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trollthumper

Pepper's Ghost [IC]

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Saturday, May 26th

8:51 PM

For the first time, Horizon had come to Freedom City. The festival - more properly called the Horizon Trust Arts and Music Festival - had started as an attempt to create "a Coachella for the East Coast," and after a few rocky starts, had finally managed to reach stable footing. It had darted around the northeast, working from Flushing to Woodstock to Amherst over the years. And now it had finally dared to cross into the wilds of New Jersey, and chose Liberty Park as its base of operations.

There was reason enough for Joe Macayle to be here. A few hours earlier, he'd been bouncing around the mosh pit as the Bouncing Souls played. But he'd stuck around long after for reasons that were only too obvious in this town. Public gatherings like this were always targets for attack. That was a universal constant, mind you - the second Horizon had seen the Green Man show up for the party - but it always seemed to happen like clockwork in Freedom. He drifted past the food trucks, and made contact with his target.

"Anything on your end?"

"Nothing." There was another reason for sticking around, of course - to give Andy a hand. After the Proteus incident, his little brother had come into powers of his own - the more lasting kind. He was more tuned towards speed rather than strength, but he still packed one hell of a punch. And, as much as Joe hated to admit it, he was acting like a mother hen now that his brother was in the same game. Especially since he was going off to Boston for college in the fall. "Maybe the bad guys decided to stay at home for once."

"Great. You had to jinx it."

"...yeah, I did, didn't I? Ah, well. When they come, we'll be on it and be awesome. I'm gonna go see the Deadmau5 set. I'll call you if someone shows up with a flamethrower."

Joe watched as his brother moved into the crowd - maybe a bit too fast for normal, but no one seemed to notice. Maybe Andy was right. Maybe he could just relax and enjoy the day for what it was.

Eh. Always best to expect the unexpected in this town.

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"Hmm, this one is nice, but a little bit too small for the main lobby. Maybe in one of the reception rooms, or that new conference space on fifteen..." Miss Americana examined the framed watercolor carefully, heedless of the sensation she was causing in the vendor marketplace. Even dressed casually in blue jeans and a red and white swirled blouse, the beautiful heroine and supergenius was an unmistakeable figure to the Freedom City residents who crowded or edged closer for a closer look. Add to her fame the fact that she'd spent nearly ten thousand dollars in the past hour on works by local artists for ArcheTech's HQ, and suddenly everyone in the area was hoping for a bit of her attention.

"I'll take this one," she told the artist-vendor, who was looking a bit dazed but moved quickly enough to collect the simple black credit card Miss A handed her. "Have it wrapped and shipped to ArcheTech HQ in Hanover, please. Mark it attention to the physical plant manager." With a smile and a brief pause for more autographs, she moved along, heading for yet another booth. "So how do you like the art world so far?" she asked Sharl, who'd stuck close to her side all afternoon to avoid getting lost in the crush.

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"It's interesting," offered Sharl. His personal tastes didn't run much to the arts, but he'd absorbed a fair eye by osmosis from his sculptor sister. "Many of them are very talented, of course, and I'm impressed at how many colors they can make with just some plant derivatives and a few petrochemicals." It wasn't as good as what his sister could make, but Miss A had trained him far too well to make that sort of comment. He studied one particular painting that was an 'ironic' older Elvis on black velvet, hmming. "They certainly are creative." He was being very watchful today, and keeping his projection solid in this crowd of people. "Will we be looking to buy works of music the way we're buying the paintings and art? All that music piped into the lobby has to come from somewhere..."

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Thomas Morgan was, for all intents and purposes, just another guy in the crowd. That's how he liked it. He wore a baggy shirt that was two sizes too big to obscure his scrawny form, and, in a rare moment, a baseball cap that did much to cover his prematurely graying hair. All in all, the effect made him look as inconspicuous as possible.

Not, of course, that anyone was going to know who he was. Voltage was slowly making a name for himself, but he, so far, was a relative unknown. Still, he preferred to be cautious.

