Given the choice between the lights of Republic City and the stars, Korra chose the stars. She lay back with her head in Asami's lap gazing up at the heavens. Behind them, jazz drifted from the radio in Asami's car. "It's strange," she said. "It's one thing to learn in school that the sky is different in the northern hemisphere. It's another thing to look up and not recognize any of the constellations."
"Afraid I can't help you with that," Asami said. "I've been too much of a city girl. I never learned them. When I come out into the country like this, they're just a jumble to me. A beautiful jumble, of course."
Korra grinned. "We could learn them together."
Asami laughed and squeezed her hand. "Now that's an idea. Of course, that means we'll have to go on more picnics like this." She sighed dramatically. "However will we manage?"
Korra tapped her lips with her index finger. "I guess we'll just have to muddle through somehow. Although I warn you, we're already close the limit of food that I know how to make and am willing to serve to others."
"Fortunately, I have a cook in my employ who would probably be pleased to rise to the challenge. I'm afraid she often finds me a dull employer."
Korra sat up. "You, dull? Never." She started to lean close.
"To be fair," Asami said. "She sees a very different side of me than you do." She put her arms around Korra's neck.
"Good point," Korra murmured and gave Asami a kiss.
As they sat there, the music faded out and the voice of the radio announcer came on "You have been listening to Loremaq Luarno and his Orchestra, coming to you live from the Pagoda Ballroom. Brought to you by Flameo Noodles, the Noodliest Noodles in Republic City. Coming up next, the Shuixing Theatre of the Air brings you The Adventures of Maaq and Mali, sponsored by Blue Co - "
The announcer's voice was abruptly cut off and the radio went silent for a moment. Then Korra gasped in pain, pulling away from Asami and putting her hands to her head.
"Korra, what's wrong?" Asami said, concerned.
"That high pitched hum," she said. "Ow. It goes right through my head." She looked at Asami who was looking back at her with a confused look on her face. "Can't you hear it?"
Asami shook her head but climbed to her feet saying "It must be the radio. I'll shut off the set."
She was halfway to the car when a new voice came over the radio. " Citizens of Republic City. This is the Voice of the Spirits. Your city is sick. You are out of harmony with the Spirits and the natural world. Your industries poison the sea and the sky, while you distract yourself with trivialities. Heed my warning. Seek the path of Harmony before the Spirits take their retribution. Mend your ways before it is too late." The voice was replaced by static, and the pain faded from Korra's head.
"Oh, that's better. Did you tune away from the station?"
Asami shook her head and reached into the car, turning the radio off with a click. "The signal cut out before I could get to it. They're off the air." She looked at Korra. "How are you doing?"
Korra rubbed her temples. "Feeling better now that the noise is gone. It cut off when the radio went over to static. You really couldn't hear it?"
Asami looked thoughtful. "Must have been too high a pitch for me. I guess you can hear higher frequencies than me. Although I'm surprised my speakers could reproduce something like that loud enough to have such a strong effect."
"Lucky me." Korra shook her head. The pain was receding, but she still felt a little out of sorts. "What's up with that guy? Did he take over the radio just to broadcast a prophecy of doom?"
"Practical joke?" Asami said, not sounding convinced by her own words.
"Seems like a lot for a practical joke. It's not easy to block a radio signal, is it?" She glanced up at Asami who shook her head. "And what happened to the actual broadcast? Why didn't it come back when he was done yapping?" She gave a laugh. "Sorry. Didn't mean to be a mood killer." Asami was still looking at her in concern, and it occurred to her that she was showing more interest in the details of whatever was behind that strange message on the radio than regular old Korra would be expected to show. She patted the blanket next to her.
Asami sat down at her side and laid a hand gently on the side of Korra's head. "Are you sure you're all right? Because if your head still hurts, we don't need to stay out here."
Korra was half tempted to take Asami up on the offer to head home early. Her head felt fine, but the warning on the radio seemed like something the Avatar should look into. And what would you do? she scoffed to herself. Fly around at random looking for a radio transmitter that you wouldn't know how to recognize? Anyway, she'd made herself a promise that Asami would get her undivided attention tonight. "I'm fine. Really. Besides, I believe we were in the middle of something important."
Asami relaxed and smiled at her. "That we were." Korra leaned in to resume their interrupted kiss.
"'I tell ya, Mali. There's something screwy goin' on around here.'" Tahno turned the page on his script and glanced at Rinja. She'd looked ill at the beginning of the broadcast, but she was a pro and put in a good performance as always. Now she was looking much better.
"'Not just screwy.'" Rinja said. "'Spooky.'"
"'Aw c'mon, Baby. You see ghosts and spirits everywhere.'"
Behind him, Tahno heard the studio door open. He and Rinja exchanged annoyed glances. Someone apparently needed to learn what the words "on the air" meant, and that you didn't enter the studio when you saw them. Rinja took a breath to say her next line, but a loud voice behind them said "OK, folks. Pack it up. Go home and rest your tonsils."
Tahno's jaw dropped. How the hell was anyone going to come up with an ad lib to cover that? He looked to the booth. To his surprise, the engineer and the director looked shocked but not angry. The engineer reached forward and flipped a switch. The lighted "On The Air" sign shut off. Tahno whirled around. "What the hell is going on?" He found himself face to face with Mr. Varrick. He felt the blood drain from his face and he scrabbled in his mind for suitable words of apology.
Fortunately, Varrick didn't seem put out by the reaction. "Sorry, champ. But you're not broadcasting."
Rinja clutched a hand to her throat. "Did we do something wrong? Are the sponsors..."
"What?" Varrick said. "No no no. You misunderstand. You were literally not broadcasting. Nothing going out over the airwaves for— " he glanced at his watch, "oh, about eleven minutes. I don't know what's gone wrong myself. I've got some engineers looking at it. I just realized no one told you guys." He put an arm around Tahno's shoulder and the other arm around Rinja's. "You guys are doing great. Flagship show of the network, I've always said. We'll get it all sorted out, and you can do the broadcast again next week. You'll still get paid for this week. Just no sense going on if no one's hearing the story, right?"
"Thanks, sir," Tahno said. Rinja nodded. Varrick gave them both a big grin.
The studio door opened again. "Mr. Varrick sir?"
Varrick swung around, dragging Tahno with him in the process. There was a guy in thick glasses and shirtsleeves standing in the door. "Ah, Kanak. Have you got good news for me? Are we going to be on the air again soon?"
The guy in the doorway swallowed and shook his head. He looked pretty damn unhappy. "No, I don't think we are. You'd better come up to the roof and see for yourself, sir."
"Crazy season." It was one of the nurses, one cubical over from where Kya sat looking over her notes. "You'd almost think it was a full moon tonight."
"Proves the point I've been making for years," said another in response. "Full moon nights aren't any stranger. You just remember the strange ones more because you know its a full moon."
The two fell to arguing, and Kya did her best to tune them out. She looked over the details of the different patients that had been through the ER in the past few hours and wished she could believe it was all a coincidence.
The ones who had been listening to the radio and had heard the so-called Voice of the Spirits, they obviously weren't a coincidence. They all agreed that some high-pitched noise had come from the radio at the same time the Varrick network got taken over, and they all blamed it for what had happened to them. Headaches, nausea. One woman had had an uncontrollable sneezing fit that ended the instant the broadcast got cut off. It was easy to bet that these were just the worst hit or the most nervous of the people affected, and that most people who had experienced any discomfort had shrugged it off rather than dragging themselves to the hospital to see if they needed to worry about permanent damage.
By themselves, they didn't constitute much of a mystery. Kya was personally stumped as to the precise clinical explanation, but for all she knew the answer was lurking in some obscure medical journal. The problem was the other ones. People experiencing similar symptoms, all reporting experiencing a high pitched sound or a ringing in the ears. None of them having any notion what had been the source of the noise. None of them admitting when questioned to having been listening to the radio. And all at the same time, as far as Kya could ascertain, as the mystery broadcast.
So what did that mean? If it wasn't some strange noise coming through a radio's speakers, what was it? Something in the radio waves themselves?
Did she really just ask herself if people were being attacked by radio waves? That's what you get for associating with secret societies, she thought. You start seeing conspiracies. Well, if she was going to think about conspiracies, she might as well take it to the professionals. Korra was supposed to be on a date tonight. Anyway, Pema was a better bet for telling her if she was letting her imagination run away. They were having a lull, and it not yet too late to call her sister-in-law. No time like the present.
There was an office at the back of the emergency room with a phone. She went in, shut the door, and dialed Pema's number. She got an answer on the second ring.
"Hello?" came a familiar but unexpected voice. Ikki should have been in bed by this hour.
"Hello, Ikki. Could you put your mother on the line, please?"
"Oh, Auntie Kya," Ikki wailed. "Jinora's dying!"
Knowing Ikki, this seemed highly unlikely. And indeed, Kya heard Pema's voice in the background, sounding far more harassed than worried. "Ikki, give me the phone please." There was some rebellious muttering, but soon Pema came on the line herself. "Hello, Kya? Is that you?"
"Yes. Is everything all right? I can call back later if this is a bad time."
"It's nothing. Ikki is exaggerating. Jinora got this terrible headache in the middle of evening meditation. It really knocked her for a loop. She spent the rest of the evening lying in her room in the dark, moaning. She's starting to feel better now, but it's thrown everything it to a bit of disarray."
Kya swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. "Pema, I need you to tell me as precisely as possible everything you can about this headache."
Korra leaned back contentedly in the passenger seat of Asami's roadster. "This has been a wonderful night." She glanced sideways at Asami. Her girlfriend kept her eyes on the road, but was smiling.
"It has. We should set time aside like this more often."
Korra felt a little pang of guilt. Most of their nights out ended much earlier than this. Sometimes that was down to Asami. After all, running a major company couldn't leave a lot of free time. But often it was down to Korra keeping time aside to patrol the city. Was it fair to expect Asami to put up with her strange schedule? Particularly without knowing the real reason for it? Don't spoil the night. You'll work out a way to do right by both her and the city. You've got to. "I'd like that a lot," was all she said out loud.
Asami reached over and gave her hand a quick squeeze, glancing briefly sideways at her and giving her an even wider smile. They rode on in companionable silence for a while. Korra looked ahead out the windshield at the approaching city. The lights from the tall buildings twinkled brighter than stars. Clouds rolling in from across the sea were lit up by the city's glow.
She frowned. There was something wrong, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. "Am I crazy, or is there something different about the skyline."
Asami didn't answer at first. "Varrick Tower used to have a radio mast at the top. And by 'used to' I mean it was there earlier this evening," she said quietly. "It's not there now."
Korra got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Wasn't the radio station we were listening to earlier...?"
Asami nodded. "It's the one owned by Varrick."
Korra guessed that the Avatar had something to investigate after all and that she wouldn't be getting to sleep any time soon.
And we're off! Welcome to the beginning of Book 2: Air. I've started us off with some shameless Orson Wells in-jokes. I'll leave it up to you whether that's a good thing or not. :)
The roadster was Asami's "civilian car." Nonetheless, she had a radio transmitter behind a hidden panel on the dashboard for emergencies. After dropping Korra off at her apartment, Asami fired up the set and made a call back to the crime lab. The speaker crackled in response. "Don't you have something you should be attending to tonight?" Yin asked without preamble.
A smile tugged at the corner's of Asami's mouth at the way the older woman had managed to nag her about her date and still maintain radio security. "I was attending to it until about five minutes ago." She was briefly tempted to defend herself and point out as best she could that she had refused to let herself rush her date. She thought the better of it; Yin was already quite capable of turning what she had already said into an innuendo; she really didn't need more help on that front. "But the night's other events did not escape my notice. I didn't expect you to answer given the hour. I was going to talk to the recorder, but since you're still on station you can take notes while I think out loud."
"Serves me right, I suppose."
"First off, do we have an agent reports on the events at the Varrick network?"
"Not much beyond rumors and speculation. I can confirm that the police were called in to the Varrick Tower, but none of our people have access to those reports yet."
"Right. So the to-do list. Get hold of those reports. Something interesting happened at the tower since its missing a radio antenna. That can't have been an easy job. Sounds like it would take heavy equipment. So possibly had to be an inside job to pull it off. Need to check how good Varrick's security is."
"An inside job raises the question of who's the inside man. Are you just thinking about disgruntled or corrupt employees? Or..."
"You mean is Varrick himself involved? Maybe. That's another line of inquiry to follow up. And if it's not him, then who? If it's his idea of a publicity stunt, it's probably a one-off. But if it's not, I expect a repeat performance from our 'Voice of the Spirits' character. So I'll need to look at how you'd go about hijacking a radio broadcast."
"And what will you do day after tomorrow?" Yin said dryly.
"Oh, I'll think of something."
"I'm surprised you're not thinking of a crime scene investigation tonight."
"Tempting, but by the time I can get into character and back to Varrick Tower, I won't have a lot of time for actual investigation. Climbing a skyscraper takes time, even with the aid of a grapple gun." Asami smiled to herself. "Besides, I suspect our friend in blue will be just as curious about this as I am. And she'll have a much easier time getting on scene."
At seventy stories, Varrick Tower was the tallest building in the Republic City. It had been completed just after Korra moved to the city, beating out the Future Industries Building. Korra vaguely remembered there being some buzz in the papers and speculation whether FI would try to take the title back. Now that she knew Asami, Korra guessed that her girlfriend's reaction had probably been to roll her eyes and get back to work.
She rode her kite up toward the top of the tower. She hadn't been this close to it before. The outside was actually fairly elegant and understated, words that she normally didn't tend to associate with Varrick based on his public persona. Many of the office windows still had lights on, and she avoided flying too close to these. Reaching the top, she circled to get the layout before landing. The radio mast, what was left of it, was still on top of the roof. It lay in several pieces, the metal all crushed and twisted. It seemed a miracle that nothing had fallen to the street below.
A flash of light caught her eye and she circled closer. There was a man on the roof, crouched near the remnants of the antenna's base. He was next to an open hatch, shining a flashlight inside and poking around. Curious, she came in for a landing behind him. Her boots scraped along the rooftop as she touched down. The man didn't turn, but he held his flashlight up over his head and said, "Could you take this and shine it down here? It's going to take two hands to disconnect this little devil."
Korra raised an eyebrow but took the proffered flashlight. The man muttered thanks and returned to his work. His attention was focused on a box about the size of a portable phonograph case. Actually, it looked like it was a portable phonograph case, with carrying handle and everything. Except that it had electrical wires running out of it from two crudely drilled holes. One set ran to the antenna and the other to the building. "Some beggar spliced this in along the line that carries the broadcast signal," he muttered as he worked. "And we can't have that, can we?"
"What is it?" Korra asked.
He finished disconnecting the box, flipped the latches and opened the top. Inside was a jumbled mess of wires, vacuum tubes, and other electronic paraphernalia. "No idea," he said after staring at it for a few seconds. He looked up at her for the first time. "Oh, hello." Korra took a proper look at him. He was in shirt sleeves, but his slacks looked like they belonged to a nice suit of clothes. Or they had before he had started grubbing around the wreckage. He had a puffy hairdo and a pencil thin mustache. "Well, this is quite a thrill. Welcome to my humble rooftop." He stood up and gave her a theatrical bow. Korra realized exactly why he looked familiar.
"And you're the Avatar! Come to investigate the Mystery of the Mangled Mast I'll wager. A complex conundrum to be elucidated by the Elegant Elementalist."
"Right..." Korra closed her eyes briefly. "About that. What can you tell me about what happened here?"
"Not a lot. We went off the air at 8:59 pip emma. It took a while for anyone to actually notice, and when we came up here to look, we found this mess. You should see the wreckage up close! Amazing stuff." He grinned and gestured her over.
"You don't seem very upset about it," she remarked as she followed him.
"A temporary set back. But it's an amazing story, and the Varrick media empire is right at the center of it. Even better now that you're here." The stopped at one of the twisted hunks of metal. "So, what do you think?" he asked, his grin growing even broader.
She frowned and knelt down. She carefully touched the jagged edges. "Looks like mechanical damage. Doesn't look melted at the edges like you'd expect from a blow torch." She laid the fingers of one hand on the beam and rapped it in a few different locations with the butt of the flashlight. "Definitely not heat damage. The echos are all wrong." She shined the light over the edges. "It looks more torn than cut."
"I know! I mean, what could do that?" Varrick sounded absurdly pleased.
"I don't know." She frowned at the damage. "You should have the police in."
"They've been and gone. I've been trying to decide if 'stumped' or 'baffled' is the best word to describe them."
She looked up at him. "And they just left your mystery box here?"
"No one thought to look inside the maintenance hatch. I mean, would you? What with all that beautiful wreckage competing with it?"
She stood up and looked at him warily. Trying to look casual, she moved into a stance that left her poised for defense. "You thought to look there. After everyone else left."
"Yeah, well we've got to get back on the air. I wanted to see how bad the damage was." He trailed off and looked back at her, frowning. Then he grinned again and pointed at her with both hands. "Hey, I get where you're coming from. Looks pretty suspicious, doesn't it? An inside job from the very top. What an angle that would be!" He put one hand over his heart and raised the other. "Don't worry. I'm not insulted. You've got to leave no stone unturned. I respect that. It just proves how right you are for the job. I have every confidence in you."
"How nice of you," she said dryly.
"Tell you what. Why don't you take the thingus away with you?"
She blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I've got no particular use for it. And this way you know that I'm not trying to get rid of it."
"Well, that sounds... reasonable." She looked around. She didn't honestly have any idea for what else she could do while she was there. Add evidence collection to the list of things I need to learn, she thought.
Varrick kept grinning at her as she closed the case and fastened the latches. "Any chance of another scoop for my paper when you run the culprits to ground?"
"No promises. Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
Varrick shrugged. "Fair enough. Well, it was a thrill to meet you, Avatar." He stuck out his hand. Korra handed him back his flashlight. If he was upset at her not shaking his hand, he didn't show it. He just grinned some more and raised the flashlight to his forehead in a sort of salute.
It was always tricky flying the kite one handed, but Korra could picture more awkward burdens than the mystery device. It was probably too late to call the number the Ghost had given her after the first time they had worked together. It would have to wait for tomorrow. Korra was willing to bet that if anyone could figure out what the gadget was supposed to do, it would be the Ghost.
She was more than halfway home when she realized she had just removed evidence from a crime scene. She wondered if that had been Varrick's idea from the beginning. "Idiot," she said to herself. There was nothing she could do about it now, except keep moving forward as best she could. "Well, Varrick. If you're what you seem and we both being dim at the same time, maybe you'll get your story. And if instead you just played me, I will make sure you regret it."
Opal stepped into Editor Moon's office and stopped cold. Being called into the editor's office wasn't anything unusual. Maybe there was an assignment. Maybe there were questions about progress on her latest article. Worrying just because the editor wanted to see you was something cub reporters did. Normally. Of course, normally she didn't find the paper's publisher waiting for her along with the editor. Mr. Varrick sat lounging in a chair next to Moon's desk. He gave Opal a lazy wave and a broad smile. She stood in the doorway staring at him.
Moon looked at Opal over her spectacles. "Please step inside, Miss Beifong, and close the door behind you." Opal swallowed nervously and obeyed. Moon gestured her to an empty chair. The editor gave her a ghost of a smile, which Opal hoped was meant to be reassuring.
"So, Opal - can I call you Opal? - I had a visit from your friend last night," Varrick said once she had seated herself.
Opal frowned, puzzled. "My friend?" She ran down a list of her friends trying to think who he could possibly mean. She couldn't think of anyone likely to pay Varrick a visit or who would be worth mentioning to her if they did.
"Republic City's own Mysterious Mistress of the Elements." Opal could swear she heard the Capital Letters when Varrick spoke. "The Avatar."
"Oh, her! I think calling us friends would be pitching it a bit strong. We've only met twice."
Varrick dismissed this with an airy wave of his hand. "Labels. The point is, you are known to the general public as the Avatar's reporter of choice. So naturally I decided to bring the story to you."
Opal forced herself to smile. After her hard work to be known as something other than Suyin Beifong's daughter or Lin Beifong's niece, it is was annoying to hear she had effectively placed herself in someone else's shadow. "Thank you, sir." She opened her notebook and waited with her pen poised.
Varrick began to recount the story of his big night. Opal jotted down the details. As he continued, a sinking feeling grew in the pit of her stomach. She risked a glance at Moon. The editor was watching her closely, showing no sign of her own reactions to Varrick's story. Varrick was deeply engrossed in his own tale, which he told with extravagant hand gestures, lots of digressions, and an impressive amount of alliteration.
"So what do you think?" he asked her when he finished. "Great story, huh?"
She looked at her notes. Even allowing for the obvious self-promotion, there was certainly the beginning of a good story there. There were just two problems. Opal started with the one most likely to get her off the hook. "Malik broke the story about last night's events for us, didn't he?"
That slight smile returned to Moon's face. "That's right," she said.
"That means this is really his story. I can't just poach it from him."
Moon was still smiling but Varrick frowned. "Why not?" he asked.
"It would be one thing if one of my existing sources contacted me about this," she said. "Or if I went digging on my own. If I put in the work to get the scoop... well all's fair. But you're the boss. If you just hand it to me, if you take it away from someone who's already put in their own hard work, no one in the newsroom will ever work with me again. For good reason. Avatar's chosen reporter or not, you should really be talking to Malik."
"I already squared everything with Malik," Moon said. She turned to Varrick. "And you owe me 20 yuan."
He grinned, pulled a bill out of his wallet and handed it over. "When you're right, you're right."
Opal stared at them as she processed this. Malik was a friend as much as anyone in the newsroom was. But he was no more altruistic than she was when it came to pursuing a scoop. If he'd been willing to give up the story to her, it was probably because he had spotted problem number two. "OK then. I can write up what you've told me for tomorrow's paper. But because you are my boss, I can't write it the same as if you were a regular source. I've got to make it clear that you came to me to give me this information and that it hasn't been substantiated by outside sources. And I'd have to remind people that you own the Dragon."
Varrick's grin had faded as Opal had gone down the list. "That sounds like a lot of language designed to make me sound untrustworthy," he said in a mild tone.
Moon came to Opal's rescue before she had time to seriously panic. "That's because you are untrustworthy," the editor said. "People already know that. But they nonetheless trust the Dragon. If we want them to go on doing that, we can't pretend we don't understand you as well as the general public does."
He grinned again. "Good point. That's why you're the editor." He turned back to Opal. "So what's the alternative?" he asked.
"I do my job," Opal said. "I investigate this like I would any strange and suspicious goings-on at any other company. You've given me a good starting point. But it will impress people more if I can back it up."
"Think you can get an interview with the Avatar as part of your investigating?" Varrick asked.
"I really don't want to promise that. She's the one who knows how to contact me." She reflected that this might be a good time to give a little ground. "I can see what I can work up for a preliminary article that might catch her interest. While still sticking to the facts, of course."
"Of course," Varrick replied with an airy wave of his hand. She honestly couldn't tell if he was sincerely agreeing or was mocking her.
"Well," she said. "I guess I'd better get to it." She stood up.
"Glad to know the story's in safe hands," Varrick said.
Moon gave her a nod. "Very good, Miss Beifong."
Opal shut the door to the office and let out a deep breath. As she made her way back to her desk, she thought she saw more stares from her fellow reporters than usual. As she passed his desk, Malik looked at her with open curiosity and asked, "How did it go?" Of course he had known what was coming even before Moon had called her in.
"Are you sure you don't want this story back?" she asked in turn, pitching her voice loud enough to be overheard by the reporters at the neighboring desks.
Malik chuckled and gave her an ironic salute. "Beifong, this once it's all yours."
Weekend shifts had their downsides, but this once it worked to Korra's advantage. Her mid-week day off gave her free time start an investigation of the previous night's events. And a phone call from Pema first thing in the morning let her know she had more to investigate than she had expected.
When she got to the meditation center, she found Jinora leading a group of visitors through a meditation session in the front room. She knew that the center wasn't just a front, but she usually didn't encounter outsiders there at such an inconvenient moment. Ikki was also in the front room, apparently waiting for her. She grabbed Korra by the sleeve and dragged through to the back. She held up her finger in a theatrical shushing gesture.
"Jinora looks like she's recovered," Korra said in a quiet voice.
Ikki waved this remark away. "Pfft," she said. "She's fine. I don't know what all the fuss is about."
"I hear that you thought she was dying last night," Korra said, smiling.
Ikki folded her arms and turned up her nose. "Yeah, but she wasn't."
"And how are you doing, kiddo?"
"All right, I guess." She shrugged.
Korra wasn't buying it. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"You're going to talk to Mom and Aunt Kya. And I've got nothing to do but hang around. Meelo is over at a friend's, but I'm supposed to wait and keep him distracted if he comes back early. Like Meelo would do that." She glanced at the door to the front room and lowered her voice further. "All this exciting stuff was going on under my nose all this time. And now I know about it, but I still don't get to do anything interesting."
"Exciting isn't always good," Korra said. "And I'm not sure the stuff we'll be talking about will actually be that interesting." Ikki gave her a skeptical look. There was something about the look on her face that suggested she'd heard it all before and still wasn't buying it. "I've got an idea," Korra said. "Don't go away. I'll be right back."
Walking quietly, Korra went back out to the front room and out the front door. She walked to the newsstand down the street, bought one each of the major local newspapers, and carried them back to the meditation center and into the kitchen where Ikki sat slouching in a chair. Korra handed her the stack of papers. "How'd you like to do some research for me? I was planning to do this myself a bit later, but maybe you can save me some time."
Ikki's eyes grew wide. "What do you want me to do?"
"Compare the different accounts of last night's events. What do they agree about? What do they disagree about? Who has evidence and who's just guessing? And does anyone know anything that no one else does."
"You got it!" Ikki jumped up from the table and grabbed a pen and the pad Pema used for her shopping lists. "If Meelo gets back before I'm done, what do I tell him I'm doing?"
"Call it 'homework', and he'll lose all interest," Korra said.
Ikki spread the papers out on the table and started reading. Korra shook her head and grinned before heading upstairs to Pema's study. As expected, Pema and Kya were both waiting for her there. Pema was seated behind her desk looking her usual cheerful self, but Kya was slumped in a chair, eyes half closed. She sat up and blinked at Korra's entrance. There were dark circles under her eyes.
Korra frowned. "You look tired. Are you sure this meeting shouldn't wait until after you've had some shut-eye? Aren't you still on the graveyard shift tonight?"
Kya yawned. "I'll head home and sleep when we're done here. It'll be fine." She smiled. "I do know how to take care of myself, Dad."
Korra rolled her eyes but smiled back. She always did have a sass mouth, Aang's voice said in her head. Korra ignored him. "All right. Message received. I won't nag." She plopped down in an empty chair. "So what's the skinny?" she asked.
Kya laid out her observations from the night before. Korra listened carefully. Kya's report was careful, thorough, and convincing. "You're right," Korra said, once the doctor was finished. "That's too much to be a coincidence. Do you think it was some sort of deliberate attack on the city?"
Kya spread her hands. "No one was done any permanent injury, as far as I can tell. Although one man got in a car crash because of his headache. The fact that it wasn't worse might have been more luck than judgment on someone's part."
"And you didn't spot any common factor between the victims?" Pema asked, leaning forward on her elbows.
Kya shook her head. "Nothing. Different ages, sexes, you name it. Pretty much a cross-section of Republic City as far as I could tell."
"There's at least a connection between Jinora and me," Korra said.
"You mean the fact that she's got Southern Tribe ancestry?" Kya asked. She shook her head. "That won't wash. There was no consistent ethnic background. And why did it affect her with one-quarter blood and not me with one-half blood?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of I'm the Avatar and she's descended from my last life," Korra said. "Although really all of your objections apply just as well to that."
Pema gave Korra a crooked smile. "Well, maybe not all her objections. With almost two hundred past lives over the past ten thousand years, there's probably a lot of people in Republic City who the descendant of one Avatar or another. Some might be descendants of your past lives many times over."
Korra stared at her. "That's actually a bit disturbing if you think about it."
