Long ago, in the early days of the Chun Tai era, Avatar Korra helped the six nations of our world find a new balance among themselves. The world of Dìqiú entered a peaceful age of invention and discovery... but then everything changed once more when we discovered the world beyond the Veil.
Now, seventy years later, we enter a new galactic age; and it has become the Avatar's new duty to seek balance between her homeworld and the universe beyond...
Friday, June 14, 2391
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni
A sunny afternoon in the last week of spring, and business was proceeding as usual at Ryan Mathews Memorial Spaceport in New Avalon. In the small Customs and Immigration office off the freight terminal, Officer Mike Zant had just finished inprocessing the crew of a freighter newly arrived from Zipang, out in the Enigma sector - an easy job, six very polite young spacers with all their papers in order. Zipangi crews rarely gave C&I any sort of problem, and these six had been no exception. They seemed in high spirits about something; as they left for an evening's liberty in town, they chattered among themselves about how some recent event - Zant wasn't sure what - was sure to bring them all good fortune.
He sat back at his console and checked how much longer his shift had to run. Three hours, and no more ships scheduled to arrive in that time, so he might just be able to make some progress on his math homework. Humming a bit to himself - the Zipangi spacers' good cheer was catching - he got out his textbook and notes and turned his attention to making sense of first-order transcendentals. A few moments later, though, the door leading out to the terminal side opened again and another person entered.
She was a young woman, apparently human, with her dark hair drawn up into a high, almost topknot-like ponytail and a pair of sidelocks whose tips brushed her collarbones. As she entered the office, she looked around with the universal expression of a person who is not entirely sure this is the right room, giving Zant time to get a good look at her. This he most assuredly wanted, because she was exceptionally good-looking, with a strikingly pretty face and medium- brown skin that made a pleasing contrast with her clothing's palette of blues and greys.
The first thing about that clothing that caught the young customs officer's eye was the upper half, a tight-fitting blue singlet top - mandarin-collared but sleeveless, presenting a toned and well- proportioned upper body that was, Zant thought, well worth showing off. That was revealed by the fact that she had the upper half of her baggy steel-grey jumpsuit tied jauntily around her waist, making a sort of half-cape of it.
Completing her sweep of the room, she spotted Zant at his desk and smiled, showing very white teeth, then hitched her small blue duffel bag higher on one shoulder and strode across the office toward him. She moved like the athlete she obviously was, smoothly and confidently, without a lot of pointless adornment. Her curious soft boots, which looked to Zant more like something a person would wear in winter, rendered her steps almost silent despite the customs office's echoey tile floor.
"Hi," she said when she arrived at Zant's high desk. "Customs, right? I just came in on the Omoshiro Maru." She zipped open a little pocket on the side of her bag and fished out a red-covered Zipangi passport, which she placed on the counter in front of him.
Zant smiled - he liked her voice as much as the rest of her so far - and picked up the document, first slotting it into the reader on his console so that it could interrogate the dataweb built into the cover, then opening it to carry out the required anachronistic but satisfying personal inspection. Yep, there she was, smiling cheerfully out of the holograph next to the usual machine-printed block of personal information. Mizuzoku Kōra, Zipangi national, born April 14, 2372; five foot seven, 142 pounds - he could believe that; she was a sturdy- looking gal, not one of those offputting muscles-on-muscles types, but very nicely cut - eyes (an amazing shade of) blue, hair brown, skin brown, species human, primary descent Earth.
On the console window, the reader's data scrolled past, matching the physical document's; after that came the results of a quick background check. No criminal record, no wants or warrants, immigration status clear, psion status null, no known danger to public safety, health, or order. Officer Zant was to consider her perfectly fit (ha!) for admittance to the Republic of Zeta Cygni, and have a nice day.
With a warm, no-worries smile that was a little more sincere than was sometimes the case, Zant told her, "Everything appears to be in order, Mizuzoku-san. Just a couple of quick questions for our records, all right? What's your purpose in visiting Zeta Cygni?"
"Oh, just... looking around," she replied with an eloquent shrug. "Hoping to see new sights and meet new people."
Zant's official smile became a bit of a grin. "Gap year, huh?" he said. She was the right age, only a couple of years his junior, and they did get specimens like her through here sometimes: fresh-faced kids going by freighter to save credits and/or Have an Experience, traveling light and hoping to See the Universe before returning home to start college. He rather wished he could have done something like that himself, but as it was he'd had to go straight to work, and see to continuing his studies in his time off.
"Something like that," she replied, grinning in turn.
"About how long will you be staying?"
"I'm not sure," she said. "Maybe two or three weeks? Depends on where the wind takes me."
Zant gave a knowing nod. "Well, that shouldn't be an issue, then. For citizens of other Federation members, no visas are required for stays of up to three months. If for some reason you find you'll be staying longer than that, just check in with your embassy. I doubt you'll have any problems as long as you stay out of trouble," he added cheerfully.
