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January 2013

Outside Heesterstadt (formerly Branson), Missouri

It was raining when the Wonderbus arrived, a thick, icy-cold storm of freezing rain that would have surely been a blizzard had the weather been any warmer. Warm and insulated through the dimensional craft was, it wasn't hard to feel the chill outside. The bus had folded its way through space and time to come rumbling out onto a deserted stretch of concrete road by a grim, grey lake that might possibly have been more attractive in the spring. As it was, the whole world was grey and brown: the city across the lake, what was Branson on another world, was almost lost beneath the heavy fog which swaddled the area. Shifting his clothing over to the bland, servile pattern his counterpart had worn, Sharl peered through the front windows, just able to make out tall concrete towers and a massive, hovering flag projected against the clouds from the city below like a massive old-style holographic billboard.

It was grim. "Everybody get changed," he said, calling back to the passenger compartment as he reached down to turn on the conventional gasoline engine. "The Tronik base is about five miles up this road! We're turning around..." He muttered a bad word in Lor, trying to remember how to work these stupid controls. With all the worries about fighting Nazis and transdimensional technology, maybe he hadn't paid enough attention to how to drive a stupid four-wheeled, rubber-tired bus! Why can't they just use antigravs like civilized people?

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Indira gave a short, quiet laugh despite herself at the Lor cuss - it had been so long since she'd heard one she just couldn't help it. She'd opted to preserve her dignity by simply shifting to a silver, genderless form before pulling on her assigned uniform, shifting back to looking human only when fully clothed; it had given her time to spare while others got changed. She was visibly uncomfortable for a bit, squirming now and again as she readjusted to wearing honest-to-goodness-cloth clothes, but apparently didn't think it was worth commenting on.

Instead she turned her attention out the window, eyes filling with black as she got a good look at the flag in the sky. The symbol had less of an impact that it would on a native, but she sure understood the implication. She found she didn't like it much.

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Mali hurried off to find some privacy and began to change. She thought about the crazy, dangerous and exciting situation. She thought about how, at any moment, their lives could be in danger. She thought about how she would react if confronted. It was all so strange, happening so fast, that she only now realized she was on an alternate Earth, preparing to rescue living computer programs from the Nazi regime. Superheroes lead strange, and interesting lives.

She chuckled to herself, realizing that she was one of three regular humans on the team. She wondered what motivated Sharl and the others to pick her to put on the team, and worried for a moment if she'd be able to carry her weight.

Those thoughts lingered only for a moment. There was no point in living in doubts. Doubts were dangerous, doubts could get someone hurt, or killed. Better to live looking forward.

Whether she doubted her place on the team was irrelevant. She was going to make damn sure she'd earn it.

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As nervous as Kristin was about the mission she was resolute. It had to be done, and she had already accepted that the danger was part of the job that she'd signed up for. The team was solid, and as much as she felt inexperienced next to some of them she was ready to play her part. The seriousness of the situation wasn't about to get her down either.

"Sharl do you even know how to drive this thing?" she teased as she collected her gear and headed towards the back of the Wonderbus to get changed.

A few minutes later she emerged all suited up and made her way to a window to take her first proper look at what awaited them outside. "Aww well that looks nice," she grumbled as she saw how miserable the weather was, then shot a grin at Kimber. "At least one of us is going to like the weather! Hope this gear is waterproof enough for the rest of us though!"

Her eyes narrowed as she got a good look at the holographic flag in the sky. "That thing really needs to go," she decided. "Someone ought to switch it up so it's an animation of the flag burning. Or just bust the projector. Nothing says 'your regime is going down' like trashing the giant holographic projection of the flag."

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"First things first," Koshiro pointed out. "If we have time on the way out, we can trash their stuff, but we've got a mission first." He swore and grabbed at the nearest seat as the Wonderbus took another curve too fast and too tight. "Jesus, Sharl, do you know how to drive a car? Try to leave some rubber on the tires to get home with!" He made his way up to the front, looking out the windshield and holding tight to the doorframe. "Doesn't seem to be a lot of other people around on the road. That should make things easier, at least until we have to go through a security gate or something."

