The Axalon RPG

 
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 Post subject: DWA: The Gate to Nothingness
PostPosted: Sun Feb 27, 2011 1:29 am 

Joined: Mon Jul 13, 2009 10:28 pm
Posts: 97
THE GATE TO NOTHINGNESS

EPISODE ONE

Pestilence circled the AXALON's navigational console, making quick adjustments with an ease borne of a couple hundred years or more of practice. She pulled back on a silver lever, then spun a few dials, as Calamari sat on the edge of a console, watching her go.

"I don't think I ever get tired of working these controls," Pestilence said, looking down at the console with pride. "It's so liberating, Cal- one pull of a lever, a few buttons and knobs, and you're out there! Cruising the endless galaxies. Free as a bird, if a bird had a working knowledge of quantum physics and the time-space continuum."

"It's awesome," Calamari said sincerely, gazing with admiration down at the petite scientist as she adjusted the console.

"Where did I promise to take you? Omicronius 5? Beautiful place. Mountains that sing to you," Pestilence said, peering at a computer showing their changing locations as the AXALON traversed the time-tunnel. "Well, the mountains don't actually sing, it's an echo effect created by the wind traveling through the caverns and tunnels, amplified by the caves' naturally acoustic properties. Yet the wind's howling, near the right mountain and at the right time of year, sounds exactly like 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat'. It's mesmerizing."

She worked at the console, and Calamari watched her a moment longer.

"So, like, do you think I'm good enough to drive this thing?" the Predacon octopus asked, running her fingers through her metallic hair.

"You've never expressed an interest in piloting the AXALON before," Pestilence said, tilting up her goggles and looking curiously at her companion.

"Well, no, not really, but- Bucky's getting pretty good at working it when you're not around, and, I dunno, I thought if I knew how to fly it too, I'd be less of a burden," Calamari said, a little meekly.

"Burden?! Shazbot!" Pestilence replied emphatically. Calamari looked at her oddly.

"I, uh, don't know what that means."

"Very old curse word. But the point is, you're not and have never been a burden. Nor a liability, nor an obligation. You're a valued member of...whatever you'd call the three of us."

"Sometimes I'm just not sure what to do when, y'know, the really scary stuff happens. Purification drones. Mirror duplicates. Lava monsters. It gets pretty intense, and then you do the super-genius stuff and make it all go away, and all I had to do was, like, not scream and panic."

"You're good at not screaming and panicking."

"Thanks. I wish I could do that kind of genius, science-y stuff you do."

"You've given me valued companionship and loyalty in times of crisis," Pestilence told her. "As for my super-genius moments...I've lived a long time, and accumulated a lot of knowledge, but that doesn't make me necessarily better than anyone. It just makes me a know-it-all who's too stubborn to die. And I wouldn't have myself any other way, heh."

Abruptly, a shower of sparks burst from the console and the AXALON deck tilted hard to one side. Pestilence sprawled forward, clutching at the console to keep from face-planting on the deck, and Calamari fell to the floor. She got up, grabbing at a fire extinguisher under one of the benches, and doused the small fire at the console as Pestilence ran around the circular row of controls, making emergency changes. Buckshot appeared in the doorway, hands clutching at the frame to keep from falling.

"What the hell's goin' on?!" he asked.

"Something's disrupting the time-tunnel! We're...oh, we're way, way off course!" Pestilence said, glancing at one of the readouts on the console, and pulled hard on an emergency brake. Her companions clutched at whatever was sturdy enough to keep them from falling, and she grabbed the controls as the AXALON bobbed and weaved into space and rocketed toward a dark planet below.

"This...isn't...right!" Pestilence rapidly tapped at keys, frowning at her computers. "Something's disrupting all my controls! That shouldn't even be able to happen, the inside of this ship is in a completely different dimension from the outside!"

"Can you at least work the controls to make us not crash?" Buckshot requested.

"Maybe! Let's try this," Pestilence said, and pulled out a bundle of cords from beneath the console. She unplugged one, parting it in two, and as more sparks showered above her head, connected the two halves into different places before pulling up a great breaker switch and flipping it. The deck lights went briefly dark before turning back on, and judging from her vaguely triumphant expression as she returned to the console, Pestilence had managed to restore some small measure of flight control. The AXALON set down on the surface of the planet, teetering slightly before settling down.

"....Well, that wasn't too bad," Pestilence said, looking at her slightly dazed friends. "Where were you, Buckshot?"

"Checking out some of the other rooms on this ship," he said, rubbing the back of his head as he stood up. "Did you know you have a fully stocked mini-bar in one of them?"

"I do? That must've been an earlier me."

"Well, I vote we go back there and toast to not crashing with a big bottle of something that'll get us hammered. Any takers?"

"I need you to stay sober. Something's gone wrong," Pestilence said, pointing at her screen. Buckshot and Calamari moved to her side and looked at the screen. It was showing them a number of readouts from the AXALON's passive scan of the planet they'd touched down on. They had no visual feed, yet, but the time counter stated them as being in 3218.6, and identified the star system as SR-1100.

"There's still massive amounts of interference, but see this little read here? See how there's no dots? There should be dots on any populated world. That is to say, I'm picking up no life signs on the surface whatsoever. Below-ground...too much interference to tell for sure."

"Must be plenty of worlds out there with no life on 'em," Buckshot said.

"Yes, but not many that also have, according to this, multiple dwellings around the surface of the planet. And- this is strange- the scanners are picking up signs of an atmosphere, but nothing else. No winds, no precipitation, no shifts in temperature- the climate, the sky, are utterly static, the entire world over, in a way no planet is, not even an artificially created one."

"Maybe that's what emptied out all those dwellings," Buckshot replied ominously. Calamari looked with worry up at him, then back at Pestilence. She frowned as her screen started to fuzz over with static, lightly slapping a palm on the side of the monitor until the feed returned to normal.

"That's weird. Well...weirdness always did hold an appeal for me. Why don't we go outside, take a quick look around?" Pestilence proposed. She picked up her scarf from a chair, wrapping it lightly around her neck, and took out her trusty multi-tool. Buckshot shrugged, heading for the door of the AXALON, and Calamari followed the other two readily enough. The doors of the booth hissed open, and they stepped out into darkness.

------------------

The trio of explorers' optics adjusted readily to the change in light, and they got a better look at their surroundings. Just as the AXALON's scanners had detected, there were no signs of life anywhere. They stood upon a barren, desolate plain, in eerie silence. There were mountains visible on the horizon, and around where they stood, some dead and gnarled trees, some old gray blades of grass poking up between the rocks. Buckshot stood with his arms folded, frowning slightly as he looked around. Calamari knelt down to look at the blades of grass- they stood utterly still, no hint of a breeze to sway them. And Pestilence looked up at the sky, mentally taking inventory of familiar star systems. It was a cool and lifeless night, and not a single cloud passed over the planet's twin moons.

"You know how in movies they say, 'It's quiet. Too quiet'?" Buckshot asked, breaking the silence. "This goes way beyond that. This is just creepy."

"There's nothing here," Calamari said, looking around across the darkened plains. "I haven't seen, like, a single bird or a single bug. Nothing at all."

"It's a -bit- creepy, but that's no reason not to keep going! I want to see one of these buildings, get ourselves a clue as to just what made everyone leave," Pestilence said, sweeping her multi-tool back and forth facing north. She frowned a little down at it, pressing buttons. Before either of her companions could ask what was wrong, the petite scientist had taken off at a brisk stride, short legs moving quickly, and they hurried to keep up.

Some time had passed, and their journey had brought them by naught but more empty plains, some cratered and scorched, and the occasional rock formation or warped, dead tree. Finally they came to what looked like a dirt road, flat and uniformly even on the sides, and Pestilence moved along it, making occasional muttering observations to herself. They'd followed the road for nearly a quarter-mile when Pestilence abruptly stopped, nearly causing Calamari to back into her back.

"Wow, what's that?" Pestilence asked, pointing at a monolithic stone structure to the west of the road. She moved over to it, sweeping the multi-tool over it. Her companions looked up at it with intrigue. The stone structure was a seven-foot tall ornate pillar set at a 45-degree angle, jutting out of the earth, pointing away from the road. The slanted column was easily as thick around as a car, and had runes carved into it in a spiraling pattern. Pestilence ran her hands over the cold black stone, optics wide and fascinated.

"Look at this thing! It's thousands of years old, and incredibly well preserved! See these runes? I'm not familiar with the language, but the pattern of the glyphs is telling- see how they all point towards this huge middle section at the midpoint of the tilt? It's like some ancient runic version of an arrow sign. And these ones here, I'm no crypto-xeno-linguistic specialist but I'd say these are numbers, and mathematical symbols. If only I'd thought to bring paper and charcoal, or at least a laser-inscription replicator! Give me a minute to try memorizing these, would you?"

She looked over the runes on one side, noting the patterns and filing them away in her memory, then shimmied up the side of the column like a thick-trunked tree and scrabbled up onto the very top of the column. She sat on the very top of the tilted pillar, hands grasping the sides between her legs, and murmured to herself as she looked down the length of the monolith.

"This thing's got no foundation. It must go down deep into the dirt," Buckshot said, poking a foot at the lifeless soil around the column.

"Probably! It could be a much larger structure only gradually revealed by the erosion of the soil, or maybe it was intentionally built to poke out this way."

"How come this part's broken off?" Calamari asked, and Pestilence leaned over to look down. She saw it too, then- a great chunk of the stone pillar had been torn away, leaving only a naked gouge and a gap in the runes. A crack extended from this old hole and down into the soil. Pestilence stared at it, her head nearly upside-down as she leaned unsafely far over the edge of the column.

"This damage isn't new, it's almost as old as the monolith. Could be weather damage or the ravages of time, but I can't help but notice that all the mathematical patterns on this thing are -severely- disrupted by this missing chunk. Essential variables and figures are lost. If there's a purpose to this thing being planted here, and with this writing on it, then the missing chunk removes something from that writing and, I'd assume, nullifies that purpose."

She sat back upright, and pointed off to the distant east.

"Look, there's another one! Pointed at a 45-degree angle facing in the opposite direction, over there on the other side of the road. I'd bet you it's just as old as this one, just as well preserved, and also missing a vital chunk of its surface hieroglyphics."

"No bet. I'm sure you're right. Where's this road going, though?" Buckshot asked. Pestilence shimmied down the tilted side of the column like a playground slide, landing nimbly on her feet, and looked to the north.

"It's going there," she said, and pointed out a gray bunker-like complex of buildings in the distance, surrounded by a heavy-duty chain-link fence. Buckshot nodded, and he, Calamari, and Pestilence made their way along the road towards the complex.

They arrived at an electronically activated gate gone dormant. Looking to either side of the entrance, they could see a twelve-foot heavy chain-link fence spanning the perimeter of the complex- which was a series of nondescript gray buildings, none higher than one story tall. They were connected by airtight passage corridors running like tubes between buildings. The chain-link fence had razor wire strung along its top with an unusual silver tint to the blades, and there were spotlights both on the roofs of the complex buildings and at regular intervals along the fence. Pestilence gripped the fence's links lightly in her fingers, looking through at the spotlights.

"What is this place, a prison?" Buckshot asked.

"Looks more like a military outpost. All these security measures seem to be designed to keep intruders out, not keep prisoners in. See those spotlights? Those are UV lights, meant to shine just as bright and just as hot as sunlight. Silver coatings on the razor-wire, too. Let's pop in and look around."

She turned towards the large gate and aimed her multi-tool at the door, pressing one of the buttons. Nothing happened, and she grimaced, lightly slapping the device against one of her palms.

"More interference! This thing's been giving me trouble since we landed...Bucky, open this up, would you?"

"Sure," Buckshot said, and reached out, taking hold of the gate and sinking his fingers into the links. Whatever the fence was intended to keep out, it wasn't Cybertronians, and he easily wrenched the gate off its hinges. The shriek of rending metal echoed throughout the night's silence, and he gently deposited the gate on the ground beside them in response to his inadvertent noisiness. Pestilence stepped through the opened gate and her friends followed.

"I don't see any vehicles, nor any means for vehicles to gain access to this place except by air," Pestilence said, looking around with intrigue at the abandoned outpost. "These spotlights haven't been activated in decades, but the equipment still looks viable. No weather damage at all. Well, that makes sense, there's no weather."

"Is there any way inside or is it all locked down?" Calamari asked.

"It's locked," Pestilence confirmed, giving a security shutter over one of the doors a brief shake. Even Buckshot would have to work on that for a while before he could pull it away. She moved along the outside of the buildings, looking around for any possible ingress, while Calamari followed her and Buckshot circled around one of the long airtight corridors.

"Hey!" he called out after a moment. "You two should come and take a look at this."

The two females caught up to him and immediately saw what he was talking about. On the other side of the complex, behind the buildings and not visible to them from where they'd entered, the fence had been partially torn down, spotlights shattered. Shards of glass and bulbs still lay around the ruined lamps. Bullet casings littered the ground, and the back security shutter had been raised, the back door accessible beyond.

"Huh. If we'd seen this, I wouldn't have had to do the B 'n' E back there," Buckshot said, slowly moving towards the battle site. Pestilence said nothing, now looking around very carefully. She looked to see Calamari gingerly approaching a crumpled form on the ground.

"Pest...I found a body," Calamari said in a hushed tone. Buckshot looked around, and Pestilence hurried to Calamari's side. They bent down by her and pulled the body over. It was a human, a male in his 20's with dark hair and sightlessly staring green eyes. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit with body armor strapped over his torso, a pistol holstered at his side, and an assault rifle strapped over his back. It seemed his armament had done him little good- the body armor was cleaved by multiple knife-like wounds. Calamari stared down at him, while Buckshot frowned and Pestilence tried to get a reading off the body with her multi-tool.

"Terran, clearly. This must be an Earth colony world, or at least an Earth outpost, the size of the buildings and the design style match. He's...well, he's dead, of these chest wounds. But...this doesn't seem right, now the interference must just be giving me false readings."

"What is it?" Buckshot asked her.

"This body's over a hundred and twenty years old," Pestilence said. "And it's perfectly preserved, practically as though he'd died yesterday. No decomposition, no cataracts on the eyes, no rigor mortis beyond the very initial stages. He's like everything on this planet, maintaining a perfectly static non-existence."

"You said this planet's got no changing atmosphere, maybe that helps, y'know, preserve him? No bacteria or whatever?" Calamari asked.

"I doubt it. To be left out here for over a century and no changes at all? It's as if he's...time-locked?" Pestilence said. She patted the soldier's arm briefly, sympathetically, looking down at him with sad optics. Then she stood up, hurrying towards the open door beyond the security shutter.

"Hey, whatever broke in here could be inside that place!" Buckshot called after her.

"I hope so, because I want to talk to it about what it's done!" Pestilence retorted, and disappeared into the shadows through the open door. Buckshot shrugged, cracked his knuckles as though to ready himself for a fight, and accompanied Calamari through the door after her.

-------------------

The corridor stretched on into darkness, broken in places only by the faint glow of emergency lighting, somehow active after all the decades past. Pestilence walked down the hall without an ounce of visible intimidation, with Calamari just behind her and Buckshot keeping up the rear, ready to attack anything that came near them at a moment's notice.

"Another body," Pestilence said, bending down near a female soldier with close-cropped brown hair and an opened shotgun dropped near her outstretched arms. "And, again, perfectly preserved despite the age. The break-in must've ruined any environmental stasis measures, so it couldn't be that- and, duh, there was a body outside too, so the effect must be widespread."

"There's more of them," Calamari looked around at the adjoining corridors. "I see another three down there. All humans. What happened here?"

"Someone or something busted in and killed everyone in its way," Buckshot said.

"Yeah, but how? These soldiers were all armed and I don't see any more of those bullet case thingies lying around," Calamari said, and Pestilence snapped her fingers.

"Good point, very good point! In fact, this woman here seemed to have been trying to load shells into this shotgun just before she was killed. A surprise attack. Now, why wouldn't a group of soldiers be ready for -that- contingency? Unless they were distracted, or out of practice, or never expected a break-in at all. Doesn't add up, I need more data. Everyone all right with going deeper in?"