"Ha ha, right," she said, nodding agreeably.
"Do you have any fruit, meat products, weapons of any kind?"
Kōra shook her head and started to say no, then caught herself, zipped open her bag, and rummaged inside it for a second, coming up with a small pouch of what looked like some kind of oiled and polished leather. "I do have some seal jerky," she said apologetically. "Nearly forgot about it." She opened the pouch and showed him its contents, which did indeed appear to be a quantity of dried meat.
"That smells really good," said Zant before he could stop himself. Then, faintly abashed, he added, "Sorry. I skipped lunch."
"Well, if you have to confiscate it anyway, you can have it," said Kōra with a friendly smile. "Only, do you have something to put it in? I want to keep the pouch, I've had it a long time."
Zant returned the smile. He'd found this young woman physically attractive at first sight, but now he found he was really starting to like her personality as well. "No, that's OK," he said. "Looks like there's less than eight ounces there, you can keep it." With a wry grin, he added, "I doubt you're importing it with intent to engage in commercial resale."
Kōra laughed. "No, not so much," she agreed. "You can have some anyway if you want."
Zant shook his head. "I'd love to, but it's not allowed. We can't accept gifts from people we're in- or outprocessing, be it food or otherwise."
"Yeah, I guess that makes sense," she said, nodding. "Makes me feel kind of mean, though, waving it in your face when you haven't had lunch." She closed the pouch and stowed it away.
"Well," he said, "I did ask."
"Heh, true," she said. "Anyway, no fruit, no weapons."
"Good, good," said Zant with a nod. He scrolled through a couple more screens, admitted to himself that he was just looking for excuses to keep her here a little longer, and keyed in her entry permission, then closed the session and returned her passport with a smile. "You're all set, Mizuzoku-san. Welcome to New Avalon. I hope you enjoy your visit." Then, hazarding as much of a personal remark as his professional ethics would allow him, he added, "And that I'm on duty when you leave."
Kōra grinned and put her passport back in its pocket. "Why, thank you, Officer Zant," she said, reading his nametag. "That's very sweet." Spying his homework spread out on his desk behind the counter, she leaned for a closer look. "Whatcha workin' on? Looks like trig."
"Transcendentals in general," he replied, then explained, "I'm in night school."
"Oh yeah, what for?" she asked, sounding genuinely interested.
"Civil engineering," Zant said.
"Cool," said Kōra. "That's a good field. More exciting than working the customs desk... " She winked, her grin becoming slightly wicked, and added, "... although you won't meet as many girls."
Zant coughed, reddening. "Uh, well."
"Ha, I'm just kidding with you," she said, reaching across the counter to tag his shoulder. "You've been a real gentleman. Hey - maybe I'll see you around sometime. Enjoy the rest of your day!"
And like a storm blowing out to sea, she was gone, leaving Mike Zant red-faced, smiling a little goofily, and grateful that nobody else was likely to pass through his domain this afternoon.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
The Legacy of Korra, Book 6: Galaxy
Chapter 1: An Avatar in New Avalon
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Philip Jeremy Moyer
Legacy devised by
Philip Jeremy Moyer
Korra created by
Michael Dante DiMartino
and Bryan Konietzko
(c) 2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Kōra - actually Korra, but the Zipangi Department of State couldn't put a macron on a consonant - emerged from the freight terminal's public side and stood for a few minutes by the side of the access road, just looking out - and up! - at the New Avalon skyline. She'd seen pictures of the place before coming, but they couldn't compare with really seeing it. She was no stranger to big cities; she'd lived for many years now in, or at least near, what she held to be her homeworld's greatest metropolis, bustling, skyscraper-rich Republic City. New Avalon was... bigger. On any scale she cared to name. The tallest building in Republic City at present stood a very respectable 105 stories. Here in New Avalon they had towers that loomed four times that high, reaching more than a mile into the clear blue sky, and not one or two but at least a dozen, plus a multitude of lesser buildings that themselves would have dwarfed anything back home.
And it covered so much more ground! It was still possible - just - to get all of Republic City into a wide-angle photograph without having to be so far back that the buildings were indistinguishable one from another. From this vantage point, on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Daniels at the north end of the city's waterfrontage, New Avalon sprawled from horizon to horizon, the towers getting lower as one moved away from the obvious center point, but never petering out into suburbs or hinterland within the observer's field of view. It was all the more staggering when she considered that, a mere ten years before, this place had been nothing more than some grassy hills on a lakeshore.
Gonna take me a few days to get my bearings in this place, she remarked to herself, then headed for the nearby subway station, pleasingly marked with a giant block-capital chrome N.
