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August 2017 

The Antarctic Circle

Archetech Antarctic #006

(Outside Temperature -50 F) 

(Outside Sky Dark) 


"Okay, ladies, you are officially past the Antarctic Circle!" The Archetech copilot had been quite solicitous to Dragonfly and Jill O'Cure once she'd learned it was the two superheroines' first visit to Antarctica. "Welcome to the Real Down Under!" Keri Russet's Australian accent was thick; she'd worked for the Australian Antarctic Division before being hired on by Archetech as a helicopter pilot. She grinned, her head ducked low in the cramped confines of the back of the helicopter. On the one hand, the electrically-driven helicopter was a technological marvel, big as a Chinook but faster, with an engine specially modified to work in the extreme cold of the Antarctic winter. On the one hand, it was a helicopter with a passenger compartment about the size of a small bus, and Ellie and Mara had been riding in it since they'd taken off from in Rio Gallegos around the beginning of their subjective night. That had been after the connecting flight from Buenos Aires, and that had been after flying down from Freedom City. It had been a long couple of days. 

 

"With the winds the way they are and with these new engines, we're about two hours out of Ellsworth Base, so you might as well get comfortable," she offered to the two costumed heroes. "Things are a bit rugged down there - and I should know, Keith and I are gonna bunk down there till you fly out again." The pilot, a deep-voiced man with a Nigerian accent, was still up front. "You ladies must be pretty special," she added cheerfully, "you earned Keith and me both triple-pay for flying you in in the middle of winter! I'm gonna take my kids to Disneyland when this is done." 

 

The message had come for Dragonfly by long-distance text, a legacy of the tightened bandwidth at an Archetech temporary base in Antarctica at the height of the Antarctic winter. "URGENT AID NEEDED: TECH PROBLEM - MA. CONFIDENTIAL. PERSONAL PROBLEM - C." Miss Americana hadn't been around much during that summer, and come to think of it neither had Harrier, having left word with the Interceptors that he was going to be out of communication until the holiday season. Once they'd passed certain tests to prove it was a real message, had come the instructions for how to get where they were going - an Archetech "geological base" (according to their website) located in the heart of Antarctica's Ellsworth Mountains. 

 

In winter. 

 

 

 

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"Hopefully won't be too long," Dragonfly replied, "sure we all have things to get back to." She was, for about the fourth time so far this trip alone, grateful to past-Mara for making sure her suit had adequate padding for long periods of seated travel - a rare consideration to the pure comfort of future-Mara, at the time, but one she'd never ended up regretting. She'd been perfectly happy to retract her lower face plate and let the helicopter shoulder the burden of air and temperature control, suit systems retreating to stand-by, but she wasn't going to take the whole thing off just to enjoy a more comfortable sitting experience.

 

The armored heroine turned her head out the window, frowning at the southern sky. "Do wish we knew more, though. Suppose you already have protocol for getting people out and leaving if it's really bad. Reactor meltdowns. Mind control. Thirty-foot apes."

 

Mara had either truly perfected deadpan - which was likely - or she was starting to wish for something to break up the monotony of two days' travel...even if the travel had been in the best of company. "Giant techno-worms from Mars."

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Jill O'Cure had forgone most of her usual costume in favour of more weather-appropriate gear in the requisite crimson and black, the ends of her bandana mask tucked into the hood of her parka. She rolled her shoulders for the umpteenth time since boarding the helicopter, trying to stave off the stiffness that had been slowly but surely creeping into every one of her muscles over the past days of travel. "You should hear what we charge for birthday party appearances," she quipped with a game smile for the copilot, only a little of her weariness slipping into her voice. Tuning to Dragonfly she dryly added, "We should take Yoyo to Disney World after this. Or the beach. Or literally anywhere warm."

 

If was more obvious to her partner than their new friend that the humour was a touch forced. They'd had plenty of idle time to let their imaginations come up with possible scenarios for the emergency that had called them to the bottom of the globe and she didn't like much of anything she'd come up with. It was one thing to request engineering help from Mara but considering how private Steve and his girlfriend were she doubted she'd been asked to come along just to provide company. Needing the assistance of an engineer and a medic suggested all sorts of nightmare scenarios given 'Caradoc's' cybernetics. She knew Miss Americana had some amount of prosthetics as well though that had proven to be an even more sensitive topic.

