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May 16, 2015

Wharton State Forest

Dry weather had turned parts of the big forest into so much kindling - and a lightning storm had turned kindling into a fire. Luckily no humans were hurt, but the ugly patch of burnt woods on either side of the Mullica River stood out like scars on the landscape the next morning, and the rest of the property damage inflicted by the fire was enough to suggest that the park staff needed some help. It was a good place for a visiting plant controller to come and clean up the damage (while leaving enough for the forest to recover from the fire naturally), and for a Claremont student to get her community service credit. 

"We're glad to have you both here," said Ranger Rick Buchanan as he led Fleur de Joie and Cerulean down the path from the ranger access road to the burn site. "The biggest damage we took was the loss of Tower 4," he went on, pointing to the half-melted steel watchtower had had collapsed into the burnt-over area. "We've been trying to convert the old lookout towers into historic sites for years - but now all we have is Towers 2 and 3 on the far side of the park." He turned and eyed the damage, the ashy area of fallen timbers and molten metal still warm from the recent flames. "Worse, Tower 4 was built almost a hundred years ago, which means they used a lot of heavy metals we'd never let into the park now. If you can't dig them out now, we're in for a long, expensive cleanup." 


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Fleur picked her way easily through ashes and fallen branches that disintegrated into humus beneath her feet, the foliage that was still alive seeming to move naturally out of her path. She was in her usual green costume and brown cowl today, but had foregone her mask due to the heat of the smouldering embers. "We'll do whatever we can," she promised the ranger. "I don't think there's anything to be done for the tower, but if we can't clear out the metal remains, I've got a friend who should be able to help you out." She paused at the base of the tower, keeping a healthy few yards away from the still-glowing wreckage. She looked over at her fellow hero. "I'm Fleur de Joie, by the way," she told the younger heroine with a friendly smile. "I don't think I've had a chance to meet you yet. It's a pleasure." 

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Cerulean had already been powered-up upon arrival at the park, this being an official 'heroic service' outing and all, and so she drifted along leaving a short-lived blue afterimage as she followed the Ranger -- Ranger Rick, hah! -- to the site of all the damage.  She expected to get filthy in the process of pitching in with things today.  She'd expected to be pretty wiped when she was done for the day.  What she hadn't expected was that she might not be able to do much of anything at all that they needed her to!

"Um, yeah, wow," the blonde girl replied, flustered, her feet a few inches off the ground.  "You're pretty amazing, Ms. de Joie," she gushed.  She'd gotten the impression that it was considered bad form to address her by name, no matter how poorly kept a secret it was, and so she stuck with the superhero name.  "It's awesome what you can do, and pretty incredible that you've got this whole world you're rebuilding from scratch!"  Apparently, she was a fan.

Oh, right.  "Oh!  Um, I'm calling myself Cerulean," she added hastily, realizing that she'd totally muffed the whole introduction thing.  "I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to do much to help get rid of...that," she went on dubiously, waving a hand at the mass of slag.  "I, um, might be able to finish destroying it, vaporizing it, but I don't know for sure if that'd get rid of the problem with the heavy metals, or just make it worse," she admitted.



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"I think we should be able to do something with that," Fleur told Cerulean reassuringly. "If you can vaporize the metals, I can use some special plants to absorb the vapors and then dispose of them in a safer dimension where they won't cause any damage. We'll need some masks though," she added with a look to the ranger, "and ideally everyone else cleared out from the area where we'll be working. Will that be a problem?" While the ranger checked in on that, she turned back to Cerulean. "Please, call me Fleur," she invited casually. pushing back her hood to reveal braided green hair crowned with yellow flowers. "Phew, it's warm here. Makes me wish I had some weather control," she confided with a grin. "Have you been a hero in Freedom City long?" 

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It was difficult to tell if Cerulean was starry-eyed through the featureless blue expanse that filled her eye sockets, but it seemed a fairly safe bet.

"Um, no, not very long at all...Fleur," she replied, almost shyly -- which was an extremely unusual circumstance for her.  "I've just transferred to Claremont recently -- in fact, I've only even had these abilities for a couple of months now," she admitted, gesturing at the blue-and-gold of herself.  "But I'm getting a handle on them, and I can to this much.  I'm pretty sure I can."  She paused.

