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Wharton Hill

Harrier watched, as amazed as anyone else, as the Curator's ships gathered up the severed Freedom City and began to carry it away into the perpetually grey sky overhead. Over the distant rumble, he called, "We should not remain this area long! The subsidence from the city's removal may cause a collapse...and if the Curator's ships do come hunting for the missing ones who probed the sky, they will pass through this area early in whatever search they make. We should avoid being taken by the Curator...again," he added, chewing on that thought unpleasantly. "His attentions will not be in our favor." He was carefully not looking at Blue Jay or Bee-Keeper, eager not to resume the arguments that had nearly gotten the armored warrior and young (so young, was I ever that age?) archer captured by the collecting vessels.

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One moment, Blue Jay was struggling to get air back into her lungs and wondering if she physically could reach the limits of the city before the green wall came up, and then someone in a Claremont uniform was grabbing her hand and the scene around her changed to forest. She spun around and noticed Wander, the Omegadrone, and presumably the third member of the group, already standing there and watching her. Blue Jay's first instinct was to run, or hit someone and run, or shoot an arrow and run, but she didn't now how far she'd get in her current condition.

So instead she forced her to rise from the crouch she'd dropped into instinctively and hold her hands at her side, even if her palms were itching for a weapon. She nodded to Wander first. "The Brave." Then the drone. "I'm hoping you're the One Free Drone." And finally to the older girl in the red coat. "And you're... Jane, right?" Her eyes settled on Quickstep and she frowned briefly. "I... didn't except to see anyone else from Claremont here."

She stepped back so she could see the city rise while still keeping the entire group in view. Her mouth hung open slightly as the entire metropolis was carried into the air, but at the Omegadrone's matter-of-fact tone she snapped it closed and crossed her arms, affecting indifference. "If we're going to stay out of sight," she said, "standing next to the crater of the city isn't going to do us any favors. We should stay on the move."

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Erin had heard the Furion appellation once or twice, so wasn't totally confused by Blue Jay's words, even if it still seemed a little strange to her. "I'm Wander," she agreed with a nod. "Jill o'Cure of the Interceptors, Quickstep," she indicated the others, "and Harrier, a free Omegadrone. I've worked with him since he came to Freedom City, and there aren't many heroes I trust more. We're all going to have to work together to get through this, so any personal problems can wait till your own time."

She looked to the sky along with the others, shading her eyes with her hand. "You're both right about getting out of here, fast as we can. We've got very little in the way of supplies right now, so I suggest we head towards Philadelphia, then further inland. If we make good time, we can be a couple states away by dark. Harrier, you grab Jill and fly low. Quickstep, I'll give you a lift, we can't have you teleporting all the time. Either of you guys fast movers?" she asked Blue Jay and Beekeeper. "Human hiking speed isn't going to cut it right now."

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The corner of her mouth twitching in ill concealed annoyance Jill added, "My melodramatic nickname is She Who Will Seriously Cut You If You Waste Any More Of Our Time." Apart from the winded teleporter, the pre-med student was likely the least formidable looking member of the group but she was clearly in no mood to have those appearances tested. "It's wordier, sure, but it's so gosh darn evocative. And you," she continued, pointing a finger in Beekeeper's direction, "are just lucky Fleur de Joie is a forgiving saint of a woman who likes setting up playdates. Next time somebody says 'hey guys, I think this is a set-up and we shouldn't fight,' maybe it's a maldito set-up and you shouldn't fight!"

Making a strained sound of frustration through gritted teeth, she mimed a strangling motion in the teenagers' general direction before taking a deep breath and straightening her crimson jacket. "Alright. Okay. I'm good. If either of you are hurt, say something; I'm a medic." Grumbling under her breath, she walked over to Harrier to catch a lift. "Por Dios..."

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Before he could figure out where he'd been transported, Baxter was battling not only with a sudden sense of clumsiness and distortion as he arrived in the wooded glade surrounded by what he could only surmise were either friends or secret foes, but with the gravity of which he'd just escaped. Despite his stumbling arrival via teleportation, the Bee-Keeper paid only the remotest heed to the people around him, too busy watching his home - his fake home, but his home nonetheless - drift away into the grey void looming beyond. Where was it going? Who was the Curator? Why had he taken them here? So many questions... but there was only one thing Baxter could think to say now in the wake of such a fearful sight and despite all sense of urgency:

"Where... where will the Curator move the zzity?" he asked, unable to turn away from his home slipping into the distance. In hindsight, and only now that he'd been whisked away based on little more than a risky gamble, Baxter truly felt sorry for the decision. Stratos was still there, trapped in that strange spheroid of preserved buildings and only partially demolished landmarks. How many other people might yet still be there? He didn't know. He didn't want to think about it. If even just one other person was stranded, they had to be rescued! If only he'd kept cool instead of berating the slightly perturbed old man then, perhaps, he might have made it out with them...