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Kimber wilted noticeably as she looked up at the projected flag against the clouds. It was one thing to know what they were getting into and it was another to have it hanging so literally and all-encompassingly over their heads. "I don't think I'm going to like it much either," she told Kristin quietly before her nose twitched involuntarily. The chilling wind reeked of fear, even this far away from the actual town, too much for her pick out any one source from such a distance. The bright blue of her irises faded momentarily into white as her eyes narrowed and she continued in a very different tone, "And it's going to get a lot colder before we're done." Shaking it off, she seemed to flicker out of existence for a moment, as if stepping into the peripheral vision of anyone watching, before reappearing with the illusion of solid flesh and similar attire to Sharl.

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"As a matter of fact, no, I don't!" Sharl yelled back at Koshiro, getting a little flustered as the big van bounced and flounced over the muddy, pothole-strewn roads. Cosmic craft though it was, every shock made the entire enhanced interior of the craft shake. "Stupid, wretched useless khestin groundcar..." Eventually he jabbed a few buttons on the console before him and the car seemed to stabilize on the road. "OK, we'll be hitting the base perimeter soon," he called back to the others, his voice coming in on the bus's interior speakers like some bizarre tour guide. "We should be totally invisible to everything at the perimeter, it's all just mundane hardware till you actually get inside the base. I've got a circuit here that'll open the front gate, and we can go in stealth mode while they're trying to...Oh my god!"

The bus screeched to a halt, sending a spray of mud in front of it. It didn't take long for the teen heroes to see what had so startled Sharl. They'd found the perimeter of the base all right, a high razorwire fence with a guardpost alongside the small road leading into the base proper. With armed guards and lights, big No Trespassing signs in German and English, the masonry blockhouse was probably a solid little fortress most of the time. Not today, though, as it appeared something had torn the little house apart, scattering cinderblocks like child's toys and breaking open, but not removing, the sliding gate. There were two humans visible outside; German-allied guards from the look of them: one was face-down and unmoving in the mud, while the other was crawling towards the gate, only moving his arms as he dragged himself forward inch by inch beneath the freezing rain. Behind them, the road turned sharply into the forest, leaving no sign of what lay beyond.

"Oh geez, oh geez..." Sharl stared for a moment at the badly-wounded man before he said, "We can't just leave him here. Everybody, cover me!" With determination, he grabbed one of the medkits and stepped out, appearing as if from a pane of light in the open air as he stepped out for the first time into the cold, misty air of Erde in January. He was there first, and so it was he arrived just in time for the broken-backed soldier to look up at him and speak two words in a whisper that carried across Sharl's commlink into the bus, and to any of his friends who followed him out.

"Sie stieg...sie stieg..." And then, without another sound, the German guard died.

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Mali stepped up behind Sharl and closed her eyes. This, she'd never seen anything like this. The man was dead, and there was nothing they could have done to help him. She was stunned into silence, and shocked into motionless. There would be time for that later, she decided. If they didn't act soon, more lives would be lost. She mumbled a quick prayer for the dead man, so that he would pass to the next life peacefully.

"I..." She started, approaching her teammate. "There was nothing you could have done..." She closed her eyes again, as if trying to keep herself steady.

"We have to keep moving, we have an important job to do." Not that she needed to remind him, of course, but she didn't know what Sharl's history was as a hero. This was the first time she'd ever seen someone die like that. It had certainly shaken her, she could only assume it might have a similar effect on another.

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Koshiro headed for the door nearly as fast as Sharl, but checked for a moment when he realized how vulnerable the drizzling rain would make him to anything that was out there. He still hadn't managed to get a really waterproof origami figure; something about the magic that empowered them didn't seem to recognize even thin, foldable plastics as sufficiently papery. Waxed paper was semi-waterproof, but the coating flaked and made the figures move stiffly. Until he got something figured out, something as simple as a rainy day could disarm him.