Pema shrugged. "You should probably get over it. It's an inevitable consequence of reincarnation and it applies to all of us."
"So we can all be equally disturbed," Kya said dryly. "Anyway, it doesn't really get away from my second point. Even if that's the connection, most of those people are distant ancestors. Why them when more recent ancestors of an Avatar are unaffected? I think it's likely that we won't be able to figure out a connection until we understand the actual cause."
"That I might be able to do something about," Korra said. "Well, not me personally. But making arrangements for it is the next thing on my to-do list."
Household duties kept Yin occupied for most of the morning. She did not manage to get a spare moment to visit the crime lab until early afternoon. She had orders to send out to the Ghost's network of agents, and they really should have been issued earlier. Her dual life as Miss Sato's majordomo and the Ghost's Medium could be taxing. She marveled at Miss Sato maintaining her own much more active alter ego.
The light was on over the wire recorder, indicating that a new call had come in since last night. Curious, she rewound the spool and switched the machine to playback. A slightly familiar voice came out over the speakers.
"Oh. Um. Hi there. It's me. Except that probably doesn't help, you probably get calls from a lot of people. This is awkward. Why is this awkward? You gave me this number. Surely you expected a call at some point. Argh." The voice cut off briefly. Then there was a throat clearing noise, and speech resumed in a somewhat more composed manner. "This is the Avatar calling for the Ghost. I investigated the events at Varrick Tower last night. I have a piece of evidence I'd like to bring to you. I could really use your technical expertise." There was another pause. "This would be easier if I could have you call me back. I guess I'll try again later and if I can't speak directly with you or one of your people, I'll swing by the agreed upon place around nine." A final pause and the voice concluded, "Thanks. Bye."
Yin shook her head, smiling. Miss Sato had once predicted that things would not be dull with the Avatar around, and she wasn't wrong. She briefly considered saving the recording so the boss could hear it. In the end, she took pity on the Avatar instead. She noted down the bare facts to report later to the boss and wound the spool back again, leaving it so that the next call would record over the message. "We were all young and insecure once," she murmured to herself. Then she sat down at the phone and started issuing the Ghost's orders to the network.
Almost precisely at nine there was a knock at the safe house window. Asami opened it to see the Avatar standing out on the fire escape. She handed Asami a wooden case before climbing in through the window herself. "Thanks for seeing me on such short notice," she said.
Asami hefted the case. "This time it's my turn to say 'And I didn't bring you anything.'"
The Avatar laughed sheepishly. "Well, all I've really brought you is work. I hope you don't mind."
Asami carried the box over to the table and set it down. "What is it?" she asked.
"That's what I'm hoping you can tell me. This was hooked into the antenna at Varrick tower, presumably before it got destroyed. Varrick didn't seem to expect to see it there and couldn't explain it. You seem to be good at gadgets, so I was hoping..."
Asami nodded and flipped the latches holding the box shut. "Well, let's take a look." She peered inside. "Of course I might need to disconnect some things to really figure this out. But not before I'm sure I can put it all back together." She pulled a pen out of her breast pocket and gingerly moved the wires around. "Some of this looks like a radio relay of some sort. How was it hooked in?"
The Avatar shuffled her feet. "I didn't get a really good look, and it's not really my field. I think it was kind of spliced in on the cable that carried the broadcast signal to the tower."
Asami nodded. "OK. That makes some sense. It looks like it can receive an outside broadcast signal. When it's not receiving the signal on the antenna wire just passes through, but when it starts receiving it damps out the proper broadcast and replaces it. But there are also things in here that I don't understand. It looks like a resonance circuit in a way, but... No, I have no idea what this bit is supposed to do. Curious. I might have to take it back to my lab and run some power through it. Do some experiments."
"Yeah, about that. there's something you should know first." Asami looked up curiously. "Have you heard about the headaches some people had during the broadcast?" the Avatar continued.
Asami nodded. "Yes. The paper's mentioned that," she said. "And also an - associate of mine personally experienced one in my presence. It didn't look pleasant."
"Yeah, They have my sympathies. I'm apparently one of the susceptible people myself. What the papers didn't mention is that some people experienced them without having a radio turned on. You remember my doctor friend? She's the one who brought it to my attention. She saw a number of the sufferers at the hospital last night."
Asami gave a low whistle. "Now that is interesting. And you think this might be responsible?"
"It sounds far fetched, but I don't have a better candidate at this point," the Avatar said.
"Can't argue with that," Asami said as she went back to her examination of the device. "I promise I'll be careful with it. Set up some sort of shielded test chamber maybe." It should be easy enough to do, she thought, as long as radio waves were the only thing this produced. That was the question. Hurting people with radio didn't seem very likely. But if not radio, what? If this thing produced some sort of mystery waves, how could she tell? Maybe reverse engineering the device would give her a clue to how to build a receiver for whatever it put out...
She realized that the Avatar had said something to her while she was engrossed in her investigation. "I'm sorry. What was that?"
"I was just asking, did I do the right thing taking this away? I mean, if it does turn out to be evidence, we can't really bring it to the police anymore. Can we?"
"Oh," Asami said. She rubbed the back of her neck. "I suppose technically speaking that could be a problem."
"Technically speaking?" the Avatar repeated.
"Well, it sounds like the crime scene was already skunked before you arrived. Varrick really shouldn't have been let up there on his own, even if it is his building. The police should have kept it shut off. Since they didn't, any decent defense lawyer would contest any evidence found after they left. So on the balance, you taking this out of there at least gets this in our hands so we can figure out what it does without really hampering the police."
The Avatar mulled this over. "That sounds comforting, but it seems like a convenient way of looking at things."
Asami laughed. "Rationalization is a career skill for people like us."
"So you really just want to be the one to figure out what this thing does?" There was a teasing note in the Avatar's voice.
Asami grinned under her mask. "Three years of crime-fighting. I've seen guns and bombs, smugglers' souped-up automobiles and forgers' printing presses. They're all really dull and straightforward. You've brought me my very first novel device. It's like Solstice come early."
The Avatar snorted. "Glad to be of service," she said.
"It's going to take some to analyze this. I can't set a timetable, but how about if I give you the preliminary results night after tomorrow?" While the Avatar was considering this, a thought occurred to Asami and she hastily said, "Actually, the night after that would be a better idea."
The Avatar nodded. "That will work fine for me. I appreciate it." She held out her hand and Asami shook it.
"Don't mention it. We're in this business together. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the challenge."
She escorted the Avatar back to the window and let her out of the safe house. After she had closed the window behind the other woman, Asami leaned forward and thumped her forehead against the window frame. "Sato, you're an idiot," she muttered to herself. She had almost double booked the Ghost's investigation with her own personal life. She already had arrangements to take Korra out in two nights' time. Mixing crime fighting with a personal life was a balance she was still getting used to.
Mako stepped out of the office of the chief broadcast engineer for the Varrick network. "Thank you for your time, sir," he said and shut the door behind him. He looked over his interview notes with dissatisfaction as he walked down the hall. No one he'd spoken to in the Varrick building seemed to know anything useful. And normally that itself would strike him as suspicious, except for two things. First, everybody he'd spoken to seemed like they were at least trying to be helpful. They were upset over every minute the Varrick network was off the air. They wanted the people behind what they viewed as 'the attack' caught and punished. No one had tried to dodge his questions or palm him off on someone else. Second, there were just too damn many people who worked in this building. There could be dozens of people with dirty secrets that he hadn't spoken to. Granted most people who worked in the building weren't in any position to engineer the destruction of the antenna or the pirate broadcast. It would still take days to go through the list of potential suspects.
"Afternoon, Detective," said a voice behind him. "What brings you here?"
He turned to see Opal Beifong leaning against the door jamb of one of the studios. He gave her a smile. "You know I can't talk about that, Miss Beifong."
He still didn't know Opal that well, but since she'd started dating his brother they had come to an arrangement. If she called him 'Mako', anything that came up in conversation was off the record. If she called him 'Detective', it wasn't. She usually didn't ask him anything tricky when they were off the record. Possibly because of how frustrating it would be to hear anything juicy that she couldn't use.
"Well, it's a safe bet anyway that it's the same thing that brought me here. If the police could use a free hint, I think talking to the actors would be a waste of your time. It certainly was of mine."
Mako hadn't even thought of interviewing them. But anything Opal was willing to spill might be useful, even if it didn't look promising to her. "No joy, huh?" he said sympathetically.
She shrugged. "It was a long shot, I suppose. I thought, what if someone knew in advance that the station wouldn't be on the air during the performance. Would they be able to hide that foreknowledge from everyone else? Either nobody did know anything or the answer is, yes, they could hide it very easily."
"It's not a bad thought," he said. He'd been following a similar line of reasoning with the technical staff.
"Any joy with you?" she asked.
She'd been helpful, so it was worth a small concession. "We are proceeding with our inquiries," he said piously, but pulled a sour face so she would know that he didn't have anything either.
She gave him a crooked smile. "Yeah. That's kind of what I figured you'd be doing."
Down the hall, a door opened with a bang causing them both to start. A man Mako recognized as one of the station managers came out and stalked down the hallway looking annoyed. He pushed past them and stuck his head through the open studio door. "Has anyone seen the janitor today?" A chorus of no's answered him. Looking even more sour, he started knocking on doors up and down the hall. His query was no more successful with repetition. Mako and Opal exchanged a glance as the man stomped past them yet again, returning to the room he had emerged from. As one, they trailed along discreetly. He had left the door open, and they heard him dialing his phone.
"Yes, could you connect me to Janitorial? Thank you. Yes, hello. This is the radio station. Where's our janitor? Trash hasn't been picked up today, and he was supposed to replace a burnt out light bulb in my office. No, I don't know his name, he was new on our floor. Past week or so. What do you mean, 'What new guy?' You're the ones who sent him to us. Tall guy, beard, middle-aged. Oh, I don't have time for this. Just send someone, anyone, to take care of this floor!" He hung up the phone with a bang.
Opal and Mako moved quietly away from the open door. "You know," Opal said, "I have a crazy reporter hunch that it might be worth talking to someone in the janitorial department."
"The police have been known to act on hunches from time to time. Sometimes it pays off." Mako pulled a coin out of his pocket and held it up. Opal tapped her head. Mako tossed the coin. It came up tails.
Opal shrugged. "You know, I think I might talk to a few more radio people for the next half hour."
"Speaking hypothetically," Mako said, "if a reporter had a shrewd idea just who a detective planned to talk to, there's nothing he could do to prevent her from asking them her own questions once he was done."
"Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing," Opal said.
Korra and Kuvira got off the streetcar at the stop closest to Bumi's gym. "You ever going to bring Fancy Pants along to join in your workout? Bet she'd enjoy the show."
Korra rolled her eyes. "Asami's welcome of course. If she wanted to. She knows some self-defense, but she doesn't seem that interested in martial arts. Besides, when I'm at the gym she can go to the races. There's nothing wrong with us having some separate interests."
"She bets on the ostrich horses?" Kuvira said. "Wouldn't have thought she was the type."
"Not that kind of race," Korra said. "Cars. And she drives them, she doesn't bet on them."
They arrived at Bumi's. "Motors of her own design, I suppose," Kuvira said as she pushed open the door.
Korra grinned. "Of course."
Kuvira stopped just inside the doorway to Bumi's gym, blocking Korra's way. "Well I'll be damned."
Korra tapped her on the shoulder. "Just two more steps forward, OK?"
Kuvira gave her a sheepish grin and stepped out of the way. "Sorry about that. I was just a little surprised."
"I gathered that," Korra said. She followed Kuvira's gaze and saw Lin in the ring with Opal Beifong. The young reporter was trying unsuccessfully to break out of her aunt's hold. Korra remembered just in time that she had been wearing the Avatar's mask every time she had met Opal. "What's surprising?"
"Someone I didn't expect to see here," Kuvira said. "Come on over, I'll introduce you."
As they walked over, Opal finally found the leverage to prise herself free. She quickly hopped to the far corner of the ring, keeping a wary eye on her aunt.
"That's more like it," Lin said approvingly.
"You should have gone for the reversal, Squirt!" yelled Kuvira.
Opal turned at the sound of Kuvira's voice. "Giddy!" she cried. She climbed out of the ring and ran over to give Kuvira a hug. Kuvira ruffled her hair.
Korra exchanged a bemused look with Lin. "Giddy?"
"It's not my fault," Kuvira said, "if none of the rest of you thought to fight back on the nickname front."
"OK," Korra said, "but why 'Giddy?'"
"Because she isn't," Opal said. She held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Opal."
As Korra shook Opal's hand, Kuvira said "This is Dangerous. I call her that because she is."
"Ignore her," Korra said. "I'm Korra."
"Oh, I've heard about you," Opal said. "Good things," she added, giving Kuvira an elbow in the ribs.
"I said not one word!" Kuvira protested.
"Yeah, but your silence is pretty loud sometimes," Korra said with a laugh. "I've heard about you too. Nice to meet you at last."
Lin had been watching all this from the ring. She stood arms folded, one eyebrow raised, although a shadow of a smile tugged at her lips. "All this is very pleasant, but you've got more training to do." Opal groaned. "If you hadn't spent the last few weeks dodging me..." Lin began.
"I was not dodging you," Opal said. She started to blush. "It's just that my nights got busier."
"She started dating Bolin right after I told her I was going to make her come to the gym to learn self-defense," Lin said. "She's lucky I'm a sucker for romance," she added in a deadpan tone with a stony look on her face. Korra fought down the urge to laugh.
"I didn't start dating him to get out of coming here," Opal said, rolling her eyes.
"Whatever," Kuvira said. "Korra, you can take over working with Opal. You," she said pointing at Lin, "owe me a rematch."
"Another one?" Lin said.
As the two fell to friendly bickering, Korra said to Opal, "Tell you what. Come over here and we'll see how good you are at throwing a punch."
At first, Opal was hesitant about following through and had lousy balance. Korra gave her some pointers and started drilling her. While they worked, they started to chat. "So, do you know Kuvira through Bolin?" she asked.
"Kind of the reverse, actually. You know Kuvira is an orphan?" Korra nodded. "Well, so are Bolin and his brother. All three of them kind of slipped through the cracks in the system and mostly grew up on the streets."
"She's... talked a little about that," Korra said. Not much. Enough for Korra to know Kuvira didn't have a lot of good memories from childhood.
Opal nodded. "Yeah. Not a great situation. Anyway, that's where they all know each other from. One of my Mother's charities is sort of a community center for kids like that. Kuvira found her way there. My mother met her and kind of took a personal interest in her. So the two of us met through my mother."
Opal gave a rueful laugh. "Mom was trying to get her set up with a ballet scholarship. Without actually bothering to find out if that's what Kuvira wanted. So there were some words exchanged. They've mostly patched up at this point. Anyway, getting back to Bolin, he and Mako found their own way out. Extended family had come to town to find them after their parent's died and they finally succeeded. Bolin started working at the paper as a copy boy when he was like fourteen, but he started hanging around the photographers in his off hours. They taught him the ropes and he turned out to be really good at it.
"Then there's me, no idea what I want to do with my life. Kuvira happens to pass along some of Bolin's stories about life at the paper, and I'm hooked. I've always been pretty good with words, I just know this is my dream job. And I go after it like nothing before in my life. And so here we all are."
"Was it everything you dreamed it would be? Reporting, I mean?"
"Well, any job has its low points, right? But yeah. It's more than I ever hoped for. It's exciting, it's interesting, it's challenging. I'll keep doing it until they won't let me do it anymore."
"Working on anything interesting right now?"
"You bet. I'm on the 'Voice of the Spirits' story."
Korra had just been making conversation. It hadn't occurred to her to fish for info on her latest case. But this was too good an opportunity to pass up. "Oh? Have you come across anything juicy?"
"Hard to say." Despite the non-committal words, Opal looked smug. "I was lucky enough to be there when the detective on the scene caught a break. OK, the detective happened to be Mako, but it really was just good luck that I was there at the time. The upshot is that I got to talk to the same witnesses he did." She glanced over at the ring. "Aunt Lin isn't totally thrilled that I learned about it before she did, but it was all completely above board."
Korra waited. After a few moments' silence, she said "Oh, come on. You can't leave me hanging like that."
Opal looked even smugger. "You have to wait until tomorrow's paper," She said. Korra groaned. "Well, I suppose a little sneak preview won't hurt," Opal said. "How do the words 'inside man' strike you?"
Asami was one person who hadn't had to wait for the morning papers. She had been in the crime lab fiddling with the mystery device when Mako had called in his report. She'd taken advantage of the timing to question him directly on what he'd learned. Regardless, it was still interesting to read what the paper had to say on the subject the next day. It was always useful to get multiple perspectives, because you never knew what might be turned up. The reporter might have thought of a line of questioning that Mako had missed. Unfortunately, the report in the Dragon-Sentinel had pretty much the same facts as Asami had learned from Mako, just dressed up in snappy prose.
"It sounds like Varrick might need to review his security arrangements," Asami remarked to Yin as the older woman sipped her tea. As she understood the facts, a stranger had managed to inveigle his way onto the Varrick Tower custodial staff. He hadn't actually been hired. He just showed up one day, grabbed a broom cart and started cleaning the upper floors where the radio station was located. Since it meant less work for the same pay for the rest of the janitors, no one thought to ask any awkward questions. Asami considered this gambit. "Actually, it might not be a bad idea if I review Future Industries' security arrangements. I'm not sure that I would have noticed this guy if it had been my company."
"No reason why you should," Yin remarked. "But it certainly doesn't make their head custodian look good. I'd never let something like that slip my notice."
"Now be fair," Asami teased. "You only have the staff of a modest mansion to keep track of. Even you might be daunted by a seventy odd story office building."
Yin sniffed. "I wouldn't be daunted to the extent of missing the existence of an extra worker for two whole weeks."
"Hmmm, yes. Not the tightest run ship. Well, Mako promised me a copy once the police have had a sketch artist talk to the people who actually did see the mystery janitor. Hopefully, we'll get it before the weekend is out. Maybe we can get a line on the man if the authorities can't. I still can't see how one man would be able to demolish the radio tower, or what the package in the crime lab has to do with it all. But I agree that the timing of the man's appearance and disappearance is unlikely to be a coincidence." She folded the paper with a sigh. "There are still way more questions than answers. I'd like to start reversing that. I think I'll hole up in the crime lab today, continue reverse engineering that gadget. Make some excuse to the staff, would you?"
"You won't forget that you are escorting Miss Korra to a charity ball tonight, will you?" Yin said sternly.
Asami flushed, remembering her near blunder from the other night. But the thought of Korra brought a smile to her face. "No, I don't think I'll be forgetting that."
The uniformed flunky finished checking the invitation and gestured Korra and Asami into the grand reception hall with a bow. Korra did her best to match Asami's gracious smile and to feel like she belonged there. Asami seemed to notice her mood, because she gave Korra's hand a reassuring squeeze. "Nervous?" she asked.
"A little," Korra admitted. "I still don't entirely feel like I belong here." Oh, Spirits. Should I have said that?
If Asami took the remark amiss, she didn't show it. "I still feel a little of that myself. New Money, don't you know. The Sato family's humble origins are at least a hundred years too recent for some of the stuffed shirt crowd. Don't worry about 'belonging' among people who think that way."
A man in an elegant suit greeted Asami in passing, completely ignoring Korra. Korra glanced at her girlfriend. The smile Asami gave the man was far less warm than the one she'd given the doorman, and she showed no inclination to stop and chat. "Is that why you stopped coming to these things? Last time, you said you'd been avoiding them for a while." Korra asked.
Asami shrugged. "Well, it didn't help. Also, if I'm going to do business, I want to get down to business. If I'm going to socialize, I want to socialize. I don't see the attraction of mixing them together." She stopped walking and turned to Korra. She reached up and cupped Korra's chin in her hand. "Last time, I discovered that the company you keep makes a big difference."
Korra smiled and leaned forward to accept Asami's kiss. While they stood there, she heard a nearby voice say, "Now there is a beautiful sight. And me without a photographer in tow."
They broke their kiss. Asami rolled her eyes heavenward and Korra answered with a rueful smile. "Hello, Wu," they said in unison. Korra turned to see the young society reporter grinning at them.
"Ah, you both remembered me," he said. "I am truly flattered." He bowed to them.
To Korra's surprise, and perhaps to Wu's as well, Asami stepped forward and gave him a hug. "You are nothing if not memorable, Wu," she said.
He buffed his nails on his shirt front. "Well, one does one's best. May I say, it is a pleasure to see you both."
Given the timing of his interruption, Korra wasn't quite yet prepared to say it was a pleasure to see him as well. She settled for "How have you been, Wu?"
"Busy, busy. If it isn't charity balls, it's theater premieres or flower shows. Really, I am run quite ragged."
"You brave little soldier," Asami said, sounding amused.
"On that note, I must alas bring the sordid note of business into our little conversation. Our readers would love to know what brings you here tonight, Miss Sato."
"A sporty little red and black roadster," Korra said, not quite under her breath. Asami elbowed her lightly in the ribs.
"Well, the ball is raising funds in a good cause," Asami said. "I'm only too happy to do my small part in support."
"Ah ah ah!" Wu waved a finger back and forth. "You have been obligingly buying tickets to charity functions for years, but usually not attending. What my readers are really curious about is whether you might be seen at more of these events in future. In the company of a certain someone?" He looked to Korra and waggled his eyebrows.
"That depends on whether a certain someone and I get the chance to enjoy ourselves tonight," Asami said, although she smiled as she said it.
"I'll put that down as a coy 'Perhaps,' shall I?" Wu said.
"'Enigmatic' is a better word than 'coy'," Korra said. She grinned and fended off another poke in the ribs from Asami.
"Very nice," Wu said. "I shall treasure milady's advice."
"Are we really that interesting to read about?" Korra asked skeptically. "There's nothing actually important to report on here?"
Wu's smile looked a little apologetic. "For the people who read the society pages, the question of who in the social register is still available and who isn't counts as extremely important." Asami grimaced and gave Korra's hand another reassuring squeeze.
"Well," Wu said. "It has been most pleasant chatting with you, but I must be seeking out more news of earth-shattering importance to regale the curious public." He gave a courtly bow and turned to go.
"Hey, Wu," Asami said. "We should get together some time when you're not working. For old time's sake."
He gave her a broad smile that had none of his usual persiflage. "What say we do it for new time's sake instead? Ladies."
"So you know Wu from way back?" Korra said. "Bolin said he used to be in Society."
Asami nodded. "He should probably tell you the details of his story himself. But yes, he used to be quite high in the Upper Ten Thousand. When his luck changed, most of the people who used to flock around him dropped him like a hot rock."
"You're one who didn't, though." Korra didn't bother to make it a question. She knew Asami well enough to know the answer.
"There really wasn't any great virtue to it," Asami said, looking uncomfortable.
"Wu doesn't seem to agree with you. You don't need to apologize for being a good friend."
"That's the thing. We'd never been terribly close. I'd always found him rather self-obsessed, although he could be charming when he put his mind to it. The act he puts on now is sort of a self-parody if you want an idea what he was like back then. I didn't go out of my way to be nice to him. I just didn't treat him differently than before. This was after my father's arrest, so I knew what it was like for people you thought were friends to suddenly treat you like poison. I could have done more."
"You were still decent to him," Korra pointed out. "Besides, Wu is sweet but he is also just the teensiest bit annoying." That got a smile out of Asami. "Come on, let's dance." She took Asami by the hand and led her out on the floor.
Partway through the second dance, Korra became aware of a man standing at the edge of the dance floor who seemed to be watching them. She tried to ignore him, but once she was aware she couldn't help noticing his gaze every time the turn of the dance brought them near him. The music happened to end at just such a time, and her annoyance boiled over. She turned and gave the man a pointed look.
He was a few years older than her. He had a pointy beard and wore spectacles. He was dressed soberly. When he met her eye he gave her a slight smile and raised his glass in salute. Not feeling particularly mollified, Korra approached him. "Is there a problem?" she asked. Asami had followed her and now laid a hand on her shoulder. It felt like an offer of backup rather than an attempt to restrain her.
The man gave a surprisingly charming smile. "I'm sorry. That was terribly rude of me. I was noticing your gown as you danced." He twirled a finger in the air. "The skirt has a very nice flow when you go into a turn or spin. It's a style you see less and less these days. Not to speak ill of modern design. I just have old-fashioned tastes." He gave an apologetic nod to Asami, as if to indicate he meant no offense to how she was dressed.
Korra's annoyance was fading but not completely gone. She folded her arms. "I bought this dress second hand," she said, "but I like it."
"Ah, that explains it." He nodded as if her explanation were the most natural thing in the world. Which of course it was, but the attitude surprised her in this setting.
"Honestly, boy, I can't take you anywhere," came an amused voice from the crowd nearby. The man turned with a smile on his face, and Korra and Asami followed his gaze.
It was an older woman, gray-haired although her face was still mostly unlined. There was something familiar about her that Korra couldn't quite put her finger on. To her surprise, Asami stepped forward in greeting.
"Counselor," she said, clasping the woman's hand. "How pleasant to see you here."
"Oh, please Miss Sato, call me Suyin. Counselor sounds so stuffy." Korra made the connection. So this was Suyin Beifong. The sense of familiarity Korra had felt was from her strong resemblance to her sister Lin, although Suyin was slighter in build and also smiling.
Asami matched the woman's smile. "Well then, you should call me Asami." She turned and gestured to Korra. "This is my girlfriend Korra."
Korra held out her hand, saying "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Suyin gave her a sunny smile and gave her hand a brief clasp. "Charmed. And you have already met my son, Professor Baatar Beifong, Jr. He is standing in for his father tonight. Baatar senior has a head cold."
Baatar's face had assumed a pinched stern expression while he was on the sidelines, but now the charming smile returned. "Just call me Baatar, please. Or even Junior, if you like. It's a pleasure to meet you both. And I do apologize again for my rudeness."
Korra accepted his offered handshake. "Professor of what, may I ask?"
"Physics. Although some of my colleagues beg to differ."
Suyin rolled her eyes slightly and gave Korra a wink. She wondered if she was being warned off from a boring subject but she couldn't resist the question. "Oh? What do you study that they don't think is physicky enough? The way ladies' dresses twirl on the dance floor?"
He laughed. "That's more of a hobby than a serious study. No, I study the Spirits. More specifically I'm engaged in a scientific study of Spiritual energy and its manifestation in the natural world."
Korra hadn't been expecting that as an answer, and apparently she wasn't the only one. That sounds ill-advised, Roku's voice remarked in Korra's head.
Of course, you would think so, Kyoshi answered.
Korra ignored them both. "That sounds like a difficult field of study."
"It's only natural to be skeptical," Baatar said. "It is an area traditionally dominated by folklore and charlatanry, but I'm convinced that there is a core of verifiable phenomena underlying it all."
"It's not that," Korra said. "I'm actually coming from the other direction. Science is all about finding consistent rules for everything, right? But that's not consistent with how the Spirits are supposed to operate. Their rules are the rules of the mind or the soul. Emotion. Will. That sort of thing." She trailed off, feeling she wasn't making much sense.
However, Baatar's smile just grew wider. "You've read Roku," he said. "That's excellent. So few people bother these days."
"I just have a passing familiarity with him," Korra said hastily.
This young man might not be so bad after all, Roku said.
"Brilliant thinker," Baatar continued. "Fundamentally wrong mind you, but he didn't have the benefit of the past couple centuries of scientific thought."
Not so bad at all, Kyoshi remarked.
Will you two both be quiet? Korra thought to herself.
"As an analogy," Baatar continued, "humanity makes machines to act out our will. They still must obey the laws of physics. In fact they make use of those laws to accomplish our will."
Korra looked at him skeptically. "Are you saying that the power of the Spirits is just some sort of technology?"
"I wouldn't go that far. I think it more likely that the Spirits simply don't need to understand the laws of nature that they manipulate any more than a bird needs to understand aerodynamics in order to fly."
"And someday we'll be able to turn our will to reality using a machine the way we can use one to fly now?" Korra asked. "That sounds a little scary, to be honest." Although I'm one to talk, she thought to herself.