Korra went downtown and found a bookstore and a decent but not exorbitantly pricey hotel in that order, installed herself in a corner room on a high floor, and spread maps and guidebooks on the bed. The first day was spent - apart from an excursion down the block to a place that sold a strange and wondrous noodle dish, recommended by the friendly blue-faced gent at the front desk - devising a strategy. The city was obviously too vast to tackle as anything like a single comprehensive project; she would have to break it up into smaller pieces and take them one at a time, then try to synthesize an overall impression at the end.
With that in mind, she took a grease pencil and marked the laminated street map she'd bought in a slightly haphazard grid, more or less along the edges of the differently-colored sections intended to denote boroughs and neighborhoods, then numbered them as if she intended to conduct a search. Grid section 1, in the upper right corner of the map, encompassed the waterfront districts of Docklands and Puckett's Landing. The former looked to be little more than the wharves and warehouses of the city's main freight terminal, which was not likely to be that touristy, but Puckett's Landing did have one intriguing feature: a sports facility, marked with the legend, KNIGHTS FIELD.
With a smile, Korra decided that the first thing she would do would be to take in a baseball game.
Saturday, June 15
The first thing that struck Korra about the New Avalon Knights was that their tickets were very reasonably priced. The second was that they had a charming (if rather small) ballpark, full of appealing old- fashioned touches and cleverly designed to fit in its peculiarly-shaped lot. And the third (which might have been related to the first) was that they were terrible.
Baseball wasn't a native sport on her homeworld; it was a fairly recent import from Zipang, where, by then, the locals had already skewed it somewhat in the century and a half since the planet was settled. That said, she had a pretty reasonable understanding of the basics, having been one of the earliest proponents of the sport's adoption in Dìqiú. Even if she hadn't understood the plays themselves, though, it would have been obvious just from the score that the Knights were hopelessly outclassed by their visiting opponents.
Oddly enough, though, nobody in the stands appeared to mind much. The crowd, which she estimated at around 30,000 people, were almost all supporters of the home team to judge from their hats and whatnot, and they all seemed quite happy with their lot as they sat and watched that team get thumped twelve to two by the Mega Tokyo Giants. Part of that might simply have been that it was such a nice day, Korra decided, and the ballpark's incredible hot dogs probably had something to do with it too.
After the game, as she was making her way out of the park (and marveling at the evidently undampened good cheer of the team's fanbase), she noticed the uniformed police officers standing here and there around the place - near the turnstiles and doorways, mostly. They didn't seem to be doing much of anything, just kind of standing around showing the flag. As Korra stood by one of the pretzel stands on the concourse behind the main grandstand and watched, a couple of them interacted with members of the public, providing directions and the like, always with a sort of casual goodwill that went well with the overall vibe of the city as she had so far experienced it.
While she watched, she considered the equivalent of this scene back home. Republic City cops, as a general rule, were no longer so naturally disposed to dabble in jackbooted thuggery as they had once been, but in Korra's experience, they did not smile at members of the public. Particularly not in a crowd control scenario, like letting-out time at Shiro Shinobi Arena.
Picture Lin Beifong ruffling some kid's hair and making sure he doesn't lose his foam WE'RE #1! hand, she thought, and the mental image made her giggle as she made to leave the ballpark herself, now that the crowd at the exit had thinned a bit. As she turned, she saw another uniformed figure at the end of the row of turnstiles. At the sight of this one, she pulled up short, blinking in momentary disbelief, then walked slowly over for a closer look. Standing next to the big one-way revolving gate through which a lot of people were leaving, there was... a bear.
A polar bear, white-furred and massive, a good six feet tall at the shoulder, dressed in what was essentially the regular New Avalon police uniform as adapted for a bear. He even, Korra noticed, had a necktie and a badge. He was all bear, a configuration as mythical in Dìqiú as the more familiar polar bear dogs of her homeworld were out here, but familiar enough to bring an automatic grin to Korra's face as she approached him. Knights fans filed past him and through the gate; some, particularly the children, took notice of him, but no one seemed to think it was at all strange that a polar bear in a police uniform was standing next to the exit, watching them leave.
Presently the bear appeared to notice that he was being scrutinized more closely than usual. Turning his attention from the passing sports fans, he regarded Korra with an expression that almost seemed to say, "Yes?"
"Wow," said Korra aloud. "They use bears for policing here?" She grinned. "There might be more going on in this town than I thought." Then, looking thoughtfully around, she mused, "Where's your handler got off to, big guy?"
The bear arched a brow ridge and replied, "I beg your pardon?"
Korra stared at him, her eyes going wide; she resisted an urge to rub them theatrically and said, "Did you say something?"
"Yeeeees?" the bear replied, becoming still more quizzical. He had a voice that went with the rest of him, deep and rich, fully appropriate to have emanated from such a massive chest.
"You can talk," said Korra.
"Of course I can talk, I'm Minister for Overseas Development," the bear deadpanned.
