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Avenger Assembled

Paying Paul (IC)

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October 1, 2012

Gina's silent alarm went off late one night when most of the rest of North Freedom was sleeping. Someone was tampering with some of the equipment stored in her lab; not her facility at Archetech or at the Lab proper, but at the personal workspace that only she, Harrier, and Citizen among a very small, select group had ever actually visited. Whoever was doing it was good; they'd disabled most of the obvious security systems in place around the restricted equipment: the laser eyes, the cameras, the touch-sensors, the air-current trackers, and even the hidden electromagnetic readers that she'd concealed inside the walls around the sealed equipment room. But they'd missed the backup IR readers in the light fixtures, an easy mistake to make if you weren't as smart as Gina. Most people wouldn't bother to look for sensors that were only active when everything else had been turned off.

This was potentially a high-risk theft; the material stored in that particular locker were high-tech items she had confiscated from supervillains over the years she'd been active: Grue reactor cores, Terminus tech of gruesome provenance, dimensional reactors, hard radiation, and various other items that she would have preferred not to have out on the street.

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Gina was a heavy sleeper normally, but when the alarm went off in her bedroom, she woke up fast. As soon as consciousness returned, she was sending it out again, flinging herself into the integrated network that ran her home and linked to the powerful computers beneath it. A fraction of a second's work told her what she needed to know, that the high-security locker at her private lab was under assault, and that whoever was behind it knew what they were doing. A hacker that good had to be after data, she reasoned. The files in the high security vault were kept on stand-alone systems, the one true deterrent to computer crime, and the information about her inventions she kept there was easily worth millions of dollars.

Not even bothering to get her body out of bed, Gina activated the Miss A robot in its private "bedroom" at ArcheTech and instructed it to make best possible speed to her lab. At the same time, she was activating an entirely different level of security than that which had been disabled, bringing down the steel-barred security doors, bringing up the brilliant interior spotlights, and most aggressively, running magnetic current through every door and window. "Attention," she said calmly through the speakers in the lab, "You have been noticed and detained. Any attempt to leave or resist will be met with force. Any attempt to remove data or equipment from this building will result in its destruction by magnetic force." Finally, when the work was done, she flipped on the cameras to get an idea what she was dealing with.

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For all that he'd arrived there by clandestine means, Sharl was neither cowardly enough nor foolish enough to attempt to evade Miss Americana's eye. When the doors slammed shut and the magnetic barriers zitzed into place, fortifications he knew well enough were there even if he evidently hadn't known everything about their structure, he sat down on the floor in front of the open security locker and put his head briefly in his hands as the tension he'd felt since he'd gotten the idea for this independent break-in erupted in a wash of brief, memorable terror. Oh, no. This isn't going to be good at all... He was looking up in the direction of one of the security cameras when Gina reactivated them; there was no mistaking her erstwhile sidekick, or the carefully-suppressed (in that not-so-subtle teenage boy way) look of dread. "I'm here, Miss Americana," he said out loud for the benefit of the audio sensors he was sure she'd kicked back on too, "it's just me."

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"Citizen?" One by one the systems Sharl had turned off began to reroute themselves and come back online, lights, cameras, alarms, even the little droid robots. One of them whirred towards him, swinging its camera around to get a good picture of him. There didn't appear to be anyone else in the lab, but looks could be deceiving. There were things that had no trouble evading the lens of the most sensitive camera. "What are you doing here?" The voice was Gina's, a faint hint of difference from Miss A's tone that only someone who spent a lot of time around both would notice. "Are you all right? Give me your status." They had code words set up for this sort of situation, at her insistence. If he gave the wrong innocuous answer, she'd know he was in bad trouble, blackmailed, hostage or worse.

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Sure enough, she got the code answer that told her everything was okay. They'd been working together long enough that Sharl knew that one right off the top of his head. "All systems are nominal," said Sharl, the pained look on his face and slight tremor in his voice certainly sounding authentic for how he sounded when he was scared and upset. "I, uh, guess I didn't know as much about security here as I thought, huh?" he said with an awkward laugh that was quickly stilled as he imagined the look on Gina's face. "Sorry...listen, we...we need to talk. I was trying to keep this a secret, but now that you know, there's no reason not to tell you everything." They'd talked through sensors and codes often enough that he was no stranger to it, but this was a moment that called for a little more than that.

