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Two Miles From Lake Vostok

Antarctica

Friday, May 9, 2014

7:52 PM

White. White as far as the eye could see. And cold that cut right through to the bone. Ever since he'd come into his powers, Cannonade hadn't exactly felt the weather in quite some time. But it said a lot that, even with his enhanced resilience, this was able to get right at his core. After only a few seconds on the ice, he firmly decided that Antarctica could go screw.

He didn't know why he'd expected anything else. He should have known this would happen at some point - join a superteam, see everywhere from Hell to Honolulu. But while he'd usually gotten his more globetrotting assignments courtesy of AEGIS, it had been Edge who'd brought this one to the table. Apparently there was a UNISON research base near Vostok, dedicated to plumbing both the depths of the ancient lake and whatever things might be found in the snow. Cannonade hadn't gotten the full account, but a message had gotten out a few days back. There wasn't enough sensible content to lean one way or another, but the fact that something garbled and messy was coming out of the station could be considered a soft cause for alarm.

Which would also explain their guest. Joe was used to the rest of the League, but apparently, the Indian woman had been seconded to Edge's assignment. She was a psychic, apparently, something that left him very conscious about what he was thinking. Her job was to check up on the mental health of the scientists. A place like this could do things to a man... and apparently, there had been rumors of whole expeditions who'd gone around the bend down here. There was a chance it wasn't all isolation...

Joe just adjusted his jacket, and kept his eyes on the base. Soon enough, the security team would be out to wave them in. He just had to focus on that...

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Doctor Jane Johnson rattled around in Sam's head. 

 

She recalled the doctor from the UNISON briefing. A tall, elegant middle aged lady with bright thoughtful eyes, saying little but watching much. The Radical knew plenty of medicine, even psychiatry, but for this one, they wanted someone with real expertise. Doctor Johnson had specialised in researching the effects of isolation on group and individual dynamics. Perfect for this jaunt. 

 

When she had asked to copy Doctor Johnson, she had been reluctant at first. With gentle explanation, and impressing on her the importance of her expertise, she had agreed, with some trepidation. 

 

And now she could feel the faintest echo of Doctor Johnson in her head, inaudible, but for the sensation of cogs turning, scientific analysis rumbling. Doctor Johnson was smart enough to leave a strong imprint, hopefully one that would not become distracting. 

 

The Sunsetsuit was all black, tight, and fluttering with orange light as the Radical moved in it. It was also underneath a thick layer of insulating clothing. And a thicker layer over that. Arctic survival would have been a trick she would liked to have stolen, but unfortunately it was one mind at a time. 

 

And it was cold. Bitter cold that would eat through her bones if she was out here too long. 

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Almost as soon as they appeared in the least populated continent on Earth, Cobalt Templar was airborne in a blaze of blue fire.

 

"Going on overwatch."

 

He only went about 20 feet up, but even that was enough to make him temporarily dismiss his ethereal cape, and conjure a cover for his mouth. Antarctic snow tasted bad, and the wind was too high for good, dramatic cape angles.

After all, to him, the temperature was no different than a pleasantly cool spring evening. Such were the advantages of the Blue Ring.

 

The man in blue narrowed his eyes against the semi-blinding snow, being thankful he didn't need ideal lighting to see...and thinking that he needed to try experimenting with the Ring's abilities to be able to bypass things like "surrounding by a mini blizzard and thus can't see".

 

The whole setup had his nerves on edge. Unintelligible messages were never good, and on that other world, nothing good had come of ambitious expeditions to the frozen bottom of the world. Nothing good at all.

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"Hey, everybody," said Edge, who was securely wrapped in a blue and white UNISON fur parka, pants, and winter gear over his usual costume. "Sorry it's so cold, but our weather controller guy is tied up doing a thing in Southeast Asia!" He turned and headed for the nearest way out of the cold - in this case, the door to one of the underground shelters dug by an earlier team's power equipment (some years earlier) to stay out of the cold. "I could summon a fireball or something, but that's silly until we get a chance to scout out the situation! Can't blow anything up again!" Dr. McGregor's office is supposed to be just through this door here..." His heavy boots crunched on the icepack beneath their feet as he pounded on the heavy iron door. "Dr. McGregor! Dr. McGregor, it's UNISON!" He looked up at the sky and called, "Cobalt Templar, Sunset, can you see or sense anything up there? " This close to New Freedom, whose superpowered mercenaries occasionally 'went rogue' and raided the bases of other powers for glory, gold, or just plain evil intentions, it never hurt to be careful. 