After hanging fire on startled disbelief for another second, Korra's face broke into an expression of utter delight.
"Hi! Sorry! It's, uh, it's kind of a long story. I'm not from around here, I thought you were - "
"An animal?" the bear inquired without rancor.
Korra blushed and glanced away, abashed. "Um... well, yeah. Sorry," she repeated. Then, her grin returning, she said, "I'm Korra."
The bear inclined his head. "Nice to meet you, Korra. I'm Officer Ragnarsson. First time in New Avalon?"
"Second day in New Avalon," said Korra, a little sheepishly. "Still getting used to things. Listen, I'm really sorry about - "
"Don't worry about it," said Ragnarsson, lifting one of his massive forepaws from the ground in a dismissive gesture. "Did you enjoy the game?"
"Not really, but I enjoyed everybody else enjoying it, if you follow me," said Korra.
Ragnarsson chuckled. "That's probably the best the Knights are going to do with a first-timer from out of town," he conceded.
"Well, I'll let you get back to work," said Korra. "It was great meeting you, Officer."
"Heh, 'work'," Ragnarsson replied, amused. "It's not exactly the front lines of the fight for justice out here. Still, it's four hours of overtime and a free ticket to the game. A bear can't complain about that." The corner of his mouth quirked in an unmistakable little grin. "Enjoy the rest of your stay in New Avalon, Korra. Maybe I'll see you around."
It turned out that he would, and sooner than either of them probably thought. Rather than taking the N back downtown to her hotel, she decided to walk. It was a nice day, she liked walking, and besides, she wanted to see the city anyway, so why not?
South of Knights Field, the warehouses and apartment blocks gave way to a shops-and-restaurants retail district, and Korra lingered there for the tail end of the afternoon, window shopping and watching the street scenes go by. It was there she got her first inkling that not everything in New Avalon was cheerful baseball fans, cool bear cops, and Art Deco utopianism - that there was actual crime here, like in any big city. At the corner of one block of shops, she spotted a scene unfolding midway along on the other side of the street that was eerily familiar: three oddly, fancily dressed people facing off against a plainly terrified shopkeeper in a textbook gangland shakedown.
Korra had once made a marked impression on a new city by barging headlong into the middle of just such a scene, but though she looked no older now than she had been then, she was older, and she liked to think wiser. She still winced a little inside at the knowledge, obvious in retrospect, that she'd ended up doing more harm to the block than the guys she'd clobbered would've if she'd left them alone. This time, instead of charging in and wrecking the joint, she faded back before they could spot her, considered her options, and then - with a smile - pulled the police callbox on the corner.
That job done, she stood by the newspaper vending machine next to it and watched the scene. If it looked like someone was going to get hurt before the cops showed up, she'd involve herself, but if not, this would be a good opportunity to check out their response time and get an idea of how they worked when they weren't just directing traffic after a ballgame.
Within a minute she had her answers, as two beat cops and a radio car converged on the area from three different directions. The bad guys tried to make a run for it, but one of them made the mistake of picking a line of retreat that took him straight past one of the arriving officers, while the second, a woman, simply failed to outrun the car.
That left the third, who was a swift young man with the lean build of a runner. He was a little cannier than his fellows, too, and instead of making a straight run for it up the sidewalk, he darted across the street, aiming for the alley a dozen yards or so from where Korra stood. One of the beat cops attracted by the alarm was hot on his heels - and to Korra's delight, it was Ragnarsson, unless the department had more than one polar bear officer - but the runner was clearly going to outdistance him into that alley.
Or at least he would have, if the curb on the other side of the street hadn't been about three inches higher than he was expecting it to be when he got there. Tripping spectacularly, he went ass over teakettle across the sidewalk and slammed headlong into a freestanding mail dropbox, which rang with a hollow WHONG. By the time he recovered even half of his scattered wits, Ragnarsson had him cuffed and laid out face-down on the pavement, and was advising him of his rights.
The other beat cop, who had corralled the man who'd tried to run past him, finished packing his quarry into the back of the radio car next to the gal, then trotted over to the callbox. He was a tall, freckled young man with flaming red hair, his face flushed almost to match it from his exertions, and he was puffing slightly as he jogged to a halt and said,
"Did you pull the box, miss?"
Korra nodded. "Sure did. Figured those kids were pretty clearly up to no good." Grinning wryly, she added, "Their reactions when you guys turned up didn't hurt my thesis any."
The officer (Schweickart, according to the nametag above his badge) laughed. "No, no indeed," he said. "Nice work. I'm going to need to get a statement... "
"You again," Ragnarsson rumbled, sounding amused, as he ambled up next to the redheaded cop. "I said 'enjoy your stay,' not 'go out and fight some crime.'"
Korra laughed. "Right place, right time," she said. "Least I could do, right?"
"You guys know each other, Rags?" Schweickart asked.
