Masks Issue 14: On the Road Again [Cutscene]


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Leo's phone still has the message open from Mr. Lazarus, the owner of the Lagodny Scrapworks. "AEGIS coming over. Workers asking questions. Call me." One of the billet yard operators had seen a piece of hyper-tech tear out of the melt shop, and called the owner. A grader had called the Midnight Star, hoping to cash in on their $5,000 prize. In three days, "alien robot escapes recycling, attacks high school" would be a news item on major paranormal sites like Wavelength. But no story is so crazy that somebody won't check it out, because in Halcyon City, crazy is often right. After a conspiracy theory about a pizza restaurant and body-swapping politicians had made the rounds, a posse showed up at the business with shotguns and demands. So Leo fills Otto's trunk with everything he really needs. The Heart Factory, the source of his AI. The molecular lathe, the only tool he really needs to bootstrap his modular tech. A collection of Casimir fractals, the cosmic power plants that Rossum had stolen from another inventor and used in his larger creations. Maxwell Daemons tuned for extracting carbon and other light elements. He chucks his Samsung DVD player on top of the pile. Into the back seat goes a suitcase with enough clean clothes to pass at school. Leo uses a coin-op laundromat, so he's already got detergent, coins, and laundry bags packed in a duffel. Toiletries, laptop, charging cables, coat, a valise packed with vital documents... He feels a parade of mothers behind him, wafting past like ghosts, reminding him of what he'll need to bring on a trip. Pneuma announces that she's in contact with her cognate at the Quill Foundation. There's a problem with her - their - memory. Leo receives the news, and feels all energy leave him. If it's not Rossum, it's Rook, and they're buying from Rossum anyway! he fumes internally. Something clicks. He'll just have to deal with that later. When you're already powerless, sometimes the only way to assert yourself is to make it voluntary. If they're going to take this much away from him, there's no recourse but to do the rest himself. By the time the AEGIS van pulls up, Leo's warming up the melt shop's vats. "We have strict orders--" the van's driver says, and Leo interrupts him. "Yeah, the hypertech that's inside. It's all yours." He shows them the contents of the trunk, shows them Waters' signed letter authorizing the possession of the tech he's bringing with him, gets a Material Transfer Agreement signed, gets the carbon copy. Then he returns to his erstwhile home and starts savagely throwing his remaining possessions into the vat. Outside, he watches with tears in his eyes as the vat tips sideways, pouring out a smooth slurry of red-hot matter. His bed, the couch, posters, CDs.. Anything those bastards could trace back to me. Anything that would tell anyone who I was. Fuck it.  He startles as he feels Pneuma's arm wrap around his shoulder, and looks up to see her crying too. But it's what's in her hand that surprises him. The William Frantz Elementary School yearbook is open to Mrs. McDonogh's class. "L. Washington," the name says. It's Leo's face, with slicked-back hair instead of his usual spiky mess. The wide eyes of an eleven-year-old child stare off the page at him. "What's this?" Leo hears himself muttering, with more apathy than he wanted. Pneuma deserves better. She's losing her home too. Why are you the one getting mopey? "I'm taking this with us," Pneuma says, quietly but firmly. So this is your breaking point, your own thimble of defiance? Fair enough. "Why this?" is all Leo asks. Pneuma flips the pages. "Carol Anne Lewis," the name says. Bright eyes and a toothy white smile contrast with skin and hair. Leo remembers her, sort of. His first kiss - the sort of stupid nonsense that kids do, before they grow up and really want to kiss someone. But Pneuma goes on. "She was kind to you, when you were the strange kid who'd just transferred. I wasn't in the picture yet. The way I remember, I was the neighbor girl you didn't talk to, but I saw it all anyway. Nobody else in class really got to know you, except her. Her kindness lives on in me." Leo smiles, and feels fresh tears flowing. He rubs his eyes clear of them, squeezes Pneuma in a brief but heartfelt hug, and watches the river of his life flow into the darkness of the scrapyard. ---- Agent 1337 is spending time reviewing Ted Waters' files. The Quill folders had to be carted into a conference room, and 37 is using a remote-controlled robot to collate and scan them. Meanwhile, Waters' own personal file on Leonard Snow, né Conway, né etc. is shorter but far more illuminating. "Age 6. Pucketts. Hospital administrator and nurse. [redacted], Georgia. Rossum located family, burglary via robot @ courthouse." A series of photos are attached, including the foster family, crime scene photos of the courthouse, and security camera footage of the robot. "Age 7-8. Delacruz. Professional artists. [redacted], California. Court records sealed. Rossum located family by accosting court clerk." More photos, along with a hand-written annotation: "Costigan now willing to listen to reason." "Age 9-10. Lancasters. HS teacher, yoga instructor. [redacted], Illinois. Parents hospitalized due to unknown illness. No direct link to Rossum suspected, despite demonstrated biochem expertise. CDC vector trace tied back to unrelated supervillain plot. Costigan ordered Morris to go forward w/ BEARTRAP, rescinded after 2/14/07 conversation, assigned to me." "Age 11. Washingtons. Chef, waitress. [redacted], Louisiana. Rossum spotted early, unable to contact Leo. Later analysis suggests Rossum unaware of BEARTRAP. We dropped a patsy villain into the area to excuse AEGIS presence. Leo removed." 