At The Limits Of The Earth, Part I


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Scene Title At The Limits Of The Earth, Part I
Synopsis The Office of External Investigations summons a team of specialists to a remote location to discuss the end of the world.
Date April 16, 2021

«Ground Detail this is Air 2. Copy?»

From five thousand feet, the coastline of America looks dark and lifeless. South past New York it has been a patchwork quilt of craters, eviscerated cities, and overgrown wilderness. Small blotches of settlements dot the American coast from Pennsylvania to Virginia, but the closer it gets to the scorched wasteland that is Washington D.C, the less frequent they become.

«Air 2 this is Ground Detail, receiving you.»

Past the ruins of D.C., things start to change. Nature has reclaimed so much of the eastern seaboard in the years since the Civil War’s end. In the years following the war, settlers came back to rural Virginia in areas not polluted by biological or chemical weapons or the destruction of refineries and factories. The communities that do exist in Virginia are small and scattered, insular and by-and-large untrusting of the new government. Sentiment surrounding the end of the war is poor in Virginia, with many citizens still holding Expressives responsible for the deaths of friends and family. Fringe groups like Pure Earth have a strong foothold in Virginia which has made reclamation efforts slow and dangerous.

«Ground Detail this is Air 2, we are 5 from touchdown.»

Virginia Beach is one such place where there are a smattering of settlements in the dark, small walled communities centered around well-armed militias. Violent, xenophobic militias. Perhaps that’s why a solitary oil rig off the coast of Virginia Beach has a full naval escort.

«Air 2 this is Ground Detail. You are cleared for landing on helipad 1.»

But the truth is never so simple.

Janus Offshore Drilling Platform
Off the Coast of Virginia Beach

April 16th
4:17 pm

A slate gray Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion touches down on an octagonal landing pad atop the oil rig just after quarter-past-four. The sky nearly matches the paint job of the helicopter and a drizzling rain falls from the sky. As the helicopter’s rotors wind down, the side bay door on the aircraft swings open and a US Marine dressed in full tactical kit hops out, headphones still covering his ears. He is greeted on the helipad by a man and a woman in dark suits.

The marine walks past Hall and Gates, and a mixed bag of familiar faces come spilling out of the helicopter next. Elliot Hitchens and Wright Tracy are the first to touch down on the helipad, shortly followed by Richard Cardinal, Francesca Lang, and Robyn Quinn.

“On behalf of the Office of External Investigations, I’d like to thank you all for coming out here today!” The tall man in the suit shouts over the noise of the helicopter and the sea. “I’m, Agent Gates,” he says, then motions to the woman at his side, “this is Agent Hall. We’re sorry about the short notice, but with security being what it is… we had to make last-minute accommodations.”

Lingering at the back of the group of new arrivals, Robyn yawns as she rubs at her cheek. She had spent most of the fight catching up on sleep she didn't get the night before, her pressed navy blue suit wrinkled from her many attempts at getting comfortable over the course of the few hours flight.

"I'm getting the impression short notice is the only way you all do things," comes out more groggily than intended, though Robyn does make an effort to perk up as she approaches Hall and Gates. Her cane clicks against the surface of the rig as she comes to a stop short of both agents. "Quite the, uh. Locale, though. Certainly out of the way."

“You have no idea,” Hall says to Robyn out of the side of her mouth, arms crossed over her chest as she watches Gates take the lead.

Chess’ eyes narrow against the wind caused by the slowing rotors and the rain making everything on the gray rig all that much grayer. She lifts a hand up to pull her hood up, then burrows both hands in the pockets of her leather jacket.

Recognition dawns in her eyes at both names, before she schools her features into a more neutral expression. She nods in response, murmuring a quiet “Hello” as she studies Gates curiously, comparing him, perhaps, to what she’s been told about him by Yi-Min. After that scrutiny, Chess looks out to the water. A small shiver runs through her, though she hopes it’ll be attributed to the weather instead.