 

Jill let out a breath and rubbed her eyes. If they were landing soon she needed to do less worrying and more focusing. Easier said than done. "I'll take one giant techno-worm over swarms of tiny techno-worms any day, thank you."

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"Yeah, boss gave us all a talk about not being a hero on this one." The corners of her eyes crinkling with concern, Keri kept up the conversation while hanging onto one of the overhanging seat straps. "Twenty-three people on the base right now, after they lifted Lizzie Reynolds out on account of her bein' five months pregnant. We could fit 'em all in here," she said, gesturing to the interior of the helicopter. "and head for Amundsen-Scott if we have to - assuming the weather doesn't turn again. Flyin' in Antarctica winter; you only do if it's gonna save somebody's life - or maybe the world, with all the hero types down there." She gave the women the sort of smile they saw a lot from trained civilians in crisis situations, or near crisis situations. "Have to leave the gear at the dig site, though. But that's probably all right. Rail guns or not, I don't think anybody's hiking into the Ellsworth Mountains in winter to steal from Miss Americana."

 

-

 

The Archetech base wasn't quite in the Ellsworth Mountains, but the peaks loomed over the small circle of domes that made up this remote 'geological' base, dwarfing even the substantial antenna that towered above any of the domes. The promised rail guns were there too - recently erected, they were of a make Dragonfly recognized (though of course would never build) - the sort built by the semi-retired Daedalus and marketed to companies in need of defense against sustained superhuman assault. In the darkness of the Antarctic night, it was hard to make out other details of the facility where they were headed - they could just make out the darkened shapes of more domes scattered against the side of a low hill, heavy construction equipment near the sides of the hill - and then they were touching down amid that small circle of lights amid the vast, almost predatory darkness of the Antarctic night. They could hear the wind howling outside, and the craft buffeted back and forth, but just as Keri had promised the weather favored them today. 

 

As the rotors powered down, Keri and Keith came back to help them with their winter gear - which was mostly a job for Ellie given Dragonfly's armor, though there was a change for Mara for whenever she might not be wearing her armor. "You want about four layers any time you're here," said Keri, "thermal underneath, then a fleece, then jacket, then your parka. Don't go overboard or you'll sweat into your clothes, and that's bad." Double gloves (the outer the special Antarctic brand), double socks and heavy boots. The pilots were geared up now too, in severeal layers thicker than you'd wear even in the coldest Freedom City winter. "All right, we're ready for the party." 

 

They stepped outside - and for a moment, amid the cold and the dark and the fingertips of civilization clinging to this remote place, the sky overhead was all gorgeous flowing greens and yellows, the Southern Lights looking spectacular this evening. Keith and Keri, for their part, stopped just briefly to look before heading inside. It was cold, cold, so cold that by Mara's sensor calculations she could have thrown a cup of coffee in the air and watched it freeze solid before it hit the ground. It was a very good thing she was in her suit, and Ellie so bundled up. The bulk of the helicopter had cut the wind, but they could hear it howling even so, and see the star-dappled cold all about. 

 

There was another familiar face - in white, vaguely-medieval armor that seemed to glow beneath the light of the borealis, his massive blue polearm holstered at his side and invisible. In his armor, anyway, the cold didn't seem to bother Caradoc at all, though he was craning his neck to look inside the helicopter for a long moment. "Thank you," he said, using his suit radio to cut through the wind. "Inside," he added, turning and heading for the largest dome without another word. It was, after all, very cold. 

 

 

 

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Mara took the offered clothes and listened to the small lecture on staying warm with a serious ear - her suit was better than any number of layers ever could be, but she'd been doing this too long to assume she'd never be caught out of it. The only thing to distract her, really, was the sight of the rail guns; even from behind a helmet, one could practically feel the grudging disapproval radiating out from her. Protecting yourself and your investments was all well and good - HAX had building defenses, after all - but these were...something else. At the very least she'd have to file that away for the next time Miss Americana needed sassing.

 

She'd made sure to snap her lower face plate closed and spin up her life support well before stepping out into the cold, and even then she had to quiet a warning and shunt some extra power to thermals - even for someone with a perfect memory, it was easy to forget how cold the poles got. "Probably best," she agreed, following. "Beach trip is definitely happening," she said, quieter, leaning toward Ellie. "If we have to come back out here, let me know if you'd rather I jump us or give you a ride in the pocket. Wouldn't want to miss the view but can feel the cold and I'm behind fancy unnamed science."