"She was at the Knights game this afternoon," said Ragnarsson. "We chatted a bit. Korra, right?"
Korra nodded. "Yep."
Schweickart got out a little notebook and clicked his pen. "How's that spelled?"
Korra got out her passport, which was the only ID she had on her that was suitable for the occasion, and he took down her details, then made a note of where she was staying.
"OK, that should be all I need for right now," said Schweickart, putting away his notebook and pen. "We'll need you to swing by the Fourth Precinct station sometime in the next 48 hours to sign a certified copy of your statement, since you'll probably have left town by the time those clowns get in front of a judge."
Korra nodded again. "I can do that," she said.
"Well, thanks for your help, Mizuzoku-san," said Schweickart. "Hopefully the rest of your stay in town will be a little less eventful. Oh, and in case nobody else has said it yet?" He smiled. "Welcome to New Avalon."
Sunday, June 16
Korra rose early by her standards, meditated for half an hour, had a nice breakfast in the hotel's miniature café, then spent much of the morning with her guidebooks and maps, working some more on her plan (such as it was) for the week. She felt she was starting to get a reasonably good handle on just how big the city really was, and a feel for which bits of it were where, from studying both her nice laminated street map and a diagram of the subway system she'd picked up on her return from Puckett's Landing the day before. With that in mind, she had the beginning of a larger strategy starting to kick around in her head.
At midday she returned to the Landing. Along the way, inspired by the cops the day before, she nipped into a corner drugstore and bought a small hardbacked notebook and a felt-tip pen, the better to record her own impressions in the upcoming few days. With that done, she hunted around a bit until she found the 4th Precinct police station, a low brick building that was not out of place among the warehouses and whatnot of the neighborhood's north end. Schweickart was out, but he'd told the desk sergeant to expect her; she, in turn, had a typed copy of the statement Korra had given him the day before waiting at the desk for her to review and sign, with a blank space on the back for her to write any new impressions or bits of information she might have recalled in the interim. She didn't have any, so she signed and returned it.
As she was leaning on the counter and shooting the breeze with Sgt. Morris, Ragnarsson lumbered out of a side door and across the lobby. At the sight of her, he sloped toward the desk, smiling the same faintly sardonic little smile she'd seen on him the day before.
"You come around like a bad habit," he said mildly. "Here to sign your statement?"
"Just finished," Korra told him. "They tell me I missed Schweickart."
"He's 10-67," said Ragnarsson with a nod. "If I know Russ, he'll be cursing his timing for days."
Korra raised an eyebrow. "10-67?" she inquired.
"Lunch," said Ragnarsson and Morris together.
Ragnarsson and Korra left the building together, he to begin walking his beat, she intending to go with him only as far as the N stop and head back downtown. As they ambled unhurriedly along the sidewalk, she said, "So, when I got back to my hotel room yesterday, the first thing I did was search on 'talking polar bear'."
"And did you enjoy The Amazing Adventures of Yngmar Ursanov?" Ragnarsson asked dryly.
Korra chuckled, because that movie was indeed the first item her web search had returned. "It was OK," she said.
Ragnarsson nodded. "It was either that," he said, "or an episode of Octonauts."
"That was second," Korra said with a grin.
From there they entered into a discussion of polar regions and their connections to same - Korra came from "below" her homeworld's antarctic circle, while Ragnarsson hailed from the far north of Ice Planet Halloran V, a region so inhospitable that even the planet's hardy human settlers left it entirely to the genetically-engineered bears who had helped them tame the planet's icy wildernesses.
So involved were they in this that Korra forgot all about her plan to leave him at the subway station, and an hour later she realized that she had no idea where they were.
"I seem to have followed you into unknown territory," she admitted sheepishly.
The ursine officer regarded her with a slightly skeptical eye. "You aren't some kind of bear groupie, are you?" he wondered. "We get those from time to time." As Korra gave him a puzzled look, he went on, "If you are, let me just save you some time and tell you straight up: The Internet lied about your chances."
"Huh?" Korra blinked, then went red. "Oh! No no! No. Nothing like that. Back home, we have an animal called a polar bear dog, which is about what you'd expect from the name. I raise them - have since I was a kid. That's why I was so surprised when you talked to me." She gave a sentimental little smile. "I think on some level I've been wishing that would happen most of my life. But I'm not a... um, groupie," she added. "Honest. To each his or her own, and all, but that's not for me."
Ragnarsson gave a seismic chuckle and half-smiled, revealing one gleaming, saber-like upper canine. "Good," he said. "I'm starting to like you, and it would really mess up the feng shui if you went there."
Korra laughed. "Not going to be an issue," she said. "Promise."
"Good," the bear cop repeated. "In that case, maybe you'd better call me Ragnar."
"Your name is Ragnar Ragnarsson?"
