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February 2012


Battered and bruised, the members of the Liberty League watched as the Yamato Kaiju collapsed to the beach in a shower of burning debris, the robotic titan originally constructed by the finest engineers of the Imperial Japanese Army, circa 1943, finally defeated by the combined efforts of Freedom City's legacy super-team. Once forty feet high, capable of breathing radioactive fire and shrugging off heavy weapons fire, now it was nothing more than one more shattered legacy of World War II that had crashed against the rocks of the next generation of Freedom's heroes.

It was cold on the February beach, but the brilliant red and white flames rising from the burning skin of the fallen robot dinosaur kept the more fragile heroes like Edge warm as he studied the fallen wreck. Mark wasn't one for a lot of abstract thought, but even he was moved by the sight of the fallen behemoth. (Well, mostly because while his allies had all taken their lumps against it, no one had been seriously hurt.) The Yamato Kaiju had walked across the seafloor from Truk to Freedom City, most likely going around the Straits of Magellan to avoid the Panama Canal, had survived nearly seventy years only to emerge onto the land and be beaten by the Liberty League over three long and difficult hours.

"Okay, team," called Edge, stepping back from the burning dinosaur and feeling the slight ache from a near-miss that had turned into a sunburn thanks to his brush with radioactivity. "Let's-"

Suddenly, up in the sky some thirty feet overhead, reality collided with reality as two shining chrome spheres the size of a Greyhound bus erupted from the same space and moment and collided with and fused with each other simultaneously. The twisted double-mass of metal came hurtling downward and smashed into the surf, just too far away for the heroes to reach before impact, kicking up a sheet of spray and sand as they landed.

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Cannonade was coated in sweat, trying really hard to catch his breath, and still both exhilarated and stunned. He honestly hadn't believed it when the reports came of a gigantic metal dinosaur crawling out of the Atlantic, slouching towards Freedom City like some great beast. But then he realized that there was no shortage of weird crap in the world, and many, many things left over from the war machine. He'd been quick to meet the thing once most of its bulk was out of the water; he'd closed the distance from the beach to the thing's head with one good leap, trying to get through its outer carapace to some of the vital functions. The thing threw him into the ocean more than a few times, but he'd managed to rip a few improvised handhold in the steel and try to get back on top. By the time it got on shore, it had more than a few gaping holes in it, which opened it up to a whole lot of avenues of attack. That had helped it get down before it could reach civilization.

"Y'know, I don't know what kinda radioactive monster dino I hate more," he said, "when they're Japanese and made of metal, or Nazis and real." He took a few steps forward towards the flaming wreckage. "Damn good craftsmanship, if it spent that long that deep down. Kinda a shame to rip it in two, but --"

The air tore open overhead, and Cannonade took a few steps back as the metal mass slammed into the sand. He took a good long stare at the thing. "That look familiar to any of you?" he asked.

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Wander picked herself up out of the sand with some care, wincing at the various hurts all over her body. Even the death throes of that creature had been enough to fling her free of its metal shell and halfway down the beach. Between the dips in the ocean and the header into the sand, she looked rather like she'd been rolled in breadcrumbs as she stood up and looked around for her friends. Her shoulder was definitely dislocated, she realized, and pulled it back into place with a hiss of pain before walking back to the others.

"You guys okay?" She addressed the question to all of them, but it was Midnight she focused on, looking him up and down for signs of injury. It had been a tough fight, and they were all battered and exhausted. "I don't know about anyone else, but I'm ready to go home and have..." Her words were cut off by the sudden commotion in the sky. Wander watched as the strange vessels collided and fell to earth, then muttered a profanity. "Stay back," she told her teammates, drawing her bat. "I'll check it out."

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"Fine," Midnight responded to Wander's call, grunting softly as he used both arms to vault himself out of a sizable hole punched outward from one of the larger intact pieces of the disassembled automaton. In retrospect, sabotaging the faux kaiju from within had certainly been effective but he could have perhaps given himself a little more room before setting off his detonations, he reflected as his boots hit the sand and he took a moment to brush soot and metal fragments from his black costume. One of the lenses in his mask had taken a noticeable gash lengthwise, making him glad he'd kept the affectation even after his secondary mutation had rendered them largely superfluous.

