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January 15

It was not a good day for getting commlink messages in Freedom City. It seemed like every message that came in heralded some new disaster in the city, another hero replaced by a robot double, another fire that needed put out somewhere. In the middle of the parade of messages assailing the communications array of Dragonfly's suit on a day when she was already considerably distracted, one message managed to stand out, for its oddity at least.

The message was in text, bald blinking letters that scrolled across the screen of her suit. <> That was one voice who had been silent through the tumult of the day, Miss Americana had been nowhere to be found during all the rescue work, though there had been word of her at Blackstone Prison early in the morning. What followed the message header, though, was no description of danger or location, but rather a long string of scrambled letters and complex equations.

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There was a part of Mara's brain dedicated almost entirely to puzzles; even on her worst day, at her weakest or loneliest or angriest it was there devouring any quandary or equation it could get its metaphorical hands on. So it was that even though the heroine was too angry and distracted to do more than absently sift through incoming communication attempts, this message - given slightly more notice due to the familiarity of the name - got snatched up in the back of her head and turned over, untangled, and solved.

Even then the result might just have gotten passed over if she hadn't recognized the neighborhood it referenced. That was not a lab, or a workspace, or a public area. That was a house - a residential address from someone who wasn't inclined to share residential addresses. And, importantly, from someone who could be invaluable in finding exactly where these robotic impersonators had come from.

Dragonfly made record time flying to Hanover, landing at the front door of a nondescript house that she almost would have thought was incorrect if she hadn't been able to see the surveillance and drone ports. She tilted her head up toward the nearest camera, wondering if she was impatient enough to just try to take the door off its hinges...or if that would just trigger some defense system and slow her down.

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As it turned out, removing the door from its hinges was not necessary, nearly as soon as the cameras turned in her direction, the front door swung open. Waiting for her was a small robot, Emerson or one of his several duplicates, with its chassis lighting array blinking the red and white of urgent alarm. In The Lab, Dragonfly had only seen that particular pattern when something was about to or had just blown up. Even the greeting chirp it gave her sounded worried, and it lost no time in shutting the door behind her and leading her through the house.

The interior of the house was also not what one might have expected of the lair of a gadgeteer and roboticist. There were innovations here and there for convenience and security, and most of the house functions seemed to be automated to run from a single remote. Dragonfly could also see a few of the holoprojectors Miss A had installed in her lab for her sidekick's convenience, but otherwise the house was... boring. Comfortable but sparsely decorated and very light on the furniture, it seemed as though perhaps she hadn't finished moving in, or just didn't have a lot of guests. The little robot led her straight through the living room and kitchen, down a long flight of stairs as fast as his treads and arms would swing him along.

At the bottom of the stairs was a metal door, far more reinforced than anything she'd seen in the house thus far, with a security panel next to it. The panel was flashing the same alarmed red and white, but paused long enough to show <>

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Well, seeing Emerson certainly and finally confirmed that she did in fact have the right house, anyway. And it was a good thing, too - without him, she would have almost expected that such a spare house must be some kind of trap; the barest impression of a high-tech abode with none of the signs of life. Between her own company, her warehouse, and The Lab Mara didn't spend as much time at her own apartment as she probably should have, but even it had its creature comforts and a spread of gadgets, tools, and half-finished projects on most surfaces.

Still, for all she knew there was a whole other house past the security door. She pondered it for a moment before simply replying, [bg=#555555]"Dragonfly."[/bg]

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The panel thought about that for a second, then released the door with an audible click and a hiss of escaping air. The atmosphere inside was instantly recognizable to Mara, the cool, humidity-free and highly filtered air of a high-end computer lab or server farm. The room she stepped into seemed like a bit of both. On the far side of the room were banks upon banks of servers and processors, whirring away busily in half darkness. Nearer the door was the computer lab, a large near-perfect circle of cutting-edge equipment and home-built computer processors that looked like they could quite easily have run a medium sized country or sent a spacecraft out of the solar system. Beyond the circle, the walls were covered in massive high-definition screens of all shapes and sizes, as well as more holoprojectors and a lot more computer hardware.