“Less time for us to run,” she asides to Robyn, certainly loud enough for her fellow travelers to hear, but not the DOE agents.

Elliot and Wright scan the structure as they slow to a stop, taking in the surprising sprawl of the place. The dread has been building since December, but it’s their arrival here solidifies the idea that Elliot isn’t long for this world.

They put their hoods up against the rotor-whipped rain and sea spray, shouldering their backpacks. Agent Gates is given a nod of greeting, but they leave the talking to others for now.

No suit for the one most often seen in them. Richard’s in full civilian gear today as he hops out of the helicopter, bomber jacket zipped up against the weather, a faded ball-cap with a Mets logo shading the darkened glasses perched upon his face as he looks around momentarily then approaches the welcoming committee.

A hand comes up to lower those shades briefly to offer a playful wink to one of the pair, greeting casually, “Hall.” Pushing them back up, he sizes up Gates for a moment. “Director Cardinal,” he replies, “But you knew that. Janus, hm? God of Doors. Obvious, in retrospect. I should’ve guessed.” Is he…

Yes, he’s chewing gum.

“We have fun here.” Gates says with a twitch of a smile, motioning for the stairs down from the helipad.

“This facility is known as Site 2,” Hall explains as she follows along behind Gates, talking to the new arrivals. “Named as such because this is the second known touch-point for the entity known as Uluru where a weak-point between material planes exists. Last year, the Entity tore open a hole in the fabric of the universe at this site after an altercation with your sister,” Hall says to Richard, “Eve Mas, Luther Bellamy, and others.”

Down the metal stairs, the group following Gates sees completely normal oil rig workers in the distance. The entire facility appears to be precisely what it shows on the surface, but it’s obvious that is only skin deep.

“Site 1 once existed in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, but was closed thanks to the efforts of Mateo Ruiz. That’s how we learned about the nature of these anomalies.” Hall explains, and Gates pauses at the start of a catwalk, looking back at Richard.

“You saw Site 1 for yourself. We’ve improved our containment precautions since then.” Gates says before stepping out onto the catwalk over the churning sea hundreds of feet below, leading the group across a length of the rig.

“This is all a cover,” Hall says with a gesture to the crew, “there’s no oil production at this site. But it’s where we’re building the new Looking Glass, to take advantage of the anomaly contained inside the rig.”

Robyn almost seems like she isn't entirely listening, gaze fixated out on the ocean around the rig. "I would've preferred somewhere with a little less…" A shiver runs down her spine before she looks back at the others, eyes lingering on Hall for just a hare of a second longer. "Less, uh. Water."

Eyes flit to Gates and then to her small bag, a small smile tugging at her lips. "So I can smoke if I need to relieve some stress, got it." Slowly, she follows after Gates, leaning a bit more heavily on her cane than she normally does. "Oh great. You call it Uluru too. Ugh." Teeth rake across her lips as she falls silent and falls in line, constantly looking around curiously.

"What about the anomaly will make Looking Glass… anything, much less functional?"

Chess’ brow lifts as Richard Ray introduces himself as Richard Cardinal, but she follows their hosts off the helipad and listens to Hall explain why they’re on an oil rig of all things.

“Jesus,” she murmurs, when she’s told exactly where they are, and she looks around — trying to imagine, maybe, what happened there that day to those she calls family. Her sister was there that day, too, and what Kimberly experienced was enough for her to return to the swamps of the south.

“Anomaly contained in the rig,” she echoes a moment later, glancing downward, like whatever is beneath them might suddenly try to get out. “What exactly do you mean by anomaly? Something like we saw in Detroit?” How would one even contain such a thing — this last question isn’t asked, but Chess’ expressions often say more than she’d like them to.

Elliot’s reaction to Richard addressing himself as Director Cardinal is an unexpected wave of revulsion. It quickly tapers off into anxiety, which he brushes aside by controlling his breathing. Wright glances at Richard out of the corner of her eye and shakes her head in frustration as Elliot’s emotions stop carrying over the network.