Korra seemed to be holding her own in a conversation that was somewhere between science and philosophy. Asami felt slightly at sea. She glanced at Suyin Beifong who was looking on in amusement. The older woman declared that she needed to freshen her drink and invited Asami to join her. Their departure received a distracted acknowledgment from Baatar and Korra.
As they set off in search of a waiter, Suyin chuckled. "Just Junior's luck. He comes across a woman who actually understands what he's talking about and she's already spoken for."
Not the most tactful remark possible, Asami thought, but there was no malice in the older woman's voice. She wondered if Suyin had freshened her drink a few times already before running into them. "You must be very proud of your son's accomplishments."
"Oh, yes," Suyin replied. "He's quite young to have achieved the standing he has in his field. Of course he needs it to pursue such a controversial field of study. The rest of the faculty doesn't really know what to make of him, but he has tenure now so there's nothing much they can do." They found a waiter carrying a tray of glasses. Asami snagged one for herself and one for Korra. Suyin drained the last drops from her glass and exchanged it for a full one. "Your young friend is quite charming," Suyin said. "You're very lucky."
Asami smiled. "I know it."
"I must sound the most frightful snob," Suyin went on, "but I'm afraid I was taken by surprise when she started speaking to Baatar in his own language. I think I need to get out more."
Asami took a hurried sip from her glass to mask her reaction. She made a vague "Hmmm," while she searched for something to say. Fortunately, Suyin didn't particularly notice her silence. She had launched into an anecdote about her law firm and a rather arrogant senior partner getting quietly shown up by a working-class junior. Asami did her best to seem appreciative of the tale.
Korra noticed them as they returned and gave them a wave. She gave Asami a kiss on the cheek as she accepted her drink. "Sorry about that. Got a little carried away in the conversation."
"Don't apologize," Asami said hastily, "and don't let me interrupt."
"Let me interrupt," Suyin said, "long enough to make my apologies. I'm not just here for socializing tonight, and I should be moving on. However, if you want to continue your conversation, Junior, please do."
Baatar shook his head, although a touch regretfully Asami thought. "No, I said I'd escort you." He turned back to Korra, "I'm giving a public lecture next week at the University. You should come. I think you'd find it interesting."
Korra smiled. "Thanks. I just may do that." As the pair walked away, Korra said "They seemed nice. Most of what I've heard about Suyin comes from Lin, so I wasn't really sure what to expect."
"She's very pleasant," Asami agreed. "Although I think she might be a bit intense to be related to."
"Yeah, I gather she has high expectations of her kids."
"So," Asami said, trying to sound casual, "that's really fascinating that you've studied the Spirits. I had no idea."
Korra looked a little uncomfortable. "I'm really no kind of expert."
"Still, I'd love to hear about it sometime," Asami said.
"Sure thing," Korra said brightly. "C'mon, let's get something to eat and then dance some more."
It was late when Yin heard Miss Sato's car pull up and the front door of the mansion open. She had retired to her own room and been settling in with a good book before sleep. The lateness of the hour seemed appropriate after a date night. She thought to herself that perhaps the mistress was finally learning to relax, when she heard the door to the study open and close. She waited a few minutes, hoping Miss Sato just needed to fetch something. But as time dragged on, she knew exactly where her employer must be. She sighed to herself, got out of bed, put on a robe and slippers and went to the study.
The room, of course, was empty. She shook her head and shut and latched the door behind her. She went to the bookshelf and triggered the secret catch. The shelf slid aside to reveal the hidden elevator to the crime lab. As expected, the elevator was on the lower level, meaning Miss Sato was down there herself. At least so Yin hoped. It was bad enough her working this late. If she had suited up and taken the sedan out, she'd never get the sleep she needed. Yin sighed and summoned the elevator.
Sure enough, once she got down to the hidden sub-basement, there was Miss Sato, seated at the electronics bench working on her own version of the mystery device. "At the end of a romantic evening, this is the best way for you to unwind?" Yin asked.
Miss Sato didn't look up. "I am supposed to meet the Avatar tomorrow night. I would like to have something useful to show her." She continued working
Yin watched her employer for a while. She was unusually quiet. Normally she would chat some, no matter how intent she was on her task. "How was the ball?" Yin asked at last.
"It was lovely." Miss Sato still did not look up from her work and meet Yin's eye.
"Trouble in paradise?" Yin asked, pulling up a stool.
"I really don't know what you're talking about," Miss Sato said.
"You are an excellent liar," Yin said, "but you really shouldn't solder when you're upset. Those joins are terrible."
Miss Sato put down the soldering iron and slumped in her seat. At last, she turned to face Yin. "Am I a snob?"
Yin looked at her in surprise. "It's not a word I would have picked. What brought this on?"
"We ran into Councilor Beifong and her son," Miss Sato said with a sigh. "He's a professor, a scientist. He's studying Spirits. He and Korra had a very in-depth conversation about his research, about philosophy, about the great minds in the history of the study of the Spirits. All sorts of things. And I was completely surprised that she had any interest in that sort of thing. That she was so well informed. I just had no idea. And I started wondering, what does that mean about me? Did I just assume that just because she didn't go to college or a fancy school, that she wouldn't have any interest in intellectual pursuits?"
Yin reached up and rubbed a hand over her eyes. It was too late in the night to be dealing with this, and relationship advice wasn't really part of her job description. Not that she normally let herself be limited by her job description. "When the two of you go out, you do actually converse, don't you? Because I feel certain that you've mentioned it a few times."
"In fact, more than once you mentioned something interesting you learned from her. And you don't seem surprised or patronizing when you talk about it."
"Actually, you talk of Miss Korra's conversation much more than her other charms. I'm not complaining. I approve. Some things it's not seemly to discuss in great detail. But the fact remains..."
Miss Sato threw up her hands. "OK, OK. You've made your point." She hesitated a moment and then asked, "Do I really talk about her that much?"
"I find it charming," said Yin. "I'd be far more worried about you two if you didn't." She leaned back in her seat. "Are you jealous? Of Korra's conversation with this young man?"
"She did nothing that I have any right to be jealous about," Miss Sato said.
"Granted. But that doesn't actually answer the question."
Miss Sato opened her mouth and then shut it. "I was a little, I guess."
"Jealous that she had this young man's attention, or jealous that she knew something you didn't?"
Miss Sato's cheeks colored. "The second one, probably."
Yin nodded. "You're a very intelligent and well-educated lady. So maybe you're a little too used to being the smartest person in the room."
Miss Sato gave her a crooked smile. "So my problem is not that I'm a snob but that I'm arrogant?"
"Democratically arrogant," Yin said. "That's important." She was rewarded with a snort of laughter. "Did you talk with your young lady about this?"
"I skirted around it. I couldn't really see how to explain it without sounding insulting."
Yin considered this. "There's something to that. Although it also sounds like you spent the night trying to hide that you were fretting about something."
"Well, I didn't do any soldering in her presence, so maybe I got away with it."
Yin sighed and stood up. "Go to bed."
It was well after midnight by the time Wu returned home. After the Charity Ball, he'd gone into the Dragon, typed up his write-up of the event, and handed it in to the night editor. It was much easier than trying to recapture the mood the following day. And it had the benefit that no one would expect him to show up at the office before noon tomorrow.
Back at his apartment, he turned the lights on and tossed his keys down on the table. With a yawn, he walked toward the kitchen to find a snack before turning in. From behind he heard a voice say "Good morning, Your Highness."
Wu spun around. There was a middle-aged man sitting on his sofa. He wore a dark suit and dark green leather gloves. Wu stared at the man's hands and swallowed convulsively. "I'm not a prince anymore. I'm just a regular guy holding down a job."
The man smiled sardonically. "You may have been disowned by the Empress, may her reign be long. But your royal blood cannot be taken from you so easily."
Wu looked at him warily and made a sideways glance to the front door. He could get out before the man could reach him. Probably. But then what? What help could he find at this time of night? And would anyone agree to help if they knew who was after him? "Is that what you're worried about? That I'm going to try to reestablish my claim? I'm not interested in the throne. I don't want anything to do with it. I don't care if my blood's royal. I just want to keep it in my veins."
The man laughed. "My my, Your Highness. If I didn't know better, I'd think you had a guilty conscience." He stopped smiling and leaned forward in his seat. "But I do know better. I know because we watch you. Very carefully. If we had the least suspicion that you posed any sort of threat to the throne, you would be dead. Quietly, without fuss. I wouldn't be making a dramatic nighttime visit" He arched an eyebrow." A meeting for which I have been forced to wait quite some time. What sort of time is this for you to come home?" He made a tsking noise.
"I was working," Wu said sullenly. "If you've been watching me that closely, you should know these are normal hours for me. What do you want?"
The sardonic smile returned as the man rose to his feet. "Careful, Your Highness. That almost sounded like courage. Think of this as a courtesy call," the man said, walking toward him. Wu took a step backward, bumping into the table. "Circumstances require that my men and I operate in this city somewhat more openly than normal. We require the response that reputation brings."
Wu shook his head. "I don't want to know. Why are you telling me this? You don't need my permission."
"We are talking about an operation that is likely to attract the attention of the local authorities. The peasants that infest this city know nothing of value. But it occurred to me that someone might have the wit to consider your antecedents and think to speak to you." He walked around to the side of the table Wu was backed up against. Wu was forced to turn to keep the man in view. The man rubbed his chin with a gloved hand and stared at Wu. "What would you tell them, I wonder?"
Wu closed his eyes. "I don't know anything either."
He heard a step and felt a hand descend on his shoulder. "And if someone should press you for specifics? Mention us by name?" the man said in his ear.
"The Dai Li is a myth. You... I mean they were disbanded decades ago."
"Very good. You see, such a bright young man as yourself has nothing to fear from us." Wu heard him start to walk toward the front door. "I'll see myself out, your Highness."
Wu turned to face the man. "What do you want with Republic City?" he asked.
The man stopped, his hand already on the doorknob. He turned and gave Wu a very long look. Wu wished he'd kept his mouth shut. He held the man's gaze, not out of courage but because he simply could not look away. At last the man gave him a slight smile. "Nothing at present," he said. "Oh, make no mistake. We still consider this ground and all the peasants who squat on it to be property of the empire. One day the Empress, may her reign be long, will ask us to take it back. And we will, quite easily. But that good day has not yet come." He cocked his head to one side. "As to our current task, have you really changed your mind and decided that you wish to know the details?"
Wu licked his lips. "No," he whispered.
"Splendid." He opened the front door. "Good night, or rather good morning to you." He gave Wu a little wave. "Your Highness."
The door shut behind the man. Wu let out a breath and passed a shaky hand over his face. He went into the kitchen to pour himself a very large drink.
Asami arrived early a Safe House Nine to set up the equipment. The kitchen was the best place for it, and shortly it looked more like an electronics laboratory. Asami had attended and hosted enough prototype demos in her time that the whole thing started to take on a strangely familiar air. "All that's lacking is handouts and mediocre coffee," she said to herself. The coffee at least she could address. The kitchen had a few basic non-perishables stocked in case someone needed to actually stay for a while.
Once again, the Avatar was prompt and arrived via the window. After a brief welcoming handshake, Asami escorted her into the kitchen and began her presentation.
"So, first the good news. I can confirm that the device you found is doing something interesting. What's more, by replicating portions of it I can detect the something that it's doing. So if someone has another of these out there and turns it on, we stand a chance of being able to find it."
"And the bad news?" the Avatar asked.
"I have absolutely no idea what it's actually doing. It does put out radio waves, but it's putting out something else as well. Mystery rays, for want of a better term."
The Avatar nodded. "M-rays. Got it."
Asami hesitated for a moment and then shrugged. "Why not? Anyway, the 'M-rays' are definitely their own thing. I experimented and by disconnecting different parts of the original device I can make it give out just a radio signal or just the M-rays. And the equipment for detecting one will not detect the other."
"That's interesting," the Avatar said. "It sounds like maybe nobody needed the radio the first night to experience the headaches. But people who were listening to a strange man hijacking Republic City's favorite supernatural mystery drama were more inclined to put two and two together."
"That's reasonable," Asami agreed, "assuming that the M-rays were, in fact, the cause. Which as a provisional assumption is a good one. I don't seem to be susceptible myself, and I did all my testing within shielded conditions, so no one else would be affected." She took a deep breath. "If you're willing, we could power it up in M-ray mode right now and see if that really is the source of the problem."
The Avatar folded her arms and shifted her weight, but she eventually nodded. "I guess it's the logical next step. Go ahead."
Asami nodded. "This here is a model of the detector I'm working on," she said pointing. She turned it on. "Right now it isn't detecting anything because the device isn't under power. The oscilloscope trace will let us measure the signal strength. Although given our current ignorance of what we're actually detecting, the units are of course entirely arbitrary."
"Of course," the Avatar repeated wryly.
"What I propose to do is slowly increase the power to the broadcast device. We'll measure the signal strength and note at what point, if any, you are able to feel something. If it starts to be painful, we end the experiment right away."
The Avatar nodded. "You won't get any argument from me on that score."
"Why don't you stand over there where you can't see the display. It will minimize any psychological bias." The Avatar obliging stepped to the opposite side of the table.
The original device was hooked up to an adjustable power supply. Asami turned the dial up slowly, keeping one eye on the detector display. A complicated waveform appeared on the oscilloscope. She had to restrain herself from glancing at the Avatar and giving anything away. She slowly increased the power and watched as the signal grew in amplitude.
"There's... something," the Avatar said at last.
Asami stopped increasing the power but she didn't shut the device off just yet. "Does it hurt?"
The Avatar shook her head. "No. It's like a buzzing or a hiss just beyond hearing. It's hard to explain. It's like I know I can't hear it but my brain still tries to interpret it as noise. It's not unpleasant, although I think it could be pretty distracting."
"Are you all right with me turning it up more?"
The Avatar hesitated a moment before answering. "Go ahead," she said.
Asami continued to increase the power gradually, keeping one eye on the detector and the other on her colleague. The Avatar just stood there impassively. At last Asami said, "That's as far as I want to push it in these conditions. If my calculations are correct, the signal is on the verge of being detectable outside of the building. It might not be bothering you..."
"But that doesn't mean we don't need to worry about the neighbors," the Avatar said, nodding. She walked around the table to peer at the trace on the oscilloscope. "It still doesn't feel like the other night. It's a little annoying, but it's not painful." Asami cut the power. The Avatar let out a sigh, suggesting that "a little annoying" might have been an understatement. "You know," the Avatar said, "maybe it's more like a radio transmitter. You've got to put a signal into an antenna to hear anything interesting on your set."
"So what we were putting out now is just the carrier wave?" Asami asked. The Avatar just shrugged in response. "Interesting thought. Its structure is so complex that I assumed it was the actual signal, but we're dealing with so many unknowns here."
"The other night you said it looked like a relay for a radio signal. Maybe it relays M-rays as well."
"It's something to investigate. Although I'm not exactly sure how to introduce a signal on top of the carrier, if that's what it is." Her train of thought was interrupted by the phone ringing. Asami exchanged glances with the Avatar before stepping over to pick up the receiver. "Go ahead," she said.
"You need to listen to the radio right now," Yin said.
"What station?" she asked.
"Any one at all," the older woman answered grimly.
Asami set aside the receiver and walked over to turn on the radio. After a few seconds, a man's voice came over the speakers. "...treated my last warning as a joke, a distraction from the endless cycle of banalities you have allowed to take over your lives. You will learn that I am in deadly earnest and that the Spirits will not be denied. This is the Voice of the Spirits. Republic City, you have been warned." The set went silent for a moment, and then a panel quiz show started to play, its participants apparently unaware that they had been interrupted.
Asami picked up the phone again. "Thank you, Medium. Is there anything else?"
"I reckon that's enough to add to your plate for one night. I sure hope I won't have any more for you."
The corner of Asami's mouth twitched upward involuntarily. "Agreed," she said. "Ghost out." She hung up and turned to the Avatar. "That apparently went out over every station."
"Mr. Voice is getting ambitious," the Avatar said. "But no headache this time. No extra noises of any kind. Have we been focusing all our attention on something that was just an accident the first time around?"
Asami frowned as she considered the question. That didn't seem like it could be right. There was too much intent in the design of the device the Avatar had retrieved from Varrick tower. Before she could answer, the Avatar gasped and raised a hand to her forehead. Asami stared at her and then turned to look at the detector display. A new waveform danced on the oscilloscope screen.
"Looks like I spoke too soon," the Avatar said. She held her hands up to her temples and started breathing deeply.
"Are you all right?" Asami asked.
"It's not as bad as what I experienced the other night. If I stay focused, I should be able to work through it. That detector of yours. Can we use it to find where this latest signal is coming from?"
Asami shook her head. "It has no way of sensing direction, and it's not really portable. I've been working on a version I can mount in my car, but it's not finished yet."
"OK. I guess it's up to me." The Avatar went to the window. "Get to your car and get ready to follow me."
"What are you going to do?"
"Fly around in circles and see in what direction the pain gets worse."
Asami stared at her for a second. "That a horrifying plan, but I don't have a better idea. Are you sure?" The Avatar gave her a brisk nod. Asami let out a breath and returned the nod. "I'll see you outside."
The Avatar's plan seemed to be working. At least she was headed fairly consistently in one direction. Asami kept one eye on the flying woman. It made driving a challenge, particularly since it was early enough that there was still a lot of traffic on the roads. At least they were headed toward the industrial district. If their course had lead downtown, Asami guessed she would either have got lost or had an accident long ago.
High overhead, the Avatar let off a blast of flame. She'd done that every block or so, to keep herself visible Asami guessed. She was probably attracting the attention of a lot of Republic City's residents in the process, but Asami appreciated the help. Besides, whoever they were rushing to confront probably valued secrecy more than they did. As long as it didn't mean they saw her coming. Asami shook her head, cutting off this train of thought. They'd cross that bridge when they came to it.
Ahead she saw the Avatar circle and then turn and start flying back toward Asami's car. She guided her kite lower that she'd been up to that point, flying straight down the road Asami was driving along. Asami slowed as she approached. She shot past, but before Asami could come to a stop, she saw the Avatar in her rearview mirror reverse direction in a graceful arc and fly to catch up with her. She leveled out, pacing the sedan right next to Asami's window.
"Big factory at the end of the street," the Avatar shouted. "You can't miss it." Then she guided her kite back upward and picked up speed. Asami pressed down on the accelerator to keep pace.
Three blocks later, the street ended in a T junction. On the far side of the cross street stretched a high brick wall with the words "Cabbage Corporation" painted on it. This must be their main factory complex. She pulled onto the cross street. The Avatar had landed in front of a wrought iron gate that closed off the entrance. Asami pulled up alongside. As she climbed out of the sedan, she heard a crashing sound on the other side of the wall. "What the hell is that?" she said, startled.
The Avatar was gazing upward at something on the other side of the gate. "I think I wasn't the only one tracking down the source of their pain," she said grimly.
Asami ran to her side and followed her gaze. "Spirits!" On the roof of the factory building was a huge creature. It looked like a serpent with a wolf's head and two pairs of bird wings. It had to be at least twenty feet long. It was ramming its head against the roof of the building. As she watched, it reared up, shook itself, and gave an earsplitting cry, before continuing to bludgeon the roof.
"Well, a Spirit anyway," the Avatar said, "Just one of them right now. Hopefully, it won't get company. Things are starting to make a lot more sense."
Asami stared at her. "I'm glad they are for one of us."
"The signal is coming from inside the factory. I think it feels the signal the same way I do and wants to shut it down the simplest way possible." The Avatar reached her hand out toward the gate and made a gesture with her hand. There was a clank from the lock and the gate swung partway open. She turned to face Asami. "Do you feel up to backing me up?"
I am so far out of my depth, I don't even know where the bottom is. Out loud, she confined herself to, "Anything I can do to help, I will."
The Avatar nodded. "Thank you. I'm going to try talking to it first. Wish me luck." She lifted her kite and launched herself up to the roof.
"Wait, what?" Asami called after her. Shaking her head, she pulled out her grapple gun and looked for the best way up, as the Avatar dropped down, far closer to the serpent spirit than seemed entirely sensible.
Asami watched as the Avatar set down her kite staff and raised her arms above her head. "Hey there," she called "I'm here to help. But first I need you to stop attacking the building."
The serpent spirit raised its head again, gave another shriek, and thrashed its body. Whether it was meant as an attack or if it was just bad luck, Asami couldn't tell. But the creature's tail slammed into the Avatar and sent her flying out of Asami's field of view.
Asami cursed as she fired the grapple gun at the factory rooftop. As she scaled the walls she ran through her choices. Chi blocking was right out; she had no idea where the right contact points would be on non-human anatomy. Of course, Master Ty Lee would have said it was just more proof that she should learn to read auras. The shock glove sounded more promising, but if it failed she'd be dangerously close to the beast. Something to keep in reserve if she couldn't keep her distance from it, but definitely not a primary tactic. Distance attacks were probably her best bet.
Sometimes her dedication to non-lethal ordinance didn't seem like such a good idea.
She reached the rooftop. The huge serpent Spirit now seemed to be trying to bite a hole through the roof. Not the easiest way to break into the building, but maybe it didn't know about windows. Since she wanted to stop it before it did more property damage, she wasn't about to clue it in.
There was no sign of the Avatar, but there was a pile of rubble in the general direction she'd been thrown. It looked like the remains of a smokestack. Asami's lips tightened in a grim line, and she ran across the roof toward the rubble. If the Avatar was under the rubble, she was buried deep enough not to show. Asami started shifting bricks. She tried not to think about what an impact that could destroy a smokestack would do to a human body.
As Asami worked, bricks started sliding off the top of the pile and down the sides. She stepped back, thinking at first she had dislodged something, but the cascade didn't stop. Then she noticed that some of the bricks at the seemed to float out a few inches before falling. A blue-gloved hand pushed out through the top. She scrambled back up the pile, grabbed the hand and pulled. The Avatar clawed her way up out into the air. Together they half stumbled, half slid to the base of the pile. The Avatar took a somewhat shaky step toward the Spirit. "That was completely unnecessary!" she yelled at it. The creature ignored her and continued pounding its head against the roof.
"You're alive," Asami said in relief. Well done, Sato. What would she do without your incisive observational skills.
The Avatar just nodded. "I'm kind of surprised about that myself. I think I used earth bending to spread out the force of impact when I hit the chimney. Lucky I hit something made of brick instead metal or wood." She cracked her knuckles. "It looks like we're going to have to do this the hard way."
"Wait!" Asami said putting a restraining hand on the other woman's shoulder. "If you're right, and it's trying to get rid of the device, if we shut it down ourselves, it should have no more reason to attack the building."
"It could still do a lot of damage while we're searching. Possibly dropping the building on us."
"Right. So we split up. One of us keeps the creature distracted while the other finds the device and shuts it down."
"How long do you think it will take you to find it?" the Avatar asked.
Asami took a deep breath. "Actually, I was thinking you would go in to search, while I stayed up here to keep it busy." The Avatar started to protest. "If the device is hidden, I'm not going to be able to find it as quickly as you can."
"I'm not the electronics expert," she protested.
"You don't need to be," Asami said. "If it were right here, I wouldn't do anything more sophisticated than hit it with a brick."
"I can't leave you to face that alone."
"I'm asking you to enter a building that a being the size of a streetcar is trying to demolish. To get closer to a device that causes you intense pain. I don't think you're the one that needs to feel guilty about the division of labor."
The Avatar muttered under her breath but started sprinting for the roof doorway. "Don't get killed," she yelled over her shoulder.
"I sure hope not to," Asami said to herself. She picked up a chunk of brick and hurled it at the beast, "Hey you!" The missile bounced off the creature's back, but it paused in its assault on the building's roof. Asami started running in the opposite direction than the Avatar, to try and keep the creature distracted from her. "Don't you have anything better to do?" she yelled at it. It followed her with its gaze and gave a growl. Beyond it, she heard the roof door slam. The Avatar was safely inside the building. Or as safe as she could be under the circumstances.
Asami pulled out the shock bolas. They were the heaviest hitting item in her arsenal. Right now did not seem like a time to start off small, even if it meant she had nowhere to go but down afterward. She ran sideways to try to flank the creature. It turned its head to follow her but did not shift its body, giving her a shot at its wings. She wound up and let fly. Right on target, the bolas tangled in the creature's wings. It screeched and thrashed around as sparks cascaded up and down its body.
I don't suppose there's any chance that life will be easy and it will be rendered unconscious, Asami thought. The discharge from the bolas cut out, the battery exhausted. The creature shook its body and screamed, still very much awake and alert. Asami sighed. It shook its wings, trying to dislodge the bolas. That wouldn't take long, and then it would be looking to get rid of other irritants. It was time to get under cover. Asami set off two smoke bombs and once obscured by the growing cloud, sprinted for one of the remaining smokestacks.
She crouched down in the lee of the chimney, and turned on her throat mike. Throwing her voice was less effective in wide open spaces like the rooftop, but she just needed to keep it confused while she got ready for her next move. "We don't need to fight. We're not the ones responsible for the noise. My friend can hear it too." She ran a hand over the brickwork, an idea forming in her head "Remember her? The one you knocked into the chimney?" Asami replaced the regular head on her grapple with a piercing anchor. "You battered her, I shocked you. We could call the whole thing even." She loaded the grapple gun and took aim at the smokestack. "She's trying to shut down the source of the noise. That's what you want too, isn't it?" She fired the anchor into the smokestack.
The thunk of the anchor penetrating the brickwork echoed across the rooftop. Asami heard a slithering sound closing in on her hiding place. She paid out the line from the grapple gun, forcing herself to work carefully and methodically. The Spirit's head rounded the smokestack, and it bared its fangs at her. She threw a flash bomb right in its eyes. Working quickly, she tossed the line over its neck, fastened the harness clip on the butt of the gun to the line to make a loop, and hit the fast retract switch.
The line pulled back into the grapple gun, pulling the loop tight around the Spirit's neck. It strained at the line, but the anchor held firm in the smokestack. Asami retreated out of range of the Spirit's tail. "I am sorry about this. I'm serious that my friend is doing her best to stop the machine that's causing you pain." The Spirit gave no sign that it understood or indeed that it was paying her any attention. It continued to strain at the line. "Of course it would be nice if I had any idea whether she was making any progress or not," Asami muttered to herself.
The Spirit pulled at the line more, growling and hissing. Asami backed away further. It wasn't listening to her, not that she could blame it. And she'd seen enough of the damage the thing was capable of that she was sure it could get free if it started thinking instead of just reacting. And try as she might, she couldn't think what she might do for an encore.
Across the roof a door slammed open. "Hey!" Asami turned to see the Avatar come out of the building interior and start striding over the rooftop toward the captive Spirit. "Hey, do you hear that? The noise has stopped. Calm down and let's talk." Miraculously, it stopped tugging at the cable and turned to stare at her. "We're not your enemy," the Avatar continued. "We want to find the person who's doing this. We want to stop him. We didn't know he was hurting the Spirits, I admit that. We just knew he was hurting people. And that some property got damaged at the same time. If that was you, we're not angry. You were defending yourself. But the way you defend yourself, people can get hurt. It's our job to protect them."
The Avatar was now close enough that if the Spirit decided to lash out again, it would be able to get her. Asami had to admire the woman's guts. The Spirit looked at her through narrowed eyes and growled. But it didn't attack. "I don't know what that means," the Avatar said. "I'm sorry I can't understand. But I think you can. I give you my word of honor that I will do everything in my power to stop these attacks on you. I'd like to ask that if another one happens before I catch the people, that you'll restrain yourself and let me handle it. Now I'm going to unhook you. Let you go on your way. All right?"
The Spirit turned a baleful glare on Asami and growled again. The Avatar froze, her hands reaching out toward the cable around the creature's neck. Asami took a deep breath. The Avatar had been right so far. Asami might as well continue to back her play. She stepped closer to the Spirit and knelt before it. "You have my apology."
