“No Books of Men, Vol 1” – Tomas Sparks and the Mission of Mercy

Another chapter of the No Books story. This time starring Tom and my wife’s Noah.

Tom waited patiently in the basement of the Turing building on Columbiana’s campus, idly shifting his weight back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet and back again. He whistled some jaunty, tuneless melody to himself as he waited. He was doing his damnedest not to seem like he was getting impatient, as when his companion finally arrived it would seem rude if that were the case, which it wasn’t. Nope, not at all…

He glanced, seemingly idle and not at all as a sign that Tom was waiting for something, around the large basement chamber and frowned ever so slightly. He looked at his watch and huffed. Then held his watch up to his ear then, listening for the sound of its ticking, and nodded in confirmation that ‘yes it really is that time.’ Fenwick was running late. They had said to meet in the portal chamber at 11:30 on Saturday morning, and that Noah would bring the coordinates that were needed to calibrate the portal to take them to their destination.

As for their destination: well, that was the clincher. They weren’t really sure. They both knew they were going to Warwick Station at The Crossroads. It was really the only way one could travel interdimensionally or interspatially without some monumental calculations and a hell of a lot of luck. It was where to go once they reached the Station that was the question. They’d both individually intercepted a distress call relayed to them through the Station, a message which ended in a scream and static. Considering that a few dozen students had gone missing only a week before, when Mansfield had caught wind of the messages he left neither of them any choice. As mutual recipients of the message and fellow members of the Society of Aetheric Consonance, Tom had sought out Noah’s help in mounting a rescue mission, only to find that Noah had been expected him and shared a desire to “keep Mansfield off his back… Oh and save those kids.” That was when they arranged this meeting to enter the portal together. 11:30 on Saturday.

It was now 11:25 and Tom was getting antsy at Noah’s lateness. Everyone knew that when a meeting time was declared that anyone showing up later than ten minutes early was late, right? That was what his mom had always taught him back in Minnesota, at least. Tom started to wonder if he had written down the wrong time. It wouldn’t be the first time he had done so. Either way, he had no option but to sit and wait as he hoped that Noah would show up eventually. In the meantime, Tom kept glancing at his watch while pretending not to and tapping his foot without realizing it (if he had, he’d certainly stop as it would seem rude).

A few moments later, Noah slid down the bannister and skidded to a halt with his customary strange grin. He lowered the dark glasses he wore as he flicked a bit of his black and white hair aside. He had clearly noticed Tom’s impatience and it amused him. “Well, good morning to you too…”  Tom often wondered if Noah’s voice was so nasally by choice or not. He would never presume to ask, but he still wondered.

Tom glanced up with an apologetic smile, realizing how his antsy actions must’ve looked. “Sorry. Just itching to get moving is all.” He shrugged. “Meant no disrespect.” Then he noticed how overburdened the other man was at present.

Charging forward once he saw how much equipment Noah carried, Tom didn’t even ask before deftly snatching a few of the bits of gear out of Noah’s hands and gesturing for the other man to hand over one of the bags. “Sorry ’bout that, buddy. If I’d known you were bringin so many things I’d have met you at your place.” He flashed his oh-so-perfect teeth in a bright grin, shouldering both his own bag and Noah’s gear like it were weightless. Worst of all: he did it without any of the smugness such a comment would typically have woven into it.

Noah nodded with a, “Uhh, thanks,” as his load lightened. He didn’t sound like he was complaining as much as not expecting the help. “Meh… I woulda said something if it were a big deal.” He shrugged, or at leas as much as he was capable when still carrying a heavy pack of equipment. “I didn’t, because it wasn’t…”

Tom nodded. “So… Are you ready for this?” Tom grinned again, clearly excited at the prospect of a trip into the field. It had been too long since he’d left the valley. There simply didn’t seem to be as much adventure to be had in this modern world, especially compared to his own time in the 40’s. He used to travel the world. He’d fought Nazis in the mountains of Tibet and wrestled doomsday cultists in the deserts of Arabia. The easier life of the modern world, with its complicated politics and mundane problems, seemed utterly dull in comparison. Not that he was fooling himself entirely. Tom suspected that there may be nothing significant to the distress beacon. Such things were essentially “problem lights” which could indicate anything from a minor equipment malfunction to full blown invasion by extradimensional entities. So he was prepared for disappointment as much as adventure.