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"Nothing yet" said Sunset, stamping her feet and hugging herself. She wasn't made for such climes, she told herself. She had grown up in Sunny America, and born from the heat of Delhi. 

 

"I can only pick up the past, not the present. You go back in the past here, and you just get a lot of snow, cold, and a low hanging sun. If there is a sun at all..." she explained. "And...well....I don't really know how far I can go back. Never tried it past a few decades. I get, well, fainter, as it goes back. Like I stop being me..."

 

I always got ya, honeychild! whispered the Radical in her head. Perhaps it was true. Her own psychic abilities were nothing compared to the powerful mind of the anarchic man in her suit. Perhaps he would give her the strength to go back further, if need be. Still...it felt like drowning when she went to far. As though the elastic cord that kept her in the present became stretched and thin. 

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Wander stood off to one side of the group, looking a little bit like a lost duckling in her bright yellow snowsuit and orange scarf and mittens. They weren't the most stylish choice of clothing, but they stood out very well against the gray sky and white ground. Besides, they had been on sale when she'd gone looking for cold weather gear, and she wasn't about to shell out more than necessary for winter gear she was unlikely to wear more than a few times a year. "Do you have a key?" she called to Edge, stamping her feet to keep them warm. "This is like going to the Sanctum but with a chance of penguins." Her lips thinned behind her scarf as she remembered that ill-starred trip. Hopefully this was just a case of radio failure or something else totally innocuous. 

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If Wander was surprisingly colourful against the pristine snow, Midnight looked like the coal set into a snowman's smile. He'd swapped his customary fedora for an equally black ushanka along with a uniform that was outwardly only subtly different than his usual attire. Inside, however, he was better protected from the cold than most of his teammates and glad for his full face mask. He'd prepared a few options for himself in case stealth against the white wasteland became a factor but pragmatism aside, a white costume just didn't feel right.

Nearby, Redbird had gotten more into the spirit of the frigid assignment, installing herself in the Night Sled, a custom built snowmobile that had seen use against more than one cold-themed villain in its day. Showing some restraint, she had so far held off on any obviously Furion enhancements to the vehicle beyond the crimson wing pattern but its sleek lines and sizable treads were a far cry from the framework with which she'd started. The autonomic machine intelligence had been enthusiastic about seeing another part of her adopted world first hand but Trevor had gotten the impression that now that they were there she was just itching for an excuse to tear across the snowy plateau.

With careful steps that failed to make any sound in the crunching snow, the detective of few words silently moved to stand beside Erin, offering an egg shaped hand warmer from his belt and waiting to see what response they received from the research base.

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Up above the base, Cobalt Templar and Sunset could get a good view of the white desolation before them. The landscape was fairly featureless, save for a few large structures below - the UNISON base, on the closer end, and Vostok, on the other end of the lake. The lake itself sat on the ground like a footprint from a giant. Ice and snow had kept it sealed off from the world at large for millions of years, creating a unique ecosystem that the world at large was just starting to understand.

To Cobalt Templar, the white wastes spilled on endlessly. To Sunset, however, there was a glimmer on the horizon, like aurora activity. But it wasn't the bright ribbon of light she'd expect, but something more like an echo of radiance, something that had once been. With the sun set, it was hard to distinguish, but she swore she could see the ghost of something illuminated in it...

Meanwhile, down on the ground, the door opened under Edge's knocking. He came face to face with a husky-looking man in a snowsuit, carrying a shotgun at his side. His demeanor relaxed the second he saw Edge. "Ah, it's you," he said. "Sorry. After all this time we were expecting helicopters. I'm Darren Alvarez, Chief of Security at this little igloo. Dr. McGregor is inside. Guessing you guys might want to come in?"

"Don't think I've wanted anything like that in a while," said Cannonade. "Lead the way."

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Well, that's handy. "Hey, I'm just glad to see you're all right! A lot of times when we come into these situations, everyone's been possessed by a monster from the pits of Hell, or an unnameable thing frozen beneath the ice for millennia..." Mark ticked off points on his gloved fingers as he went along after the scientists, trusting his much more observant colleagues to be looking for things like the condition of the base, the condition of the scientists themselves, and other useful pieces of information. "...and one time I got my head put through impervium, but that was a lot more fun than it sounds. Anyway, I'm a lot faster than helicopters, and I can carry a lot more. If need be I can have you, your friends, my friends, and the entire base transported to Switzerland. Hah-hah, wouldn't it be funny to see the looks on their faces?" He gently elbowed Alvarez just as they reached MacGregor. 