Carefully, the Avatar reached up and unclipped the loop. The cable and grapple gun fell to the ground. The Spirit reared up and let out a below. It started to flap its wings, rising up from the rooftop. Asami had to brace herself to keep her balance in the face of the gusting wind from its wings. The Spirit let out one last cry, then coiled around itself before fading from view.
Asami let out a deep breath she had been aware of holding and slumped down to sit on the roof. "That was an experience."
The Avatar leaned against the smokestack. "That's definitely one way of looking at it," she said. She looked over at Asami. "That was a good plan you had."
Asami leaned back on her hands. "You figured out what was going on. Without that, I wouldn't have had any clue what to do. You're not upset about what I did? To the Spirit I mean?"
"What? No, I'm not. You showed more restraint than I would have, actually. Besides, I'm not feeling terribly charitable after it knocked me across a rooftop."
Asami sat up straighter. "Spirits, I forgot about that. Are you all right?"
"No bones broken. Probably have some bruises to treat. You?"
Asami climbed to her feet. "Just tired and coming down off an adrenaline jag." She walked over and picked up the grapple gun. "Motor's shot after that stunt," she said after inspecting it. "I'll have to find a fire escape to get down."
"Nuts to that," the Avatar said. "I can carry you down if you like. Don't need the kite for a measly two-story drop. Just a good updraft." She held out her arms. Hesitantly, Asami stepped forward and let the other woman pick her up. The Avatar carried her over to the edge of the roof. Asami had her arms around the Avatars neck and instinctively tightened her grip a little.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of heights," the Avatar said. "I've seen some of the stunts you pull."
"Yes," Asami answered. "But I'm in control of those stunts. It does make a difference."
"You can trust me."
She didn't see or feel the Avatar make any gesture, but she felt a sudden upward rush of wind. Then the Avatar stepped off the edge of the roof. She expected the sudden lurch into freefall, but she could actually feel the wind supporting them. They dropped too quickly to quite call it floating, yet slow enough that the eventual landing was barely jarring. The Avatar set her on her feet once more. "Thanks," Asami said.
"Don't mention it," the Avatar answered. She looked back up at the roof. "You know, I don't know how I'm going to keep my promise. To the Spirit. How am I going to stop these attacks? How am I going to find whoever is responsible?"
"Means, motive, and opportunity," Asami said. "You always crack a case by looking at one of those."
"Right. Well, the motive is just confusing right now. This guy claims to be the 'Voice of the Spirits' but he's tormenting them to get them to cause property damage. Doesn't really sound like he's the ally he makes himself out to be."
Asami nodded. "And opportunity is too wide open at this point. Too many people have access where both attacks have occurred. Did you see in the papers about the 'janitor' at Varrick Tower? I'd lay odds that when the police start asking questions, they'll find that Cabbage Corp had a similar fake employee who just won't show up for work tomorrow."
"No bet. So that leaves means."
"We've got a version of his device. I'm close to having a practical version of the detector."
"Right. I want to understand better what exactly he's doing to the Spirits. I have some idea about where to start looking."
Asami thought of the chance meeting with Professor Beifong at the ball the previous night. Well, she could contact him if the Avatar's ideas didn't pan out, but for now, it made more sense to divide the work. She didn't have to do everything herself, and the Avatar's resources were almost certainly better than some guy she happened to meet at a party. "Right. You're the expert."
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of approaching sirens. "Only now they come?" the Avatar said. "The property damage ended minutes ago. I mean, I don't blame a night watchman for not running toward that jazz, but you'd think there'd be one around who'd called for help before we got on the scene."
"Knowing Cabbage Corp, they're economizing on the night staff," Asami said. "We should probably leave before they get here. I'll have my people ready to relay progress reports when you call. We really need to come up with a scheme for me to contact you, though."
"Maybe once we understand the M-rays, we can figure out how to use them. Assuming we wouldn't drive hundreds of people and all the Spirits in Republic City crazy by doing so."
"Hmmm. That's quite an interesting thought. I'll need to think on it. Well, good luck to you. Keep in touch." She touched the brim of her hat in salute.
"You too," the Avatar said. "Stay crazy." There was a rush of wind, and the Avatar rode it up to the rooftop of the factory. Moments later she took off on her kite, giving Asami a wave as she flew off.
Asami headed for her sedan to make herself scarce before the approaching police cars made her job more difficult.
The man calling himself the Voice of the Spirits watched from his hiding place across from the Cabbage Corporation factories. The woman in black climbed into her car and drove off into the night. She was the one the decadent residents of this cursed city called the Ghost. He wasn't surprised at her opposition. She went for the rot at the surface while ignoring the corruption at the heart. She was always going to be an obstacle that would have to be dealt with eventually. He would need to talk to his colleagues about that.
It was the other one, the Avatar. She was the true disappointment. They'd warned him, but he hadn't wanted to believe. That she of all people would betray the Spirits like this. She'd been duped, he was sure. Her education had fallen into the hands of traitors, but he'd find a way to free her. He'd guide her back to the correct path, teach her where her true duty lay. And then no one could stop them.
"I don't know why it took your officers so long to respond last night." Lau Gan-Lan was not the most annoying person Lin had ever met, but he was working his way up the list. In the top twenty easily with a shot at a spot in the top ten.
The Voice of the Spirits case was shaping up to be one that merited Lin's direct attention, but a trip to Cabbage Corp had not been in her plans for the morning. That was before Gan-Lan had started complaining to Mayor Raiko about the police's handling of the situation. Complaining was something Gan-Lan seemed to be good at, and Raiko always listened to the complaints of campaign donors. And so Lin's plans for the day had been changed for her.
The elderly industrialist had met her at the gate. He had a sharp-featured woman of middle years in tow and introduced her as Ming Hua, his personal assistant. Lin had invited Mako along to even up the numbers. And if Lau Gan-Lan wanted to bad mouth her people, she wasn't going to help him do it behind their backs. Mako had endured most of the opening tirade in stoic silence, but at this latest remark, he cleared his throat significantly. Lin turned to him "Yes, detective?"
"The time from when dispatch issued the call to when officers arrived on the scene was well within expectations," he said. "Better than average, actually."
"That may well be the case," Gan-Lan said, "but how long did my security guard spend on the phone before the order was given? Hmmm?"
"I'm not one to excuse laxness," Lin broke in, "but considering that your man reported a giant flying monster attacking your building, I'm going to cut the desk sergeant some slack for not immediately scrambling a special flying squad. How reliable would you say your security guard is, anyway?"
"He has been with the company for years," Ming Hua said in response to a slightly panicked glance from her boss. "His supervisor gives good reports of his character and performance," she added.
Mako dutifully wrote down this information, but Lin saw him add the note "Find out man's last pay raise and financial situation." He kept his poker face on all the while.
Lau Gan-Lan recovered some of his poise and said, "Anyway, what about the damage to my factory? He didn't make that up. The safety engineer made us shut it down. I may lose that building for a month or more before we can be sure we've made it safe."
"I'm not denying the damage," Lin said. "But the reported cause seems a bit far fetched. I'm not prepared to throw out more rational explanations on the say so of one eyewitness."
"He did report that both the Ghost and the Avatar came and drove the creature away," Ming Hua reminded them.
At least there was some clear evidence for that part of the man's story. The Ghost's toys left behind recognizable detritus, and a few examples from the roof were currently gracing evidence bags on their way to the police lab. So granted that the Ghost had been there, there was no reason to doubt that the Avatar had shown up as well. And they'd done something. Lin would dearly like to know what.
"Call him 'the only eyewitness to come forward' if you prefer," Lin said. "The Masks are not in the habit of reporting to my office." She shot a sideways glance at Mako, but his expression remained as bland as ever. "Until I learn something to confirm or refute your man's story, I need to keep an open mind. Even if he is trustworthy, I can't ignore the possibility that he was tricked."
"Tricked?" Gan-Lan sounded affronted.
"Hoaxes are easier to believe in," she said. "And frankly, if it's not an elaborate deception, we're all in trouble. We're not equipped for dealing with monsters."
"Oh," Gan-Lan said in a small voice.
"Of course," she said, "whatever really did happen, any help you can give that will ensure that it doesn't happen again and that the guilty parties are caught and punished, will be greatly appreciated."
"If you can spare me," Ming Hua said to her employer, "I could assist the detectives in getting what they need."
Lau Gan-Lan looked terribly relieved and endorsed the suggestion. Mako looked pleased with the prospect of dealing with someone efficient and less highly strung. Lin didn't exactly have any objections herself. "Thank you," she said. "Mako will let you know what he needs. If you'll pardon us a moment while we consult?" She didn't wait for their assent but pulled Mako off to the side. "Don't let them give you the runaround," she said in a low voice. "They pulled strings to get my direct attention, and they can deal with the consequences. Feel free to use my name as a club if they don't give you everything you need."
Mako shot a glance at Lau Gan-Lan and Ming Hua. "Do you think that's likely?"
"I think that it will occur to them that the damage has already been done here, and that justice isn't going to pay for a repaired factory. I think that they might decide they don't need to fear being targeted a second time. And I think if you ask to see something that might make them look bad, this burst of public spirit might dry up pretty damn quick."
Mako nodded thoughtfully as he digested this. "Chief, what do you think is really going on?" he asked.
"I wasn't joking when I said that I hope this is all a hoax, Detective."
"Well, it's got to be one. Doesn't it?"
He sounded like he wanted convincing. Lin wished she could oblige. The truth was, she'd pushed the hoax angle hard mainly to wrong-foot Lau Gan-Lan. But some of the strangest of her mother's old war stories were nagging at her. "Keep an open mind, Mako. And follow the facts, wherever they lead you."
The crime lab phone rang with the signal that meant that Yin was patching through a personal call. Asami double checked that the voice distorter was off before answering. "Hello?"
"Korra! This is a nice surprise. I wasn't expecting to hear from you tonight."
"Yeah. I'm glad I caught you. I half expected you to be at the races already."
Asami winced. She hadn't exactly lied to Korra about the races, but she didn't also didn't advertise how often she skipped competing. "Something came up. You know how it is."
"I sure do, "Korra said with a sigh.
"You sound a bit down. Is something wrong?"
"No, nothing wrong. Not really. But I'm glad I caught you in person instead of doing this through a message. I'm afraid I have to break our date tomorrow night."
Asami felt a wave of relief that she'd have a night free to devote to the case. And then immediately felt guilty at her initial reaction. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. What's up?"
"I need to babysit for a friend. She wouldn't normally have asked on such short notice. But there's this really important meeting of her community organization that she really need to attend, and she can't find anyone else. Her oldest is probably old enough, but the other two can be a handful, and she worries, and..."
"Korra, Korra," Asami interrupted. "It's OK. You don't need to apologize for being good to your friends. These things happen. You know, it's probably for the best. We've got an unexpected busy patch at work. I might have had to cancel our date myself if you hadn't."
"Is that what's got you at home tonight?" Korra asked.
"Hmm," she said. Which was silly. It wasn't as if not actually saying "Yes" made it any less of a lie.
"I should probably let you go then."
Asami couldn't let the conversation end on a down note. "We'll reschedule," she said. "Maybe two days from tomorrow?" She'd make that work somehow.
"That sounds good," Korra said a bit more cheerfully. "Well, don't work too hard."
"You take care," Asami said. It didn't seem like enough. "Korra, I—," she began. But she'd waited too long and the line went dead. She hung up the phone with a sigh and returned to work.
Although the hour was getting late, there were still a lot of students out and about on the campus of Republic City University. Some carried books and darted in and out of libraries and class buildings, but many of them were clearly socializing. Universities have changed a lot since my day, Roku said.
You're the only one of us who's been to one, Kuruk observed.
I like it, Kyoshi said.
I didn't say I didn't like it, Roku said. Just that it was different.
Korra spotted the building she was looking for. "Could you guys keep it down?" she muttered to herself. "I'm going to need to concentrate."
The physics building was a modern-looking construction of glass and brick. The interior smelled of electricity. The lobby did not contain anything so modern as a directory of offices, however. Korra stopped an elderly man on his way out of the building and asked him if he knew where she could find Baatar Beifong's office.
"What? Oh, third floor. The left end of the building as viewed from the front." He gestured to indicate the direction. "Pity about him," he added.
"I beg your pardon?" Korra asked.
"Brilliant young mind, and he gets caught up in all this superstitious nonsense." He peered over the rims of his glasses at Korra. "I hope you're not contemplating him as an adviser, young lady."
"I'm not a student," she said. "Just an interested member of the public."
"I see," he said, losing interest. "Well, it could have been worse. He could have gone into engineering."
"Spirit's forfend," Korra said dryly, but the man was already on his way out the front door.
Korra had thought that stopping by at this time of day a long shot, but many of the offices and labs on the third floor were still brightly lit. As she walked down the hall she saw people hunched over slide rules or taking measurements from incomprehensible pieces of equipment or standing around chalkboards arguing. Baatar's office by contrast, while open and lit, was completely empty.
She looked in through the doorway. His desk was fairly tidy. Most of the rest of the office was filled with bookshelves filled with thick volumes, some new looking some old. One wall had a large ordnance map of the city which had been heavily marked with notes and symbols. In the opposite wall, a connecting door to the next room stood open. As she stood contemplating the empty office, she heard through the doorway a grunt and the sound of something heavy dragging across the floor. She rapped on the frosted glass of the hall door and called out "Hello?"
Baatar emerged from the next room. He wore neither jacket nor tie and his sleeves were rolled up. A smile spread across his face as he saw who his visitor was. "What a pleasant surprise," he said shaking her hand. "What can I do for you?"
"I was hoping for some reading recommendations," she said. "I've been trying to learn more about the Spirits associated with the land around the city. I've been to the public library, but a lot of what you find there..."
"Folklore," Baatar said sympathetically. "Written down by people who viewed it all equally as nonsense. Useful if viewed as a cultural artifact, but if you're interested in historically verifiable fact not so much." He turned and started rooting through one of his shelves. "The University library is not much better I'm afraid, and it's a bit of a pain to get a library card if you're not a student. I've got some good books on the subject you can borrow, if I can just find them."
"I don't want to put you to any trouble."
"Nonsense," Baatar said cheerily. "Books are for reading. Just bring them back when you're done. Actually, you might be interested in my current project." He waved a hand toward the map and went back to his search.
"I was kind of curious about this," Korra said. "What do the symbols represent?"
"If I'm right, those are major centers of spiritual power around the city. In the old days, people would put shrines up just about everywhere, but stories of actual spiritual activity tend to cluster around certain sites. You need to sift through accounts carefully. For example, sometimes the shrine in question just happens to be on the property of a powerful family that might benefit politically by being viewed as 'blessed' in some way. But sometimes I was able to find corroborating accounts from people with no obvious agenda. Those are the ones on the map. My theory is that these sites are locations where the separation between the physical and spiritual realms is narrow. That, in turn, is based on the model that the spiritual realm is a distinct four-dimensional manifold separate from our physical world with the two realms embedded in a higher dimensional super-space and possessing variable points of congruency."
In his excitement, Baatar continued rattling off increasingly technical jargon. Korra stared at the map, only half listening. One of Baatar's candidate sites was downtown, scant blocks from Varrick Tower. She started scanning the industrial district. There it was, a second point in the vicinity of the Cabbage Corp plant. She glanced over her shoulder at Baatar. His attention was absorbed with his book search. She turned back to the map, and tried to memorize as many of the other locations as she could.
"Interesting to see one in the middle of the factory district," she said. "I don't guess the Spirits of that site are too happy. They're supposed to have strong ties to the natural world, aren't they?"
Baatar stepped over and looked where she was pointing. "Hmm. Perhaps not, although I doubt the Spirits are thrilled with any of the aspects of urbanization. It's interesting, though. Some of those factories have shrines on the inside. I'm not sure anyone the companies above the rank of foreman knows they exist. But spiritual connection isn't completely dead in the city." He smiled. "The question is, how much do the Spirits care about things like worship when stacked against noise and air pollution."
"You've been to the area?" she asked.
"A little. Eventually, I hope there to be a lot of fieldwork involved in my studies. Right now I'm still figuring out what I need to look for." He handed her a stack of about a half dozen books. Some of them were quite thick. "Now, these should do you for a start."
She stared at him. "A start," she repeated.
"Ah. Yes, I might have got a little carried away. How did you get here, exactly?"
"Streetcar. Don't worry. I can manage. I appreciate you being thorough. I'll try to get these back to you soon."
He waved this away. "No, no. Take your time."
"I should get going and let you get back to... whatever it is you were doing."
"Oh. That. Just moving some equipment around in my lab. Need to clear space for some new instruments that are being delivered."
"I could give you a hand with that before I go," she said. "It's the least I can do."
"Actually, I was just finishing up when you arrived," he said quickly. "So, no need to trouble yourself. Do you know the way to nearest streetcar stop?"
"Yes, I'm fine. Thanks again for the books." Korra hefted the stack and stepped out into the hallway.
"You're quite welcome. Feel free to stop by again. Good night." He smiled and closed the door to his office. Korra stared a the shut door for a moment and then started down the hall to the elevator.
He seemed eager to get rid of you, Kyoshi said. Once you started taking an interest in his lab. And that map is suspicious under the circumstances.
If he's got something to hide, why would he draw attention to it? Aang objected. Someone else could have done the same research he has. Or talked to him. He's not shy about his work.
Until suddenly he is, Kyoshi said.
You always assumed the best of people, Aang, Kuruk said.
And I was usually right.
Usually. Not always. This prompted a flash of past memories. Not clear events, but Korra got a strong flash of emotions associated with what she guessed was one of the times Aang had been wrong. The argument in her head lapsed into silence. Korra arrived at the elevator and awkwardly pressed the down button while keeping hold of the stack of books.
"I don't want him to be involved," Korra said under her breath. "He seems like a nice guy. But we all know that's not a guarantee." The elevator arrived and she stepped in. As it started to descend, she said out loud. "I'll admit he's at the top of the suspect list, but that's because he's the only one on it. I won't cross him off just because I like him, but let's not get carried away without better evidence, OK?" There wasn't any argument from her past lives. The door opened and Korra stepped out into the lobby. "I wonder if the Ghost has ever had to worry about investigating a friend," she muttered.
Mako pulled his car to a stop next to the black sedan. He looked around as he climbed out, but saw no one about and no handy places nearby for anyone to hide. This stretch of waterfront had been a good choice for the rendezvous.
The Ghost got out of her own car and walked over to meet him. "Detective," she said. "Thank you for coming."
"Sure thing, Boss. What's up?"
She held out a file folder to him. He opened it and paged through the contents. The light wasn't terribly good, but it looked like some sort of blueprints and technical specifications.
"Did your people recover the remains of an unidentified machine from Cabbage Corporation?" she asked.
Mako nodded. "What there was of it. It was pretty thoroughly wrecked and hard to say what it was. But the foreman didn't recognize it and said it didn't belong there."
She tapped a finger on the folder. "A similar device was found at Varrick tower after the first incident. Varrick gave it to the Avatar and she gave it to me. This is a summary of my efforts at reverse engineering the device. We believe it's central to whatever is going on."
He paged through the folder some more. "Varrick did admit about the device to us. And didn't that raise a lot of headaches? I'm glad to know you've been looking at it." He looked up. "Although why are you bringing this to me now? No offense, but you usually play your cards close until you've got enough evidence to solve the case completely."
She leaned against her car, arms folded. "Normally, the police have access to the same information I do. At least in principle. This time you don't. More importantly, this case feels too big. It might just be petty property damage so far —"
"For a flexible definition of 'petty', perhaps," Mako said.
"— but my instinct tells me this is building up to something bigger," she continued as if he hadn't interrupted. "I'd rather risk being too free with information than risk some crucial clue getting buried."
He looked down at the folder. "It's more than a little alarming to hear you say that."
"The entire case is more than a little alarming," she said.
"OK. So in the interest of full disclosure, what really happened last night?"
"The Avatar identified the thing attacking the factory as a Spirit. I know enough to accept that as an expert opinion. Also, it vanished right before my eyes. Before that point, it could, for all I knew, have been just your everyday natural giant serpent-dog-bird monster."
"Damn. So this joker actually is speaking for the Spirits?"
She shook her head. "He's goading them into the attacks. That's what the devices are for. The details are in there. I doubt he'd need to if they actually considered him their spokesman."
"Damn," he repeated.
"Indeed," the Ghost said. "Now I know it will cause you awkwardness to just show up with that file. I can get a copy to Beifong via other means. But I wanted to do you the courtesy of letting you know first. You've done good work as my man in the department. I want you to know that."
Mako considered this. "After the arson case," he said slowly, "the Chief gave me a pretty broad hint that she suspected I was getting help outside the department. And that if the situation was bad enough, she was willing to put me on a pretty long leash. Just something to keep in mind. If you need to get information to her fast, and I'm the best route, don't worry about the awkwardness."
The Ghost was silent long enough that Mako worried he had crossed over the line, but at last, she nodded and said, "Good man. I'll bear it in mind. But for now, let's keep plausible deniability about your involvement with me." She started to climb back into her car.
"Any idea what the police can do about hostile Spirits attacking the city?" he asked.
The Ghost actually sighed. "I'm still working on that one. I'll let you know if I come up with anything."
Ming Hua had been working alone at Cabbage Corp headquarters when Ghazan tracked her down. "Burning the midnight oil?" he said, taking a chair and propping his feet up on her desk.
She moved his feet off the stack of folders she was consulting. "There's a lot to do to keep the police sweet and looking at Cabbage Corp as just another victim."
He shrugged. "Sounds like Mr. Twitchy talking. The police aren't going to be looking at the victims as suspects, particularly with no insurance angle. Although if he was really worried, he could have let us hit him later and harder."
She stopped working and frowned at him. "I wish you'd be a little more respectful to him. He's done a lot to help us and got nothing back in return. That should count for something, even if he is too nervous for your tastes."
"He's not in it to change the world. He's still hoping that we'll help his balance sheet. If we can't do that soon, don't be surprised if his support dries up. I wouldn't get too attached."
She looked down at her hands. "He's kind. You don't see much of that these days. I think he's more interested in changing the world than you give him credit for." She rubbed her forehead, wondering what it would feel like if it were flesh and bone under her gloves instead of metal. "What about our new friend?" she asked. "How's he doing?"
Ghazan made a face. "Impatient. He doesn't like having to wait for his next performance."
"Well, then he shouldn't have agreed to the plan in the first place, should he? He knew up front that there would be a wait before target three was available."
Ghazan held his hands up. "Don't bite my head off. I agree with you. You asked how he was doing, and I told you."
"Sorry." She stood up and stretched. She went to the window and looked down on the street below. "This whole operation is getting to me. You might not like Mr. Gan-Lan, but I don't like our 'Voice of the Spirits.' He's got his own agenda, too. You want someone to keep an eye on, it's him."
"I dunno. I think he's just intense and annoying. You can't expect anyone who's been through the things he has to be entirely normal."
Whatever. If Ghazan wouldn't keep an eye out for trouble, she would. "How's Zaheer?" she asked turning away from the window.
Ghazan frowned. "Still knocked back on his ass after last night's business," he said gloomily. "I wish he'd just leave town until the operation was over. We've got it covered."
Ming Hua didn't really disagree, but she was feeling annoyed with Ghazan and pushed back. "He's our leader. He wants to be on hand to do his part."
"Which he can't do with a headache that's strong enough to make him puke. We need him clear-headed. He can at least take himself out of range when we're making a move on a target and come back later when it's safe."
Sometimes, she thought, it seemed like Ghazan just didn't understand Zaheer. There would be deaths and suffering on the road to the better world. They all knew that. But this side effect on the human population of the city hadn't been anticipated, hadn't been accounted for. And Zaheer disliked causing unnecessary damage. Since he couldn't prevent it, he'd suffer along with the rest of them as penance. Still, Ghazan wasn't wrong. "I'll talk to him about it," she said. "Now get out of here. I still have work to do."
I aten't dead. :D
Picture me as a chessmaster getting all of his pieces in position only to realize he's forgotten which way the horsey moves, and that kind of sums up the past couple months.
Shin lugged the big box of produce into the back of the Temple Street soup kitchen. "Anyone call for groceries?"
Mrs. Sakamoto came bustling over and took the box from him. "Bless you, Mr. Shin. We're all in fluster today. I don't know what we'd do without these."
"Ah, it was nothing. I was in the area."
"How much do we owe you?" she asked.
"The grocer said he'd send you the bill."
"And for your time?"
He waved this away. "Ah, skip it. I was on my lunch break anyway."
Mrs. Sakamoto smiled as she pulled a large cabbage out of the box and started chopping it. "Fibber. How you keep that taxi running, I have no idea. I suppose you'd like to say 'Hello,' to your young lady?"
He grinned. "I wouldn't say 'No.'"
"She's in the front," she said with a jerk of her head toward the connecting door. "Just don't keep her from her work."
Shin help up his hands in protest. "Hey, I'm a good boy," he said, heading toward the door.
"Fibber!" Mrs. Sakamoto called after him.
Ru was clearing dishes away from an empty table when he came in. Shin gave a nod to the man at the counter who was filling bowls for a woman with two small children. The younger kid stared at him so he waved and started pulling funny faces. She smiled and ducked her head.
"Didn't your mother warn you? Your face might freeze that way if you do that." Ru shot him a smile as she pushed past, carrying the dirty dishes to the sink.
"Maybe she thought it would be an improvement," he said, following her.
Ru started washing the dishes. Her smile grew mischievous. "Mayyybe," she said.
He leaned against the wall by the sink. "So should I make faces at you when I take you out dancing this weekend?"
She flicked some soap suds at him. "I dare you."
"What do I get if I do?" he asked.
"Uh uh. That's not how it works. Winning a dare is its own reward."
"It was worth a try."
"However," she said, "for coming through for us today, I'll give you two turns in a row picking where we go out. Even if they're both to the fights."
He shrugged. "You don't need to do that. It's just business."
"So if I ask Mrs. Sakamoto, she'll tell me you let her pay you?" He blushed and looked away. "Tough guy," she said with a laugh. "Take the money, or let me do something nice for you."
He leaned in close and she let him kiss her cheek. "All right, you got me. You're a sweetheart. And I promise I won't make you go to the fights twice in a row."
Shin heard the street door of the soup kitchen open. He glanced over in idle curiosity, then frowned and stared. Three men came through the door, and they didn't look like the sort who needed a free hot meal to make it through the day. They all wore dark suits, expensive ones if he was any judge. Shin wasn't the only one who had noticed the men. A hush fell over the room. The woman with the two kids pulled them both close to her. The last man through the door locked it behind him. He turned the sign in the window from 'Open' to 'Closed' and pulled down the shade. Shin noticed that he wore dark green leather gloves.
"What the hell?" Shin said.
Ru had turned around at the disturbance, and now she put a hand up to her mouth. "Oh, no. Not them. Not here."
He stared at her. "You know these jokers?"
She grasped his arm. "Please," she said in a low voice, "don't make trouble. Whatever they want, just cooperate. Please."
Before he could answer, the door from the back opened, and they both turned to look. Mrs. Sakamoto stepped through, looking pale. She was followed by the rest of the kitchen staff and a fourth man wearing the same dark suit and green gloves.
The fourth man closed the door behind him and gave the room a cold smile. "Now that we have your attention..."
Pema was relaxing in her study with a novel when Korra burst through the secret door from the training hall, Ikki close on her heels. Pema glanced through the door behind them. The room was looking less like a gym at the moment and more like an accident in a library.
Korra had arrived shortly after dinner, bearing a cardboard box full of books. At first, she'd dodged answering any questions about her reading material. Meelo had still been up, so Pema had guessed it was Avatar business. Fortunately, Meelo's instinctive view of books as the most boring thing on earth had prevented him from asking any awkward questions. After he had gone to bed, Korra had snagged several more volumes from the archives and set up on the floor of the training hall where she could spread out. Ikki seemed to now consider herself Korra's official research assistant and had invited herself along. It was now technically past her bedtime as well, but Pema was reluctant to discourage this new enthusiasm for study and was trying to figure how to direct at the girl's actual schoolwork.
