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The group of young heroes and their Lor allies stepped onto the transmitter pads and vanished, their atoms quantum-tunneling five hundred miles through solid computronium and re-emerging in the central control room of the Curator - the mighty cybernetic intelligence whose vast power and arcane manipulations of their world had brought them to this place. They found themselves standing in a vast, cathedral-sized hall lined with dark and silent monitors cut in a triangular shape, the too-bright silver light overhead a source of stark illumination inside the central hub of the Curator's lair. The air was stale and smelled musty, a relic of however many eons it had been sealed inside since the Curator's original construction. At the 'altar' of the room sat a massive chair, almost like a throne, covered in the same silver-black pyramids that were the Curator's symbol, tentacles of computronium rising from it to infiltrate the wall behind. Sitting in that chair, its head bowed ever-so-slightly, was a still, silent Curator drone, its three eyes dim and dark.

And standing next to it was Dr. Sebastian Stratos, lightning crackling around his fingers. "Hey, kids!" he called with a wave. "Got your hive going, eh, Barry?" He chuckled. "I wondered if I'd see you again. You didn't happen to bring any food with you, did you? Because I am _starving_!" He waved his lightning-covered hands around for emphasis. "I found this zoo a couple of levels down, but most of the animals tasted terrible, and one kept trying to shapeshift into my mother or something. It was awful!"

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Jostled from the trip down the proverbial rabbit hole, the young would-be hero that was the Bee-Keeper was looking a little wobbly even as he tried in vain to shield his eyes from the blindingly bright light of the interior. It was like those annoying fade-to-white scenes in videogames that always hurt his eyes, only this time cranked up to eleven. But through the searing bright lights, the armored teenager could make out things -- some monitors, the distant throne and its resident, and... something else. And when that something else spoke, Baxter was struck dumb.

It was Doctor Stratos! He was alive!

"Zztratozz?" the Bee-Keeper inquired, voice an odd amalgam of surprise, disbelief and telltale joy; the latter an odd enough sensation in regards to a known villain as the weight of his fate rolled off of his already heavy shoulders. "I thought you were... but I thought you got carried away with that other Freedom Zzity! How did you get up here?"

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Wander drew her bat with a subtle movement, holding it collapsed and hidden behind her hand as she studied the mad weather controller. "Dr. Stratos," she said with reasonable politeness. "I heard you'd been brought here from Earth too. It's been a long time now, hasn't it?" She nodded to Harrier, who still wore his knapsack full of supplies. "We have food and water here, and we'll happily share some with you. That's how it works, right? When the situation is bad enough and the enemy is big enough, heroes and villains work together."

A quick look around the chamber was enough to confirm how much of it was metal, and how messy things would get if he started slinging lighting. "We have a plan to get back to Earth," she told him. "We're going to get into the computer and program it so we can get back safely in a ship. We'll take you with us," she promised, "but you have to stand down and let us work. Harrier will get you something to eat."

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Blue Jay appeared in a crouch, arrow nocked and half drawn, already turning to find a target. But because the teleport had disoriented her (and why die they always do that?) she nearly tripped over her own feet. As it was she managed to stay upright by grabbing Shepard's arm.

Feeling more than a little embarrassed, Jay regarded Stratos with more than a little suspicion. The man had been a help before, but he had also been completely off his rocker and got distracted attacking a statue. Instead the young archer cut a wide path around him, approaching the Curator's throne. She climbed the stairs, not taking her eyes off the slumped, humanoid form in the chair. "So is he... already dead?" She bent her head to look the machine in its three eyes. Then, quick as a flash, she had one of her computronium-tipped arrows in hand and rammed it into the robot's left-most eye socket. "Good." She backed down off the stairs, never taking her eyes off the seated figure. "Now. Now you can do whatever else it is you want."

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Being the closest thing the group had to an expert on cosmic technology, Steve had joined the Lor scientists for an examination of the inner workings of the Curator's stronghold. "Stellar technology," he commented as Samran triggered a holographic display marked in a language not even the Lor could read, showing the blue-yellow star in the center of the ringworld. "Reactors as supplement, perhaps buried deep. I have...seen its like before. This facility could power itself until this star enters its red giant phase." The Lor didn't care about the human with the lightning hands, they were far too busy scanning the intact Preserver technology around them, so Steve went over to share their rations with the very hungry Dr. Stratos. He didn't know the mad scientist particularly well, but they were all in the same boat. "All are alike in this situation," he said seriously, watching with mounting suspicion as Blue Jay made her move.

There was a crunch as Blue Jay's arrow went through the robot's eye socket...and then, distinctly, the too-bright lights above dimmed perceptibly. "Oh dear," said Stratos, looking up from his nutrient bar. "You know, if I was building a giant computer construct, I would probably put security systems in the main room that weren't tied to the hard drive, just so I could blast a plucky team of heroes with lightning when they thought I was down! I mean, hypothetically, anyway, man, this is a good nutrient bar. Is this strawberry creme?" He swallowed and went on, heedless of the silver-black lights beginning to light up all over the room. "Anyway, Barry, he's got twelve, thirteen cities down there in the subbasements. The robots eventually did come into the dome and catch me, and they were about to dissect me! Me! It was horrible." He shook his head. "But then they stopped working, so I blasted them all and made my escape."