 

Geez, I hope there's something interesting here. I'd hate to think I brought my buddies out here for nothing. Maybe I can drop Trevor and Erin off somewhere nice like Buenos Aires or Rio, they'd like that. 

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Templar scanned the horizon a full three times, but didn't see anything any of those times. He narrowed his eyes just a bit, but didn't dare think anything like "it's too quiet". One too many ambushes will keep you paranoid not only about your surroundings, but what kind of luck you invite on yourself. 

 

He descended back to the snow, which melted a bit under his feet as he walked at the back of the group. He eyed the shotgun the man who opened the door was holding. It certainly didn't ease his worries any; someone willing to openly carry something like that in a place that should be desolate, well, either they're completely crazy, or something has them spooked.

 

His gut was telling him the latter was almost certainly what was going on here. 

 

For now, he'd just stick with the group and keep himself alert. 

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Wander kept an eye on her teammates as they all entered the base, letting CT take the rear guard position for once as she hurried into someplace less cold. Her natural grace at least kept her from walking like a duck as she navigated the icy terrain into the warmth and light of the base. Her scan of the surroundings was both instinct and training, looking for exits and defensible positions, but also for the other residents or signs of what might have happened here. "Can you tell us more about what's going on, Chief Alvarez?" she asked their guide. "The message you sent out became garbled in transmission and wasn't very clear."

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Midnight's footfalls were as silent on the floor of the research base as they had been on the snow, the uniform, light devouring shade of his outfit making his form indistinct between Edge's crisp UNISON colors and Cobalt Templar's blazing blues. Silently gliding along in the middle of the group, he narrowed his eyes behind the ruby tinted lenses of his mask, focusing on the longer wavelengths afforded to him by his metahuman eyes. In the frigid temperatures of Antarctica the heat rising from Alvarez and anyone else in the facility stood out starkly. He wasn't about to jump to any conclusions over a slightly nervous security guard but one of Trevor's first lessons when taking up the mantle of Midnight was that it was better to see someone else coming first that the other way around.

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To Sunset, however, there was a glimmer on the horizon, like aurora activity. But it wasn't the bright ribbon of light she'd expect, but something more like an echo of radiance, something that had once been. With the sun set, it was hard to distinguish, but she swore she could see the ghost of something illuminated in it...

 

Spooky! whispered the Radical in Sunsets mind. She was inclined to agree. It was not like anything either of them had felt before. 

 

"I..er...think...um...." she mumbled to the group, uncertain and straining her eyes - both her actual ones and the psychic ones that floated in her head. 

 

Spit it out, honeychild! This trip is freaky!

 

"I think I can feel, like...a ghost or something!" she blurted out to the group. "I mean, I don't know what it is, but something big and...freaky....floating on the lake..." she explained. 

 

"Sorry, I can't tell you more. Maybe its just my nerves. I never felt, or seen, anything like it!" she added, apologetically. Not like they could do much but press on, anyway. Just that they would press on with more uncertainty than before!

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Cannonade and Alvarez looked back to Sunset as she made her pronouncement; the chief of security's face showed a flicker of concern, one that quickly gave way to a bemused smile. "You're picking it up, too, aren't you?" he said. "I'm not surprised. I'm pretty sure that's what garbled out transmission. I told Lawrence he should've been paying more attention to the radio..."

"Picking up on what?" asked Cannonade. "What level of freaky are we dealing with here?"

"That's more for the scientists. Now, if you'll follow me..."

The warmth of the habitat was instant relief. The entrance hall was fairly simple, looking like it had been put together from a kit, but it was certainly well-insulated. Alvarez led the group down the hall, past a few UNISON scientists bustling in and out of rooms. Towards the end of the hall lay a sheltered room with a heavy security door. Alvarez knocked on it.

"Busy," came a woman's voice in a thick brogue.

"We've got company, Sandra. Make sure you're decent."

The door clicked open, revealing a woman in her mid-thirties who looked like she'd long since abandoned a civilized presentation in favor of whatever worked. The room behind her was a complex lab with top-of-the-line equipment - half of which was wired into something on a nearby table that looked like a slightly melted black wax cone.

"Dr. Sandra MacGregor," she said to the assembled party. "Welcome to the end of the world."

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"Normally this is where someone would make a crack about this place being more like the left heel of the world, but something tells me you're talking less about direction, and more about the state of human civilization..."

 

Corbin's posture didn't really match his light tone of voice. Between their assigned psychic talking about something "big and freaky" on the lake, the general sense of nerves in the place, and the melodrama of the scientist, he didn't find himself liking how things were shaping up. 