They continue in silence as Gates leads them on a tour. When they pass over the catwalk Elliot has a sudden, terrible thought. “Really hopeful the other side of that anomaly is above water,” Elliot says. He has no context for most of this, but it definitely all sounds terrible. At least he finally started taking swimming lessons. He makes a mental note to add wetsuit to his departure supplies.

“You’re planning to… use one of those holes into no-space to puncture through into the core timeline?” Richard - not responding to others’ reactions to how he’d introduced himself - walks along the catwalk without even looking down, his attention mostly focused on Gates.

“Are you hoping this is going to dampen the, uh, shearing effect? Has this been tested at all?” There’s a lot of doubt in the man’s tone regarding this plan that’s just been revealed to him, to say the least.

He glances over to Chess at her question, but he lets Gates answer rather than trying himself.

“We don’t think it will have any impact on the shearing,” Gates says, clearly familiar with whatever esoteric term Richard brought up, but at the same time he also doesn’t sound like he’s going to discuss how they’re getting around it.

“The anomaly, as Ms. Lang suggested, is a contained version of the black sphere that appeared over Detroit after Monroe’s attack.” Gates says as he finally reaches the other side of the catwalk. Agent Hall walks past him and approaches the enormous main structure of the rig, opening a metal door into tight corridors. She holds it open with her foot.

“Our plan is to use the anomaly to mitigate the need for specific solar alignments,” Gates explains, motioning for everyone to follow him as he steps through the door Hall holds open. “The electromagnetic anomaly is a fold in spacetime, a rift, so to speak. Areas closest to the anomaly experience time dilation, much in the way it is theorized a vehicle traveling faster than light may.”

Gates’ voice echoes in the tight, metal-walled confines of the oil-rig’s interior. His footfalls thrum noisily on the metal grate floor. There is an electrical hum in the walls, the incandescent lighting suspended from the ceiling flickers irregularly.

“What we discovered thanks to our observations here and at the collapsed anomaly in the Pine Barrens, is that we can utilize the space’s unique properties to interface with known extra-dimensional technologies.” Gates continues, navigating the labyrinthine passages of the oil rig. Even on the inside, this space looks precisely as it is pretending to be, with oil rig workers in grimy clothes, some gathered in break rooms drinking coffee.

The further along they get, the more Robyn seems to drift further and further back. There's an anxious energy to how her gaze flits about, eyes dancing from one thing to another. The appropriately dressed workers are somewhat off putting, raising the question of just how deep the facade goes. If she's tuned into the conversation happening around her, it doesn't show. It's only when there's a break does she speak up.

"I should mention I can't swim," comes a bit meekly, an entire non-sequitur away from the conversation at hand. "And hate water." What that has to do with the present, she doesn't clarify

Chess’ brows draw together as Richard asks his questions, and the confusion doesn’t fade as Gates explains further. Her gaze drops at the mention of ‘Monroe’s Attack,’ a heated flush coloring her cheeks. It’s not embarrassment so much as anger and regret, but the effect is the same.

“A wrinkle in time,” she murmurs more to herself than to anyone else, grasping at anything that can help her understand the quantum physics that are far beyond her level of education. She was busy being a war hero when she should have been in college.

As she steps into the corridors, she looks around, glancing at the lights flickering. “Literally every horror movie ever,” is another nervous aside. Chess Lang is here to provide color commentary, apparently.

Elliot listens to everything the agents are saying, though he still doesn’t understand enough to ask any relevant question. Wright turns to Robyn with a smile. “If you want you can come to swimming lessons with us,” she says. “Finally got Elliot to start exercising. Though I feel like there’s going to be a whole lot of water where you’re all going. Not sure if I can help with that part.”

Elliot laughs. “It took a lot of work to never exercise with Wright over the years. Starting now feels like losing, but I suppose it’s better than drowning.”