“Not that I don’t think you are, of course. I just meant that you seem more of an ‘in the lab’ sort of guy. Not much for the ‘field work…’ Not like I… Err…” Shut up and take that foot out of your mouth, Tom thought to himself. He cleared his throat and pushed forward with the conversation. “That is to say… Shall we?” He gestured widely towards the gate

Noah rolled his eyes a bit and answered with a, “We shall.” He walked over to the intricate console and began the complicated process of confirming coordinates and initiating the start up sequence. Once that was done, he stepped back to admire the gate’s structure. The gate itself was a remarkable bit of House Opifex’s engineering. This was of an older style however, as it had been built of brass, glass, wires, as well as dreams. The console positively glittereded as lights flickered on and shot beams of Essence infused light towards the center of the portal’s structure. Stabilized by the powerful enchantments placed within the portal’s frame, Essence formed into a glowing disk of energy. Strangely, as the disk finally shifted to reveal a glimpse of the station beyond through the crack in space, the portal almost seemed tawdry compared to the ornamentation of the machine which formed it.

Tom gestured for Noah to step through first. He was already shifitng the weight of his packs in preperation for following when he heard his compatriot shout back through the portal. “Uh…Tom…Tom get over FAST.”

A look of obvious concern on his face, Tom practically leapt through the portal and into a station which had changed much since he had last visited. The station was in far worse condition than he had expected. The Grand Central Depot, where all dedicated portals to and from Warwick came together in a wheel shaped hub, should have been bustling and full of life. Dozens or even hundreds of Enlightened should have been coming and going at this time of day, moving from place to place and going about their business. Instead, not a soul was to be seen.

Worse, there were obvious signs of struggle all over the Depot. Hastily constructed barricades littered the room. Spent ammunition and Essence batteries littered the room. Blood was splattered all over the place. The ruined remains of numerous gates were left to crumble with their brass and shattered glass dashed upon the floor. Those gates still largely intact were not in their proper docking stations, but rather thrown about the room carelessly. Worst of all, there was no sign of people beyond the blood. No survivors. No bodies. Not even a stray finger was to be seen. Nor were there any signs of what has caused this chaos.
“Damn…” Tom muttered. “What the hell happened here?” He looked around, shock and horror obvious on his features.

“I don’t…don’t really know.” Noah’s features mirrored Tom’s, and as a veteran of the Exalted War,  he had seen some shit. Tom had seen his own share of battle and he doubted any amount of experience would be enough to cope with what they saw. “Just…don’t get too far away, we shouldn’t separate.” To which Tom nodded slowly. Noah looked around for a moment before looking sharply to Tom. “What…what…what did I just say?”

Tom was himself distracted trying to piece together what had happened. Thus, he almost didn’t notice Noah’s question. “Hrm?” He started to turn to Noah when he stopped. “Wait, I think I heard something up there…” Barely even hesitating, Tom was already in motion and shooting up the nearby stairs two at a time.

“Don’t seperate I say… Did he listen…?” Noah grumbled as he took off after the Teutonic wonder boy. Struggling to keep up, he started to scuttle along on all fours up the stairs in an attempt to speed up.

As Tom reached the top of the stairs, he immediately dove behind a nearby barricade and tried to ignore the splattered blood surrounding it. Glancing over his shoulder, he made eye contact with Noah and motioned for his companion to join him as silently as possible. Noah proved the surprising silence of his atypical stance as he skittered over to join him. “Keep you head low.” Tom whispered using sub-vocalization techniques to make his voice all but inaudible. He was so used to people reading lips in these situations he didn’t even consider whether Noah had the skill. “Look, but keep low and don’t be seen.”

Noah gave Tom a light swat and subvocalized “What happened to stay together?” Before shaking his head and slowly peeked out over the top of the barrricade. His eyes widened before quickly being replaced with exasperation.