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"Teleporting, please. You know I hate riding in the pocket." Ellie could have trapped a bubble of warm air from the helicopter around herself with a force field but then she would have had to make it airtight and impermeable and that would have meant a whole other set of issues. She pressed a bundled hand reassuringly against Mara's armoured shoulder, not missing the glare given to the railgun emplacements through her faceplate. She didn't have quite the same specific distaste for heavy ordinance but she didn't love the implication that they might be necessary. "Let's just get inside and find out what's up." It was always hard to tell if Steve's terse speech should be interpreted as especially grim or just his normal standing levels of grim.

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Inside the dome they stopped first in an interior airlock to shed most of their outerwear, the roar of heaters telling them they'd arrived somewhere a little more habitable than the frozen Hell outside. There were cubbies here for them to store their winter gear, carefully hand-labeled with the words "DRAGONFLY" and "JILL O'CURE", alongside the more conventional names of the scientists. With no outerwear to shed, Steve was waiting for them just inside the dome. Steve didn't say anything about his profound relief that they had come, that they had not brought the other Interceptors, and that with any luck Yoyo would never know where her two foster mothers had gone this summer. He was actually speaking, with his head cocked, in a soft voice to someone else entirely. "I'll tell them." He 'hung up', tilting his head back, and said in a soft voice, "The storm of twelve hours ago damaged the outer defenses. Miss Americana will return momentarily." 

 

It was immediately clear that the crew inside the dome was a skeleton one, and not just because of the tables of massive bones that took up a full half of the large room, the great curving ribs and skull of some monstrous reptile, its skeletal structure an odd jet black like a museum's fossil reproductions. The bones had few attendants, though, as the small crew of scientists in the room were mostly working with collections of battered metal and exotic parts, a strange sight given their remote location. Even a quick inspection as they walked over to join the scientists, (the usual [sometimes consciously] diverse Archetech crew in their various uniforms) revealed that this was clearly worked metal and high technology, albeit of great age and not immediately familiar design. 

 

"Dragonfly, Jill O'Cure, these are the last of the volunteers - " He introduced them all in a low, careful voice, from Aarush the hijab-wearing engineer from India  to Zielonki the dour, pinch-faced Polish archaeologist. From the smile lines at the corner of her eyes, Aarush, and some of the others, looked like they'd like to be more cheerful than their tired, worn faces suggested. "These are our consultants from Freedom City."

 

"I hear you're our ride if the helicopter doesn't work. Should be exciting." offered Aarush, while her colleagues went back to work. "Apologies if we're not very social, but two months of an Antarctic winter will do that. I for one am looking forward to seeing the Sun again." 

 

"Yes," agreed Steve - as usual it was hard to see fatigue on his dark face, but his friends knew him well enough to see the marks of stress. "I...it is good you are here, Dragonfly, Jill O'Cure. This is our work." He reached down and turned over a flat, triangular piece of metal about as large as a human torso - a piece of metal that for all its battering and rust around the edges bore a symbol they had both seen before - something like a Chinese dragon in yellow on a field of red, but subtly different - the faces seemed somehow warped and unnatural, as if cast by artists antithetical to humanity itself. Tattooed on the flesh of soldiers, emblazoned on the flesh of dragons, it was the symbol of the Dragon of the Terminus - Mandragora!. 

 

"

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Dragonfly didn't respond immediately, nor did she move - but her suit did, lines growing brighter just long enough to summon a full set of drones that immediately spread out through the area examining thoroughly and feeding it back for consumption. They never touched a single artifact - they were, if anything, rather adamant about keeping their distance - but their canvas of the dome was quick, efficient, and surgical. Their mistress was fairly sure she had a lot of questions and not a lot of answers, and she was going to at least start with an inventory of whatever bad ideas had been going on here.

 

Finally - after nearly ten seconds of silence, drones still buzzing - Dragonfly turned only her head to look at Steve. "Can we," she asked, "turn the rail guns to point inward at this dome."