 

"Please tell me you can give us an idea of what we're going to have to go out and punch in the face, Dr. MacGregor."

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Hey Man, he has some bad karma, ya dig? Punching in the face is seriously ungroovy...

 

Sunset ignored the Radicals mental mutterings about Corbin. The Radical was hardly a practical person, even at the best of times. On the other hand, punching in the face was a leap of conclusion too far. Did this guy want a punch up?

 

Or is this place jangling with our nerves?

 

For once, I might just want that hippy karma, hook line and sinker!

 

You got it honeychild! Tune in, turn on and dr---

 

"Or perhaps without the punching, if we can help it.." she interjected, both to the Radical and Dr MacGregor. 

 

She oozed into the habitat, savouring the warmth. Her tone was soft and polite. 

 

Keep it warm, keep it cool...last thing anyone needs is people losing it here...

 

For all her mantra, she could feel her own nerves fraying at the tips. 

 

"Just what are you a Doctor of?" she asked her politely. "What research are you doing here? It all looks pretty cutting edge!" she explained and inquired. 

 

She wondered if the Doctors Mind might be good to copy into the Radicals, what with her experience and skill. But on the other hand, she was here and available. And Doctor Johnson still rattled around. His expertise in psychology and the effects of isolation was probably more valuable. 

 

"Is this research connected with...the disturbances?"

 

Disturbances was a good enough guess, she figured. What with the mystery around this place and the "Freaky" impression she had got. 

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"Well, first of all," said McGregor, "we're not certain anything needs to be punched in the face. Not yet. Though I believe some of the penguins have been looking at us suspiciously." She then turned to the crowd. "A joke, by the way. We haven't gone that mad down here."

"Gotta tell ya, that sounds like a small miracle on its own," said Cannonade.

"You get used to Antarctica faster than you think. Either that, or you try to hijack a helicopter at gunpoint. As for what I do... I'm a xenoarchaeologist. Specialty in ultraterrestrial relics, but I've dabbled in Atlantean from time to time. UNISON's attached me to the last few missions down in different parts of Antarctica. We found a small cluster of relics from what we think was the fall of Atlantis on the Larsen Ice Shelf, but Vostok's always turned up dry. Until recently, that is."

She gestured towards the cone on the table. "That was found in a core sample. As far as we can tell, it's intact. We haven't exactly had a chance to carbon date it yet, but that ice covers a paleoclimatic period of 400,000 years. Whatever dropped that was quite old, indeed."

Cannonade leaned in - but not too close - to inspect the cone. "So, you've been poking it and trying to figure out what it does? Was that was sent out the disturbance?"

"It could have been. As for what it does... as far as we can tell, it's a power source. Like one of the Baghdad batteries, only beating it by an order of several millennia. And..."

Dr. McGregor reached across to the massive nest of wires, some of which appeared to be hanging free and uncoupled. With a deft motion, some of the unattached wires joined their brethren in what nodules could be found on the cone. One of the nearby gauges twitched to life, as if reading the power in a circuit.

"...this one still works."

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400,000 years! That's ultra far out, man! A long long time! Baby, don't even think of going back that far!

 

The Radical need hardly have warned Sam. She could project her mind a few decades, maybe even a century, with ease. Further than that she felt faint, stretched, empty. Maybe it would be fine, maybe not. Her courage had failed her to date. 

 

"That's a long time. Maybe some ancient pre-human civilisation?" she asked. 

 

She felt the echo of the Doctor in her head. Arctic isolation, shifts in the very nature of perception about humanity and its place in the university. These were a heady and unhealthy mix. 

 

"Do we know anything about them?"

 

Maybe if I don't project myself fully...just...a feeling....?

 

The tendrils of time might be strong enough where she was not. If she did not project her whole self, but just the wisps of consciousness...it would mean she would not be fully aware, but get an impression of the millenia?

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Damn. I do owe Trevor and Erin. Luckily, Mark's bad thought was short-lived, and within seconds he was smiling again. Hey, maybe I can get Nina to go with me to Tahiti after this. "Well, we'll be happy to get you back to Geneva," offered Mark, looking around the table for reactions. The gizmo was interesting, but it wasn't really his niche. His parents, old-fashioned sorts, hadn't raised him with a lot of technical know-how one way or another. He was lucky to know how to charge his iPhone some days. "Or whatever lab you want this taken to. We have some personal connections in Freedom City as far as super-oriented labs." He shifted in his seat, brain tumbling forwards like an avalanche. "Midnight, Wander, what do you think about this?" he asked his friends, who were usually able to surprise him by knowing something interesting. 