"Hell, we came this far," Buckshot said. Pestilence nodded, stood up, and continued on. They found another security shutter, halfway raised, and working together, the three of them lifted it up to the ceiling and stepped inside a long lab area with steps leading to hallways filled with rooms. Pestilence looked around, seeing boxes of food supplies, tools and workbenches, dormant computers.

"This doesn't look like any properly outfitted war room I've ever seen. This was a bunker, a place to hold out. Raise the shutters, send someone out to patrol the outside yard, let them back in, lower the shutters. Most of the food's been eaten, and some of this machinery's been repaired multiple times, see all the discarded parts? This was the site of a long siege. They dropped their guard...maybe at the worst possible time."

"More math formulas, everywhere," Buckshot said, rifling through stacks of computer printouts in remarkably good condition for their age. "Is this any of the same stuff like you saw on that stone?"

Pestilence moved over to him and looked over the printouts, nodding.

"It looks like they spent a lot of time trying to fill in the gaps. There's some clever work here, but...mmm, no, this is wrong. That's wrong too. But this part shows potential...wait, hand me that sheet. Okay, yeah, I see where they were figuring it out. You know what this looks like? A very rudimentary take on the mathematics of time travel. Inspired by the monolith, even!"

She picked up another sheet of paper, scanning her optics quickly over it, then another, and shook her head. Calamari wandered over to the connecting hallway, peering at the far rooms. Up above the explorers' heads, a dim blue light was starting to flicker on in a ventilation grate.

"More mistakes. Some strange pieces of writing...no, this is off. These notes get increasingly erratic. Look at these comments scribbled on the sides. 'The potentiality of time made manifest', 'the numbers can both exist and not exist', what's all this sound like to you?"

"People locked up, being attacked by something on the outside, and starting to go crazy," Buckshot said frankly.

"Possible. Very possible," Pestilence nodded, and looked up abruptly. "Cal? CAL! CALAMARI!"

They hurried toward the far hallway, seeing Calamari disappear into the darkness. Pestilence rushed up the stairs two at a time, Buckshot dashing after her, and they stopped at seeing Calamari staring down the long hallway with its personal quarters on both sides.

"I'm okay, guys. Sorry, didn't mean to freak you out. But look at that," Calamari said, pointing at the walls between quarters. Her friends turned to see barely visible letters etched in smudgy scrawls on the gray concrete. They peered more closely and read them: BLUE LIGHTS MAKE THEM MOVE.

"There's more down there at the end of the hall," Calamari said, pointing to the very end. They walked down slowly, tensely, and saw another body crumpled against the wall. This one was of a black male in his 40's, with gray hair and a beard, wearing a lab coat and body armor beneath it. Most of the man's left temple was gone, obliterated in a gaping red hole. Pestilence looked very seriously at him now, optics sorrowful. He held, in his right hand, a pistol. The method of suicide was all too obvious. And written on the wall above him was ENTROPY IS INEVITABLE. The words were written in that same thick scrawl, and the wall was heavily smudged.

"Why'd he do this?" Calamari asked, voice hushed.

"Fear. Fatigue. And such pain," Pestilence said softly. She stood up, looking towards one of the quarters, seeing books scattered around the room and more guns, partly disassembled, on the bed. Papers littered the floor. She stepped into the room to poke around at the books, gazing at the titles on the spines, and Buckshot and Calamari stepped inside with her, clearly having no desire to stay close to the body.

A small blue light flickered on and off, gliding through the air, and settled itself above the dead man's chest. There, it started to glow more brightly before sinking into him.

"Physics and relativity and probability calculations, these people were really trying to work this time travel idea out. Locked up...multiple security measures in check...looking for a way to turn back the clock?" Pestilence mused softly. As she picked through the books, mumbling to herself, Calamari glanced over her shoulder, and let out a sudden shriek before clamping a hand over her mouth to cut it short. Buckshot whirled around, fists up, and Pestilence quick-drew her multi-tool.

The man had sat up. He looked right at them and seemingly through them, reacting to them in no way. His eyes were brown, yet, in the corneas, seemed to flicker faintly with blue. He stood up and nearly fell- his movements were uncertain, jerky, like a badly controlled marionette. He stood up, taking no notice of anything around him, and took out a rag in his lab coat's pocket. With it, wrist jittering slightly, he erased the words written on the wall, contributing further to the smudges. Then, he took out a marker and, with precision, scribbled the exact same message in its place. ENTROPY IS INEVITABLE. Then, he lifted the pistol, and before any of the Cybertronians could reach out to stop him, pulled the trigger. The hammer jerked, the empty gun clicked, and the dead man's head jerked grotesquely to one side before he crumpled back to the floor in the same position.

"What...the...HELL..." Buckshot whispered.

"Look!" Calamari pointed.

A blue light rose from his chest, simply passing through his body with ease, and shining brightly, flew off down the hallway and disappeared into the shadows. The body of the scientist laid at its same position, with no change in its outward appearance.

"Blue lights make them move," Pestilence repeated. "It's a warning."

She hurried over to the dead man and looked carefully at him, at his head, at the gun, suppressing her horror and pushing it aside to focus on the mystery.

"Somehow, every body we've seen is perfectly preserved, and whatever that light we just saw was, it must have something to do with it. I've heard of beings that nourish themselves off time itself- perhaps by manipulating bodies into repeating actions, they can feed off them in some way? This isn't the first time it's happened. This head wound- he's shot himself, in the exact same place, every time. This gun has an eight-round chamber and it's been long since emptied. But the marker is fresh. ....Who would replace the marker?"

"Oh my Primus, that's sick," Calamari whispered.

"It's wrong. I won't let this continue," Pestilence said, picking up the gun from the dead man's hand, glaring with distaste at it, and flinging it across the corridor. He reacted not at all.

"Can we leave this place? Like, now?" Calamari asked.

"In just a second. I need to see more," Pestilence said, moving back down the stairs towards the main lab. She looked around as she walked, taking keen glances in every direction.

"I don't see any other bodies...could he have been stuck in here by himself? A battle that raged outside and left him isolated behind the shutters? Look at those machines over there, they've been trashed, yet the battle never came inside this place. Why destroy them?"

She looked at the likeliest computer, figuring it to still be in working shape- almost everything else here was, evidently- and to have some semblance of power running to it, as the laboratory was still lighted to some degree. She pointed her multi-tool at the console, intending to turn it on- and her trusty device erupted in sparks and smoke. She dropped the rapidly heating tool, yelping, and it clattered to the ground.

"What happened?!" Buckshot exclaimed.

"That...that doesn't happen! I've had that tool for longer than my last couple of selves, and that never happens!" Pestilence said, looking more rattled than they'd seen her in quite some time.

"Can you fix it?" Calamari asked, picking up the ruined, smoking device and handing it to Pestilence, who shook her head sadly.

"It's a complete loss. Circuits fused utterly. I'd been having troubles with it since we set down. Something about this planet...let's not transform to beast modes while we're here. I think something about this static-atmosphere, time-locked, death-mocking world plays hell with complex machinery. Goodbye, my poor little multi-tool. I'll miss you."

She set the tool down on the counter-top, sighing, and held her chin in her hand, thinking hard. After a moment, she looked at her friends.

"We'd better just get back to the AXALON. I can try for better scans there, but this is one time we might be better off to cut and run. This entire planet is wrong. Utterly wrong. Let's go, now."

--------------------

"This is so messed up. This is the worst place we've been yet," Calamari said with feeling as they carefully made their way back through the corridors. "It's so quiet and still, which would be okay, but...y'know...they're everywhere. The bodies. What made that happen?"

"Some kind of indigenous life-form, an entity of energy, that lives by briefly re-animating the dead? It's not unprecedented, but why use that power to make the deceased reenact some part of their lives? It doesn't make any sense," Pestilence complained, clearly feeling a little out of sorts with her trusted tool destroyed.

"I still kinda want to know what got in here and messed these soldiers up," Buckshot said as he stepped over the threshold of the open back door through which they'd entered. "I'd rather not -see- it, but just to know...huh. Look at that."

He pointed up into the sky. As before, the night showed absolutely no signs of movement in the atmosphere- no shifting clouds, no wind, no animals to be seen. But a swarm of those same blue lights was now zipping through the dark, past the great gap in the bunker fence and around the side of the complex. Pestilence took off at a run, following the swarm of lights, and her companions gave chase as well.

They scrambled up a hill a short distance from the east fence of the complex, Pestilence at the lead and determined to keep the swarm of lights within sight. They reached the top of the hill and looked down to see a group of bodies lying on the cold, cracked soil- armored and wearing helmets, clearly human. Rifles were clutched in the hands of some, while others had dropped their weapons. Pestilence slid down the side of the hill, careful not to lose her footing, and stared as the blue lights descended en masse into the dead soldiers' bodies. A moment passed, long closed eyes opened, and soldiers stood up, looking around. Calamari, at the top of the hill, stared with horror as the soldiers began to make war on...nothing.

They fired their rifles at empty air, the guns producing clicks that sounded horribly loud in the oppressive quiet. They ran, limbs not quite in sync with normal human movement, and shouted to one another. When the soldiers spoke, no sound came out; they merely mouthed words at one another. Pestilence side-stepped a soldier charging with his rifle out at absolutely nothing, his corneas flickering blue, his mouth moving soundlessly. She stared, horrified and fascinated at the same time, as nothing hit him in the chest and he fell onto his back, jerking twice before lying still...and the blue light that had inhabited him flitted away, glowing more brightly. Pestilence turned and watched as another soldier shot at nothing, then stabbed a silver-bladed knife into the air, before moving on. A high-ranking officer took a round in the head- his body had the wound to show for it- but in this case all he did was flop to the ground, reacting to no shot from no assailant.

"They're replaying a battle! It's incredible! These creatures have the last moments of these peoples' lives replicated down to the second, and against no adversary!" Pestilence said, weaving between a pair of charging soldiers and climbing back up the hill. "Which tells me these peoples' enemies are either long gone, or were incapable of being re-animated by the lights."

"What's that one saying?" Buckshot asked, pointing at an officer nearby Pestilence. She looked down at him, narrowing her optics and intensifying her gaze on his lips. She blinked.

"I can almost make out the words...he's saying 'we have two hours to first light'. And here's more...uh....'hold until daybreak and they will retreat'. And...oh....down he goes."

"Looks like something clawed him. At least according to blue-light instant replay," Buckshot said, wincing.

"Let's keep going back to the AXALON," Calamari said, and Pestilence acquiesced. They moved on back the way they had came, in a hurry to make it to safety before encountering any more reanimated soldiers.

--------------------

It was a while yet before they'd fully retraced their steps. The silence was thick, unnerving, leaving Buckshot wary and Calamari somewhat agitated. They were reluctant to speak in the face of the ominous quiet, and eager to return to the AXALON as quickly as they could. Only Pestilence spoke, and rapidly at that, as they climbed over an old and unnaturally still dirt path that was strewn with rocks.

"Some creatures have not only an enhanced perception of time, but the means to feed upon it. An apocalyptic event, a war to end all previous wars, could have attracted this swarm of...of...blue things."

"You don't know what to call 'em?" Buckshot asked, looking skeptically at her.

"Well, I don't know everything about -everything-, Bucky, what'd be the fun in that? I'm trying to figure all of this out too, that's why I'm talking! Helps run my deductive process through some filters while the really smart stuff happens on my lower mental levels. So I can pluck it out later and save the day with...oh. Oh, that's bad."

She'd come to the end of the path, turning the corner around a large boulder, and now stared, optics widening. Calamari came to a stop, and Buckshot gritted his teeth. The AXALON was gone, leaving only the empty expanse of ancient cracked soil it'd landed upon. Pestilence ran to the empty space.

"What've they done with my AXALON?! Oh, this is no good at all! This really..." she patted her pockets for a moment, and shook her head. "No multi-tool either to scan for temporal traces. That's really horrendously bad!"

"Are we stuck here?!" Calamari asked.

"Well...if we look around, we might be able to-" Pestilence started to say, before she was interrupted by the familiar vwoop-vwoop-vwoop sound of the AXALON materializing. She turned, the brief expression of relief on her face fading very quickly to trepidation as she realized the vwoops were all wrong- there was a grinding shudder beneath them, along with an ominous sizzle like burning circuitry.

A blue time tunnel opened up, with crackles of black racing through it like lightning strikes. The three explorers knew the tunnel was wrong as soon as they saw it- it was completely corrupted and highly unstable. The silver time-traveling booth set down with a thud, shuddering slightly as its fractured extra-dimension caught it, giving it the momentary appearance of warping and bending before it settled. A fire was licking at one of the upper corners, burning from within, and one door hung askew. A metallic hand pushed the other door open and another Calamari leaned out, head bowed, tendril-like hair hanging in her face.

"Ohmigod, that's ME!" Calamari yelped, sprinting forward before Pestilence grabbed her and hauled her back, before she could go to assist herself. The other Calamari looked up, and then they saw the wounds she'd sustained- mortal ones. Her optics were flickering blue.

She touched a thumb to a device on her hip, and it started to transmit, broadcasting Calamari's voice even as the reanimated body leaned limply against the door.

//"Guys, it's me. You've got to stop them from using the AXALON! Entropy's going to spread from this world to every other world if you don't. Pestilence, listen- you have to let me do this. It's the only outcome that works- you have to stay behind to make sure it works! Now, everyone get back."//

The trio of explorers stared at the dead Calamari, the live one numb with shock.

//"I said, get back! The whole thing's unstable! RUN!"//

The resurrected Calamari took her thumb off the switch and staggered back inside the booth. Pestilence turned, grabbing at Buckshot's arm and at the live Calamari's, and ran. Behind them, a time tunnel began to open once again, the badly damaged AXALON partially disappearing into it just as it exploded. The fury of an atomic bomb erupted inside the time vortex, shielding them from most of the blast- except for enough escaping heat and force to send them flying through the air, landing with a series of clanks and thuds several meters away. Pestilence sat up, looking at the charred patch where her ship had been.

"My AXALON...oh, no," she murmured.

"What happened to me? WHAT HAPPENED TO ME?!" Calamari yelled.

They were stranded.


END OF EPISODE ONE


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 Post subject: Re: DWA: The Gate to Nothingness
PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2011 2:20 am 

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THE GATE TO NOTHINGNESS

EPISODE TWO


Pestilence got to her feet, her scarf and coat tails still flapping behind her in the breeze from the AXALON's explosion- possibly the first winds to be felt on that world in over a century. Her optics narrowed as she gazed at the pulsing seams in the air, now fading like after-images on a human retina, where her beloved ship had entered its final time-tunnel before its destruction.

"You, the other you, must've known how damaged the AXALON was. If it hadn't started to dematerialize when it did, we'd have been caught in a blast wave that'd have annihilated us and scorched the landscape in a five-mile radius," Pestilence said, as the seams disappeared.

"Close call," Buckshot said, blinking.

"What happened to me? What happens?" Calamari asked with shock. "You saw how her- my- optics were flashing like that, that's what those bodies did! I died! I died here and the light made me come back! Is that what happens?! We get stuck here, and then I die, and then the AXALON blows up, and, and-"

"Cal! CAL!" Pestilence grabbed her by the shoulders, glaring up at her. Under the force of the scientist's cool, firm gaze, Calamari's panicked rambling came to a slow halt.

"There are events that are fixed in time, that I can do nothing to alter. I've told you about that before. This isn't one of them, I just know it. Those notes in the lab mentioned the potentiality of time, and that means that in some cases, what may come isn't what -will- come, got it? I'm not letting you or him or me die here!"

"But I already did die! I mean, will die! How're we supposed to stop something that just happened from happening if it's already going to happen?"

"Non-subjective, non-linear temporal interpretation and deduction, that's how!" Pestilence said with determination. "Firstly, we examine the site of the theft."

"Theft?"

"The theft of MY ship! Someone came here and took it, and whatever happens to it in this potential future we just witnessed must be truly catastrophic- nothing I've ever seen could damage it like that. But then again...fits the pattern," Pestilence said, as she started to walk around the place she'd parked, looking at the ground.

"What pattern?" Buckshot asked.

"Since we've arrived, nothing technological has been working quite right, except maybe for ourselves. The time tunnel was interrupted by interference, forcing us to land here. The AXALON's scanners and computers were malfunctioning, and my multi-tool died. I have the feeling if we tried any high-energy processes, such as transforming, we'd run into similar problems," Pestilence got down on her knees, peering at the soil. "The other Calamari's recording mentioned entropy. The natural dissolution of all things over the course of time. Why's THAT such a menace all of a sudden?"

