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April 2012

It's a typical day at Hallomen's Advanced Experts. The boss is working on a consulting project sent her way from Blackstone Prison, where a seized artifact from a long-imprisoned prisoner has begun to malfunction. Dr. Gateway was briefly a terror in the early 1990s; a former archeologist whose alien battlesuit allowed him to banish his enemies into the Zero Zone, Gateway actually soloed against the Freedom League for a while before Daedalus succeeded in deactivating his stolen technology and freeing the policemen, bank tellers, and superheroes he imprisoned there. Gateway's been in jail ever since, the death of one of his early test subjects having given him a life sentence. With his suit deactivated and the man himself in jail, he had slipped out of the public eye. Until now.

"As you can see, Ms. Hallomen, it's something of a mystery." A few hours earlier, Daedalus stood alongside the famous expert on spatial manipulation, the science hero having called ahead before arriving with the Gateway suit: a silvery full body suit with a vaguely Mayan cut, the dully shimmering full cape and cloak behind it what had been the 'gateway' itself back when the suit was powered up. "For the last thirty-six hours, the suit's onboard processors have been flooded with dimensional energy for six-point-six seconds, every 87 minutes. We've been trying to pin down the source, but contact is always too brief to make a positive identification." Sure enough, even as Daedalus spoke, the suit's eye pieces glowed to shining white life in an asymmetrical pattern. Zut-zit-zut-zit. Zut-zit-zit. Zut-zut-zit-zut, that repeated twice before fading away. "You come recommended as one of the coming experts on spatial technology." Gateway had nothing much to offer about the suit; he only owned it for about five years and wasn't its builder to begin with. His main concern, when interrogated, turned out to be wondering whether or not this would affect his parole.


It's coming up on the second time the Gateway suit will become active in Mara's custody, and while she works on it, her two top security guards are hanging around in the event that the formerly dangerous piece of supertech comes to life in an inopportune moment. You can't be too careful when it comes to get sucked into another dimension. Looking confident in his security guard uniform, Steve stood by the door with Erin, drinking break room coffee from his new mug. "Your young man's blend is very flavorful," he commented to Erin as he watched Mara at work. "You should give him my thanks."

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"I'll tell him," Erin replied, taking a sip from her own bottle of water. "He knows more about coffee than fancy waiters know about wines. He'll be glad you liked it." She leaned against the wall as she kept an eye on things, checking her comm unit occasionally for updates from other parts of the facility. Her great stamina meant she could've easily stood at attention for the past few hours while the scientists worked, but she'd found it tended to make people jumpy if the security guards seemed too focused. With all stations reporting green for the moment, there was little to do but wait. "How'd you enjoy your weekend off?" she asked Murdock idly.

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Mara made a mental note to try the break room coffee one of these days, grumbling under her breath as she set up a...something...next to the work table the suit was resting on. Like most of her on-the-spot inventions it was more function than form, all wires and bits and pieces, glass and steel and things unknown to general science on a five-foot pole with tripod feet. There were already a couple of them nearby in a rough triangle around the table.

"Would like to know," she finally said, once her mouth wasn't occupied with holding some wires awaiting connection, "why Daedalus knew who I was. Guess it's almost expected. But should find out - not known for spatial work as a civilian. Too specialized, too easy to link to Dragonfly - unpublished, don't personally do contracts on the subject. Granted, Daedalus, but still." She flexed her fingers a little, stepping back to give her third device a grumpy, critical eye. "Concerning."

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"It was very pleasant," said Steve, watching the boss work attentively. Steve had perfected the flat security guard's stare when he was on duty at the front door (indeed, it was his default expression), but he was learning to mirror his colleague and adopt a more humanlike posture when on duty inside the building itself. "I spent it in the company of a, ah, close friend." He smiled at that, a not-so-secret look over his coffee mug, as he remembered his weekend with Gina. "Thank you again for covering for me," he told her seriously. "Normally I do not enjoy time away from my duty, but this was time well-spent." Steve certainly was looking more relaxed about the world than before he'd left.

When the overhead timer went off and the suit flared to life again, this time Mara was ready for it and her amplifier caught the signal pouring into the suit's system, analyzing the subspace datastream and showing the rich complexity of the overpowered signal that had been overclocking the Gateway suit's circuits. It was a signal, a standard audio signal of computer code at that, using the sort of blandly simple code Mara might have associated with the early 1980s: it was closer to Fortran than anything else!