About half way down the wide and opulent hallway, a body laid prone and obviously dead. Noah could guess that wasn’t what Tom was indicating. The bigger concern was the figure hunched over the body with its back to Tom and Noah. It was difficult to make out details from this distance but it appeared to be vaguely humanoid and small, clearly no larger than five feet tall. There looked to be something over its back, like a large pack or a shell or something similar.

Stranger still were the sounds. A squelching sound echoed down the hall, possibly what the pair had originally heard. It would squelch, then there’d be a long pause, then it would be heard again. Over and over its sickening squish echoed down the hall.

“It looks like …er…a mantis man.” Noah’s lips twisted up in consideration. Tom figured it was because the mantis men were largely the scholarly type and only turned to violence when provoked or kept from their studies. This…thing was likely invovled in the devastation and while mantis men could have done all this damage but there was little cause for such acts.

“Mantis men? Doesn’t look like any I’ve ever seen, far too stocky and humanoid. Not to mention armored…” He glanced back over while they whispered back and forth. “…but I see your point. Clearly an insectile person of some kind. Good eye, soldier.” He didn’t even notice that he said that last word, it was so habitual from when he used to find himself in these situations back in his home time. “Question is: how do we get past it. It doesn’t seem exactly friendly, so we’ll probably have to fight our way through…” He rubbed his chin and looked about ready to charge in with fists flying, as was his preferred style.

“Right right…more like ah…uh…uh beetleman really, but to just bank a comparison…” A simple shrug, and Noah nodded. Noah didn’t even try to dissuade Tom, instead he suggested that, “The carapace on that thing is nearly rock solid…aim for joints and the maybe the seams on the belly.” With a nod and sigh, Noah added, “Wish I’d brought  grenade or something…” Lacking such a weapon, instead he pulled out his plasma pistol, recently rebuilt and upgraded from his last adventure. “How do we want to do this?”

“Beetleman? Hah! I like that.” He winked at Noah’s comment. “I suppose if you’ve seen one insect man, you’ve seen them all.” He chuckled quietly as they considered their options. Then he stopped and lifted an eyebrow at Noah. “A grenade? Yeah, that’d work I suppose. Take it down. But it runs the risk of calling any others over. If there are any others….” He seemed to contemplate that for a second. “…Which I hope there isn’t.” That wasn’t his sort of luck. So Tom pulled out his own pistol, a simple revolver. “Old fashioned way it is…” Tom nodded and counted down on his fingers. Three. Two. One. Then he leapt over the barricade and ran full tilt towards the creature. With a series of scraping sounds, the creature swiftly turned to face the pair before Tom had taken two steps.

Big, bulbous, and beetle-like eyes glared at Tom with obvious malice. Despite the disturbing sight of its eyes, they couldn’t compare to the clattering mandibles still dripping with viscera. The creature finally stood to its full five feet, which revealed to the men that it was far from simply a person with insect features or vice versa. This was a true hybrid, it was as much one as the other. It clicked and clacked in some indiscernable language before it charged Tom and Noah with murderous intent.

Tom leapt up and charged towards the creature, throwing a powerful punch to its face, which he immediately regretted. The creature stumbled back sure, but it also lead Tom to recoil himself. Shaking his head and wincing, Tom looked at Noah plaintively. “Ow…” Then, he turned and focused on the creature again, which had recovered and had reasserted its charge.

Tom placed himself between Noah and the creature, moving towards his target with determination to stop its charge. As the distance shrunk, he considered his option A gun shot would not be useful if it went off in this empty place, as it’d echo and draw any others there might be… He looked between the beetleman and the gun a few times before shrugging and used the gun like a bludgeoning weapon, slamming the metal across the creature’s face and drew an angry screech out of it. Flashing a grin, Tom continued distracting the creature as he called out over his shouder, “Hope you have a plan, back there. One that doesn’t involve calling over its buddies…?” If not, this would get ugly… Well, loud first, then ugly…

“Y’know… These things’re kind of a…an over done trope don’t you think?” Noah was still talking about the creature’s taxonomy whil Tom ducked and weaved around the creature’s claws. For his part, he was scanning the creature with his Aetheric attuned goggles, but there was little Tom could know of that.