Many of the screens were flashing the same alarm pattern as Emerson and the door, this time with the words "MEDICAL ALARM: AUTOMATED DISTRESS PROTOCOL INITIATED. PRIMARY PROTOCOL: FAILED. SECONDARY PROTOCOL: FAILED. TERTIARY PROTOCOL: ..." emblazoned over the pattern. The flashing lights made the room resemble a crime scene and made it harder to see what the trouble actually was. Under the ozone smell of filtered air was the faint smell of sugar soda and the odor of sickness, both coming from the center of the ring of computers. Something was definitely moving on the floor, and moaning loudly enough to be heard over all the mechanical noise.

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have to wonder what the first two options would be [bg=#555555]"Make the lights stop doing that, please,"[/bg] she asked the robot who'd led her down here, though the 'please' was slightly belated.

This was a lot more like what she was expecting. It was always interesting to see how another 'genius' worked, how they set up their workspace, how they arranged their servers, how they organized their projects. Not that she had time to ponder, really; she had other priorities, including whoever was audibly hurt. She flared her wings and took the short path, skimming over the top of the computers to see who hid behind the too-perfect face of Miss Americana.

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Emerson chirruped assent, and in a moment the screens began to clear. "MEDICAL ALERT ENDED. ALL SYSTEMS RESUME NOMINAL FUNCTION." The lights rose to a level designed to stimulate alertness and minimize eyestrain, while the various computers and video screens tuned back in to their various news feeds, surveillance sites, and what appeared to be a World of Warcraft guild chat. Even Emerson stopped blinking his red and white lights, switching not to green yet, but at least to a guarded sort of amber as he rolled across the floor after Dragonfly.

In the center of the circle, the porous server-room floor had been covered with a plastic mat to allow free movement of the Aeron chair that now lay tipped over on its side with two wheels in the air. The chair's former occupant was huddled on the floor, blinking unfocusedly in the suddenly brighter light. She was a young woman, maybe a couple years older than Mara herself, and looked a trace like what Miss Americana might have looked like if Miss A had been short and pudgy with basement-white skin and frizzy hair that was not quite blond. She was also looking quite a bit worse for wear, with a bloody nose and an impressive pair of black eyes, plus a large bruise blooming along one side of her jaw. She squinted up into the lights with bloodshot eyes, obviously unable to make out more than a vague outline. "Sharl," she rasped. "you've got to find Steve, something bad happened to him. I think... I think he might be dead." She made another keening moan at that, the noise of which had her grabbing at her own head.

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Dragonfly didn't say anything for a moment, though she did settle to the ground. This...wasn't actually much like what she was expecting from the secret face behind Miss Americana, but then, she'd tried not to spend too much time thinking about it. From the look of her, she got out even less than Mara did - and, up until fairly recently, was saying something - which would certainly explain the house; with the security on this place, though, that left the mystery of how the young woman had gotten into her state. intruder? - unlikely - probably sealed - excellent security - saw no rogue drones - concerned about someone on the outside - haptic feedback? - implies bad things about robot

[bg=#555555]"I am not Sharl,"[/bg] she offered, kneeling down a bit to get a better look at the woman. [bg=#555555]"Am also, however, not a doctor. Need you to focus on what's here, now. Trying to figure out if you're going to be okay, or if I need to fly you to a hospital."[/bg]

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Gina gasped in shock as recognized the voice and saw Dragonfly, a terribly unwise move that only redoubled the pain in her head. The first strong impulse was to hide, even if that meant crawling away behind the chair or something. Even that fear, though, was crushed by the memories of what she'd seen and done at the prison. Steve, god, what happened to you? She forced herself to bear down and think despite the pounding headache. If Dragonfly was here, that meant that the automated distress call had gone out, but neither Steve nor Sharl had responded to it. Steve, she could understand, but where was Sharl? He shouldn't have been gone in Erde so long, not unless things had taken a serious turn for the worse. She had to know what had happened to both of them.

