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Hell Comes To Missouri (IC)

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July 2013 


There are thousands of big-rig accidents in the continental United States every year. And no wonder - America's roads are among the busiest in the world, and the vast majority of America's shipping takes place on the asphalt highways that bind the nation together. Sometimes these are terrible accidents near major cities, crashes that lead to multicar pileups or dangerous chemical spills that force evacuations of whole neighborhoods. These make all the papers. The small crashes, though, hardly anyone notices them, especially not  the ones in cities most people, especially people in far-off Freedom City, couldn't find on a map. 


Not much goes on in Blackwater, Missouri these days. The town is small, with just over 150 inhabitants, and it's the kind of place barely hanging onto tourist dollars and people wanting a rural getaway. They do a lot of Wild West recreation these days, calling back to an imagined past that was rarely rural Missouri's to begin with. But it gets the tourists in and gets them to spend money at the antique stores and bed and breakfasts in town, or at the Volunteer Fireman's Whole Hog and Beef Barbecue. People born here tend to try and get away, pulled away by cities as small as 8000-strong Boonville at the heart of Cooper County, or even real cities like St. Louis or Kansas City. A small number, by some quirk of fate or other, find themselves in Freedom City, but not many, not many. 


Not a lot of super-people come here. It's right about between Maverick in Kansas City and Aquifer in St. Louis, and neither of them have ever needed to come within thirty miles of the area. Even super-criminals on the lam from big cities prefer to have some luxuries, and there's not a lot of local crime even of the mundane variety. The local cops are nice enough, but they don't have a lot to do most days - why would they? 

But sometimes things change. On July 3, 2013, in Blackwater, Missouri, there was a big rig accident. A tractor trailer driven by local man Peter Evans struck the rail on the small bridge over the nearby Blackwater River, sending truck, trailer, and driver plunging into the small river. The badly-damaged trailer spilled its 'machine parts' contents into the small river and the driver, new to the profession, was taken to Cooper County Memorial Hospital. As the 4th of July holiday began, the Cooper County sheriff's office promised a full investigation into the causes of the accident. But the sheriff is all the way over in Boonville, a solid twenty minute drive By the 5th, there was hardly any news. Unless you care about Missouri, and who cares about that? 

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On the morning of July 5, in the nearby town of Marshall, there was another disturbance that was enough to knock talk of the previous day's celebrations off of everyone's lips. This was not too difficult, considering that a constant drizzling rain had dampened the town picnic and prevented more than a few sullen fireworks, but it certainly was not every day that a superheroine and business magnate came to town! The sleek private plane from ArcheTech, just barely small enough to land on the runway of the Marshall Memorial Municipal Airport, landed just after dawn to disgorge a whole passel of important-looking folks.


There was a team of doctors, specialists, it was said, in neurology and accident trauma, who headed right on off toward Boonville in a fancy rental car that had come all the way from Sedalia after Rod at Rod's Ready Rental admitted that his fleet of four cars were mostly good for getting around Marshall and not much else. The doctors were escorted by the only private ambulance in Saline County, though as far as anybody could tell, nobody was riding in it. There was another group from the plane too, a bunch of science and engineering types, the sort anybody who knew about anything would expect to see on a plane from ArcheTech. They had plenty of equipment with them, some of it looking like fancy computers and scanners, some of it looking more like fancy pulleys and winches. Those types spent a long time milling around on the tarmac before they organized themselves and loaded a couple of trucks to head off towards Blackwater. 


That would've been plenty of excitement in and of itself, but it all paled to the fact that Miss Americana herself had disembarked from the plane as well. She was in civilian clothes, blue jeans and a red and white checked blouse, but there was no mistaking someone who looked like her, especially coming off an ArcheTech plane. Nobody could say she wasn't friendly, the locals agreed later on while discussing the matter, but she obviously had a lot on her mind. She'd signed a few autographs, shaken hands, but her attention was definitely focused on something else. Smart money said that those machine tools that Evans fellow dumped in the river were a lot more valuable than anyone had thought. This conclusion was bolstered by one of the pilots, who'd mentioned in an unguarded moment that the ArcheTech people were retrieving their lost shipment before it could pollute the water. That would explain the doctors as well, the curious decided. If Pete Evans was driving an ArcheTech shipment, the company owed him, didn't they? And no matter what people said about ArcheTech, it was a company that cleaned up its messes. In any case, well before noon, she'd taken to the air like the very best of fireworks and headed off towards Blackwater, leaving a few technicians behind to look after the secured plane. 