"Mm-hmm," said Ragnar resignedly. "I know. Picture my parents." Switching between a hilariously incongruous falsetto Russian accent and a voice that was even slightly deeper than his normal one, he went on, "'Our cub is boy, Ragnar. What shall we call him?' 'What about Ragnar?' 'Perfect!'"
"Is it a family tradition thing?" Korra wondered. "I mean, if your father's also Ragnar Ragnarsson... "
Ragnar shook his head. "We don't do it that way. Dad's name is Ragnar Alfredsson."
"Oh. Heh, then I guess he was just stuck."
They chatted on as they reached the southern edge of Ragnar's patrol area, then turned down one of the commercial streets to start making their way east. There were more people here - most of the businesses were open, though it was early Sunday afternoon - and Korra noticed that Ragnar seemed to be a well-liked figure in the neighborhood. It wasn't in any way a surprise that people would recognize him, but that they would go out of their way to greet him spoke well for his reputation on the streets he patrolled. Children, in particular, would divert from their courses when they saw him and run by, often addressing him as "Captain Barnacles" as they did so.
"How long have you been walking this beat?" Korra wondered.
"Bit more than a year," said Ragnar. "It's my first posting; I'm still a rookie by NAPD standards."
"Well, you seem to have made an impression," said Korra with a smile.
"I make people feel safe," he said with a bearish shrug. "Which is good, I mean, that's what we're supposed to do, at least the decent folks. One of these days I'd like to be known for more than just being big and strong, but I admit that's an uphill climb when you're a 1500- pound bear," he added with a wry grin.
"I don't know this town well enough to know what it takes in your department," Korra said, "but back home I'd say you need a case of your own. Something to get your superiors' attention."
Ragnar nodded. "Unfortunately, opportunities for same are a bit thin on the ground when you're on a foot post in the Landing. Ah, well. I'm just starting out. In a couple of years I'll be able to apply for a transfer to one of the downtown precincts, and maybe pull a temporary detail or two with CID. One thing's for sure, though, I'm never going to make it as an undercover," he added with a wink.
They ate lunch - or what was lunch for Ragnar, who was on the twelve-to-ten shift - after completing about one and a half circuits of the day's patrol route, which brought them back to Clandon Street and the shops and restaurants there. At his prompting, Korra told him a little more about what she was in town for, omitting the bit about being on a fact-finding mission from a semitransdimensional otherworld. He made a few recommendations for things a person trying to get to know New Avalon should check out in the first week, and cautioned her about a couple of parts of town where one ought to be a bit more wary than usual.
They parted in a friendly way at the N stop nearest the restaurant, Korra with Ragnar's card, he with a slip of paper bearing the name of the hotel she was staying at, and vague plans to talk again once she'd seen some more of the city.
Excerpt from Avatar Korra's field report
to the White Lotus Advisory Council
Date: Xinqitian, Liuyue 16, 272 ASC
Section: Persons of Interest
RAGNARSSON, Ragnar; patrolman, New Avalon Police Department. Born January 12, 2367 (NOTE - Yiyue 12, 248 ASC), in Ovsyanikovgrad ("Bear City") on Ice Planet Halloran V. Is - I am neither making this up nor drinking the "special" tea - a sapient polar bear. Huge, powerful, basically fearless; honest, trustworthy, and so forth. A real Bear Scout. Probably was a Bear Scout, now that I think about it.
Dry sense of humor, stoical about discomfort; claims he gets that from his Russian mother. (I'm not sure what that means.) Strong protective instincts, which is why he became a cop in the first place: protect the innocent, serve the public trust, uphold the law, in that order. Disdainful of rules derived from his bosses getting those priorities in the wrong order. As you might imagine, we get along just fine.
Current assignment: foot patrol in the 4th Precinct (Puckett's Landing). Very popular with the public - the kind of cop all the kids on the playground run over to greet when he passes the school. Wishes to be known for more than just his brawn, but acknowledges that this is easier said than done for a giant bear.
NOTE TO JINORA: If you're thinking "Bear or not, this person doesn't sound particularly notable," well, he's not, in and of himself - he's just a rookie cop - but I think he's a good indicator of the culture they have here, and he's my first contact in local law enforcement. And he's neat. So you guys get to read about him anyway.
My field trip, my rules. -KORRA
Korra spent the week engrossed in research - roaming the city, absorbing local news and info, talking to people, and generally getting the lay of the land. She quickly settled into a pattern. In the mornings, after meditation and breakfast, she spent an hour or so with her guidebooks and maps, working out a game plan for the rest of the day. The first part of the plan was always getting to wherever phase two was supposed to happen, which she made into part of the information- gathering process itself by walking whenever feasible and chatting with anyone who looked amenable to a conversation.
