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March 2013 


Mark sat alone on the beach, his heavy jacket keeping the chill of a Freedom City spring off his body. He was out of costume today, resting after a long morning with his mother. He knew his mother was sick, knew it in that twisting place inside of him that all the good intentions in the world couldn't fix, and it was a bad feeling. His mom had done some bad stuff, but that had been because she had problems, not because she had a problem. Whatever had happened, Martha Lucas was still his mom. And that was good, because she needed a friend. He skipped stones for a while, his mind wandering as he in fact lost track of why he was on the beach at all. The ocean made him think of Nina these days, his girlfriend having gone back to Socotra for Typhoon's birthday celebration. Nina wasn't exactly a conventional girl, either, but she was still his girl. Maybe he needed to do more things for her....

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The soft pafft of boots landing in the sand nearby was enough to break his reverie, just in time to see Erin sit down next to him. She was in street clothes as well, slacks and a well-worn blouse he vaguely recognized from their school days. Erin wasn't the type to waste time sitting around, but for the moment, she didn't seem to be in much of a hurry. "Sorry I'm late," she told him, "I was trying to get all the last bits of paperwork in order. You look like you've got a lot on your mind." 

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"This morning, my mom asked me if I thought maybe my dad had been a robot all along," Mark admitted, remembering the look on her face vividly. "And that's why he did all the bad stuff. So things were rough for a while there." He put on a convincing smile, though, and said, "But things are better now, she's at work and Nina called me from her father's palace. She said she's coming back when spring break is done with some big news." He stretched and threw another little pebble into the shallows. "So things are okay. How are things with you? Did you get everything set up in the prison okay?" 

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"That's too bad," Erin replied with a thoughtful frown. She'd met Martha Lucas a number of times, under all sorts of circumstances, and the woman's faltering grip on reality was not exactly a subtle decline. "I know she's stubborn, but you should really try and get her to talk to somebody. She's had a lot of bad things happen this last couple of years. I still keep in touch with a couple of the doctors at the Freedom League, they might be able to help more than a regular psychologist..." 


This was not a new conversation, though, so Erin wasn't too enthused about the prospects of that. Martha wasn't the only one in her family who was reticent to face reality sometimes. "Yeah, everything's set up. Assuming she passes the last screening, she'll be released to the Project Freedom halfway house. I've got all her documents and stuff." 

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"That's really great," said Mark sincerely. "I know how hard you've been working with Singularity, and it's so awesome they're finally letting her out. I guess sometimes saving the day takes a couple of years, but things will usually work out for the best." Erin had lost track of that particular duty while she was an evil robot, he'd heard, but then you never could count on an evil robot being good for much of anything except evil. He got to his feet and stretched his back. "What's she going to do after the halfway house?" he asked Erin. "I guess she probably can't be a security guard, even now. Are they going to put her up in the Kline building?" 

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"I don't know," Erin admitted. "I guess probably, unless she's got someplace else to live by then. She's got to do at least six months on Project Freedom, with the tracking anklet and the power inhibitors. I had to promise to be on call in case she ever screws up, and to work with her on learning nonlethal fighting. She's kind of weird now," she added, doodling an abstract pattern in the sand with her finger. "I mean different weird than before. Alex and Eve ended up just taking out whole big chunks of her memory. She's not as scary-crazy, but I don't think you can lose that much of your past without it making you strange, you know?" 

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"I guess it's better to be a strange person than be no kind of person...or a person you wish you weren't," said Mark thoughtfully, or as thoughtfully as he ever got. "The important thing is, she'll be out of jail and she'll be living somewhere where she can be herself again. It must be weird being watched and studied all the time, and even in a halfway house she won't have to do quite so much of that. As long as you think I can help her, I'll do whatever I can to help her get out and have a life. I owe her for what Hex helped do to her." He smiled thinly. "And besides, I've done pretty well for myself making friends with Erins. The more the merrier, right?"

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"Well... you're part of the last test," Erin admitted. "You remember how she was back when we first picked her up, she was especially freaked out by you, right?  Exposure and mental conditioning got her used to dealing with Alex, but I don't think she's seen you at all since then. If she can see you and talk to you without it bothering her, I figure that she's got to be ready to handle the outside world." She smiled a little. "And the fact that you can give us a ride instead of needing to find a boat or teach her to water-walk is an added benefit. I'll take you out to lunch afterwards and we'll call it even?" 