"M'okay," she told Dragonfly, her words somewhat slurred as she looked at the battlesuited heroine through eyes that were nearly all pupil. "Robot's slagged, kaput. Had to do it! I'as with Steve, Gabe at the prison. Steve went crazy, dunno. Real bad, he killed the Steelgrave clone, tried to get at the reactor." She knuckled her eyes, which was a really bad idea with the bruising there, but the pain brought a little more mental clarity. "God! He was talking like... he sounded like Terminus, said terrible things." The memory of his jeering, cutting words was enough to bend her double over her own knees as once again the pressure rose to get the hell out of sight. Her voice was very muffled, but she managed to continue. "He got his pike into the reactor. We couldn't stop him. I had the guards use the EMP defenses on all of us. Saw him... saw him going up like a fireworks show before I got thrown back here."

Slow tears plopped down onto the plastic mat. "There was nothing else I could have done," she told Dragonfly, her voice almost pleading. "I don't know what happened to him. It wasn't... he's not that man, he couldn't be. Something terrible must have happened to change him, but I couldn't stop him!"

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Kneeling next to a bruised sort-of-friend who'd just lost someone very dear to her was a situation that desperately needed diplomacy, tact, and a calm, friendly state of mind.

Dragonfly was not well-known for any of these things.

[bg=#555555]"You are not okay. You are a wreck,"[/bg] she said, though her tone wasn't unkind. [bg=#555555]"Important things first: Steve is probably not dead. Can't guarantee it, but...have to...hope. Impersonator - robot, probably alien. Not just Steve,"[/bg] she added, gesturing at the news feeds playing on the wall - if Gina could even see them properly. [bg=#555555]"All over the city. Harrier, Star Knight, Ji-"[/bg] Her voice cracked, and she tried again, keeping worry out of her voice only by focusing on smoldering anger and a rational brain. [bg=#555555]"Jill O'Cure. Others. All replaced, all became violent, most stopped. Need to find out where the real versions went. Need to get them back. And need you in working shape to help."[/bg]

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"Robots?" Gina picked out the word, turned it over in her head. "Robot impersonators... but I would've noticed!" The vehemence made her voice loud enough to have her wincing again. "God, Emerson, have pity. Four aspirin, glass of water." The robot chirruped and rolled away hastily towards a recessed door that led to a bathroom. "Steve was distant this month," she said aloud, considering. "Thought he was going to dump me. Then he comes back a few days ago and is all telling me he loves me and wants to be with me forever. I freaked out and he left and didn't come back. I thought it was my fault!" she admitted, her voice choked. "Somehow I made him lose his grip. But if he was a robot, and trying to throw me off, then- then he's not gone. He's somewhere."

She grabbed the pills the little droid brought her, swallowing them all at once. "I need to see the robots," she told Dragonfly, and made a shaky effort to push herself to her feet. "Take one apart and we can figure out who made it."

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[bg=#555555]"Yes, that's the idea. Inspection is slightly complicated by the fact that they combust when defeated. Plasma fire. Managed to put one out, wasn't much left. Would be best to get one that didn't get a chance to burn, but easier said than done."[/bg]

Dragonfly hesitated for a moment as she stood up, tapping a finger against her leg as she decided on something; the faceplate of her armor split apart on invisible seams, folding and sliding around to the back of her helmet and leaving her tired, worried, angry, and all-too-human face exposed, along with the secret identity of the woman in charge of the up-and-coming HAX. "For what it's worth - didn't notice either. Jill or Steve. All should have noticed, but...us especially."

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Gina managed to stagger to her feet long enough to fall into the righted chair that Emerson anxiously pushed behind her legs. It was better than the floor, anyway. "That EMP blast we used on Harrier," and now she deliberately avoided saying Steve, "it might have disabled the self-destruct as well. There'll still be a lot of damage, but I don't think it would have burned. Don't know where they would've take it, though. Or my robot." She grimaced. "That'll be a hell of a mess if it gets out." The idea of her secret being blown wide open would've sent Gina under the bed on a regular day, but this day was anything but normal. She just couldn't think about it right now.

"Gabriel will know," she decided, turning to the state-of-tomorrow's-art communications setup on one side of her circle. "I have to get in touch with him anyway, tell him I'm not dead. I didn't have a chance to tell him what was going to happen when the EMP hit. I hope he was able to handle the prison by himself." She put a call through to Gabriel's commlink and waited for him to pick up.