He scanned the art booths with a discerning eye, making a note of artwork he liked as he did so. He spotted a crowd gathered around a particular booth. Through the crowd, he managed to deduce why; someone famous was over there, but at that distance he couldn't quite tell who. He debated going closer to determine exactly who, but, decided against it. After all, he was trying to remain incognito, if someone had a camera and caught him in the frame, that wouldn't do. In addition, he felt it would be obnoxious to simply go crowd around whoever that was.

Still, he made a mental note that someone famous was at the festival. If it were another hero, he'd like to know who on the off chance something happened nearby. Knowing what his allies could or couldn't do would make handling emergencies or sudden attacks that much easier.

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"Not today," Miss A told Sharl. "Music licensing is more complicated than just buying a piece of art, and it's not something that can really be done in a venue like this. But we'll go and listen to some of the bands, and make a note of anything that sounds good. I'd like to get a little more variety, especially on the phone lines." She began to walk in the direction of the main stage, her steps unhurried. Along the way, she paused at yet another stall, struck by a modestly-sized oil painting of a forest glade, deep and secret. That wasn't unusual in itself, but something about the patterns of leaves and vines that made up the trees suggested something rather less organic, a grove made of circuit boards and wires, trees of fiber optic trunks and branches.

She studied it for a long moment, then passed her credit card to the artist. "Have this wrapped and sent to... no. I'll have an agent come and pick it up later." She wasn't about to reveal her home address, but she could nudge Sharl or even Steve into picking it up for her later. "Come on," she told Sharl, "I think a new set is going to start soon."

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Sharl was less impressed by the tree, not being a fan of all the natural pictures people in Freedom City seemed inclined to hang everywhere, but he certainly wasn't about to say that to Miss A! Instead he followed along, obediently carrying the pictures small enough that he and Miss A had kept them close instead of sending them along. He was stronger than he looked while projected, and easily able to manage the load. I suppose I probably look like Miss A's younger, not as attractive brother, he thought as the crowd watched his mentor, enjoying the reflected glory of being around the famous heroine as he usually did. With his sunglasses off and without his chest symbol, and with his projection particularly solid, he looked as human as anyone else. "I'm interested to see what they do with electronic music here," he offered as they made their way towards the set. "Some of the instruments look similar to home, just...built along more classic lines," he said euphemistically.

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Joe moved forwards towards the stage area as well as the Deadmau5 set wrapped. His tour of duty around the food trucks complete - and a gyro in his hand as the pay-off - he figured it was time to keep his eye on the most likely target. The area drew the heaviest concentration of attendees, many of whom would be too busy dancing or lost in the music to notice an immediate threat. And if that weren't enough, the people on stage would usually draw the attention of anyone who had the bright idea of taking hostages. He was mostly dressed for action, with his usual T-shirt on under another - which was a hell of a thing, between the spring heat and the throng of the crowd - and the more conspicuous parts in his backpack. If anything went wrong - "if," not "when," keep telling yourself that - he'd be ready to get on the field in a flash.

After a few minutes of waiting, a heavy beat emerged, washing over the stage area like thunder. "Ladies and gentlemen... give it up for Freedom City's own THREEEE RIIIIINGS!" Smoke crept out over the pit as the rapper trio stormed the stage, launching into one hit after another. These guys weren't exactly Joe's thing, but they weren't bad. He just sat back at the edge of the crowd, taking it in while others lost themselves in the beat, dancing like there was no tomorrow. After a while, the songs gave out, giving the band a chance to address the audience.

"Hell-oooooo, Freedom!" called out GT, the band's foreman. "Great to be home, ain't it? We've been all out there, waiting for the chance to come back here. A chance to come back and honor that which means the most of us. How you all doin'?" The crowd responded with a roar of tribute. "Thank you, thank you. Now, we got a lot planned for you today, and --"

"HELL-OOOOOOOO, FREE-DOOOOOOOM! GIVE IT UP, GIVE IT UP, GIVE IT UP!"