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"Any time," said Mark seriously. "Anything I can do for you, you know I'm only happy to help." He still felt bad about not recognizing the Erin-bot for what she was, though he knew it wasn't anything Erin herself would make an issue of. Between that, and the fact that Erin was one of his best friends in the world, he'd have blown down the walls of the prison if she asked. Probably good they weren't going to do that, though. "Ready to go?" Mark put them down in the standard arrival place for teleporters at Blackstone, an 'Arrival Lounge' whose bland decor masked the high security in the walls. Blackstone had been dealing with superpeople for a long time and were wise to their tricks. 


"Hello," said the uniformed guard professionally, aiming a portable scanning device at them. "No ferrics, no internal cybernetics...okay, looks like you're good to enter." She stepped aside from the sliding steel door that she'd been standing in front of at their approach. "Retinal scans, please." 

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Erin obediently put her eye up to the retinal scanner, not surprised by the odd chirrup-beep it made to indicate confusion. Blackstone's scanners confirmed that she was who they said she was, but she wasn't the only person in the facility with the same retinal pattern. That error happened every time she visited, and the guard just nodded at her. She stepped aside so Mark could do the same thing, though he was rewarded with a simple chime. 


"All right, you're both cleared," said the guard. "Follow me." She led them along a path already very familiar to Erin, deep into the prison complex and past the large cellblocks, into an out-of-the-way corridor lined with just a few cells. The first cell in the hallway was covered with a thin impervium shield covered in tiny ripples that obscured the interior from view. The second, on the opposite side of the hall, contained an occupant with his back to the cellblock, apparently reading or meditating. The third, further down the hall, contained Erin White, or at least an Erin White, who got up and came to the front of her cell to try and see who'd come in. 


"You can go ahead and talk to her," the guard told Erin and Mark. "The doctor will be along in a few minutes." 

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Mark shot a look at Erin for confirmation, then walked down to Singularity's cell. "Hiya," he said with a wave and a smile, keeping his distance so he wouldn't scare her as his own Erin followed him. "I heard you get out of here today. That's pretty great. I guess we didn't meet under the best of circumstances, but I'm really happy for you...do you go by Erin?" he asked Singularity curiously. "I mean it's a perfectly good name, but I just don't want to call you by the wrong name."  


"She goes by-oh hey, it's you!" Dr. Sebastian Stratos turned around in his cell. "Good to see you kids in a fine establishment like this. Is this that boyfriend of yours without the mask?" inquired Stratos as he got up and loitered near the cell entrance. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone...except everybody! Heh-heh-heh!" He winked at Wander. 

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Singularity gave Mark a frankly appraising look from behind the forcefield that secured her cell, but didn't seem afraid of him. She didn't seem to have any recollection of him at all. Ignoring Stratos' catcalling from the other cell, she ventured a small smile for the charismatic stranger. "Hi," she said back. "My name is Erin, but they told me I should pick a new name, because it would be too confusing otherwise," She looked over at the other Erin, who was giving Stratos an exasperated look. "So I'm going to be called Jessie now, but I still haven't got used to it. I guess it'll take awhile." She shrugged. 


In the corridor, Erin turned aside to face Stratos, looking at him in an extremely unamused way. "I forgot they dropped you off here," she told the deranged weather controller. "But even you have got to know who he is," she went on, jerking her head in Mark's direction. "Don't you ever watch TV? He's so completely not my boyfriend I don't even know what to say. So just shut up and be quiet, all right?"

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Stratos's eyes narrowed. "You're a real jerk, you know that?" He turned back to his meditations and left Erin to catch up with Mark and Jessie, the former still carefully sussing out the conversation. 


"Jessie's a nice name," said Mark easily, giving her a warm smile to set her at ease. "You should practice saying it to yourself in front of a mirror so you can remember it whenever you need to. That's how superheroes memorize their supernames, and it works pretty well." It was how he did it, anyway, and so far that had gone pretty well. "I'm glad you're doing so well. It sounds like you're on the right track." He shot his Erin a look; everything seemed to be going okay? When she nodded, he turned back to the now ex-Singularity. "Are you excited about moving to a new place? It must be pretty weird to think about moving after you've been living in here so long." 