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For his part, while his girlfriend was embarking on a journey entirely unknown to him, Harrier spent a long, difficult day flying around a very remote part of North America - north-central Missouri. The lost shipment of Grue technology had originally been destined for HAX, necessitating that somebody from the company go out to find out what had happened to their lost equipment. With the boss engaged in 4th of July projects, Erin had delegated the task to Steve. He'd flown all night across eastern North America, invisible to human eyes and too low for military radar, letting the civilian GPS he'd brought with him and his ability to see in darkness guide his flight. The trip had proven a difficult one given his unfamiliarity with the terrain, and his flight had not gone unmarred. He landed upstream of the town near the river for which it was named, letting the invisibility circuits in his pike disguise his appearance, and slipped into the water to bathe. He had gotten very dirty indeed on the way in. Birdstrike was a serious problem away from Freedom City skies. 




Miss Americana found the Cooper County Memorial Hospital buzzing with activity, a surprise given the usual quiet around the rural hospital. Two Cooper County sheriffs' cars were in the parking lot and a couple of uniformed deputies were stationed in the corridors near the private room that held Peter Evans. While her team of specialists went to check in with the hospital staff, the director, Dr. Ahmad Suri, was on the scene to greet her. "Welcome to Cooper County," said the Pakistani-American who had joined the hospital staff some years after Gina Evans had left the area, "it is a pleasure to meet you. Very much a pleasure indeed! I had not thought we would have help like yours." He took her hand and shook it with a firm grip, giving her a searching look. "You can be assured that we are doing everything we can for Mr. Evans." 

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Kyle Steward had adjusted a fair bit since his return. Despite the fact that he'd been anticipating a more peaceful homecoming, he'd had a good few months to get used to life back on Earth. That, and earning a job reference from at least one superhero had been kinda worth it. Kyle had yet to earn his degree - alien abduction tended to derail a promising academic career - but detailed knowledge of the operations of FTL engines entirely unknown to anyone in the Milky Way was good for at least an entry level job at an aerodynamics firm. And hey, he could always take night classes.

But the firm had some connections, ones that kept him informed for his... other career. So when word came down from someone's friend in the DOD about a very sensitive truck wreck in Missouri, Kyle decided he'd take a sick day and investigate the mess. As he soared through the air, he thought about the circumstances.

It probably wasn't the same thing. This wasn't Kansas. There were so many spacefaring species. The chance of this being the same bastards... But he had to check. Just in case it was.

He landed in Missouri around the same time Miss Americana did, though his place of touchdown was a disused dirt road on the edge of Blackwater. He popped off the armor, feeling it disperse into loose plating and ambient energy - by the time 90% of the remaining mass was shunted into extradimensional space, he was left with an emerald green bracelet on one wrist. While he'd done a better job with personal grooming since he'd gotten back, he still looked a bit shaggy and untamed. People would be more likely to mistake him for a biker than a Star Knight.

And so, he walked into town, aiming to get something of an idea about just what the hell had been in that truck.

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"I'm sure your treatment has been exemplary, Dr. Suri," Miss Americana assured the physician, shaking his hand with a warm smile. It would've taken someone who knew her well to notice that the heroine was phoning it in today, all her pleasantries no more than practiced habit. "I took the liberty of doing a bit of research on your facility, and for a regional hospital of its size, Cooper County has an excellent record. If the team does elect to move Mr. Evans to a different hospital, I know it won't be from quality of care issues. I'd like to take a few moments to look in on the patient, if that's all right. Has he shown any signs of waking up yet? And does he have any family here at the hospital?" And perhaps there was a brief flicker of unease behind Miss Americana's polished affability, but facing the family of a man injured while working for one's company was certainly not going to be something an executive looked forward to. 

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The bridge over the river was still partially blocked off after the recent accident - highway tape and orange barrels cordoned off the section of eastbound rail that Peter Evans had plunged through on his short trip into the river. With one lane partially blocked, a busier town would have stationed a uniformed officer to direct traffic, or perhaps put a highway crew in place to get started repairing the damage, but as it was people just went slowly and carefully as the technically two-lane bridge briefly became a one-and-a-half lane one in the middle of its short span. Broken fragments of the damaged section were still attached to the side of the bridge. 