Like the others, his train of thought was broken by the sudden arrival of another ruined mass of metal crashing into the beach. It was difficult to tell just what had occurred, but unexpected teleportation rarely heralded anything good in their line of work. "Hold on," he implored Erin, pulling a small, palm-sized tablet computer from his belt and bringing up it's sensor readouts even as his other hand began retrieving modular attachments to refine his examination.

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On closer inspection, Wander found that the two pods had fused together in a bizarre, almost alien configuration that looked for all the world as if two metal soap bubbles had drifted together and become permanently connected. She couldn't hear anything inside the pods, or see through even at the smooth connection between them. Instead, all she could see was a distorted reflection of herself, the beach, the others, the remains of the kaiju, in the warped surface of the pod. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a hole irised open inside and a man stumbled out of the double-wreck, thick grey smoke coming with him and hiding the interior of the pod he'd just left to Cannonade and Edge.

Midnight and Wander could both see inside, though, and caught a glimpse of a crazy-quilt scene of carnage: a twisted melange of computer screens and shining, jewel-like control surfaces was ruined by being twisted back on itself, but worst of all was the clearly visible body, or what was left of one, in the middle of the warped remnants of the pods' control rooms: it looked for all the world as if they'd appeared inside each other like a video game clipping error brought to horrible life. As for Midnight's sensors, they seemed to go crazy as they passed over the warped pods, which were indeed made of the same substance: the wash of exotic particles coming off them reminded him of the files he'd seen of his grandfather's examination of Dr. Tomorrow's time machine, but the particles here were far more active: for a gearhead like Trevor, it was the difference between a Model T and a sports car.

The pilot, a youngish-looking Asian man, was coughing and sputtering, a green and grey jumpsuit on his body singed, his hands covered in blood. "Oh god, oh god, the singularity failed!" he was shouting, obviously still traumatized by the wreck. Wide-eyed, he looked at the heroes on the beach, not recognizing them. "My duplicate was caught in the interface. Is anyone else hurt?"

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Cannonade was still a bit taken aback by the futuristic apparatus and the guy in the spacesuit rambling at him. He looked at the way the two spheres had merged with one another, and memories of The Fly sprung unbidden into his head. Odds were things weren't good for this guy's duplicate. But right now, it looked like what the guy needed most was reassurance.

"It's okay, it's okay," he said. "No one else got hurt. You landed --" "Safely" wasn't exactly the word. "--somewhere out of the way. We can get you looked at, make sure everything's okay with you, maybe try and get this ship of yours repaired." His attention was still split between the traumatized traveler and his weird ship. All right, so, one of those aliens who looks a hell of a lot like us, time traveler, or what? Like that matters right now...

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Wander kept her bat at the ready, taken aback for just a moment at the sight of gory death associated with that particular S-word, but reality quickly reasserted itself. "Who are you?" she demanded, gesturing at the stranger with the bat to stay where he was. "Where do you come from?" It sure didn't look like he came from anywhere nearby, but despite working at HAX, she didn't exactly keep up on the latest super-technology.

She glanced over at Cannonade, then at the others. None of them were in any shape for a fight, for all that had never stopped them before. In fact, they looked downright disreputable, even compared to the ragged-edged newcomer. "We're the new Liberty League, from Freedom City," she thought to clarify. "We're good guys."

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"Time travel," Midnight announced abruptly and sourly, very clearly annoyed as he replaced his various device back into their respective compartments. He appreciated that a degree of sensitivity was called for, of course, which was why he didn't specify 'incompetent time travel'. Logic suggested that given a theoretically infinite number of slightly differentiated possible future timelines this sort of thing would be enough of a concern as to be planned for and avoided but admitted to himself that he was mostly put out by the inevitable plea and meddling they were about to receive. At least alternate realities have the decency to circumvent questions of cause and effect.

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The already-pale traveler turned white, and for a moment it looked like he was going to pass out. "I...oh, holy frell," swore the time traveler, a look of horror on his face as he looked up at the skyline of Freedom City, the tallest skyscrapers clearly visible behind the heroes as they stood on the beach. "This isn't right! This isn't right at all!" He looked like a man who'd stepped into a waking nightmare, his hands pressed over his mouth in shock. Stepping up close, Mark studied the man for just a moment, picking out the burnt remnants of his nametag.