Now the books were scattered all over the hall floor, some lying open, others sprouting bookmarks like a boar-q-pine sprouted quills. Several scattered sheets of notebook paper and one huge square of butcher paper were covered with notes. Ikki stopped in the doorway, grinning and bouncing on the balls of her feet. Korra perched herself on the corner of Pema's desk. "Why am I the Avatar?" she asked.
Pema leaned back in her chair as she considered the question. "You both look excited, so I'm guessing that it's not self-doubt behind the question. Beyond that, I'm not sure what you're getting at."
"I mean, why me and not someone else?"
"Well," Pema said carefully, "if you're the reincarnation of all the previous Avatars, it couldn't really be anyone else. Are you asking why you're you?"
Korra waggled a hand. "Kind of, but not exactly. What I'm getting at is why was the Avatar reborn into this body?" She tapped herself on the chest.
"Well, the Avatar cycle has turned to Water, which means being reborn in a child of the Tribes."
"Yes, but why the daughter of Tonraq and Senna?" Korra pursued.
Ikki had been fidgeting more and more as Pema and Korra had talked and now burst out, "Korra was born hours after grandfather died. You've got his time of death written down in the archives. I found it."
Korra nodded. "I was born on the same day," Korra said, "so it's not immediately obvious. But Aang died in the morning. I don't remember the exact time of my birth, but I remember my parents told me it was in the afternoon. And the time difference between here and Harbor City just makes it worse."
"There must have been loads of babies who could have been the Avatar but weren't," Ikki said.
"At least a dozen in Republic City alone," Korra said.
Pema nodded, "And then add in the populations of the North Pole and the South Pole, not to mention the rest of the diaspora. I see what you mean." She looked up at Korra. "So do you have an answer?"
"I think so," Korra said. She stood and started to pace the room as she talked. "The Avatar gets their power from Raava. What if she needs something special to be able to communicate with the Avatar. Something in the body, not the soul?" She stopped walking and took a deep breath. "What if spiritual sensitivity is biological? Maybe inherited. Something that just occurs in a fraction of the population. Common enough that there will always be a next Avatar, rare enough that Raava needs to be a little choosy."
"All right," Pema said hesitantly. "It's plausible, but why is it significant?"
"The device from Varrick Tower, and the other one from the factory. I think they're some sort of spiritual broadcaster. The M-rays aren't like any normal physical signal because they're not purely physical. They have some influence on the spiritual plane."
Unaccountably, Korra blushed. "That's just what the Ghost and I started calling them. 'M' for mystery."
"You could call them 'S-rays,'" Ikki suggested. "'S' for Spirit!"
Korra looked mulish for a moment and then shrugged and said, "Maybe. Anyway, I think that's the connection. We already knew that Jinora is spiritually sensitive, and she got a headache from the first broadcast. I'm not naturally as sensitive as she is, but I am linked to Raava and I got headaches. The Spirits are bothered enough by something to attack where one of these devices is running. If I can show that the other people who experienced the headaches are also spiritually sensitive, that'll clinch it." She grimaced. "I'm just not sure how to do that. I might just have to go without proof. It's at least a guess at what the M-rays are, which gives me a starting place to figure out how to counteract them."
"Can you talk to your professor friend? The one who loaned you the books?" Pema asked.
Korra sighed. "If I can trust him. Building a device like this sounds right up his street. And he had a map of Spiritual hot-spots that included the areas of the first two attacks. I want to be fair to him, but right now he's the only person I know of who has the qualifications to be our bad guy."
"Oooh," Ikki said. "You should try getting close to him and real friendly and make him think you're sympathetic, and then when he thinks you're on his side he'll confide in you about his big plan, and then you can nab him!"
Korra closed her eyes like her head hurt. Pema looked at Ikki and said, "No more spy romances for you, young lady."
The alley door for the Jade Cab Company was unlocked. Asami knew she was expected, but she still entered cautiously and locked the door behind her. She kept to the shadows as she made her way to the garage.
Shin was there, sitting on a stool next to his cab. The driver's door was open, and a play by play account of a judo match came over the vehicle's radio. Shin was engrossed in the broadcast and didn't notice her approach. "Mr. Shin," she called out.
He started and turned around. He was sporting a black eye and a swollen lip, but he grinned as he saw her and stood up. "Now that's service. I only left my report for Medium about an hour ago. She said you were already planning to come talk to me, but I didn't expect you so soon."
"You moved up in priority when I heard you had your own business to discuss. Why don't you tell me about it?"
"OK. It's like this, see? Remember my girl, Ru? She works at a soup kitchen on Temple Street. The place gives a square meal to folks on hard times."
"I know the one you mean."
Shin nodded. "Sure. Anyway, sometimes I run errands for them in my cab. I get to spend a little time with Ru while I'm at it. Well, today I'm there dropping off some groceries, and these guys come in. Completely out of place, really nice suits, definitely not hard luck cases. And they're all wearing these weird green leather gloves."
Asami drew in a sharp breath. "Dai Li," she said grimly.
Shin stared at her. "That's what Ru called them. Has everyone heard of these jokers but me?"
"I haven't had a run in with them personally before now, but I learned about them when I spent some time in Ba Sing Se in my younger days." Just five years ago, but who was counting? "I daresay your young lady or her people also come from Ba Sing Se or one of the other large cities in the Empire?" Shin nodded. "The Dai Li are the Empress's secret police. They have quite a reputation among the city folk. Less so in the countryside. When the Empress doesn't like how the small towns are behaving, she usually just sends in the army. What are they doing in my city?"
"They're looking for some guy. They locked the street door behind them after they came in. Started showing this drawing around, wanting to know if anyone had seen him."
"Had anyone?" Asami asked.
Shin shook his head. "If they did, they sure didn't own up to it. And everyone in there was pretty spooked. I don't blame them. I ... well, I didn't listen to Ru, and I tried to stand up to them. You can see what they did." He gestured to his face. "And that was just one guy. The others just watched. I didn't give them no more trouble after that."
"That was wise. They're bullies, but they're well-trained bullies. And they're not above making an example out of someone who crosses them." She clenched her fist. "Damn it. Out of all the times for them to stick their noses in. But we can't let this pass."
"That's kind of how I hoped you'd feel," Shin said. "Anything I can do, let me know. It's kind of personal, you know?"
"I understand. Just remember today and don't go off on your own. Can you give a description of the men you met? And of the man they're looking for?"
Shin nodded. "I don't think I'll forget any time soon."
"I'll mobilize the network to be on the lookout. I'll need to be able to find them before I can take care of them. In the meantime, I have something to ask of you while I'm here."
"You got it, Boss. What's up?"
"I need to make some modifications to your cab."
"Hey, Wu! Wait up."
Wu turned to see Bolin waving to him from down the hall. He sighed and glanced up at the floor indicator of the elevator. Still three floors away. He didn't have much choice on waiting since Bolin would reach him before the doors opened. Maybe he should have taken the stairs. All eleven flights. He sighed again and shook his head. He turned to the approaching photographer and tried to muster a convincing smile.
"Hello, Bo. On your way out?"
"Not exactly. I was hoping to talk to you for a moment."
Wu glanced at his watch. "Well, I'm on my way to cover a wedding, so I don't have a lot of time." The elevator doors finally opened. Bolin followed him onto the elevator. Wu was stuck with him at least until the lobby.
"Need a photographer?" Bolin asked, although he had to know it was a silly question.
"You don't have your camera with you," Wu pointed out. "Besides, the bride's family hired a private one, and I'm sure they'll be thrilled to provide copies of the official photos for us to print on the society page.
"Right," Bolin said, nodding. They rode in silence for two floors. The Bolin stopped dancing around the subject. "Wu, is everything all right?"
Wu grimaced and wondered if he'd agreed to bring Bolin along to the wedding if he would have been able to keep him distracted with work talk. Probably not. "Everything's fine and dandy. Why wouldn't it be?"
"I don't know. That's why I'm asking. You've been in a mood the past few days. Kind of somber. Where's the old Wu banter we know and love? The sparkle? The pizazz?"
"If Moon sent you to have a talk with me," Wu said stiffly, "tell her I promise my next article will 'sparkle' more."
"Moon has nothing to do with it," Bolin said, clearly hurt. "I thought we were friends. Friends watch out for each other."
"Sorry," Wu mumbled. He avoided looking Bolin in the eye.
"So what is going on?" Bolin persisted.
The elevator opened onto the lobby. Wu stepped out but held up a hand to keep the door from closing right away. "Nothing you can help with. That's not a slight. It's nothing anyone can help with. Just something I need to weather through. But I appreciate the concern." He released the door and gave Bolin a shrug and a wave, before turning to walk across the lobby.
"If you change your mind, you know where to find me," Bolin called after him, followed by the rumble of the elevator door closing again.
"Yeah, I do," Wu said with a sigh. He made his way out the front door and hailed a taxi. It would all blow over, he told himself. It had to.
Asami had the evening free. Korra had called earlier with a rasp to her voice that told its own story: a summer cold that had come on with unpleasant suddenness. And so their date was postponed again. They hadn't talked long, Korra pleading the need for rest. After hanging up, Asami realized that she really should have at least offered to come over to Korra's place, fix her dinner, take care of her for the evening. But maybe that would have been an imposition. She decided it was better to let the matter lie, instead of disturbing Korra with another phone call.
So she fell back on her usual routine for when she had a night to herself. She was getting kitted up to go out on a general patrol of the city when a call came into the crime lab.
"Sorry to bother you," the Avatar said on the other end. "I was wondering if you had time to meet and compare notes."
"I can meet you at the safe house in half an hour, if that will work," Asami said.
Exactly half an hour later, Asami was letting the Avatar in through the upper floor window she seemed to have chosen as her favorite. They got down to business right away.
"I've got two mobile versions of the detector up and running," Asami explained. "One in my sedan, one with one of my agents. There's a third model for the Medium to operate. I've fitted them up with directional antennas. The precision isn't what I'd like, but triangulating from three different locations around the city should allow us to narrow the location down pretty well. The Medium has instructions to relay the location to you, in case that's faster than you tracking it down on your own."
The Avatar nodded. "Thanks. It's good to have the option."
"I've passed on what we've learned so far to my contact in the police," Asami continued.
"The one I saw you with that first night we actually met? Makes sense. Do we know much that they didn't?"
"Only what you'd expect. The fact that we faced an actual Spirit at the Cabbage Corp factory was news. And I gave him technical details of the device, since they've never seen one intact. Unfortunately, they also haven't learned much that we don't already know. I got a report today that they confirmed there was another fake employee at Cabbage Corp like at Varrick Tower. Probably the same man, judging by the descriptions. Which might make it difficult for him to pull the same trick a third time."
"Which is good as long as he's working alone," the Avatar said. "Care to take odds on that?"
"No bet," Asami said. "You're right. This is too elaborate for one individual. Well, that's my side of things. How about you?"
"I'm afraid my progress isn't as impressive," The Avatar began. She then proceeded to outline her theory that the M-rays were, in fact, some form of spirit energy. Her researches into what it did and how to counteract its effects. Her possible discovery of a suspect and probable discovery of a map that provided a guide to future trouble spots. Asami listened and tried to figure out how the Avatar's report could possibly not count as "impressive."
"Would it be treading on your toes if I broke into this professor's office?" she asked. "I doubt he has anything incriminating just lying around, but I wouldn't mind a look at that map myself."
"Knock yourself out," the Avatar said. "Covert entry is more your skill set than mine. I just wish I knew if I could trust him or not. If he's not involved, his advice could be really useful."
Asami considered this. "You could try approaching him anyway. You're prudent to not to take your personal intuitions as fact, but don't ignore them either. You've shown good instincts where people are concerned, and your first instinct is to trust him. Go in with your eyes open. If he's crooked, you might lull him into a false sense of security."
The Avatar laughed. "I got similar advice earlier this week. It sounds a lot more sensible when you give it, though. Of course, I think my other adviser pictured me going in my civilian identity and acting the femme fatale."
Asami nearly choked. "That's... an interesting suggestion."
The Avatar shrugged. "She's twelve."
"The Order of Raava is kind of hard to explain. Anyway, it's worth a shot, if I can figure a way to approach him that won't make him suspicious of my true identity."
"In that case, I'll hold off on the break-in," Asami said. "We don't need to complicate things."
"Keep that idea in your pocket," the Avatar said. "I don't like how much time is passing. The Voice is going to want to keep public attention focused on him. He's going to make another move soon. And we still don't have a better strategy than find his device and smash it as fast as possible. Can you figure out a way to jam M-rays, the way you would jam a radio signal?"
Asami shook her head. "Jamming's not a matter of eliminating a signal. It's a matter of drowning it out with something... stronger." She trailed off.
After a pause the Avatar said, "What? What is it?"
"I just had an idea. I don't think you're going to like it."
Opal's desk phone rang. She picked up the receiver and tucked it between her head and shoulder so she could keep typing. "Opal Beifong speaking."
"Miss Beifong," said a familiar voice. "Do you have time to talk?"
Opal stopped typing immediately. "With you, definitely. Do you want to meet somewhere?"
"Over the phone will do for now," the Avatar said. "I was hoping you'd be interested in another exchange of favors."
Opal grinned as she got a pad an pen at the ready. "Yes, I think you could say I was very interested. What can I do for you?"
"I'm interested in finding people who experienced headaches or other physical discomfort during the incidents with the Voice of the Spirits. I know some of them talked to the papers. Perhaps you have some names you could share?"
She scanned her desk trying to remember what folder that information might be in. "Most of them are cranks, I'm afraid. I should be able to find a few names of people who I think were being honest. They'll be the ones from the first night. There were still plenty of people who jumped on the bandwagon once they knew something strange had happened, but some had convincing stories. No one who's come forward claiming to experience anything during the second broadcast has a story that passes the smell test."
"You'd want to look for people who didn't experience anything until after the end of the broadcast. If they're telling you it happened while he was yakking on the radio, then yeah, they're lying."
"Now that's an interesting tidbit from my perspective. How do you know that?"
"I felt it myself. Both nights." Opal gave a low whistle as she took notes. "I'd appreciate it if you don't make that detail widely known," the Avatar continued. "I'd rather not give anyone any bright ideas."
"Fair enough," Opal said. She frowned in puzzlement. "What do you want to talk to these people for? They don't sound like they'd be suspects."
"More like witnesses than anything else. Here's where my half of the exchange comes in. I can tell you what I know, although I've got to warn you it will sound pretty far-fetched. You might not want to print it just yet, since I can't give you much in the way of proof."
"Having too little to publish yet is a normal phase in investigative journalism. I'm happy to take what you can give me."
"The Voice of the Spirits isn't the friend to Spirit-kind he pretends to be," the Avatar said. "He's using some machine to torment Spirits. They attack where the machine is to stop the pain. That's what happened at Varrick Tower, that's what happened at Cabbage Corporation."
Opal sat up straighter. "Wait a minute. Is that the machine Mr. Varrick gave you on the first night?"
"Ah, you know about that. Yes. I've got to admit, getting that intact has been a big help. Fortunately, destroying the antenna was good enough that first night, although I'm not sure why. Something still doesn't add up there."
When it sounded like there wasn't any more to come from that train of thought, Opal steered the conversation back on track. "I'm still not clear how this connects with the people who suffered during the attacks."
The Avatar was quiet for a moment as if marshaling her thoughts. "My theory is that they're all people with an innate sensitivity to the Spirits. The machine doesn't just do something natural that the Spirits don't like. It's projecting some sort of spiritual energy that's been adapted to hurt them. I don't think the people are the target, but they're getting hurt anyway." There was another pause on the line. "To be honest, I'm grasping at straws here. I don't have the background to understand the technology. My only thought is maybe I can figure out what it's doing if I understand more about its victims. And I can't really interview the Spirits."
Opal chewed her lip. The Avatar's remarks had struck an unexpected chord. "I can get you some names of people to take to, sure. I might have something better to offer you, though."
"I... know a guy who's studying this sort of thing. Studying Spirits from a scientific perspective. Honestly, I always thought it was a bit crazy. Until now. Right now, he sounds like just the man for the job."
"That sounds really, really useful," the Avatar said, although there was a definite note of caution in her voice. "But how well do you know this 'guy'? Is he someone you trust?"
"To be honest, he's my oldest brother. So I mostly trust him. Do you have siblings? Never mind, don't answer that."
"If he'd be willing to help..."
"I'm pretty sure he'd be thrilled to meet you," Opal reassured her. "I'll get it arranged as soon as I can. It might be a few days. He'll probably have a lot of questions of his own, mind you."
"I can't promise to answer before I know what they are. But anything within reason, sure."
"Great! Mind if I sit in when it happens?"
"That sounds only fair. Thank you. Anything else I can do for you?"
Opal laughed. "Pictures of Spirits would look really good on the front page."
"I don't know that I'll be able to help you with that," the Avatar said apologetically. "I wouldn't know how to find one unless a new attack was happening. And then I won't have time to alert you. The best I can do is try to be a little extra visible when I'm on my way to wherever it's going down. It would be up to you to follow if you could."
"I was kind of kidding."
"But if you could do that visibility thing without much trouble, that would be really nice."
The Avatar snorted. "Keep your eyes on the skies," she said, and hung up.
Opal leaned back in her chair in thought. "Watch the skies." She grinned and got up to head back to Moon's office. Maybe with her editor's help, Opal could get Varrick to do something useful toward getting the big story he wanted.
Korra paced the rooftop of the Empire Bank. Opal Beifong had come through and arranged a meeting between the Avatar and her brother. Korra felt a little guilty for manipulating the reporter to take advantage of a family connection, but that wasn't the worst of it. Baatar wanted to meet tomorrow night, after giving his public lecture. And Korra was supposed to finally have a night out with Asami then. This would make three broken dates now, and so far Korra had nothing to show for it but guilt and frustration. Asami was always understanding. Too understanding. She'd agree to reschedule, make out like it wasn't a big deal. But Korra could hear the stress in her voice. Asami was worried, and who could blame her when her so-called girlfriend kept avoiding seeing her. Korra had her duty; she had to meet with Baatar. If Asami forgave her, it would be more than she deserved.
"Whoever you are, Mr. Voice-of-the-Spirits, if you've messed up my private life, I'm taking it out of your hide," she muttered to herself.
When the pain flared in her head, it was almost a relief. Finally, a chance for action. She took three deep breaths, concentrating. The pain retreated, not gone but pushed into the background. She snapped her kite open. "Showtime."
Zhu Li Moon gazed out over the city through binoculars. The top of Varrick tower had a great view, but it felt like she was looking for a needle in a haystack.
"This is less interesting than I expected it to be," Varrick said behind her.
She couldn't fault the accuracy of the statement, but the fact that he'd left all the work to her wasn't exactly endearing him to her. "You didn't have to come along, sir."
"And miss out on the story of the century?" he asked somewhat inconsistently.
"While certainly important," Moon said, "I doubt this is bigger than the fall of the Phoenix Lord and the end of the Long War," she said still scanning the city.
"That was last century," Varrick protested. Technically true, at least under one calendar's definition of the turn of the century. "Besides, we weren't printing a newspaper back then." Which was presumably the main point to his way of thinking.
A flash of light caught her eye and she zoomed in with the binoculars. The Avatar was still not much more than a speck at this distance, but as she rose above the city she gave a burst of flame confirming her identity. "There she is," she said. "Heading away from the financial district due west."
"All right!" Varrick exclaimed. "Do the thing!"
Moon turned to stare at him. He pointed at the radio phone, grinning. He was as close to the phone as she was, he could just as well do it himself. On the other hand, it was important that Varrick's driver get clear instructions. "Yes, sir," she said suppressing a sigh and picked up the receiver.
"I'll be damned, it works." Shin's voice came out of the radio, echoing slightly in the confines of the autogyro hangar.
Asami's smile twitched at the corner of her mouth as she adjusted her own M-ray detector. "Thank you for your vote of confidence, Mr. Shin. Could we have a bearing?"
"Working on it boss." He muttered to himself over the open line. "OK. Looks like ten degrees south of west. I'm measuring from in front of City Hall," he said at last.
"Right." She went to the map on the table and started plotting the bearings taken by Shin, Yin, and herself. She got a sinking feeling after the first two lines intersected. The third confirmed it.
"Damnation," came Yin's voice over the radio.
"Can I take it you got the same results I did?" Asami asked.
"If you placed our trouble spot right over Yue bay," Yin answered, "then yes you can. They're going after shipping, aren't they?"
"It sounds like a good guess. We'll see what's up when I get there. Turns out to be a good thing I decided to go airborne."
"Yes, the opportunity to crash at sea isn't to be missed," Yin said dryly.
"Save the helpful comments for when I'm in the air," she said and switched off the radio. She ran for the autogyro, climbed into the cockpit, and buckled herself in. "Chocks away," she said as she hit the throttle.
At first, the only thing Korra could see in the bay was the ship. It was moving fast for a vessel this close to shore. Normally, a boat that big would be in the care of a tug, not going under its own steam. From the wake, it looked like it had initially been inbound to the port, but it had turned and was currently running almost parallel to the shore. Maybe it was still turning outward, getting ready to retreat from Yue bay.
She couldn't see what they were running from yet, but she was sure that was what they were doing. The captain and crew would have to be afraid of something much worse than running aground or capsizing to sail so recklessly. Then the ship gave a lurch as if something large under the surface had struck it. There was a burst of spray and something arose from the water into the air to hover next to the ship. It was hard to make out at this distance, but it was large and definitely alive. Or whatever it was Spirits technically were. Someone on deck fired a flare gun at the thing. The sizzling flare glowed red against it and bounced off with no apparent effect.
She'd need hands free when she got there if she was going to accomplish anything. And there was one way to travel that was even faster than flying for her. She snapped the kite shut and let herself drop toward the bay. She maintained a slight updraft to slow her fall, but most of her concentration was on the water below her. The waves immediately beneath her slowed and died out. Then a new swell developed, moving opposite to the surrounding waves. She twisted her body to drop feet first toward the growing swell. It rose to meet her, engulfed her to the waist and bore her outward toward the fleeing ship.
Varrick's private car sped through the streets of Republic City. Opal rode in the back with Bolin beside her. Right now he had his eyes clamped shut and was muttering under his breath, possibly praying. Opal sympathized. Varrick's driver was blessed with a lead foot and a lot of nerve. She still watched where they were going, but she was gripping the seat back in front of her tightly. A horn blared at them as they ran a red light. Bolin whimpered slightly.
Opal considered the neighborhood they were currently speeding through. "Aren't we about to run out of land?" she asked the driver.
"I'm just going where your editor tells me, and she's telling me to head for the bay," he answered, sounding bored.
"Can she still see the Avatar at that distance?"
"I didn't ask," he said.
Opal decided to stop distracting him as their passage through the latest intersection was greeted by the sound of screeching tires from the side street.
They reached the waterfront and the driver turned sharply onto the road that ran along Yue Bay. He pulled to an abrupt stop at the side of the road. "Well," he said pointing out the window, "there's your story."
Opal stared seaward. "Bo, I think you'd better open your eyes and look."
He opened one eye at first and glanced around. Apparently satisfied that they were no longer in any danger, he opened the other eye and turned the way she was pointing. "Is that... is that a Spirit?"
"I guess so. Can you get a picture?"
"It's pretty far out. Even with my best lens, its still just going to be a glowing blob." Nonetheless, he started getting his camera ready.
Opal turned to the driver. "Are we near the marina?"
"A few blocks away. Why?"
"Bolin, take what pictures you can out of the window. You," she said to the chauffeur, "drive."
The freighter had completed its high-speed turn without capsizing and was heading back toward open waters. The Spirit still pursued and harried it. Now that Korra was close, she could see that it looked like a manta ray, although one with nine tails instead of the usual one. Also, intricate glowing patterns decorated its fins. Someone on the ship had broken out a rifle and was trying to kill it or at least drive it off. That didn't seem to work any better than the flare gun had. If anything the attacks on the ship were growing more savage. Meanwhile, Korra was stuck in a stern chase that was taking too long for her to get in attack range.
One of the Spirit's tails lashed out and crashed against the deck as it flew past. The ship rocked dangerously, and Korra could hear the cries of alarm from the crew. She hoped the marksman would take the hint and stop trying to annoy the already dangerously angry creature. She gestured, reaching out with her awareness, trying to persuade the water carrying her that it wanted to flow faster, as she continued her pursuit of the ship and its attacker.
The speed boat cut through the waters of Yue Bay. Bolin struggled to get the distant ship centered in his viewfinder and triggered the shutter. The bouncing of the boat was making it difficult, but he thought he had still managed a few decent shots. "These aren't going to be winning any prizes," he yelled over the motor. "Of course, we'll probably be in jail tonight for stealing this boat, so they won't get printed anyway."
"It's not stealing, it's borrowing," Opal shouted back. "The boat belongs to my brother Wei. He loves the speed the motor gives him. Now Wing prefers sailing. He's got his own craft at the same marina. They argue about it all the time. Gotta say that after tonight, Wei's ahead on points in my book."
He glanced at her. She was grinning. "You sound like you're enjoying yourself," he said.
The boat crested a larger than average wave and he felt the sudden drop in his stomach. He swallowed. "Let me get back to you on that one."
She hit him in the arm. "Up there," she said pointing. He looked up. A small aircraft was flying low over the water off to their left. "Get a shot of that," she said. "It looks like someone else is going our way."
Asami glanced at the oscilloscope mounted on the dash of the autogyro. The signal trace of the M-rays was getting stronger, but not yet strong enough. "I'm catching up, but I'm still a ways out," she said into the radio. "I've got my target in sight though."
"I copy," Yin said, "Please try to be careful."
"As careful as I can afford to be," she promised.
Ahead, she saw the glow of fire blossom over the bay. The Avatar had arrived at their target.
Korra ducked a swipe from one of the Manta Spirit's tails. She rode her wave backward to increase the distance between them and launched another fire burst at its eyes. Another tail arced up and over the Spirit's body, stabbing like a scorpion's sting at the spot she'd been an instant before. They behaved more like tentacles than tails, and the wretched things seemed to be growing longer.
There was the crack of a rifle. The Spirit turned from Korra back toward the ship. Korra summoned a tendril of water. She wrapped it around one of the tails of the retreating Spirit, froze it and gave it a yank. "Stop helping!" she bellowed at the ship's crew. The stern chase had ended abruptly when the ship slowed to a halt. It had allowed Korra to catch up but meant that even though she was doing her best to keep the Spirit occupied, the vessel wasn't making good their escape. Although maybe that wasn't a bad thing. The last thing anyone needed was for the ship to blunder into the territory of yet another Spirit.
The Manta was still focused on the freighter. Korra launched herself out of the water and landed on its back. She ran forward and leapt off of its head at the front. She turned in mid-air and pumped her fists to fire off a rapid salvo of flame bursts. The Spirit reared back, and she summoned a quick gale that caught its outspread fins and sent it tumbling into the water. Before it could emerge she froze the surface surrounding it. Part of it was still above the surface and thrashed against the encasing ice.
She summoned another wave and rode it up to the ship. She landed on the deck next to a man who looked like the captain. "Why did you stop running?" she said without introduction.
"We're taking on water," he said grimly. "In the engine room." Now that she looked she could see that the crew was getting ready to lower the starboard lifeboat. She also saw that one boat wasn't big enough to carry the entire crew. But the port side faced where she had been fighting the Spirit.
"Right. Start getting the port boat ready too. I'll do my best to draw the Spirit off far enough for you to launch it. Once you're clear of the ship it should lose interest in you. As long as you don't do anything more to anger it." She looked pointedly at the rifle in the hands of the man behind the captain.
"You sure about that?" one of the crew called out. A murmur of agreement ran through the crew.
"It thinks you ship is trying to hurt it," she said. A bit oversimplified, but close enough. "I'll do something about that when I get the chance, but first priority is getting all of you to safety."
The sound of cracking ice drew her attention back to the water. The Manta Spirit shook itself free from the remains of the ice. It launched itself toward the ship. Korra pulled a wall of water up in its path and flash froze it. There was a satisfying thump, and cracks showed in the near side of the wall before it collapsed into the bay like a calving iceberg. "Round two," Korra said, vaulting over the railing.