Standing this close to the town, Kyle could get a pretty good idea of just how big Blackwater was - not very big at all. Firemen were washing the town's old-fashioned red firetruck behind the firehouse, antique stores and specialty shops made up the short Main Street he could see before him. But other than that things seemed quiet, cars sedately parked on the street or in the parking lot of a 50s-looking diner named Ruth's, the nearest business to the bridge. He'd seen more bustling metropolises on worlds that were just discovering agriculture. 



Dr. Suri froze for a moment as he looked at Miss A, patting her hand for a too-long moment before he released it. "Certainly, by all means come with me." He led the way down the corridors of the quiet, very quiet regional hospital. "Mr. Evans has shown no sign of waking up, it is true, but we have found no sign of lasting injury. There is no sign of internal bleeding or pressure on the brain, and his concussion has already nearly healed. We are concerned, of course, but I am confident we can bring about his recovery." When they reached the door, he added, "As for visitors, he has been seen by his mother and father, his wife, as well as one brother, I believe. They seemed to be taking the situation...very hard. We are concerned about them," he admitted, "as we would be for anyone in this case." 


 Peter looked smaller than Gina remembered, his face covered in healing bruises - with tubes in his nose and mouth, and an IV drip in his arm, he looked like any other coma patient. His vitals looked steady at Gina's first glance, heart, brain, and respiratory activity all normal for a young man in his condition. With his condition. "His mother visited most recently, but I think she found conditions in the hospital...uncomfortable," said Suri almost apologetically. 




"Howdy, stranger!" Ruth, the titular owner of the diner, greeted Steve with a friendly, almost maternal smile. "Welcome to Blackwater!" She smiled and touched his arm as he walked in, the former Omegadrone tensing briefly at the surprise contact. "Come on in and sit a spell. Let me show you our specials..." Wondering if he'd made a mistake coming here instead of heading straight to the police station, Steve let himself be guided to a booth, listening to the wood slats beneath groan against his weight. "What brings y'all to Blackwater?" 


"Business," he replied carefully, not wanting to share details with the scattered customers in the small diner all looking with great interest at the strange-looking new arrival. "I will not be staying long," he added as a seeming promise. "Perhaps, ah, just the cherry pie," he went on, picking at random a pictured item from the menu. The regard of others was not something he enjoyed bearing when acting on his own. This was a strange sort of town. 

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As he strode the main street, Kyle consulted his mail to see if he'd missed anything. It had taken nearly half a day to synchronize the armor with his personal contact info - once he'd gotten all of that set up - but it was worth it. It turned out that, soon after touchdown, he'd received an email from Miss Americana. It wasn't a formal request, but a notice from one of her employees that he may be needed for a consultation. When he saw that the pieces had a Grue origin, he kicked himself for not checking with that DOD contact before taking off. Unless the Grue were up for taking on mysterious forms and jaunting off to the next galaxy on a whim, they weren't his target.

But... There was still something going on here. The side details mentioned in the e-mail convinced him of that. He walked through the main drag on town, taking in the sights. It was strange; the last time he'd ever really seen a place this small was the road trip. Civilization in the Cloud tended to gather in clusters, large enough to either hide or rally your neighbors together to provide a defense against the bastards next door. Okay, a generalization, but...

He made his way to the bridge where the driver had gone over. The scene was still cordoned off, but perhaps there was something worth seeing. On a whim, he ran his finger over the bracelet, opening a radio connection. If any of that equipment had been jiggered during the crash, then there might be a chance that, no matter how "inert" it was, it might be broadcasting. So he opened his ears, waiting to hear the gnashing telepathic noise of the Grue.

Or local televangelists. Which might have been worse.

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"I imagine so," Miss A answered faintly, her attention captured by the figure in the bed. She picked up the chart and began to scan through it, even as she watched the monitors. Something about her presence here was making Dr. Suri obviously uncomfortable, but she couldn't be bothered to care too much about that at the moment. "Where's Dr. Irons?" she asked the hospital director without looking up. "I wanted to ask him why he canceled the request for a neurology specialist yesterday. It seems patently obvious that one is needed here." She did look up as the members of her handpicked medical team came to the door, gesturing them inside. "I'd like an assessment on his condition and whether he's stable to transfer as soon as you can," she told the team. "I'll handle the family if necessary." 