He didn't wait for an answer, shaking his head in an endeavor to push the thought away and raising a hand to belay whatever ill-suited answers were about to come his way. There wasn't anything he could do for them now. Baxter was scared, but he wasn't stupid. They knew they shouldn't stay, and he couldn't agree more, but his silence prevailed even as he forced himself to look away from the floating menagerie of cement and skeletons. Even Jill's flurry of scathing words just seemed to bounce off him. It wasn't that he didn't notice, or that they didn't cut him to the quick; her lashing just felt insignificant in comparison for the Hero of the Hive who was very much out of his league.

"Yeah... zzorry. Zzorry. I could have... yeah. Zzorry," he murmured again slowly, modulated voice distorting his odd amalgam of sheepishness, terror, and uncertainty. "I can fly uzz pretty quick," he mumbled back, nodding towards Blue Jay as his intended passenger. Out of his element and struggling to digest what he was looking at, it was clear as crystal he wasn't at the peak of his game. But even in his slightly frazzled state, the armored incognito teenager couldn't help but cast a leery glance towards the one Blue Jay had called the One Free Drone. He was grateful not to have been immediately waylaid, but there was still some... uneasiness, despite the other girls' vouching. The day before, he'd woken up in rubble with him advancing on his prone position. Now? Now, Baxter was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people he'd suspected of harboring camaraderie with an Omegadrone. He was right still, at least partially, though not in the way he'd thought. He'd have time to hash out his feelings on this Omegaless Drone later; preferably when being recaptured wasn't as high a risk.

"You juzzt... you juzzt point the way, and I'll follow. But I want zzome anzzwerzz when we get to... to wherever we're goin'," he added before turning back to face the empty vacancy where a same yet different Freedom City once stood. "... azz long azz it'zz away from here."

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They flew a few dozen miles into the deserted landscape of this alien New Jersey, then landed along the interstate to briefly reconnoiter. There wasn't much to see; though there was no devastation from the abortive Terminus invasion this far inland, the area was still almost entirely deserted. Reaching Philadelphia by nightfall, they made camp near a grocery store in the western suburbs. As he was the most familiar with the Curator, albeit only at one remove, Harrier did his best to explain to the others what he thought the Curator's intentions were for Freedom City. "If he has taken us here, it is for purposes of his own. I think it is no coincidence that he took that Freedom City as soon as we learned that we were in his hands. He took it to find us, and when he does not find us, he will go hunting. Whether for destruction or alteration, we cannot allow ourselves to fall back between his fingers." Steve had also done more thinking than almost any of them about the consequences of being hunted by cosmic forces beyond their control. He stared into the fire. "I suggest we head west, towards the mountains of eastern North America. Even if this copied version of Earth has no animal life, there will be both wild plants and untapped stores of food there for us to use. And the terrain will, for the moment, keep us beyond the Curator's vision."

"How do we get back home, though?" Quickstep asked, looking around at the others. "I've...I've been here longer than you guys, and it...it sucks!" she said with a scared laugh, a girl putting on a woman's bravery. "I'm sure my mom and dad must be going crazy looking for me..."

"There are ways," said Steve, looking guiltily down into the fire at Dorothy's words. "There must be a vacant ship left behind in a super-team headquarters; perhaps the Defenders in Chicago or even the Champions in Los Angeles. We can at least move fast enough to get off this 'map' and find another civilization that may be able to help us. And eventually they will come looking for us. Those we have left behind, those we love...will not forget us." He looked up at the blank sky overhead, still darkened by the artificial cloud cover layered over the surface, his lined eyes blinking.

The next morning, after another night under the dark, moonless, starless skies of the Curator's world, they were left with the problem of travel. There were a great many of them, and only two could fly, only one of them particularly fast.