The voice rang out like an air raid siren, cutting off GT in the middle of his intro. The fog parted, and suddenly, there was a fourth man on the stage. Clad in an open hoodie (with nothing underneath) and jeans, he held the mic high over his head, as if leading the crowd in a salute. There were no cheers, just murmurs and the occasional cry.

"I don't believe it!" said GT. "Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a guest of honor here tonight! Give it up for DEEEEEE-GRAAAAAAAY!"

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Instantly, Thomas turned his head towards the stage and watched with amusement. D-Gray was dead, and this was obviously not D-Gray. He'd heard of this little trick before, and thought it was a neat way to bring the dead musician back for a performance. The music itself really didn't interest him, but he found himself watching the performance. After all, he'd never seen a Pepper's Ghost in action before. He wondered what they were using to produce the illusion. Ah, well, might as well watch, he thought. At least for a few minutes.

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Miss Americana raised an eyebrow as she watched the stage, looking at the "new arrival." "Look at that," she said to Sharl, pointing to the scene. "They're projecting a holographic image using a Mylar sheet and a thin mesh scrim to hide it from the audience. The live musicians are actually standing behind the screen. It's called a Pepper's Ghost illusion. They must've calibrated it extremely carefully to attempt it before full dark." She frowned just a bit, looking around. "I just hope it doesn't make anyone hysterical or start a fight somewhere. People aren't always as skeptical as they ought to be."

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Sharl had started briefly at what looked for all the world like a version of his own programming up there on the stage, luckily having rested his cargo on a nearby concrete barrier before doing so. "Oh, okay. Wow, that's convincing!" Sharl wasn't easily impressed by Earthly technology that didn't come from Miss A or another super-scientist, but he was impressed at how such a low-tech illusion could look so real. Craning his neck, careful to keep his feet on the ground, he said, "Yeah, people can be pretty jumpy about that sort of thing. In most places," he hazarded, "they'd just think it was a special effect, but in Freedom City it could be anything." He couldn't help but smirk a little. "Heh, can't wait to see what Kimber thinks about this."

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There was some confusion among the crowd at first, but little distress. About three songs into D-Gray's set, most of the audience was jamming along to the beats, dancing to the rhythm of an artist long lost. Joe watched the performance with some degree of distaste - whoever had arranged the set was propping up a dead artist and playing them like a puppet. But most of the audience - D-Gray's real fans - were throwing themselves into the show with all they had, losing themselves among the joy. He decided to lean back and watch, enjoying the good vibes.

"Thank you!" called out the illusion of D-Gray. "I know it's been a while, long time since the days of shows in Liberty Park. Got my start 'round here, ain't gonna forgot. Good seeing old friends, and new fans who came to the beat in the years since. I wanna say -- "

Before he could say it, the hologram de-rezzed, for just a second. The image of D-Gray turned blurry and indistinct, like someone viewed from far away through fogged glass. Just as the whispers started among the crowd, the image came clear again, the same old D-Gray standing on the stage. Only where there had been bravado and swagger before, now there was just terminal confusion.

"...where am I?" he asked, looking out over the crowd. The whispers only grew fiercer as he looked over to GT. "GT? What the ****'s going on here?"

The members of Three Bells looked just as confused as everyone else, and trepidation was sweeping across the crowd. The image of D-Gray winked out of sight, as GT tried to calm the crowd. "Hey, hey, everyone," he said, "just a small problem. We'll get everything right. Don't worry."

Joe, meanwhile, was already moving to the port-a-potties. Hopefully, this was just a minor technical difficulty, and the show would be back up soon. But if just the malfunction was enough to put the crowd on edge, he didn't want to know what would happen if there was a worse screw-up.

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Sharl repressed the urge to flinch, reminding himself that this was all theater. "That seems tasteless," he muttered to Miss Americana. "Even if the people here don't think that was some sort of religious event or psionic impression come to life, you would think the idea of an artificial intelligence gaining sentience would be too important to use for musical self-promotion. Whether for or against." His earlier interest in the unusual musical stylings of this group was beginning to waver, but he still craned his neck over the crowd to try and get a better view. "Surely the man's family would object to him being used as a marketing tool."