As they got closer to the battle, Opal slowed the speedboat. They could get good pictures without rushing into danger.
Next to her, Bolin lowered his camera. "What's that in the water ahead?" he asked.
Opal followed where he pointed and idled the engine. There was something floating between them and the beleaguered ship. She turned around and dug into the locker behind her seat and found a big flashlight. With a sick feeling of already knowing what she would see, she turned the light on. A sailor floated in the water. From the way he floated, he was clearly wearing a life jacket. He was also clearly unconscious. He didn't react at all to the light shining in his face.
She handed the light to Bolin. "Keep it trained on him." She eased forward on the throttle to move carefully toward the sailor. And they got close she turned so they came alongside him. She cut the motor. "Do you think you can pull him on board?" she asked Bolin.
"Get on the opposite side of the boat. It'll help balance out." He reached out and grabbed hold of the man. The boat began to tip alarmingly and Opal leaned out on over the opposite edge. It was a struggle, but Bolin managed to haul the man on board, and they didn't capsize. They laid the man out on the bottom of the boat. "He's still breathing," Bolin said, "but that's a nasty bruise on his head. And he's cold."
"There's a blanket in the locker, but I don't know if that's good enough. I don't know what to do for him. We need to head back to shore. Get him help. We've got a radio for emergencies. This counts." She realized she babbling, shook her head, and climbed back behind the wheel and revved the motor. Next to her Bolin tried to figure out the radio.
"Think anyone else went overboard?" he asked.
"I don't know, and we could waste a lot of time looking. I'll keep an eye open as we go, just in case." She turned the craft back to the port, all thoughts of the story gone from her mind.
"Target is in range," Asami said over the radio. "I'll have to go off the air until the operation is done."
"Understood," Yin answered. "Call when you're done." She didn't sound happy, but didn't put up any last minute arguments.
Ahead of her the Avatar fought the Spirit, half driving, half luring it away from the freighter. She aimed the nose of the autogyro right at the pair. "Sorry about this," she said as she cut in the amplifier and switched her M-ray detector into broadcast mode.
"It's taking your jamming idea to its logical conclusion," she had explained to the Avatar at their last meeting. "I can't mask the signal from the Voice's device, but I can send my own signal out. Shout louder, if you will. Make myself the more attractive target. Draw any Spirits away and give you the chance to shut down the latest device."
The Avatar had stared at her a long time before speaking. "You're absolutely right. I do hate the idea."
Ahead of her, both the Avatar and the Spirit visibly flinched at the increased onslaught of the M-rays. "Sorry," Asami said again. "Desperate times."
The Spirit recovered quickly, turning toward her and lunging upward. Asami banked the flyer out of its path. "Let's just hope I'm more maneuverable than you, my friend. Or else this is going to be one short, unsuccessful distraction."
The first lifeboat was pulling strongly away from the ship. The second was being lowered into the water when Korra returned to the ship and landed on deck. "What are you doing?" the captain yelled up at her.
"Gotta find the thing that's tormenting the Spirit. We'll all be safer once I shut it down," she called back. "I don't suppose you've seen any suspicious boxes lying around tonight? Never mind, I'll find it on my own."
"Don't be a fool! The ship's sinking. This is no time to be running around below decks."
"Trust me," she said. "Drowning is not one of my worries." She ran to the door leading into the ship. She might not have to worry about the dangers of being caught in a sinking ship, but the clock was ticking for the Ghost up in her flying machine.
Fortunately, the M-ray transmitter wasn't that hard to find. Even with the interference from the Ghost's counter transmission, this close to the primary source it was easy to feel the signal. She tracked it down to one of the crew cabins. The door was locked. "Seriously? Who locks their door before abandoning ship?" The door didn't look that sturdy. She gave it a solid kick and the latch gave way. She found herself looking down the barrel of a gun. "Ah. That explains it." She raised her hands.
The occupant of the cabin was young, probably younger than her. He was backed up against the bunks. Behind him on the lower bunk was a familiar looking case. She returned her attention to the young man. His eyes were wide, and he was breathing heavily, but he still held the pistol steady. "Get out of here," he said.
"You do know the ship is sinking, don't you?" she said in a conversational tone. "I don't really know your captain that well, but off hand, he doesn't seem the sort to abandon ship with a man left behind. Does he think you were on the first lifeboat? Easy enough trick to pull. Be on deck for the headcount, then fade away while everyone else is busy. Seems like a waste of effort, though. Why don't you put down the gun and you can get out of here with your life."
"I'm not afraid to die," he said.
"You know," she continued in the same pleasant tones, "drowning isn't a very pleasant way to go. Maybe you haven't been to sea much, but I've seen the aftermath of a few wrecks in my time. A drowning person is one of the most dangerous things in the water. They'll pull their friends down with them in their desperation to get to the surface. That's how terrifying it is." She looked around the room. "Now this? Trapped in a box slowly filling with water? Got to be even worse, knowing that once it's full, there won't even be a surface to try to claw your way to. You picked one nasty way to check out. And what for? I admit it. You've won this round. The ship's already sinking. Job done. I'm pretty amazing but patching up the hull and pulling the water out is a bigger task than I'm ready to take on."
"Oh yeah?" he said. "Then why are you down here?"
"The longer your machine is torturing that Spirit the more likely it is someone gets hurt."
He gave a shaky laugh. "And that's why I'm down here. To make sure it stays angry as long as possible. Sacrifices have to be made. People need to be afraid."
Korra frowned under her mask. "I just lost all sympathy for you. I don't have time for this." She reached out with her awareness and squeezed her fist shut. As she did, the end of the gun barrel collapsed to a slit with a creak of tortured metal. "I don't recommend you pull the trigger now, unless you want to blow your hand off."
He had enough with to listen to her and turned the gun to stare at the crushed barrel. As he looked back up at her wide-eyed, she made a sudden motion with her arm, and a gust of wind swept him sideways to crash into the bulkhead. He fell to the ground unconscious. Ignoring him, she bent over the case of the M-ray device and looked to the best way to shut it down.
Asami pulled the gyro out of a dive as close to the water's surface as she dared. Behind her, the Spirit, less agile in its bulk, hit the water with a titanic splash and disappeared below the surface. Asami banked left and climbed to not be where it expected when it emerged again. As she did, the oscilloscope trace on her M-ray detector went flat. She gave out a sigh of relief. The Avatar had succeeded then. "Good job, partner," she said. "Sorry I can't do more now that you don't need a distraction." Maybe she should adapt the autogyro to be able to make a water landing. You never hew what might come up in the future.
She glanced out of the cockpit down at the bay, just in time to see the Manta Spirit break the surface of the water and resume its pursuit of her. Was she still transmitting? Hurriedly, she turned to the autogyro's control panel and cut all power to the amplifiers, then to the M-ray detector itself, and then to the radio, just to be sure. The Spirit still followed, beating forward with strong flaps of its fins.
"Oh good. I guess I managed to make you really angry."
Korra used her metalbending to pull free a section of the ship's railing and wrapped it around her captive. She slung him over one shoulder and summoned a wave with her free hand. She picked up the case containing the M-ray transmitter, stepped into the wave and rode it to the captain's lifeboat. She dumped the crewman ungently into the bottom of the boat. He groaned at looked up at her blearily as she floated alongside.
"Sparks! He was supposed to be on the other lifeboat," the captain said.
"He decided to stay behind," Korra replied. "Radio operator, huh? That makes sense. Been part of your crew long?"
"This was his first voyage with us. Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
She nodded. "That he's the reason your ship got attacked. Him and this." She set the M-ray device down in the boat.
"Why?" the captain asked. He sounded more confused than anything, but the rest of the crew in the boat began muttering angrily among themselves.
"That's a question for the police." She raised her voice so the whole boat could hear. "So I expect him to get back to shore in no worse shape than he is now. I will be checking on that." There was still some grumbling, but the captain met her eye and gave her a firm nod. "Anyway, you should all be safe with this device shut down. It's what made the Spirit angry."
"Then why is that manta thing still chasing after that weird plane?" one of the sailors asked.
Korra looked up in alarm in the direction the man was pointing. The Ghost's autogyro was a retreating speck. The glowing body of the Spirit was much clearer and obviously still in pursuit. "Oh, no no no no..." Behind her, there were shouts of surprise as the lifeboat rocked in her wake as Korra pushed the wave she was riding toward the retreating figures as fast as she could.
Earlier Asami hadn't flown all out, wanting to make sure she stayed an attractive target. Now she discovered that even at full throttle the autogyro couldn't outpace the Spirit. At least she was still able to outmaneuver it, but it was learning, and each near miss got a little nearer. She jinked to the left out of its way. It shot past, but one of its tails flicked out and rang against the fuselage. Not hard enough to make her lose control but enough that she could feel it. She banked hard right again as soon as she was clear of it. Through the chase, she'd made her way toward shore in hopes that the Manta would stay confined to the bay. Her evasive maneuvering had prevented her from traveling directly, but now she was finally there. The autogyro flew over the surf, shot past a short stretch of beach, and then was over the forest. She hugged close to the treetops, hoping she would finally shake her pursuer.
Behind her, even above the roar of the motor, she heard the crash of something large smashing its way through the trees.
Korra had gained ground on the autogyro and the pursuing Spirit. She'd guessed the significance of the Ghost's zig-zagging path and had taken a more direct route across the bay. But now she was running out of water, and the pair were flying away over the forest on the outskirts of Republic City. She unslung the kite from her back. At the same time, she called more and more water to the wave she was riding, making it grow higher and higher. She reached the shallows and the wave broke underneath her. She snapped the kite open and rode a wind upward.
If she was going to catch up and help the Ghost, the winds wouldn't be enough. There was only one thing she could do, and she just had to hope it wouldn't tap her reserves to the point she couldn't deal with the Spirit when she caught up. Holding onto the shaft of the kite with one hand, she pointed her other hand behind her and created a jet of flame, pushing herself forward faster than the wind alone could carry her.
Asami glanced at the fuel gauge. She wouldn't be able to run much longer if the Spirit didn't give up the chase. She doubted she could count on that happening soon enough. It did seem to be tiring slightly, which in other circumstances would have been an interesting data point. Now it was the one straw of hope she clung to. Bit by bit, it took longer to catch her up after every evasive maneuver. Which was good because her own exhaustion was starting to take its toll on her reflexes.
She glanced back over her shoulder, frowned and risked a longer look. Back behind the Spirit, she had seen an orange flash of flame which flared in and out from behind a familiar silhouette. Barely daring to hope, she banked the autogyro in as sharp a reversal as she dared. The Spirit, surprised by her sudden change of direction loomed ahead of her, lunging upward too slow to intercept her as she shot past.
Before her the Avatar approached on her glider. As Asami watched, she swept her free hand forward and a fireball shot past the autogyro. She followed it up with two quick punches that produced smaller bursts. Asami glanced back in time to catch sight of the last of them striking the Spirit in the eyes. It thrashed and turned away, apparently dismayed. Breathing space, but she doubted it would last long enough to give her time to land. And besides, what would happen to the Avatar if Asami left her behind to face the Spirit alone? That just seemed to exchange one victim for another, a trade she wasn't willing to make.
A shout from below drew her attention. The Avatar had turned and was pacing the autogyro below and to the left. She shouted something Asami couldn't make out over the noise of the engine. She yelled again, this time beckoning with her arm, and although Asami still couldn't hear clearly, this time the meaning was clear: Jump.
She hesitated for only a moment, then brought the autogyro as level as she could and locked the control stick. She unbuckled the safety harness and carefully climbed to the edge of the cockpit, minding the whirling propeller overhead. She took a deep breath and kicked off, pushing out and away as hard as she could. Below her, the Avatar rose to meet her. Then to Asami's dismay, the other woman threw her kite away at the last moment and caught Asami mid-air. Together they dropped toward the forest as the autogyro roared away overhead.
Asami barely had time for a single rational thought: This is going to hurt. Then the two women smashed through the canopy of the forest. Branches swished, snapped, and cracked as they rushed past. They buffeted and whipped and stabbed at Asami, despite the Avatar's body shielding her from underneath. What it must be like for the other woman she could only imagine.
And then they were through the upper branches, falling free. In the dim light, she could see the forest floor approaching fast. She closed her eyes tight shut and waited. There was a blow that drove the air from her lungs and a boom that left a ringing in her ears. For a moment it was all she could do but gasp for breath. And then her brain caught up with the situation enough for her to wonder why it wasn't much worse. Shakily she pushed herself up with her miraculously unbroken arms and looked around.
She and the Avatar were lying in the bottom of a crater a few feet deep. She blinked in confusion. She knew from her brief glimpse from the air that it hadn't been there before they landed. That was more like the result of a bomb hitting the ground instead of two frail human bodies. She looked skyward in the direction the now pilotless autogyro was flying. She saw the glow of the manta Spirit's fins, as it apparently continued its pursuit. She held her breath, waiting for the sound of the inevitable crash, but it never came. Perhaps they'd flown too far away before the Spirit brought her flyer down. Or perhaps it was the ringing in her ears.
"If you could move a bit more of your weight off of me, I'll be able to breathe easier," came a weak voice from underneath her.
She immediately scrambled to one side off of the Avatar's prone form. "Sorry," she said.
"Think nothing of it," the Avatar replied. She didn't move immediately, just lay there staring upward and breathing deeply. "Oh, I'm glad that worked," she said at last.
"What exactly happened?"
"I used earthbending to spread out the force of our impact. You know the saying: 'It's not the fall that kills you. It's the sudden stop at the bottom.' I just made sure our stop wasn't so sudden."
Asami climbed to her feet. "I should be used to the fact that your powers are this bizarre combination of sound physics and absolute impossibility, but I don't think I ever will be. Part of my brain is still insisting that shouldn't have possibly worked, despite all evidence to the contrary." She offered a hand down to the Avatar. The woman accepted the help sitting up, but winced part way through the operation and put a hand to her side. Asami crouched down beside her and pulled out a pocket flashlight. "You're bleeding," she said after a quick inspection. "You've got a nasty gash in your side." She began to shrug off her coat with a vague notion about using the material for a bandage. But they were a long walk from civilization, and she was aware of how alarmingly inadequate her first-aid was likely to be in the circumstances.
"It's OK," the Avatar said. "One of the branches on the way down must have been a bit more sticky-up than the others. It doesn't feel too deep."
"We need to stop the bleeding," Asami protested.
"Already on it." The Avatar pulled a flask from a clip on her belt. She shook it and Asami heard a sloshing noise. "I've still got water. Nothing to worry about." She unstoppered the flask, and water came floating up and out of the container at her gesture. It flowed to encase her hand and started to emit a warm glow as she brought it to the wound at her side. She held it in place for nearly a minute before sagging back with a sigh.
"Are you all right?" Asami asked.
"I will be." She started to gesture the water back into her flask. "Just tired, that's all. I read that healing yourself takes more out of you than healing others, and boy they weren't kidding. And I was pretty close to tapped out to begin with."
Asami frowned. "That was a foolish risk you took to save me. You could have been killed."
The Avatar stared up at her. "Well, that's a nice way to say 'Thank you,'"
"I'm serious. Did you think through the possible consequences?"
"I thought through the consequences of not doing it," the Avatar said, starting to raise her voice. "You definitely being killed. Was I supposed to let that happen?"
Asami folded her arms. "Damn it, I'm not more important than you."
"And you're not less important than anyone else I've ever risked my neck to save," the Avatar snapped. "So should I not have taken the risk with any of them? Or are you the only person I'm not allowed to save?" Asami took a step back at the other woman's sudden anger. The Avatar passed a hand over her face and then slowly climbed to her feet. She didn't look at Asami. "This is what we've chosen to do," she said in a calmer voice, still looking away. "Risk our lives to help people. Sometimes that means making a split second decision. I won't pretend that I always make the right call. But tonight, I did. And right or wrong, I will never regret acting over sitting back and watching." Finally, she stopped addressing the forest at large and turned to face Asami. "And if some time in the future I see you in danger again, and I see a chance to save you, I'm going to take it. If that's not acceptable to you, maybe we need to rethink how closely we work together."
With effort, Asami held the other woman's gaze and nodded. "You're right. I was out of line. I'm sorry." She let out a deep breath. "I'm too used to being the one in charge. And I've developed some bad habits as a result. I'll do better. I would be very sorry to end our partnership." She offered her hand to the Avatar who accepted the handshake without hesitation.
"That's good. Because after I made my grand speech, I realized how much I'm going to need your help getting out of this forest. I am so exhausted right now, I'm not sure I could walk in a straight line."
Asami stared at her and then started to laugh. "Well, let's get right on that then," she said offering her arm for support.
Fortunately, Asami typically replaced some of her usual arsenal with survival equipment whenever she used the autogyro. She'd never been downed before, but tonight was certainly adequate justification for that precaution. She used the emergency radio beacon to summon Yin, with a silent apology to the elderly woman for her lost sleep. Then with map and compass, she worked out her best guess of the where the nearest road lay for their rendezvous. After that, it was just a matter of a hike through the darkened forest.
At first the Avatar had tried walking beside her, just using her shoulder for support. However, she was more tired than she had initially let on, or perhaps more tired than she realized. After the third time she stumbled almost to the ground, Asami decided to carry her piggyback. "I might not have quite your muscles, but I'm fit enough to get you to where we catch our ride," she said. The Avatar didn't even try to argue. She climbed on Asami's back and rode in silence. After a while, Asami began to suspect that her companion had fallen asleep.
Maybe she had or maybe she hadn't, but eventually she broke the silence. "You were right about one thing," she said in a weary voice. "I haven't really thought through the consequences of what I do. About what the risks mean."
"Maybe not," Asami said. "But in retrospect, I do feel a hypocrite for pointing it out." This earned a wry chuckle from her companion.
"There's a woman," the Avatar continued after a moment, "my teacher, who knows my real identity. I want to tell you how to get in touch with her. So if something happens to me, and you're the only one who knows, you can tell her."
"Please tell me this isn't a roundabout way of telling me your injuries are worse than you let on earlier."
"What? No, nothing like that. I've just had a lot of time to think on the walk. As you might guess, it's something of a novelty for me."
Asami decided to ignore the self-deprecating joke. "If you think it's the right thing, then of course I'll do it," she said.
There was a sigh of relief at her back. "Thank you. It's just that if something happens, I don't want my parents or my girlfriend to find out about me from the newspapers. Or worse, not know at all."
Girlfriend... A number of things occurred to Asami in rapid succession. First, the fact that the Avatar must normally make some effort to disguise her voice, speaking a little deeper than was natural for her. Second, that she had let this precaution slip at some time since the crash landing, probably out of stress and exhaustion, and was now using her natural speaking voice. And third, that the reason Asami had failed to notice earlier, aside from her own stress and exhaustion, was that the sound of that voice was already quite familiar to her.
Oh, and fourth that just possibly she should reevaluate how good a detective she thought she was.
She was sure that she was right. In spite of the magnitude of the coincidence, so many little things she hadn't even realized were puzzles just made sense now. But she'd been practicing paranoia for so long she couldn't bring herself to speak without first making sure. "Girlfriend, huh?" she said as neutrally as possible.
"That's not a problem with you, is it?"
"Not at all. I've just never given any thought to your personal life before, I've got to admit."
"No reason you should." The Avatar sighed. "Don't know how long I'll still have a girlfriend anyway."
Asami came to a halt in shock. "What?"
"She's becoming upset with me, I can tell. And I can't blame her. There's only so much she should have to put up with. I keep putting her off because of the investigation. Sometimes I feel like I've been cheating on her with you."
"I don't think..."
"I've screwed up," she continued over Asami's remarks. "There's so much I should have done differently. Should have told her I love her as soon as I knew. Now it'll just sound like another lie."
"No. No, screw being careful. We're not doing it this way." She started to hunker down and ease the other woman off her back. "You are not in danger of losing your girlfriend."
"How would you know?" There was no rancor in the question, just more weariness.
Asami reached up to turn off the voice distorter hidden in her necktie. She turned to face the other woman. "Because," she said, pushing her goggles up from her eyes and pulling the scarf down from her mouth, "I love you too." She reached up for the Avatar's mask. Receiving no resistance, she pulled it up to reveal Korra's stunned face staring up at her. "And you're not getting rid of me that easily."
"Good to know," Korra said, sounding dazed. Asami leaned in to give her a kiss. Korra kissed her back but started to laugh part way through.
Asami leaned back and regarded her with a smile. "What?"
"Republic City is in so much trouble if it's relying on us to solve a big mystery."
Korra insisted that she was now rested enough to walk the rest of the way to the road. And indeed she seemed much steadier on her feet. She still kept an arm around Asami, but quite possibly support was no longer her primary motivation. Asami certainly wasn't going to complain.
It took another half hour to reach the road. Asami's radio beacon was registering an acknowledgment from Yin, but they likely still had some time to wait before her arrival. They sat under a tree set back far enough from the road that their presence wouldn't be obvious to a chance passing car. For added security, they both replaced their masks, although somewhat reluctantly.
They sat in companionable silence for a while. Asami tried to think about the case, but eventually she gave up. The other events of the night demanded her attention. What did the revelations mean for their partnership? For their relationship? Everything had changed. She cringed at the memory of taking Korra to task for her recklessness. Trust and respect between them was even more important than before, but she could all too easily see herself growing overprotective. "I can't decide if this is perfect or terrifying," she said quietly.
She hadn't been sure whether Korra was still awake or not, but a sleepy voice at her shoulder said, "I'm going to go with 'Yes.'"
Asami snorted. "That sounds about right. I hope I didn't wake you."
Korra sat up straighter and stretched. "Don't worry. I've been drifting in and out. And this tree isn't the most comfortable." She turned and laid a hand against its trunk, saying "No offense."
Asami turned to look up at the tree herself. "Is there a Spirit here?"
Korra shrugged. "Technically, they're everywhere. It's just that the really powerful ones that can manifest a physical presence are a lot rarer. But I admit recent events have changed my way of thinking about who's listening."
"I hope I didn't make any permanent enemies tonight," Asami said.
"I think our friend probably didn't understand the difference between pilot and craft," Korra said. "Fortunately, or our escape wouldn't have worked as well as it did."
"We'll need a new strategy. Even if my autogyro wasn't currently a mass of twisted wreckage somewhere back thataway."
"No kidding." Korra's hand squeezed hers. "At least after tonight, coordinating our activities just got a lot easier."
Asami grinned in the darkness. "It certainly expands the options available for date night."
Korra bent over with laughter. "Is there something wrong with me that what you're implying sounds like an awesome date?"
"Yes. The exact same thing that's wrong with me for suggesting it in the first place."
"So does this mean you're leaning more to the 'perfect' side of the question?"
"The terrifying part is still there. But if we weren't willing to face the terrifying..."
"We'd definitely be in the wrong line of work," Korra said with a nod.
Asami's radio beacon beeped. "Yin should be here shortly with the car."
"That's good. I've liked spending the time with you, particularly now that I know it's you, but I need the sleep."
Headlights showed through the trees. Asami stood and gave Korra a hand up. The car pulled to a stop at the side of the road near where they waited, and they could hear a car door open. "Boss?" came Yin's cautious call.
"We're over here," Asami called back. Asami put her arm over Korra's shoulder, and Korra responded by wrapping her arm around Asami's waist. Together they headed toward the car.
Yin stood near the driver's door. She had donned the chauffeur uniform and black domino mask that she kept in case the Medium ever needed to be out in public. She froze when they emerged from the forest. Asami was momentarily shocked to see a look of cold disapproval settle over what she could see of Yin's face. Then she thought how her and Korra's obvious closeness must appear to someone who knew her personally and who wasn't up on the latest developments. The obvious assumption was that Asami was currently two-timing someone.
She released her hold on Korra's shoulder. "I believe you two have spoken on the phone," she said hurriedly, "but haven't had a chance to meet in person before. Korra, this is Yin, my right hand in most things. Yin, this is Korra." She gestured back and forth as she made the introductions. She was gratified to see the disapproval on Yin's face be replaced by shock. "I was as surprised as you are when I found out," she added reassuringly.
"There was a lot of it about," Korra said. "It's nice to meet you at last."
Yin started to smile and shook her head. "Damn it, girl," she said to Asami. "Do you ever do anything the easy way?"
Korra slept through most of the drive to her neighborhood. She was groggy enough on waking that Asami insisted on escorting her up to her apartment. If Asami was being overprotective, Korra didn't seem inclined to protest at the moment.
Typically, Yin found it a matter for considerable satire. "Should I circle the block for an hour or just come and pick you up in the morning?"
Asami glowered at her. "I will be back at the car in a matter of minutes. Don't go anywhere."
Korra ignored the byplay and wished Yin a sleepy goodnight. She and Asami crept down the alley toward her building. Once they were alone, she whispered to Asami, "You sure you don't want to steal a goodnight kiss?"
Asami grinned in spite of herself. "Well, I didn't say that."
They reached the fire escape of Korra's building. "We'll get inside, then we'll make our goodbyes properly," Korra whispered to her and began to climb. Asami followed, trying to keep her mind on the task of acting as spotter for her exhausted partner. When Asami caught up to Korra at the landing for her apartment, she found her hesitating, hand stretched out toward her window. Korra moved close to whisper again, and this time her tone was businesslike. "It's a good thing you're here for entirely non-personal reasons. I left the window latched when I went out. It isn't anymore."
"How can you tell?" Asami whispered back.
"I was going to metalbend the catch open. I can feel that it's not engaged. Someone opened it while I was gone."
The apartment was dark. That could mean either that the intruder was long gone or was lying in wait. "What's the play?" Asami asked.
"I'll go in first. Just back me up if there's trouble." Asami nodded. Korra eased the window open quietly and slipped through. Asami followed, pausing at the sill to get an impression of the space. A sound came to her. To her surprise, she realized it was quiet sobbing. Korra glanced back at her, apparently as surprised as she was. Korra turned back to the room and said in a quiet voice. "I can hear you. You might as well show yourself."
"Korra?" a young voice said shakily from somewhere in the darkness.
"Ikki?" Korra said, the surprise obvious in her tone.
An adolescent girl ran from the shadows and hugged Korra tightly. "I was afraid you'd never get here."
Korra took the girl by the shoulders. "What are you doing here? What's wrong?"
"Mother's in trouble."
Yes, I'm a stinker for giving you cliffhangers two chapters in a row. On the other hand, hooray! We're finally at the big personal reveal. The first version of this chapter is actually the first part I wrote of this book. The details of how our heroes got here have shifted over time, but the broad strokes remain unchanged.
Earlier that night.
The street door to the Gyatso Meditation Center was locked, but he'd come prepared. He pulled the pry bar out of his coat pocket and jimmied the door open. He stepped into the front room. The scent of the wood and floor polish along with the lingering trace of incense open up memories. Days when he was happy, when life seemed to make sense. He stood arrested, forgetting for a moment the mission that had brought him here.
The sound of footsteps from the back room brought him back to the present. A woman's voice called out "Who's there?" and the lights came on in the room. Out of habit, he flinched away but then forced himself to turn toward the light. Toward the voice. She stood there, clutching a broom in her hand, as if she were a normal domestic woman timidly investigating strange noises in her home. She looked as beautiful as the day he met her. Before the blackness of her heart had been revealed to him. "Tenzin?" Pema said.
"Where is she?" he asked.
"Where is who?" she asked in return, wariness replacing surprise in her voice.
"Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. Traitor."
"Traitor? Well that's rich, coming from you." She sounded annoyed. She was as good an actor as ever. "You're the one who left, might I remind you. Left me to take care of the children on my own. Left me to look after the order on my own. What exactly have I done that gives you the right to accuse me of betrayal?"
He put a hand to his forehead and shut his eyes. They'd tried to erase her from his memory. Covering up on her behalf, no doubt. He took a deep breath and the light faded away from his mind’s eye. "You were always good at pretending, but I know the truth now. You arranged it all. Got me out of the way, so you could be the one to train her. Fill her mind with your lies."