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Blue Jay had managed to snatch a few hours of sleep under the watchful eye of an Omegadrone. It certainly wasn't the best night's sleep she ever had, but she at least woke up slightly less tired than before. The young archer stretched and started checking over her gear as the rest of the group roused and went through their morning routines as best they could. "If we need to go fast," she offered, "we should get a car." She looked at the bulk of Philadelphia rising on the horizon. "There should be lots of cars in there. Maybe even an airplane. And if it's like Freedom City, there'll be almost no one around to complain if we take one."

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During the trip to Philadelphia, Wander had been, between leaps, keeping an eye on the capabilities of their new erstwhile allies. "Airplane's probably not a good bet for now," she pointed out. "Even if one of us has unexplored depths as a pilot, trying to find a plane that'll work, find fuel and get it into the plane, and fly with no navigation system, that'll take us a few hundred miles before we have to find an airport, land, and do it all again. Similar problems with a car, really. There's no way to navigate, has anybody else noticed that?"

Her voice took on a bit of an edge as she looked at the cloud-filled sky. "There's no sun, no stars in the nighttime. Compasses don't point anywhere in particular, and I'm pretty damn sure there's not going to be a navsat system up there if we get a GPS working. If we want to travel, we're going to be doing it by pure line of sight navigation, which means getting in the air, but not too high, and following the roads from city to city. Beekeeper, are you strong enough to take a loaded van and fly with it? I'm pretty sure you're the fastest flyer we've got, and if we could take a minivan and rig the chassis with tow lines, one strong flyer could haul us all and our gear instead of this piggyback business." She looked to the battlesuited cipher for his (probably his, though the voice modulator on the suit could mean either) reaction to the idea.

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Flitting along quietly, Baxter had much to stew upon within the bubbling cauldron that was his mind during the trip. Even as Harrier gave his spiel about the Curator and his supposed machinations after their arrival, it was a meaty thing to dwell on, and Baxter remained just as mentally engrossed in his thoughts. Here he was, mulling over the flurry of information out-of-costume as he struggled to come to grips with the scenario he and the others had been forced into. Talk of loved ones was unnerving for Baxter. How long had they been looking for him now? A day? Two? More? And now, unable to find him, they must be miserable. His mom and dad, his friends... Jessica, Fleur... more people than he cared to think about now, unaware that he'd been jostled into some hellish nightmare where he was being chased by some extradimensional super-villain. He didn't want to think about what might be happening on that other Freedom City now where Stratos and whomever else were still stranded.

To say the young teenager looked out-of-place compared to the other heroic sorts present might have been an understatement; dressed in what might pass for casual wear for any high school student, though while his clothes weren't, Baxter himself certainly looked worse for wear. He was tired and distraught, and not just physically. He looked worn... haggard, even, despite his youth. Other than the pair of large blackish-purple bags below his eyes, the dark-skinned boy might have otherwise passed for ordinary. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say Baxter looked boring! But the small scattering of bruises etching across his arms told a different story. He'd taken his fair share of licks, and it showed.

"Yeah," the innocuous teen finally mustered out in reply, looking up from his sullen thoughts and back towards Wander. "Van. Bus. Boat. Anything other than that, man, I don't know... I never had a chance to really test how much the armor can tote." He almost seemed to cheer up a bit at the thought of being useful, but his voice waned as he drifted in thought again.

"I'm pretty sure I can get us wherever we're goin'. But, y'know, knowing exactly where we're going would be nice," he murmured, peering off towards the eerie sky still hanging over their little hidey-hole of horrors. He paused for a moment in thought, deciding now was the best time to share his hidden factoid, lest they be caught unawares if the creature who'd sang a song of strife in his head was still on the prowl.

"I don't... I don't wanna just wander around this place. When we were still in Freedom -- or whatever it was -- there was something there, too. Something following us. Following me," the Bee-Keeper said, voice dropping to a whisper. "It knew who I was. It... it knew about you, Jay. It sounded like an Omegadrone," That last bit came with some odd emphasis, the Bee-Keeper turning towards Harrier as he said it. "But not like you. It was... I don't know. Different, but the same. Creepy and cold and... and unnatural."

"All I'm saying is, if we're gonna head somewhere, I don't wanna stay in one place too long, y'know? Point A to Point B, stopping only when we have to," he finished, trying his best to muster up some sort of authoritarian aura, though only managing to sound more and more frightened of whatever creature may or may not still be keen on his trail. "I... I don't wanna get blindsided by whatever it is. Keep moving, makes it harder for it to find us, right?"