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"...what is...." Mara cocked her head at the signal as her system caught it, little lights dancing behind her eyes as she gave her lab's (thankfully isolated) computers some basic instructions on how to display it. Very basic, in fact.

She stared at the code as it was written to her wall-mounted monitors, the engineer's expression blank and a little disappointed, honestly. "...that's...no, why would you even...really? ....really? Who has the technology to send this kind of signal and uses it to encode...no, can't be right. But would be gibberish otherwise. Wh....mmmmmmh."

She scowled - partly at the problem, and partly at herself for forgetting she wasn't alone in the room - and turned to her two employees, gesturing at the screens (which, with another thought, she switched to an old-school green-and-black display theme, just because). "It's...basic. Not Basic, I mean, the language, but...basic. Insulting. Was looking forward to cracking it. But this is....mmh. Not very good at metaphors. Like hoping for alien science and getting 'Xenomorph's ABCs'. Not sure what it does yet, though. Hopefully something interesting."

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Erin raised her eyebrows at Murdock's obvious insinuation as to what he'd spent the weekend doing. It was hard for her to imagine her coworker doing anything social with anyone, much less dating successfully enough to get laid. Then again, there were probably more than a few people who thought the same about her, so she didn't have a lot of room to talk. She was saved from having to come up with a response by Mara's sudden attention. "Could it be a trick?" was her immediate thought. "Maybe whoever made it put up some stupid easy code to cover up whatever they really wanted to say, and figured no one would look further."

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"Technology advances in different ways, and at different paces, from dimension to dimension," said Harrier reluctantly, not always happy about volunteering his knowledge of dimensions besides the Terminus. After all, there was only one way he could be familiar with dimensions besides the Terminus and Earth-Prime. "They may have dimensional technology but no computer languages more advanced than this one, or they lack access to more advanced technology for some reason." He studied the code, but could make no sense of it from his own limited knowledge of such sciences. "Is there a way to show what the code is saying? What...all that means?"

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"Well, that's it," Mara half-idly countered, still frowning at the code. "Seems like you'd need something better just to run the dimensional technology. Granted, not too different from...mmh. FORTRAN, maybe? Probably good for computation. But still. Wrote my own language and designed custom hardware just to bend space - had to invent new math - and even I don't mess with dimensions when I can help it. Dangerous science. Easy to reach other dimensions. Hard to make sure nothing there is reaching for yours."

She crossed her arms, tapping a finger against her ribs as she pondered. "Means...well. It's code. Means what it does - function determines message determines intent. Implies intent, anyway. Need a compiler...."

She tilted her head, the screens surrounding the code blinking to life and rapidly - very, very rapidly - filling with a more terrestrial program. Text and windows appeared, wrote, and deleted themselves as she examined and refined what they'd gotten from the suit. jump code - right, yes, links there, memory address - will have to simulate that virtualized? why not space/time concern isn't large may as well dynamically address it this must be a branch - no - loop? - branch is over here - odd syntax - doable overflow assumptions? - test case - right - yes - no - no - must be - would crash otherwise, never exit loop - assignment? - but where is - ah! - untyped - well then

Eventually - though 'eventually' was pretty short in this case - she snapped out of it, head going upright again as she remembered that she had probably just drifted off completely. "...mmh. Right - sorry. More interesting that expected. Test run three, I guess - well, one, first two probably don't count if they're in my head. Test run one."

She rather unceremoniously reached over and hit enter on a keyboard.

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There was a dry, scratchy sound like static for a moment, the noise of an analog signal from however many dimensional axes away. And then, suddenly, came a voice like something from the grave itself. It was an old man's voice, dry and tired, full of pain.