“Huh?” Tom asked as he ducked under a wild claw swing. “Over done? How do you mean?” He glanced at his companion as he tried to piece out what the other man meant. Part of him was incredulous that Noah wanted to discuss this as Tom sparred, but he was legitimately curious.

“If you think about it, I mean. There’re like crab people…which are close even though crustaceans. Mantis men of course, and your usual fly hybrid monstrosities from teleporters and unclean nerds…and those’re just the first three that came off the top of my head…”

“I mean, I guess they’re pretty common, yeah. I assume it’s some sort of evolutionary thing. Like, if primates hadn’t taken over these sorts were another logical candidate for our position at the top. Well, these bug types and lizards.” He let out a loud grunt as he took another swing to the stomach, which he returned with a pistol butt to the eye, drawing out a loud screech in response. “I mean, both types ruled the planet once before didn’t they, so of course they’d want it back.”

Tom narrowly managed to avoid another brutal attempt to claw his head off his shoulders. “Oh and, if you’re going to come up with something, it’d be nice if you did so sooner rather than later.” The creature was angry now and it reared up for a body slam. Tom managed to roll out of the way, but as he scrambled to his feet he had already lost whatever small advantage dodging had won him.

“God dammnit…” Noah sighed, clearly he didn’t appreciate the ‘old-fashioned’ approach as much as Tom was. With a shaking head, he pulled up his ray gun and aimed for what he hoped was the thing’s eye and opened fire. There was a distinct “shuump” sound as the burst of plasma erupted from the end of the gun and flew towards the creature’s face. Not even waiting to see if he struck true, Noah stood and began walking confidently over to join Tom. “Now don’t you even get me started on Lizardmen…”

Tom instinctively dodged out of the way as the superheated beam of energy rocketed past his head and into the creature’s forehead. Stepping back frantically as the beetleman’s began wildly flailing as the plasma began to sear a hole directly through its head and into its fragile nerve cluster. Its death throes were uncomfortable to watch and even worse to smell, as something resembling burnt lobster crept in through the nose. Tom blinked a few times before letting out a loud “Whoo! Nice work, buddy.” Tom clapped a hand on Noah’s shoulder before walking over the still smoking corpse. He poked it with his foot a few times before glancing at Noah. “So… You think these things were what caused the problems here? Or…” He trailed off, shrugging. He was open to theories, but worried at what they might find if they kept theorizing.

“I dunno… I don’t think so?” Noah shrugged, as his mind went over possibilities. “This seems a one-off, part of something but not a whole. Why? Because it didn’t seem collected enough to take on a whole lot of enlightened scientists even if there had been a swarm.” He shook his head. “I’d guess this guy was more symptom than cause. But let’s keep going- just…just to be sure…”

“Right.” Tom nodded, not sure if he shared Noah’s assurance that this was entirely isolated but understanding where the other man’s reasoning was going. This wasn’t likely a swarm situation, more like a scavenger taking advantage of the situation. Either way, Tom lead the way down the large entrance corridor to the main station ‘lounge’ area. There was no sign of anyone else along the way, but there was plenty of debris and barricades to further drive home the point that there had been some sort of struggle here. More bodies however, remained curiously absent.

“I really don’t like this…” Tom started to say before noticing the large door opposite where they had entered the station. It was singed in several places, hacked to pieces in others, but beyond the broken remains of the door a barricade still stood strong. More importantly, behind the barricade, a brief flash of light reflected off a pair of glasses as the face that wore them ducked away quickly. “Hey!” Tom called out the voice, holding his hands out to show he was unarmed (more or less, the pistol from earlier was still in its holster). “Hey, we’re answering a distress call and come in peace. Who’s over there!”

As Tom called out, Noah proved to be more cautious. Skulking low, the thinner man eyed the barricade suspiciously. “Careful…” He muttered under his breath, keeping his pistol hand ready for anything.

Tom looked back and raised an eyebrow. “Why?” Clearly this was a survivor, wasn’t it? Still, he could see the wisdom of caution, even if it was a thing he rarey bothered with himself. With a shrug and a nod, Tom turned back to the barricade and waved again. “Are you still back there?”