"Hello, Mr. Chen," said Mark reassuringly, trying to remember stories he'd heard about time travelers. "If you're lost in this era, the Freedom League can help provide you with some technical assistance. It's been a while since any time travelers have come through, but we can-"

"No, no!" said Chen, shaking his head furiously. "You don't understand. This was supposed to be a routine scouting mission! Someone sabotaged my sphere and damn near killed me. They did, in one quantum. And you're the..." He looked at all of them, his eyes widening as if noticing and recognizing the heroes for the first time. "You _are_ the second Liberty League. That means you have a problem too." He looked at all of them. "Not only is your future under threat, but your past is in danger too. Can you help?"

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The address of the time traveler as "Mr. Chen" caused Cannonade to glance at Edge. How exactly did he know this guy? But more importantly, he was stuck on the whole "time travel" bit. He'd been in that pool several times before, whether thrown into the past by a cosmic hippie pulling a museum heist or sent back just so some messed-up god could drive home the message not to screw with him. So far, he hadn't stepped on any butterflies or killed any forgotten relatives. So far.

Great, he thought. Not enough that is has to happen to me. If someone's targeting the Liberty League, that means they're probably gonna be targeting Grandpa, too. And if he goes, so do Mom, Dad, and Andy.

"All right, start from the top. What were you scouting, who's coming after us, and why?"

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Edge gave Cannonade a look and said firmly, "Assuming you're on the up and up, we'll be happy to help you." Even the disclaimer was somewhat doubtful; he'd seen the look in the man's eye and trusted that no one with a time machine that cool and a story that dramatic could be a bad guy. "Why don't you answer Cannonade's questions, and then we can get ready to go?" Edge added, wandering over to the time machine to stare with first fascination, then terrible sympathy, as the smoke cleared and he got a look at the grim cargo of the time machine. Suddenly it didn't seem like such a grand adventure. Maybe Cannonade had been right to be suspicious.

"I was scouting here, today," said Chen, looking at the others and calming a bit as his shock faded. "The second Liberty League is..." He trailed off for a moment, obviously looking for the right words. "Very important to the history of the 21st century, and several others for that matter. The threat we're facing uptime is targeting other legacies like yours. Other dynasties," he amended. "The Legion has some downtime help already, but we need more if we're going to find the traitor in our ranks and keep Earth, and Earth's history, safe."

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Time travel was a special brand of irritating in Midnight's mind. It wasn't that he found the mental juggling of cause and effect particularly arduous not were the emotional ramifications of traveling back to the past any worse than the traumas he'd faced elsewhere. What frustrated him was that, if one was to have any hope of preserving a future timeline, one had to intentionally learn as little about it as possible. With nothing but their visitor's naturally biased word to go by, they had no idea if they were even on the correct side of things nor could they properly research and plan for their opponents, whereas their own weaknesses could easily be a matter of public record from the reverse perspective. "What else can you safely tell us?"

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Wander frowned as she listened to the traveler's story. "But if someone goes back to the past and changes things, doesn't that only create new divergent timelines?" she asked, trying to remember what Alex had told her, years ago now, when she'd considered trying to go back in time to save her own home. "If we go and stop them, is that going to mend the timeline, or just create even more new branches and mess it all up more?" She held her bat by her side now, not threatening but still not ready to collapse it and put it away. "Anyway, how do we know any of this is even true?"

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Cannonade was still trying to get a grip on all this. It was bad enough when he'd been roughly shoved back into history; now something was asking him if he wanted to come along for the ride and to watch for butterflies. "What they said," he said. "I mean, is there some room to maneuver in this thing? I don't assume it's down to the last detail - I mean, otherwise, anyone going back would result in another history happening, one where you were there even if you didn't really do anything. 'The history where I bought a cup of coffee' instead of 'the history where I kicked Hitler between the legs.'" He paused. "I mean, that's just my theory..."