"What if those humans tried an experiment and made some huge explosion or radiation that just plays hell with machinery?" Buckshot suggested.

"Good theory, definite foundation, but even when it was working, my multi-tool was picking up no especial amounts of background chaff, radiation, anything. It doesn't explain the absolute preservation of the bodies, the soil, the atmosphere. But I'll agree with you on this much- these colonists tampered with elemental forces, time itself- and something happened."

She sniffed at the air, looking up from where she knelt in the dust.

"Olfactory sensors have a lock! You guys smell that? Faint whiff of ozone and battery charge, narrow tread tracks in the dirt moving south, and- yes- residual static electricity! An anti-gravity lift! Some sneak came and tried to steal my ship, lifted it right up and made off with it! Let's go! Buckshot, be ready to punch someone."

"There's an idea I can get behind," Buckshot said, and ran after Pestilence as she sprinted along the tracks heading south. Calamari glanced one more time, fretfully, at the site of the future AXALON's destruction before giving chase as well.

------------------

The trail led them over a winding series of gullies strewn with rocks, the road having been long ago worn away to so much cracked shards of asphalt laying at odd angles in the earth. Whoever had taken the AXALON was dedicated; this path was hard going on foot, let alone trying to steer an anti-gravity lift over it. The Cybertronians were counting on their ship's abductor to be hindered, slowed, and easy to catch up to. They weren't wrong.

They ran fast, and less than three miles from where they'd started they found it. A tall, stocky figure in a drab gray jumpsuit and a gas mask was pushing a battered old anti-gravity lift, the AXALON set upon it, towards a thick steel blast door set into the earth at a 45-degree angle, in the mouth of a cave. With a grinding clank and shudder, the blast door began to open up on a dark path sloping down.

"Hey! That's our ship, pal!" Buckshot yelled out. The masked man whirled around, startled, and went for a submachine gun on a strap around his torso. Buckshot sprinted forward, closing the gap, and planted one metal palm in the thief's chest, slamming him up against the side of the cave. Pestilence and Calamari hurried down after, as Buckshot pulled off the gun, breaking its strap, and tossed it to the ground.

"You the one who's been messing around with all those corpses, huh?" Buckshot demanded, giving the- now that they were up close, quite evidently smaller man a shake. "Now you're gonna take our only way off this hellhole? Let me see your face so I know how bad to punch it in-"

He ripped the gas mask off, exposing a human face- the man was in his late 20's, with straggly red hair, high cheekbones and staring green eyes. As soon as the mask came free, he started to cough and then breathed in shallow gasps. His face started to turn almost as red as his hair.

"BUCKSHOT! PUT THAT MASK BACK ON HIM, NOW!" Pestilence shouted. Buckshot looked at her, then at the gasping human, and his optics widened. He quickly picked up the mask and slipped it back on over the human's head, helping him secure the straps and reconnect it to the air-tank on his back. He leaned back against the rock wall, catching his breath, as the blast door continued to rise.

"Jeez. I don't...man. I thought there was an atmosphere here," Buckshot said, blinking.

"A completely static one. The air's stagnant, hard to breathe," Pestilence said, walking up to them. She glanced reproachfully at Buckshot. "What's gotten into you?"

"I dunno," he said, honestly befuddled. "This place is just getting to me. Seeing the AXALON blow up, then this guy trying to take it, and kinda-sorta seeing Calamari die, I just lost it for a second. I was ready to...I don't even know what I was ready to do."

Calamari went to him, slipping one arm around him in a friendly hug, and he returned it briefly, nodding at her. The masked human looked at the three of them with shock.

"...What the hell ARE you?" he asked, gravelly voice made more so by the muffled effect of his mask. "Did she make you, or did you come from this...booth thing?"

"That booth thing is my Applied Xenoscience And Logistics Orbital Nexus, and I'll thank you not to go running off with it!" Pestilence retorted, and went to the anti-gravity lift, deactivating it. It set down on the ground and she ran a hand over the smooth silver wall of the AXALON with relief.

"My beautiful silver girl...I thought I saw you destroyed utterly. How'd the bad man even manage to take you? Perception filters should've prevented more than a casual glance. Unless that's malfunctioning too..." she glanced at the human. "To answer your first question, we're Cybertronians."

"Cyber-what-ians?" he asked, blinking.

"We're robots. Well, not really. More like androids. Except...not really like that either. Look, we're not the bad guys, you are! How come you stole our ship?" Calamari demanded.

"Looks pretty small to be a ship," he replied skeptically.

"It's much more spacious than it looks," Pestilence said.

"Well, that thing- if it's a ship- is absolutely the first instance of life we've picked up from the surface in over a hundred years," the human said. "I was ordered to dispatch to the surface immediately to get a visual. When I saw how small it was, and neither saw anyone around nor could find a way to open it, I went back for an antigrav and took it."

"Scavenging?" Pestilence asked.

"Out of necessity. See, everyone below is...it's a long story. We need every spare bit of power we can get. I can explain all of this to you, but we absolutely cannot stay up here. It's too dangerous. I don't know if you robots suffer the same effects as humans, but we-"

He looked around. Shadows were growing longer over the gray soil, and the night was getting even darker. He hurried to the anti-gravity lift, switching it back on.

"Get in the tunnel. Right NOW. She's coming," he said, trying to keep his voice even and not quite succeeding.

"Where?" Buckshot looked around, and then saw it. A vague form was walking up over the hill ahead of them- and its feet weren't quite touching the ground. Two reanimated soldiers were walking in goose-step on either side of her. She looked directly at the Cybertronians with eyes of jet black nothingness.

The human turned the battered anti-gravity lift on full power and rode it down into the tunnel, clutching the side of the booth, and punched a button on the other side of the door as he passed, the blast doors beginning to lower. The Cybertronians ran after him, while the shadowy being stared with intrigue at them.

-------------------

"Keep going! Don't try to talk to her, don't look at her, and if at all possible don't think about her!" the human soldier yelled as he pushed the hover-lift down. The tunnel was ramping downwards with nothing but the weak and flickering headlights on the front of the lift to illuminate their path. Buckshot ran alongside the lift, keeping his strong hands both on the lift and on the side of the AXALON to keep either from veering off course.

"The big door already closed, didn't it?" Calamari asked, metallic hair flying out behind her as she sprinted alongside them.

"That won't stop her! We have to get down lower, where there's more interference! Tunnel curves to the right right here," the soldier said, pulling hard and getting the lift to turn in the direction he needed. He'd apparently traversed this tunnel numerous times before, taking the tight turn with ease, while Pestilence nearly smacked off the wall before catching her footing. She looked behind them just once.

The blast door had halted its descent halfway down, and the being was lifting a hand in the air as lightly as someone calling for the check in a restaurant- and, with no apparent force exerted, the door was stuck in place. The two reanimated soldiers on either side of her stepped into the tunnel, looking around, and their flickering blue eyes glinted in the darkness. They didn't need to see. She just pointed, and they ran.

The human soldier continued to turn right, the tunnel gradually spiraling down. Buckshot tried to keep the AXALON steady, as it was painfully apparent the rickety old hover-lift couldn't keep it in place with much stability. They ran almost blindly, their footfalls thudding and echoing, and all was nearly silent- until the anti-gravity lift's headlights suddenly switched off, malfunctioning for the final time. They were thrown into complete blackness- and, above it, as distant as a mile away and as near as whispering in their ears, came a soft and throaty female voice.

"You shouldn't have come up to the surface if you weren't going to stay."

Buckshot felt the first pangs of real terror since arriving on this world, and Calamari shuddered. The being's voice was like fingers scrabbling along your front door in the dead of night. It was nightmarishly playful, and seemed to relish giving chase. Compared to that, the dead soldiers were nothing, just time-locked automatons.

"Keep going, for God's sake, keep going-" the soldier gasped, fumbling along and trying to catch his breath, the gas-mask emitting raggedy wheezes.

"Who's come to my planet? Did you call them? What are their names?"


"We're here! OPEN UP, OPEN UP!" the soldier reached the door at the end of the spiral-tunnel, and hammered frantically on a call button mounted on its side.

"If you won't tell me who you are, I'll just peek inside your minds and find out..."

The door opened up, this one much more quickly than the blast door at the top of this endless run, and Buckshot and the soldier ran the AXALON inside, Calamari right behind them. Pestilence spun around, optics wide, looking just once- as the thick alloy door slammed down between her and the woman in black. She saw it then, through the fortified porthole in the center of the door- further up the incline, the two reanimated soldiers pointing useless, long-empty rifles at them, and between them, a being of nothingness and somethingness in one, standing there and smiling. She walked forward a little, and something seemed to stop her, her black eyes narrowing in annoyance. She turned around and walked off, sashaying a little, and the corpses dutifully marched after her like a necromancer's tin soldiers.

"Last time I'll be able to go out this tunnel, at least anytime soon," the human said, pulling off his gas-mask with relief. "She'll be on the lookout for anyone in this area for a while, then probably get bored and go do something else. We got damn lucky."

"Who was that?!" Buckshot asked, looking through the porthole and seeing nothing but the tunnel darkness. "She looked Cybertronian! Like a little black-furred wolf femmebot."

"What're you talking about? She's human, got no eyes, long black and gray hair, and a black dress," the soldier replied, looking oddly at him.

"She'd look like whatever our minds substituted for her true appearance," Pestilence said distractedly, still gazing through the porthole. She knocked once, experimentally, on the door, producing a thick -clunk-. "That's no corporeal being, it never was. It's a personification, an elemental force given shape and will and thought."

"You mean you've seen things like that before?" Calamari asked.

"Maybe once or twice, a different me in another time, I've met beings who gave themselves life, or were given it, by outside forces- beings that were once nothing more just a concept or an energy. But never anything so awful as that, so...cold inside," Pestilence said, looking genuinely disturbed.

"She's gone now," the human soldier said, starting to wheel the hover-lift forward. "We've got machines that mask our signatures, recycle the air, keep a constant circuit of energy. Throws her off, keeps her from focusing on us completely. And good thing, too- every time she gets close to the doors, they get more and more worn down, just like everything else down here."

"This being, what do you call her?" Pestilence asked, though she suspected she already knew the answer.

"We call her Entropy," the soldier said with a wary look back at the tunnel door. "C'mon, I'll take you three to meet our scientists."

---------------------

Entropy got to the top of the tunnel, the two soldiers walking behind her with a disjointed, uneven march. The blast door had sealed completely, but she didn't bother hitting the button to open it. The woman in black headed for the door, staring at it, and the metal started to rust, and break down further. She passed through the decaying blast door like a ghost, briefly letting go of her corporeality, and reformed herself on the outside. She glanced from side to side, surveying her domain, and walked off.

The two soldiers tried to follow their mistress and simply bumped into the door- now much more corroded, but still quite solid. They lifted their heads, looking up at the ceiling, and blue lights discharged from their chests and passed through the wall as easily as their creator. The bodies went limp and fell to the floor, now just discarded playthings once more.

-----------------------

Pestilence and her companions were led through a long hallway, with the human soldier in front of them pushing the AXALON along on the hover-lift. Pestilence had at first pegged the place as being a fallout shelter, but it had clearly grown to be much bigger than that. They walked through old gray corridors with muted lighting, passing connecting hallways that led to small apartments. Everywhere they passed other humans, they were stared at. People of all ages and races, all attired in the same shabby gray or blue jumpsuits, pointed at the robots and murmured to one another. They were sparse indeed, passing by in groups of two or three- the complex gave the impression of being able to hold many more than this. At one point, a small child ran alongside them, staring with wide eyes up at Buckshot. He gave her a little nod of his head and smiled, and she ran back for her mother in a fright.

"They've never seen anything like you before," the soldier said. "Neither have I. Sergeant Mark Raust, by the way."

"I'm Calamari."

"Like the food?"

"No, it's a code name, it's like a Transformer thing...how long have you guys been down here?" Calamari asked.

"More than a hundred and twenty years, or so I'm told," Raust grunted, reaching out to pull a long sliding door open. "I was born down here. We all were."

Before Pestilence could question that, they were entering one of the main chambers of this underground complex. Like everywhere else they'd walked through, it was somewhat dilapidated, and cramped. There were solar lamps on the ceiling, and steps leading down to more apartments, storage areas, small supply sheds. A pair of soldiers with pistols on their hips stopped mid-conversation to stare at the trio of Cybertronians, and a woman walking out of an apartment stopped short before hurrying back into her little room and shutting the door.

"Yeah. It's been an unusual day," Raust said with a self-deprecating smile at his two peers. "We need to talk to Kronen."

"He should be in the labs, same as usual," one of the soldiers said, peering very closely at Pestilence. She smiled a little, offering her hand, and he shook it, staring down at her firm metal grip. They moved along the chamber, heading down a flight of stairs and past some large generators that had clearly seen better days.

"Mark?" a middle-aged woman with brown hair starting to go gray spoke up- she'd been working on some generator repairs, without much success. "You've got...robots?"

"Found them on the surface. Taking them to be looked at," Raust said, looking at her with concern. "You all right?"

"Haven't been sleeping well lately," she said. "Bad dreams. You were on the surface? Did you see anyone else?"

"Nobody from the last salvage party," Raust said as gently as he could, and she nodded. Calamari glanced over to see a stone-faced gray-suited man, some sort of medic, carrying away a hover-lift with a sheeted body on it.

"Another suicide?" Raust asked.

The woman nodded.

"He'll need to be cremated," the human soldier said vaguely, looking at his new Cybertronian acquaintances. "So that..."

"So that the body won't rise and start copying," Pestilence filled in somberly.

"Then you've seen what happens up there. It's an abomination. ...I better get you three to Kronen. See you around, Linda."

"How are your food and power supplies?" Pestilence asked Raust as they continued on through the cramped corridors.

"We forage on the surface for anything we can use, plus we've got some facilities down here- hydroponic gardens, food synthesizers, stuff like that. We've got a bad need of anything that'll give us more power, and the ability to repair our machinery. That's why I tried to borrow-"

"Steal," Buckshot amended.

"Right, okay, steal your booth-thing," Raust said with a lack of remorse, guiding the hover-lift into the lab and setting the AXALON down in a corner.

"There's some very good reasons using the AXALON wouldn't have worked, and I'd be happy to explain them to whoever's in...charge?" Pestilence looked at the lab. "Oh, wow, look at that!"

She walked past rows of computers just barely keeping above the line of obsolescence, and under a massive solar lamp set into the ceiling and giving a muted glow. She passed startled scientists, looking keenly at consoles, inspecting circuit-boards briefly before setting them back down, and picking up thick power cables from the ground, feeling the weight of them in her hands, and setting them back down. Her gaze was drawn to a complex device set in the middle of the room, hooked to thick generators, and running power via conduits plugged into the ceilings and walls- apparently creating power for the entire complex.

"It almost looks like...but it couldn't be? A perpetual motion machine?" Pestilence asked with a scientist's avid delight.

"What's that?" Calamari asked.

"It's a circumvention of all known laws of thermodynamics! A machine created to run indefinitely and self-sufficiently. No wonder Entropy doesn't like to come down here, what better device to keep her at bay? Except...this isn't a true perpetual motion machine," Pestilence amended herself, now inspecting the device closely. "It seems to run from temperature fluctuations within the base, which I'd thought purely a hypothetical application, yet most of this machine's functions are extraneous and must serve only to create the interference that deters Entropy. And kept my ship's scanners from picking up on the life forms down here, too! Very, very cool."

"I'm glad you approve," came a raspy voice behind them.

They turned to see a man in his early 70's limping towards them on a cane. He had long white hair swept back from his lined face, bright blue eyes, and wore a long frayed lab coat over his gray jumpsuit. The other scientists looked at him with some reverence, as he nodded towards Raust and the red-headed soldier stood at ease.

"My name is Edgar Kronen. I'm what passes for leadership down here," the elderly scientist said with a very faint European accent.

"I'm Pestilence- these are my friends, Calamari and Buckshot."

"Very interesting. Now that I know your names, can you tell me just what the hell you three are?" Kronen asked, staring intently at them.