She stared at him, her face a picture of shock. Oh, you had to admire her skill. "You're insane. Are you even listening to yourself? I argued, I begged you not to go."
"Enough! Where is she?"
Pema turned pale and glanced over her shoulder to the door. Tenzin followed her gaze. Jinora stood there looking at him with confusion and fear on her face. She was so big, so grown up. Pema moved to interpose herself between them. "You're father's not here for a family reunion. I want you to get your sister and brother and go out the back way. I want you to get to a well-lit public place and find a phone and call your Auntie Lin."
"But..." Jinora began.
"Can you do that for me, Sweetheart?" Pema said.
"Yes. Yes, Mother," Jinora said. And then she was gone.
"Not a word for her?" Pema asked. "Oh, Tenzin. What's happened to you?"
"You know full well," he said.
"I really don't." She sighed. "No matter. If you have any sense left, this is what will happen. You will leave now, quietly, before the police arrive. I will agree to meet with you during the daytime in a public place, where we can discuss conditions under which you can see your children. And that is the only thing I have to discuss with you."
"I'm not leaving without my answers," he said. He brandished the pry bar.
She shook her head. "Oh well. I can't say I'm surprised." She reached up and pulled the head off of the broomstick. Her staff. Of course, he should have expected it. She stepped into a fighting stance. "Shall we dance?"
Korra stared at Ikki blankly for a moment. The girl looked like she was holding on to calm by her fingernails. Korra forced herself to give what she hoped was a reassuring smile. She knelt down to look Ikki in the eye. "What sort of trouble, Ikki? I need you to take a deep breath and talk to me."
Ikki nodded and drew a shaky breath. "My... my father came back home. Jinora said she heard him and mother arguing. Mother told her to grab me and Meelo and get us out of there. Jinora said she was afraid that they were going to fight. We had to get out and call the police. We got separated on the street, and I thought Korra will know what to do. She can come and help Mommy. So I came to your apartment, but you weren't here. And I waited so long, and I don't know what's been happening, and..."
"Shh, shh," Korra said, hugging Ikki. "OK. I'm sorry. Things got a bit crazy tonight, but I'm here now."
"Do you need a ride somewhere?" Asami asked. She had stayed back and let Korra take care of things, but she did tend to loom slightly when in character. And of course, her voice distorter was turned on, so the question came out deep and spooky. Ikki gave a little squeak and moved behind Korra a little.
"Yes, I'd appreciate that," Korra said. "Ikki, this is the Ghost. We work together. She's one of the good guys."
Asami knelt down, her body language turning much less forbidding. "Hi. I promise I don't bite."
"OK," Ikki said, a little uncertainly, but she moved out from behind Korra.
Hurry but don't rush. With Ikki out of the loop for an unknown length of time, who knew what was going on at Pema's. Or who might be there. Korra grabbed a sweater, jacket, and a pair of dungarees and pulled them on over the Avatar uniform. "Here's the plan. We drive to Ikki's neighborhood and stop a block or two down. If there's no one about, The Ghost and I will check it out. Ikki will wait in the car with the Medium."
"Who...?" Ikki began.
"You'll meet her in a minute," Korra said. "She's nice. Anyway, if the police are there, I take the mask off and Ikki and I go up."
"It's a good plan," Asami said. "Let's go."
Together they climbed down the fire escape and went to the Ghost's car. Yin still had her domino mask on, but Korra could still see her eyes widen when they approached. However, she confined herself to greeting Ikki gravely when introduced. Asami rode up front next to Yin, while Ikki and Korra rode in the back. Ikki was unusually quiet, still clearly shaken and wary of the company she found herself in. Korra decided to try to get her mind off of things a little. "How did you get to my apartment?" she asked.
"Streetcar." She stayed hunched in on herself.
"You had the fare? Why didn't you ask the driver for help?"
"I didn't ride inside," Ikki said in a tone that suggested it should have been obvious to Korra. "I grabbed hold of the back and skimmed a ride."
A noise that might have been a suppressed snort of laughter came from the front seat. "Very practical," Asami said. "And how did you get into the apartment?"
Ikki was silent for a moment and then said, "My Uncle Bumi taught me how to slip a window catch with a table knife."
"An important life skill," Asami said. "At your age I was learning to pick locks, but your method has its advantages. Such as entering from the alley instead of the front hallway."
Ikki had looked suspicious at first at Asami's remarks, but now she nodded. "Anyone could come along and find you when you're trying to get the door open. And Korra's across-the-hall neighbor is really nosy. She talks about him all the time."
Korra didn't want to start discussing Mr. Fang. "You carry a table knife with you?"
"It's harder to lose than a house key," Ikki said seriously.
"Well, it's hard to argue with that," Asami said.
Korra suspected that the table knife was also more useful for sneaking out to buy sweets, but now probably wasn't the time to bring that up.
"Will you teach me how to pick locks?" Ikki asked.
"Only if you can promise me you will only ever use the knowledge for good," Asami said piously.
"You're not helping," Korra said. Which was not actually true. Ikki seemed far less panicked, more like her usual self. Playing sober sensible adult to Asami's bad influence was not her usual role in Ikki's life, but if it helped the girl hold it together she was game.
There were vehicles with flashing lights outside the mediation center when they got close. Yin pulled into an alley. Korra took off her mask and stuffed it in the pocket of her jacket. She took Ikki's hand and guided her out of the car.
"If you need any more assistance tonight, you know where to find me," Asami said.
"Thank you," Korra said. "I sincerely hope I don't."
Asami leaned out the window. "It was nice to meet you Ikki. I hope we get another chance soon and under nicer circumstances. Stay strong."
"Yes, Ma'am," Ikki said. Now that they were close, the girl's nervousness had understandably returned, but she was more stable than when they had first found her.
Asami gave Korra one last nod and signaled Yin to drive on. Korra gave Ikki's hand a reassuring squeeze and they walked out of the alley.
As they drew close to the center, the lights turned out to be from an ambulance and a prowl car. There was also a civilian vehicle that Korra recognized as Lin's. Korra tried to take heart from the fact that the ambulance still had its lights on. She kept these thoughts to herself. They would know the truth soon enough. If it was bad, Ikki didn't need to be handed a false hope right beforehand.
Lights were on inside the center. The big front window had been broken, from the inside judging by the glass on the sidewalk. As they approached, a police officer stationed outside the door moved to intercept them. "There's nothing to see here. Move along, please."
Ikki's composure broke. "I live here!" she yelled at him. She yanked free of Korra's grasp, darted around the cop, and ran from the door yelling "Mommy!"
"Ikki?" came Pema's voice from inside.
Korra let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. She gestured toward the door and gave the police officer an inquiring smile. He looked mildly exasperated but waved her through. Inside, Pema was sitting up on a stretcher hugging Ikki. The girl was crying. Pema was saying, "Oh my baby girl. Thank the Spirits you're safe."
"Now that you know she's all right, will you stop being a lousy patient and let us take you to the hospital?" At the words, Korra's attention was drawn from mother and daughter and she finally noticed the other people in the room. Kya stood next to the stretcher. It was she who had spoken. She was doing her best to look stern and largely succeeding.
Pema didn't let go of Ikki. "I keep telling you I'm fine," she said.
"And I keep ignoring you, yet you don't seem capable of taking the hint."
The ambulance crew hovered in the background, apparently happy to let Kya take the lead. The wisdom of this was proved when Ikki pulled out of Pema's embrace and turned to Kya. "What's wrong with Mommy? Why does she need to go to the hospital?"
"It's just a precaution," Kya said soothingly. "We'll keep her under observation for a day or two. You'll be able to visit her." She had, Korra noticed, neatly avoided actually answering Ikki's question. She imagined Ikki had noticed as well, but the girl seemed willing to accept her aunt's reassurance.
"It's the other guy I'd hate to see," one of the ambulance crew said, possibly in an ill-judged effort to lighten the mood. "Someone went through that plate glass window, and it wasn't her." Several people, including his own partner turned to glare at him. He blushed and looked down at his shoes.
The last person in the room hadn't turned to glare at the unfortunate young man because she had been staring at Korra through most of the exchange. "What the hell are you doing here?" Lin asked.
"I brought Ikki back," Korra said. It was a complete dodge of the question, and it wouldn't buy her much time.
"I went to Korra's place when I got separated from Jinora and Meelo," Ikki added.
"How do you even know each other in the first place?" asked Lin.
Korra hesitated. It really wasn't relevant or any of Lin's business. On the other hand she was suspicious by profession and nature, and evasion would likely just convince her there was something she really needed to know.
Fortunately, Kya came to her rescue. "Oh, for heaven's sake. Korra's known Pema and the kids for a few years now. I recommended the meditation center to her shortly after we met." It was a good lie, since most of it was true except for Kya's early involvement.
"Well, why was it such a big secret?" Lin asked, now sounding a little more plaintive than suspicious.
"Why do you think?" Kya said with some asperity. Lin pursed her lips and suddenly wouldn't meet Korra's gaze. Korra admired the misdirection, but she would dearly have loved to know exactly what conclusion Lin had jumped to.
"Thank you for looking after Ikki," Pema said.
"I didn't do much," Korra admitted. "I arrived home to find her waiting for me. We came here right away. Where are Jinora and Meelo?"
"We left them with Bumi before coming here," Kya said.
"Perhaps now I can retrieve them, and we can all get some sleep," Pema said.
"Except you are 'forgetting' that you are going to the hospital," Kya said sweetly. "I still want you under observation."
"And I want you where people are keeping an eye on you," Lin said. Everyone glanced at the broken window.
"Who's going to look after the kids?" Pema protested.
"I can do that," Korra said. "They can bunk at my place if they don't mind tight quarters for one night. We'll visit you tomorrow and then come back here. We'll clean up the place, and I'll get the window boarded up until you can get someone in to fix it properly."
Pema looked at her gratefully. "Thank you."
"I'll cover for you at work tomorrow," Kya said. "Now say goodnight, and let's get going."
Kya and Ikki followed as the ambulance crew wheeled Pema out the door. Lin grabbed Korra by the arm before she could join them. "Just a second. We need to talk privately."
Oh, Spirits. She suspects something after all, Korra thought. She held her breath and waited.
"Ikki told you who did this, right?" Lin said quietly.
"She said her father was here arguing with Pema," Korra said cautiously.
Lin nodded. "Tenzin. I've never been his biggest fan, but I didn't think him capable of this. Pema couldn't explain what had come over him. We've got to assume he'll try something again. And I need to know who else might be a target. So I'm going to be blunt with you. Does Tenzin have a reason to be jealous of you?"
Korra stared at her blankly as she tried to figure out what Lin was getting at. Then she got it. "Hey!" she said annoyed. "You do know I'm in a relationship, don't you?"
Lin rolled her eyes. "I'm not suggesting you're two-timing Sato. But you've known Pema much longer than you've known your girlfriend. And you're close enough that Ikki came to you in an emergency. So I've got to wonder if at some time in the past the two of you were... friendlier."
Lin looked embarrassed enough at the question that Korra felt slightly mollified. "No," she said as patiently as she could. "As far as I know, Pema's interests don't extend in that direction. And she's too motherly towards me for me to even be tempted to find out."
Lin nodded. "All right. I just needed to check."
"I am close with the kids," Korra said reluctantly. "I suppose that's something that might upset him."
"You should know what he looks like," Lin said. "Tenzin is about Bumi's height but leaner. They've got similar features; you can tell they're brothers if you see them together. It sounds like he hasn't changed much in the past few years. He used to shave his head. He's apparently let that go recently but keeps it cut short. Dark brown, gray at the temples Pema says. He's got a beard, also dark brown. He used to keep it neat, but Pema says it needs a trim and—" Lin trailed off. Her brow furrowed and her eyes unfocused. "Son of a bitch," she murmured.
"What?" Korra asked curiously.
Lin hesitated. "I might have received reports on someone resembling Tenzin involved in an unrelated matter," she said. "I shouldn't say more before I can check. You already know enough that you should steer clear and call the police if he shows up in your neighborhood. Don't open the door to anyone you don't recognize. I don't want to assume he doesn't have friends. Keep your apartment locked up tight." She frowned. "How exactly did Ikki get into your place?"
"She jimmied the window. Bumi taught her."
Lin sighed. "Let's hope his brother doesn't have the same talent."
Zaheer looked like crap, and Ghazan wished again that his leader would just this once take a more hands off approach. With the target out in the harbor, in theory the effect of the spirit goad on anyone in the city should have been much less. But you'd never know it to look at Zaheer. If anything, he looked worse than after the first night's operation. This couldn't be good for his health long term.
Also, if Ghazan and Ming Hua had been running this operation on their own, Ghazan could have saved his bad news until morning. "We've got a problem. After we went off the air, Tenzin gave me the slip. He's missing."
Zaheer sighed. "Did you look for him?"
"Of course I did. Why else would I be hours late? But if he'd gone to any of the usual places, it wouldn't be a situation. And there's too much damn city for him to hide in."
"Of course. I apologize. Do you have any theories?"
Ghazan shrugged. "He's been getting more and more obsessed about his 'betrayal' by his old comrades. And it was all over the police band that the Avatar was involved again. I think maybe the dam finally burst."
Zaheer sat slumped in his chair and massaged his temples. "Convinced he's been betrayed by his order, yet so determined to keep their secrets from us. Yes, your theory makes sense and does nothing to help us find him."
"He's not right in the head." He tugged at his mustache before continuing. "And while that might not be our fault, we didn't do anything to fix him."
Zaheer frowned at him. "The man was an ally of convenience, that's all. You shouldn't get attached." Ghazan grimaced, remembering that he'd given Ming Hua similar advice not long ago. "It's unfortunate," Zaheer continued, "but really at this stage the effect on our plans is minimal. Gan-Lan has good enough recordings of the signal now. We don't need the monk for future broadcasts. It would have been nice to get a line on the Avatar, but we'll find a way to deal with her in time. No, I think we will do fine without our erstwhile friend."
You never call him by name, Ghazan thought sourly. Out loud, he said, "So we just cut him loose?"
Zaheer gave him a look that was a blend of pity and exasperation. "The mission has to come first. It's nothing personal."
Ghazan nodded. "Of course not." It never is.
Kai made his way quickly through the back alleys on the way to his flop. The Crystals would have given him a place to stay if he'd asked. He wasn't ready to give up that much control. Still, you had to admit they knew how to treat their own. He'd been paid well for playing lookout on the racetrack job. He had his cut hidden where no one would look if he got rolled. Still, the sooner he got home the better.
Ahead he saw a dark sprawled against the wall of the alley. Probably just a drunk. Maybe. Maybe he should play it safe and find another route. Except that would take longer. While he debated, the figure stirred and started to climb painfully to their feet. It was a tall man. He didn't even look Kai's direction but staggered away from him down the alley. He got all of five paces before he collapsed into some trash cans.
Without thinking, Kai ran toward him. The man must have heard the sound of his footsteps. He didn't get to his feet, but he turned and pushed himself back against the wall. "Stay back." He held out one hand in a warding gesture.
Kai stopped and looked at him. "Mister, you don't look so good." There were small cuts on his face and hands and there was a nasty bruise alongside his face. "Were you mugged?"
The man sagged. "Nothing so simple. Should have seen it coming. Overconfident. Damn fool." He didn't sound like he was talking to Kai anymore.
"Do you need help? You want me to call the police or something?"
Panic returned to the man's eyes. "No police. They can't be trusted."
"Whoa, OK. Calm down. Don't worry. They're not my favorite people either."
The man struggled to his feet once more. "Got to get under cover. They'll be looking for me." He sounded like a nut, but someone had sure given him a working over. He stumbled and Kai leaped forward to catch him.
"Come on. Lean on me." He came to a decision. Maybe it wasn't smart, but he couldn't just leave this guy. "The place I'm staying at isn't far. It's not fancy, but no one will look for you there. Maybe tomorrow get someone in to patch you up. I know some people. They don't like the cops either."
The man hesitated but then let Kai take some of his weight. "You're a good boy. Thank you." Together they limped their way down the alley. "What's your name, son?"
"Well, Kai, I'm Tenzin."
Sorry for the long wait. This chapter was hard to write. Even with the violence taking place off-stage, this wasn't a pleasant place for my head to be. I'm really a marshmallow when it comes to having bad things happen.
Yin showed up for the morning poolside conference as usual. Or perhaps almost as usual, since Miss Sato had fetched her own breakfast tray before starting the morning swim. There was still a second teacup on the tray, and Yin poured herself a cup and waited.
When Miss Sato emerged from the pool, the first thing she said was "I was serious last night when I said you could sleep in. It's my fault you got to bed so late."
Yin set her own cup down and poured tea for her employer. "At my time of life, I don't sleep much anyway. And I blame the miscreants you were dealing with for the late hours."
"Fair enough. Well, I won't lie; I'm selfishly glad to see you. What do you have for me this morning?"
"The papers are of course going crazy over last night's attack. Some just refer to a 'monster'. Some have got hold of the Spirit angle. So far the sailors from the cargo ship have been cautious about what they tell the papers. I expect that to change once they realize that the more outlandish details will actually be believed."
Miss Sato sipped her tea. "Do we know whose ship it was?"
"Our agent in the harbor master's office came through for us on that point. The freighter was owned by the Golden Tigershark line. The cargo was construction supplies for one of Mr. Keum's ventures."
"So effectively two targets for the price of one. We'll need to see if either party shows signs of advance knowledge. Unusual insurance provisions and the like. I don't think it's likely, but you never know."
Yin raised an eyebrow. "I wonder if they'll actually get a payout. Given that the sinking is a quite literal 'Act of the Spirits.'"
Miss Sato gave a dry chuckle. "I imagine the lawyers are the ones who will benefit most from that question. Anything else on last night's events?"
"Nothing you didn't already know about."
"I don't suppose you've heard anything from Korra?" Miss Sato looked slightly embarrassed at the question.
"No. I imagine she had an even later night than we did."
Miss Sato nodded. "I'll try calling her at home later. She'll probably be sleeping in if she can. If she happens to call here before I speak to her, ask her if there is anything I can do."
Yin nodded. "Of course."
Miss Sato was silent for a moment, the smile on her face suggesting she was reflecting on the one piece of good news from the night before. Then she was all business again. "Right. Do we have any further information on the problem Mr. Shin brought to my attention?"
It was midmorning before Korra woke up. It had been almost one a.m. by the time she had collected Jinora and Meelo and got back to her place. She'd settled Jinora and Ikki in her bed and put Meelo on the couch. She herself had slept on the living room floor with her rolled up jacket as a pillow. She groaned as she climbed stiffly to her feet.
Meelo was still asleep. Some time during the night he had completely reversed his position so his feet were now resting on the pillow and his head was somewhere under the blanket. She padded her way to the bedroom and eased the door open. Jinora was curled up facing away from the door. Ikki twitched in her sleep and made a sound halfway between a grunt and moan. A voice in Korra's head sighed, and Aang's image shimmered into existence next to her.
"You've been quiet since last night," she said under her breath.
I still can't believe this has happened, Aang said.
"You're not the only one." For what that was worth. Most of Korra's living acquaintances had, at best, mixed feelings about Tenzin. Feelings that were probably a lot less mixed this morning.
I failed them. His gesture took in all the sleeping children.
She shook her head. "This isn't on you. You can't take responsibility for what someone else did."
I can take responsibility for what I did and didn't do as a father. I failed them because I failed Tenzin.
She pulled the bedroom door shut and walked quietly toward the kitchen nook off of the main room. Aang's image followed in her wake. "I don't know," she murmured. "Maybe there was something you could have done differently, maybe not. He's had enough years as an adult to screw himself up all on his own."
A bitter laugh drifted through her head. That is definitely what is known as cold comfort. He faded from view.
"Well," Korra said to herself. "You could have handled that better." She went to the icebox and started preparing breakfast for her guests.
After breakfast, Korra took the kids out and they boarded a streetcar to the hospital. Meelo snagged a window seat near the rear, dragging Korra by the arm to sit next to him. The girls took the seat in front of them.
Of the three, Meelo was the least affected by the previous night's events. He had been subdued the night before, but now had bounced back almost completely. He chattered away, pointing out items of interest, mostly cars, which he seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of. Korra supposed it made sense. He had been too young when his father had left to have any memory of the man. With the news that his mother was more or less fine, the whole affair was turning into a big adventure.
The girls were more clearly affected. They sat quietly, leaning close to each other, talking in hushed tones. A truce in the battle of the siblings seemed to have been called between them, at least temporarily.
They arrived at Republic City General. Everyone relaxed a little when the clerk at the front desk assured them that Pema was indeed receiving visitors and gave them directions to her room. When they arrived on her floor, Meelo broke away and ran into the waiting room, yelling "Uncle Bumi!" The big man turned just in time for Meelo to launch himself up to hang around Bumi's waist like he was climbing a tree. Bumi hoisted him up to eye level and said, "Hey there, you little hooligan." As Jinora and Ikki joined them he added, "Hey you two medium-sized hooligans. What are you all doing hooliganing around the hospital?"
"That's not a real word, Uncle Bumi," Jinora said.
"Sure it is. They've even got it on a big sign out on the front of the building: 'Hospital.' You can't miss it."
She hugged him, avoiding Meelo's swinging legs. "You know what I mean."
"Hardly ever," he said amiably.
"Good morning, Bumi" Korra said.
"Hi Korra. How's things?"
She shrugged and smiled. "Things are."
Bumi set Meelo down. The boy immediately stood on his uncle's feet, holding onto his belt. Aside from absently ruffling his hair, Bumi acted as if he wasn't there. "Thanks for looking out for the kids last night." The night before Bumi had taken Korra's involvement completely in stride. She was sure Kya wouldn't have told Bumi about her without clearing it with her first. Either he'd connected the dots on his own and kept an admirable poker face or he simply couldn't be fussed. She honestly couldn't decide which was more likely with him.
"No trouble at all," she said. "I'm kind of surprised to find you out here instead of in with Pema already."
"I was in there earlier, but the police came by to talk to her. I figured that made it a good time to grab coffee."
"How long ago was that?" She had been hoping the kids would get to see their mother right away.
Bumi glanced at his watch. "They should be done pretty - " He broke off as he glanced up over her shoulder, then leaned forward and said in a stage whisper. "Cheese it, here they come. Act casual."
Korra rolled her eyes and turned to follow his gaze. Two men were approaching the waiting area from down the hall. Korra was briefly surprised to see that one of them was Mako. Considering Lin's speculations from the night before, the presence of one her more trusted detectives wasn't that strange on further reflection. For his part, Mako didn't seem surprised at either Korra's presence or Bumi's antics. He had probably been forewarned by his boss on both counts.
He stepped ahead of his companion, a young man carrying a sketch pad. "Thank you for your patience, sir. We're finished speaking to your sister-in-law, if you want to rejoin her. Good morning, Korra." He gave her a smile.
"You two know each other?" Bumi asked. "I wish I'd known earlier."
Korra folded her arms and looked at him. "Would you have gone easy on him or given him an even harder time?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out."
"Are you really a police officer?" came a sudden voice at waist level.
"Mako, this is Meelo, Pema's son," Korra said in hasty introduction as Mako turned his attention to the boy staring pugnaciously up at him. "And this Ikki and Jinora, her daughters." She gestured around.
Mako gave a friendly nod to the girls before turning his attention to Meelo. "That's what it says on my badge. Technically, 'officer' refers to the uniform division and my job is 'detective.' But I used to walk a beat, and I don't mind if you call me 'officer.'"
Meelo narrowed his eyes. "Are you armed?"
"Okay," Jinora said, grabbing her brother by the collar. "That's enough out of you. Let's go see Mom." She dragged him down the hall in the direction Mako had come from.
Ikki followed after giving Mako a wave and saying "Nice to meet you." Bumi trailed after them, whistling to himself, hands in his pockets.
"Could I speak to you for a moment?" Mako said, touching Korra on the shoulder before she could follow.
"I'll see you out front," he said to his companion, who left looking disappointed at not being allowed to play fly-on-the-wall. Mako turned to watch Bumi and the kids disappear down the hallway before speaking further. "Your friend Pema is really an amazing woman, you know that?"
Korra furrowed her brow. He surely hadn't just wanted to tell her that. "She really is. How did she show her amazingness to you?"
He chuckled. "When I was interviewing her, she was mostly concerned that she wasn't getting special treatment for being the Chief's sister-in-law."
Well, if he was going to bring it up himself... "She's got a point. I mean, I hope the - sketch artist?" She gestured in the direction Mako's colleague had departed. He nodded. "I hope the sketch artist is kind of routine if you've got a violent crime with a suspect at large." He nodded again. "But aren't you a little high up for a domestic case?"
He took a deep breath. "Yeah, well. I'm not here because she's related to the chief. I'm going off script talking to you about it, but you're my friend. This guy Tenzin, we think he's more dangerous than just an angry ex-husband. I mean dangerous to more people than your friend and her family. A lot more people."
"Lin said last night that his description tied in with another case," Korra said. "Normally, she probably wouldn't have told me, but she was tired and I was standing right next to her when she had the brainwave."
Mako looked a little relieved. "Just keep an eye out. I know you can take care of yourself, but be a little extra careful, OK? Once we've got copies made of the sketch, I'd like you to take one so you know what he looks like."
That sounded immensely useful for reasons Mako didn't need to know. "I'll be taking the kids back to their home when we're done here. I'll probably be there the rest of the day."
He nodded. "We'll be canvassing the area, so I'll be able to stop by. Oh, and if you see any unusual packages either near your friend's home or yours, it might be a good idea to report them. Better safe than sorry."
Korra stared at him. He thinks Tenzin might summon a Spirit to attack Pema or me, she realized. Would he do that? Could he? Korra needed to see Baatar's map of spiritual hotspots again to know. Oh Spirits, tonight was his lecture. She was supposed to attend as Korra and meet him later as the Avatar. Out loud all she said was, "Are you worried he might plant a bomb?"
"I'm probably just being paranoid," Mako said, neatly avoiding lying to her. "But still, just be careful, OK?"
"I should go," he said. "I'm sorry. I hope I haven't freaked you out."
"It's OK. I appreciate it." She gave him a smile. "I'll see you later."
"See you." He turned and headed for the elevator. Korra started in the opposite direction towards Pema's room. Maybe she could arrange a private word without Bumi and the kids present. Mako had given her a lot to think about.
No one was in the crime lab when the phone rang. The system let it ring three times before answering. After a brief moment the recorder started up.
Oh, this thing. You know if you ever decide to market this device you use to answer your phone when you're away, you'll make a fortune. Another fortune. Um.. Let me start from the top.
Hi, Sweetest. It's me. Feels strange saying that while calling this number, but I'll get used to it. Oh, and if it's Yin that hears this first, hi, hope you're doing well.
I promise I've actually got a reason for calling you here instead of making a personal call. I need to fill you in on what happened last night. First, Ikki's mom is all right, but things did get ugly after the kids ran off. She's in the hospital just to make sure she didn't get seriously hurt, and I got a chance to talk to her privately in her room. The kids are having lunch with their uncle in the hospital cafeteria, and I'm calling you from a pay phone, so I'd better stop rambling.
I didn't really have the chance to explain, but you might have guessed that Pema, that's Ikki's mom, is the head of the Order of Raava and the woman who trained me. And Tenzin, her husband, used to be the head of the order. He was the one who was supposed to train me if he hadn't skipped town before I even knew what I was. And unfortunately, the business last night was not just a domestic dispute. Tenzin was asking questions about me and accusing Pema of corrupting my training.
And even with that, it might still technically be a personal matter, except Lin realized she'd seen Tenzin's description in recent police reports. Yeah, I mean that Lin, although she was there more in her roll as family member than police chief, because... Never mind. Rambling. I'll go over the whole crazy family tree when we've got more time. Anyway, she sent Mako around to talk to Pema, and he pretty much admitted that he wasn't there on the domestic crime angle.