Over in Blackwater, Cavalier had only been at the bridge a few minutes before he was joined by a pair of nondescript white panel trucks and a beige SUV full of engineers wearing ArcheTech badges. Some of them gave him a look but did not disturb him as they quickly began the process of unloading gear from the truck. They obviously intended to begin retrieval of the lost material right away, paying as much attention to safety as possible under the circumstances. All of them wore streamlined hazmat suits and carried some kind of detector on their belts, quiescent for the moment. 

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"Dr. Irons felt he had become too close to the family and withdrew himself from the case at his own request," said Suri with a little shrug. "When a physician comes to me and says that, I generally take him at his word." Listening to Miss A, he nodded and said "The family situation is very tense, from what I have observed. It is a potential hazard to his recovery, as the arguments are distressing him during his recovery period. As Miss Americana listened to Dr. Suri talk, a closer look at the monitors revealed a surprise. As she watched, Peter Evans' brain activity monitor rolled over. The fast-moving EEG would have been almost impossible for anyone else to follow, but she distinctly saw the faint stutter as the machine's beeping readout briefly paused and its numeric values rolled over to where they had been when she came into the room. 




As Steve watched, fork suspended above his newly-arrived cherry pie, a curl of uneasiness at the back of his mind finally drove him to wordlessly rise to his feet, fling a rumpled ten dollar bill to the counter, and simply walk out of the diner, heedless of the rudeness of the act. He had been in many strange places in his life, some of them fantastically dangerous, and something about this quiet rural town was setting him on edge. As he watched, a pair of white panel trucks and beige SUV zipped by him along the town's main drag towards the bridge. Wondering if they were a work crew sent from one of the other companies that had been a planned target of the alien shipment, he turned and began to walk over there when suddenly a figure burst out at him from a nearby alley. 

Steve had no idea who the fat man with the Confederate flag T-shirt and American flag trucker hat was, but he had been around enough to know what smell of liquor, rising even through Steve's attenuated nostrils, meant - this man was drunk! But for all that, he looked Steve in the eye and said, "Hey, hey buddy, y'all ain't one of them, are ya? Ya gotta get outta here, buddy!" 




Over by the bridge, the arrival of the Archtechnicians was briefly interrupted by the arrival of a Cooper County sheriff's squad car, the two deputies inside breaking up, one to talk to the lead engineer and the other to approach the solitary figure of Kyle. "Howdy! Y'all new in town, stranger?" asked the deputy, a young woman with curly red hair and bright freckles. "This here's a restricted area what with the accident and all. Not much for sight-seeing." She reached out to take Kyle's arm in a friendly sort of way, just as his sensor began beeping ever so slightly. There was indeed a Grue transmission going on not far beneath his feet. 


Across the road, the other deputy, a portly African-American gentleman with a silvery-black beard, was telling the hazmat-suited lead engineer, "So anyway, I know this is just foolishness from the state, but I need y'all to to take off your helmet real quick so I can compare your picture to the files I've got to make sure y'all are who you say you are..." 

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Kyle flashed a warm, conciliatory smile. That seemed to be the universal symbol for "Sorry, I didn't know I was screwing up" (except for some isolated cultures of backwater planets where, to his distress, he'd found out it meant "I think your mother would give it up for the rind of an old mango"). "Sorry about that," he said as the deputy made skin contact. "Just wanted to take in the river. I'll get out of the way."

Cavalier aimed to back off towards the main road, making a show of going into one of the various corner stores. He'd stay in radio range and try to call up the Grue linguistics protocols to figure out what the equipment was transmitting. But as the deputy made contact, something flared in his head...

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In an eyeblink, Miss Americana was across the room to study the EEG machine. "This machine has been tampered with," she snapped at Suri, even as she punched buttons fruitlessly on the machine. "The data on it is looping, not giving a true reading of the patient's status. What the hell is going on here?" Deciding to prioritize for the moment,she delayed disassembling the EEG and began running her portable scanner over the unconscious patient, taking readings of her own. "Doctors, I believe transporting the patient has just become an urgent priority. I don't like the way any of this smells." She gave Suri a hard look, quite at odds with her earlier bland amiability. "Machines falsifying readings, a specialist who damn well should've been called in being called off, a man in a coma who shouldn't be unconscious. I'd like to hear some better answers than I've been getting, and quickly." 