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"Impressive find," Midnight commented, the soft, toneless words coming through the filters of his mask with an eerie lack of inflection. Anything that old was a monumental discovery from the perspective of any archeologist or natural historian but for the young engineer it was the device's continued operation that was most impressive. To remain intact at all after the ravages of millennia was one thing but its energy efficiency would have to be near perfect to still be holding a charge. That suggested creators who were both extremely advanced technologically and whom might expect to still be around to use their tools after those millennia.

Pulling out a small tablet computer, he pointed the glossy black band across its bevel toward the artifact and tapped away with the mildly conductive fingertips of his gloves. "Any signal shielding?" he inquired bluntly, a minute gesture toward the ceiling managing to indicate the entire structure by extension. If the power source was contacting its creators or whatever it was meant to be powering, he wanted more answers first.

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Dr. MacGregor shook her head. "Some of our equipment went slightly haywire the first time we turned it on," she said, "which is why I said it could have been the source of the disturbance. But as far as we can tell, it's not necessarily broadcasting. We stuck a transceiver next to it, but didn't get anything that sounded like a language, written, spoken, or computer."

"You've got linguists down here for that, too?"

"We're a multinational operation with Russians across the lake. We've got two."

"Yeah, stupid question, I guess." Cannonade studied the black artifact, which looked slightly - but really not - like somebody had melted a lot of vinyl records and scooped the remains into a traffic cone in order to cool. "So, what's the going theory on what it actually does?"

MacGregor smiled. "We think it may be a power source. We're not sure exactly where it's getting its power from - while it's giving off a thermal signature, it didn't exactly do much to the ice around it, and the Geiger counters are running silent. But, you saw what it did to the circuit. Size of a car battery, power of a jet turbine." She looked to the others. "That's why it's not going to Geneva. We've found a piece of something incredible out there. If this is the car battery, I'd like to find the car."

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This is far out man! Like, waaaay far out....

 

Even the Radical was lost for words. Sam felt a tickling in the Psycho-reactive Suit, and felt a crawling sensation in her mind. 

 

Sooner we get this wrapped up, the better. This place is eating up my nerves...

 

"Sounds like we all want to find the car then" she replied to the Doctor. "Although it sounds pretty freaky, to be honest" she added, pressing her fingers to her temple and frowning. 

 

Damn, I'm sounding like him...

 

But perhaps that was not so surprising. It felt like the walls of the universe where bulging inwards slightly, a feeling of pressure, of weight, of gravity. Surprising, no. Concerning, yes. 

 

She made a small shake of her head, concentrating once again. Like a moth to a flame, she touched the cone, not entirely sure why. Was she pushing, or was the cone pulling. 

 

And with the touch, she sent her mind back, the hours, the days....how had it got here? what was its story? when? why? what?

 

And who?

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Erin shrugged one shoulder at Mark's question, finally warm enough to pull off her gloves and tuck them away in a pocket. She could tune an engine now, even rebuild one with some help, but that didn't make her an engineer or a scientist. To her, the entire thing looked like a melted lump of plastic. "Maybe it belonged to a time traveler," she suggested half-heartedly. "One who went back to a time when it wasn't cold down here, then left some of his stuff behind. Weirder things have happened." 

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Corbin eyed the strange mechanism, his initial nerves having calmed a bit. Slightly.

 

He'd hopped multiple dimensions and done a bit of time-traveling as well. He'd faced enough things that weren't what they appeared at first, but instead were so much worse, that he was not exactly comforted by the idea this was just a "car battery".

 

Time travelers were only slightly better.

 

"One way or another, if that's just the car battery, it must be one hell of a car."

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Sunset could feel something radiating off of the battery, even if she didn't want to. Despite all MacGregor's talk of it as a source of power, there was a sense of... cold filling her head. It may have been the psychometric signature of being left in ice for thousands of years, but it seemed to bite deeper, as if the object had been crafted by cold hands and hearts. There was that glimmer in the corner of her mind, much like staring into the strange boreal lights outside...

Dr. MacGregor shook her head. "Before I go into this line, I didn't think I'd have to put forth 'It came from the future and got stuck in the past' as a thesis," she said. "Now look where I am. It's possible it could originate from somewhere other than its timeline, but given all we know about what lies in the stars, I'd put better odds on it being when it seems to be from. I just wish we knew how to turn it on."

She turned to the heroes. "I'd hate to think we brought you all the way down here due to some white noise just so you could stare at an ancient battery. Come, join us in the mess. You can say you had a drink at the end of the world."

"Kinda feel like I need one," said Cannonade.

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