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He heard the soft hum of the roof hatches opening, a moment before the magnetic fields died down in the walls. Miss Americana descended from on high, perfect despite the hour, and wearing lounging clothes in pastel blue and white that suggested she'd been interrupted while at ease for the evening. She walked over to her errant sidekick, a frown marring her amazing face. She looked about equal parts concerned and angry, a balance Sharl was fairly sure would shortly tip. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded. "Did you bypass the security here? What exactly is it that you think we should talk about?"

Brushing past him for a moment, Miss A lost no time in examining the high security locker itself, coding it open and checking its contents. There were things in here that were dangerous, and things in here that were irreplaceable. Though she'd never mentioned it to him, Sharl himself was in here as well, or at least his secure offsite backups, along with the offsite backup of Tronik itself. Everything looked all right, so she shut the door and secured it, reminding herself that it was obviously time for more upgrades.

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Scared and guilty as he was, Sharl did his best to master himself in the face of Miss A's very impressive anger. "I...I came looking for the dimensional technology that the Next-Gen brought back from their last extra-dimensional trip, the drive core and stuff. I got ahold of the blueprints on the school's files, and I was going to use it to build a Hermetic gateway to another world," he said, using the technical term the first Daedalus had coined for them back in the 1960s. It wasn't an idle notion; Gina knew enough about Sharl's technical competence to know that a project like that was within his realm of expertise, especially with the facilities at Claremont and in the Young Freedom headquarters. "My team and I are going to Erde to rescue the other Tronik," he finally said, strength returning to his voice. "I know what the League said, and I know how much trouble we could get into, but I'm not going to let any version of my people suffer like that."

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Miss A went very still, robot still, as though Gina had vacated for a moment. The narrow focus of her eyes was the only clue she was still in residence, very different from the amiable vacuity of her AI. "You broke in to steal?" she repeated slowly. "You broke into my private laboratory, my sanctum, using the knowledge I imparted to you to help me protect it, with the intent to breach my highest-security vault and steal something you knew was dangerous, illegal, and not remotely yours." Her voice was cold, nearly mechanical, with each word bitten off. She stared down at him with icy eyes. "You have one minute to tell me why I shouldn't be kicking your ass out of my sanctum and back to Tronik on a one-way ticket for this."

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For a moment, Sharl felt like a little boy confronted by an angry parent, but he fought off that impulse: Gina was not the sort to show mercy to that kind of caving-in. Besides, no one would get that angry at a small child who didn't know any better. "Because...because I'm really sorry, first of all," he said, his voice tight. "I should have come to you first about this, and not tried to work around you. I just didn't want you to get in trouble too." He fisted his hands at his sides and forced himself to meet the robot's eyes, no, Gina's eyes, by sheer force of will. "Those people on Erde are all alone. Nobody cares about them here except to feel sorry for them, and nobody on that world thinks of them as anything more than disposable garbage. Even my friends are only going because they want to stand with me. Somebody has to stand up for the people who can't stand up for themselves."

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Miss America loosed an uncharacteristically family-unfriendly word to show what she thought of that explanation, then stalked away for a moment. "That's garbage," she snapped, whipping suddenly to face him again. "You find a problem that's out of your weight class, you come to me with it, or you go to a teacher at school. That's what this whole sidekick bit is about, isn't it? That's why you're in a school for superheroes, not so you can pull this supervillain crap. I have spent the past two years on you, rescuing you, taking care of you, trying to teach you how to live and act so you turn out better than I do. I put you in the best school in the world, tried to find people who would make you who you said you wanted to be, a hero for your whole world."

She turned away again, paced, but this time her movements were ever so slightly jerky. Gina's usual unbreakable control was obviously fraying at the edges. "But the first time your teenage angst rears it's ugly head and you think your problem is the worst thing in the world, you don't tell me or your school or your mentors? Instead you start lying and sneaking around and stealing? You break my trust and sit there trying to tell me it's for my own good? You sit there and lecture me about being a hero? Where the hell do you get off, Sharl?"

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"I just...I just didn't want anything to happen to you too," Sharl confessed, his voice tight. "I thought I could just get it done and you wouldn't have to know anything! So many of my friends are already risking themselves over this thing, and you're my best friend. You're my teacher, you're my mentor...You've already done so much for me, risked so much for me, and asking yourself to do it all over again made me feel so..." He looked away and took a deep breath. "I'm, I'm sorry, G-I'm sorry. I should have trusted you and come to you with this. I thought I could handle it, but I was wrong. I promise I'll never try to go behind your back again. Not for this, not for anything."