Slowly, the bespectacled head peaked back over the barricade. “Are you… Err… Um… Are you, human?” The voice was choked, uncertain, and utterly terrified.

Tom looked to Noah with a shrug before calling back. “Last I checked, yeah. We’re human.” His voice carried a hint of a chuckle as he said so, clearly uncertain just what the survivor was getting at.

“P-prove it…” The man’s glasses were shining brightly, impossibly so in the dim of the broken Aether lights of the hall.

“I’m… I’m not sure how we’d do that…” Tom looked helplessly to Noah.

Noah merely rolled his eyes and waved a hand at the bespectacled ‘guard.’ “Kid… We don’t have a way to prove it that you’d believe. So unless you have a way to chedk for yourself, you’re just gonna have to trust us…” Noah shook his head in disappointment. Clearly he wasn’t impressed by the defenses here. 

The ‘guard’ disappeared a moment later. A faint murmuring was heard through the barrier before finally the face reappeared. “Fine. You can come through.” A pause. “One sec…” After about 5 minutes of grunting and scraping, the makeshift barrier was shifted enough to allow Tom and Noah to scoot through a narrow gap to the right side.

Once on the otherside, they were shocked by what they had seen. The large, opulent Art Deco central plaza of the station was impressive enough, even if both had seen it a few dozen times on previous visits. No. What surprised them both was what had happened there since. Each of the four entrances, placed at the cardinal points of the room, were blocked with large barricades of debris. Near each of these entrances were half a dozen ‘guards’ armed with everything from sticks to plasma rifles. The central fountain was broken and dry, with a large makeshift tent set up within its basin. Scattered around that tent were dozens of men, women, and teens in various states of injury. A few seemed to be simply sleeping off some scrapes and bruises, but most seemed to have broken limbs or worse to keep them bedridden.

Strangest of all was the far wall, between the North and West entrances to the plaza, had been broken through as if by some giant creature and the shattered remains of the marble statuary which once decorated the room blocked access from the other side of the hole. Despite the crude barrier, the world revealed beyond was not the swirling cosmos usually visible through the station’s windows. Instead was a city which seemed to stretch beyond the far horizon and, based upon the buildings Tom could see, felt no compulsion to follow physics or logic. He didn’t know what could have caused such a sight, but Noah…

“Aw… Crap…” Noah clearly recognized something of what was visible through the hole. He glanced to the ‘guards’ alongside him and shook his head.

Tom lifted an eyebrow. “You know what that is?” He jerked a finger towards the city beyond the hole.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it before…” He groaned and looked around. “I have a guess that… Yep!” He pointed at one of the guards. Then he squinted towards the figures laying prone on beds in the center of the plaza. “There too…” He looked back at Tom and ignoring the confused looks of the guards around him. “I think we found the missing students. Or some of ’em at least.”

“Really?” Tom looked around and took stock of those he could see. Seemed to be about three dozen, maybe half a dozen more, scattered around the broken room. He knew from his previous visits there should be about four times that number in the station at any given time. If the missing students had ended up here and added to those numbers, there were still many people missing. The blood stains from the earlier hallway and all around the plaza may be testament to what happened to those others…

“Yeah…” Noah looked at the guard with the glasses. “Isn’t that right, kid?”

The bespectacled man next to him glanced back and forth between Tom and Noah a few times before nodding slowly. “Y-yeah. I-I guess so. We were at the assembly, and n-next thing we kn-knew we were waking up in some k-kind of l-lab r-room or something, a l-locked o-one.” He gulped. “S-some of us, w-we were G-grad students.” He smiled lightly the thought before going back to looking paranoid. “W-we w-worked together to b-break out, b-but then w-we found ourselves in th-there…” He pointed out of the hole. “Th-the city w-went on for-forever. Th-then we h-heard the sc-screams. Th-they sounded angry. W-we ran…” The man’s voice faltered and finally failed.