---------------------

It took some time to explain, but the humans were very willing to listen. Indeed, this strange group of mechanical beings and their ship was the first thing they'd seen from the outside galaxy in decades. Pestilence, with input from her friends, explained how they'd come to land on the planet (which Kronen identified only as S4-Terminus), the events they'd witnessed, and their brief encounter with the being stalking the surface.

"I'm sure you've already drawn the same conclusions," Pestilence finished, sitting on a chair across from Kronen. "This being, Entropy, exerts a powerful influence over everything around her. She has time-locked the surface- nothing ages, corrodes, or corrupts unless she's nearby. I couldn't guess yet at the reason why."

"I have a theory or two," Kronen said softly, taking a sip from some recycled water. "She does it for fun."

"Fun?"

"One would wish to preserve their toys, yes? Re-enacting these old battles like a war enthusiast. It's ghastly."

"It's the blue lights that do that. What -are- those things?" Buckshot asked, leaning an elbow on a console as he stood nearby. "And what soldiers ever chased us down a tunnel as their last act in life?"

"Of course!" Pestilence snapped her fingers and pointed at him. "These lights only cause the dead to recreate their lives- apparently when Entropy is nearby, she can exert her own will over them and use them as she pleases. But where do they come from? Edgar?"

The scientist looked for a long moment at her, as though deciding whether to impart any more information. He looked again at the AXALON, parked in its corner, in far better shape than anything down here.

"You say you're Cybertronian...my father said that his father mentioned such a race. Dead for centuries now," he said slowly.

"There are survivors like ourselves, scattered around the universe. Not many left now. You're completely out of contact with any other worlds?" Pestilence asked.

"Yes- we lack any ships to travel. Through space, or through any other dimension..." Kronen said, looking distant and detached for a moment, before resuming his speech.

"The Terran sleeper ship landed here centuries ago, off course from its intended destination. The star-logs said they'd landed far away from any known systems. They could make no contact with our allies. The sleeper-ship was a one-way trip, its fuel depleted, and so they resigned themselves to setting up here. Bases established, a civilization of colonists formed. Few if any indigenous life-forms at all, but plentiful food and breathable air in the environment. Eventually, the original colonists- my grandfather among them- discovered the ancient alien architecture of this place."

"The monoliths," Pestilence said.

"The same. When they deciphered the numbers, they unlocked incredible secrets...science far beyond our technology at the time. The secrets to traveling not just through space, but through time. Teams were assembled to search the planet for more ruins, and one of these teams entered the distant canyons, in the deep and dark regions, and returned...wrong. A degenerative sickness that affected mind and body, and drove them to feed on others' life-force. ...Judging from the logs, nobody wanted to come right out and call them vampires, but that is almost precisely what they were."

"It was war between the humans and the corrupted, wasn't it?" Pestilence asked.

"Indeed. For more than twenty years. While the front-lines raged by nightfall, by day the scientists worked on building a ship to take the uninfected colonists away from this place. Until the 'taken' came for it. They attacked the silo, commandeered the ship for itself, and using the fuel they had spent years synthesizing, made good their escape, to spread their filth throughout the cosmos."

At this, Kronen's hand shook a little, and he looked coldly furious.

"All that work lost. What Taken hadn't left with the ship, stayed behind to harvest the remaining colonists. The scientists, my grandfather among them, had one chance remaining. To use the most advanced runes of the monoliths to attempt travel through time, and prevent the theft of the ship- or, better, stop the vampire plague before it ever got started."

Pestilence looked very intently at the human scientist now. She had an inkling where this story was heading.

"The monoliths were...incomplete. Portions missing, removed or broken by whatever beings left them here. We had some of the rules down, but only a theory to go on for the rest. And...in the logs...when they opened up that portal into time..." Kronen coughed a little, and wiped his mouth, hand shaking. "Something came through. Something and nothing, at the same time. It drove my grandfather mad, his mind degrading even as the remaining colonists evacuated to the underground vaults. My father took care of him until his final days. I was very young when he died, but he spoke often of these events. They are...burned in my memory."

"I'm very sorry for what you've all gone through," Pestilence said softly.

"We are free of the Taken. They have not been seen in a century. But what lives behind is even worse. We are being whittled down, in this place. Psychological entropy, we call it. The bad dreams, the hearing of voices, and many are driven to take their own lives...or to go up to the surface, and roam until they drop and are reanimated. And the machines, that keep her away from here and sustain us? They are victim to entropy as well. We are losing power stores, very gradually. I have studied, and studied, and we have worked, to try and fix what has gone wrong. It all seems quite hopeless."

"It's not hopeless. I can help you get to the bottom of this, and figure something out," Pestilence offered.

"Quite certainly you can. That was our hope as soon as we detected the signal of your vessel," Kronen said, looking at her very strangely now. "Your ship travels through space...it travels through time as well, doesn't it? You are not merely survivors of your dead planet, you come from that time?"

"I do, my friends don't," Pestilence said quickly, carefully. "And there are complications. A malfunction brought us here, and I couldn't guarantee safe passage until Entropy's effects have been reversed."

"Then let us draw power from your ship, for now. What is harm in that?" Kronen asked, looking a little desperate.

"I'm honestly not certain that your machines are compatible with my ship. Look at the surface of it, no power outlets!" Pestilence said with a slightly nervous laugh, looking around as a few soldiers walked into the lab, guns strapped to their chest. Raust looked at them with some surprise. "I think I could try to give you a boost, but we're all stuck down here, so-"

"You know the secret to time travel. Real time travel! We cannot risk salvage parties to the laboratories with Entropy searching for us, we have no hope of rebuilding a time machine. Give us yours. Let us fix what has gone wrong," Kronen said, standing up on his cane and glaring at her.

"I can help you if you just listen-"

"Back off, pal, just back off-" Buckshot warned Kronen, looking around as soldiers surrounded them.

"The idea has not left my mind that you are but another game of Entropy's. Are you her agents? Such advanced machinery...those Cybertronian hearts could power us for years to come," Kronen said, clutching the cane tightly. "Give us the machine."

"I can't! The future event we saw before- it could be the result of trying to time-travel despite Entropy's corruption! I saw my AXALON explode, and for all I know, every one of you was on it!"

Kronen staggered back, letting stoic soldiers with grim expressions step forward and sight their rifles on the trio of Cybertronians. Buckshot stood up, fists clenched, Calamari stared with wide optics, and Pestilence glared.

The humans released their safeties, took aim, and prepared to open fire.


END OF EPISODE TWO


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 Post subject: Re: DWA: The Gate to Nothingness
PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:06 am 

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THE GATE TO NOTHINGNESS

EPISODE THREE


Pestilence narrowed her optics at the soldiers readying to fire. It always had to come down to guns, didn't it? Not here, not tonight. She spoke up, amplifying her voice.

"If you shoot us now, you'll never get off this planet, and I can guarantee you'll get no power or useful technology from us!"

Kronen lifted a hand to halt his men, looking skeptically at her. Pestilence seized the brief moment of uncertainty and ran with it, talking very quickly.

"How much do you know about us, really? You know we're not creations of Entropy's because you've been here long enough, and ventured out onto the surface enough, to know we're not her style. And you have only the vaguest historical records of Cybertronians in your logs to even verify what we are. We have advanced technology, we're made of advanced technology, and in our dying moments we can flip a mental switch just like -that- and basically fry our systems from the inside out, doing no damage to you, but leaving behind useless scrap that will help in no way to power your decaying machines! The AXALON, too- my ship? Poof! With my final thought. It'll be as useful as a hollowed-out phone booth."

Calamari and Buckshot were slowly lowering their hands, and the soldiers' guns were wavering a bit.

"But here's the positive side- me, and my super-genius neural net, when kept alive and in a good mood, can save every last one of you. I can find a way with your help. Or...you can kill us. You seem like smart types, maybe you can find a way to repair the damage we'll inflict on ourselves and our ship, and figure out how to use my tremendously complicated time machine. Then what? Venture out into the system with murder on your consciences? And Entropy left behind here to do as she will?"

Pestilence took a step forward, offering a hand to Kronen.

"Let me help you."

He stared at her hand for a moment, seeming to come to his senses, and took her small metal fingers in his own palsied grip, nodding a little. The soldiers stepped down, Raust breathing a sigh of relief.

"The chance we take by trusting you surely does not outweigh the chance we take by killing you. I...apologize," Kronen said, looking shaken. "My fear, all of our fear, something overcame me. I became so desperate that I could accept no compromise, I..."

"Sudden violent impulse? Overwhelming fear driving you to abandon all restraint?" Pestilence asked, and Kronen nodded. "We had a little of that on the surface too. Entropy can affect our minds as well, and tamper with our machines. We'll need to stay sharp and in control to make this work. Agreed?"

"Agreed," he said. "Let me show you what we have been working on, and we may try to pool our understandings of the situation."

The soldiers set their guns down as Kronen limped past them, still looking uncertain, but the stand-off had been averted. Calamari and Buckshot edged closer to Pestilence as she followed the scientist.

"That was awesome," Calamari whispered.

"All I ever need is a chance to start talking," Pestilence whispered back with a smile. "Humans and Cybertronians working together once more...not a shot fired."

She followed Kronen, Calamari accompanying her, while Buckshot stayed behind, mostly to keep an eye on the soldiers. Confident that the tense situation had been defused, the scientists returned to their computers- one frowning and briefly slapping his hand against the side of the screen as it briefly flooded with static. He glanced at the not-quite-a perpetual motion machine, then returned to work.

------------------

"Over a hundred years beneath the surface; what do you do in all that time?" Pestilence asked Kronen as he walked towards a chamber separated from the main lab by a thick wall of protective glass.

"My father and his peers, the other survivors of the Taken attack, they knew of this bunker built, and could move great amounts of equipment down here in a hurry. Years spent creating the labs, digging out tunnels and expanding our space, the gardens, the computers, anything to aid our survival."

"You had everything to make this down here?" Calamari asked, placing her hands on the window and peering through at the machinery within the chamber.

"Unfortunately, no- we have had to make salvage runs on the surface, repeatedly. The soldiers are trained to engage reanimates if necessary. Hardly seems worth it to fight what is essentially a puppet, their priority is to forage and run."

"Does Entropy know when anyone's breached the surface?" Pestilence asked.

"Not...always," Kronen said after a pause, his brow furrowing in brief uncertainty. "We are not the only pocket of surviving humans on the planet, we know that much, though communications lines to other bunkers or buildings are lost. She may be on the other side of the planet at any given time, distracted, oblivious to us. But the blue lights roam freely. And once she has her attention on us, I fear she will not give up for some time to come."

He instructed Pestilence to stand on one side of the chamber door and pull out the handle as he did the same on the other side. The door slid open, and they stepped into a testing area where a massive machine squatted in the dim light like a clawed hand scooping up out of the floor. There were bent pylons in a semi-circle, arching over a metallic disc on the center of the platform. Thick generators and computers were blocked up around the back of the arch, and if it weren't for the fact that the entire mess was stone-dead, powerless, Pestilence knew the entire chamber would be humming with energy.

"Stationary temporal displacement," Pestilence said with some appreciation, running a hand over one of the pylons. "Very tricky stuff. Honestly, it might be for the best that you can't get this prototype running. You don't know what'd be waiting for you whenever you travel to."

"The thought has crossed our minds that traveling too far back might materialize the traveler directly within the solid stone that existed here before the bunker's existence," Kronen said with a sigh. "Moving the machine, difficult. Moving it to the surface...highly inadvisable. As you say, it's a prototype, nowhere near functional. We've lost some of the knowledge of how the machine that started all this functioned."

"No one's still alive from back then to ask?" Calamari questioned, looking over at some shelves and a desk piled with papers and a few old tapes.

"A hundred and twenty-plus years is a short time for us, but sort of pushing it for a human life-span," Pestilence said, a little awkwardly at the possible faux pas, but Kronen just shrugged it off.

"Seventy-two feels like pushing it, some days," he said. "One of the foraging runs to a laboratory, not far from here...past some monoliths on a road? Returned with audio logs. They've been partly corrupted, but you may listen to them if you wish."

He gestured at one of the tapes Calamari was turning over in her hand. She looked at Pestilence, who nodded, and then she turned the recording device on. It asked her to specify a recording, showing a list of dated entries. She clicked on the earliest one, only to have it flash 'error, file has been lost'. She ran through a few more entries before pulling one up. A slightly gravelly voice spoke up in the silence and the darkness.

"Journal entry, January...8th? I'm starting to have trouble keeping track. The Taken made an attack on one of our warehouses, destroyed countless food packs and medical supplies. Fighting dirty, taking out supply lines. They don't need to eat...anything that humans eat, anyway. Committee's approved the fuel synthesis program. We're going to have a ship up and running."

Calamari smiled over at them, and scrolled through a few more data entries.

"Journal entry, March 11th. I found an old bottle of something alcoholic. Seemed appropriate," the voice said sadly. "They took off with our ship. Who'd have thought they could learn how to fly it? Of course, one of them used to be in charge of designing the shuttle controls...I hope the virulent bastards get sucked into the gravity well of a sun. That'd be...ironic..."

Click on another entry:

"Journal entry, August 22nd. It's risky as hell, but the committee- what's left of it- wants another crack at the time machine. The monoliths have shone a light on the theory, but the execution...we're really taking a shot in the dark on this one. The prototype is built. All we've got to do is get it up and running. There's not much time to wait. Not all of the Taken went with the ship. They're content to keep picking us off by nightfall. We've got to-"

Here the entry went over in static. Kronen frowned. That recording usually ran just fine- he'd listened to it dozens of times. Calamari moved to another one.

"September 17th. Or maybe 18th," the voice said after a long pause. Pestilence stared at the recording device. This was the worst-sounding one yet, his voice empty and horrified.

"Something's gone wrong. Everything's gone...badly. The time machine could send people back, it would create a displacement field to send people forward or backward as needed. The calculations...all off. The numbers were there but not there. We don't know what the ancients intended when they broke their pillars. When we opened that field, we didn't go backward. We went forward. Further forward than anyone should ever go. We went to the end of all things."

There was a choked sob, before the owner of the voice tried to assert his scientific self-control back over himself.

"Something that was nothing came through. We opened a gate to the very end of the universe, and absolutely nothing- became something, right before my eyes. I was looking at something that should not have been there, and everytime I think of it, my head starts to hurt. We tried to shut down the machine, send it back, but then time itself became...broken. I can't imagine how it could've worked. It's driving me-"

Another pause.

"We, as human beings, have the ability to envision hypothetical situations and devise a course of action for each. It's the gift of imagination, and the curse of hindsight. Well, in that moment of time shattering before our eyes, I saw all of time's potential laid out before me in a vast prism of the mind. Every single action that could be taken. Hundreds of mes, hundreds of time machines, hundreds of labs, everything that could occur from that moment...but only one it. Only one something-but-nothing in the center of it all. The Taken are attacking the lab now. They must've heard the explosion. Or maybe one abomination seeks another. I'm drawing the security shutters down now. We can rebuild the machine. Or wait for the inevitable."

Calamari's smile was gone, and she set the recorder down, not wanting to listen to any more. Pestilence looked sorrowfully at Kronen.

"Inevitable...we saw a man in that lab, who had shot himself, and written 'Entropy is inevitable' on the wall."

"It may have been my grandfather's old partner, Richter. He was far more lucid, in the end. The coming of Entropy drove my grandfather insane. Not all at once- that'd have been merciful," Kronen said bitterly. "He was faced with the break-down of his knowledge of a rational universe, losing himself and feeling his loss, day by day, until death finally claimed him. He was cremated, of course."

"I'm sorry," Pestilence said.

"A very long time ago, now. Not that you'd know it to see the surface," Kronen said. "Let me give you a closer look at the machine."

-----------------

Buckshot glanced in his friends' direction, able to keep an eye on them even as they were on the distant side of the lab, walking into a chamber housing some complicated machine. First sight of any even vaguely threatening action towards them, he'd charge in and not care how many faces he broke. He glanced over at the soldiers and scientists.

"Sorry about, uh, before. With pulling off your gas mask, and the threatened punching," he said, a little awkwardly, to Raust.

"Don't worry about it. If your friend can help us, even a close encounter with Entropy will have been worth it," the red-headed soldier said with a nod.