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"And what were you going to do with the dimensional transducer if you got your hands on it?" Miss A demanded, hardly seeming mollified. The fact that her gait had smoothed out was probably a good sign, but Sharl certainly wasn't out of the woods yet. "That thing's not just a toy I put on a high shelf, it's League-restricted technology, and for good reason. It's very experimental, highly unstable. You make one mistake and open that thing onto a bad universe or a void universe, you could send that void spilling into Prime and destroying everything it touches, starting with your dumb ass. The fact that it worked even once was a minor miracle. Trying to save the Tronik on Erde could've easily murdered everyone on Freedom City Prime. You think the rules are there for fun, or to make life more difficult for you? If I've locked something up, it's because you're goddamned well not supposed to touch it!"

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Sharl opted to treat the question seriously, answering it as he would a test. "Well...I would have deactivated the transducer's neutronio generator, hooked the transducer up to the power grid on the 13th Floor, and used one of the discarded wiring boards the team from that Erde left behind when they were here," said Sharl carefully, judging Miss A for a reaction. "That way I could activate the transducer in a controlled manner using a measured power source, and I could make sure it was tuned to the proper dimensional variant so that we reached the right Erde." He swallowed hard. "With a built-in timer, we could all come back after a set interval with the other Tronik. I've got, uh, one of the emergency backup drives you gave me for safekeeping, so I was going to put them on there for the duration. I got a good look at the tech they use on the other side, and so far the systems look compatible."

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"That might work," she said tightly, obviously having no trouble following his explanation. "Or, given the shoddy workmanship of materials from Erde, your borrowed board could've blown out the transducer, shorted out the power source, and blown up floors 11-16 of a building with more than two thousand people working in it. Or you could've miscalculated the time coefficient between dimensions and stranded yourself in Erde forever, or you could've used a disc with a bad sector on it and completely depopulated the Tronik you were trying to save.

"The point is" she continued inexorably, her voice rising a bit, "you are eighteen years old and everything you know about Earth technology, you've learned from me teaching you on the job. You're certainly clever enough to pick up a lot, but taking shortcuts and bypassing failsafes isn't going to make you any better. It's going to get you killed, and maybe a bunch of other people as well. I don't know why all the men I know seem to insist that they can throw their lives away for impossible odds just because 'it was for a good cause,' but that's stupid thinking and it stops now, understand?" she demanded. Miss Americana's breath control was truly impressive. "If you're going to travel dimensionally, you're going to do it supervised, and you're going to do it with proven technology, and with a plan that's better than "go find Tronik and rescue it."

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"If you're going to travel dimensionally, you're going to do it supervised, and you're going to do it with proven technology, and with a plan that's better than "go find Tronik and rescue it."

"We can do it if you help us," said Sharl quietly, giving Miss A an earnest look. "There's no way we can screw up the technical side if you're managing it, and that'll give me time to keep analyzing the tactical maps I got from Claremont's files. Blue Moon makes sure a copy of her reports still go to the school's archives, so we've got everything the Resistance has on the rump National Socialist government. That's their military strength, some of their defenses, where their remaining Ubersoldaten are. Their main processing center is in central Missouri, and I'm betting whatever system they have Tronik on is running near there." He didn't need to say how easily Gina could stop him; how a word from her could get Young Freedom broken up and his friends punished, or get him personally in very hot water. They wouldn't boot him back to Tronik, most likely, but there'd be no future for him on Earth-Prime at all.

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"This is a hell of a time to ask me for a favor," Miss A snapped, but he could see by her face that she wasn't ruling it out entirely. Even in her anger, even with her near-irrational mania for privacy, she was still a hero, and what he was asking would save lives. It wasn't something that could be dismissed out of hand. "I want to see your tactical plans, such as they might be, and your dossiers and mission briefs. And you're not going anywhere without backing from the school," she added sharply. "You've done enough sneaking and slinking around already. If the school won't sign off on it, that's the end of it, no arguments. Once you graduate and are out on your own, we can't control what you do, but until then, by god, you are going to have to listen to reason."