The lead engineer from ArcheTech, a wiry woman in her mid-fifties, gave the deputy a cool look. This was hardly her  first go-round with local authorities on a work site, and she was calm but firm. "I'm sorry, but protocol dictates that once we put on our suits, we do not remove them until we've gone through decontamination procedures. This site is classified as potentially hazardous, and nobody ought to be here without protection." She gave the pair of obviously unprotected deputies a look.


"In any case, ArcheTech has filed reports with the state and with the local and county authorities to get clearance for this emergency cleanup work. If you have any question about our permissions, you should speak with Miss Americana. She'll be coming down from Boonville shortly. In the meanwhile, you can have a look at these," she offered, proffering a set of badges on a lanyard, "but we really cannot delay our setup process." 

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Miss Americana had brought a crack team of medical specialists with her from Freedom City, the kind of people who were used to strange sights because they lived in a strange city. Nonetheless, they were as surprised as anyone else when, just as they entered the room, the previously mild-mannered hospital chief hissed like a snake and bolted for the door, shouting "The Gruen will prevail! All hail the Arcane!" Outside, the hallway was in confusion as the previously quiet hospital seemed to come alive, shouts of "Oh my god, what's wrong with Dr. Suri!" echoing in the air as the doctor howled and kicked in a way that might have done some damage if half-a-dozen specialists and a powerful superhero hadn't been in the same room with him. 


Across the county, the deputy gave a shrug and turned away from the engineer. "All right, I'll talk to your boss too. No use makin' a big hoot'n'holler about it on such a nice day. You folks have a nice day." He turned and headed back to his squad car, leaving his colleague to walk Kyle down off the bridge to the roadside, patting his arm a few times as they went. She froze briefly as they walked, seeming to catch herself on something, then continued as if nothing had happened. Whatever had passed between them, perhaps just a passing fancy, had seemingly passed. 


"We try to be welcoming here in Cooper County," she told Kyle warmly. "Stay a while, you might find a home here...aw hey. Vernon!" She straightened up as she saw a little ways down the street, an overweight local wobbling and waving a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey as he talked to a scar-faced man whose brown skin set him apart from the more whitebread-looking locals. "You come sober up and leave that nice man alone."


Kyle couldn't tell much without having the equipment in hand; all he was picking up was a ship's transponder signal. 




"He's not hurting me," Steve offered as the deputy approached, seeing something like fear flash in the man's eyes as the uniformed officer approached. He wanted very badly to call his boss, or perhaps Gina in the bargain. 


"She's onna them!" the drunk said in an urgent whisper to Steve before adding loudly, "Aw shoot Clarice, you cain't blame me for what I say when I'm drinkin! You know I'm plum addicted to this stuff!" He sloshed the bottle around, then sighed as she took his arm to start leading him to the cruiser. "Not my fault I'm this way," he was muttering. 


"Pardon me, deputy," said Steve, thinking about what had crashed here - he knew the Grue only too well. Glad to be out of his own skin, he stepped back as silvery-white armor seemed to pour over his body in a flash, transforming the strange-looking man into Caradoc, noble hero of song and story, armored knight of a techno-magic Camelot! "But ye man has made certain accusations about yon constabularly. Hast thou proof that ye are not of the Grue people?" 

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Despite the surprise of a hospital director suddenly turning into an animalistic escapee from a locked ward, Miss Americana and her colleagues were not left flat-footed for long. In seconds, the doctors had cleared the doorway, leaving the path wide open for the actual superheroine to go to work. Miss A took to the air, flew over the bed and out the door after the demented man, tackling him before he got more than halfway down the corridor. Rolling him to his stomach, she pinned Suri's arms behind his back before he had a chance to shapeshift. "The second you start to change," she warned him, "I'm going to render you unconscious. Calming down and cooperating will save us both a lot of time." 

