag behind it, an old-fashioned piece of housewares and so much more. He handed it to Cannonade and said, "It's just like the one Adrian Eldritch made for my grandpa when they were fighting the Ghost-Kaiser's Spook Army back in '43. It looks like a vacuum, but it actually blows ghosts and things around. Pretty handy."

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Cannonade looked somewhat skeptical at first when his eyes fell on the giant ghost vacuum. But when he heard about the pedigree involved, he nodded - he'd read about the Ghost-Kaiser's assault on Nice, and how said spectral dust buster had proven essential to turning the tide. Plus, given some of the things he'd seen Edge pull off before, he knew there was some real power in the spirit sucker.

"Yeah, that looks like it'll get the thing's attention," he said. "Hell, if it's got the same pull as the original, we may be able to bring the thing right to us. Think we should set down here, or try and get right on top of this thing's head?"

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"The pilot shoudn't need to land at all," Wander pointed out, automatically running her fingers over her sheathed bat as she looked to the window. "We may as well get as close as we can, maybe even cut it off. We don't want to be stuck chasing it through this kind of terrain. She smiled a little ruefully when she saw Edge's choice of weapon, then took it from Cannonade to free him up to carry the trap. Shouldering it like a bulky rifle, she began to make her way to the back of the plane. "You got a parachute on you," she asked Midnight offhandedly, "or do you want a ride to the ground?"

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"Avoid repacking 'chute," Midnight explained, stepping closer to Wander to place an arm confidently around her waist. While his midnight mist-saturated muscle tissue was, in truth, very nearly a match for Erin's super-serum granted durability these days, she was still far better at sticking a landing from a great height. If that rationale afforded him an opportunity to put his arm around his girlfriend, well, he was after all widely considered to be a master at turning any situation to his advantage.

Familiar himself with history of the outlandish device Mark had chosen to duplicate, the masked man let its nature go without comment. He only hoped it would prove effective against a target they had precious little real intelligence regarding. If not, it would be his job to come up with an immediate Plan B.

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"All right," Cannonade said. He moved up to the doors of the helicopter, and waited. He looked out over the Barrens, a sea of green that seemed to swallow their little island of gray. He heard the pinging from the AEGIS equipment getting louder, until he turned back to see one of the techs giving the go signal. He was out of the helicopter in a flash, plummeting towards the earth below. He reached out for a branch to help him brace his fall -- but felt the branch crumble to dust as soon as he wrapped his hand around it.

"Aw, cra --"

He hit the ground with a thud - not hard enough to do any lasting damage, but enough that he definitely made some noise. He pulled himself to his feet quickly, scanning the forest for signs of the phenomenon. To his surprise, despite the readings from above, there was no unnatural color washing over the clearing.

There was, however, a human figure, standing between the trees not twenty feet off. Cannonade edged forward, wondering if some hiker had gotten lost in the woods and started looking into why the trees looked like cigarette butts. As he got closer, he realized the man was somewhat fit, in his 30s, with a military grade buzz cut and tattered clothes. His sense of danger was already pinging when the man rounded on him, his eyes glowing with a shade that defied description.

"All right, I don't know if you speak English," he said, "but on the really, really off chance, get the hell out of him. Now."

The man opened his mouth in a silent scream, and charged forward.

"Ah, well. Worth a try."

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"Oh, geez!" called Edge, roused out of his funk and exhaustion by the sheer surprise of the glowing-eyed drifter. Maybe this wasn't what he'd signed up for, but no one could ever say that Mark Lucas wasn't ready in a pinch. "Look, we've dealt with hideous abominations from the depths of space before," he called reassuringly to his team, "this isn't going to be any different. We've just got to try and get that thing out of that man before he does any more damage! Sir," he added, calling to the host of the Color Out of Space, "We're going to get you some help as fast as possible! Midnight, try and scare the thing out of his body, maybe that'll give him a chance to take control." For a moment, he sorely missed Sage. "Wander and Cannonade, try and keep the monster from running away with that guy's body!"

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Wander jumped from the plane with one arm snugly around Midnight's waist, a well-practiced maneuver that had both of them reaching the ground with no more than a soft thud from her sneakers. She looked around to make sure the others had landed all right, then turned just in time to see Cannonade engage with the possessed hiker.

Instinct had her nudging Midnight backwards as the hiker charged, even as she drew her bat. "On it!" she called in response to Edge's suggestion, leaping to close the distance between her and the stranger. "Sorry about this," she told the hiker before jumping on him. A quick tap with her bat had him on the ground, where judicious application of pressure on the bat across his chest kept him down for the moment.