One of the other guards stepped forward and motioned for the young man to head for the central tent. “Go have a lie down, Kyle. We can watch the wall for now.” The kid, Kyle, nodded and moved silently away. “Sorry about him… Him and the other kids, they’re kinda messed  up. Probably too long in the City.” Tom was slightly surprised to notice this guard was a woman beneath her thick and enchanted uniform. “Allison, Station Guard.” She held out a hand which Tom shook and was impressed at her strength. He had to constantly remind himself how much had changed in the decades since his home time. “Kids came in behind the invaders, don’t know how they got there or how they survived in the city, what with it being overrun with monsters, but we couldn’t turn them aside. Especially after the wall broke and those things killed so many…”

Tom noticed that Noah was nodding, as if he had some idea of what she was talking about. Tom didn’t. He looked between the hole and Allison. “You said monsters broke down the wall?” He cocked an eyebrow at the suggestion. Sure he’d seen many things in his life he could call a ‘monster,’ one even just a short time ago, but something seemed off about all this… “Where does it lead? Is it a portal, and if so how’s it sustaining itself.”

Allison shrugged. “Dunno. After the first few waves were driven back and that barricade built, a few of the surviving eggheads tried to figure that out. Best they came up with was apparently proof that the city out there is literally out there. No portal, no tunnel. Nothing to show it isnt there, except that it definitely shouldn’t be. One suggested it was another plane of reality moving in on us, but I don’t know about that…”

Noah nodded. “Would make sense. That was what the monolith seemed to be trying to do…” He glanced towards the portal. “Trying to bridge two realities together. Why is so much speculation, but it does seem to be trying to spread itself….” He paused. “Kinda like an infection…”

Tom stood there and thought about it for a brief moment before putting it aside. This wasn’t the time for speculation, now as a time for action. Which led him to only one question. “Why are you still here?” If things were so bad and this city was encroaching on the pocket realm of the station, it seemed strange they’d remain behind especially with wounded.

Allison shook her head. “First thing after the creatures broke down the wall, the portals failed.” She jabbed a thumb back toward where Tom and Noah had come. “They just stopped working and started falling apart. Then they started taking over the station, room by room. Sometimes they came through here, sure, but once that hole was open it seemed they could appear anywhere in the station. We had to find a place to take a stand and this was the safest place, even with the hole…” She shook her head. “Even once the waves died down, we sent a few down to check the portals and none came back.”

Tom and Noah looked at each other. They now had an idea where the body came from, but as for any others… Where could they have gone? Tom stepped forward. “Our portal is still active though, at least until we go back through it. With a bit of work, we could hold it open long enough for a retreat…”

Allison smiled, almost looking hopeful. “It’s worth a….” She was interrupted with a loud roar from the hole. Turning to look, it was obvious that something was trying to find a way around the blockade. It shape and details were difficult to see, as all that appeared was a large and amorphous blob of shadows, but it cleary had enough substance that the narrow gaps were proving difficult to navigate.

Tom looked to Noah and with a nod he shouted, “Go, tweak the portal and keep it open. We’ve got to get as many people as possible out of here.” He looked to the barricade before adding, “And as soon as possible…”

As Noah scampered off back down to the portal room, Tom directed for a few of the guards to widen the gaps enough to get the crowds through before taking Allison and the remaining guards to the hole’s barricade. Ducking and weaving through questing tentacles seeking ingress, Tom and the others valiantly attempted to hold back the creature espite it flowing sowly through the gaps and pushing aside looser bits of marble. Firing a few shots from his pisotl, Tom watched the creature’s tentacle recoil, but return only a moment later. It seemed more surprised than pained by their assault, and it was clear that it would only be slowed, not stopped.

After a few minutes, a screeching sound erupted from behind the barricade to the West. Those guards appointed to that barrier screamed and ran back to their posts, leaving the hole less defended but barely managing to keep the other barrier from falling  undefended. In desperation, Tom pulled Aether from the air around him and into his muscles, focusing the energy to bolster his waning strength and endurance. Lifting a nearby chunk of marble, he forcibly shoved it down atop a tentacle and shoved it through the gap left behind. Then he did it again and again and again. He was making some small progress, but around him he saw defenders fail and fall. It seemed that despite their efforts, they were losing ground. Each tentacle driven back was soon replaced with two more.