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Jill placed one hand horizontally atop the other to form a T shape. "Woah there, Baby Bumblebee, back up. Something was talking to you?" The medic left out a rebuke for the armored teen's failure to mention his encounter sooner. Irritable though she was feeling, it had become clear pretty quickly that the severity of the situation had Beekeeper despondent enough to make reprimanding him akin to beating a dead horse. "Like on your radio or telepathically or physically there or what?" She looked around the rest of the group to see if anyone else understood the significance. "Okay, we're agreed that our host was planning on us going medieval on each other, right? Scooping up the city was a pretty drastic Plan B, so if somebody was goading Tin Can Stan it was probably the management speaking. If we can figure out why the Curator wanted us here, we can figure out how to ram his plan so far up his probe hole he'll be able to taste it." Pausing for a moment, she folded her arms and let out a short breath with enough force to jostle her bangs. "So I don't like being kidnapped by aliens. Call it a pet peeve."

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Erin looked up from the map of the city she'd been reading, struck by Jill's words. She'd tuned out a bit on Beekeeper after his initial assent, and had nearly missed what Ellie had caught. It wasn't that she didn't feel bad for the guy, who looked truly pathetic when he wasn't suited up, but it was easy to slip into paranoid fantasy after only a little time in a place like this. She hadn't really considered the possibility that it might be the Curator himself. "You think the Curator is trying to get an exhibition fight out of us, like the time with the Madrigal Martinet and her Hounds?" She looked around and realized that no one there would likely know what she was talking about, then waved a hand dismissively. "Or whatever. It can't just be that, why would he lift the three of us who know each other and work together, and Quickstep here weeks ago?"

She rested her chin on her fist and forced herself to think of the possibility she'd been willfully ignoring. "Maybe it's not about us," she offered. "Or at least not just about us. Maybe he wants us out of the way so he can get to someone else." Turning, she met Steve's eyes, then Ellie's. "We know one person already who is unprotected because we're not there. Between the rest of us, there may be more. But I don't know what we can do." Erin dropped her hand, scrubbed her face. "We don't even know how long we were all unconscious to get here, or how much time has passed on Earth. But we know people are looking for us, so we have to try and get back as soon as possible. And if we can give the Curator a black eye in the process, I'm all for that. Steve, you said Defenders Base in Chicago might have a ship?"

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Blue Jay's stomach sank when Wander mentioned flying in a car hauled around by the Bee-Keeper. It wasn't that she thought he's drop him (she was pretty sure she can grapple onto him if that happened), but she still wasn't used to the ideas of flying hundreds of feet in the air, faster than a bird. It all struck her as unnatural, and she wasn't looking forward do it.

Wander's oblique mention of leaving someone vulnerable got Jay thinking about her friends at Claremont. Her first thought was that Sam, Mali, and Cerys were safer than anything, but then she realized how easily she had been snatched from her bed. She walked over to Quickstep, nodding at the other girl. "Did you manage to get a chance to check out Claremont? The one back at the Freedom City Curator made?"

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"It was really...messed up, like there had been a battle there. And bodies." Quickstep looked away, scrubbing her hands up and down her arms. "I didn't know about any of the underground stuff that, um, Wander and Jill have been talking about, but I used the emergency shelter in the administration building and ate up all the food there, and I opened the vending machines in the cafeteria. I tried to sleep in my bed the first night, but it wasn't...it wasn't good.That's where I saw Dr. Stratos, when he was flying over-" She saw the looks on the others' faces and went white, covering her mouth. "Oh no, did I forgot to say that? I'm sorry, I just, I just forgot..." She swallowed hard. "He was flying around yelling, trying to call out Bolt or Captain Thunder, so I hid in the administration building and he flew away."

For his part, while the others talked, Steve walked around until he found an abandoned city bus parked alongside the road like it had always been there. "The keys seem to be in the ignition," he called to the others as he worked, "but the gasoline tank is empty." The bus was intact, with even its windows still holding out. "If we siphon gasoline, we will have a working ground vehicle as well as accommodations in the air."