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Miss Americana frowned, working her way through the crowd in the direction of the control booth. "It seemed to come as a surprise to the band as well," she pointed out to Sharl. "And going to so much trouble to set up an illusion and then immediately ruining it doesn't make sense. Someone might have sabotaged the system. We'd better take a look at it before whoever did it starts up again and says something more inflammatory. There were very nearly riots over D-Gray's death, and his fans haven't gotten any less devoted in the intervening years. We don't want to see this crowd turn ugly."

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Thomas' attention was grabbed immediately. Artificial intelligence? Were they using an advanced AI in a way like this? That sounded like using a rocket launcher to shoot ducks. Thomas heard about this man's death, and his legions of fans that were still around. What if the crowd decided that this was some sort of grievous disrespect?

Of course, this could just as easily be deliberate, like maybe a double. Either way, he hoped that an audience full of fans, some of which might be intoxicated, wouldn't declare it a fine time to start damaging property or people.

Thomas readied himself. If this turned ugly, he'd put his costume on and do his best to help. He was planning on taking a day off of heroics, but, it looked like circumstance might not let him...

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Amidst the confusion, Miss Americana and Sharl were easily able to establish a connection with the projection rig in the back - the fact that the entire concert had been rigged for WiFi helped. The rig was complex, run over several computers. One to cultivate and project D-Gray's image from existing publicity photos and videos, another to cultivate and blend existing soundclips and allow for input of new words (such as "Horizon") in the middle of existing data, another to synchronize speech and mouth movement, and two more to handle the acoustics of D-Gray's recorded performance. And bouncing among the five computers, like a ping-pong ball in a padded cell, was a sizable packet of data that, to the eyes of the two technopaths, appeared to be D-Gray, in the data.

"Hey, yo!" he cried. "Man, what's going on here? Why can't I get outta here?"

---

The crowd was still milling by the time Cannonade stepped out of the port-a-potty. God, there's gotta be fresher places to change, he thought as he pushed his way back through the crowd. The pitch of the whispers was a mixture of panic and anger, and it looked like GT was working his ass off just trying to keep the crowd calm.

"Don't worry, everyone," he said. "Small glitch, that's all. Everything's gonna be back to normal soon. We just gotta stay cool, all right?"

"That is not an option."

Lightning soared through the air, striking GT in the chest and sending the rapper collapsing to the stage. That was enough to trigger the panic that Cannonade had been dreading. He whipped his head around towards the source - a woman made of steel with a model's body and a harpy's face was walking through the crowd, ringed by four bare-bones robotic frames toting advanced rifles.

"You do not know true composure," said the gynoid - at least, Cannonade assumed she was saying it, as while her lips weren't moving, her voice was booming through every available piece of sound equipment in the park. "Your bodies weaken, your will falters. You cannot hold up against the absolute focus of a machine."

One of the flanking robots moved forward towards a crowd that had been backed into a corner by the food trucks, rifle raised high. Before it could open fire, Cannonade leapt in the way, blocking its sight. "Why don't we put it to the test?" he said. "Ten to one says I can crack open that tin can first."

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"Try and make contact with D-Gray," Miss A instructed Sharl. "Whatever he is, whatever created him, if he breaks loose into a network, it'll be the problem we had with you all over again. I'm going to go deal with the robots." Bold words, and she meant them too. She'd tangled with the Foundry before, though rarely in the flesh, and thought she knew most of their tricks.

Miss A didn't bother to conceal herself as she arced into the sky, wanting to draw attention to herself and away from the crowd of civilians. There was at least one other hero on the ground, not a big surprise at an event this size in Freedom City. She nodded in his direction before addressing the gathering. "You should know better than to start trouble around here," she called derisively. "Your machine brain must be missing a few logic circuits." She opened fire then, raining precision laser bolts onto Chimera that should've weakened joints and muddled processes. Instead, they seemed to merely bounce off. Miss A frowned, wondering if this might just be a much tougher battle than she'd anticipated.