"I should be able to," she hedged.  "I, um...there may be a...kind of a...hole, when I'm done." she cautioned.  "I don't know for sure, but I don't think I'll be able to avoid destroying some of the ground under the remains.  There's...not gas lines or anything buried out here, is there?" she asked, suddenly concerned.  Wouldn't that be something, starting another fire...or worse, blowing something up.

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"Claremont's an excellent school," Fleur told Cerulean, "I'm sure you'll learn a lot there, and get a lot of experience. They've turned out some fantastic heroes." Their voices were pitched low enough not to carry, for all the ranger seemed fairly preoccupied anyway. "We can check on the gas lines, but I very much doubt there's anything in this area. If there were, I imagine they'd already be disabled because of the fire, but Wharton State Forest has been a nature preserve for as long as Freedom City's been around. I can't imagine anyone getting permission to dig here. And if some of the ground has to go, we can always put it back later." She took a few steps across the clearing and touched another fallen log, which obediently fell apart to mulch. Moments later, new green shoots were growing from the remains, unfurling little leaves and stretching for the sun. "What kind of powers do you have, if you don't mind my asking? I see the lovely blue light you've got going there." 

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Eileen gaped for a moment, quite simply impressed at the casual transformative power that Fleur had just offhandedly demonstrated.


“Um, yeah, the light,” she agreed, bobbing an inch or two and then settling back again.  “It’s pretty much all I can do, but I can do a bunch of stuff with it,” the curvy blonde admitted.  “I mean, I can fly, right?” she laughed, glancing down at herself.  “And I can make some kind of force field with it, but it’s mostly just light.  I can light up an area, and the light shows me things for what they really are.”  The immediate area abruptly took on a blue tinge, shadows washing away under the influence of the additional light.

“And I can project it in a number of ways, from a focused beam like a laser, to a great big burst.  I can just blind people with it too -- temporarily,” she hastened to assure the verdant heroine.  “Just call me the world’s biggest flashbulb,” she added cheerfully.

“Oh!” she exclaimed as she realized what she’d forgotten.  “I can also make some decoy images,” she revealed, and abruptly split into half a dozen identical Ceruleans, all hovering in a neat cluster.  They all shrugged in unison, and then condensed back into a single one.

“I know, I’m not nearly as versatile as what you can do,” she told the older woman admiringly.  “But I hope I can figure out more I can do as time goes on.”  Her experience in the sea rescue with her friends had certainly shown her the need to expand her repertoire.

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Fleur chuckled at the impromptu display of powers, shaking her head. "That's quite a bit you can do already!" she pointed out. "When I started out as a hero, oh, maybe six years ago now, all I was doing was growing plants really fast and hiding behind my friends when fights broke out. I learned on the job and developed my powers through trial and error. I'm sure you'll learn a lot at school and through experience, but really, it's not the powers you have so much as what you do with them. And to tell the truth," she added confidentially, "I've always envied the fliers a little bit. Such a fun power at any speed!" She looked towards the mangled tower, her brow furrowed. "I don't suppose your light could show you whether there's anything under the ground here?" 

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Cerulean made a face at Fleur's opinion on flying despite herself.

"Flying's not all it's cracked up to be," she replied, sounding a touch nonplussed.  "I mean, it's great to be able to get around fast and all, and I gotta admit, I get a bit of a kick out of just kind of...drifting around," she admitted, slowly floating sideways a couple of feet.  "But..."  she trailed off, and took a breath.

"I don't like heights.  At all."  She looked up at the blue sky above them, a paler shade of her own brilliant blue, and shivered.  "It doesn't matter that I'm doing the flying; if I get too high up, I start to panic," she admitted miserably.  What a lousy phobia for someone with flying powers!

"And...it doesn't really work that way, with what I can see," she went on, addressing Fleur's suggestion.  "If there was an illusion or something that was hiding, say, a hole in the ground," she explained, "or if there was ground fog so you couldn't see where your feet were going, I'd be able to see through that sort of thing.  But I can't see through solid objects."  As fun as that could be.  And, well, useful, too, she supposed.