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Quietly, the terrified teen waited for Quickstep to finish regaling them with her tale at Claremont Academy; of how she hid from Stratos and survived off of grub from the ruined world's elitist academic institution, nearly biting his tongue at the mention of the insane doctor searching for his deceased adversary. It didn't make him feel any better to know that he wasn't the only one completely out of his element, and even if it had, Baxter was positive it wouldn't have made any difference. He was still stranded here in some makeshift collection of worlds-that-were, or could have been, or had been before this Curator guy showed up.

"Sorry," Baxter apologized as Dorothy finished, trying his best to look sympathetic to what she had to go through. She'd been here longer than he had; maybe longer than everyone else here. He'd had a rough start, to be sure, but at least he hadn't been stuck here on his own for weeks.

"Like I said, I don't know who it was," Baxter repeated, his tone of terror granting some leeway to make room for mild annoyance at being treated like a child, though his face quickly re-contorted itself into one of fear as he struggled to continue. "I just know that it knew the radio frequency in my suit, and it knew who I was... and knew about Blue Jay. It knew where we were, too... told me it was hunting us," the Bee-Keeper whispered, clearly skittish at the thought of some creature prowling after him. "And it sounded like him. Like Harrier, I mean, but... but not him, y'know? But if it is the Curator, then... then I don't know. Maybe he's got beef with you guys, or maybe he's watched Gladiator a whole bunch. Either way, you're right: it doesn't make any sense. It just... none of it makes any sense..."

He paused again as he trailed off, as if in thought. When they'd met Doctor Stratos, he was clearly out of his mind. But he wasn't a bad guy - a villain, yeah, but not a bad guy. He was a lonely old coot, broken and mad. Maybe that was the secret he knew. Maybe he'd always known the Curator was behind it; or, at the least, suspected it. Maybe it was a completely different secret entirely. Who knew? For a moment, Baxter almost started to say something, heart racing and a familiar tightness finding itself lodged in his throat. He wasn't even sure how he could phrase it without seeming heartless; having, perhaps, driven the already mentally unstable supervillain to his doom through a berating of his actions. Thankfully, Harrier's discovery interrupted his opportunity to relive the guilt.

"Okay. Cool. We've got wheels," hummed the unarmored Bee-Keeper, cautiously moving up along to where the vehicle remained dormant beside Harrier. "So now we just need a hose and a bucket. And, uh, some gas. And to make it to Chicago without getting blasted by those ships, if that's where we're going."

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Blue Jay shivered suddenly as she imagined the wall around Claremont Academy broken, the buildings on fire, the quad littered with bodies. She'd seen scenes of devastation back home, but for some reason her mind shied away from the image of a devastated Claremont. She could see the buildings collapsed in on themselves, gutted with fire; and draped across the steps were Mali, Cerys, and S--

Jay felt a hand closing around her chest, physical pain searing through her suddenly. She took a few shallow breaths as she pushed the picture away. Instead she moved over to the side of the road, looking for a gas station. "Is that where you picked up the Claremont uniform," she asked Quickstep. "I mean I guess they wouldn't let you keep it once you were expelled."

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"...what?" Quickstep's eyes went wide. "What do you mean, expelled?" The girl had been a loyal Claremont soldier during their trip, doing her best to work as hard as the others, but the question seemed to stab at her core. "I was never expelled! I'm in the top of the sophomore class! I'm on the jayvee team! We train in the gym every Saturday night!" She looked like she was going to throw up, her face white and green at the same moment, her shock written with a teenager's lack of self-control deep on her face. "I...I never..."

Walking by on his way to siphon gas, that being something they'd equipped themselves for, Steve blinked a moment before his eyes suddenly turned cold and hard. "Dorothy. What's the last date you remember? The last calendar date from Earth?"

"I, uh...October 23," said the wide-eyed teenager. "I didn't...that wasn't the last day, but it was just a couple of days after that that I woke up in that other Freedom City."

"The last date I recall was December 3rd," replied Steve, looking at the others with the beginnings of a storm behind his eyes. "And the rest of you, we all assumed we left the same day. What day was yours?"

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Blue Jay turned back to Quickstep, frowning. "But just a few days ago, you attacked a transfer student from New Freedom. A couple of the Next-Gen kids pulled you off him and took you to the principal's office, and the next I heard..." She trailed off as she slowly tried to process the information. The Omegadrone's question caught her off guard. She wasn't in the habit of tracking the exact day of the week, but there had been that big food festival not too long ago. "It was... two weeks after Thanksgiving? Something like that. Maybe two and a half. Are you saying that some weird time thing is going on here? We arrive home before we leave here?"