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Chen rubbed his eyes, sorting out what to say to these people from so far in the past. "It's true that's how time travel works in the here and now with your existing technology," he explained to Wander, "but that's all a relic of the past now. In the modern era, in the 26th century, it's just a matter of erecting the proper quantum stabilizers. Which are way out of your reach for another two centuries," he explained to them, "so saying that won't change anything. What I'm going to do is take you to Freedom Legion headquarters in the mid-2520s, where you can meet our team and the others we've recruited from this era, so we can find out who's trying to destabilize the 20th and 21st centuries. Normally we'd never do this," he added, "but there's a traitor in the Legion, and until we get the past safely locked down again, the last five hundred years are in some very serious peril. Will you help us?"

"Y-" Edge interrupted what was obviously about to be an enthusiastic shout of agreement and shot a look at his teammates. Mark had learned some things since high school. "We're all very sympathetic to what's happened to you. And we're all heroes, so we want to guard the future as much as we do the present. I'm sure we can find a way to help you." The look in his eyes was like a child standing outside a candy store, pointing eagerly to the treasures within and awaiting a word of assent before diving inside.

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The future.

Not my future. I'll be long dead, which... is kinda weird to think about. So, I guess if I avoid the Wikipedia of the future, I should be pretty good...

God, this is just... what the hell am I supposed to think about this? What am I gonna see? There's only so much I can try to keep from finding out. Someone's gonna say something, and I'll find out we were doing everything wrong about global warming or there's gonna be a big war in twenty years or...

Screw it. This is what we've gotta do. If this guy's right, and it's all at risk, I've gotta go there. I'll just keep my hands on my ears if I need to.

Cannonade looked to Chen. "Yeah. We'll help you."

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"We'll help," agreed Edge, glad someone else on the team had spoken up first. It wasn't that Mark lacked for confidence, just the opposite, in fact, but he had learned that sometimes what he thought was a good idea wasn't something his team thought was a good idea, and he didn't want to get his friends in trouble on his account. "Whether the past, the present, or the future are in peril, the Liberty League is always there to help." He, Trevor, and Erin had already saved the multiverse, protecting the future couldn't be that tough. "When do we leave?"

"We already have," said Chen with a grateful smile, reaching down to press a button on his belt. "I've just activated our autoretrieval unit, it'll upswitch this whole area back to 2525, and then when you return you'll come back to the moment you left. I installed this myself, I can trust that it's secure. We'll be there in no time." Sure enough, a few seconds later a silvery-white dome expanded from the crashed time-sphere (only one; evidently the duplicate's systems were no longer an issue) and enfolded the entire team, transporting them all elsewhen in a wash of sudden perfect brightness.

Mere seconds later, they were all standing together on a dimming circle of light built into a glossy metal floor, inside a large room instantly recognizable to the experienced teen heroes as Freedom Hall, but much and spectacularly changed; plasteel walls rising high where once wood and metal had stood, ever-shifting holographic displays on the walls showing a melange of historical and futuristic scenes too alien to process, and five individuals standing before their arrival pad: three were strangers; a man in black with an hourglass on his chest, impatiently checking his watch, a blonde man in a Star Knight armor the didn't recognize, and a woman in a surprisingly skimpy green costume peering at them through hi-tech goggles with fascination.

The other two, though, were immediately recognizable: the Centurion stepped up to greet them with a firm handshake, his costume the bulky, golden-looking suit he'd stopped wearing in the 1940s. "Good afternoon, heroes," he said with the combination of authority and charm anyone who'd ever watched a newsreel could recognize. "Welcome to 2525. Our hosts thought a familiar face might be easier for you to relate to, but I don't see what all the fuss is about." He smiled with that so-famous grin. "If you're anything like the League I know, a little time travel isn't anything to worry about."

Normally the sight of the Centurion would have been all Mark could see, all he could think about, but the young man in 20th century civilian duds next to the Man of Adamant occupied his attention for now. "The new Liberty League! Swell!" Rick Lucas, looking to be in his mid-twenties, practically leapt up onto the transporter pad to effusively shake all their hands. "And a Midnight, a Kid Centurion, that's keen!" He grinned from ear to ear. "It doesn't surprise me a bit, though. I always knew the Liberty team would come back."