By then it was usually lunchtime, after which she would spend the afternoon Doing Culture in some form or another - usually by visiting a museum of some kind. She had wondered initially whether there would be enough of them in the city for this to be worth doing - it was, after all, less than a decade old - but it turned out that the place was -stuffed- with them, not necessarily dealing with subjects strictly related to New Avalon itself. The New Avalon Museum of Art, for instance, had a collection that spanned a good bit of the galaxy and reached back at least a millennium.
The one she found most interesting, and most informative as well, was the Wedge Defense Force museum, which was located on the campus of the WDF Academy, and which she visited on Thursday afternoon. Korra had only a passing interest in military technology or history in themselves, but since the WDF had shaped much of Zetan culture, and it was Zetan culture and its attitude toward the present galaxy she was mainly interested in, it was still a valuable experience.
In the end, though, the thing she came away thinking the most about wasn't in the museum itself, but in the rotunda of the Academy's administration building, where she'd found herself at the end of the museum's self-guided audio tour. Among the various artworks and whatnot on display here, there was a large bronze plaque affixed to the wall. Upon entering the room, Korra had taken it for the usual kind of thing one found in buildings like this, with the date of the dedication ceremony and a list of the people who had funded its construction or the like; but that didn't account for the little crowd of uniformed cadets standing there regarding it with deeply thoughtful expressions.
Intrigued, she joined them, working her way to the front as those ahead of her got their fill of contemplating the plaque and drifted away. She noticed that, as each cadet took his, her, or its leave, they all reached and touched the lower left corner; already, in the seven years this version of the Academy had been open, this had been done enough that the spot was worn shiny and smooth.
Embossed on the plaque in large, authoritative letters were four sentences and an attribution:
We do not fight because we hate, nor because we wish to control.
We do not kill for killing's own sake.
We fight because we love - love life, love freedom, love decency. We kill so that others may live, free from oppression, terror, and pain.
- Miria Fallyna Sterling, Class of 2001
Korra got out her little notebook and wrote down the message, then put it away and stood regarding the plaque for several minutes. At length, she went away to think it over in solitude, if such a word could be applied to anyone at large in a city like this one. Solitude within her own mind, anyway, as she moved alone among shoals of strangers, brushing gently against the ebb and flow of New Avalon's pleasantly unfamiliar energies.
She went back downtown and just walked around for a while as afternoon slid toward evening, mulling the words over in her mind. Later, while waiting for her dinner in a corner booth of a restaurant near her hotel called the Star of Kumbaria, she found herself jotting them repeatedly on another page of her notebook. By the time she noticed consciously that she was doing it, she'd translated the message into Tukisi, then Tongyu, condensing the text slightly and drawing the characters meticulously in different arrangements, as if designing a tattoo.
She supposed, as her soup arrived and she put the notebook away, that that was fitting. In 120 years of living, Korra had never felt sufficiently motivated to get any ink done, but if she ever did, it'd have to be something as meaningful as that, and the words of Miria Sterling - whoever she had been - resonated with her more strongly than anything else she had encountered in this city so far. In fact, the more she thought about it as she ate her supper, the more she decided that if she had to summarize her own personal code in a few sentences, she wouldn't be able to do any better than that.
That was promising, if it was meant sincerely, and so far she had the distinct impression that it was. Promising enough that she could feel good about devoting the time and energy required to investigate further.
After dinner, as she had every evening so far, Korra shook off the dust of academic and big-C Cultural pursuits in favor of exploring the more popular side of New Avalon's culture - getting out into the town and seeing what its people were like, and what they did for fun. On that particular night, she went to a little theater in Claremont and caught a few promising local rock bands. Other evenings that week found her taking in a karate tournament at a dojo in Elstree, watching a minor-league hockey game, checking out open mic night at Coffee Kingdom, and attending Friday Night Firefight at the Battledrome.
On Saturday, she got a slightly later start than usual, then made up for it by spending pretty much the whole day in the press archive room at the Avalon County Public Library. There, with an unlimited all-day pass to the deep stacks, she worked her way through a heap of news articles and feature analysis pieces on the history of the city, starting with its foundation during the reconstruction of the WDF in the '80s and leading up to the extensive recent coverage of the formation of the IPO.
What she found was interesting and informative, but having been reprocessed through the city's various press organs, it was also a bit dry and clinical. Returning to her hotel room at five-thirty, Korra made herself some tea and considered her next move for a few minutes. She thought she'd absorbed enough freeze-dried information from the press archives for one day; now she needed something a bit warmer and more immediate. As she had done every evening so far, she needed to get out and move around in the city, see if she could put some living flesh on the skeletal understanding of the place she'd begun to develop. This time, though, she needed to talk to some people. To really interact with them, not just chat in passing or watch them at play, as she had done during the opening phase of the project. It was time to take things up a level.
Hmm, she thought. Saturday night.
With a smile, she switched on the dataterm built into the room's desk and opened the city directory. How many guys could there be in this town named Mike Zant?