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"December third," Erin confirmed tersely, "though God only knows what the date is now." There was something like horror behind her eyes as she took in the implications of the conversation between Blue Jay and Quickstep. "I think we have a couple of possibilities," she said carefully. "First off, this Dorothy may come from a different universe to our own, though one that is very similar. Her universe may have had people picked up earlier for whatever reason. But if that were the case, we'd have to assume that there is some reason that in that near-identical universe Dorothy is good, while in our universe for some reason Dorothy is not good at all. The other option," she continued, her voice carefully absent of emotion, "is that Dorothy was a test case in whether someone from Earth Prime could be kidnapped and somehow replaced without anyone noticing. If that's what happened, it could explain the change in behavior, could explain why no one has mentioned any abductions recently."

She turned to Blue Jay. "What do you know about the Quickstep at your Claremont?" she pressed. "Were people surprised that she did something to get herself expelled? Does she have a history of being a troublemaker, or was she a good student that suddenly did something totally out of character?"

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Blue Jay frowned as she tried to recall more details of a scene she'd only heard second and third hand. "I didn't really know Dorothy before today," she said, glancing at the other Claremont teen uneasily, not quite sure how much she should say when the other girl was standing right there. "I do know people seemed quelle surpris that she had attacked another student, though." She reached up and scratched her neck. "I mean, no one at Claremont is really that bad, except for that one boy on Young Freedom. But you're right, no one thought Dorothy would do something like that."

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Those who hadn't met her before their current predicament could have been forgiven for assuming that long strings of vehement, multilingual cursing were Jill's primary form of communication. Certainly it was how she expressed her initial reaction to the growing likelihood that they'd been replaced by some sort of doppelgangers. "Nonono...You guys, she's completely surrounded by, by-- oh Dios." For a moment it looked like the medic was actually going to fall over, all the strength having rushed out her coltish frame as she pressed a hand to her masked face and trembled slightly. If whatever had taken Quickstep's place had remained undetected at Claremont of all places, surrounded by psychics and super-senses and whatever Headmaster Summers might have up his sleeve there was a very real, horrifying chance that they could evade discovery at HAX as well. "We need to get back home right now."

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The trip west across the ruins of North America was eerie, especially since it was so deserted, albeit fast enough thanks to Bee-Keeper's speedy armor. There were no animals save the occasional distant bird or scuttling mouse, all looking to belong to no earthly species, and the heroes lived on wild plants and preserved food as they made their trip. From their ersatz flying bus, the heroes could see for hundreds of miles around them every day that Bee-Keeper scooped them up and began the slow, cautious flight across Ohio and Indiana, frequently dipping low beneath the skyline or pausing altogether in a deep forest to make sure no one was spying on them. There was no way to be sure the measures helped, but none of them wanted to take any chances. Along the way, Steve talked about what he knew of the spaceship in Chicago: it was owned by the Lor officer assigned to the military protectorate of Earth, one who had decided his responsibilities included living and working among superheroes. Steve had only met Captain Neutron once (as the blue-skinned Lor called himself), but he remembered the man's interstellar craft well enough. If it was there, and if it had been copied accurately, perhaps that was something they could try. Now that they knew the grim risk to all their friends, they knew they had to try anything.

But then, not far outside Chicago itself, something remarkable happened. On the morning of the second day, in their campsite near the Indiana Dunes, the heroes opened their eyes to something they hadn't seen since their arrival. The _Sun_. Well, not _the_ Sun, but the perpetual cloud cover over their heads that had warped their sense of time and direction was gone. The star overhead was a little larger than the Sun, and perhaps the wrong shade of yellow, but there it was, its outline partially eclipsed by one of the gigantic black squares that marked the passage of day and night on the ringworld below, the square gradually fading into invisibility like the Moon after an eclipse. And from that just-off-blue sky, there came a streak of light, a tumbling, fast-moving object that disappeared into the Chicago skyline nearby with a faint boom, and then a sudden silence.

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Erin shaded her eyes against the sudden light, squinting as she saw the object growing larger. What could it be? It didn't look like a missile, but missiles weren't the only weapon that could fall from the sky. She braced to grab her team and go, then stood confused for a moment when the object arced in a different direction. A second later she realized that there was another logical target if the Curator wanted to keep them where they were.