“I can’t help but notice that you skipped over how we’re supposed to survive the spatial shearing effect,” is Richard’s dry observation as they walk along, gesturing casually with one hand, “Hopefully you’ve got some sort of dramatic reveal we’re heading towards and not ‘we’re going to hope for the best’. I know you people like your dramatic reveals. I mean, so do I, so I can’t really complain too much…”

A glance back, a twitch of a smile, “Should probably take them up on that, Robyn. Might be a lot of swimming where we’re going.”

“Science,” is Gates’ answer. “It’s been resolved, externally. The Remote Office sent us blueprints for a sheathing that can protect travelers from the shearing effect. But that’s a little cart before the horse.”

Gates opens a metal door, then descends down a flight of stairs with the others behind him. “First, I want to get the whole team together, then I’m going to show you what we’re working with.” At the next landing, Gates steps off and deeper into the oil rig. From here the winding pathways through what appears to be petroleum processing is—to a keen eye—something else entirely. There are pipes near the ceiling that are covered in frost and rising with steam. They remind Richard of the coolant pipes for the Looking Glass.

That’s about when Richard connects the dots. All the miles of pipes moving through this rig, the machinery, the laborers. This wasn’t an oil rig at all, this whole thing is a Looking Glass integrated into the shell of an oil rig as a disguise.

“The rest of your team is already here,” Gates says, moving to the other side of the machinery toward a door with a red light over it.

"No thanks." Robyn's voice is small as she answers about swimming lessons, arms wrapping around herself as she turns her gaze down towards the floor again. Though Gates does manage to catch her attention, brow furrowing as she considers the rest of our team. If she has any thoughts on that particular subject, though, they're swallowed down and forgotten.

Instead, she glances between each of her teammates, then to Hall, back down to the floor. A heavy sigh slips through her lips, attempting to focus ahead as she follows behind the others.

“Wh-who was sheared? Other people’ve come through before, though? The Crossing?” Chess says, turning from Richard to Gates, her eyes widening a little.

Science is usually a good answer in her book, but Gates’ confidence doesn’t totally assuage the worry that shows on her face. “I’d like to know the ratio of success to failure and maybe the standard deviation.”

Robyn’s worry allows her to be distracted from her own, and she looks back at the agent. “I’m a good swimmer. I’ll look after you,” she offers quietly. Never mind that was in a pool. In Denver. Five thousand feet above sea level.

“Yeah,” Elliot says, “Shearing doesn’t sound fun, unless this place is a front for a woolery.”

“Maybe somebody’s developing photos that kill people when you cut them up,” Wright jokes, nodding toward the ominous red light.

“Cart before the— look, long before I’m figuring out what’s pulling my cart I want to make sure my cart won’t burn up like a sexist exposed to Dolly Parton’s wrathful gaze,” is Richard’s irritated response, motioning a bit with one hand, and for that matter, how are you dealing with the… coolant… issue… ah.”

His gaze lifts, following the steaming pipes, and he actually smiles a little. “Clever,” he murmurs, “Very clever… and what do you mean the rest of our team?”

“It’s a suit. Suits.” Gates says, stopping mid-stride to turn around and look past Richard to Chess. “You’re familiar with their designs, Adam Monroe rebuilt several of them based off of stolen designs originally concepted by the Remote Office.” He then looks to Richard. “They were made for this purpose and thanks to the Horsemen we know they work.”

Looking a little impatient, Gates raises two fingers. “Again, that probably raised more questions than it did answer any. I assure you, we’re going to cover it all, but I ask that we save the questions for the end of the presentation. You need to pay attention to what’s ahead.”

Turning back to the way he was heading, Gates stops at a concrete wall, the only one of its kind the others had seen so far. There is an iron door in its face, no windows, no machinery up against it. Gates stops at the door and retrieves from his suit jacket a stack of black, rectangular cards. Richard has seen them before.