I think that the police think that Tenzin is our Voice of the Spirits. And that fits with him being mad at Pema about me, since we've been - Well, I'd like to say we've been causing him trouble, but I think so far he's ahead on points. Anyway, we've been trying to interfere with his operation. If that's who he really is. This is just guesswork right now, but I think we should look into it. Which probably means you, since Mako will tell the Ghost what the police know. Sorry for adding to your to-do list.
Speaking of which, I have a really huge favor to ask. This is going to sound personal, but I swear it's connected to the case. Is there any chance you could babysit for me tonight?
Asami found a parking space about a block and a half from her goal. She climbed out and retrieved the shopping bags from the rear seat. She hadn't gone far when she spotted a man on the sidewalk ahead of her consulting a piece of paper as he looked up at building addresses. She called out to him, "Mako!"
He turned to her, smiled, and walked to meet her. "Asami," he said. "I suppose I can guess what you're doing here. Visiting Korra?"
She smiled back. "You should be a detective. I'm guessing you're looking for her too, in a more official capacity?"
He looked cautious. "How much has she told you?"
Far more than I can say, she thought. "Probably most of what you told her. Come on, I have directions; I'll take you to her."
He pointed at the bags she was carrying. "Can I take one of those for you?"
"That would be a big help," she said hefting one into his arms. "I was hoping to park closer."
"Wow, something in here smells good. I though this was just groceries." He inhaled deeply over the bag.
"Dinner. My cook was very enthusiastic when I asked if she could prepare a meal for Korra and her friend's kids."
"That was really nice of you."
"Well, my cook did all the work. I just paid for the ingredients and made encouraging noises. I figured the past day has to have been tiring enough for everyone involved, so when Korra asked me over to babysit - "
"Wait, she's planning on going out?"
Asami figured she would have been annoyed even if she hadn't just discovered that her girlfriend was the most physically powerful person in the entire city. Still, he meant well. Trying to keep her tone even, she said "There's a lecture at the University that she wants to see. She's a big girl, and she's going to be in a nice public place."
"Couldn't she go another time?"
"Professors don't usually give encore performances, Mako." He grimaced but didn't answer. "Look, she is taking this seriously. That's why she asked me over. Under normal circumstances the oldest girl is plenty mature enough to look after her siblings."
"True," he conceded.
"Life can't go on hold when something scary happens."
"I know." He sighed. "It's just - I can't talk details, but this case has me worried. I don't know what else is going to happen before we make a breakthrough."
I know the feeling, she thought. Even if she could speak to him as the Ghost right now, she didn't think she'd be able to do much to ease his mind on that score. She was spared the difficulty of finding something appropriate to say by them arriving at their destination. "We're here," she said and knocked on the door.
There was a patter of footsteps and a voice said "I'll get it!" The door opened a crack revealing a young boy. He took one look at Mako and shouted "You'll never take me alive, copper!" and slammed the door.
Asami and Mako looked at each other. "That's Meelo," Mako said.
"His reputation precedes him," she said.
"We've got the place surrounded," Mako called through the closed door. "Also we've got food."
They heard a scuffle inside, and the door opened again. This time it was Ikki standing in the door, holding Meelo back at arm's length with one hand while the other held the door. Awkwardly she gave a little bow. "Welcome-to-this-place-of-peace-STOP-IT-MEEELOO." Asami quickly slipped inside. Mako followed her, and Ikki slammed the door behind them.
At the sight of Asami, Meelo stopped struggling. "Hello, Pretty Lady."
Mako gave a crooked smile. "I suppose I should do introductions, since I'm the only person who's met everyone before, however briefly. This is Asami. Asami, this is Ikki." Ikki beamed at her. "And Meelo you already met."
He turned to Mako. "Is she a detective too?"
"She's Korra's girlfriend, you dope," Ikki said. "Don't you ever listen?"
Meelo looked momentarily disappointed, but he nodded at her and said, "Korra's got good taste."
"Thank you," she said. "Actually, I think I've got pretty good taste too, although I say it myself."
In another sudden change of topic, Meelo said, "Is that our dinner? Are you eating with us?" he added, addressing Mako.
"I was just helping Asami carry the food, and I need to talk to Korra," he said.
"Actually," Asami said, "I was thinking of extending the invitation myself, although I wanted to clear it with Korra first."
"I don't want to be any trouble..."
"Who's being trouble?" Korra said, stepping out from the back. "Besides Meelo, of course."
"Korra!" Meelo said. "Can Mako eat with us? I want someone interesting to talk to."
"Hey!" said Ikki.
Korra looked questioningly at Asami. "We've got plenty of food," she said. "My cook got a little carried away. Just one of these bags is probably enough for five hungry people. A sixth will be no problem."
Korra turned to Mako. "Interested?" He looked like he was about to attempt a polite refusal when his stomach growled audibly. Korra snickered. "I'll take that as a 'Yes.' Meelo, can you show Mako into the kitchen?"
Meelo grabbed Mako by his free arm and started dragging him into the back. "Thank you," Mako said over his shoulder as he disappeared.
After a brief pause, Korra said, "Ikki, get lost for a moment please." The girl grumbled a little, but also disappeared into the back.
Korra came up and gave Asami a kiss as she relieved her of the bag of food. "Hey you."
"Hey yourself. How are you holding up?"
"It's been a day. Thank you for all of this. I owe you big."
Asami shook her head. "It's the least I can do. And your friend's kids seem nice."
A new voice, presumably the elder daughter's came from the back "Meelo, be careful with that!"
Korra sighed and shook her head. "If I didn't already know you were the bravest woman in the city, this would prove it to me."
The dinner Asami had provided proved to be a big success, and as she had predicted there were plenty of leftovers, enough to spare the kids from Korra's cooking until Pema came home. Mako offered to step out and get ice cream for everyone as thanks for being invited. Meelo invited himself along to the soda fountain at the drug store down the street so he could approve the flavor selection and probably ask Mako more questions.
Korra glanced at her watch. "There should be time to for me to clean up the dishes before I have to catch the streetcar to the University," Korra said.
"Let me help with that," Asami said.
"You can dry if you like. Ikki can show you where things go."
Ikki inspected the first few dishes that Asami handed over to her and was apparently surprised to see that Asami did in fact know how to dry dishes. "You don't clean up after yourself at home, do you?" she asked.
"I have a large and efficient staff for that," Asami said. "Sometimes the mansion seems a bit large and ostentatious for one person, but I would definitely miss the free time that opens up from not having to do household chores."
"That's why I only do dishes once a day at home," Korra said. "I'm only this good at cleaning up promptly when I need to be a good influence on someone else." She flicked some water at Ikki, who stuck out her tongue in response.
"If I were rich," Ikki said, "I'd eat out at restaurants every day."
"You might find that you miss home cooked meals, " Asami said "I know my way around a kitchen if I have to. Neither of my parents were born rich, and I was raised not to assume I always would be. It's stood me in good stead. I worked at a tea room in Ba Sing Ce for several months after college, and my boss there would not have been impressed if I wasn't ready to get my hands dirty. Although I won't deny that doing chores is a lot more pleasant when you have the choice whether to do them or not."
Korra brushed her fingers against Asami's as she handed off another plate. "They're also more pleasant with good company."
Asami smiled at her. "You're corny, you know that?"
"You can't possibly just be noticing now."
"I didn't say I didn't like it."
"Awww," Ikki said. "You two are so sweet." Korra blushed. Asami's smile grew a little crooked with amusement, and she gave Korra a little shrug. "It's nice how you do everything together," Ikki continued.
"Actually, we don't," Asami said. "We're not interested in all the same things, and we set time aside for them. That's really an important part of being in a relationship."
Ikki shrugged in a slightly dismissive manner. "You still do a lot together. Heck, you fight crime together. How many other couples can say that?"
Korra froze. She had to suppress shooting Asami a guilty look, but even so she noticed that Asami had gone very still. Summoning her best poker face, she looked at Ikki and said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I thought we weren't going to talk about that," Jinora's voice said from the direction of the kitchen door. Apparently she'd arrived just in time to hear Ikki's bombshell. "Not until we had a chance to talk to Mother about it. That's what we agreed."
Ikki scowled. "That's what you agreed for both of us."
"Not you too," Korra said to Jinora.
"It was Ikki's idea, but she made a lot of sense," Jinora said with a shrug. "It doesn't happen very often," she added in sisterly critique.
"Drop dead," Ikki responded.
"Look, girls..." Korra began.
Asami started to laugh. "Give it up, Korra. They've got us."
Korra turned her stare on her girlfriend. "What?"
"We played it wrong from the beginning. I should have been instantly curious what she was talking about, and you should have been worried about hiding your secret from me, not my secret from her."
Korra opened and closed her mouth. She almost buried her face in her hands before remembering they were covered in dish soap. "Oh, Spirits."
"You have good instincts," Asami said to Ikki. "However, your sister was right that you should have been more cautious. What if you had been wrong about me?"
"But I wasn't," Ikki said.
"But if you had been?" Asami persisted.
Ikki looked down at her feet. "I would have given Korra's secret away."
"Right. Lesson learned, and no harm done," Asami said, returning her attention to drying dishes.
"How did you figure it out?" Korra asked.
Ikki shrugged. "Last night you gave Asami as your alibi for where you'd been, when you'd actually been with the Ghost. You wouldn't mention her name if you didn't know she'd back up your story."
"I wasn't really expecting someone to care enough to follow up," Korra pointed out.
"Yeah, but it would still be awkward if someone said to her 'Hey, how was your date the other night,' and Asami was all like 'What date?' right?"
Korra sighed. "I concede the point."
Ikki continued with mounting enthusiasm, "Also the Ghost was at your apartment, which meant that she knew your secret identity. It made sense that you'd also know hers. And the person you were actually with would be the first person you'd think of for your alibi."
"A good hypothesis," Asami said judiciously. "Not cast iron deduction, however. Your instincts will serve you well, if you take care to distinguish between what you can prove and what you only suspect."
"Yes, Ma'am," Ikki said, nodding seriously.
Jinora looked back and forth between Asami and her sister. "How did you do that?"she demanded of Asami. "That's exactly what I was telling her, but she didn't listen to me."
"Well, it probably helps some that I'm not her sister," Asami said.
"It also helps that she's twenty times cooler than you," Ikki said.
Korra grinned. "I think it also helps that Ikki wants to stay on Asami's good side at least until she learns how to pick locks."
Jinora was aghast. "You can't possibly be thinking of teaching her that."
"The conditions were that she only use it for good," Asami said, piously straight-faced. Jinora looked unimpressed. "Also your mother will have to grant permission."
"Awww," Ikki said.
Before she could attempt a renegotiation, they heard the front door open and Meelo call out "WE GOT MANGO!"
Korra had to pass on ice cream if she was going to get to the university on time. Asami walked her to the front door, while the others had dessert in the kitchen. "Thanks again for doing this," Korra said. "Jinora is old enough to watch over the other two, and it's unlikely that anything would happen while I was out, but ..."
"I understand," Asami said. "I'm glad I can do this for you."
Korra glanced at the door to the kitchen and lowered her voice. "I just feel a little bad about sidelining you."
"It's one night. If this professor is only half the resource you think he might be, it's still a better use of our time than anything I'd be doing out on my own with you back here."
"You're the greatest, you know that?" She leaned close for a kiss. "I know we need to be careful about how the two sides of our lives overlap, but I could get used to this."
"I hope not to get used to it too soon; I'm still enjoying the surprise," Asami said with a grin. She gave Korra another kiss. "Now get going, or you'll miss your streetcar."
"I could linger a little longer and fly there."
*Looks at the date of the last update. Winces*
I'm back. I'm not going to be so rash as to promise a schedule, but I'm going to work hard at not having another half-year hiatus.
I'd also like to mention that since the last update, I now have cover art! A magnificent portrait of our ladies by budgebuttons (https://budgebuttons.tumblr.com/). It was a lovely gift from the Korrasami Fanwork Positivity Campaign.
Kai entered the abandoned building and climbed the stairs to his flop in the loft. "It's me," he called out. There was a grunt in response. Kai finished the climb and found Tenzin hobbling around the room. Kai set down the bag of food and took the man by the arm. "The doc said you should stay off your feet for the next few days."
"I can't stay idle that long," Tenzin grumbled but allowed Kai to guide him back to the mattress. He sat propped against the wall, scowling at a random spot on the floor.
"I brought dinner," Kai said, returning to the bag. He pulled out paper cartons, opened one, and looked inside. "It's only vegetables and rice, I'm afraid." He grabbed a pair of chopsticks from the bag as well and took Tenzin his meal.
"Well, I'm a vegetarian, so that sounds perfect. Thank you, once again." Tenzin inhaled deeply over the carton and took a bite. "It's splendid. You're too generous. I can pay you back. I have some money hidden away."
"Don't tell people things like that," Kai said around a mouthful of food. He gestured with his own chopsticks for emphasis. "You never know when you're dealing with someone who will take advantage of you."
Tenzin sighed. "Not long ago, I would have said you're too young to be so cynical."
"What would you say now?"
"That I'm sorry you learned that particular truth so early." Tenzin poked at his food. "I still wish you would let me repay you."
"Don't worry about it. I live cheap." He waved his hand at the loft.
"This food wasn't free. Nor, I suspect, was the man you had in to check my injuries."
The food had actually been liberated from the back of a delivery bike, although Kai suspected his guest didn't want to know that. As for the doc, well, that had cost a favor, but still... "There's been people who helped me out in the past. People I can't repay now. Let's just say I'm paying off some of those debts with you."
Tenzin nodded. "Paying forward instead of back. A noble principle with a long tradition. Very well, I won't insist. Instead I shall look for opportunities to follow your example."
Kai squirmed at Tenzin's praise. "You do know how I make my living, right?"
Tenzin looked sad. "Crime exists because all society is out of balance. I'm not saying I condone what you do. But it's a symptom, not the disease itself."
"I'm pretty sure a lot of criminals are just out for everything they can get," Kai said.
"A trait they share with many 'respectable' citizens."
Kai didn't have an answer to that. The two continued their meal in silence.
Korra didn't know what to expect from a public lecture at the university, but she could see a lot more people in the lobby of the physics building than she had expected. There was a young man stationed in front of one of the doors. She watched him hand a couple of people tickets and let them inside. Korra approached him. "Is this normal? I was expecting something a bit quieter." She gestured through the glass doors at the crowd.
"Normal? Not a bit of it. A whole bunch of people who couldn't care less yesterday are hoping Professor Beifong has something to say about last night's events."
"Last night? Oh. Right." So much had happened to her since then that Korra had forgotten that the latest Spirit attack had been just the night before.
"Are you in the program?" he asked her.
"Program? Oh." She shook her head. "I'm not a student. I met the professor socially, and we talked about his research. He suggested I might find his lecture interesting."
"Good enough," the young man said, ripping off a ticket and handing it to her. "We're making the reporters sit in the back. Show one of the other students this and they'll let you sit closer."
Korra thanked him and entered the building. Looking around the lobby, she guessed that most of the crowd was the reporters the student had mentioned. Most of them looked a little old to be students and a few were carrying cameras. She didn't see Opal Beifong in their midst. Of course she could ask her brother questions any time and also had an exclusive ringside seat to Baatar's upcoming meeting with the Avatar. She probably didn't need to be here yet.
Two people about the same age as the student outside flanked a door at the side of the lobby. Korra walked up and showed them her ticket. "Is this where the lecture is being held?" She was assured that it was and was ushered through. The lecture hall was a modest affair, seating maybe fifty people tops on folding wooden seats. A couple dozen people were already seated or stood in the aisles conversing. Korra chose a spot in a mostly empty row near the front.
Over the next several minutes the hall continued to fill. Many of the people seemed to know each other, so she guessed they were students. There were also a few older ones that might be professors. Maybe Baatar's peers were taking his research more seriously now. Others in the audience kept to themselves, and Korra guessed they were fellow members of the general public. Shortly before the lecture was scheduled to begin, the reporters filed noisily in from the lobby and into the back rows. Baatar entered shortly thereafter from a separate door at the front of the hall. Flash bulbs erupted from the back of the room, prompting him to shield his eyes. The volume level in the room rose sharply as the reporters clamored for attention. Baatar held up his hands and gestured for silence. The reporters continued to call his name and shout out questions at him. At last he took a deep breath and bellowed "Quiet!"
Silence fell. "Thank you," Baatar said with only a hint of irony in his tone. "It's gratifying to see so many faces here. It's understandable that recent events should spark new interest in the Spirits, and the timing of my lecture must have seemed particularly fortuitous. I'm sure you all have many questions, but this is an academic event not a press conference. I will be giving my talk as originally planned." Korra joined in the smattering of applause that came from the students at the front of the hall at this announcement. "I hope it will be of interest to all of you," Baatar continued. "There will be time for questions at the end. And while I will prioritize questions directly related to my presentation, I'll also attempt to answer questions on more general matters. I'll warn you in advance that my answers will be highly speculative. Most of what I know of current events I have learned from the ladies and gentlemen of the press." He gestured at the back of the hall. "I do not guarantee that I have any newsworthy insights. Now then -"
"Professor Beifong!" Korra turned to look at the man in the back who had interrupted. "Your sister is a reporter for the Dragon-Sentinel. Do we have any assurance that we will be receiving the same information you are providing her?"
Baatar removed his spectacles and polished them with a handkerchief until the murmuring of the audience died down. He replaced his glasses and fixed the reporter with a stare before speaking. "I intend to answer all your questions frankly and to the best of my ability. The only possible advantage my sister has is that she knows me well enough to not annoy me accidentally. The flip side of that, of course, is that when she does annoy me, I know damn well it's on purpose." This last remark earned a chuckle from the audience. "Since you lack this advantage, in the interests of fairness I'm willing to assume you are annoying me by accident. I will still answer your questions after the lecture provided that right now you sit down and stop talking." There was another round of applause from the students, and the red-faced reporter sank into his seat.
"As I was about to say," Baatar said, "an objective and rigorous study of Spiritual phenomena faces many practical difficulties..."
"Should the shipping companies start burning offerings?" Korra rolled her eyes heavenward at the reporter's question. Up at the lectern, Baatar maintained greater composure. His warning that he wouldn't be able to shed much light on current events had been accurate so far, but Korra was hoping that it might be due to the poor quality of the questions. Many of the reporters from the less reputable papers were treating the occasion as an opportunity for satire. At least this guy seemed to be serious, and Baatar treated him as such.
"I don't think anyone can recommend corrective measures until we understand what is angering the Spirits. And while we've got ample historical records on traditional methods of pleasing or placating the Spirits, it's an open question as to whether the Spirits themselves gave any notice of those rituals." He shrugged. "I doubt it would do harm, but it may well be a waste of time." He glanced at his watch. "I'm afraid that's all the time we have, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you once again for coming. Have a pleasant night." He picked up his notes and exited the way he had come in, ignoring a last flurry of questions from the back of the room.
Korra consulted her own watch. Twenty minutes until she was expected to show up as the Avatar. Plenty of time to get into character. The crowd filed out of the hall, breaking into small knots in the lobby or out in front of the building. The reporters sounded disgruntled; the students, excited. Korra left the crowd behind, walking away from the physics hall and past the neighboring campus buildings. Glancing around to make sure she was unobserved, she slipped into an alley and summoned an airball to carry her to the rooftops. Conveniently, the nearest neighbor to the physics building was a couple stories higher. Korra pulled her mask and gloves from her jacket pocket and shed the outer layer of clothing that was concealing her costume. She concealed her street clothes and settled in to watch the roof of the neighboring building.
At the appointed time, a rooftop door on the physics building opened and Opal and Baatar walked onto the roof. She watched them long enough to be sure no one else would join them and made a wind assisted leap down to where they stood. Baatar stepped back with a strangled cry. Opal barely flinched, and as if this were an everyday occurrence, stepped forward smiling, hand outstretched. "Glad you could make it," she said, shaking Korra's hand.
"Thanks for arranging this meeting."
"My pleasure." Opal turned to her brother. "Baatar, this is the Avatar..."
Baatar, who had spent most of the lecture looking stern and slightly peeved now looked like a kid whose biggest nameday wish had just come true. "Do you know your documented powers violate all known conservation laws?" he blurted.
Opal sighed. "May I present my big brother, Professor Baatar Beifong Jr, who is usually not this big of a goof."
Korra shook hands with him. "Is that bad? The conservation thing?"
He shook his head. "It's amazing! It's exciting. It means there are new frontiers of science we haven't even dreamed of yet."
"That's not what we're here for tonight, though," Opal said.
"Of course. Pardon me. I'm just a little overwhelmed. Shall we go down to my office?"
At this hour the building was empty enough that the brief walk from the service stairs to Baatar's office posed no risk of discovery. Opal shut the door behind them so their privacy was guaranteed. The office was considerably less tidy than when Korra had visited it unmasked. Books and journals had been pulled off the shelves and now lay stacked precariously with bookmarks sprouting from them like mushrooms after the rain. The desk was covered with scribbled sheets of notepaper.
"Pardon the mess," Baatar said, stepping past her. "I got the files you gave my sister, and it took me most of the day to pull some preliminary results together. This is the first item I think you might be interested in." He gestured to the map of Spiritual sites he had shown Korra previously. As he repeated the explanation of his research she studied it again. He'd updated it since she saw it last, and his explanation quickly moved into this new territory. "These two shrines are located fairly close to the first two incidents and are associated with particularly powerful Spirits." He pointed at the locations which were now circled in red ink. Next he gestured to an island in Yue Bay not far from the main shipping route that had a big question mark over it. "Last night's attack I'm less certain about, but many of the local islands had centers of worship. My research hasn't covered that ground well, particularly on the islands with little or no permanent human population. I think, tentatively, that the Spirit you confronted last night might have a shrine here. Having such clear photographs will help corroborate with written accounts." He nodded at Opal.
Korra nodded. "Any possibility that we can use this to predict potential future targets?"
Baatar went to his desk and picked up a street map. "I marked this up for you. Not all of the shrines I researched are linked to Spirits that are reputed to have a strong physical presence when they manifest. I made special note of the ones that do."
"How difficult would it be for someone else to reproduce this research?"
He spread his hands. "Not terribly difficult, although certainly time consuming. Most of my sources are available in modern reprintings. Of course I was interested in identifying everything I could. Whoever is behind this has a more — well, I hate to say practical, but I can't think of a better word — they have a more practical focus and could concentrate on Spirits with a more active presence in their folklore."
"So you sound fairly convinced that we're right in our guess that the Spirits are being deliberately goaded using the devices we keep finding."
"Well motive isn't my department, but I have no doubt that you're right about what the machines are doing. I even found some corroborating evidence linking spiritual sensitivity to people experiencing the adverse effects." He pulled a sheet of paper out of the chaos on his desk. "I've got a side project investigating claims of psychic abilities. Precognition, that sort of thing. I made some follow-up inquiries with the subjects in my study, and there is a strong correlation between the individuals whose claims are credible and the ones who suffered headaches or other symptoms during the attacks. Not good enough statistics to publish, but compelling nonetheless."
Korra nodded. "Well that's something. Any ideas how we can counteract what the machines do?"
Baatar grimaced. "I'm still working on that. It depends on how the Spirits experience these 'M-rays'."
"Good name, by the way," Opal added.
Korra laughed. "Thanks. There's a minority opinion that they should be called 'S-rays' for Spirit."
Baatar and Opal exchanged a look. "No," they said together.
"Anyway," Baatar continued, "There are two things that the Spirits are traditionally hostile to. The first is damage to nature."
"The M-rays can't really be worse than the everyday pollution of the city, can they?"
"Unlikely, but I wonder if the people behind the attack have figured out how to mimic the metaphysical imprint of something truly damaging."
"Interesting. What about the second thing?"
"Negative emotions," Baatar said. "Specifically hostile ones. It's not clear whether the Spirits interpret them as an attack or if they arouse a protective reaction."
"You mean that maybe the Spirits aren't hurt at all?" Opal broke in. "Maybe they know these device hurt people and go after them for that reason?"
"Possibly," he answered.
"The one I tried opening a dialog with wasn't interested, not that that means much," Korra said absently. She had a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. "So we've been wondering about the source of their signal. What if you had a person with a natural affinity with the Spirits, and this person also had a strong sense of grievance and possible anger management issues? Could you get a 'negative emotions' signal from that person and broadcast it with these devices?"
"You have someone specific in mind, don't you?" Opal said.
"I've got my suspicions," Korra answered.
"It's plausible," Baatar admitted. "I don't immediately know how from what we have on hand, but in principle a receiver is just a broadcaster in reverse. If you like, I can work on that hypothesis."
She nodded. "Please."
"What I want to know," Opal said, "is where they got these things in the first place. I mean, they didn't come to you to knock together their evil Spirit radio."
Baatar's open manner had dispelled most of Korra's lingering doubts about him, but she still watched his reaction carefully. If he had a guilty secret, he was a frighteningly good actor. "I'm not the first person to bring science to the study of the Spirits," he said. "You've heard of the inventor Lonaki?"
"Not a bit," Opal said cheerfully. Korra felt relieved that she wasn't the only one.
"She designed the generators that light this entire city," Baatar said in a slightly miffed tone, "so she was kind of a big deal. Anyway, late in her life she devoted her studies to more esoteric pursuits, including trying to invent a device to communicate with the Spirits. People thought she was crazy. I've read her papers, though, and I was never so sure. We might be seeing her work vindicated."
"The bad guys have a secret Lonaki blueprint?"
"Not necessarily. I'm just saying they might have built on her work. Or made discoveries all on their own. There's no limit to human ingenuity."
"For better or for worse," Opal said. Baatar conceded the point with a nod and a wave of his hand.
"Well, your work here counts in the 'better' column, I think," Korra said. "This is a big help, and I'm grateful."
"Being in on this work is its own reward," he said. "I just wish the circumstances were more pleasant."
Baatar had still had work he wanted to do in his office, so Opal escorted Korra back to the roof on her own. "Just one thing before you go," she said.
Korra looked at her curiously. "Go on."
"The deal we have. About you giving me the inside scoop in return for my help? Don't worry about it."
"I mean, I'll print anything you want to give me. Gratefully. I'm just not making the story my price. If there's anything you need, just ask." She turned away from Korra and looked out over the edge of the roof. "Bolin and me, when we were out trying to get pictures last night, we pulled a sailor out of the water. He'd been knocked overboard. I checked with the hospital. They don't know if he'll wake up, and if he does he probably won't walk again. Spinal injuries. The people who did this, they don't care. It's all just part of their scheme. I can't stand by if there's something I can do to stop people like that." She laughed bitterly. "I probably should have figured all this out the first time we worked together. More people died in those fires than have in the Spirit attacks. I guess I needed something to make it personal. You don't. I admire that."
Korra laid a hand on Opal's shoulder. "Don't beat yourself up. You're a good person. And when you write the truth for your paper, you're doing good work." Opal turned and gave her a half smile. "And thank you. For your offer and for all you've done already. Go home and get some rest."
Opal laughed. "Is that what you're going to do now?"
Korra thought about Asami waiting for her back at the Meditation Center. They would have a lot to talk about concerning the case. And hopefully, they could squeeze in some personal time. "Eventually."
It was late by the time Mako was able to get hold of Shin. "Sorry about that. I was out with my girl," Shin said as he let Mako into his garage.
"No trouble. Sorry to bother you at this hour."
Shin grinned. "No rest for the wicked, right? What have you got for me?"
Mako handed Shin the folder of police sketches. "I managed to get some extra copies of these at work. The Ghost wants them distributed to the network."
Shin opened the folder and looked at the top sheet. He whistled. "Hey, this is pretty good. How did you get hold of it?"
Mako frowned, puzzled. "One of the sketch artists on the force drew it."
"I didn't know the cops knew anything about it." Shin rapped the picture with his knuckles. "Where did you find a witness who wasn't too scared to come forward?"
"Scared to — Shady, who do you think this is a picture of?"
Shin looked at him, brow furrowed. "I don't 'think.' I know. This is the geezer those Dai Li bastards were looking for."
Mako stared at him. "This is our best suspect for who's the Voice of the Spirits."
Shin looked back down at the sketches in his hands. "Well, crap," he said.