"

Repeating. This is Samson Power in Los Padres Base in Big Sur, California, Planet Earth. This will be our last broadcast before I switch to the automated repeater. I have lost contact with the Action Force base in the Aleutians and I witnessed the destruction of the Forever Planet through [i]their[/i] last signal. I believe our base is the last remaining pocket of free humanity on planet Earth, possibly the last in our dimension. We will rescue what survivors we can, then take action to make sure none of us are taken by the Terminus.
" Harrier dropped his coffee mug, the porcelain shattering at his feet, face going white as he listened in horror. "
...if you are capable of receiving this message, in whatever world or dimension you reside, you must warn your civilization to abandon any attempts to tap into the fundamental source of entropy. That source is a dimension called the Terminus, ruled by a fanatical warlord named Mandragora, and his power is vast. In the space of a few days, his cybernetic horde and their dragon leaders have destroyed our world, and all other worlds we know of. Repeat, you must not...

"...is he live?" Harrier whispered urgently, his eyes wide and hands trembling slightly. "Can you break into his message and reply?"

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Erin startled, first at the unexpected sound of a human voice, then again at the crash of porcelain on tile. She looked to Murdock. "Mandragora?" she repeated. "He's an Annihilist, isn't he? Do you think these people don't know about Omega at all, or did Mandragora win the power struggle in the Terminus?" Her own throat was dry and her stomach clenched from the contents of the message, but by concentrating on the here and now, it was easier to push aside the inescapable memories of her lost world. "I can look up the name, see if there's a Samsonl Powers to correspond on Prime," she said, picking up her phone.

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"~~Doo doo, sneaking into the secret lab, doo be doo,~~" a melodic singsong voice came from the elevator gaining volume as the newcomer popped her grinning head through the door, leading with a sizable cardboard box balanced in one hand. Taking advantage of the warmer weather, Ellie Espadas had only recently gotten her dyed black hair trimmed once more to frame her angular feature. A textbook laden satchel suggested that she had just finished her FCU classes for the day while her good spirits suggested that she intended to make the most of what was left of it. "~~Bribing the security guards with doughnuts, shoobee bop, d-- Yeesh, serious faces," the pre-med student observed as she got a better look at the trio already gathered inside, her smile fading and her brow furrowing slightly as she looked for a convenient spot to put down the pastries. "What's up, Marbar?"

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"Very bad things," Mara supplied, bringing a transcript of the transmission up on a nearby monitor. "But...glad you're here."

As soon as Steve asked if the transmission was live she was fiddling with one of her amplifiers, removing and rearranging pieces without taking much time for finesse. stay on the line stay on the line stay on the line When she was done it was even more gutted-looking than its twins, but its flickering glow had lifted to a much brighter blue. "Samson Power, thi---no, wait."

She reached into the device and something audibly snapped; the glow steadied as a little acrid smoke filtered out. "Samson Power, this is Freedom City, Terminus-free Earth. Please confirm signal."

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There was a static-filled silence on the line, stretching out long enough that for a moment it seemed like the connection had been lost. But then, Power's voice came back on, urgency in his old man's voice having replaced despair.

"...This is Samson Power, acknowledging your signal! You're coming in loud and clear. My God, I thought we were the last humans left alive!" He gasped audibly. "Switching to visual!"

Samson Power, when he popped up on Mara's monitor, turned out to be a salt-and-pepper, bearded man in his late fifties, his face looking rough and weather-beaten, a bloody bandage over his head and what looked like first-degree burns alongside of what had once been a handsome face. Behind him, the camera showed flashing red emergency lights and a bank of big Crays that might have been all the rage in the early 1990s.

"I don't know if you can see me," Power said with a cough, "but this is my command post. A mile underneath Cone Peak, with two miles of solid rock between us and the monsters outside." He panned the camera around an empty room, its disordered swivel chairs and spilled coffee mugs showing signs of a recent struggle. "Everyone else is down in the Vault, our last refuge. Been trying for six days now on every frequency I could think of..." He coughed again, and there was a distant boom that made him glance up for a moment. "I couldn't just give up. Not yet."

"If his base is buried deep enough, it would have been missed on the initial pass," Harrier spoke quietly, his eyes shut as he tried to summon forth every scrap of tactical data he could imagine. "Mandragora and his dragons fancy themselves warriors. They would kill all who resisted first, and then begin the business of incinerating the civilian population. The Dragon of the Terminus...I doubt he is its master. He served Omega through personal loyalty, not entropic corruption. He would wait for Omega's return." He rubbed his eyes. "They will kill every large animal on that Earth, then they will allow it to plunge into the Doom Coil for complete destruction."