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"It's from a book," Erin-now-Jessie told Mark. "I thought about naming myself after someone real, but then... then I decided not to." She trailed off for a moment, twisting her fingers together, the power-dampening bracelets on her wrists glowing amber to show their partial activation. "Dr. Franklin says I have to go to the halfway house now, because it's good for my rehabilitation. But there are a lot of people out there." Between one thing and another, it had been a very long time, a third of a lifetime, since she'd had to deal with large numbers of people in anything but combat. 


"You'll do fine," Erin said with a slightly overplayed confidence as she approached the barrier. "Dr. Franklin and Dr. Ellis both say you've made a lot of progress here. You can't just sit in prison forever, you know. They need the space for people who are still causing problems." She tossed a glance over her shoulder at Stratos, who was still pouting. "You all packed up?


Jessie nodded, pointing to the blue duffle bag on the bed, nearly the same shade as her prison uniform. "Yes, they gave me some clothes. I can put them on when we're at Project Freedom. I didn't have any," she admitted, sounding embarrassed, "but there were some extras around somewhere."


"We'll figure something out," Erin told her, resting her hands on her hips and looking towards the door. "I wonder where the doctor is.

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Just before the delay could get awkward, the elevator doors opened again - this time revealing both doctors ."Hello, Erin, Jessie, Mr. Lucas," said Dr. Franklin warmly, the always-slightly frazzled Ellis just nodding hello as she came up just behind him. "I'm sorry for the delay," he went on in his deep voice. 

"It's my fault," said Ellis with a shake of her head. "I forgot I needed two forms of photo ID for the medical passthrough and nearly had to wait in Outer Receiving. I'm just glad I was still wearing my lanyard from Providence or I'd still be out there."


"The important thing is, we're here," said Franklin, looking casual as always in a blue and green sweater Erin remembered him wearing during their long-ago sessions. Looking up at Jessie in her cell, he asked, "Are you ready to go?" 


"Do you need me to take everyone straight there?" asked Mark. "I've been to Project Freedom a couple of times, I can probably hit the halfway house without any problem." 

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"Actually, we just need to get to the mainland," Franklin replied affably. "We're going to take the city bus to Project Freedom, to give Jessie a first real look at Freedom City." He looked to Jessie again, who was still twisting her hands, but finally nodded that she was ready to go. "Erin, do you have the paperwork?" 


"Yeah, I've got it right here," Erin confirmed, digging into her knapsack for the dogeared folder with her counterpart's identity and discharge paperwork in it. "I think the people in the records office at Freedom Hall are really sick of me after the past few years, but they came through eventually." 


She and Franklin stepped to the head of the hallway, switching places with the guard who came to open the door. He was a younger guard, lanky and dark-haired, with the pale skin of someone who spent his working life deep underground. He seemed surprisingly friendly for a prison guard, but maybe he hadn't been at it too long. "All right Er- Jessie, you're almost out of our clutches," he said teasingly. "Let's see those bangles one more time. You gonna miss me?" 


Jessie obediently held out her arms, turning her wrists from side to side to display the power inhibitors, then hiked up the cuff of her left pant leg to show off her new tracking anklet as well. "Maybe a little," she said, and if her skin weren't so white, it might have been easier to hide the slight blush. "But I'll write to you." 


"Well, that's okay then." Inserting an electronic key, the guard tapped in a code and pressed his palm to the scanner next to the cell door. In moments, the forcefield flickered and disappeared, the doorframe glowing a safe-to-cross green. Jessie stepped out into the corridor, twisting the straps of her duffle bag instead of her fingers now. "You take care, all right?" He patted her on the shoulder, a touch that made her hesitate slightly but not flinch anymore. 


"I will, you too." She took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders and running her fingers through her hair in a movement that made her look just like her counterpart for a second. "All right, I'm ready." 

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Edge closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment, studying the map of Freedom City he'd painstakingly put in his head over hours and hours of memorization -he still couldn't hit many places accurately but there were a handful that he'd managed to add to his 'library.' "Here we go!" The small group - Erin, Jessie, Mark, and the psychologists, wound up somewhere Erin recognized as Lantern Hill from the classical-style mansions visible through the fence behind her and across the street. They were somewhere quiet and relatively subdued, beneath the branches of several massive old oak trees still relatively denuded for the season. "The whole back lot there has been converted," he said with a gesture back at the mansion behind them. "I used to come here to play golf with my family," he said without a wince at the last of that for once. "Everybody okay?" 