"Would she have killed us?" Buckshot asked, bluntly. He needed to know.

"...I'm not sure. Sometimes somebody down here just cracks. They go up to the surface, and if she finds them...and decides she's interested in them...they start to change. Up here," Raust said, tapping the side of his head. "Every rational part of the brain breaks down, stops working right, and then they're lost. Driven insane."

"Man," Buckshot said slowly. "...Gotta tell ya, this whole thing is really creeping me out."

"We get used to it. There's certain rules you just learn to follow," Raust replied. "Some of the people down here think we should just stay down here, never go up top. Let her do whatever she does up there, and we just try to live our lives as well as we can down here."

"Do you think that's how it should be?"

"No. We can't maintain this. People have bad dreams, get weird ideas in their head down here. Everything breaks down a little more anytime she gets close. And you robots showing up, well, that's got her interest for sure. We have to find a way to fight back."

"Pestilence'll find a way," Buckshot said with almost complete certainty. "Her and me and Cal, we've gotten into worse scrapes than this and figured a way out."

"I hope so," Raust said. Behind him, one of the scientists kept checking and re-checking her readouts.

"This is wrong...the fluctuations are completely off the scale...I need a repair team in here!" she said into an intercom, then grimaced as it gave her a burst of static. "That's stopped working too! What's-"

The machine sitting in the center of the room, powering the complex, abruptly shut down. The laboratory was thrown into darkness, before emergency lighting kicked on- and then the emergency lights began to malfunction as well. Buckshot stood up straight, fists clenched, as the humans ran to and fro, trying to get the computers booted up and re-connecting power cables. In the distant chamber, Kronen, Calamari, and Pestilence were hurrying back towards the main lab. Buckshot stared into the darkness as a feminine form, a silhouette forming from nothingness, appeared in the center of the room.

"-you can't keep me out forever-"

"Flip every switch over! Find an auxiliary battery if you need to!" one of the soldiers barked.

The flickering apparition looked straight at Buckshot, and like after-images on a human retina, he saw her seem to change back and forth from a dark-haired, empty-eyed woman, to a wolf femmebot with black fur, to a vague shadow hovering there like a hole cut out of reality. Pestilence skidded to a halt next to Buckshot, wanting to scan Entropy with her multi-tool and realizing once again her tool was lost.

"I am the end of all places and all things. I wait in the dark," the image of Entropy said with a soft smile. The scientists managed to get the machine running again, restoring the power, lights winking back on across the complex, and the ghost vanished.

"We've restored the interference field. She won't be able to-" one started to say, and the machine went down again with a crackle and rending of metal. The silhouette reappeared, stepping closer and closer to them.

"I will be there, waiting, for every one of you,"
Entropy said, reaching out for Raust's neck as he backed up against a generator, eyes widened. "Have faith in me..."

They restored the power again, and she briefly disappeared- the lights flashed on and off, and each time she reappeared, smiling, hands looming closer and closer around his neck. In the last burst of darkness, her fingers moved close enough to Raust's throat to touch, before passing like mist through his skin, and she finally disappeared as the machine was fully restored. Raust collapsed, clutching at his neck, and Pestilence was immediately kneeling by his side.

"Has she hurt you? Are you all right?" she asked.

"Get that damned machine up and keep it running!" Kronen barked at his scientists.

"I'm fine, her grip passed right through me," Raust said, an expression of shock still etched on his face.

"It did, didn't it?" Pestilence said, rubbing her chin, and stood up. "Right- are you guys sure that that kind-of-a perpetual motion machine but not really one is back up and running?"

"For now, but its condition is getting worse," one of the scientists replied.

"Then there's no time to spend being freaked out by all this! Come on, Bucky, we're going to need to do a little foraging of our own," Pestilence said, hurrying towards where the AXALON was parked in a corner. She pulled the doors of the silver booth open and stepped inside.

--------------------

"What're we looking for? I thought we couldn't risk flying this thing," Buckshot said as he stepped inside the AXALON after Pestilence.

"We can't fly anywhere without risk of Entropy corrupting the machines. But maybe I can build a little something to even the odds!" the petite scientist called over her shoulder, heading past the navigational console and into the hallways. "Get me some of the scrap boxes from one of the storage rooms!"

"Which one?" Buckshot asked, looking around as he walked into the gleaming silver corridor and gazed down a corridor of ten different doors.

"The one marked 'miscellaneous'!" Pestilence answered from another room.

After some quick rummaging, Buckshot emerged from the room with a heavy container of scrap metal and spare parts under each arm. Pestilence sprinted from the other room with computer parts and emitters in a box, looked critically at the results of Buckshot's foraging, and told him to drop one and just bring the other. They hurried back out of the AXALON, Pestilence closing the doors behind them with a foot, and past the bewildered-looking humans and Calamari.

"What's the natural enemy of entropy?" Pestilence asked, overturning her box onto a work bench and sending parts tumbling all over its surface. "A force called extropy! The vitality of life, the thirst for knowledge, the drive to banish the darkness! We're not staying down here to let that nutjob drive us crazy, agreed?"

"Agreed," Buckshot said with a grin.

"Agreed," Calamari said, though she was a little more hesitant. She'd seen herself, dead and reanimated, inside the future AXALON. That memory wasn't going away anytime soon.

"Kronen, we'll need any charge you can spare to help get a charge once I can cobble a little something together," Pestilence told him with a smile as she started sorting through the scrap parts. "You need more parts to get your machine running. I don't think anything I've got here is going to work in it, though, is it?"

"Not quite," Kronen said, lifting his cane and pushing some of the scrap parts around with the end of it. "This is not compatible with the time machine prototype. There are other buildings some miles from the south tunnel exit...as I recall, they were warehouses. We have not bothered to take parts from them, as without power, the gear is worthless."

"Let me worry about that. I'm going to build something to help the salvage effort," Pestilence said, and after taking some tools from a drawer on the work bench, began to rapidly put pieces and parts together.

"Then you have agreed to charge the time machine?" Kronen asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Not to send any of us back, but to banish -her-!" Pestilence said, pointing a finger at the ceiling as if to indicate where Entropy could have, even then, been walking the surface above. "When your perpetual motion machine broke down, and that apparition materialized inside our base, I observed her closely and saw what everyone else saw- she tried to touch Raust and couldn't. It wasn't a hologram, it wasn't a ghost. She wasn't fully in phase with the rest of us, why is that?"

"Because she needed to affect our devices on a large scale at that moment," Kronen said, realizing it.

"Exactly!" Pestilence screwed a small emitter into a wire frame. "She had to focus a large part of her efforts on overriding your interference and stopping the perpetual motion machine, if only for a few seconds. She drew on her powers, called upon what she is an embodiment of- but by becoming a personification in the first place, she binds herself to certain rules whenever she appears on this physical plane. She wanted to send herself in here to wreak havoc, or taunt us, or just see our fear- that last one seems most likely- but with such an expenditure of energy she could only manage a vague resonance of herself!"

"So we're glad she can turn into a ghost -and- wreck the machines keeping us safe?" Buckshot asked.

"She can't enact her influence on a large scale and stay solid at the same time! Who'd have guessed, Entropy can't juggle," Pestilence said with some satisfaction, briefly tossing a wrench, a lightbulb, and a cog from hand to hand simultaneously before returning to her work. "If I can make this work, our next surface trip will be a lot more successful. And if Entropy comes looking for us, I'm going to exploit that inability to multi-task for all it's worth."

"...Wait, we're going to the surface?" Calamari asked, blinking.

------------------

The Cybertronians were led through the complex to the south tunnel, Pestilence making some last-minute tweaks and adjustments to the devices she carried in her arms. Kronen tapped his cane along the floor as he stood beside the heavy doors while a pair of soldiers gradually turned a valve to open them. The doors slid apart with a shuddering clank, revealing a tunnel up to the surface. Unlike the spiraling tunnel they'd entered this base in, this one was a long and straight path ramping upward, and they could see the dark blue of the night sky as a faint square in the distance.

"Okay, easy enough," Pestilence said. "We make the run for warehouse Beta, you said- about eight miles off- find the parts you need, and get back before we're found. And if we are found, this little number's going to protect us."

She pulled out the device she'd constructed, with help from Kronen and the other scientists. It was a long metal rod with a curved handle, and at the top of it was a dome-like constellation of metal parts connecting bulbs, wires, and emitters that hung in spindly tiers. The very top of the dome was spinning constantly, and the rod emitted a faint hum.

"...Did you make that out of an umbrella?" Buckshot asked, pointing at the curved handle.

"No, it's my awesome force field generator! Built from scraps, thank you very much. Though an umbrella might have contributed to the cause," Pestilence said, twirling the force field emitter in her hand.

"What's that thing?" Calamari asked, pointing to the other device Pestilence had made. It was a small glass jar, with a copper seal, panel of circuitry and a blinking red light atop the lid. Pestilence rolled it in her palm and stuck it in one of the deep pockets of her coat.

"That? That's just a theory of mine, might not even work. You guys ready to go?"

"As much as I'm gonna be," Buckshot said with a shrug, standing with her underneath the tiered dome of emitters. Calamari moved beside them, and Pestilence turned to Kronen.

"We're going to need exact directions. I can figure out what parts to find, but I don't know the way there."

Before the elderly scientist could answer, Raust stepped forward, holding up his gas mask and a machine gun.

"I can show you the way to the warehouses," he said firmly.

"Are you sure?" Pestilence asked, peering at him.

The red-headed soldier took a deep breath, remembering how Entropy had tried to wrap her fingers around his neck, and he nodded.

"If I hadn't taken your ship, you might not be in this mess with us. You're here, and you've offered to help, so I want to help you in return. My tank's still good for more than five hours' worth of air; plenty of time to get there and back."

"All right, step in front," Pestilence said, motioning him forward with a smile. The human strapped on his mask and took his place among the three Cybertronians, under the dome of the force field emitter. Kronen signaled his men to shut the door, and the four made their way up the tunnel, through the darkness. At the top of the tunnel, Raust hit the button to start raising the blast door, and moved back towards the other three. Pestilence flipped a switch on the curved handle, and with a spark of electricity racing along the spindly wires and back towards the ever-spinning center of the dome, the emitters generated a crackling transparent force field that enveloped the four of them in a shimmering cone.

"Cool," Calamari said, reaching out to touch the force field from the inside and getting a little zap.

"Let's get ready to run," Pestilence said, hoisting the umbrella emitter up a little higher, and sprinting out across the desolate wastelands with Calamari, Buckshot, and Raust flanking her.

--------------------

Some time later, the four of them came to a halt, Raust stopping to catch his breath, gas mask wheezing a little, and the three Cybertronians looking around doubtfully. They'd covered a long distance, and were now passing another half-buried obsidian monolith, the plains utterly still around them.

"Do we need to keep running?" Buckshot asked.

"I was expecting a faster response than this," Pestilence admitted, twirling her emitter a little and looking around. "No lights, no reanimates, nothing but silence."

"Maybe she's on the other side of the planet? Forgot about us?" Calamari asked hopefully.

"No. She's drawing it out. Seeing what we do," Raust said, standing up straight and gazing at the horizon. "We don't have much farther to go. This whole region was colonized once, the buildings aren't very far apart. Let's keep going."

As they walked, they passed the well-preserved monolith and Pestilence peered at it. Those runes on it had led to the nigh-downfall of every colonist on the planet. Hardly their intended purpose, but why hadn't any warning been left? Did those ancient beings know what lurked at the end of their time travels? As Pestilence gazed upon the tower of stone, she saw a blue light flicker past. She ran her fingers over the little jar in her pocket, frowning.

"I saw it too," Raust said grimly. "She could be close."

They continued across the plains in a state of high tension- the constant oppressive silence weighing on them, occasionally one turning to look at nothing more than a shadow, or jumping at an imagined sound. They crested a little hill and saw a few blocky buildings in the distance. Still a couple miles off. Pestilence gripped her force field emitter's handle tightly and motioned them on. They'd made their way down the hill when everything seemed to go cold around them.

"I'm closer than you think," Entropy said, and Raust whirled around, gun raised. Buckshot reached out quickly and slapped his hand on the machine gun's barrel, forcing it down.

Entropy looked at them with interest as she hovered slightly above the ground, half in and half out of the darkness. Her long curtain of black hair billowed in front of her face, her empty eyes flickering as she briefly looked Cybertronian, then very briefly like something neither human nor machine. She had three companions with her as well; two dead soldiers and one dead civilian. The soldiers had identical machine guns to Raust's, the civilian had a pistol. They had the jerky, shambling gait and the flashing-blue corneas of reanimates.

"I'm glad you didn't wait for me to come to you," Entropy said, an expression of curiosity on her face as she floated along, her puppets staggering in formation around her.

Pestilence clutched tightly at the umbrella handle. She was now facing the creatures, all four of them were, and they continually backed up, moving step by step closer to the warehouses. She looked at the reanimates- their faces were devoid of emotion or recognition, they may as well have been sleep-walking.

"Three robots and a little human. What are you hiding under?" Entropy asked with curiosity. She seemed to regard them as playthings, or new test subjects.

"Stall her, say something, before those things start shooting," Buckshot nudged Pestilence.

"Entropy, what is your purpose here?" she asked after a moment, louder than she needed to. It was unnerving, looking right at her. Her mind kept wanting to tell her there was nothing standing there. "Why have you locked this whole planet down? Time is out of sync here, it messes with peoples' minds. And those blue lights...they're the Taken, aren't they?"

"Yes," Entropy said softly, tracing a hand along the cheek of one of her puppets, his eyes flickering blue. "When I arrived, everyone was so scared except for them. They worshipped me. And so I distilled them into the purest essence of their life-force stealing energy...and gave them an eternity to feed."

"But why?" Pestilence persisted. "What is all of this for?"

Entropy smiled then, and one of the reanimates stepped forward and opened fire. Calamari tensed up, and then saw that nothing but empty clicks were emerging from the barrel of his machine gun. The civilian aimed her pistol at them, producing more clicks.

"Empty, all empty-" Raust started to say.

Then the last reanimate brought up his machine gun, and opened up a volley of bullets that slammed into their force field, bouncing off and sending a shudder through the flimsy metal dome.

"Son of a-! That one's got a live clip!" Raust yelped, stumbling back and shielding his face. Pestilence scowled and flicked her switch again and again.

"Constantly remodulating shield frequencies! It'll hold," she said, though she didn't sound convinced of that herself. The reanimated soldier continued to fire, more bullets panging off the shield. Entropy's smile turned to a little frown, and she moved a little closer.

"That toy's in the way," she said, and stared at the dome. The crackling electricity started to slow, the rate of energy breaking down. Pestilence gave her umbrella handle a shake, looking very carefully at Entropy. As the personification focused on taking out their cover, her feet touched the ground, and she slowly became more real, more there for a moment.

"She's become tangible! Raust, shoot her!" Pestilence said, suddenly turning the force field off. Raust didn't take a second to think, or protest- he raised his gun and fired a round right at Entropy's head. The bullet hit her between the eyes and she staggered back wordlessly. She looked at them with astonishment as the holes immediately vanished from her gray, pale forehead.

"Bullets won't hurt something like her, but you can bet we just made her mad," Pestilence said with satisfaction as she hit the switch and got the force field back up.

"You dare...?" the being hissed.

"We dare, Entropy! We dare to go into the dark and face beings like you, and to tell you that we choose not to be afraid of you!" Pestilence shouted at her. "Leave us alone! Go play somewhere else! We are not your puppets!"

Entropy seethed, her tangible and intangible forms shifting back and forth as her reanimates lumbered after her. The force field emitter had taken damage, was wearing down visibly, but still managing its output, and they had no way to be sure whether that one reanimate had emptied his clip. Pestilence motioned for them to move, and they continued to run towards the warehouse, turning their back on Entropy.

As they neared the blocky buildings in the distance, suddenly the sky split and a whiff of ozone permeated the air as another one of the corrupted, glitchy time-tunnels opened up. The AXALON appeared in midair, the doors sliding open, and Calamari leaned out of the doors- she wasn't dead, but clearly the worse for wear, bullet wounds in her torso leaking glowing energy and radiation. She leaned out of the booth.

"GUYS! The force field's about to give out! Bucky, duck right now!" she called.