Voss is tightening the straps on his mask as the field agent recites from memory these conditions. He only interrupts once to say, “This isn’t over precaution, either.” The field agent nods to Voss and hands Richard and Voss each a blank plastic badge, instructing them to clip it somewhere visible on their torsos. “Keep an eye on your badge and on the badges of those around you, if you see someone without a badge on, please report them to the nearest agent. If you find yourself without your badge, please call out for an agent and do not make any sudden movements.”

Gates turns and fans out the badges, each of them has a plastic clip on the back. By now, Hall has caught up from the rear of the group and she produces a gray plastic bag from her pocket. Then, he recites the exact same thing Voss had told him over a year ago in the Pine Barrens.

“Please take a badge and clip it to your chest, somewhere visible. This is a part of the special containment procedures for the Virginia Coast Anomaly.” Gates says as he hands them out. “Keep an eye on your badge and on the badges of those around you, if you see someone without a badge on, please report them to the nearest agent. If you find yourself without a badge, please call out for an agent and do not make any sudden movements.”

“All electronic devices in the bag please,” Hall instructs, “The area surrounding the anomaly is a highly electromagnetically-charged area and unshielded electronic devices will be destroyed in its presence. Better safe than sorry.”

Taking one of the badges, Robyn eyes it with both curiosity and suspicion. Turning it over in her hand, her brow furrows as she holds it up. "How does a badge help with containment? So you can know if, uh, anything walks out of the anomaly?" Her eyes widen, a mischievous smile forming on her face. "Oh, oh! Is it a shielding device?!"

Something about that certainly excited her, unusually so.

Hall's bag is met with scorn. It's with a heavy sigh that Robyn pulls out her Awasu and her headphones, slipping them into the bag. Also a set of keys - she knows her Ventus keys probably have some sort of chip in them. Why she has them on her person is anyone's guess.

Chess frowns at the mentions of the suit, remembering when they were revealed to the women in the aircraft on its meandering route to Detroit. She remembers Ivy’s suit, twisted and bent from Lanhua’s attack. She doesn’t know why Lanhua hadn’t killed her that day, why she was spared.

She doesn’t look forward to suiting up in one again, but the alternative is worse.

“Sh, you’re going to get detention,” she murmurs to Richard lightly, in an attempt to push away her own anxious feelings.

Chess’ brow tics up at the explanation of the badge, and when she takes it, she examines it, before clipping it to her leather jacket. Her phone comes out of her pocket next and she offers a wry smile to Hall when she slides it into the bag.

Wright hands her phone to Elliot and steps forward to grab a pair of dosimeters from Agent Gates. Elliot turns over their phones to Agent Hall, taking a moment to also remove a laptop from his backpack and awkwardly decide whether or not he should put it in the bag or just hand it over. “Is this a bad time to tell you I have a pacemaker?” he asks Agent Hall.

“He doesn’t,” Wright corrects pleasantly as she hands Elliot his badge. “He just thinks he’s hilarious.” He shrugs with his hands and clips the badge to his jacket.

“If the nuns back at the orphanage never scared me, this guy doesn’t have a chance,” Richard murmurs back to Chess, drawing the shades down a bit to offer her a wink before pushing them back into place.

Not putting anything into the bag - which probably doesn’t surprise anyone who knows him well - he tilts his head over to Robyn, explaining, “There’s probably a risk of overlay events near this thing. The instructions are a way of knowing if someone just slipped through.” Badge taken, clipped to a breast pocket of the bomber jacket to dangle down.

“You’re all partly right.” Gates says as he opens the door with a clank of a heavy mechanical latch. He then opens the door which leads to a ten foot long and five foot wide concrete hallway at the end of which hangs a pair of chemical lamps burning with a bright, colorless light. Stepping into the hallway, Gates leads the group inside, and only once they’ve all filled inside does Agent Hall remain outside and shut the door behind them. There’s a sealing clank, like an airlock.