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Kyle watched the deputy go, looking down at the arm she'd taken a hold of. Barking up the wrong tree, he thought. But insistent. Couldn't really tell her. But... hmmm...

He looked back to the river. At this point, the only way to get a reliable signal out of the equipment down on the riverbed would be to go down and retrieve it manually. The armor could easily handle the depth and low-light conditions, but it would probably raise a whole lot of questions if a Star Knight plunged headfirst into the crash scene. Surveying his surroundings, his attention was drawn towards the scarred man talking with the homeless guy - especially when glorious white armor erupted over his body, and he asked the deputy if she was Grue. Well, that could get real interesting real quick. He hung back, waiting to see how it would shake out, the command to armor up poised on his tongue.

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The deputy was briefly startled by Caradoc's transformation - this sort of thing didn't happen every day out in the middle of the Show-Me State. But after a moment, she frowned and didn't look impressed, peering at the armored figure without any hesitation. "Sir, this isn't Freedom City. Law enforcement doesn't jump every time somebody in a costume says 'Boo.' Now, if you think I'm a Grue, you're welcome to go to Judge Parker with evidence and try and get a blood screening. But right now, I'm gonna take this citizen of our town to the drunk tank where he can sober up. You know, mah job." And with that, she turned and loaded the drunk man back into her squad car and headed off to pick up her partner from where he was just leaving a conversation with the Archetechnicians. 
As Kyle watched, the armored knight, who he recognized as a Freedom City hero, seemed to shrink ever so slightly before turning and heading for the alleyway between two local convenience stores, his transformation having seemingly gone unnoticed despite the quiet day in the otherwise empty small town. Meanwhile, his still-open radio signal gave him insight into the police - Cooper County was broadcasting an alien sighting at the Cooper County Hospital! 
Suri hissed again and looked around, wild-eyed, before settling his gaze on Miss Americana. "However hard you try, you'll never find our gateway! Give up! You can't escape the power of the Unity. We won't hurt you - we only want to free you of the tyranny of your emotions. Imagine a world without love, desire, ambition, faith - only service to the Unity! You have no choice," he added, his voice full of burnt emotion, like a faith healer calming down at the end of a wild revival. "We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival. Can't you understand?" 
Miss A had backup by now, the Cooper County cops posted to the hospital had arrived to hold guns on the suspected Grue. Even this far out, everyone knew the famous Miss Americana, and the whisper of Grue was enough to send the hospital on edge even so far from Freedom City. After all, Grue were scary soul-stealing monsters out here - not the familiar, albeit threatening aliens, that had attacked Freedom City so many times. "I'm calling for backup," a mustachioed officer who Gina remembered from high school said, "They say they're on their way. Something about trouble at the bridge." 
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Miss A's brow furrowed as something about the speech struck a chord in her memory. Inside the vast recesses of her cognitive function, memories were accessed in their archives, slid smoothly into place within her consciousness. "If you're a Grue, you've been passing too long," she told Suri, pinning him with her knees while she ran her scanner over him. "Dr. Nicholai, get the Grue tester from my field kit and check this guy out. Winston, Jong,  stay with Peter, do a full evaluation. I want to know what the instruments here aren't telling us. Dr. McNeil, contact the engineering team, see if they're having any trouble there and put them on alert, then have the base team seal up the plane." 

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Kyle didn't know what he'd been expecting. He was probably still slightly conditioned from his training with Maria - most of the planets they'd stopped at had some sort of distinct reaction to Knights in armor, ranging from respect to "Oh hell, run!" Seeing this Caradoc get blown off so easily kinda caught his attention. Then again, wasn't that too long back I ran in places where flashing those credentials would get you laughed at or shot at.

His little reverie was interrupted when he heard the broadcast coming over the radio band. Of course I'm in the wrong place. He ran down the street towards Caradoc, popping the command as he strode. Green armor in the familiar pattern of the Star Knights flashed out from extradimensional space, coalescing and locking around him.

"Trouble at the hospital," he said, both to Caradoc and the deputy. "There's talk of alien sightings. I'm not hedging my bets on hysteria." He took to the air, seeking out the hospital from above and taking off at top speed.