"Wha- CRIPES!" Buckshot looked up at the future Calamari just as the force field emitter sprayed sparks and went dead. The reanimate brought its gun up and fired off a burst of rounds that'd have perforated Buckshot's head, had he not ducked immediately. Pestilence turned to see Entropy closing in on them with a smile of triumph. The future Calamari slammed the doors to the AXALON shut and re-entered the decaying time tunnel, but Entropy had already focused on it, and was drawing on its power, making it break down further.

"What's she doing?!" Raust asked.

"Siphoning off the energies of the time tunnel! Keep running!" Pestilence said, trying to get the force field emitter up and running again.

Entropy funneled black, crackling light away from the time tunnel even as it slammed shut, and her smile widened as the corrupted power wound in arcs of force around her hands. She grabbed the two soldier reanimates by the shoulders, and they began to change. Something hideous, something wrong- it was a mercy that the human and 'bots fleeing from her couldn't get a good look at the degradations in the darkness. Blue eyes, glinting fangs, and writhing limbs of physical impossibility that hurt one's eyes to look at. Entropy used the decay of time itself to turn her puppets into monstrosities, and floated just above them like a general surveying the battlefield.

"Go end them," she said.

The monstrosities lumbered forward, limbs snapping at the air, and howled an ear-piercing shriek as they took off after the others. The force field emitter was useless. Pestilence flung it at the monsters, then took off as fast as she could. The warehouses were still a mile off, and the creatures were closing in.


END OF EPISODE THREE


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 Post subject: Re: DWA: The Gate to Nothingness
PostPosted: Sat Apr 02, 2011 4:50 pm 

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THE GATE TO NOTHINGNESS

EPISODE FOUR


Pestilence, Buckshot, Raust, and Calamari ran as fast as they could, the mutated monstrosities almost literally snapping at their heels. Raust tried to fire off his machine gun at them as he ran, but managed about as much accuracy as one would expect in that situation. And as they ran that endless final mile towards the warehouse, Entropy was always just behind her creations, a shape flickering in the night sky.

They reached the warehouse, managing a final burst of speed to put some distance between themselves and their pursuers. Calamari, the fastest runner of the four, took a dive through the open gate and hit the other side. She glanced around, seeing a button similar to ones on the sides of the blast doors at the humans' bunker, and stretched out one of her metallic tentacles to hit it. The security shutter started to slide down- Pestilence ducked under, followed by Raust, and lastly Buckshot. As the shutter descended, he took a running dive and cleared the shutter just as it slammed into the floor.

"Hah! See, we're fine!" Pestilence assured her friends, tapping a finger against the thick steel door. Then the monstrosities slammed into it and the entire wall shook, the shutter denting outward.

"We're not fine!" Pestilence amended, a look of panic crossing her face, and she turned and bolted for the corridors. They were in a long dark hallway with old instructions and number markings on the concrete walls. They barreled down the corridor, on Raust's insistence that all the gear they were looking for would be in the C-storage room up a flight of stairs ahead.

Back at the far end of the corridor, the shutter started to rust and decay as Entropy worked her effect on it. The hinges broke down, joints rotting to nothing, and soon an onyx-black tendril was writhing its way around the hinges, glowing eyes and fangs glinting in the dark as the not-so-impregnable security gate was peeled away by one corner to let the attackers inside.

The creatures lurched their way across the cold floor, the talons of their hands dragging and clicking. They peered into the darkness, easily able to see their way around. Entropy stood with her hands at her sides, smiling a little as she watched her creations go forth. She then looked off to the side, as though distracted by something, and went intangible once more, fading into the shadows.

-------------------

The Cybertronians and human soldier bolted down a couple of flights of stairs, and along a twisting corridor, before emerging in the warehouse proper. Raust stepped in front of the group and looked around at the shelves- thick and sturdy metal crates stacked high, some secured by chains or by a mesh gate over the front of the shelf. He moved back and forth between the shelves, tracing a finger along the coded labels on the sides.

"We can be in and out if we find what we need quickly," he said nervously, rasping through his gas mask.

"And if those things don't eat us alive," Buckshot added.

"That, too. But it's all right here on the labels. I can find you the parts you need, there's an area for computers and scientific equipment about...about..." Raust trailed off, finger tapping idly on one of the tall shelves' labels.

"About where?" Pestilence asked.

Raust shook his head, rubbing at his temple through the mask.

"I was having trouble keeping the shelves straight for a moment. They just seemed to go on and on...it's her. She's trying to throw us off, distract us," Raust shuddered a little, then looked at the others. "That doesn't work on you, does it?"

"Probably not," Buckshot assured him, then blinked at the shelves. They'd moved a little. Just then. Or probably hadn't.

"If we can take a moment to stop and think-" Pestilence started to propose, but never got to finish. With an ear-piercing crash, a pair of shelves directly next to her were knocked over and a dark mass of writhing limbs vaulted over it. Pestilence yelped, turning and fleeing alongside her companions, as the monstrosity turned its face towards them, eyes narrowing and glowing, and growled. It gave chase, and Pestilence risked a glance over her shoulder. What she saw was nightmarish, hard to want to focus your eyes on, but she could pick up a sense of lost humanity to it. That had been a human being before Entropy worked her degradations upon it. And, she saw, it was leaving writhing little bits of itself behind as it ran, the bits dissolving into little steaming trails of blackness that became nothing. Encouraged, Pestilence sprinted faster.

The four of them turned a corner and ducked into the shadows. The creature lumbered past them, tendrils tracing along crates and barrels along the shelves. Pestilence kept one hand clamped over Calamari's mouth and the other clamped over her own, while Buckshot and Raust stood perfectly still beside them. When the dragging and clicking had subsided, Pestilence finally dared to whisper:

"Good news."

"There's good news?" Calamari asked, just as quietly.

"Those creatures were mutated via unstable energies, from the corrupted time tunnel. They're gradually breaking down, losing molecular cohesion."

"Will they lose molecular cohesion faster than the time it'd take them to kill us?" Buckshot asked.

"Well, no."

"Gonna need a plan, then."

Pestilence opened her mouth to reply, and then:

"Why don't you lie down and wait to die? That's a plan,"
Entropy said, appearing directly behind them. Raust spun around, gun up, only to see the black-haired woman disappear back into the shadows between the shelves. Chains started to corrode and decay, shelves broke and sent crates tumbling down, and with a great creak and crash a shelf fell down and separated him from the Cybertronians, a chain of dominoes that sent more shelves, more barrels, more impassable debris tumbling down and knocking the four around and apart.

When the collision was over, and the fallen shelves settled, the four each stood up and realized they were each alone, with a small mountain of shelves and crates between them. It was too neat to be anything other than engineered- Entropy wanted them split up and vulnerable. Somewhere in the darkness, one of the prowling monstrosities growled lowly.

"Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod-" Calamari said in a low mantra of panic, trying to shove at the heavy shelf blocking her way and only moving the massive metal configuration an inch or two. "Guys, I can't see you! GUYS!"

"We're here!" Pestilence called to her. "I'm here, anyway. Shelves on both sides of me. Buckshot, any chance you could break down this pile?"

"Too much stuff, too dense to just punch apart. Plus a crate fell on my head," Buckshot said from his corner, glaring at the mound of debris and rubbing the dent on his metallic forehead.

"I've got one grenade on me. It's pretty old, might still work," Raust proposed.

"Maybe we shouldn't add 'skewered by flying shrapnel from metal shelves' to our list of woes right now," Pestilence said, frowning. "I know I can find a way around. If everyone just waits right where they are, I can get right back to you."

"Don't leave me standing right here!" Calamari said in a voice almost shrill with fright. The darkness was almost absolute, and she could swear she heard one of the creatures creeping along on the other side of the shelf nearest her.

"I can get to you! I'll punch a way through if I have to, you guys just hold tight-" Buckshot said, stomping off down his corridor.

"Bucky! Don't go off on your own! ...Grah!" Pestilence threw up her hands in exasperation, then turned and took off in the only direction she could, away from her friends, scarf flapping behind her.

-------------------

Pestilence could easily adjust her optics to see in different levels of brightness, similar to how a human's pupil would dilate, yet she still had trouble making her way down the corridor, occasionally bumping against a fallen crate or feeling herself nearly trip over a canister. It was Entropy, she was sure of that- the being liked the dark, and knew the psychological effect it had on most people. And many 'bots.

Pestilence considered calling out, drawing Entropy's attention towards her and away from her friends. Of course, that meant she might simply decide to bring her horrific creations right down on her head. Pestilence edged to a corner of shelf, peering around it for any sight of personified nothingness or eldritch tendrils. All clear, so it seemed. She stepped around and put one foot out over a howling abyss of wind and cold, and yelped, stumbling backward. She landed on her rear and looked down with wide optics into a pit she'd keep falling through forever, unable to stop, screaming and-

She reached out her foot again. Solid floor, and had never been anything else. She shook her head and stood up, inching along the corridor. The shelves on either side of her stayed firmly still as she walked along where the perceived chasm had been, then started to warp and sway around her. She reached out to one shelf with a hand to steady it, then gasped as her hand came away slick with blood. Now the shelf appeared to be stuffed with bodies, staring sightlessly at her.

"Nice trick! But I know what's real and what isn't! You're not going to scare me!" Pestilence yelled out angrily, suppressing a slight quaver in her tone, and the shelf became once more filled with old crates of grain substitute and bottles of distilled water.

"I looked into your minds. I saw the things you fear. Give in to me and you'll never be afraid of anything again," Entropy's voice echoed down to Pestilence as she crossed the corridor.

"Because I'd never have anything resembling life again!" the scientist retorted. She turned another corner, and was abruptly faced with a pair of red eyes glowing in the dark. Then another, then another. Pestilence tensed, fearing attack by the monstrosities roaming the warehouse, then saw more eyes, and fangs. Glowing white optics, and towering machines, and troops of soldiers, and more in a universe of hate and fear and evil, spread out in front of her. She felt smaller and smaller, a speck, weak and self-important, trying to stand up against all the forces of evil and ultimately being consumed by them.

Her friends were gone, and the worst things waited to silence her forever, squash her for the impudence of trying to stand up to them. And Entropy would be there, waiting in the dark and silence at the end of it all. Pestilence started to quake, at a loss for words or for ideas, feeling utterly terrified and alone. She balled up her fists, forcing herself to stand up straight, and walked at the universe of evil. Every monstrous thing was waiting here, and she made herself step faster though she wanted dearly to run away. She could feel three silhouettes behind her, the shapes of her previous incarnations, and drew on their experience to not feel so alone anymore, and charged.

She ran at the wall of enemies and it vanished, leaving her to very nearly run face-first into a shelf. Pestilence put out her hands to stop herself and looked back, seeing only a dark and empty hallway.

"I could feel how scared you were," Entropy said, sounding perplexed. "You started to think it was real. Why didn't you run away?"

"Because...because fear is what gives things like you power," Pestilence said. "Or maybe it gives you satisfaction. Either way, I'm not giving in."

"That's not bravery. That's stubbornness," Entropy said, sounding petulant for a moment, and one of the pairs of red eyes from the hallucination before revealed itself as part of the slowly corroding monstrosity, and the creature began to give chase. Pestilence took off running, with the tentacled horror whipping at crates as it vaulted after her.

-------------------

Buckshot picked his way along the corridor, squinting into the darkness as though it'd do something to help his sight. He inadvertently kicked a small box and sent it skittering along the floor, and winced, expecting a black horror to lock onto his position and maul him into scrap. When none came, he grimaced.

"Friggin' things are bigger than me and 40% tentacle, but now they're all stealthy..." he murmured very quietly. He turned a corner and saw a corner of one of the towering shelves seem to bend. He looked at it for a long moment, certain that nothing was out of place, and kept walking- as cans rolled off the shelf silently behind him and stopped in the middle of the floor. He looked back on a hunch, staring at the fallen cans. For a moment he thought one of them was full of eyeballs. He scrunched his optics shut, then looked again. It was full of batteries. Entropy again, inside his head.

He backed up a little, and out of the corner of one optic he saw a black patch of gooey tendril easing around a corner. He turned around, fist swinging, and slugged the creature in its face, sending it falling to the ground with a clank and thud. Before he could feel a moment of victory, Buckshot saw the mechfluid pooling around the body and saw it was Calamari, her face crumpled, lying before him.

"CAL! No! I didn't- NO!" Buckshot bellowed, his knuckles slick.

Pestilence was lying next to her. He'd pummeled them to death. He turned, gasping, and iron bars slammed down in front of him, a cell holding him in place for all eternity, leaving him to rust next to the bodies of his betrayed friends. He hammered on the bars, shouting.

"Look what you've done," Entropy said coolly.

"It wasn't me! I was tricked!" Buckshot jerked and pulled on the bars, but they seemed to go on for miles above him, too strong to bend or break.

"You should have never been let out. Now you won't be able to hurt anyone else."


"I'm not like that! I never was! It was all...I would never hurt them, ever, ever-" Buckshot pounded on the bars, the clang of the steel echoing in his ears, droplets of mechfluid dripping from his fingers, before the clanging suddenly went away. He realized he was standing in the middle of the corridor, banging on empty air. He looked down quickly at where the bodies had been, and saw nothing- nothing on his hands, either. He shuddered, and looked angrily into the dark.

"Funny! FUNNY! If you want to kill me, just feed me to one of your pets and have done with it! But I'm not playing your damn games!"

He turned, enraged, and took a running shoulder-tackle at the shelf nearest him. It started to teeter, groaning and creaking, and for a moment he sensed the intangible presence of Entropy, startled, then gone. The shelf leaned hard and fell with a mighty crash- on top of something. There was an ear-piercing shriek and something black and feral and best not described withered beneath the heavy shelf, made heavier as Buckshot stepped out onto it.

"...Nice save!" Pestilence squeaked, mere inches from where the shelf had come down.

She grabbed onto Buckshot's hand and pulled herself up, looking at where the shelf was slowly sinking down closer to the floor while the compromised monstrosity ebbed away to so many discarded molecules.

"Pest, I didn't...I mean, I didn't hurt you, right? It was her, she made me see awful stuff, like she was just..." Buckshot waved his hand, at a loss for words.

"Toying with you? Wanting to see how you'd react?" Pestilence suggested, and Buckshot nodded.

"Oh, yes. She's toying with us, all right," she said, looking around as she and Buckshot progressed further along. "The more I've thought about it, the more it starts to add up. A personification of ends, of ultimate nothingness, playing at life. Manipulations of the living, using the souls of the Taken to prop up the dead like marionettes. A world time-locked so that it'll never grow or change on her, because nothingness never changes. I know you're listening, Entropy! You've held an entire people in terror for over a century! This has to stop!"

"They were afraid of what I am, so I'm trying to make sure they don't have to be afraid anymore," Entropy said, her voice floating along somewhere behind them. "I made it so that the dead do not stay dead. I made it so the planet will never grow old and fall victim to a dying sun. And in return, I want to learn things."

"Learn things?" Buckshot repeated.

"About life. About people. What they do about things that scare them. What makes them want to run, and what makes them want to stay. I've never been alive before. Now there's so much to find out. First on this world. Then, every world."

"But why go about it this way?!" Pestilence demanded.

"Because. I. Want. To," Entropy said, testily, and abruptly vanished, the corridor seeming to be a little less dark, and a little less cold without her there. Buckshot looked back down the corridor as he and Pestilence came to a cul-de-sac of moved shelves. He pushed one aside, clearing a path to another hallway, while Pestilence rooted through the scientific supplies and scrap metal on display.

"She's left us alone for now. She's spread thin, probably intangible while she dips into our minds and accesses our fears," Pestilence said rapidly, rummaging through boxes for anything useful.

"She could've had us there and then. So if she's left us alone, that means she's going after Cal, and Raust," Buckshot said uneasily.

"She WON'T get to hurt them," Pestilence said firmly. "Here we are...one piece of luck. Grab this box, and -hold- onto it, you understand? That's all the pieces I can use back at the bunker, and not many spares! I'll take this adapter, I've got a cord to fit it in the AXALON, and if we get moving we can- hello. What's this?"

She'd taken a small narrow wrench-like device, orange in the center with blue bars and adjustable heads on either end and a couple of switches on the side.