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It was subtle in the harsh artificial lights of the lab but anyone looking closely could have seen little flashes of energy crackling about Jill O'Cure's fists as they clenched tightly enough to make the material of her gloves crinkle audibly. She had a sudden palpable urge to call home and make sure that Yolanda was alright, visions of black bile spewing entropic wounds and huddled refugees trapped in bunkers playing on repeat in her mind. She hadn't talked to Lieutenant Hudson is almost a year, too long, she couldn't know if he and the others were still safe, that the screaming end of their home reality hadn't caught up with them after all this time.

 

Stop it, she scolded herself silently, pushing all of that away to deal with during what was likely to be another sleepless night. She didn't have any pithy words this time, lips pressed into a thin line as she waited to hear the answer to Dragonfly's question and stared at the dragon emblem as though expecting it to leap off of the metal and attack.

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The airlock hissed open again, this time admitting Miss Americana herself, along with two security officers in ArcheTech uniforms. The guards' faces were red from cold in the few spots that had been exposed to the air, but aside from a slight tousling of her hair, Miss A herself was pristine. She did, however, lack her usual blithe smile and cheerful mien, instead looking grave and even somewhat weary. "Dragonfly, Jill O'Cure, thank you for coming," she told the newcomers. "I see you've gotten a first look at our little problem here. And while I completely appreciate the sentiment, Dragonfly, we're keeping the railguns pointed into the dig site. That's where most of it still is." 

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Steve relaxed fractionally as Miss Americana entered the room - the two briefly touching hands. Two months apart from Gina had been difficult, but the work was necessary. And there were ways of bridging the gap - the presence of Miss Americana being one of them. But the work was why they were there, and it was the work they needed to focus on now. 

 

"You saw its entrance when you arrived." He carefully pressed a few buttons on a nearby keyboard, summoning up on one of the monitors what was clearly a ground-penetrating radar image - a white circle showed their own location, and off to one side was what looked like a vast underground complex. "An Archetech geological team found a deep layer of entropically-decayed soil and debris earlier this year. When they dug deep, they found this." 

 

Aarush took over, after a quick glance at her boss. "Most of what you see here we found with drone-crawlers, down into the depths of the dig site. We only began sending people below when we had the likes of Caradoc and Miss Americana with us." 

 

"Caradoc identifies the ruin as a temple of Mandragora, the Dragon of the Terminus," added Zielonki, circling around back to his artifacts. "There are remains there, both human and non-human, and...well, I'm sure you'll have a chance to see the rest. At first we thought it had been built into that hillside out there - but now we think someone _dropped the hill on it_, two hundred thousand years ago."


"The date explains one of the most fascinating anomalies in Antarctic climactic history, to quote our former climatologist," added Aarush, "but I'm told that's not what's truly important here." 

"The most recent probe below," said Steve, "found something deep in the lowest reaches of the complex, buried beneath bones of men and dragons as if a whole army was snuffed out about it, a cyber-crypt labeled as "The Tomb of Mandragora" in the speech of the Terminus. But that makes no sense. Two hundred thousand years ago this dimension was not within reach of the Terminus - it would have been completely inaccessible to Mandragora's armies. And Mandragora did not die here two hundred thousand years ago. We know that." He fell silent, then added, "This is why we have kept this place a secret from the world - and from our friends. This mystery would attract attention - and then with it, disaster." 

 

 

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"So you started digging and poking and dusting things off instead of filling the tomb with acid or plasma or teleporting it into a dead dimension's black hole." Dragonfly had still not moved much, but her drones were largely done, and they were doing plenty of emoting for her - all gathered up in a vertical half-ring around her body, obviously wary of any threats. "Don't need other people to attract disaster. Did that pretty well on your own. Okay."

 

She started drumming her fingers against one leg plate, the glowing eyes of her faceplate flickering as she started sorting through gathered information. "Okay. Obvious possibilities you've probably already thought of: One, not actually Mandragora's tomb, fancy name, not literal, filled with bad things you visit with probes you never call back before glassing the area. Two, non-linearity of time, actual tomb for Mandragora based on events that had already happened in the future. Agents of entropy, self-important power-mongerers, unlikely to be dead or stay dead if given other options, tomb probably full of bad things you visit with probes you never call back before glassing the area. Minimum, demonstrated interest in nanites and conversion technology. Why is it still there?"