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Erin automatically took the box of pastries Ellie carried and set them aside, then secured the door against further intrusion. "What's your tactical situation?" she asked the harried-looking man on the screen, her voice crisp and emotionless. "How many survivors do you have with you? Has your base been discovered by Mandragora or the Omegadrones? Do you have an escape route off Earth at this point?" The question of where one would go to escape the Terminus was certainly a valid one, but sometimes life did find a way, even in the face of entropy and doom.

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"Termi--!" Ellie exclaimed violently before choking back on the word to avoid interrupting the more informed discussion taking place between the HAX personnel and who she quickly inferred was someone not of their reality. Stacking her textbooks unceremoniously next to the box of doughnuts, she swiftly rummaged through the rest of the bag, taking stock of the basic medical supplies she made a point of carrying with here wherever possible. Whatever reputation the Espadas Clan might have had, there was little arguing that they possessed a knack for responding to unlikely situations with decisive action. It seemed clear that a desperate rescue mission was in order and there would be wounded to attend to and safely transport.

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Faced with tactical questions, Power drew himself up and spoke with a ghost of the authority this man must have once had before his world began to die all around him. "There are three hundred fifty-seven of us. Eight, now, I guess, that poor baby..." He coughed again, and it was becoming obvious that he'd suffered some lung damage in the recent past. "Me, what's left of the bravest crew I've ever known, and two poor Tarantula agents we had in our holding cells are guarding the tourists we rescued, some of our families, and the crew of a National Guard bomber that went down nearby. Running low on food and medical supplies. Didn't think it was going to matter soon...As for those bastards in the sky, they haven't found us yet, but it's only a matter of time now that they've landed that starship in San Francisco. Either they'll scan us and bombard the area, the way they did Action Force, or they'll torture some poor soul in their custody and find a way inside."

"As for getting off the planet..." He laughed weakly and adjusted a few buttons on the panel in front of him, their beeps and clicks giving way to a world on fire. "I don't know if you can see this, but this is my only live surface feed." They were looking at what had once been a lovely national park, that was clear enough, but now was nothing but ash and bone, burnt stumps of trees rising above a sere, dry landscape that had once held rivers, plants, animals, and life. The sky was red, the sort they all recognized as what color Freedom City's sky has turned during the Terminus Invasion. But this was different; the red turning an utter, creeping black in places, like watching plastic being pulled so tight it had begun to warp, as if the sky was tearing itself apart. "There's nothing left up there. Not just here, but anywhere else. The stars went out the first night. Everywhere. As for a gateway..." The image cut back to him. "I'm a geologist, not a physicist. I was only able to reach you by running our reactor tap directly into this Forever World comm system. Maybe if you had their people here, or someone from CalTech, they could build something bigger...but those are gone."

Harrier spoke, still too quiet to be heard by the man on the screen, his voice like death. "A day. Perhaps two." He shook his head. "Their universe has collapsed in on its central axis and is being drawn into the Doom Coil. Their world is already dead." He thought of the man's words, of a baby born amid the screams of a dying planet, and saw his own mother's face. "But we can't just leave them there to die."

On screen, Power was going on. "Frankly, before I heard from you, my plan was to gather up anyone else we could find on the surface, go below, and rig our reactor to go. I'd rather things end fast, on our terms, than end on one of their spears or in one of their feeding chambers."

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"Call that plan B. Admire the sentiment, but probably better to save it for last resort. Pretty sure I can get us there; just going to take a little...phrase...'elbow grease'."

She was already mentally chewing on that; in theory the signal was already there, but she was going to need a lot of power. should probably warn other labs - going to take most of what the building generates, and some from city grid - don't want to stack personal power device on top - technically an entropy drive The engineer cast a critical eye on what she had to work with in her lab, time apparently being of the essence, finger tapping against her ribs. "....probably going to have to hijack the signal for guidance, and we'll probably show up near your communication array, or equivalent. Not bringing an army; small group to assess and aid, build a bridge back maybe. Not...mmmmh."

hadn't thought of that She was already gathering parts, but she glanced back at Power's face on the screen - for all that he couldn't see them back. "Not going to lie - some risk involved. Inter-dimensional travel might not be...subtle. Don't know how closely they're watching. And might take a little time once there to get everyone out. ....also, will probably want to turn your speakers down. Or off. Would probably be a whole lot of feedback."