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Even as the Lor and Harrier looked to their scientific pursuits whilst the others provided the starving doctor with his much needed dose of nutrients, the Bee-Keeper remained staunchly focused on the mad weather-oriented villain, taking only a moment away from his unflinching curiosity to jump at the sudden dimming of lights at the behest of Blue Jay's action. Granting the archer what might have passed at any other time for a look of utter confusion intermingled with the telltale signs of shock, Baxter quickly reconnoitered his gaze back to the munching Stratos, seemingly nonchalant about all this nonsense.

But then, the man said something Baxter hadn't expected, and the gears in the young teenager's mind began to turn -- slowly but surely -- as he tried to piece together what exactly Stratos was talking about, almost oblivious to the fact he was still calling him Barry.

"What do you mean they juzzt zztopped?" inquired the juvenile would-be hero, his voice surprisingly calm and in-check despite all the goings-on around him. Stratos might have been a few lightning bolts short of a thunderstorm, but the thought that the Curator's drones were operational not so long ago caused the hackles on the back of his neck to rise slightly; turning to give the allotted crew within the nerve center of the fiends' operations a cautious glance. "Zztratozz... you've been here for a little bit. We could uzze your help. We need to find a... a plazze to plug our computer in," Baxter continued, sounding rather silly as he tried to keep the situation as brief and clear as possible. "There'zz a problem, zzort of. Thizz whole world izz gonna crazzh and burn if we don't get it back up and running. Doezzn't help that there'zz a bunch of Grue on their way here. Lotzz of people are in danger, Doctor Zztratozz... but if you've zzeen anything like a bunch of giant computerzz, or... or I don't know, anything, we need you to tell uzz."

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Erin jolted as Blue Jay suddenly loosed her arrow into the nonfunctional Curator bot, then cursed as the security alarms began to come up. "Yes, Dr. Stratos," she said sardonically, "It seems someone else had your idea about security systems not tied to the main power grid." She spare Blue Jay one look of pure annoyance, then was all business. "Beekeeper, Blue Jay, take Dr. Stratos and the Lor crewmen and try to get out of the main chamber before the doors shut. If you can get to where the lights aren't on, you should be safe. Harrier, help me find the universal access port like the one on the drone ship. It's got to be around here somewhere." She wasn't entirely confident about either of their ability to withstand a barrage of whatever security the Curator had on tap, but the odds were a lot better for them than for the others in the group. Racing to the nearest bank of holoprojectors, she ran her flashlight beam along the surface, looking for the port.

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Blue Jay was almost at the bottom of the Curator's throne when the lights when down. She drew another computronium-tipped arrow and looked around the room, checking for any intruders. "I thought it was already dead!" she shouted. The archer ran for a nearby outcropping of metal, crouching behind the cover and keeping her eyes on the walls and ceiling. Mr. Archer loved to throw attacks at students from unexpected angles, when training in the Doom Room: blasts from turrets concealed behind false walls, floors turning into deadfalls, cover revealing itself as another enemy. She didn't believe the Curator could do anything that Archer hadn't prepared her for, but that didn't mean she didn't feel a little thrill of adrenaline.

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"Never stab corpses," said Harrier firmly. "It will end poorly." He studied the computer bank with Wander, finger moving quickly over the unfamiliar systems. He had come a very long way in the last few weeks, not to mention the many years in his life before that, and he had no intention of being killed in the depths of a cosmic cybernetic intelligence without seeing his home again. And it is my home... he realized with a wonder before his eyes fell on a familiar system. "An access port...there?!"

The Lor officers did their best to leave, but Samran was back in a few minutes even as the clamshell doors of the control center began to swing shut. "There's nowhere to go," said the bronze-skinned officer with a shake of her head. "The corridor only goes for a couple of meters and ends in a blank wall. They must have built the construct itself around this room!" Samran and Shepard began to work together, removing parts from their encounter suit and attaching them to each other in a technological display none of the other heroes could follow. "If we put enough juice into our enhancers, the QS can transmit us out of here...if we hurry."

Amid the frenetic activity, Stratos turned to the Bee-Keeper and said amiably, "Look, it's fine, Barry, the heroes are taking care of it. That's the port, kids!" he added encouragingly. "Anyway, we're inside a big computer right now! The Curator's intelligence must take up the whole complex, and probably the other moons. Hey, I guess that's why the Big Blue Lunkhead couldn't take him out." He slapped the Bee-Keeper on the back and said, "We'll be _fine_."

Wander slid VINCE's drive home into the access port, and an instant later a voice came from all around them, a cold, dry mechanical handful of alien words that Samran translated for them.

"Rebooting in protected mode."