A screeching sound to the North heralded another barrier coming under assault. As more defenders scrambled to hold that line as well, Tom realized that failure was only a matter of time. They were now being assaulted on three fronts and… His thoughts were interrupted by a smashing sound as the barricade to the East began to collapse. A fourth front was now opening and theywere losing, badly now.

Frantically, Tom looked to the central tent and saw that their efforts hadn’t been in vain. Well over two-thirds were already missing and he could only hope they had retreated to the portal chambers already. Knowing their time was running short, Tom turned to the nearby Allison to ask her to call the retreat. “Allison, we have to…!” As she turned to look at him, a tentacle got in a lucky shot and wrapped itself around her neck. Moments later, a spray of blood and her body collapsed to the floor without its head.

Tom’s eyes went wide and almost in a panic, he bellowed with an Aether enhanced voice, “Retreat! Grab the wounded if you can!” Without looking to see if his orders were followed he took off running. Grabbing one of the beds with a young woman too wounded to run atop it, he used his enhanced strength to lift it and took off towards the Southern barricade.

Running frantically, Tom made it to the portal room in record time, seeing a surprisingly calm and orderly line of survivors being ushered through the portal by Noah. Noah was surprisingly calm, and Tom realized that was probably why the survivors were too. Even as the sounds of the carnage behind them rose, the man holding their escape open seemed so self-assured and unworried. Tom made his way to Noah’s side, noting that every few entries to the portal led to Noah turning and adjusting a few things on the portal apparatus. “How’s our evacuation going.”

Noah started a bit when he heard Tom, and his expression bespoke how Tom wasn’t doing too well. The blows had been glancing, but strong, so the tentacles had taken their due. Only because of the Aether in his veins did he not realize the pain he should. Noah, to his credit, merey nodded and muttered. “Not great, but it’ll do. We need to get them through soon though. I’m getting too much interference. Have to recalibrate every minute or so to keep it stable.”

Tom nodded and grinned. “Keep it up, we’ll get through this.” Then he set the bed-turned-stretcher next to the portal, nodded for the next person to help the woman through the portal. Reaching to Noah’s side, he plucked the plasma pistol from its holster without a word and only a nod to sy he was taking it. Then he was off, dashing back to the hallway.

He passed by a number of the defenders he had seen earlier, most supporting wounded from either the battle or the beds. A glance among them told Tom the grim truth that a few had been left behind and many more lost. Righteous anger rose in Tom’s chest and he looked down the hall where he heard the last barricade begin to buckle. Tightening his grip on the pistol, he gestured for a few stragglers to stumble through then he stepped into the hall.

Now with nothing between him and the creatures from the hole but  failing barricade, Tom took a deep breath. This was it. They needed a few more minutes to ensuretheir escape and he needed to give it to them. He waited, counting slowly under his breath. He watched as the barrier fell. He watched as creatures of all shapes charged over that final defense. Insects, lizards, fish, and other creatures surged on impossible limbs and surrounded by those roving tentacles. As they advanced, so did the city from beyond the hole. The architecture warped and twisted as it became part of that infectious eternal cityscape. Tom watched them advance and tweaked a few settings on the gun, setting to maximum charge. At this power, he’d get three shots before the Aether cells were depleted. That suited Tom just fine…

He scanned the nearby hallway, noting the architecture and seeking weakness. Finally, with a smile, he fired. Once. Twice. Three times arcs of plasma erupted from the barrel and struck stone. The hallway began to crumble, to collapse as plasma burned and melted, to twist as ths trange energies of the city took hold. Finally, it all came crashing down. The Aether and city mingling as the energies collided and collapsed with a powerful concussive burst. Tom flew backwards and the world went black.

When he awoke, it was to the sight of Noah bashing the portal chassis to pieces in the basement of the Turing building. They were surrounded by survivors, slightly more than three dozen of them. Most had made it, even though some had not. How he made it through, Tom wasn’t sure, but he suspected it had something to do with Noah. The portal was closed though, and they’d mostly made it. That was enough for now. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and let the darkness claim him again…

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