She cursed explosively, then whipped her head around back towards camp. "Bring everyone and come on!" she told Steve. "We gotta try and stop them bombing the ship. Beekeeper, with me!" Drawing her bat, she began to run, faster than a human, faster than a car, then faster than a plane. The light from the bat almost seemed to be spreading up her arm as she accelerated over the sixty miles separating the Dunes from Chicago, zeroing in on the course she'd seen the falling object take.

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Blue Jay was emphatically not happy about flying, and intended to spend most of the flight snugged down between two benches, on the floor of the bus, pretending as hard as possible that she was on the ground. However this trip revealed something new about herself: She got air sick. So rather than spend the trip trying to master a rebellious stomach, she was forced to sit near the front and watch the clouds and far-distant mountains pass by. That way she only had to deal with the tension headache from the fear that she was going to drop out of the sky any minute. The stops in forests and car-parks were a blessing and she spent as much time out of the bus as possible, but all too soon they were forced to get moving again.

Still, she was as happy as she could be sitting around the fire just outside Chicago; surrounded on all sides by an Omegadrone, the hero who had befriended it, an unknown quantity in a bandanna, an expelled student, and someone who was on speaking terms with Stratos. She was almost glad when the object broke the cloud cover and went streaking towards the horizon. Jay jumped to her feet, pulling out the folding binoculars she carried even as the group rushed to the bus. She knelt near the fire and trained the binoculars towards the impact site, trying to resolve some detail while she avoided getting onto the bus and into the air.

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From the campsite Baxter had toted their impromptu transport to, he seemed oddly content. Not at the situation, mind you, but just the fact that the sun existed was a welcome sight. But in the intervening week (if it had actually been a week at all), Baxter had time to mull things over. The prospect of another him - some cheap double in a Bee-Keeper getup, if not a whole other Baxter! - living his life was less than comforting. Would anyone even notice? Could they notice? And why go through all the trouble replacing him just like the Curator had Dorothy and the others? The thought alone was unsettling; and the only thing that was keeping his head clear from being overshadowed and mired in wanton concern was the prospect of this ship they came all the way to Chicago for.

And then Wander cursed something awful, and Baxter's heart skipped a beat as he caught a fleeting glimpse of... he wasn't sure, but the ensuing boom more than made up for his uncertainty. Whatever it was, it was bad.

"Gotcha!" he yelped, the sense of urgency driving him as he stumbled up and began running towards through what was once Indiana as soon as Wander bolted out from the camp.

With defined purpose, the Bee-Keeper suited up even as he started running, the whir of plates, servos, and millions of robotic bees humming in unison in his ears as he transformed from a pathetic teenager into an armored heavyweight, taking to the skies right on Wander's heels. Or, at the least, as close to 'on her heels' as he could muster as the woman began outpacing him with startling alacrity. He didn't think she was so fast! But nevertheless, he was trying his best to follow in her wake. If the Curator was bombing their only way off this rock, they needed to get there quick! Without it... Baxter didn't want to think about being stuck here on this ring world forever, some pawn in an unending game he couldn't even conceive. They had-- no, they would stop that bombardment! There was no other choice.

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Wander and Bee-Keeper arrived at the crash site first; the emergency rig of Harrier towing Blue Jay, Jill, and Quickstep inside an abandoned compact car not far behind. It was easy enough to find the impact site in downtown Chicago, the crater and rising clouds of smoke were some of the few things moving in the dead and deserted city. The fallen object was nowhere near the Defenders' headquarters in the Loop: rather it lay in a great crater in the heart of Daley Park, having clipped City Hall on the way down. It was not a bomb, or at least not distinctly so: on first glance it was immediately recognizable from its triangular construction and narrow, birdlike posture, even at ground level looking vaguely like a bird of prey seen distantly from below in its lines. This fallen black spaceship was one of the automated Curator ships that had stolen Freedom City right out from under (or rather, over their noses): but now it lay still and dead, without so much as a tremor of movement, beneath the dappled alien sky of the now bright and sunny morning on the Curator's world.

"He has no need to draw us out," said Steve in his conference with the others, after they'd all hidden themselves away from the quiet wreck. "If he knew our route this well, and sought to stop us, he would deploy these ships, or his alien slaves. And he has the power to bomb a place like this to rubble. I don't understand what this could mean," he confessed.

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