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The Darkness Within (IC)


Avenger Assembled

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February 28, 2013

Claremont campus

 

The damage inflicted during the Day of Wrath was almost repaired by now, particularly on the Claremont campus with its many superheroes. As Steve walked the campus paths, he studied the scene with approval. There was something about the former drone that made the high school students part both ways as he walked down the path, particularly those very few who actually recognized him for what he was. He didn't mind the separation, though. They were all so young, so happy, so much a part of a world that could never be his - to see them going about their lives with no more fear of robot imposters from the sky (or at least with that fear now in the back of their minds and not dominating their thoughts) was a wonderful feeling even if none of them could quite look him in the lined eyes. 

 

Heedless of the chill of a Freedom City February, albeit a warm one, he sat down on the bench outside the administration office and waited for his contact to arrive. It wasn't the first time he'd spoken to a Terminus mutant student at Claremont, but it had been a while since he'd had the opportunity. For some, the legacy of what had given them their powers was easy enough to ignore - for others, it wasn't. 

 

Kat saw Steve the moment she stepped outside, having been warned ahead of time exactly what was meeting her to discuss being a T-baby. With his brown skin and scarred body, lines stretching over his hands, face, and bald head, the squarely-built, tall former Omegadrone was impossible to miss even sitting down and staring straight ahead at the building as she came out, as if staring right at her. He raised a big hand and waved it, just once. 

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It was difficult to make 'Omegadrone' and 'Hero' play nice together in Kat's head. They had been engaged in trench warfare across a mental landscape all day; there were people who'd done bad things that went on to become heroes. Some Grue had done it. Demons had. But when Kat thought 'Omegadrone' she only saw legions in black armor with death on their pikes, sailing across a hungry red sky. When she should have stepped outside, Kat paced the halls a while instead, biting at her thumb and imagining worst-case scenarios.

When she finally worked up the nerve to peek out the door. He was impossible to miss; huge, scarred, and staring. Eerie. Steve saw a diminutive slip of a girl peek out from behind the door, like all the other students except the insidious thrum of entrogy through her little body. The corners of Kat's mouth twitched up in nervous mimickry of a smile and returned his wave and stepped out as the students dispersed, gone back to their dorms or the gym or wherever students disappear to after the last bell rings.

But there were answers to be had, and they wouldn't be found by waiting. If there was anyone who'd know why she was, then it would be an Omegadrone. She crossed the campus grounds at a walk. "Mister Murdock," She shoved hands into pockets and cocked her head to the side in a way that meant question. "I'm Katharine."

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"Hello, Katharine." He shifted in his seat at her approach and she heard the wood of the bench creak slightly under his great weight. "I am glad you could make it," Steve added, having carefully rehearsed the speech in his head before the girl's arrival. Pedagogy was never easy for him, but he owed it to the community in which he found himself to help all he could. There were worse things than prejudiced peers and paranoid politicians than threatened young T-mutants like Katharine, things which many more experienced heroes might have trouble speaking to her about in any real capacity. Sometimes one simply had to know these things. Somehow talking to her was more difficult than Glowstar had been; perhaps because the older boy had had more experience of the world than young Kat seemed to. "Are you comfortable speaking to me out of doors?" he inquired of her. "Or would you prefer to remain inside?" 

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Thankfully, Murdock failed to live up to Kat's overactive imagination. It was hard not to feel silly with the evidence laid out right in front of her like this. "Thank you for coming," she said, clutching her hands behind her back. Kat glanced upward, watched clouds dancing above their heads as far as the eye could see. It could start pouring down any second. "Outside'll be fine for now."

 

She stood still for a moment, told herself not to worry and eased herself down on the bench next to Murdock. Kat's questions caught in her throat, and it took her clearing it before she trusted herself to speak again. "Sorry," she said instead. "It's all just hard to say. You've seen people like me before? Not just here, in Prime?" Her fingers tangled like a knot in her lap. She could not quite make herself say 'in the Terminus,' but Kat hoped it was clear enough.

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"I am familiar with other beings who have been mutated by entropic radiation," said Steve carefully, "but that does not mean I am familiar with people like you. The origin of your superpowers need not determine your character, however grim that origin may have been." He had thought this through carefully. "How the entropic mutants of the Terminus live is shaped by the world in which they were born, and in which they grew. You live in a world free of significant Terminus radiation and in a place surrounded by heroic people, so you need not fear living the kind of life that they do," he told her reassuringly. "The prejudices you face are regrettable, but there are worlds where it is far more dangerous to be a T-baby. And far more dangerous to know one." 

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There was, Kat supposed, some small comfort to be had in that. The good old nature and nurture argument: you might be corrosive to reality, but you had good role models. A corner of her mouth turned up, the shadow of a grin. But it fell away fast enough. "Dangerous to know," she repeated, turning away from Steve. "Is that cause of the way they are? Just the way they grew up? Or what's done with them?" Kat asked. "I know, sometimes . . . people say that T-babies are like sleeper agents, waiting for someone to flip a switch." Her shoulders caved slightly at the admission. "Is that even possible?"

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"Yes, that is possible," agreed Steve frankly. "But it requires a level of material investment not possible on Earth-Prime. And it is..." He shrugged. "One of many possible strategies the Terminus uses to subvert a world. This world is more prepared for them than most. Eventually one has to simply live, and trust that you can prepare for danger as best you can." He thought for a moment, then went on. "The entropic mutants of the Terminus are...awash in Terminus energies. Permeated with it even in the womb, altered by it at their very core, and then when it manifests told that they are the blessed children of Entropy itself. Sons and daughters of the not-living god." He looked away, and for a moment seemed to be looking at something else entirely. "It is no wonder that they are what they are. You have avoided that fate, and should be glad of this place. You live," he added with perfect seriousness, "in a world of wonders." 