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Fleur shrugged philosophically. "That may be just as well if you're living in a dorm," she decided. "Sometimes you just really want the walls to be opaque all the time. Hmm." She pressed her fingers thoughtfully to her lips for a moment. "There's a lot of damage to the plants around here, but underground there might still be enough living root system for me to work with. Maybe you could talk to the ranger and see if he's got any answers for us, and I'll see if I can scope out the underground?" She sat down crosslegged on the ashy ground, pressing her hands flat to the dirt, and closed her eyes. There was a brief rustle in the trees around them, possibly just a breeze, but otherwise it looked more like she was meditating than using her powers. 

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Yeeeah.  While she was sure there were times she'd want to be able to see through dorm walls, she was also pretty certain there were lots of times she'd want no such thing.

"Oh, uh, sure," she agreed, abruptly feeling put on the spot for having to go and deal with authority figures.  She kind of figured that a senior hero, like Fleur, would take the lead on that, but okay?  It probably made sense, since she herself couldn't see through dirt, and Fleur might be able to talk to roots.

Her life had gotten weird.

Floating off and leaving Fleur to her communing, she approached the Authority Figure.

"Ranger Buchanan?" she asked hesitantly.  Heh, Ranger Rick.  "Are we able to get the area cleared while we work?  And the masks?" she prompted.  "We can probably get away with half masks, and the olive coloured multi-cartidges with P100 particulate filters," she rattled off as her brain dredged up some filter specs she'd seen once.  She could give him part numbers, but that probably would be going too far....

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"Masks? Ah, sure. I didn't think you guys needed..." Rick trailed off, evidently not having realized that superheroes (most of them, anyway) still needed to breathe. He turned and walked back to the jeep he'd used to bring them out there. "I've got some in the back of the jeep, actually, we've been using them in ash zones. You can just snap off the faceplates if you want your eyes free..." He cracked open the rear of the jeep and opened its small equipment space. "And the area's already cleared, so you guys are good to go there. There's nobody but us around for miles." He took the liberty of carrying the masks back, slung over his shoulder as he trudged after the Claremont student.


It was instantly obvious to Fleur where the fire had started - she could feel the broken, burnt roots directly under the fallen watchtower. Whatever had burned there had burned so hot that it had scorched the landscape at least a foot underneath the surface. This was the area she'd have to do the most work to bring life back to the area. Elsewhere, the fire hadn't been so hot, though, and her work would be easier. Suddenly, she was conscious of movement in that broken pile of frozen slag, broken trees, and ashy ground; not just falling debris, but the irregular twitching of something trying to free itself from the great weight pinning it down!

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"There's something in there!" Fleur shouted to the others, springing to her feet. "Under the debris, trying to get out." The pleasant, easygoing manner she'd had a moment ago was temporarily submerged under the working superheroine. "It can't possibly be anything human, no human could've survived the fire and the tower falling, but it's something." She reached into her pouch, pulled out a handful of seeds and tossed them to the ground, where they began growing into thick coils of green vine. "This is where the fire started, so it's probably connected." She looked over at Cerulean. "If you're not really heat-tolerant, you should probably get in the air a little ways and keep an eye on things from above. You may need to light this thing up if it's hostile." 

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Even with her heart abruptly hammering in her chest from adrenaline and her palms likely sweating -- it was impossible to tell for sure, what with how things were in her transformed state -- Cerulean had to admire just how smoothly Fleur had slipped that banter into her instructions.  It had flowed so naturally, you could almost miss it -- and if she hadn't been a superhero, it was likely that nobody would have noticed it.

"Um, okay, I'll go on...high station?" she suggested, unsure if that was the term she should use or not.  Turning to Ranger Rick, she pointed back the way they'd come.

"You should probably clear out of here until we know what's going on," she suggested.  Although she figured he seemed to be a smart man, likely he had come to that conclusion himself.

The glow about her intensified, almost seeming to coalesce more thoroughly into place around her.  She moved back a bit, making sure she was off to the side of where Fleur was standing, and took a position about fifteen feet off the ground.  That was about as high as she was going to go for now, thank you very much.

"Not human, but what about superhuman?" she called out -- surely there were plenty of superheroes who could have survived that twisted mass of melted metal.

After a moment's consideration, she abruptly split off into half a dozen copies of herself.  Every time she moved a little they all swirled about one another, making it impossible to tell which one was the real her.