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Erin was startled for a moment by Mara's response, enough so that she couldn't quite conceal the surprise. Pulling hundreds of survivors off a Terminus-ruined world would be a substantial undertaking in itself, let alone figuring out what to do with them afterwards. It wasn't that she disagreed, not even a little. It was just that most of the time, rescuing anyone from an alternate dimension first required convincing people that the effort was worth it. But the survivors were human, even if they might be extra copies here, and they needed help.

Raising her communicator, she muttered instructions to the other security guards for calling in backup and securing the building. Bringing a large force along would only complicate things, but they'd want a secure facility to bring people back into. She checked the bat at her belt and looked to Harrier. "This could get ugly," she murmured. "You could stay here and head up the logistics."

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"I will use my holographic disguise if necessary," replied the cyborg evenly. "I have no wish to frighten these people more than they have already suffered." The drumbeats of burning worlds were already in his mind, but he went on: "None of the rest of you have experience with a world in the final stages of Terminal conquest. I could do far more there than here." And indeed, it was true: EZO1 had fallen to internal corruption rather than a massed physical assault. As for the fear Harrier felt at the idea of walking on a world under siege by Omegadrones, at the idea of once again coming beneath the forge and flame, well, his own weakness was the least important thing now. He had been as surprised as Erin when Mara took such immediate action to go to the aid of the people trapped across the dimensional axis, but no less happy with the outcome. When he thought of people like Ellie and Mara, with their sly jokes and eager youth, on a world like the one they faced, it made him feel a little sick. They would be insulted if I said anything. They go to do a great thing. I cannot help but go with them.

"...all right," said Power cautiously, craning his neck to listen to Mara's voice since he still couldn't see her face. He worked big plastic switches on the console before him, another distant boom off-camera. "You'll be beaming into this room, then; this is where the most intact communications equipment is. If you are who you'll say you are, I'll take you and your team down to the Vault. Who should I be looking for?" Power had evidently forgotten he'd left the camera on, as he spoke he was carefully pulling on an outfit that looked like some sort of industrial battlesuit; a geologist's armor complete with crushing grip and slicing tools. The suit had seen better days; the tough, bulky blue armor was scarred and pitted from entropic blasts, but like Power himself still looked up for a fight if need be.

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"Call me egocentric," Ellie offered offhand as she reslung her messenger bag over her shoulder and moved to the first aid kit mounted on the lab's wall, "but I feel like you might be glad to have the trained medic with the ability to make magic floating stretchers with her mind along." Opening the white metal box, she skimmed its contents with her eyes before upturning it and dumping the entire thing into her bag along with the supplies she already had before closing its flap. The young woman's expression was resolute but her body language was that of someone too nervous to stand easily still. "Do we need to be worried about radiation, or... hoo boy..."

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Mara glanced over her shoulder at Ellie and smiled - genuinely smiled, an awfully rare thing - despite the pressure of the situation. "Always glad to have you," she said, and meant it. "Though - no offense - hope we won't need the medical help. Can't hurt. Shouldn't be radiation problems, unless they have leaks on their end. Pretty good at radiation scrubbers, anyway, worst case. Not that hard when you get used to them."

She turned her attention back to her work and the screen, a curious eye on Power's suit. crude - probably effective "Three women, one man," she answered. She stood up from whatever adjustments she'd been making; the device was a fair bit bigger, and pulsed with a flickering blue glow. "I'll be wearing the power armor." And indeed she was, a thought to her choker sending the familiar spatial wash over her body, replacing her clothes with the blue and grey Dragonfly suit. She reached out and hit a couple keys on her keyboard, muting the feed.

[bg=#555555]"So. Not going to lie - probably going to be an unpleasant trip, not really time for...fine details - sorry. If I had my warehouse supplies...."[/bg] She shrugged, shaking her head. later She gave the others a chance to do last-minute checks and ensure they had everything they needed before lights danced behind her eyes and the world broke.

And it did break; the engineering heroine had apparently not been kidding when she'd said that there hadn't been time for finer finesse. All around them the workshop seemed to bend and then shatter open, the fabric that made up the universe shivering as here became there a dimension away long enough to deposit the four of them on a world few sane people would voluntarily travel to....