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The communicator rang for a good 30 seconds before finally dialing in. For several long moments, Gina heard nothing but the sound of stun rifles, fistfights, yells and screams, and the occasional burst of sonic energy that was the calling card of the rather shiny hero known as Gabriel. After another minute or so, his voice came on the line, incredibly terse, rather distracted, and perhaps a bit tired-sounding.

"I would love to chat but-"

He grunted in pain as what sounded like an energy rifle went off right next to him.

"-kinda busy. Give me five minutes tops, I'll call back. Have a prison to pacify."

His voice carried a faint Irish brogue, but before Gina could analyze further, the line cut off. He'd hung up on her, though perhaps for understandable reasons.

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Gina blinked stupidly at the communications array for a minute before letting it disconnect. "Gee, I'm glad you're not dead, Miss Americana," she muttered in a fakey baritone voice, then gave in and rested the unbruised side of her head on the desk. "Play messages," she told the machine. It was a relief to hear from Sharl that he had made it back to Prime, though the idea that he was traveling with a huge load of bioweapons was a bit nervous-making. She frowned as she heard his last message, a shaky recitation of his plans to take the weapons to the Sanctum where they would be safe.

"If he's at the Sanctum, that explains why he didn't respond to my distress call," she said aloud, partially for Mara's benefit, partially because it made thinking easier. "We're going to have to address that situation as soon as possible, though. The Wonderbus is sturdy, but it's not designed to carry hazardous material."

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"....going to pretend I didn't hear you talking about bioweapons," Mara noted, making a face like her brain hurt. "Have enough problems already."

She leaned back against the nearest sturdy object, impatiently tapping a finger against her arm as she waited. She didn't like waiting - even on the best of days she needed to be doing something, and right now every second she spent standing around was a second that was not spent finding Ellie. It was only because she was idle, though, that she thought to check in with her nearby business now that it was within better range of her suit's systems...and largely by coincidence that she happened to do so in the middle of someone's attempt to call up to her office.

what? - now? - couldn't hurt A little microphone slid in from one of the faceplate pieces that had folded away, and she redirected the call to...well, to herself. "Hello? Not sure if you know, but kind of a bad time in Freedom City. Had better be important."

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"Hallomen," the gravelly voice on the other end of the line acknowledged flatly, just as terse as the harried inventor sounded herself. "Midnight. Wander... compromised. Robotic doppelganger." It was tough to tell through the vocal filters but it sounded like the detective was grinding his teeth. "Weeks, at least, likely related to citywide chaos. Need expert analysis of gynoid remains." There was a brief pause, then the detective added in an even quieter voice, seeming to talking to himself more than Mara, "Need to find her."

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yes "I'd...heard," she carefully replied. "Will be back with you immediately, but one second, have to check something."

She muted her microphone and took a deep breath. "Found someone with remains for us to look at, apparently. Called the wrong 'me', though. Mmh...." She crossed her arms, tapping a finger against her bicep for a moment before un-muting the call; she seemed to be evaluating Gina as much as pondering her own position. "Sorry, hello. Can help you with that if you can get remains undamaged to the HAX building in Hanover. Will meet you at the front door - employees probably armed security system as soon as they heard the news. Might have to disarm it to let you in."

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"Good," Midnight replied, as close to polite thanks as he seemed likely to get. Some of the serrated edge to his voice faded, remaining low and modulated even as Mara got the sense he was carrying out multiple tasks at once just as she was. "Sending someone now. Tying up another loose end; be at HAX as soon as possible." It sounded like he was about to end the call right there but after a pause and a quiet breath, he continued, "Be careful. Employees may be infiltrated." With that the line went dead.

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"YES employees 'may be infiltrated' - kind of noticed that already!" Mara's gritting teeth were almost audible but she got herself back under control as quickly as she'd cracked, taking another deep breath and trying not to let her frustration leak out into the screens of the lab they were in.