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Confident that anyone pinned by Wander wasn't going anywhere any time soon, Midnight sauntered almost casually over to the possessed hiker, kneeling down opposite the auburn haired powerhouse to stare dispassionately at the trapped hiker. In a toneless, gravelly rumble he spoke simply, "Leave him. Now." It was madness, to think that such a command would be obeyed, but something about the cold, red glare of the black clad hero promised horrors only faintly imagined if he was defied, spoke of the terrible confidence that came with absolute dominion over any power that dared stand in his way. From within its host, the indescribably glowing eyes looked up into the face of darkness... and blinked.

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The thing inside the man's body had seen the depths of space, the great gasping void, the silence stretching for eternity. That still didn't stop it from feeling fear when Midnight came bearing down on it. The part of it that recognized language comprehended the intent behind the words - he was going to try to hurt it, and hurt it bad. If only these bonds weren't holding it...

The thing's eyes flared with indescribable light. It turned its hand down towards Wander's arms, and half-glimpsed flares shot out. Fortunately, Wander managed to twist with the shot, and the beams missed her arms entirely. A few yards down, a patch of green grass turned brown, then gray, then crumbled into dust. Cannonade stepped forward, looking the hiker over. There was no real way to drive it out without harming the host... but if it was tied tight to the body, then Edge's trap might not work. Guess I just gotta make it so that sticking around isn't a good option.

Cannonade sized up his foe, then drove his fist into the possessed man's gut. He let out a gasp and something that sounded like language, then went limp in Wander's arms. The light in his eyes flared brightly, and then streamed out into the air. The thing floated above the clearing like a beautiful and terrible beacon.

"All right, the thing's out! Edge, mind showing us what that thing can do?"

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"Use the switch, the switch!" called Edge, gesturing to Cannonade and pointing to the big brass on/off switch on the ghost vacumn. To demonstrate, he hit the button himself and immediately the ghost-catching machine went into action, rumbling to life as a mighty suction began from its chrome-finished mouth, the air around the Color visibly rippling as it and all around it began to be pulled deeper and deeper into the maw of the whirring diesel-age ghost-hunting machine. "C'mon, you alien jerk!" Mark barked as the machine did its work. "Time to put you where you belong! In a paper bag!" Normally Mark didn't like the thought of yelling at someone because of where they were from, but the Color really did seem like a pretty bad guy, so it wasn't so unfair as all that.

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The air rippled as the grand antique apparatus roared to life. Trails of indescribable radiance rippled off the greater mass of the color, boiling away in mid-air. The thing struggled against the draw of the machine, pulsing and flaring desperately, even trying to reestablish purchase on its old home with one thin luminous tendril. But the pull of the ghost trap proved too much, sucking the color up within its confines. The machine shut off soon after, filled with its quarry.

Cannonade smiled. "That was easier than I thought," he said as he walked over towards the thing's former host. "We can call the helicopter back, get this thing back to the AEGIS techs, and --" He took a look down at the man, splayed out on the forest floor, and frowned. He bent down, and gently pressed his fingers against the man's neck.

"...uh, guys? He's dead."

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Edge couldn't do much about that, busy as he was with holding the space ghost in place. He balanced the ghost vacumn on his knee, careful not to strain his arms as the machine maintained its suction against the color out of space."Oh, man, that's not good!" he called out. "Can he be saved? Should I try porting us back to the Manor?" He wasn't at all sure he could carry all of them simultaneously while also restraining his spectral quarry, but as ever Mark was willing to give it a shot. After all, a man's life was at stake, or might be!

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Erin dropped her bat and tugged the hiker's jacket open, running the instructions for CPR through her head. He'd lost consciousness only moments ago, if Edge could teleport them to a hospital... Her hands stilled as soon as she pressed them against the man's chest. "He's really dead," she realized, pulling back as though burned. "I mean, he's been dead for a while. Jeez, what is it with us running into old stored corpses?" She brushed off her hands, then made herself examine the body again. "He's got the mottled skin, um, lividity, you don't get that till you've been dead awhile, but there's no real sign of decompositon, no rigor. Body's real cold."

With the coat already open, she pushed up the tattered shirt to get a better look at the skin. It was distasteful, but her face was set and her hands steady. "He's got a whole lot of tattoos," she observed. "That might make it easier to identify him. We should check his clothes too."

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"Hnn." Midnight allowed himself an audible grunt as he rolled up one of the corpse's sleeves to get a better look at the tattoos inscribed there. For the most part they were unknown to him, but he recognized enough to infer the general intent. The symbols were wards against evil, the sort of inscriptions that were potentially handy even for the mystically uninclined to know off-hand, just in case. They also seemed to have been intentionally reversed, however, as if too lock evil within rather than without. He told the others as much, albeit in fewer words. "Possession post or pre-mortem...?" the detective murmured to himself as he continued his examination. Coming across a tattoo that didn't match the others he paused. "Spetnaz. Complication."