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"We have considered destroying it, of course," Miss Americana told Dragonfly, seemingly unfazed by the scolding. "In fact we have an enormous porfolio of contingency plans detailing different ways to do so under various circumstances, and a few techniques to do so that are considerably nastier than the railguns outside. But we can't do it yet." She walked over to the ancient armor, studying it without touching. "If Mandragora and his people were able to make their way into our distant past, long before they should've been able to have any contact with our universe, it is imperative we know how and why. Had they not come when they did, had they not been destroyed by some unknown force, our entire history could've been unwritten. If Mandragora discovered the technology to travel that way, it must be within the last few years, and the knowledge may not be confined to him and his people. We need to know what happened before we can seal this place up and melt it down." She pursed her lips and looked over at Dragonfly. "And if there was a force or entity powerful enough to destroy Mandragora, his forces, and his entire stronghold, we need to know that too." 

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Ellie pulled a face as she listened to the nightmare scenarios imagined by two extremely creative people who probably couldn't be called 'optimistic' even under the most generous interpretation of the term. "They probably just fell through a portal," she opined, half serious and half attempting to break tension palpable enough it made it difficult to breathe. Looking to the team of researchers she added, "It happens more than you'd think. If they could do it on purpose we'd already be-slash-have-been screwed, right? Unless we already-slash-will-have stopped them, in which case we really need to know did-slash-is-going-to go down."

 

She shot Dragonfly an apologetic look. Normally she's have been on Team Leave Well Enough Alone but Miss Americana made a good point about needing to know more about exactly what had happened. "I feel like I won't like either answer but is the tomb, uh, 'occupied'?" she asked Steve, grimacing.

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It wasn't easy for Steve - not to boil down months of planning and conversation, of fear and anger, into a few words that would convince his friend and ally that what they were doing here was worth doing. The terror of the fortress's entrance when he had stood there himself and known that despite the great weight of earth pressing it down and the great age upon it that this was the architecture of a twice-dead world, the fortress of Mandragora built in the ancient styles of the warlord's dead people out of the living rock of this continent. The icy cold of an Antarctic night, knowing that worse was waiting for them all. The weeks of waiting here, amid the growing defenses, until it became clear that there were no drones here, nothing beneath the rock but the remains of the ancient struggle that had put men and dragons there long ago - and then the months of planning that came after that. The thought of Yolanda's face, if she knew what lay at the bottom of this world, had been as terrifying as what remained of the monsters below. 

 

When Ellie spoke to him, he took a moment to reorient himself in the moment before he said, "We have not opened the tomb. It seemed imprudent. We have discovered its central processing unit." 

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"Gap it," Dragonfly snapped - though it seemed more out of immediacy than any actual ire. "Or cage it. Probably did already, but worth making sure. If I had ego problems and villain tendencies, any 'tomb CPU' built would be either my brain upload or very bad traps. If I killed something like Mandragora and entombed it, the tomb CPU would be very very bad traps."

 

Dragonfly's ego was debatable, but she did technically have a building full of science minions and some nascent robot body designs from the worst of her mad scientist phases, both of which she was trying very hard to not think about right now.

 

"It's...fine, yes, okay. Mmh." She was tap-tap-tapping a finger against her leg plating again, audibly frowning. "Understand your concern. Don't like it, but understand. With Jill, though: free time travel would mean we were already doomed, or on very lucky fork of split timeline. More likely anomalous. What are the odds we can safely plug minimal interface equipment into tomb? Not putting my mind in there if able. Not worth the risk. Better to use oldest monitor we can find. Cheap keyboard nobody likes. Nothing that goes in there and touches any tomb should come back out. CRT suicide mission."

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Miss A nodded, resting one perfect fingernail thoughtfully against her lips. "I see your point. We're somewhat limited in our equipment here, for obvious reasons, but I think we should be able to spare the necessary equipment to make a fully disposable computer setup for the mission. Usually in an exploration of new technology I'd be interfacing directly without the keyboard and monitor in the way, but that seemed like just a terrible idea this one time." A wry smile touched the corners of her lips. "It's still winter down here so the sun's never going to rise, but this late in the season we'll have a few hours of civil and nautical twilight to work with, starting around 9am. We'll get into the storage dome then and find some extra equipment, plus do another check on the security systems before we do anything interesting with the tomb. In the meantime, you two must be exhausted. We've got hot food available and a private room for you to share whenever you want it." 