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Erin, who was completely used to Edge's teleportation, was unfazed by the transit, looking around to place their location. "And at a bus stop too, very neat," she said with slight amusement. "Though at perhaps the furthest possible point on the bus route from Project Freedom without actually taking a Greyhound." She strolled over to the bus shelter and studied the map while the others collected himself. 


The two psychologists seemed rather more befuddled by the sudden change of scene. "Yes, we're fine," Dr Ellis said, tugging on the lapels of her jacket. "Is this Lantern Hill?" 


"Yes, it looks like Lantern Hill," Dr. Franklin agreed, both doctors keeping a close eye on Jessie as they got their bearings. "A bit further from Port Royal than I expected, but that's perfectly fine," he assured Edge. "It will be a learning experience. 


Jessie, meanwhile, didn't seem to be paying attention to any of it. She remained standing in the exact spot where she'd teleported, duffel bag dangling limply from her fingers as she tipped her head back and stared at the sky, openmouthed as a baby bird. "It's so big," she marveled. "I forgot." 

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"Hey, I just went to the first bus station I could think of...guess we got lucky." Edge walked over to check the bus schedule with Erin as Jessie looked up at the pale blue sky overhead, gaping vastly above her. Birds were flying by and somebody too high to recognize was flying above them, and it was a good day. "The bus should be here in the next couple of minutes. This isn't a busy stop, but it'll get us where we're going. We shouldn't even have to change." 


"How do you feel, Jessie?" Dr. Ellis was asking her patient as Erin and Mark returned to the group. Before she could answer, they had company - an old man with a heavy mustache in work clothes joined them at the bus stop, shooting them a polite nod before taking a seat on the bench. From his uniform, he was one of the groundstenders at the nearby golf course, perhaps taking his lunch break or ending his day early. 

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"If you count at least two hours on the bus and a transfer at  City Center to be lucky," Erin retorted, mostly in good humor. She'd had her share of riding the bus before she'd gotten the hang of leaping without drawing attention, and could've done without the tour. But it would certainly give them plenty of opportunity to see whether Jessie was ready for the outside. 


For her part, Jessie snapped to attention the moment a stranger appeared, giving the old man an appraising stare that would've been rude if he'd been looking in her direction. Everyone else certainly was, Erin and the doctors all ready to intervene if something went wrong in these first critical moments. She'd had months of therapy, simulation and desensitization treatments all designed to make her safe, but there was always that one bit of uncertainty... After five seconds of restrained tension, Jessie obviously filed the stranger into the "harmless" category and looked away, more interested in the scraggly winter grass and patchy gardens around them. "I feel okay," she finally answered Dr. Ellis. "It's almost lunchtime. "Are we going to be there in time for lunch?" 


"If we're not, we'll get something along the way," Dr. Franklin assured her. "What time does the bus get here?" he asked Erin.


"There's one scheduled in about two minutes," Erin replied. She, too, had given the old man a once-over, but she liked to think she'd been much more subtle about it. "A piece of luck there," she added with a sardonic look at Mark. 

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They were near the beginning of the bus route, which luckily meant there was plenty of space once they actually piled onto the bus itself. Jessie had taken enough life skills classes to know to wait patiently as the doors opened, Edge going in first to actually pay for their tickets. He and Erin had never really talked about it, but he knew his salary was above and beyond hers and there was no reason to make her go out of pocket for it. Edge got out of the way to let everyone else get on, keeping his distance as Jessie found a seat by the window. Luckily their only fellow passenger, the man from the bus stop, stuck close to the front and immediately pulled a beaten-up paperback book out of his pocket to read. So far, so good...

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The middle section of the bus was made up of facing benches six seats across, which meant Erin and Mark could flank Jessie while the doctors sat opposite. Once on board the bus, Jessie forgot about everything but looking out the window, turning all the way around in her seat for a better view. Kneeling on the seat with her face all but pressed to the window, she watched the world roll placidly by. She'd seen Freedom City in the simulator before, but it was so different in real life! In the simulator, the people had seemed real but the buildings were fake and the sky was absent, so it had seemed almost like being in a play. This was very different, and different too from the vague memories she had of the other city, Empire City... She grimaced and shook herself clear of those thoughts. Those were bad thoughts and she was just going to forget them right now. 