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Miss Americana's sensors weren't the kind of finely-tuned detectors she could easily have whipped up in her own laboratory, but Dr. Suri certainly didn't look like a Grue. If he was a shapeshifter, he was a perfect imitation of a human being. This could have had multiple meanings, even as he continued muttering about how the Grue would one day rule the universe and that humans were just cattle for them, but he didn't seem to be trying to shapeshift his way out of her grip. Dr. Nicholai gave her a look and seemed to shake her head, glancing down suspiciously at the alleged infiltrator.


Across the way, her medical staff were looking over her brother's readings with bafflement. "This EEG has been tampered with to read out another patient's information...it looks like the last patient in this room's recorded data," Dr. Winston, one of her staff, was saying. "...I can't get a clear readout," he finally said, shaking his head. "His vitals are fine, and he has standard responses for someone in his condition...but there's an interference pattern around his brain that looks almost..._electrical_!" 


"We've got two supers inbound," said Deputy Erlanger, the mustachioed guy Gina remembered, having pressed his radio to his ear and briefly stepped out of the room. "Two guys who look like they're in armor; neither of them's Sidewinder. Nobody we know. Deputy Sanders said they tried to stop an arrest, then tapped into our radio signals and started flying over here. Get out there and form a perimeter," he yelled at the deputies with him, "you expecting anybody, Miz Americana," he said, looking like he'd briefly lost his train of thought when he met her eyes. 



Caradoc took off after the Star Knight, not recognizing the armor but recognizing the look of it well enough. Grue could feign the look of the armor well enough, he supposed, but not the flight that he had to struggle to keep up with. "Yon town makes me uneasy!" he admitted, raising his oddly metallic voice over the sound of his shrieking jets. "There are too few people and they are too...quiet in their work. It is not as towns here should be...ye Knight of the Stars." The encounter with the deputy, who had looked so cooly and so oddly at his transformation had rattled him more than he wanted to admit. As they headed for the hospital, the distant siren of the deputy's police car, he did his best to fall back into character, his armor thunking heavily as they landed on the blacktop outside.  


The deputy who'd been following them screeched to a halt not far away, her lights still flashing, and several more armed  officers left the complex and headed straight for the two heroes, looking like they meant business. 

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"Not that I know of," Miss A told Deputy Erlanger, her face grim. "It's possible that someone was sent down to assist me, but I haven't heard anything about it. This man is deranged, but he's no Grue," she told him, gesturing to the raving Dr. Suri. "You'd better get him into custody before he hurts himself or somebody else." She stood and brushed herself off, looking to her medical team. "Get Peter prepared for transport. We'll fly him into Kansas City and then get  a teleport to ArcheTech if we need to. I'll go see what's going on." 


Trusting that her instructions would be competently followed, the statuesque superheroine pushed open the nearest window and leapt out, taking to the sky for a better view on the situation. She saw the deputies first, hustling out of the hospital and looking extremely excited to be seeing any action. They were, she supposed, too inexperienced to be wary of supervillains. She flew in closer, and only then did she see the two new arrivals. Cavalier was in front and she saw him first, and immediately felt a little bad. He'd be interested in the Grue artifacts, of course, and if she hadn't been so distracted, she'd have asked if he wanted to join her engineering team. The other... "Caradoc!" she exclaimed aloud, loudly enough to catch the attention of the folks on the ground. "What the hell are you doing here?" 

Edited by Electra
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"Well, it is the Midwest," Cavalier said. "It's not that far off." But as Kyle looked down on the town from below, he had to admit that Caradoc had a point. He hadn't been in this part of the country since that road trip all those years ago, but even the quietest towns they'd pulled into for food or gas seemed much more lively than Blackwater. There were usually people going in and out of the diner, or the shops, or the gas station - if there was anyone out and about today, they seemed fairly subdued. "We can try and get the tenor of everyone else once we're done dealing with the matter at the hospital --"

He pulled up short as he saw the deputies streaming out of the hospital, hands at their guns. "--if we don't get shot first," he said. He was trying to come up with a good line when Miss Americana came out of the hospital. "Hey," he said, "good to see you. Heard there was a payload that came from outer space, and... well, thought I'd take a look. How you enjoying the local hospitality?"