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"Oh," Kat said, her voice very small, her shoulders hunched and her arms crossed, staring straight ahead. Murdock had been very calm about it. She open her hand and stared into the lines of her palm. One day, that hand could be turned against her friends, her whole world. "Oh."

She shuddered and shoved her hands into her pockets. At least he didn't pull punches for her. At least he was honest.

There was a story moving quietly behind Murdock's eyes. Kat leaned forward, put her elbows on her knees to get a better look at his face. "What did—" She shook her head. "What do the mutants there do, exactly?"

Edited by Freely Seek
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"From a material perspective," said Steve thoughtfully, "it is not such a bad life. They are taken away from a young age and given food, medicine, education, the stolen luxuries of a billion murdered worlds...most die young in palace wars between Annihilists, or as shock troops in wars against the Furion or Omega's enemies, but the same can be said for those they left behind." He fell silent for a moment, then said, "I was taken, once, for Gathering among them. That was long enough now that even the youngest of those children must have fallen in the wars of the Terminus.." He fell silent again, then shook his head. "You need not fear such a fate for yourself. Wombs on Nihilor breed entropic mutants more often than not. There is no shortage there. As for becoming Omega's pawn..." He shrugged. "It is a dire thing to say, but there is cold darkness in even the best people. The Terminus feeds as much on corruption as conquest so...do not do evil, and you will not become evil. It is a rule that works on this world. Death may come for you, for me, for all this," he said with a wave at Claremont, "tomorrow. But today we are alive. So be alive, and enjoy what you have. It is very precious." 

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Kat caught herself chewing on her lip and wiped her mouth. Her toes curled a little in her shoes as her imagination went into overdrive. But Murdock was right enough; it was all very far away from here, with the best protectors the universe could ask for ready to lay down their lives to keep the world—and her—safe. "Alright," she said, forcing cheer into her voice. "Just gotta keep crossing my Ts and dotting my Is, then."

But the talk of life was enough to sober her, a little bit, though it took her a moment's pause to put it into words, and another long hesitation before she forced herself to say it. "Sometimes," Kat admitted, her smile falling away. "I think back to when the Curator pulled his ace, and his robots killed, and . . . I don't feel sad." She swallowed. "Just glad that my heart's still beating. It feels dirty to think that."

Edited by Freely Seek
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Steve fell silent at those words, staring off into space for a moment. "You can only live so long with grief," he said reflectively. "Until despair and loss permeate your soul like meat and drink, and you vomit it out with every word and every breath. If what you lived through is too much for you to mourn the dead, then that is for you to decide. Your emotions do not make you evil. They make you young." He fell silent for a moment, then said out loud, "Had you ever seen the taking of a life before? In a small or great quantity such as that." 

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Something about the way Murdock was talking, like grief and sadness wasn't just a feeling in your head but a sickness that could sit inside you. "That's it . . ." Kat fiddled with her hair tie a little though it needed no straightening, remembering again exactly who she was talking too. "It shouldn't be too much. Other people've gone through so much worse."

"Never. I never saw anyone die." She said, and her mind found it insufficient. How dare you talk about this when you've never seen someone die before? How dare you?! "My uncle died in a car crash and they had an open casket anyway," Kat said, groping for experience to draw from. "But it wasn't the same, I didn't see it, not like this."

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"You feel guilty that you felt relief that you survived," Murdock went on. "That is called, I believe, survivor's guilt. The notion that you should feel shame for being glad to be alive. You should not feel that way." He looked over at her, his lined eyes looking almost overrun by spider webs in the light. "I am no counselor of grief," he confessed, "but it is something which I understand. You are new to death, and it is no shame that you took it in a way you did not expect." He fell silent again before adding, "My friend Dorothy speaks very well of you. She said that even after the robot doppleganger attacked your possessions, you defended the real Dorothy when some of her classmates were...skeptical." 

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For the first time since they'd met, Kat turned and looked Murdock in the eyes. The lines over his body weren't just there, they were in his eyes. She gripped hold of her knees to still the tremor of a shudder before it could be seen as more than a shiver beneath february's chill.

Mention of Dorothy's name got Kat to sit up and pay attention. "You know . . . ? Oh." Kat reached back and scratched her neck. She supposed they would know each other, wouldn't they? They'd both been taken. It had been strange, trying to champion a girl who'd she'd wrongfully loathed. "Someone had to," Kat said, looking down. A quiet snort. "Some hero I'd be if I just sat on the sidelines and let kids go after Dorothy for something she didn't do."

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"Well, then, you have no problem," said Murdock with a shrug. "You have defended the weak against the strong and done so for what is right, you helped save the city from an attack by a cruel adversary who made a point to hunt the weak for his sport. There are many walking around the city who have done far less and know nothing but pride." He rose to his feet, briefly looming over the girl. "You will find, I think, that an origin of the Terminus will matter less these days as the public turns its eyes to other fears. As for the legacy of destruction you fear, let me say..." He gathered his thought for a moment before saying, with great firmness. "You will talk to those who will try and tell you that the Terminus is not evil. This is false. But _you_" he said, pointing to her, "are not evil. Your powers, and their use for good, are not evil. Remember that." 

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Kat eyed Murdock sideways until he stood. She sat very still, eyes wide, hands at ease in her lap. Her shoulders loosened a little. The corner of her mouth turned upward and she shifted in her seat; a child embarrassed by praise. He was, Kat thought with relief this time, honest. "I . . ." She groped for better words to say, but all she found was "I will." Kat grabbed at her elbow and smiled up at the Omegadrone like she'd smiled at a human being. She pushed herself back up to her feet and leaned back on her heels. "Thank you."

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