Even so, he couldn't just stand in the bus while his teammates ran out into danger. He followed on Mali's heels, arriving just after the German's odd last words. "Ziesting?" he asked quizzically, even as his hand went to Mali's shoulder in a supportive gesture that seemed almost automatic. "I don't know any German, what does that mean? Is the rebellion here already?"

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Indira had no prayers for the fallen; she didn't know them, or their worth, and couldn't assume they'd want the sort of prayers she was capable of providing anyway. Instead she stood in the rain, trying in vain to catch some hint - any hint - of what had happened here. But in the rain there were no smells; in the fog- and forest-shielded road there weren't any unusual creatures to watch.

It was frustrating.

"I do not speak German," she finally replied, frowning. "We...perhaps should have brought a dictionary. I do not suppose the bus has a translator of some kind?"

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Kimber hesitated for a moment, floating a step's distance behind the others standing about the dead guard, before moving forward, one foot absently passing through Koshiro's shoulder unhindered as she focused on the rain-splattered corpses. "I, um... I think I've got this one, guys. Y'know how I've been getting tutoring with magic and stuff? Turns out already being dead is super convenient for necromancy." The phantom didn't sound particularly thrilled about it for once, clenching and unclenching her hands as if steeling herself and settling down with her feet in the mud. "I'm pretty sure I can show us what happened to these guys. You... might want to hold onto something."

With a final affected but psychologically helpful steadying breath, she connected herself to the fresh aura of death before her the way Nick Cimitiere had taught her. With a muted gasp, Kimber's ectoplasmic body went stiff and her eyes turned a milky white, visions of the first guard's moment of death blasting into the team's minds with the force of an icy gale.

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The sound of distant thunder. No, gunfire, the rattle of machine guns and the occasional small explosion. Ordered to stick to their posts, the guards hunker down inside their blockhouse. They come with the rain, fast, stealthy humanoid shapes that come not from outside the base but inside it. One breaks down the door and kills the guard inside with a wet _crack_ audible even over a crash of thunder. The second guard has time to _see_ it coming; he fumbles for his gun and screams but it's too late.

The last thing he sees, as metal hands close on his body, is a metal skull like a man's but with glowing red eyes, and a black swastika carved across the faceplate.

Sie stieg... THEY RISE

Unable to see Kimber's visions, but savvy enough to have some idea what they were doing, Sharl was already back inside the Wonderbus when it was finished. "Come on, guys, get in out of that!" he called. "We can talk in here!" As soon as everyone was inside, he flipped the vehicle's stealth mode back on and began the slow, ponderous drive towards the base. "I don't know what you guys saw, but I don't think we should wait much longer," said the slightly translucent holographic teen.

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Kristin's eyes widened as her mind was assaulted by the mental images, but she quickly got herself back under control and watched the gruesome vision impassively. It was mercifully short, and she shuddered as it faded away, then turned back to the Wonderbus without a word as she tried to process what she had seen.

"Would we all have seen that the same?" she asked Kimber as she took her seat and brushed her wet hair back from her face. "Because to me that looked like some kind of nasty looking Nazi cyborg- or robot-Ninja. And that can't possibly be good."

She paused for a few seconds and chewed on her bottom lip, then asked "And can we tell how long ago that was? Because it looks an awful lot like they're going where we're going."

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Mali cursed in Thai. It was a rather colorful way of putting things, but considering the circumstances, she felt it appropriate. "Well, that sucks." she said, putting things lightly.

"I'm concerned, but, to be fair, we're a lot tougher and more powerful than your average soldier. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll do to us what they did to them. Still, that sucks."

She lowered her head and sighed. There were already several dead people, and she had the feeling more people would die before she was through.

She had a job to do, and wanted to help people.

But she wanted to go home.

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Indira's eyes were had grown larger than any human's had any right being; even in the rain they were solid black, empty and reflectionless as she saw death through Kimber's magic.