Gates looks down at his analog watch, then up to the door. Thirty seconds pass, and then there’s a clank from the other side. When the door opens, there is a man in a head-to-toe biohazard suit with a tinted visor and hissing respirator. He holds the door open for Gates, who leads the way beyond the threshold.

What exists on the other side is not an oil rig.

Passing through the threshold feels like entering another world. The air pressure changes, vertigo sets in almost immediately as the sky is visible on the other side of the door. A dark green-black pea soup sky swirling with black and gray clouds. Motes of ash drift through the air, falling like snow from whatever apocalypse hangs overhead. There is no wall behind any of the guests as they penetrate this space, just the outline of a doorway that cuts out like the entrance of the fucking holodeck in Star Trek.

The ground on the other side of the doorway is a metal catwalk suspended by god knows what because it doesn’t appear to be anchored to anything. It wraps around a square space in the middle of a seemingly endless expanse of greenish black void, the horizon of which is bisected by a horizontal line of darkness and what looks like a churning sea, approximately the same level as the Atlantic Ocean would be from the oil rig. It feels like walking out beyond the geometry of a video game where the environment is not fully rendered.

At the center of the catwalk hangs a black sphere, some twenty feet across at its widest point. Though for how infinitely black it is, the sphere looks like a one-dimensional circle. The world behind the sphere bends slightly, like a heat mirage distortion, where it’s visible around the sphere’s edge. Almost, but not quite, like a black hole.

There’s also a low, droning hum in the air. Like a constant bass-filled musical note emanating up from the depths of a mine shaft.

“This is VA03, the Virginia Coast Anomaly.” Gates says, walking to the railing. He rests his hands on the metal, brushing away ash flakes as he does. “It is a dimensional anomaly roughly six hundred feet across, with a twenty-six wide sphere of impenetrable blackness at its core. What you’re seeing around you is only partly real, we can’t actually capture much of this on camera. The ashes are real, but the landscape is some sort of… mental projection, best we can figure out. From where or for what purpose? We don’t know.”

Gates allows the others to take a moment to soak it all in as he explains more details. “The sphere at the center of the anomaly is a multi-directional dimensional breachway, we believe penetrating all known timelines like a needle through stacked sheets of paper. It absorbs all electrical energy within the full six hundred foot radius, and the rig was constructed around that boundary. What you can’t see are the harmonic magnifiers we have arranged around the room we’re in. They’re based on technology originally designed by the Commonwealth Institute to stop teleporters, but we’ve attuned them to the vibrational frequency of the anomaly, and that’s… stopped its growth.”

Gates looks over his shoulder. “Because it was growing. When we found it, the epicenter was the size of an avocado and the distortion radius roughly fifteen feet across. It grew to this large over the course of a few months. God knows what would have happened if we hadn’t stopped it before it reached a populated area.”

"Christ," Robyn whispers, eyes immediately turned to the "sky" around them. "This looks like something out of one of Matthew's video games…" It's both highly disconcerting and awe inspiring. Once she's had her moment, though, she turns her attention back to Gates. "Harmonics?" There's something she understands in some capacity at least. "That's… Wow, that's a hell of a way to stunt something like that. Makes sense though."

Kind of.

"So… if I'm following this right…" Struggling a bit, Robyn finds something else to fixate on. "Is that how it aids Looking Glass? It penetrates all the timelines, so it also acts like a throughway?" That's about as technical or understanding as Robyn gets, but she's clearly trying. "I'd hate to think what would happen to someone who just… fell in."

As soon as they pass the threshold, Chess stops in her tracks, stunned and dizzied by the strange view. She looks back over her shoulder, but that’s a mistake, and only adds to the vertigo. Her attention is torn between that strange sky, the sea, and the black sphere.

“Jesus,” is the only word she manages to breathe out, but unlike Robyn, she has no others. She lacks the vocabulary and science to begin to understand this. It isn’t something she can solve by throwing a bomb at it, and that makes it far outside her wheelhouse.