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"Superhuman is a definite possibility!" Fleur called back, "but I don't know any firebugs offhand, so we're going in blind for the moment. I'm going to start moving debris aside, maybe see if you can spot anything weird starting to happen as it goes?" She waved a hand and the vines began to move, sliding like anacondas across the ground until they reached the large pile of debris. Some of the leaves immediately began to shrivel from the heat, but the dogged plants curled around beams and boards, pulling them aside one by one to carefully expose whatever was concealed beneath. "Hello?" Fleur called out. "Is someone down there? My name is Fleur de Joie! Are you hurt? Do you need help?" The concern in her voice was real, despite the precautions they were taking. 

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An arm broke out of the debris, then another, revealing a humanoid form that had taken almost a direct hit from the fallen tower. A little help from Fleur's vines allowed the man below to emerge and stand, coughing against the ash. He looked average enough to Fleur's eyes; tan skin and brown hair, deep brown eyes, and with a build that was only a few inches taller and a few inches broader than her. "I...oh!" He looked around, blinking wildly. "This is...where _is_ this?" he demanded of his rescuer, bafflement on his face. He clutched what looked for all the world like a brown leather satchel under one arm, for all that no normal leather could have stood such a fire. 

As she watched, Cerulean looked closer at the man - and saw the cybernetic skeleton beneath! Looking closely revealed no actual signs of human flesh at all; just a metallic skeleton and plastic jointed muscles, twitching all-too-human eyes in the middle of a skeletal metal face. The bag under his arm was real enough; that was one thing she couldn't actually see through. "Is this New Zealand?" He spoke of it the way one might speak of the dark side of the Moon. 

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The swirling and shifting Ceruleans slowed as they all stared at the newcomer.

"Shoulda made that left turn at Albuquerque," she muttered, unable to help herself despite the situation.  "He's not human!" she called out to Fleur, not willing to trust that he...it...was as mild as it seemed.  "It's a robot!"  She didn't know if it was an illusion or a hologram or what, but whatever it was it that gave it the appearance of a man, her light revealed the truth of the matter to her eyes.

She did feel slightly better about the situation, though -- if worst came to worst, she wouldn't have to feel terribly guilty if she ended up blowing up a robot....

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"Okay, good to know!" Fleur called back, keeping most of her attention on the robot-man. "You're just outside Freedom City," she told him. "That's in the Eastern United States, North America. You were buried under a pile of debris from a bad forest fire that started here last night." Fleur's posture was casual, her manner informative, but there were still vines snaking lazily around her feet like well-trained pets, waiting to be deployed the instant they were needed. "Do you know how you came to be all the way out here in the middle of nowhere? Or where the fire might have come from?" 

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"Freedom City?!" The name didn't sound unfamiliar to him - but it certainly came as a surprise, even as the machine quickly processed everything that was going on. The 'man' looked a little taken aback as first his secret was exposed, and then the heroes ran smoothly with his arrival. "I, ah..." He turned and looked at the river. "This _is_ where I was standing, but I've never seen the ravine flooded, or all these trees..." He looked at Fleur and Cerulean, speaking slowly and carefully, as one might to an unfamiliar dog. "That's a fair question. The fire was probably started when I landed here; there was a lot of plasma around when I activated the machine. Hmm. You both are superhuman, but I don't recognize either of you. Can you tell me the year?" His hands were up, but of course who knew where a humanoid robot's weapons might be, or how he might defend himself. "My name," he said with perfect seriousness, "is Artoo Threepio." 

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Cerulean stared.

"Oh...my god," she exclaimed, as everything fell into place.  Her quintliplicate images absorbed back into her, and she descended to float a few inches off the ground beside Fleur.

"This is not the droid we are looking for," she assured Fleur sagely, before turning to address Artoo.  "We were concerned this was a T-1000 scenario, so you can understand our caution," she told him in a clear, firm voice.  "This is the year twenty fifteen, Gregorian calendar.  I am Agent Connor, this is Agent Isley, we're with Temporal Affairs."

She fixed the time-displaced robot with her best stern expression.

"I take it you have authorization for this chronal displacement?" she inquired, sounding doubtful that he had any such thing.  "I assure you, there are quite severe penalties levied against joy-jumpers."  If he gave her half a moment, she would come up with some doozies, if necessary.