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"...I came because of the rumors of Grue activity in this area," said Caradoc, blatantly lying and nearly falling out of character before adding, "ye fair maid." Steve knew perfectly well when Gina was mad through the robot - this was none of the carefully feigned dudgeon that she sometimes projected through the robot; this was anger, and fear at the sight of him! What was going on in this bizarre place? Despite the glare that nearly had the same force as her lasers, he bore up underneath it. "Yon area is most unlike fair Freedom!" He'd have gone on, but not with the police still staring at him. "How is Peter Evans? Do we need to take him to Freedom City?" For that serious matter, he didn't bother with the 'character' of Caradoc at all. 


With the news that these were actual superheroes, the police stepped back and left their weapons holstered. Thanks to their active radio signals, said heroes could hear Deputy Sanders check in with her commanding officer back at the county barracks, asking him to send out an APB to the Barnstormers about potential Grue activity right there in the heart of Cooper County! 

"Do you want me to call in Dr. Irons?" Deputy Erlanger was asking Miss A, having missed the full force of her reaction to the sight of Caradoc. "I think Suri sent him off to treat the family to get him out of the way. They were pretty shook up by all this." 

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"Peter is none of your business!" Miss A snapped at Caradoc, not sounding much like her usual diplomatic self. She paused for a second and actually pressed her hands to her face, taking a deep breath to steady herself. When she looked up again, her calm facade was nearly back into place. "Ask Dr. Irons to get Mr. Evans' wife to sign a release for transport and treatment," she told the deputy carefully. "He'll know what's needed and it will save time. I don't want to disturb the family any more than necessary during what must be a very difficult time for them."


She turned to Cavalier, once again entirely pleasant and businesslike. "It's good to see you again too," she told the Star Knight. "I'm sorry I didn't contact you personally about this, I've had a lot on my plate lately. If you could do me a favor and  oversee the engineering team as they retrieve the wreckage, that would be a tremendous help. You'd also get first chance to see if any of it is what you're looking for." For the moment, she ignored the terrestrial knight entirely. 

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"Hey, it's not a problem," said Cavalier, deeply relieved that the deputies were taking their hands away from the general vicinity of their firearms. "You're the expert, I'm the law-talking guy. When I got the news over the comms, I just thought I'd come out and see if I could lend a hand." He gave a friendly nod to the local LEOs, hoping the emerald green imperial-class armor wasn't enough to snuff out the warmth of the gesture. Mind you, if they wanted lack of warmth, there was whatever was going on between Miss Americana and Caradoc.

Yeah... that looks like one big ball of awkward. Something happened there. Bad partnership? Bad romance? Either way, I'm staying the hell away for it. Got enough possible problems for today.

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Steve had long since learned to weather Gina's bad moods, but this seemed like something different. Something bizarre, just like everything else about this strange town. He didn't press the issue with her, instead walking a few steps away and studying the situation in which they were embedded. "We could get somebody to help us get rid of that dang Grue stuff," said one of the deputies with a shrug in Cavalier's direction. "It's been nothing but trouble since it got here," another deputy agreed. They all were giving Caradoc decidedly hostile looks, evidently motivated by the anger Miss A was projecting in his direction. For his part, Caradoc seemed to be watching Miss A, though it was hard to tell with his nearly featureless armored head. 


"Sure thing, Miss A," said Erlanger affably, having trotted down out of the building to join the flying heroine. He raised his radio to his lips and had a conversation with another deputy about getting that material faxed over pronto. He headed into the hospital to pick it up from their fax machine, and at this juncture Caradoc hazarded something he and Gina had worked out months earlier. 


Dropping all pretense of the medieval character, he said, "I heard it might rain tomorrow." 

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If anything, Miss A's beautiful face grew even more irritable with the code words. She pulled him away from the others, stopping a dozen yards away only because going further would look even more strange. "I'm not being held hostage, you idiot!" she hissed. trying to keep her voice down. "I'm so pissed off at you I could scream! Why the hell would you follow me down here when this is none of your goddamned business? Do I go poking into your family history because it seems like it would be fun? You should never have come here, and now you're standing here and ruining my operation and destroying my focus, oh, and letting everybody in town know about suspected Grue activity, as well! Maybe you should just make things absolutely perfect and turn off the holoemitter and then start yelling my secret identity all over town!" She turned away from him, pulling on her golden tresses with enough force to actually dislodge a few strands. "Goddammit, Steve," she muttered, her voice still pitched low. "Just go home." 

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