Begging the question — why is she here?

Her hands come up out of her pockets, wanting something to grip, like Gates grips the rail, but she isn’t moving any closer to anything than she has to. They clasp together, at last, one hand covering the other fist, against her lips — to hide her fear.

Elliot can’t help but slowly walk forward, in awe of the unnatural appearance of the anomaly. The scale, the implications of this thing are difficult to process. Wright stays at his shoulder, trying not to grab a handrail as she keeps her eyes above the fictitious sea.

“It’s like the Nothing,” she says, suddenly wishing she brought the AURYN pendant she wore as a tie clip to the Halloween gala.

Richard stops dead as they pass through the door much as Chess does, his eyes widening ever so slightly as he looks around their surroundings… such as they are. A slow breath drawn in, one hand coming up to pull the shades off his face before he finally exhales it. Eyes without iris sweep over the greenish-black nothingness, over the churning not-sea until finally settling upon the singularity at the heart of this anomaly.

It’s not the first he’s seen before, but it’s certainly the largest. And it’s no less terrifying for being the third, either. Some things you just don’t get used to that easily.

“…modified Sirens? That’s— brilliant, actually. I don’t suppose your agency’d be willing to send the schematics over to us by any chance, Gates…?” He’s saying the words, asking the expected questions, but he feels a step removed from himself as he stares at the anomaly raptly, as if trying to figure something out.

He takes a slow step forward on the catwalk, then jerks back just as suddenly as if he hadn’t meant to. The sunglasses are hurriedly shoved back onto his face, and he looks away, asking a bit abruptly, “Has it ceased growing, or just slowed?”

“Hard to be sure,” Gates says with quiet reverence. “Stopped or slowed, we can’t measure it. We don’t have precise enough equipment without electricity. Visually, it hasn’t changed. As for the Siren technology, in so much as this refit is concerned, we can and should share it. I agree.” Gates looks over to Robyn. “It’s funny you should mention falling in, though…” He looks back to the infinite darkness of the sphere. “Because Mateo Ruiz did.”

“Last year, we encountered anomaly NJ01, in the Pine Barrens. We’re still not precisely sure what caused it, but it was the explosion that got some coverage in the news. The quarantine,” Gates motions to himself, “that part was us.”

Looking over to Robyn, Gates continues. “We brought Richard in to examine it, then later as it continued expanding, Mateo and Lynette Ruiz. We’d hoped that the similarities to his own portals weren’t just aesthetic. Even though he’d been stripped of his power, we wondered if he might be able to offer us some expertise on the matter.”

Gates looks back to the sphere. “Mateo and Lynette entered the enclosure around the anomaly, and they disappeared. The moment that happened, the anomaly collapsed in on itself and ceased to exist. The electricity draw ceased, the local environment returned to normal. Mateo and his wife re-appeared like stitched together film strips three days later in the exact spot they disappeared in, and had experienced almost no passage of time.” Gates sighs, shaking his head.

“We performed a medical evaluation of them both at Fort Jay immediately after. Mateo’s Suresh Linkage Complex had returned, and he exhibited… new expressive abilities. Not his portals, more like… folding space in on itself. As far as we could tell Lynette was unaffected. However,” Gates angles his head to the side. “Both claimed to have a sort of out-of-body experience after entering the sphere. A shared memory from their childhood, maybe a handful of minutes long. Then, poof, it was three days later.”

Gates unwinds his fingers from around the railing and steps back from it. “A third anomaly, CN03, is in Tibet. It appeared in Lhasa back in September, following a catastrophic event that destroyed half of the city. The Chinese government has locked down the area and we don’t know much more than that. One of our agents has been keeping a close eye on the situation, and the Chinese appear to have found a way to contain the sphere, but they’re not accepting our offers for help.”