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Citizen was torn between obeying Miss Americana's orders and coming to her aid. He'd fought the Foundry too, and even with Rogue in prison, he knew them as terrifying opponents who were among the very few people on Earth who could fight him on his own turf. But he picked trusting Miss A over his urge to rush to her defense; she knew what she was doing, and in any event Gina would want him to rescue the helpless civilian? program? over her. He dived into the system after D-Gray, chest symbol flaring to life in brilliant blue, and reached for the wildly tumbling man like Phalanx or Captain Thunder trying to catch a rooftop jumper.

"D-Gray! My name is Citizen, I'm a superhero!" he called. "Try and stay calm! We're going to try and pull you out of here, but you've got to trust me!"

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Citizen was easily able to catch D-Gray - the sensation of three-dimensional movement in cyberspace was much more familiar for him than it was for the rapper, so he was easily able to track his movements and predict where he'd be next. D-Gray looked at Citizen with some degree of confusion, but there was some relief, like he was glad there was someone to help him out. "You don't look like no hero I ever met," he said, "more like some kid who watched The Matrix too much. But if you know the way outta here, I'm gonna hear you out."

---

Back out in the real world, Cannonade stood his ground before the armed drones. "Interesting design," he said. "Leaves nothing to the imagination. Gotta be easy for folding and storing overhead. But..." He brought his arms out in a sweeping arc. "Gotta wonder how well it's been stress-tested." He brought his hands together, and thunder tore down the lawn. Fortunately, most of the concert goers had gotten out of the way of the horde of fully-armed robots, so the full brunt of the attack was borne by the drones. Two of them began staggering and trying to correct, their delicate servos knocked horribly off-kilter by the concussion. The other two, however, stood their ground. Both trained their rifles on Cannonade, and a barrage of flechettes launched out towards him. He felt a sting run through him, like he'd just pulled out the cord of something that was running, but not much else.

"Nice cap gun," he said. "Got any tougher hardware?"

The drones that could move pushed past him. Apparently, they did not. Though Cannonade noticed that they kept their rifles raised high, trained on the audience...

Meanwhile, Chimera locked eyes with Miss Americana. "My brain is a wonder beyond any flesh," she said, "a construct that transcends your petty matter. Perhaps we shall --" The boast fell flat, as the gynoid felt her mental assault brush harmlessly off of Miss Americana's consciousness. "...ah. A challenge." Chimera levitated into the air, with no obvious means of propulsion, moving to meet with her. "It's been a while since I've had something I had to crack before I could mold it. You've given me a rare opportunity."

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Thomas grumbled, of course, it would get attacked. Luckily, he brought his costume with him, everywhere he went. He glanced at the robots and let his mind search the web. It found a video, yes, a weakness to magnetic attacks. They were shielded, but, he may be able to figure out how to break the shielding. That would have to wait, however, for now he decided to distract them from the civilians. Better he, in his protective costume, than an unarmed, unarmored civilian.

He rushed away and ducked near the stage, making sure nobody saw him. As soon as he was sure he was out of sight, he changed into his costume. He was in a hurry, so he would have to strain himself to make sure he made it back to the battle.

He teleported quickly, transforming into lightning and cascading towards the drones. The silvery electrical current coalesced there, transforming him back into Voltage.

An arc of silvery lightning flashed through the air and struck one of the drones squarely in the chest. However, the strain from pushing himself threw off his attack, causing it not even to scratch the drone.

Still, he was in the battle, and he could help turn the tide.