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Finding their quarters meant dressing again and making a quick walk across the Antarctic night - luckily Dragonfly's powers offered them a way around that. The crew dome had an internal temperature of around 80 degrees, downright comfortable after even a touch of the outside, and while their small quarters were probably smaller than Yolanda's room back home (with thinner temporary walls abutting the bunk accommodations most of the scientists were in), it was private, there was a real bed, and other creature comforts, right down to Americana-brand red, white, and blue chapstick against the effects of extreme Antarctic dryness . As empty as the crew dome seemed to be, it wasn't hard to guess that they were benefiting from the sparse winter crew. 

 

Checking the women's side of things revealed no sign of quarters that might have been Miss Americana's, but of course the paragon was famous for needing few creature comforts. The food was in here too, again probably an benefit of the small crew on the winter shift. It was a microwave and portable electric stove, but it was a way to heat up the ample contents of the refrigerator and the MRE-stocked cabinets. The fridge was well-stocked with bottled water; another way of fighting the dry conditions. For the moment, at least, they had the crew dome all to themselves. 

 


Outside, Miss Americana needed no protection against the cold - and in his parka and snowpants, Steve might have been a man in a Freedom City winter rather than an Omegadrone in an Antarctic one. It was night outside, of course, but the lights of the encampment gave them a sharp island of security inside the darkness of the icy desert continent. "It is nightfall," he told her quietly, knowing that of course Gina was well aware of the time in her cradle in Freedom City. "You need to sleep." Away from prying eyes outside, minus of course the security cameras that were watching against infiltration, he put his arm around her, knowing she could feel it. "Our time will come." 

 

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"Well forget the bed and breakfast I was telling you about, this is the real destination getaway," Ellie drawled as she dropped her bandana mask atop the pile of shed clothes. The slate grey thermal underwear wasn't her best look but it was nice to get out of the restrictive layers as she padded about their room. "Sure, the decor could use some work but not a lot of B&Bs are built on top of terrifying, potentially world-ended enigmas. I mean, I assume."

 

Despite the jokes her voice was a little strained. As she turned back around Mara could see the concern creasing Ellie's face. "Last time we dealt with that @#$% things got pretty grim, cariño. Not gonna lie, I kinda wish Erin were along for this one. At least he was scared of her."

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"Well." Dragonfly's armor could just barely be seen to power down before it started to fold away, lights dimming and plates lifting a half-inch even as reality wrapped in around them to pull them into the elsewhere she maintained through her science. Mara was tired, the weight of the situation pressing on top of travel pressing on top of already-poor sleep habits, but she managed to pull one corner of her mouth up into a wry smile anyway.  "Will have to make sure he learns how to fear us, then."

 

She managed to hold that corner of her mouth for just a few more seconds before it slipped, settling instead for pulling Ellie into a half a hug, standing at her side to look around their...accommodations.  "Going to be okay," she said, "probably just normal bones. Worst case, kick its butt, get a little hurt, go home, sleep, take Yoyo out for a vacation. Just the three of us."

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Miss A rested her forehead against his cheek, her skin noticeably cooler and less human-feeling in the bitter weather. "I don't sleep well when you're not with me," she murmured. "I never thought this was going to take so long, or be so nerve-wracking. Now that Dragonfly and Jill are here, maybe you can come home, just for awhile. I'll still be able to supervise down here, and you can get a break from having to be around all this... this evil." Gina didn't like using the loaded term, but couldn't think of anything else that was appropriate. "Plus I don't think the cold is all that good for your cybernetic implants." She rubbed his back, placed a kiss on his shoulder through his thick coat. "I know it must hurt you, and I hate that." 

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"I have felt worse than this," Steve reassured her. He was cold to the touch too, his entropically-altered cells not needing the infusion of excess energy from elsewhere in his body to avoid freezing, but he was warmed by Gina's touch through the robot all the same. He couldn't reassure her that soon they would be done with the Terminus, because he knew that he would be dead on the day when that happened, but what he could say was "When we are finished with this place, we will burn it, bury it beneath the ice, and I will sleep with you again." They weren't sharing quarters this trip, there was little point to that, but he could watch her go for her shelter before heading for the residence dome. Eyes could make connections all their own. 