"If you don't know Rick," said the Centurion with some humor, introducing his 20th century colleague as well as the other heroes; Star Knight, Professor Danger (she of the surprisingly open costume), and the worried-looking Clockwatcher, "he was visiting his father in 1946 when the Legion called for our assistance." Mark couldn't stop staring at his dad, for once his effusive tongue stilled.

"Yes yes," said the Clockwatcher, taking out what looked for all the world like a 19th century pocketwatch and checking it worriedly. "We have enough anomalies as it is. Come, let's get you with the others and we can discuss who's trying to murder the history of Freedom City!"

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Cannonade was absolutely stunned. "It's, uh..." He was trying to get some purchase on his words, and decided to go for the most fundamental bit. "My name's Cannonade. It's a honor to be thought of as --"

An heir...

"-- a, uh, sidekick to Centurion, but... I take after Legionnaire. My granddad. He..."

Cannonade was suddenly lost in a wash of what he could say, what he couldn't say, and what he wanted to say. That's Centurion. Not just any Centurion, but the one from the Forties. I remember that costume from the picture books. But... no. He said '46. Granddad's already dead by now. But... he isn't. That's not going to happen for, what, 47 years? I could warn him. But... no. Things are already fragile enough, and I don't even wanna know what the guy with the watch would do if I suggested it.

Goddamnit. This is why I hate time travel.

He took a deep breath. "...he was a great man. And Centurion, I've got to say... it's great to see you again."

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Rick Lucas. Again. Of course. Had he been anything less than a paragon of restrained body language, Midnight would have been tempted to plant his gloved hand firmly against his mask. It made a certain degree of sense, of course, given the time period evidently being affected and the Lucas family's preternatural ability to find themselves at the center of events of import, but the last thing they needed was for Mark to be more distractible than usual. With a difficult application of will, he put his considerable distaste for the man aside, though he shook neither proffered hand and instead stepped off the platform toward the man with the stopwatch, the only one who seemed to be taking things more seriously than a social gathering. "Less talk, less chance of paradox," he intoned brusquely as he passed. "Work to do."

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Wander was silent as she shook hands with the Centurion and Rick Lucas, both of them so startlingly alive and vibrant, so unaware of what was to become of them. Rick was hardly older than she was in this moment out of time, and right now he was a hero like any of them. Who was to say what could happen to any of them in another thirty years, if one could go so badly astray? She shook the thought away and tried to keep her face blank of anything but the polite smile she used when taking visitors around the facilities at HAX. They had a job to do here, and no time to think about anything else.

Except... how could she not? Even after the initial shock of seeing historical figures come alive, she remembered what Chen had said about time travel. Things that hadn't been possible in 2009 were possible, even simple right now. They could go back, they could fix things that went wrong. Especially when to correct a wrong would be as simple as giving the right person the right chemical formula at the right time. Even as she thought it, though, Erin knew it was impossible. Rick Lucas had given up his life to stop Omega's return to Prime, and she had given up her world. Even if the time travelers here would go along, there was nothing left to save. She raked her fingers through her hair and followed Midnight off the platform.

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The local heroes, who introduced themselves as Star Knight, Professor Danger, and Clockwatcher, respectively, were eager to get the Liberty Leaguers and their more famous escorts down and away from any potential timeline contamination as soon as possible. A few minutes' ride in a smooth-riding, blank-walled elevator got them down to the room where an anxious-looking Clockwatcher gave them their briefing. It was all very mundane, just the super-team receiving the briefing from another hero, if you ignored the screens full of half-visible space scenes and far-future cities of glass and steel towers, the Freedom Legion evidently having responsibilities to watch the entire solar system. Not to mention the Centurion and Rick Lucas both right there, paying attention to the man who'd brought them all there as much as to the new members of the Liberty League. After all, they were veterans of eras when time travel was much more common. This sort of thing was routine for them. Well, almost; but then Mark hadn't said a word since they'd arrived.

Occasionally pausing mid-briefing to glance into his pocketwatch, the Clockwatcher's presentation was simple enough. "Ladies and gentlemen of the Liberty League, today is the day our history will unravel. Tonight a thief is going to break into the Temporal Observatory on Venus and steal one of our most valuable holdings." Behind him on the screen, a rotating blue cube appeared, spinning in empty space to show dimensions roughly equal to the time pod that had brought them there. "A time machine capable of traveling back along the same quantum axis from which it originated, giving the pilot the ability to alter his own history. He, or she, successfully pulled the Legion away from the system with a wormhole bomb in the Kuiper Belt, and Temporal Investigations will be pulled off dealing with the Archeville incident this week. They knew exactly when to hit us."