It took her a few seconds after the vision to snap back to reality, her eyes returning to human and her arm - which had reflexively become a long, scythe-tipped tendril - pulling itself back together into a set of proper human joints and digits. She had to admit, as she made it back to the bus, that it wasn't the worst outcome - not the best situation, of course, but she could deal with metal men. And if she got hurt, she'd have some walking meals....

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"They looked like Nazi robots," Koshiro pointed out, even as he rubbed at his temples. The blasting of memory hadn't exactly been painful, but it certainly hadn't been pleasant. "Like what Sharl was saying they were planning on shoving the Tronikians into. It could be that we're walking into the middle of a rebellion that's already started, if somehow they managed to get into the robots and get them turned against the Nazis. Or hell, maybe the robots became sentient themselves. Can't get through a chapter in the hero history textbook without that happening somewhere, right?" he pointed out. "They look real dangerous, but they might be on our side. Trouble is letting them know we're on their side. Hey Sharl," he called to his roommate, "is there some secret handshake deal in Tronik, something people do to say hi or bye or whatever that they don't do on Prime?"

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"That's a lot of things," said Sharl cautiously, as he looked back at Koshiro. "I don't know how much their culture has changed with all the years the National Socialists have been bossing them around, either. I can probably recognize the other me, maybe whoever we've been talking to, but that's about it. I can ask them something about Tronik or the old homeworld that no one else here would be likely to know...but that's assuming they haven't been interrogated by the locals, and I don't think that's a safe-" Two things happened then: first, the base finally swung into view down the road; the squat bunkers buzzing with activity and moving figures, lights flickering on and off erratically in the dark, and the sound of industrial activity.

And that was also when the Kubelwagen slammed head-on into the Wonderbus, the German military truck having come around a curve fast, splashing mud everywhere, and slammed full-on into the invisible vehicle. Only the relatively slow speeds imposed by the heavy weather kept the terrestrial vehicle from cracking up, as it was they both went tumbling off the road and hit the nearby mud. Only able to keep his seat because he was projecting directly from the bus''s internal systems, Sharl bounced in his seat, peering out through the mist at the base now half-visible down the road, then at the truck. The figures inside were moving, coming out with guns ready, and they didn't look like robots to him.

"Oh, jeez! Everybody okay? I think we've got company outside..."

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The crash didn't actually knock Kimber around, but it did send the seat she was occupying right through her immaterial form and back out the other way, leaving her floating in the cab and looking at what they'd hit. Running her hands across her face with enough force to stretch the ectoplasm out of shape for a moment, she tried to shake the visions of robotic death machines out of her mind. "M-maybe anybody with an actual neck to snap should stay inside the Wonderbus for a bit?" she suggested shakily, putting hands to her throat reflexively and swallowing. "I can go out and say hello or something. It's not like they can shoot me!" She'd managed to remind herself that the androids couldn't kill her but fear of what had happened to the guards happening to her mortal friends was a chill even the frosty poltergeist could feel.

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"I'm fine..." Mali said, shaking her head of cobwebs. "Maybe I should drive from now on? I do have a license."

She glanced outside. "Yeahh, invisible object gets slammed into. I doubt they'll chalk it up to a hallucination."

"I'm inclined to agree with Kimber. I don't think any of us want to step out into a hail of gunfire." She glanced around. "Being a hero is one thing, dying for the cause, noble and all that. Stepping out there would be suicide."

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Kristin had tumbled clean out of her seat as the Wonderbus collided with the German truck, and she looked a little rattled as she picked herself up and moved to look out the window. She shook her head as she got a look at the damaged vehicle. "Is the Wonderbus damaged?" she asked as she glanced in the direction of Sharl. "We could keep going. Although I guess they'd likely radio in that they ran into something."

The Australian teen wasn't about to let Kimber go outside by herself even if the ghostly girl was immune to gunfire. "I can deal with bullets," she said as her telekinetic barriers flickered into life. "If you're going out there then I'm coming too."