Oh.  And, um, hopefully Fleur would follow her lead on this....


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Fleur opened her mouth to speak, then blinked a few times as Cerulean jumped in with her constructed story. Time travel? Well, that certainly wasn't unheard of, she had two dozen time-travel displaced refugees sitting on Sanctuary right now. It wasn't impossible. She herself had been about to suggest a dimensional slip, but could admit to herself that her own powers might have influenced her thinking. "Are you all right?" she asked the humanoid robot instead of speaking for or against the Time Police story. She just hoped there were no actual time police hanging around at the moment. They didn't have much of a sense of humor. "That fire burned extremely hot, and you were under a lot of debris. Were you damaged?" 

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"I'm fine, thank you," said the robot with an air of injured dignity, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Nothing a few days in the shop won't cure. You...you Terrans," declared the robot, a tone of anger creeping into its synthesized voice. "I don't even know what the Time Police are, but I can't believe you're so self-righteous about some accidental time travel, even knowing what's coming! Are you really that callous to your own people?" He gestured, unhelpfully, in the direction of Freedom City. "Well, fine then!" He reached into his bag. "I came here by accident. All I need to do is recharge the unit in the machine and I can make my own way back home. I just need an energy source big enough for it - even your Sun will do the trick with the air like that. Just give me a few hours and I'll be on my way."  

Their escort, the ranger, had sensibly taken the precaution of falling way back - though his jeep was still visible at the edge of the burnt-out area, where the lush foilage began to block visibility. 

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Cerulean faltered as the robot's responses weren't...quite what she had hoped.  Knowing what was coming?

"So...from off-planet as well as out of time?" she replied, much less forcefully.  "That, of course, alters circumstances to some degree.  Artoo Threepio, the timelines from this point are varied, with some branches less probable than others.  Would you...please tell us what date you departed from, and the specifics of the impending events of which you speak?"  Reason reason reason--  Ah.

"Once we can cross-reference with your particular branch, we may be able to assist you in your return.  You arrived here by accident, you wouldn't want to get back to a timeline that wasn't your own."  She made a quick sweeping gesture, then made motions as if she was tapping buttons in the air.  Yes, this was a holographic interface the robot couldn't see, totally believable.  What had she let her mouth talk her into?

And what had it meant, by 'with the air like that'?

She darted a glance at Fleur, hoping the more experienced hero might be able to help rescue her from her own folly.  It had seemed like such a good idea at the time....

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Fleur gave Cerulean a smile that was one part reassuring and two parts resigned, then stepped in front of her with a little sigh. "I'm sorry, I think we may have a little bit of a misunderstanding going on here. My name is Fleur de Joie and this is Cerulean, and while we have worked with the temporal authorities in the past, we're not actually affiliated with them and we don't have access to any databases they might have. We came here to clean up the ecological devastation from the forest fire and the collapse of this tower, and we were pretty surprised to find you trapped underneath it. If you have no intent to harm us or anyone else, we'll be happy to help you charge your machine and get back to where you come from. But if you have any information that will help us save lives, we'd really appreciate hearing about it." 

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"Agh..." The robot put his hands to the side of his head as if fighting off an all-too-human frustration, before he pointed at Cerulean. "Wait a minute! You said the year! You said it was 2015! So I didn't travel in time at all..." He looked around, appreciation showing on his face. "Well, this is much nicer than the dimension I'm familiar with, so good for you guys, I guess." Kneeling down in the ashy dirt, he opened up his bag and began removing the components of a piece of high technology that neither of the heroes recognized, looking like circuit boards cast out of copper plating that he began to fit together in a cube shape. "Sorry about the fire, but like I said, there aren't any trees here where I'm from. Hey, do you have someone named-" 

Suddenly, something like a nearby flash of lightning interrupted the conversation as the bolt struck down from a cloudless sky and landed just at the edge of the ashy area - disgorging a strange-looking figure. He looked cybernetic too, with a metal arm and a glowing red eye, and he held slung over his shoulder a big, menacing-looking weapon. At the sight of Threepio and the heroes, he declared, "Citizen 0047, you are terminated on the order of-" He blinked, both eyes at the sight of the two women. "What! Superheroes!?" 

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