"Lantern Hill... this is where Lantern Jack lives, right?" she asked Erin and Mark. "Does he come out in the daytime? Do you think we'll see him?" Lantern Jack was a friendly ghost, a hero ghost. Jessie was interested to meet more heroes. She was going to have to learn how to be one, a daunting prospect, and it seemed like learning from others was the easiest way to go about it. And she could always ask Erin, but that just seemed... strange. She checked her watch, relieved to find it was not quite noon yet and they weren't late for lunch. 


"He lives here," Erin confirmed, looking over her shoulder to see what had her counterpart so interested, but not seeing much unusual. "But he doesn't typically show up in the daytime. Besides, it's quiet now. You don't see too many superheroes unless there's trouble." 

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Just when they thought things were going to go well, the bus made one last stop before getting on 76th, the main artery down towards Bayview. They stopped by one of the many old schools in the neighborhood and came away with a prim-looking Asian nun and a handful of young women who had to be her students. They chattered to each other in English and Korean, occasionally shooting glances back at the small group near the center of the bus. In their old-fashioned uniforms, they were certainly private school kids. The oldest of them looked about fourteen, the youngest of them twelve. Mark shot a glance at Erin at that, worry briefly crossing his handsome features. Even he knew enough to be a little concerned about that, especially since they were now on the state road with no place to stop the bus for over a mile. 

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Erin returned the look and gave him a minute shrug of one shoulder. Edge knew enough of her family history to know that she, and by extension Jessie, had a younger sister who'd died along with the rest of her family. Even though they'd been teammates for years, she'd never been able to tell him the details of that. He was her friend, but some things were too hard to share. If she'd lived, Megan would now be as old as these girls were, or as Dorothy at Claremont was. Erin knew firsthand how hard it could be to see a stranger under the right circumstances and not draw parallels to the past. But Jessie's grasp on time was mutable at best, and it was hard to tell what she was thinking. 


For her part, Jessie seemed at the moment to be the most relaxed of anyone in their little group. Safely bracketed in and with no one else too close, she felt free to gawk at the world as it went by, and at their fellow passengers as well. Some girls almost her age got on the bus, but they sat near the front of the bus in their own little group. They were speaking a different language, too, and all wearing the same school uniform. They were probably friends. No, she thought, interrupting herself. They weren't her age, they were much younger. Why couldn't she remember that? Lowering her eyes, she scowled and scrubbed at an imaginary smudge of dirt on the side of one thumb with the other. She'd marked her twentieth birthday on her calendar this past winter and looked at it for ages. Jason the nice guard had even put a fake candle on a pudding container for her, and other-Erin brought her a book of word puzzles. She could just look at the other Erin to know almost exactly what she looked like, but it was still hard to believe. There was so much missing time, and memories that were still there, but hazy and disconnected. She knew it was better that way, far preferable to remembering, but it was confusing! 


"Doing all right, Jessie?" Dr. Franklin asked her in a friendly way. "If you need a break, we can get off and center for a little while." Dr. Franklin was very big on centering. 


"I'm okay," Jessie replied, with perhaps just a bit less certainty than last time. Looking for a distraction, she turned to Mark. "She said you're her friend," Jessie began, obviously referring to Erin as the "she." "Are you a hero too?" Something about him tugged at her memory, but it was elusive and she couldn't quite get hold. 

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"I work for UNISON, that's the global super-agency," said Mark, not wanting to draw attention to any memories of Edge. Jessie didn't look like she understood what he'd said, so he went on. "I don't wear a costume or fight bad guys that much anymore. Instead I go to countries that can't make enough food to feed themselves, or can't afford to build things people need like housing or schools, and I use my powers to help them build it. It's not as dramatic as the stuff here in Freedom City that makes the news, but I feel pretty good about doing it. And I still get to fight bad guys sometimes," he said with a smile. "So things worked out pretty well for me. I get to travel and see a lot of the world, and even though it's some of the worst-off places, the people are always really great." 

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