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"It would perhaps be best to remain inside for now?" Indira cautioned, though her eyes had filled in black again and she was weirdly still, like a cat that could see prey. "If there is a fight, it will not take us much time to reach her and Sharl. I do not know what these soldiers are used to seeing, but as soon as someone like you or I joins the fight they will know that they are under attack by a super-human force; two intangible people who appear from nowhere is less immediately threatening, if they are superstitious enough."

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"I'm staying inside for this one," Koshiro said firmly, sliding into the front seat of the bus. "I'd only get shot if I went out there, and then somebody would have to drag my stupid ass back inside. Our stealth is shot to hell anyway, may as well make use of what this bus can do. Sharl said that Miss Americana put some fancy guns on this thing, I just need to figure out how to use them. Gotta be user friendly, this whole control board was originally designed for that pothead wookie to use." He cracked his knuckles and got to work, accessing the onboard computer even as he read the labels on various switches.

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Kristin looked back and forth between Indira and Koshiro as she chewed on her bottom lip in frustration. As much as she hated the idea of letting her teammates go into danger without her she knew that they were right - and neither Kimber nor Sharl really had that much to fear from the soldiers. "Fine," she sighed as she bowed to the suggestions of her more experienced friends. "But if they get in trouble I'm going out to help!"

Still agitated she started to pace back and forth a little as she looked out of a window towards the wrecked German vehicle.

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"The 'bus is fine," said Sharl, clearing out so Koshiro could get access to the controls and so Mali could handle the wheel. "You can get us back on the road easily enough, but those people out there are probably going to notice the tracks, not to mention maybe run into us on the way out again. We can't let them draw any more attention to us, not if things are already happening at the base. Stupid groundcar, stupid miserable world..." He peered through the storm and said uncertainly to the others, "Well, I don't think they're National Socialists, actually. It sounds like they're yelling in English, maybe French? And those aren't the right uniforms." He didn't speak that particular national language, but he'd heard it often enough from Eve when she was mad. And the dark fatigues on the people outside, spilling out of the truck, didn't match what he'd seen for National Socialist uniforms at all.

He joined Kimber at the door, gave her a nervous grin and thumbs up, and hit the door release. He and Ghost Girl stepped out into the cold, wet night, the rain having died down to a light drizzle. They immediately got the attention of the people spilling out of the truck, as would anyone who appeared out of a bright yellow door of light in the middle of the night air. Guns were leveled their way, but no shots fired, as the door closed behind them. The dozen or so people in, and now out of the truck, were a ragtag looking group of humans: their clothes, no, uniforms were in tatters, their bodies thin, but there was a pride that burned in their eyes all the same. They'd had it rough, but they weren't just another group of refugees either.

After a moment, a muscular woman of indeterminate years stepped out of the small group, her team behind her unloading from the truck even as she spoke. "All right, kids. Start talking."

"Sorry about your truck," said Sharl apologetically. "That was our bad. Well, my bad. I'm Sharl. Who are you?" hazarded Sharl. "How did you get here?"

"Not what I had in mind," she said with a sharp look. "I'm Rebecca Stone, True North," she said, evidently expecting at least the latter to mean something. What, the Canadian super-team? thought Sharl. "And we..." she took a close look at Sharl and her eyes widened with recognition. "You! It's one of them!" And suddenly the guns were coming up again...

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"Don't shoot!" a masculine voice barked from next to Sharl, the space occupied a moment before by Ghost Girl now host to a severe looking man in his early seventies with thinning grey-blonde hair and a dark three-piece suit. His stance was determined, with his feet set and his hands holding either side of his jacket open to expose a simple black tie tucked into a lightly pinstriped vest, his jaw set is a stern expression as he glared daggers at the assembled gunmen.

After a beat, he spoke again, with the voice of a teenage girl. "Sorry, Sharl, I was all set to do Mackenzie King and I kinda panicked," she apologized to the holographic teen before addressing the Canadians, still appearing as the late Prime Minister. "Um, please don't shoot? I'm Canadian too, actually! I mean, not your Canada, I guess, but-- oh, wait, maybe I'm not supposed to mention that..."

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