1337 reads further. There's a hand-written note, with fresh ink. Waters intended this to be read by his successor on this file. "The Washingtons were the first family I got to personally pick for Leo. Kid had a series of crises behind him & no good role models. Parents poor but both hard working & scored well on AEGIS passive psych eval. Interracial family w/ big extended clan on both sides, plenty of people to meet." "Age 12-13. Dorseys. Junkman, truck driver. [redacted], Pennsylvania. Rossum got Leo, getaway vehicle intercepted by Otto ramming into it. Local superheroes responded, PA state troopers not far behind. Means of discovery so far unknown. Dept 42 techs suggest possibility that Leo's use of prototype robotics may have alerted Rossum somehow, maybe SIGINT or satellite monitoring?" Waters' note is more expansive. "Leonard was bullying kids at school. Mrs. Dorsey was frequently absent, Mr. Dorsey solid but sometimes too hands off. Suspect Leo was reacting more to peers at school than to bad parenting. I stand by my pick of the Dorseys as a family, just wish I'd had the time to be more personally involved. Foster parents don't grow on trees, though. Maybe no better option. Good job Otto." "Age 14. Carsons. Realtor and professor. [redacted], New York. Doctor Carson a steadying influence, her husband good with dealing w/ difficult customers, like Leo was becoming. Case worker reports early friction followed by calm period. Rossum successfully abducted Leo & held him for longest period yet - four months. Unknown what became of him during that time, Leo won't talk about it. BEARTRAP finally abandoned, Costigan finally gives me the funds for SNOWMAN." "Age 15. Yamada-Kims. Both concert violinists. Halcyon City, North Carolina. Mrs. Yamada from Japan, Mrs. Kim from ROK. H1B visa holders. Family dissolution invalidated foster agreement." Waters' note goes on. "Marriage recognized since 2014 after General Synod etc. vs. Cooper, them & similar families champing at the bit for adoptions & fosters. Had to talk Costigan into this one, glad I did. Finally found the magic formula for taming the young lion, foreign scifi cartoons and exposure to lots & lots of music. Pair separated after intense pressure from their respective families back in the old country. No problem with two women, apparently problem was J+K marriages are frowned on. Listened to them perform w/ North Carolina Symphony. Really beautiful music, two lovely people. Can't look in on them officially to see if it ever got fixed up. Hope it did." "Age 16. Conways. Software engineer and HS teacher. Halcyon City, North Carolina. Initiated emancipation proceedings on request of subject." Waters' final note is terse. "Good family, stable, where I hoped he'd round out his childhood. He was afraid his dad would come for him. Said nobody else should get hurt because of him. Couldn't argue." Agent 1337 closes the folder thoughtfully. Somewhere along the line, the search for emotional leverage over a potentially dangerous superhuman had drifted into something else. Time for some chai, then back to the files. Focus, focus.

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"I'm scared, Leo," says Pneuma, in a quiet voice. Otto rumbles, but doesn't say anything. Right now I have to be strong for her . Leo reaches across, finds her hand without having to look, and squeezes it. He knows it's not enough. Words come, fitfully. "We'll figure out the memory discrepancy. We'll figure this out. The way I see it, Rook is a Rossum customer, so they got some kind of mojo from him or his associates to reactivate bots, and used your cognate as a decoy. They hoped I'd kill her, analyze the memory, and decide that you were just gone." It's a weak story, but the pieces fit well enough. He hopes it's reassuring. "And my own discontinuity? Where does that fit in?" Pneuma asks. Good, she sounds a bit more confident. But dammit, why does she have to be so smart and persistent and perfect?  Leo shrugs a little, and feels the motion pass from one person to the other through their clasped hands. I don't know is all I can say. No, turn this into a positive. "We're going to analyze it in detail. It's going to give us a lead on whoever's doing this to us, and maybe even why." The girl nods. "Next question. The big one. Does Rossum know Link is his son yet?" Leo shakes his head. "I won't say no way, but I'll say probably not." "I'm at the same place. Let's check how we both got there." That's my girl . Leo's warming up a little bit. "It's pretty clear Rosa Rook knows who I am. She was practically salivating at the chance to say 'Leo' instead of 'Link'. We'll have to find out how she found out. But back to the point. Either Rossum already knows, and told her, or she knows and told him, or she knows and hasn't told him. Say that dad's goal is to get me back, like always. There's nothing she can do that he can't, and this caper of hers wasn't designed to capture me. Or if it was, she's rotten at it." "So far so good." Leo thinks. "Next, if she knows and tells him, she's given up a thing he's been challenging AEGIS for years to obtain. What's she get in return? What she wants is marketable tech. In that case, grabbing you makes no sense. If Rossum made a play for me, he'd have what Rook wanted - access to my tech - and could just throw her that bone." "I agree." "Finally, there's the possibility that she knows me, and has a business relationship with Rossum, but is waiting to spring this on him. She doesn't want make a powerful villain into a rival or a complication unless she has to. So she makes a play for my tech through you. And she also wants me to worry, so she hints at my secret to me. Play ball with me, kid, or I'll throw you to your father. But if she can't get what she wants that way, she might consider going from Plans A and B straight to Plan R, and call him up with the news. 'All I want is the gynoid,' she'll say, and Rossum sure isn't going to let us stay together, so why not?" "And that fits the facts we have," Pneuma concludes. "So to wrap up.." Leo swirls the thoughts around in his head. "If Rossum was in the picture, this would have been his play, not Rosa's. Rosa might have more cards to play, but Rossum is the ace she's holding onto, so he's going to make an appearance pretty soon, if possible. We three need to be careful." Otto finally breaks in. "You two be careful. If or when it comes time for that old man to show his face, I'll show him what for!" Tension fades, just long enough for the three to share a cathartic laugh.
Very, very nice. Some nifty emotional stuff, but also some high-level strategizing by Leo, different from how Jason is considering Leo's sitch (to the extent that he understands the nuances). Swear to God, there's a Netflix series in here ...
I swear, these vintages get better and better.  Or maybe Link is just getting fleshed out over time like a good, multifaceted character.
If there is a post hoc Pierce the Mask, I imagine this is how it works. But yeah, this served a bunch of story goals for me.