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It was a difficult dimensional transition, but by no means the roughest Steve Murdock had ever endured. When the light that came from no natural source ended and he opened his eyes again, the quartet of dimensional travelers found themselves in what looked like a high-tech command center from a good decade before most of their births: the green-screen monitors, heavy black plastic keyboards, big old-fashioned Cray computers lining the wall, and Formica writing surfaces all bespoke a decorating ethos and technological level close to their own 1980s. The only outlier was the wall panel that evidently was the Forever Planet technology, from which a bleary-eyed Samson Powers was turning to greet them in amazement. The world's decorating tastes and technology meant nothing to him, instead he closed his eyes briefly and listened to the booming that occasionally filtered down through layers of rock and the drop-ceiling overhead, calling on all his terrible memories to try and help save them all now.

The room had been the scene of some chaos in recent days, that much was clear: most of the overhead tiles were broken or missing, many of the monitors were flat and dead, and there was a thin layer of dust over everything, probably caused by the occasional rumbles that shook the deep bunker. For his part, clad as he was in his industrial power armor, Samson Power took a moment to suss out the four new arrivals before saying with a grim smile, "Well, you're not Omegadrones, anyway. Welcome to Earth Corps, ladies and, er, gentleman. I'm Samson Power." Murdock shook the man's gauntleted hand, but was far more focused now on the still-active monitors that showed what had been done to this world. He could only catch glimpses of the unspeakable carnage, but he knew what he saw: the raised pikes bearing their grim trophies of fallen heroes to terrify what few civilians remained, the silent pleas for mercy that went unanswered, and the dragons of Mandragora in the red burning sky everywhere, their black scales sleek and bellies full. The red emergency lights overhead seemed to briefly cast the room itself in fire, or perhaps blood.

"My name is Murdock. I am a survivor of Terminus invasions in other realities. Your facility is impressive to have survived even indirect assaults by the forces of the Terminus," he told the other man evenly. "Few survive this long, much less in their own strongholds."

"I built this room, and the rest of this base, to help save the world. I came up here to watch it end," said Power, not hesitating to walk the others towards the white-walled elevator nearby, the walls decorated in murals of shining people in armor like his own and defending the terrestrial world from what looked like underground monsters were a legacy of what had been happier times. He gave Mara an imploring look. "Can you take my people back with you?"

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[bg=#555555]"Dragonfly,"[/bg] she introduced herself, rather simply. [bg=#555555]"And...that's the plan. Don't know what we'll do after that - better with machines than people. But getting your people - and you - out of here is our first priority, can figure out the rest later."[/bg]

Dragonfly's suit was building a map of the area as she went, mind mulling over the level of technology they had and how much they'd been able to do with it. [bg=#555555]"Preferably quickly - the leaving, not the figuring. Three hundred fifty-eight, you said? Including newborns...mmh."[/bg]

She trailed off, mentally chewing on that while physically chewing on her lower lip.

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"Maintenance at HAX is clearing the main cafeteria," Wander reported, "without the tables and chairs it should be big enough to transport into. I set the security team to evacuate the wing and start quarantine protocols." Belatedly, she wondered if that might have been overstepping her authority by more than a little. "Um, it might be overkill, but we haven't had a contamination drill since the new year, it'll be good practice?"

She looked around, feeling the itch on her skin of Terminus forces all around and forcing herself not to rest a hand on her bat. "If there are any injuries or sick people, Jill should stabilize them before we go. And we have to be efficient, some Terminus beings can sense dimensional travel. How many can you teleport at once?" she asked Dragonfly.

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"That's what I'm here for," the medic confirmed as she finished tying her bandana mask behind her head. She wasn't in anything resembling her actual costume and there wasn't much risk of secret identity exposure given the circumstances, but there were certain traditions to be observed. "Jill O'Cure is the name and Jill O'Curing is the game," she explained by way of introduction, addressing Power even as she curiously examined the pictures in the elevator. "Anything wacky I need to know about, like people in this reality having a third kidney or magic being highly combustible and so on?" She was being a little more jocular than normal, the tension heavy in the air already racking her nerves.

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