"Okay," she said, turning back to Gina. "Have a bod--remains. To look at. Going to deliver it to HAX, though; can try to bring it back here, but don't know if I'll be able to. Don't know how paranoid Midnight will be, or how close he or whoever he sends will want to stay to it. Worst case, could open a line to your lab, and you could keep trying to track down other samples with your busy friend?"

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"No." Gina raised her head from the desk and shook it, a motion she stopped quite quickly. "I need to see it in person, in a lab. You're a superlative engineer, but robots are my specialty." She stood up, swayed, then found her balance. "I'm going too. Just give me a minute to..." she waved her hands helplessly, "to clean up a little bit." The thought of going outdoors, especially knowing how she had to look, was enough to make her feel even more shaky inside. It would be so much easier to stay and work by camera, or to try and project into the systems at HAX. But what if she missed the vital clue because she wasn't right there? What if it meant they were too late to save Steve? Living with herself was hard enough as it was, she wasn't going to let it become completely impossible.

Without waiting for a reply she headed for the stairs and started up to her bedroom. At the very least she could wash off the blood and put on some clean clothes. Halfway up, though, she paused. "I can't fly," she realized suddenly. "I'll have to take the car."

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Mara squinched up half her face like she'd been stabbed in the brain, making her way after Gina in an effort to get her going faster. "City's in a panic, full of dangerous robots, and you want----no. No."

She made a frustrated motion with her hands. "Don't mind you coming to HAX - prefer it - but car is slow, and dangerous. Will take you myself - fold you into my spatial pocket, if I have to. Kind of empty, but perfectly safe as long as you don't try to fight your way out. Can take the car too, if you're worried about getting back."

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"The pocket will work," Gina decided, resuming her journey up the stairs. She didn't seem to notice Emerson right behind her with his neck fully extended and his arms half raised, looking about as concerned as a robot could be that she'd lose her grip on the railing and fall backwards. That didn't happen, though, and within just a few minutes Gina had cautiously washed her face and changed into a blouse and slacks that had been sitting in the closet long enough to smell faintly of cedar. She held a small bag, even as Emerson made his way once more up the stairs with a large case of tools and equipment.

Gina's face was white under the bruising, but she managed to make her voice almost confident as she told Mara, "Okay, we're ready to go." She'd seen the dimensional pocket in action before, so that was really the part of the trip she was least afraid of.

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Mara nodded, faceplate snapping shut again as her suit lit up. [bg=#555555]"Remember,"[/bg] she said, placing her hand not on Gina but on Gina's bag, [bg=#555555]"don't try to fight free once you're in. Usually have something in there so you can tell time, if you need to, if no one's broken it again. Will let you out as soon as we're inside HAX."[/bg]

Something deep inside Dragonfly's gauntlet hummed, and little lines like creases in paper shot across Gina's bag, jumping from there to the genius' body. After that, what happened was entirely a matter of perspective: Emerson saw Gina fold away, twisting and collapsing into nothingness. From Gina's perspective, the world folded up around her; her robot, her house, and finally Dragonfly herself wrapped up in dimensions the eye wasn't quite built to observe until everything was just...blank. There was a definite sense of 'down', but it wasn't clear what she was standing on, and the only thing around for as far as she could see was a simple battery-powered alarm clock silently ticking along the seconds.

Dragonfly took a moment to pocket Emerson and the case he had brought upstairs - which both shortly unfolded next to Gina in the pocket - and was out of the house, barely shutting the door behind her before she was in the sky and headed toward HAX.

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"Well, this is weird," Gina said with false bravado once they were in the silence of the pocket. "Guess it beats traffic, though." Her palms were slick with sweat at the idea of going out, and the headache no longer pounded quite hard enough to beat down the feeling of panic creeping up her neck. "Right, let's put waiting to work." With patient Emerson holding up a mirror and a trouble light, Gina got into her bag and began carefully applying makeup. It didn't do a lot to cover up the black eyes, that would've taken pancake makeup and a much higher pain tolerance, but the jaw bruise she'd taken falling out of the chair was softened, as was her general ghostly pallor. "It's not much to work with," she told Emerson, "but it's the best I can do. It's for Steve, right? He'd do worse for me."

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