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"Well, that doesn't sound very good," Wander muttered as the computer began stirring to life. "I wonder how long a reboot in protected mode takes. You in there yet, Vince? What does it look like?" As she spoke, she drew out her bat, wondering if it would even be useful against whatever defenses the control module had cooked up.

She was more than a little surprised when the voice that came through the speakers was neither VINCE nor the Curator, but the comforting friendly voice that put Erin to sleep when she left the television tuned to the local educational channel at night.

"Hello there, Harrier, other abductees, just wanted to let you know the cavalry has arrived and is waiting for you outside. Vince and I will take care of the computer system here, if you want to make your way with all possible speed to the nearest exit. We've got some Grue visitors in-system and sticking around is not a wise idea."

"What's she doing here?" Wander wondered aloud, then shrugged. "There's not really anything more we can do here anyway. Can you get us out?" she asked the Lor crewmen.

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"She came for me," marveled Steve quietly, putting his hand on the computer banks. That Gina had been part of the efforts to find him was incredibly reassuring, since it meant his double could have done no lasting evil on Earth, and that her voice was here was all the more reassuring. He knew she had the range to reach Earth orbit, the Moon if she tried hard, but this was something else, and he was moved by the thought of her consciousness reaching him from so far across the galaxy. She must have built a great machine to find us so far away from home...

"We've got a link to the Singularity, but only one can go through at a time," said Samran. "And we're not leaving any of you here. We go out last." She and Shepard had worked together to make a person-wide ring of sparking blue energy on the floor beneath them, its glow cast into odd colors by the now-pulsating silver lights overhead. It looked big enough for one person, all right.

"Take Blue Jay first," said Harrier suddenly, shooting just a glance at the girl. "She is the least protected of any of us, and the youngest. I am armored, and I know for a fact I can endure significant...punishment."


Inside the computer, Vince did his best to help Cyberknife search - the cybernetic intelligence looked just a little lost at all this talk of Citizen, but nodded in grim understanding when the subject turned to sacrifice. He was right behind her when she finally found what appeared to be the primary weapon systems, a gigantic cannon that the robots were working to reassemble and point at the cybernetic 'sky' overhead, where she could faintly make out the sensory echoes of the Grue ships. It didn't take her long to recognize the nature of the cannon, not when she'd spent so much time modeling that system. That cannon was a digitization weapon.

And outside, on the surface of the Curator's construct, three 'eyes' began to glow...

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Blue Jay ground her teeth at the suggestion that she retreat first. On the one hand it did make a lot of sense, in a group that included a heavy Omegadrone and Wander the Brave she wasn't exactly a heavy-hitter, and as long as Jill O'Cure kept her force fields up she could probably take a great number of hits herself. On the other hand it was her arrow in the Curator's skull, her blow that had awakened these defensive systems, and retreating felt like running away from her responsibilities. Besides, rankled to take an order from an Omegadrone.

In the end though, it was a rational decision and a good one. She backed towards the teleportation circle, arrow still nocked as she waited for the defense systems to start attacking. She paused at the edge of the circle to call out. "Just... make you you do get back, alright? You don't want to have to tell everyone that you had to send me back just to call me out again!" And then she took the last step back, and was gone.

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"We're right behind you," Wander promised, then nodded towards Beekeeper. "You next." As the apian-themed hero went through the portal after Blue Jay, Wander kept a close eye on the room, waiting to see whether it would unleash its defenses. If Miss Americana was in the computer system along with Vince they might be safe, but then again, those two might be occupied with the Grue fleet that the Lor had promised were on their way. It was better to stay alert. She kept her bat out and ready, gleaming silver in the flashing emergency lights. "All right," she said when Beekeeper was gone, "You're next, Harrier." Her voice suggested she'd brook no argument on this one. "If you have to suit up, use your projector," she reminded him. They didn't need any more misunderstandings.

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Steve had resisted using his emitter among the others before, not wanting to spread confusion in an already-frightening time. It wasn't as if they could fool the Curator, after all, and it hadn't been necessary to armor up around the Lor. But he wasn't one to argue with good advice in a crisis, instead pressing a few buttons on the tabs glued to his chest, then briefly rippling and warping before reappearing as a conventional-looking armored knight. He didn't bother with the persona of the armored Caradoc, instead saying, "Follow quickly. You are not capable of surviving interplanetary space unaided." And with that he put his hand on the console, distinctly said, "I will see you again soon," to the computer before him, and headed onto the transport ring, vanishing immediately just as Blue Jay had.

Aboard the Quantum Singularity, Harrier introduced himself with simply, "It's me!" as he appeared among Blue Jay, Bee-Keeper, and Vrix, who was working frantically at her panel. "I've got our engines powered up to maximum!" she yelled. "As soon as everyone's on board, we can jump over to join the Republic's Defender, or take up position with the Nightdragon! But they've got...wow, they certainly do have it," she said as a Grue ship shuddered and warped under Dragonfly's attack, Wander and the remaining Lor officers appearing just behind them.

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