 

-

 

With Miss Americana and Dragonfly in the same space, building a disposable robot probe to explore the depths of the Mandragora facility was an easy enough task for everyone involved - the prime responsibility everyone else had was staying out of the way and making sure that the necessary electronics were available for the two geniuses to do their work. Luckily there were plenty of electronics to be had in the facility, especially with the crew so limited, and Miss Americana and Dragonfly were both fast workers. By the time a hot lunch was served the next day, they had a working model of their probe - and by nine AM the day after that, with civil twilight bright enough to navigate by, they sent their robotic probe rumbling along on its treads down towards the nearby dig site. 

 

The scientists had largely stayed out of the way while Miss Americana and Dragonfly worked, running their dragon bones and other artifacts through machines that Jill quickly recognized as the sort of high-end scanners that could produce a high-res copy when connected to a good 3-D printer. It was an Archetech model typically used for helping make artificial body parts for implantation - but now had the role of providing the seeds for excellent copies of some truly bizarre things. Even crushed by millennia of ice, there was something distinctly _unwholesome_ about those ancient dragon bones and the artifacts left behind by the men and women who'd lived here, armored skulls and jeweled daggers suggesting something barbarically decadent in the ancient ice fortress. 

 

Slowly, their little probe rumbled through the darkness of the fortress, its lights revealing grim scenes preserved by the ice - skeletons of men and other things with a humanoid form and sharp, shark-like teeth laying where they'd fallen throughout the complex, strange and disturbing battle scenes clearly recognizable from Steve's stories about the Terminus jut visible behind thick walls, following the trail towards the crypt that lay at the complex's center. There were marks on the walls that hadn't been put there on purpose either, great blackened scars that rippled up and down the walls, whole craters and blasted away areas that broke up the inner lining of the structure. Again and again, the symbols of Mandragora were visible - but other symbols were visible too, one of a strange yellow sign, the others that looked vaguely Roman - or something like Roman, at least. 

 

 "I know those bones," said Steve, his voice a low, quiet rumble as he watched the probe go deeper. "The reptilians, and the others. Lemurian." 

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"Aw jeez. Now I wish we had Wander and Willow along," Jill muttered largely to herself as Caradoc identified the remains. She didn't ask where he had seem Lemurians before; Steve had been to a lot of different worlds in a lot of different realities and all of those stories had the same unhappy ending. "Does this mean we're expecting magic? That was part of the Lemurian's shtick, right?" She stepped back enough from the monitor to get a look at the team of scientists with them. Normally around people with only a toe in the larger world of insanity that had become her family's day-to-day at some point she would have been a little less direct. She generally got the impression that Miss Americana was using finger quotes any time she said the word "magic" and Dragonfly wasn't much fonder of the concept. Whatever they were dealing with did not leave them with the luxury of being discrete, however.

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"Probably. Maybe? Never dealt with them," Dragonfly admitted, frowning at the footage. It was true: she found magic fairly frustrating. Adamantly refusing to believe in magic was bad science, as far as she was concerned - it was an observable phenomenon outside the bounds of science as she understood it, and she understood a lot of science - but she'd never been able to get a solid grasp on the metaphysical rules magic supposedly obeyed past some extremely limited conservation of energy stuff, and she didn't like not knowing how things worked.

 

A decent part of her brain was constantly dissecting how things worked, really, pulling apart and examining almost every non-biological thing around her. Looking at magic left that part of her brain grasping at open air. It was just...uncomfortable.

 

"Not entirely bad signs," she mused, gesturing with one finger at some of the cratering. "Obvious implications of battle. What's the phrase....'enemy of my enemy is my friend'? Not true, tactically unsound. But better Lemurians wiping out Mandragora's stuff than other way around. Harder for us, though. Have to watch out for two kinds of hazards. Magical equivalent of unspent ammunition, untriggered land mines?"

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"Possibly," Miss A agreed, sounding just a bit abstracted as she directed the probe by means of electrodes connected to her fingertips. "But I suspect that any magic left undetonated, as it were, would be as affected by the passage of time as anything else, and probably not preserved by the cold the way the bodies were. We'll have to be careful, but I don't foresee a lot of danger there." A flick of her finger had the robot trundling onward, its cameras swivelling to take in the entire room. "Once we've canvassed the place once, we'll want to come back and see if we can do some ballistics, see if we can account for every weapon and weapon user. If a few of them did make it out of this place and started a new prehistoric life elsewhere, that would be good to know."

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