"This is pretty advanced for human colonists at this stage of development," Pestilence said approvingly. "Powerful charge, multiple settings...with some modifications using Cybertronian tech, I could really use this. Don't think anyone'll mind if I take it?"

"What is it?" Buckshot asked, balancing the box of jumbled parts under one arm.

"It's like an....ionic spanner!" Pestilence said after a moment's debate, spinning it in her hand.

"Trust you to ooh and aah over fancy gizmos while we're about to get eaten by nightmare monsters," Buckshot groused. "C'mon!"

He hurried off down the opened path between shelves, while Pestilence pocketed her new tool and ran after him.

------------------

Calamari stood with her back to one of the fallen shelves, peering into the darkness. She'd heard faint shouts, and crashes, but had been afraid to move from her spot. She'd been beating herself up for it, feeling like she was abandoning her friends, yet the image of her future self, dead and reanimated by the blue lights, was firmly stuck in her mind, and she just thought to herself that Pestilence was coming for her, again and again.

"Raust? ...Mark? You haven't said anything for a while. You're still there, right?" she asked, tapping one of the fallen shelves and looking through an inch-wide gap between the debris.

"...I'm here," the human finally said, voice rasping through his gas mask. He sounded fatigued, wary, but then, so was she. Still, something about his voice put her on alert.

"Are you okay?" she asked tentatively.

"....Fine," Raust said at length. Calamari frowned doubtfully. He sure didn't -sound- fine. She was starting to feel strange herself. The silence was thick, and the way those shouts and crashes had come in so distant, muffled and distorted.

Calamari felt the floor start to sink beneath her metallic feet, and looked down. The tile had given way to brownish-gray soil, and she started. Dirt beneath the warehouse floor? She lifted a foot, dirt crumbling off it, and looked down to see a dragging trail of skids and scratches leading away from her and to a shallow grave torn into the floor. She could see her own arm was lying up out of one side of it. Then the hand started to move.

"No," Calamari whispered. "No, no, no! I'm not ready! It can't end like that! Leave me alone!" she said, cupping her hands to her ears, against the whispers in the darkness. "I said, LEAVE ME ALONE!"

Abruptly, the shallow grave with its beckoning inhabitant disappeared, and the floor was once more undisturbed. Calamari blinked, not sure of what was real- until one of Entropy's monsters dragged itself around the corner, drawn to the sound of her scream. Calamari turned to run, and nearly bumped into the pile of broken shelves and crates. Without a second thought, and with an agility none of her companions could have matched, she leaped at the pile and started to scale it hand over hand, using her tentacles to assist her climbing, and with an efficiency borne of pushing fear from her mind and simply focusing on her task, she easily climbed up and over the pile and jumped down to join Raust.

"One of those things is on the on the other side!" she told him. "We've got to run, like, right now!"

Without a questioning word, the human turned and took off, with Calamari running by his side. The creature propelled itself down the pile of debris with short jumps and bounds, and narrowed its gaze at the fleeing pair, bunching its once-human fists. It chased them along a winding path of leaning shelves and stacked crates, before they passed some racks of flash-frozen food (spoiled even before Entropy's time-lock) and refrigeration supplies. Raust ran for a big, heavy freezer door with a glass porthole on the front.

"There! Get ready to dive out of the way!" he huffed, and put on an extra burst of speed. He pulled the door open, hinges screeching, and Calamari rolled aside as the monstrosity caught up to them with one more leap and sent itself slamming inside the freezer. Raust slammed the door shut and bolted it, breathing a sigh of relief. The power to the freezer was long gone, it was no longer cold, but it'd keep the creature contained.

"Good job," Calamari said with a smile.

"Job's not done yet," Raust said, and pulled his one grenade off his belt. He used the stock of his machine gun to smash open the porthole, opening it up for them to hear anew the angered shrieks of the monster, then pitched the armed grenade inside. Calamari dropped to her knees, covering up, as did the human, as a muffled explosion lit up the darkness with a plume of fire bursting out of the broken porthole. Smoke poured from beneath the door and from its compromised hinges, and a stream of dissolving ichor ran out along the floor.

"Y'know, Pestilence said they were breaking down anyway. You could've just left it in there, it was trapped," Calamari said to Raust as they continued on.

"It would've broken down the door. And it's an abomination. It didn't deserve mercy," Raust said. Calamari looked at him. Even through the tinted viewer of his mask, she could see the pallor of his face, the fear in his eyes, the slight twitch to his features.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm...fine. Saw a few things I didn't like, but I'm fine now," Raust said, rubbing the back of his neck. "We've got to keep moving."

--------------------

The two of them had traveled a distance past the confusion of broken shelves and jumbled crates, venturing further into the darkness, and keeping an eye out each for any sign of Entropy or her creations. They'd seen nothing yet, but knew of her apparent fondness for drawing out fear, and had worked themselves up to the height of paranoia before bumping into Pestilence and Buckshot.

"GAHHH!" Pestilence and Calamari said nearly in sync as they collided and jumped back.

"There you two are! I've been about to ready to lose it," Pestilence said. "Entropy's been toying with our minds, giving us terrible hallucinations."

"Good news, tho, we wasted one of the monsters she made," Buckshot said.

"We destroyed one of the monsters as well," Raust said, looking up at the burly Maximal. "That just leaves one."

"So let's leave it! You must have the parts, let's get out of here, okay?" Calamari pleaded, tugging at Pestilence's arm.

"Gladly. I think we can trace our way around to the hallway we entered from. Come on," Pestilence said, motioning for them to follow her into the dark. They crossed around some narrow, cramped corridors, looking around, keeping alert. And when the eerie silence was finally broken by the dragging thump of the remaining monstrosity, its tendrils creeping around the corner, while her companions tensed up with fear, Pestilence finally felt ready.

"I am sick of running. But let's just do a tiny bit more, up this way!" she said, urging her friends up a staircase and towards a security office overlooking the warehouse. It was in as much of a shambles as the rest of the warehouse, as long neglected, but what counted was the retracted security shutter that Pestilence could see above their heads as she and her friends sprinted up the stairs. Crashing from side to side in the dark, tearing up stairs in its talons and sending the metal banister tumbling in shreds, the creature vaulted up after them and lashed out with its clawed hands, tearing a groove along one of Raust's legs. He stumbled, crying out, and Buckshot grabbed him by the arm- inadvertently hurting him further with his powerful robotic grip- and pulled him into the office. Pestilence aimed her newly acquired ionic spanner up at the door itself- though the controls were long shorted, she was able to send out a burst of power that jolted the door and sent the shutter slamming down just as the creature started to push itself through the office door.

The impact was incredible, the four survivors stumbling back as the thick shutter sliced down and buried itself in the black mass of devolved horror. The creature scrabbled its hands along the floor for a moment and tried to lift up the shutter, succeeding for one terrifying moment in lifting it up several inches with its torso, before slumping back down. It turned his head, and Raust stared with utter horror at seeing it was still a recognizably human face- the eyes blackened orbs, the nose and cheeks run smooth like tallow, and the mouth filled with fangs.

"I knew it was human once, but...God damn her," he whispered.

Pestilence walked forward very slowly, and very carefully, lowering her spanner. She knelt down by the creature, and took her first proper look at it. In the darkness, between all the running and hiding, she'd never seen it. It was human, bipedal, but forced to lurch along the ground under the weight of tendrils and talons.

"I'm truly sorry. You didn't deserve any of this," she said. "I'll see to it that this never happens to anyone else."

"Are you sure he...it...is dead?" Raust asked, sitting on a desk and holding his bloodied leg.

"Well, this man's mutation was induced by the manipulation of unstable time vortex energies, which not only forced a mass cellular breakdown, but- see, the body's already starting to dissipate- also limited its power. We got away with taking these out with relative ease. I don't like to think how we'd fare against a mutation this big that was stable and as strong as it looks.

"You're ready to rest now, I think. Let that little light turn out," Pestilence then said soothingly, and as the creature dissolved and faded, the blue mote of light drifted away, leaving its torso and bobbing up into the air. It started to move away, no doubt to rejoin its mistress, but Pestilence was up in a flash, pulling out the jar she'd stuffed in her pocket. She caught the light, screwing the complicated, blinking metal lid back on, and the little mote of light bobbed back and forth furiously.

"Just like catching a firefly," Buckshot marveled as Pestilence set the jar down on the desk and peered at it. "Is that what it is? A bug?"

"It's nothing so corporeal. It's the essence of the Taken. A life-force draining puppet-master. This is worth studying, and hopefully not using," Pestilence said, glancing meaningfully at Calamari, before putting the jar back in her pocket.

The shutter had bent and ruptured around the dead mutant's mass, now so much black emulsion pooling on the floor. And, as they looked over, they saw a silhouette of nothingness step towards the other side of the shutter, a pair of feet walking past the aperture as idly as a person strolling through the park. Raust clutched his gun tightly, ignoring his bleeding leg in his fear.

"You broke my little monsters," Entropy said reproachfully.

"Get her out of here, don't let her get in here," Raust said dully, and Buckshot glanced at him. The human was petrified.

"Pest, you got a plan, right? I mean, uh, that's the only way out and that door's starting to break down," Buckshot pointed out. Indeed, the shutter was slumping somewhat, the metal rusting over. Suddenly, the shutter was pounded with a ferocious blow. Then another. Pestilence briefly thought Entropy had created another monster from thin air, before realizing it was her- very tangible and very angry.

"Uh, a plan, I did have a plan up to a certain point," Pestilence said nervously.

"Are we already past the certain point?" Buckshot asked.

"Yes, unless..." Pestilence said, and winced, aiming her ionic spanner outward as the door broke down. Entropy stepped in, fully solid and looking at them with narrowed, empty eyes. She stepped into the office, considering her prey, before a broken, distorted vwoop-vwoop-vwoop interrupted.

"YES! I hadn't even dared to voice my hope, you beautiful silver box!" Pestilence said, as the booth hovered just above them, in a swirling maelstrom of distorted temporal energy. The doors hissed open and Calamari leaned out, clutching at her torso as energy radiated from her wounds.

"Get in!" she yelled above the din of the time-tunnel. Pestilence took a running leap and grabbed the bottom of the booth, hauling herself up with both legs kicking beneath herself. Buckshot helped the injured Raust push himself up into the booth, then climbed up last, and offered a hand to the other Calamari. Cal glanced at Entropy, seeing the woman look at them with incredulity dawning on sheer rage, and decided to risk encountering herself, climbing up into the box before it vanished.

"No! You don't get to break my things and leave! I know where you'll go!" Entropy shouted, before turning into a bare shadow and fading away through the wall.

-------------------

The inside of the AXALON was nearly unrecognizable. Panels were falling from the walls, and the ship rocked back and forth with alarming turbulence. Pestilence barely had time to shut the doors behind her friends before she was sliding across the deck, slamming into a hand-rail and trying to keep hold. Sparks erupted from the navigational console, and a burst pipe sprayed smoke across the ceiling. The future Calamari kept a firm grip on the console, one hand still clutching at her midsection.

"You're the me and you's from the scary warehouse, right?" she asked, looking at her friends. "I've got to take you back to the bunker!"

"What happened to you? Me?" Calamari asked, looking at her double's wounds with trepidation.

"Pest said I can't tell you because of time paradox stuff," the future Calamari replied, and offered a brave smile. "It's not as bad as it looks. I'm fine, totally."

But the way mechfluid continually seeped between her fingers, and the sparks of escaping energy, didn't exactly match her reassurances. As the AXALON wobbled and Buckshot and Raust just tried to hold on, Pestilence moved closer to future-Calamari and pulled her aside.

"Did I mention anything about you telling me anything?" she asked. "If this is a bootstrap paradox, you have to let me know so I won't do anything to break the loop."

"She said you'd say that. But it's important you let things happen the way they're supposed to, okay? I have, um, a contingency plan in case I don't last..." Calamari said, trailing off.

"Then this is early in the trip, before you showed up to warn us when we first arrived," Pestilence said.

"I dunno about that. I've only got enough power for one trip-and-back before the ship breaks apart. There's no going anywhere else," Calamari said. Pestilence stared at her, optics widening as she grasped fully what was happening, but before she could explain, the AXALON had shuddered to a violent halt and the doors slammed open.

"We're inside the bunker! Get out before Entropy catches up to you!" Calamari said, directing them to the door. Pestilence just nodded, urging the others towards the exit.

"But how does-" the other Calamari questioned.

"You'll do fine! GO!" Future-Calamari replied, and slammed the doors shut after them before the AXALON dematerialized once more, leaving them in the midst of a bunch of extremely startled scientists and soldiers, and not five feet away from their own AXALON, still parked innocently in a corner of the bunker.

-------------------

Kronen hobbled up on his cane, staring with wide eyes at the trio of Cybertronians and human soldier as they emerged from the duplicate AXALON just before it disappeared.

"Then you do have the ability to time travel," he said. "We have a hope."

"Actually, we didn't plan for that to happen, I just hoped really, really hard that it would," Pestilence said, heading towards him. "Listen: You need to send out a message to everyone in this complex, every man and woman and child, and tell them all to hide. If you have, I don't know, some kind of sub-bunker bunker, get them all in there. Entropy's coming for us and if this is going to work, we need to let her inside."

"Let her...inside?" Raust repeated, looking up suddenly and taking off his gas mask. He waved off a concerned medic, still clutching at his leg as he hurried after them. They were moving towards the defunct and prototypical time machine in its walled-off sector of the lab, and Buckshot had handed off the box of spare parts to Pestilence.

"We have survived over a century by maintaining the machine to keep Entropy at bay," Kronen said. "If she is allowed to enter here, with her puppets by her side, she will wreak havoc!"

"Yeah, pal, turns out those reanimated corpses aren't even close to the worst things she can make," Buckshot told him, then glanced at Pestilence. "Uh, she can't make more of those, can she?"

"Not without time energies to draw on, and she won't see any more of those until it's too late," Pestilence replied, setting the box of parts down by the machine and going to work. "Kronen, get everyone to safety, somewhere far removed from the most direct path here, and we'll try to draw her in. You will have to turn off your machine, just long enough for her to enter this place unimpeded. It'll get dark, everything'll shut down, but you can't let anybody panic."

"It's madness, what you're doing," Kronen said. "I see you've found parts, but we have no sufficient power to charge the machine! What are you doing now?"

"Technobabbling the gobbledy-gook into the yadda yadda," Pestilence said, clearly distracted and stressed for time as she quickly wired pieces into the frame of the machine, making connections with her ionic spanner. "Are you getting everyone to safety yet?"

Kronen shook his head and turned away, moving as quickly as his cane would allow. He made directives to the other scientists, and they got on the PA, warning people to get to their homes, seal off the doors, make head-counts. They prepared to shut down the perpetual motion machine, with no idea of just when or how Entropy would appear.

"Bucky, I'll need you to push the AXALON into this room as quickly as you can. We'll run power cables from the inside of it to hook it up to this machine, and start it up and maybe make a viable displacement field," Pestilence said, fusing together blinking parts and making uncertain connections.

"Um, that thing's starting to look kind of sketchy," Calamari said, pointing at the jury-rigged control panels of the time machine.

"That's because this is really really unsafe," Pestilence said. "I've got no guarantee this'll work. Entropy could severely hamper the linkup, collapse the displacement field, or just blow up the AXALON."

Calamari winced as she said that, and Pestilence took an honest, worrying glance at her.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to bring that up. I...no, you won't have to worry about it. I'll be the one who activates it, and break the time-loop. Maybe that'll have a cascade effect that will-"

"It has to be me, doesn't it?" Calamari asked.

"Not necessarily! Nothing's written, don't let that paradox talk fool you!"

"No, Pest. It has to be me. You just get all this stuff rigged up, and tell me what to do."

Pestilence frowned, going back to work, forcing herself to move faster. Buckshot pushed the AXALON into the room, tipping it slightly, muscles straining to move it. It was heavy even without the extra dimension inside. He set it down and opened the doors, heading inside to look for cables. Raust hovered nearby nervously.

"We just got away from her, and you're going to let her back in?"

"The old 'piss off an unstoppable force and taunt it into a flimsy trap' plan, never fails," Buckshot said with an attempt at gallows humor, giving Raust a grin as he unspooled thick bundles of cable out of the booth's doors.