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"All right," said Sharl reluctantly, "I'll go to the school." Carefully, he added, "I would like to present the idea to the school as something that was my idea, something I've been working towards privately, and not get the rest of my team involved publicly. That way, there's no risk of my friends getting punished if Mr. Summers is angry over the idea. This was my idea from the start, and I'll take responsibility if presenting it doesn't work." The look in Miss A's eye told him that he was going to be taking a lot of responsibility, as a matter of fact, but there was no use dwelling on that until she actually said it. "My tactical plans, and the data I have, are in my directory at school. I'll retrieve them for you. And I promise," he said urgently, "I won't act on any of them without your express permission, and the school's express permission."

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"I'll keep it between us for now," Miss A agreed, "and let you present the plan, as long as you're totally upfront and honest about what you're going to do and how you want to do it." The stress on those words were obviously to remind him of his current position in the doghouse. I'll take a look at those plans when you get them to me, and the information on your team. And all that planning will give you plenty of time to take on a few extra assignments, just to reassure me that you understand exactly why what you did was wrong, and that you aren't ever going to do anything like it again." The look in her eye suggested that these extra assignments were not going to be of the fun and adventuresome variety.

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"I'll do whatever you need me to do," said Sharl, wondering at the back of his mind if other sidekicks had to go through this too! But he was an ethical young man, despite his attempted break-in earlier in the evening, and it wasn't hard to feel guilty for betraying Gina's trust under Miss Americana's formidable regard. I thought I was being a white-hat. Somehow he suspected that comment wouldn't go over very well with Miss Americana, so he kept it to himself as he waited for her verdict. He reminded himself of the people who needed saving and the city in danger on the world of alien monsters; getting punished by his righteously angry mentor was a small price to pay for the chance to help them. Wasn't it?

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"It's obvious that you don't really have a strong grasp on the way the Freedom League works, or the depth and breadth of information they have about various technologies that qualifies them as experts. If you did, you would have far more respect for technology that they have classified as extremely dangerous. If the League thinks it's extremely dangerous, most other regulating bodies would be screaming and running in the other direction," the beautiful heroine told her sidekick dryly. "Luckily, there's a perfect opportunity for you to learn a lot more about the way the League operates and how it keeps data."

She finally stopped pacing, which was both a relief and instilled a touch of foreboding. "In the basement of the Goodman building, the League is storing about thirty years worth of old files and microfiche that has never been digitized. There's rooms of the stuff, going back to the early days of the Liberty League. The classified information is stored elsewhere, of course, but all of this data is still quite valuable. You're going to go down there with the appropriate equipment and digitize the lot of it. Consider it your hundred hours of community service. At least." Now she even smiled a little, but there was no humor in it.

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Sharl blanched for a moment at that, thinking about the sheer size of the Goodman archive. He was familiar with the place Gina was talking about; he'd visited the building often enough with Dr. Atom, but he'd never set foot in the cabinet-festooned archaic lower levels that Atom occasionally joked about as having been the thing he'd had himself digitized to avoid. That's...tens of thousands of files. PAPER FILES! "I...okay," he promised, "I'll take care of that right away. If I work my free hours every night, I can take care of that and still do all my school stuff. And the planning stuff. Yeah..." Those files loomed in his mind like gigantic wood pulp bats as he licked his lips and said, "Okay, I'll do that. Whatever it takes to regain your trust."

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"It'll be enough to let you keep your keys to the thirteenth floor, anyway," Miss A said rather ominously. "We'll see about the trust part. I'll be changing the security systems here, you can consider yourself trusted enough if I ever give you another cracking lesson." She went to a console on the wall and input a very long string of commands, too quickly for Sharl to follow even if he'd been standing right there.

The lights began to dim in the laboratory, the ventilation fans slowing and stopping to leave only the soft hum of computer equipment in the air. "I'm shutting down the projectors in here now, so you're going to have to clear out," she told him coolly. "Dr. Atom will expect you tomorrow afternoon, he can show you what you need to do." With that, she began to walk towards her private office, the place where she kept the Miss A robot when it was stored on premises.

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Citizen swallowed hard and nodded silently at Miss Americana's words as the magnitude of just how mad she was at him sunk in. This was going to be a lot of work, in more ways than one, and he wasn't talking about the paper files either. (Though that would still be a lot of work) "I'll send you the files on what we're planning tomorrow. And I'm...I'm really, really sorry. Good night, Miss Americana." Even upset, he wasn't going to break Gina's secret identity, even in private: especially not now. He looked down and disappeared a few seconds before the projectors shut off, and Gina could feel his program leaving as he dispatched himself back to Claremont's servers without another word.

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