It’s then that Gates lifts a hand and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Since the incident in Detroit last year, five more anomalies have appeared around the country. NM04 outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. NY05 in a basement in Oswego, New York. NV06 in the ruins of Boulder City, Nevada. PA07 in Plumstead Township, Pennsylvania. And ID08 in Twin Falls, Idaho. Our office has worked to contain all of these smaller anomalies, and they don’t seem to show the same expansive traits as their counterparts. But they all formed with the same visual phenomenon.” He says, looking down at the ground. “A spiral-pattern aurora in the sky.”

“This…” Gates breathes in deeply, “has been classified as an ICE-NINE situation. Named after a science fiction catastrophe from a Vonnegut novel. Essentially, we believe this sphere has the potential energy to consume the whole fucking planet if allowed to grow unchecked. The one in China is likely no different, and we nearly had one form over Detroit last February, but it wasn’t able to stabilize.”

Carefully, Gates checks his badge, then looks at the badges of the others. “It’s tomorrow’s problem once we get the present situation resolved. But, this is how we’re able to utilize the Looking Glass. This anomaly is effectively a hole-punch in spacetime, and rather than need to wait for a cosmic alignment like last time,” he says with a motion to Richard, “we can use this like a wormhole and open a Looking Glass aimed at the anomaly, and transfer to somewhere on the other side. Last year we were successfully able to utilize the harmonic and gravitic frequencies that Elisabeth and Magnes determined on their journey to dial another dimension.”

Gates turns to the others, then motions back to the airlock. “But that’s the next step on the tour. Let’s go back out the way we came and meet up with the rest of the party.”

Robyn's been increasingly distant yet dismayed as Gates continues on with his description of the anomalies and what had happened to Mateo and Lynette - something she had somehow never heard about. She would need to reach out to both of them sometime in the near future for sure.

But the mention of an ICE-NINE situation snaps her back to attention. She's read that book, she gets that reference. Her eyes widen and shoulders stiffen as she looks directly at Gates, then to Hall. "Is this what you were talking about when we met?" When she said 'everybody dies'.

A look of worry crosses her eyes, head lowering slightly as she looks off to the side. Suddenly she feels a bit out of place and a lot of overwhelmed. Stopping the proverbial drop in the water… that's a lofty expectation.

Chess’ dark eyes remain fixed on the view in front of her, though her brows twitch at the mention of Lynette and Mateo. She doesn’t know nearly as many people in the city as Robyn or Richard do, but those are two she knows well — lived with, when she was in hiding.

She takes a breath when he wraps up his explanation, tearing her eyes away from the sphere and sky and ocean that defy everything she understands in the world.

“So as long as we don’t eat that thing, we’ll be fine,” she declares in a feigned bright tone, glancing over at Elliot this time like he might be the one to try to make a snack of the anomaly.

Despite her levity, Chess is still pale, but she manages to slide her hands into her pockets, as if she might accidentally touch something she doesn’t want to. She’s only too happy to turn and step back to the airlock, to leave everything in this space behind her.

It’s Wright who twists toward Chess to reply, “Oh don’t even get him started, he’ll be talking about flavor pairings now.”

“I imagine it’s like a black jellybean,” Elliot says, trying to stay lighthearted but still unable to shake the existential dread of this anomaly. “To only ever be paired with being thrown in the garbage.” Wright gestures toward Elliot, her eyes still on Chess, See?

Elliot does pivot towards Gates as something comes to him. “Do you have reason to believe that containing the anomaly here likewise contains it in the other timelines it’s piercing? If would be not fantastic if we got to the root timeline only to find out that the core is the size of an aircraft carrier.”

A quick, curt nod, and Richard turns uncharacteristically without another word to walk towards the airlock that hangs to all appearances suspended in empty space. He seems to be in a hurry to get away from whatever’s hanging in the center of that room.

Very pointedly, he does not look back.

“That’s the weirdest part, Mr. Hitchens,” Gates says with a look back over his shoulder.

They only exist here.

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