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"Maybe it's an opportunity to you," Miss a replied in a clipped tone, even as she cracked her knuckles in the subtle but intricate pattern that rerouted power through her systems, "but all you're providing me with is a hassle. I have plans tonight that don't involve dealing with jumped-up petty thugs scaring civilians for a thrill. You're just going to have to find your challenge elsewhere." With that, she raced through the air, much faster than before, and slammed into Chimera with gut-wrenching, metal twisting force, wrapping her arms around the villain like steel bands. "This," she murmured into one tin ear, "would be an excellent time for you to surrender."

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Sharl's usual resentment of 'that movie' was miles away right now. Was this guy some sort of uploaded personality? A copy of the real man that had gained some shadow of real intelligence? Either way, there was no point in telling him the full details of what was going on. "The Foundry is attacking the concert where you were just performing," he quickly filled the rapper in, "Miss Americana, my mentor, and I are fighting them. I'm going to get you out of here and back outside, but you're going to have to trust me. Everything will seem weird to you, like you're a ps...like you're a ghost, or they're just a 3-D virtual display, but just trust me." With those words, he took D-Gray's hand and concentrated, pulling both himself and the other man out of the virtual world around them and back into the concert.

They appeared on the now vacant stage, both of them glowing slightly from the stage projectors, albeit considerably more solid than D-Gray had been earlier as just a projection. I'll let Miss A explain it, I guess...man, what IS going on here?"Just hold still there and don't touch anything! I'm going to go help out, and we'll be right back." He flew right up to the struggling Miss Americana and Chimera, glad to see Miss A had this lady well in hand. "We've got a lot bigger problems than your machine supremacist agenda, lady. Step down now and you can share a cell with your friend Rogue."

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Chimera locked eyes with Citizen, ignoring the headlock Miss Americana had her in. "You've met our associate, I take it," she said. "A shame she is otherwise occupied. She has talked about taking her exercise. So many opportunities in a venue like this..."

"You know..." Cannonade drove his fist into the midsection of one of the robot soldiers; the steel crumpled, but did not rend, the drone remaining on its feet. "You really don't know when to shut up. It's like you want her to turn your head into a football."

"You imagine that I am helpless. But my pawns remain standing."

Cannonade suddenly realized that the drones he'd knocked into disarray were now fully back on their feet. And their rifles had been charging for quite a while. Before he could get out of the way, thunder came crashing down upon his head. Lightning arced directly into his helmet, coursing through his body and causing him to shake and convulse. He fell to the ground, smoking and still uneven. Once the world swam back into focus, he was up on his feet, watching as the other drones tried and failed to hit Citizen and Voltage.

"Okay," he said. "I'm impressed. That almost hurt."

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Voltage fired off a silvery bolt of electric energy, but the drone managed to dodge it. He observed the battle around him and noticed, to his dismay, that the drones weren't going to go down easy. That was not good, not good at all. "Okay, this is beginning to annoy me." He growled. "Just how tough are these things?"

He flew above them, watching the carnage. His mind began to race. If he couldn't defeat these things in combat, how would he manage to stop them? He knew they might be vulnerable to a magnetic attack, but they were shielded? How good was that shielding anyway?

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"Good work," Miss A told Sharl, glancing up at the figure of D-Gray up on the stage. "We'll get the program back to the Lab and see what's going on there. As soon as we finish..." She returned her attention to Chimera, running expert fingers up and down the midline of the robot's back, then around the neck and down the arms, still maintaining her headlock. She struck gold in the left armpit, toggling a hidden switch that had Chimera going limp with an electronic whine. "...A little troubleshooting," she finished. "Go help mop up those drones before they tag anyone in the crowd," she told him. "I'll be right there."

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"Got it," said Citizen, swooping down towards the nearest drone and shoving his hand through its midsection, right where the central processing unit was on most Foundry models. (He'd learned that from Gina, who'd often had a lot to say about the would-be robot overlords of Earth, none of it good) The drone turned, leveling its rifle on Citizen, but with a little smirk Sharl pushed, overloading the drone's internal subsystems and shutting it down with as much speed as Miss A had used with Chimera. Just with a lot more finality, he mused as the smoking robot fell at his feet. "Who's next?"

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