The image changed again, this time to a shot of Freedom City as it once had been, in the prime of this Centurion and when Trevor's grandfather had been at his peak...except that Freedom City had never been aflame. "He goes back in time to 1946 and detonates an old atomic warhead in Freedom City. The Americans blame the Soviets, the Soviets blame the Americans...and World War Three breaks out right then and there. Terran civilization, and galactic civilization, comes to an end." He closed his watch. "That's where you come in. Normally I'd send my 20th century expert, but he won't get here till it's too late. That's where your team comes in."

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Cannonade tried to keep his eyes away from the futuristic cityscape, no matter how much he wanted to take in the sights and wonders he'd likely never live to see in their own time. There were more important things to deal with. And the sight of Freedom City in flames shocked him out of his little time-displaced reverie. "What kinda motivation are we looking at here?" he asked. "This some kinda suicide run, or is he trying to keep the rest of the galaxy from coming to Earth? You said 'galactic civilization.' Maybe he's trying to set up his own world as the hub of the universe... or he's Earth-based, and thinks he can rule over the ashes."

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"Our probes into the other timeline haven't gone very well," explained Clockwatcher irritably. "It looks like someone's been active in the intervening centuries releasing more radioactivity, or maybe the destruction of Freedom City used more cobalt-wrapped charges than we've been predicting. The 2500s over there are so irradiated most normal humans can't survive on the surface for more than a few minutes, and whoever's running the Earth after that has a temporal defense network erected." He harrumphed. "Our theory is that they're uptimers, from one future or another, with an interest in making Earth a radioactive cinder."

"Why is...why are the Centurion and Rick Lucas here?" Mark finally asked, only his friends knowing Mark well enough to hear the shaky tremor in his voice. Rick, by some blessing, hadn't recognized his yet to be born son; instead he was listening to the Clockwatcher with a distracted air that was painfully reminiscent of his son. Evidently global crises and beyond were already old hat for Mark's dad.

"I'll take this one," answered the Centurion, a serious look on his face. "Clockwatcher here tells me that certain individuals are keystones in the flow of history, people whose lives are so important that keeping them away from any temporal anomalies is the top priority of any time traveler-"

"We're wild cards, daddy-o!" interjected Rick excitedly, his choice of words making Mark wince, the Centurion lapsing with the air of a man tolerant of a friend's foibles. "If we show up around this time traveler guy, there's no telling what'll happen! So it's better for you cats to go out there and make history tidy again."

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Erin blinked at that assertion, feeling oddly disappointed. It didn't really matter that much that people didn't believe or even know about most of the things they'd done, including their fight against Omega, but she'd sort of believed in her heart that history would one day vindicate them. "So none of us are keystones that way?" she asked the Clockwatcher, trying not to let defensiveness creep into her voice. "Ma- I mean, um, Edge, at least, has some characteristics that might make him similar..." She snuck another look at Rick Lucas, hoping he was no more intuitive as a boy than he'd been as a middle-aged man.

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"Rick Lucas and the Centurion belong to the 20th century," replied the Clockwatcher levelly, giving Erin, then the two downtime heroes a hard-to-read look as he repeated what had evidently already been said. "Potentially altering their lives via an encounter with a time traveler would have tremendous repercussions for the 21st century and its heroes." He fixed Mark with his gaze, looking sympathetic for a moment, before turning back to the others. "In layman's terms, their destinies have already been established by history. Yours haven't."

"That's...that makes sense," said Mark, shooting a look from behind his mask first at the Centurion, then at his father. "In the era we're from, Rick Lucas and the Centurion are heroes of the past. That's why we took the name. To honor that generation." For a moment his hand tightened on the table in front of him, and he was heedless of past and future.

"Hey, I'm a hero! Neat." Rick looked quite pleased with himself at that news, though not surprised. "Not as big as you are, sir!" he added immediately to the Centurion with a wink.

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