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"Spetsnaz?" Cannonade took a look over the body; the guy did sort of have that military air to him. "Huh. All right, so Midnight's got a point. When did this guy end up possessed? I mean, he doesn't look like he clawed his way out of the grave, but... well, I suppose the thing could have killed him when it entered. Question is, when? And what the hell is an ex-Spetsnaz guy doing in the Pine Barrens? This a Russian Mafia thing?" He took a look at the tattoo Midnight had dug up. "Huh. There are a few guys at work who served in Iraq. Some of 'em got the symbol of their battalion or corps tattooed on 'em. I wonder..."

Cannonade pulled out something like a smartphone, snapping a picture of the tattoo. He then placed a call, putting it on speakerphone.

"Cardinal," said Grayston.

"Yellow."

"That you, Cannonade? Is the bogey neutralized?"

"We've got it contained, will be working it back to base as soon as we can. We got another issue, though. This thing had a host. Once it was expelled, the host keeled over. We're not really sure if he was alive and kicking when the thing was still in him."

"Hmm. Any identifying marks?"

"Yeah, you could say that." He pressed a button on the device. "Guy's got a military tattoo on his arm. Looks like Spetsnaz. This look like standard issue, or like it belongs to a specific unit?"

"I can tell you it's not generic; usual Spetsnaz GRU standard is a hand gripping a Kalashnikov against a star background. The eagle's unique... here. That belongs to the 5th Detached Special Operations Battalion. Operated out of the Ural Mountains."

"So guessing the band broke up at some point? This guy might have become a freelancer?"

"You... could say that. The unit was disbanded following a classified field incident in 1959."

"What?" Cannonade took a look at the dead man. He couldn't have been older than 35. "Yeah, that's definitely an issue..."

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"The Russian commando guys?" asked Mark, bending down on his own to study the body of the unfortunate ex-soldier. "Well that's odd." He hmmed, thinking about what he knew about the Russian government. "We could pop him over to the consulate and see if anyone there recognizes him...but that might not go over well." He winced at the image. "Yeah, better not. We could take him back to the manor and see if you can do anything to ID him, I suppose...or I could pop us over to one of the UNISON offices in Russia and we could get hooked up right there!" He thought about that one, then admitted, "I guess it makes more sense to take him back to the Manor for more study, and then pop over to Russia based on what we find?"

When Cannonade relayed the results of his phone call, Mark's eyebrows furrowed together for a moment before he stood up again. "He's dressed weird for a time traveler...maybe he's real old? All right. Let's take him where he can get a full autopsy, and then I can get us to people in Russia who can offer us some further information." He nodded at that. "I know some people who were around back then."

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"Body could have been preserved for decades," Midnight pointed out. They had no way of knowing how long the corpse had been possessed; either someone might have only brought it out of storage recently for that purpose or the unnatural occupant might have been able to prevent decay with its mere presence. Either way, the evidence was continuing to point toward premeditation and responsible parties beyond the 'colour' itself. "Hnh. Autopsy first," he agreed with Edge.

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Edge did as Midnight had suggested and teleported them all to the Manor in a flash of black light that was beginning to look more and more like a puff of genie magic these days. He didn't worry about that, though, instead he concentrated on assisting Trevor with the autopsy: for all that sometimes Mark was completely insane, as he and Midnight worked with the body he was as calm and professional as anyone else. They had speed-scientists on speed dial, of course, both genius Claremont graduates as well as former teachers and mentors, but it seemed more efficient to do the job in-house if possible given the time constraints they might be operating under. When the job was finally done, he waited around for Trevor to finish processing the results (which he lacked the ability to process) before they got ready to hop away to Siberia.

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Midnight was beginning to see a pattern in cases handed to Cannonade by AEGIS in so much as he continued to find himself performing autopsies. The multitalented young man supposed that wasn't so surprising considering the reactionary slowness of the agency, but that may have been his own distaste speaking. What he found inside their former commando made him once again wish they had a more dedicated medical specialist around to deal with such things. "Practically turned to dust from massive radiation overdose," he reported to the others after using the Manor's equipment to compensate for his more general training. "Used corpse like a battery operated meat-puppet."

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"It kills people and turns them into zombies," Erin murmured, her lips barely moving. She'd stayed nearby while the autopsy was being performed, but hadn't participated in the somewhat gruesome ritual. Even staying in the room had cost her face some color, this revelation leached out a bit more. "Can you tell how long it was in that body?" she asked Trevor. "If it has a hard time changing hosts, that could give us an advantage." Her fingers danced restlessly over the bat at her belt, her eyes focused on the now quiescent (and much dissected) corpse.

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