Raust didn't laugh. His eyes kept darting from side to side, and he still had neither let go of his gun or had any tending to his wounds.

"Okay, make connections here, here, and here," Pestilence directed her companions. "We need to try to get this done as fast as possible before...."

"Before what?" Calamari asked, just before the ever-present hum of the perpetual motion machine turned off, and all the lights in the lab went dark.

"Before that."

--------------------

The people of the bunker complex waited, hunkered down in their little apartments, doors locked and bolted, family members holding each other tightly as the power shut down. Along the low, cramped corridor between the apartments, labs, and storage units, the lights blinked off one by one, until all was utterly dark. And, within moments, the darkness began to somehow grow even blacker, even thicker, and layers of frost started to emerge on the surfaces this blackness passed. A light fixture turned brown with age and swung down off its wires, dead and useless. A wooden crate started to rot, and the floor grew pockmarked and dilapidated as Entropy passed by, in a high fury.

A woman and child were crouched behind a pile of crates, having failed to get to cover soon enough. The woman peered around the top of the crate, seeing Entropy stalk by. Her fists were clenching and unclenching as she swooped along the corridor, floating just slightly above the floor. She seemed to radiate the most bitter cold and the two hiding humans felt a wave of utter dread and despair hit them. Entropy paused, glancing over at the crates, staring at them for one endless moment...then she looked up, and saw the distant doors to the lab. She ignored the hidden pair and headed straight for the lab.

---------------------

"She must be here," Kronen said worriedly, looking at the Cybertronians as they worked frantically on altering the time machine. "Do you not feel it? The bleakness, the hopelessness...suicidal urges, or the desire to go up top and join her, which counts doubly as a suicidal urge. Are you prepared?"

"Not quite!" Pestilence replied, sounding harried. "I'm trying to convert a lot of old Earth-colonial technology and jam a lot of Cybertronian tech and who knows what else into it, it's not exactly like connecting Tab A to slot B! But we're nearly there, we just need a little more time!"

"We don't -have- time!" Raust said. "She's going to be here in moments, and she'll do worse than kill us!"

"You've been acting weird since the warehouse," Buckshot said, glancing up at Raust. "What'd she make you see? It's all fake, just stuff in your head- you know that, right?"

"I'm not worried about that- it's what she'll do to us!" he said, clutching his gun.

"Then we need to buy you more time. I will go delay her," Kronen said, gripping his cane and hobbling out the laboratory doors.

"You'll do what...? Kronen? KRONEN!" Pestilence called urgently.

Ignoring her shouts, Kronen strode along the hallway, staring into the approaching darkness. He could see her there, just the faint silhouette that would solidify into her true form, or what his mind would substitute for her true form. Kronen stood square in the middle of the hall, of the complex he'd grown up in, and glared at the darkness. When Entropy coalesced into what passed for a person, and stared at him, he spoke words of defiance. And she reached out, with both hands, grabbing at his face, and made him see all that she was.

Kronen was left sitting against the wall. His eyes stared blankly at nothing, and a thin line of drool ran down the corner of his mouth. Entropy gazed down at him, smiled a little, and then smashed open the doors to the laboratory, stepping inside.

------------------

Pestilence pointed her ionic spanner into an open hatch on the side of one of the great pylons of the time machine, making a few more rushed adjustments. She kicked the near-empty box of scrap parts out of her way impatiently as she ran around the pylons, making last-minute alterations.

"She won't be drawn into the temporal displacement field unless she's made tangible! As soon as she starts to exert herself, and becomes solid, we'll be able to send her right back to where she came from!"

"And we won't get sucked in along with her?" Buckshot asked.

"Not if we hold onto things very tightly," Pestilence said. "Best I can do. If we can just get a little more time-"

The doors to the laboratory tore themselves down, seemingly ripped apart by invisible claws. Raust stumbled back, lifting his gun, and a single swipe of nothing sent him hurtling through the air and crashing over a table to land in a heap.

"I'm not finished with all of you..."


"TURN IT ON! TURN THE FREAKIN' MACHINE ON!" Buckshot yelled, backing up from the approaching phantom.

Pestilence ran towards the dormant perpetual motion machine and fired up all of the switches. The lights in the complex switched back on, and threw them into a light that nearly blinded them for a moment. In that brightness, only a dense pool of shadows and a vague silhouette remained. Entropy looked angrily around them, at all the light, and life, and energy, and started to focus on shutting it down so she could have things once more how she liked them- dark, and quiet, and empty. The lights started to malfunction once more, the perpetual motion machine sputtering, and at Pestilence's direction, Calamari ran for the AXALON, leaving its doors wide open as she powered it on.

The time machine's pylons started to revolve around the center dais, picking up speed and intensity, glowing and creating a singularity that expanded to a shimmering sphere. The sphere ballooned outward to the outer circle of the spinning pylons, crackling and mutating. Entropy looked at it with anger, forcing all her effort on breaking down the machine, and with the effort she became solid, the shadows withdrawn. Buckshot and Pestilence were on her in an instant.

Buckshot grabbed one of Entropy's arms, and Pestilence the other. They forced her towards the pulsing sphere of energy, as she struggled. They could feel her sheer rage, her cries of outrage, her slight frame twisting in their grip like a nightmare that kept slipping through one's fingers. She was cold to the touch, and under Buckshot's fingers she transformed again and again- a human, a Cybertronian, and other aliens he knew and some he could never know. She shoved Pestilence away, and Buckshot grabbed at both of her arms and forced her to the temporal displacement field as it overtook the spinning pylons, breaking containment and swelling further out.

The field enveloped one of Entropy's arms and she screamed, the noise resonating through their ears and bringing to mind their worst fears. Entropy raked her fingers along Buckshot's face, in one instant a creature of scales and sinew with vicious claws, and drew jagged furrows along his cheek. He fell backwards, and stared as she became a human, or an appearance of a human again, particles breaking away from her perpetual aura of darkness as she struggled in the slowly expanding field. Then, she started to pull away from it, re-constituting herself and gaining more control.

"It's not enough!" Pestilence yelled over the din of the whirling pylons. "I'll take the AXALON into a time tunnel and it should boost the power!"

"I'm the one who has to do it!" Calamari yelled back. "Just tell me how!"

"You'll get blown up!" Buckshot hollered.

"I'll be fine!"

Pestilence looked aggrieved, but finally nodded. She pulled herself away from the displacement field, gripping along the walls and digging her metal fingers in to resist its pull. Entropy was slowly turning to face them, time itself slowing down and dulling her response, but they could see her expression. She meant nothing but annihilation for them now, pure fury etched on her face. At least- whenever her face looked even close to human.

"You can set the AXALON to search for time tunnels generated within the past two days, and use that to travel to one of the times we saw the future you! If we can set it properly, we can break the temporal loop!" Pestilence shouted.

Calamari nodded, and ran towards the AXALON. She went to the navigational console, and looked around. Now that she was in a crisis situation, and forced to concentrate, she could see ways to activate it more easily. She activated a search engine, bringing up several different results. She ran back towards the door.

Entropy looked at the AXALON, hatred brimming on her face, and one of the pylons erupted in fire, sparks showering onto the floor, and the temporal displacement field began to break apart. The corrupted sphere started to change color, and warp time around it. Entropy looked at Raust, and he stared into her jet black eyes, horrified beyond measure. He looked behind himself, and saw it then- Calamari emerging from the AXALON, and, created by the corrupted vortex, another one of Entropy's monsters. He shouted out a warning, and opened fire.

"NO!" Pestilence shouted, as Calamari was riddled with gunfire. She slumped against the door frame, several holes sizzling in her chest. Entropy gave a triumphant smile, as Raust dropped his gun with horror. He'd seen it, he knew he had- but there was nothing there. Just as it was nothing that made him so afraid in the first place.

Buckshot forgot all about the rest of the situation and ran to Calamari's side, lifting her up. She was bleeding off energy and fuel from her wounds, and her spark chamber had been pierced. She looked down with dismay, then back up at them.

"Give me the blue light in the jar, Pest."

"No, I can't," Pestilence said softly.

"I have to finish her off! Give me the jar, before I go."

Pestilence wordlessly handed Calamari the jar with the blue mote of light bobbing inside it, and then her a recording device that was in one of her coat's pockets. Calamari pulled herself up shakily, and limped inside the ship, severing the power cables and slamming the doors shut behind herself.

"She's gonna die in there!" Buckshot yelled.

"The wounds may not be fatal! She could automatically repair herself! It's one of multiple possible outcomes!"

"What the hell does THAT mean?!"

-----------------

Calamari staggered over to the navigational console and nearly fell over it, holding a hand to her midsection. Mechfluid seeped between her fingers, electricity crackling from her pierced spark chamber. She bent over the console and grabbed at a lever, pulling hard, the AXALON beginning to enter a time tunnel. She didn't know which of the few accessible destinations she'd chosen, but would have to hope she figured it out when she arrived.

She set the jar aside, the blue light bobbing inside it. She then clicked the on button on the recording device she'd fastened to her hip.

"Guys, it's me," she said, and paused for a second, thinking of the human colonists.

"You've got to stop them from using the AXALON! Entropy's going to spread from this world to every other world if you don't," she continued earnestly, then added: "Pestilence, listen- you have to let me do this. It's the only outcome that works- you have to stay behind to make sure it works! Now-"

Before she could continue, the AXALON started to shudder violently, a support girder crashing to the floor and a fire lighting up. The interior was warping, corroding, as the vessel entered a time tunnel and Entropy started to corrupt it, breaking it apart, trying to destroy the ship.

"Everyone get back," Calamari said, a little deliriously as her neural net started to suffer from her damage, getting to her feet. "I said, get back! The whole thing's unstable! RUN!"

She winced, bending over and clicking off the recorder. She coughed up a gob of mechfluid, and clutched onto the console as the ship started to break apart, the time tunnel nearly destroyed and taking her with it.

------------------

Before Pestilence and Buckshot's eyes, the AXALON entered a time tunnel, starting to vanish just as Entropy took effect on it. The darkened, corrupted vessel disappeared, delivering one final boost of power picked up by the breaking pylons, and charging the temporal displacement field completely. The field expanded outward and time seemed to shatter, creating multiple outcomes around them like how a fly would perceive images with multifaceted eyes. From these many potential realities viewed as one, every potential end point of Calamari's final trip was possible, and she ran through all of them, each of them, and none of them, simultaneously.

One outcome: Calamari, recently dead and reanimated, appeared to her friends just as they'd arrived on this world to deliver a warning before the compromised AXALON exploded.

Another outcome: Calamari, still suffering from her wounds, arriving outside the warehouse to call out to Buckshot and prevent him from being shot.

Another: Calamari emerging in the nick of time within the warehouse, picking up her friends and her past self to drop them off at the bunker, fulfilling one possible time loop.

Another: Calamari succumbed to her wounds and, before she could be revived by the blue mote, the ship was utterly destroyed and traveled nowhere.

Every splitting off point from that initial travel, many of them ending with Calamari dead, was enacted all at once based on every possible arrival she could make on rapidly failing systems, no power, entropic corruption and a limited array of timeline destinations. Back in the lab, Buckshot and Pestilence clung to anything they could, trying to withstand the maelstrom of temporal energy unleashed and avoid being drawn into the displacement field alongside Entropy. Raust, lacking decent handholds on anything, was drawn towards the vortex and saved at the last moment by Pestilence reaching out and grabbing his arm, holding on for both of their lives.

"You've ruined such a beautiful future..." Entropy said, trying to struggle but growing weaker as the displacement field strengthened around her.

"GO BACK TO THE NOTHINGNESS THAT SPAWNED YOU!" Pestilence shouted above the howl of unearthly winds.

"I'll be waiting for you there. I'm there, for everything, at the end. And I'm not the worst that waits for you, Pestilence! Your end will come, and sooner than you think!" Entropy yelled back, trying to make one last grab at them. She was finally sucked in, the vortex returning her to the very end of existence, her final scream of rage echoing away to a muffled trill and then silence.

Pestilence got up, letting go of Raust, and stared at the space where the AXALON had once stood. Buckshot got up slowly and painfully to his feet, and gazed at it, the two of them hoping fervently. With the field dispelled, only one potential outcome could be the true one for their timeline.

With a sickly but recognizable vwoop-vwoop-vwoop, the AXALON reappeared. It was damaged, clearly, but its intelligent operating systems were already working on repairs. The doors hissed open, one slightly askew, and Calamari leaned out, smiling a little.

"I guess I programmed it wrong- I appeared like three days in the past, didn't see anyone on the surface, had to automatically jump back," she said, and collapsed. Buckshot helped her up, and Pestilence ran her ionic spanner over the wounds, peering at them.

"It was pretty close, but the fissures in your spark chamber have healed themselves up. The rest will be easy to repair," she said happily. "You'll be okay- the best possible outcome we could have hoped for!"

"Awesome, guys," Calamari said, leaning against Buckshot with fatigue. She smiled, and lifted up the jar. "Guess I don't need this, then."

She looked at it with surprise. The jar was empty, despite Pestilence's jury-rigged lid to keep it in. Pestilence just nodded.

"I expected that. Without Entropy around, her time-lock on this world is broken and these essences of the Taken can no longer exist. I'm glad for that- it was a parasitic sham of a life, even for them."

She turned to Raust, who stood up unsteadily. The other human colonists were filing into the room, looking around with bewilderment at the trashed lab and the prototype time machine, now so much junk and useless debris after its fulfillment of its best purpose.

"I think it's time for us to go up and get some fresh air," Pestilence told them with a smile.

--------------------

Pestilence and her companions had taken a quick spin inside the AXALON, re-materializing it on the surface outside one of the bunker exits. The trip confirmed their hopes- Entropy's hold on S4-Terminus was released, and they could travel freely without hindrance to their machine once more.

Pestilence stepped out of the booth first, looking out at the desolate landscape. Human colonists were walking along the gray soil, faces held up to the clean air. Calamari stepped out next, her bullet wounds patched up, and Buckshot behind her.

"Look at that, they're walking around and breathing the air and everything," Buckshot pointed out.

"The planet has normalized its atmosphere," Pestilence replied. "The past hundred and twenty years of Entropy's control of this world might as well have been the passing of one minute to the next."

"Except for all of the confused people who need to get adjusted to not living in fear anymore," Raust said, limping up to them. The woman with bad dreams he'd spoken to in the bunker, Linda, was at his side, looking healthier already.

"Did you find Kronen?" Pestilence asked.

"He's in a catatonic state," Linda said quietly. "We don't know what Entropy showed him, but it's something the human mind can't grasp. But the doctors are optimistic that we can bring him back to normal, with some hard work and some time."

"What about the rest of you guys? What do you do now?" Calamari asked.

"Start getting in contact with the other groups of people holed up on other areas of the planet. Farm the surface, rebuild the cities, multiply," Raust said. "We owe you so much. And I repaid that by shooting you."

"I'm fine, don't worry about it," Calamari said with a smile. "Besides, if you hadn't shot me, the future me who's the past me now wouldn't have had bullet wounds and the whole time loop would've, like, broken. Right, Pest?"

"Sort of. In a layman's sense," Pestilence said, waving her hand noncommitally. She smiled. "You're getting the hang of it, anyway."

"We have to go now," she said, turning to the humans. "No more trying to steal my ship?"

"I feel like we just got an entire new world to explore. We're fine with staying here for the time being," Raust replied, nodding.

"Come on, Marcus. I want to watch the sun rise," Linda said, pulling his arm, and he walked with her back towards the other colonists walking along the surface.

Calamari turned and headed back inside the AXALON, smiling. She looked at the navigational console, and decided she'd had enough of driving it for the moment. She settled down in one of the seats to wait for her friends.

"You heard what Entropy said before she got taken back to nowhere?" Buckshot asked Pestilence. "About your end coming soon, and her waiting for you? She mean anything by that?"

"Just your standard villain-defeat threat," Pestilence replied airily. "I've heard a thousand of them. I'm not putting any worries towards it, and neither should you."

"Good call," Buckshot said, and clapped her on the shoulder. He stepped inside. Pestilence took one more look behind herself, at the empty and ancient landscape, the night sky starting to turn gray with the approaching dawn. Their long night was over, or so she hoped.

She pulled the AXALON's doors shut behind herself, and in moments, the booth had disappeared.


THE END


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