Seventy-three, as it turned out.
Hmm, she thought again, and started hunting around to see if there was a menu where she could start paring that down. It took a few minutes to dope out, but eventually she discovered that there was, and a short but diverting romp through the demographics of Avalon County left her with two numbers to choose from. She picked the numerically higher one at random, dialed it, and reached her party in two rings.
"Hello?" said a familiar voice.
Hah, thought Korra. "Hi! Mike? It's Korra. Korra Mizuzoku, from Zipang. We met at the spaceport the other day?"
There was a momentary pause, long enough that she thought she might've been mistaken about recognizing his voice, but then Mike replied, "... Uh, hi! Sorry, I, wow. I wasn't expecting you to call me. What, uh, what's up?"
"I've got a question for you," Korra said. "What's the best night spot in town right now?"
"Hmm. Well... I'm not an authority by any means, but... I'd say it's a tie between three or four places on AQS. Uh, Avenue Queen Shiva, the main drag in Salutown," Mike explained, belatedly realizing that someone from out of town couldn't be expected to know the shorthand. "For the college crowd, anyway. There's jazz clubs and stuff further downtown, but that's really for the older set."
Korra suppressed a giggle and said, "Salutown, huh?"
"Yeah, NAU is right on the Salutown-Claremont border. Claremont has the coffee bars and goth places, Salutown has the more mainstream stuff. Listen, uh... " He hesitated, then went on, "a couple of friends and I were planning to head down there tonight, if you'd like to come check it out. My treat. Kind of a welcome-to-town thing," he added hastily, "not like a date, unless that's what you were looking for, but I didn't want to seem like I was assuming, I mean, 'cause, you know what? I'm just gonna stop now."
This time Korra couldn't stop herself from giggling - Spirits, she thought, I think I was smoother than that on my first try, not that it worked - but he didn't take it personally.
"Yeah, sorry, not so much," she said. "I mean, I'm only in town for a few weeks, right? I'm not really looking for that kind of thing. But I'd love to hang out and meet your friends, if that's still cool."
"Oh, absolutely!" Mike replied, sounding relieved. "No! I mean yeah! I mean it's not a problem! Ah, jeez."
"Relax, Mike," said Korra kindly. "Deep breaths."
"Yeah, sorry. I'm not much good on the phone," he said apologetically. "Anyway. Meet you in an hour outside the Queen Shiva Square North stop on the N? I promise I'm not as much of a spaz in person."
"I'll see you there," Korra assured him. "'Til then." After he rang off, she hung up the phone, thought for a second, then said aloud, "OK! New objective added: let's try not to break that kid's heart."
She went into the bathroom and freshened up a bit, combed her hair and put it back up again, and then went back out to stand by the bed and consider her limited wardrobe. There wasn't a lot of room for clothes in her small bag, after all, and traveling light had seemed like the best idea for this trip. On the plus side, though, the hotel's laundry was very efficient, and everything laid out before her was fresh and crisp; better-laundered than she generally got them herself, come to that. She was many things, but a domestic goddess was not one of them.
The problem was, she wasn't sure exactly what people of her apparent age wore to go clubbing in this city, but she was reasonably certain she hadn't packed it, whatever it was. She could just rock up in a T-shirt and jeans and play the from-out-of-town card, but she decided against it; that was a card she didn't much care to play, and besides, she wanted not to be an Obvious Tourist tonight.
Finally she gave up, conceding to herself that this wasn't something she had enough context to crack on her own, went downstairs to the lobby, and asked the desk clerk,
"So, listen, I'm going clubbing in Salutown with some local kids tonight, and I don't really think I packed the right clothes for that. Do you know someplace nearby I can go to fix that?"
As she had hoped, he was delighted to direct her to just the place, and confident that they would have what she needed. The address he pointed her at was a secondhand shop of the "cheerfully eclectic" variety, Ditko's Vintage by name, which, Korra was given to understand, drew most of its trade from the nearby university. It was the kind of place that had mannequins which were recognizably humanoid rather than having weird, abstract shapes where their hands and heads belonged, creaky wood floors, and a little bell that rang when she opened the door from the street.
The clerk, a raven-haired and unflappable young woman in a green sweater, listened to Korra's plan for the evening, looked her up and down once, and then conjured from the shop's widely varied and weirdly curated stock the perfect outfit. The experience reminded Korra a little bit of shopping at Ming's, except the shop girl here didn't actually dress her; in this context, that would have been a bit weird. (It was a bit weird at Ming's, too, come to that, but you learned to accept it as part of what made the place so unique.)
She glanced at the narrow bangle-style wristwatch that the girl at Ditko's had included as part of her outfit. If the train was on time, and she'd noticed by this point that the trains in New Avalon usually were, she would be too.
The clothes she left the shop wearing were a significant departure from her usual plain, practical style, but she looked good and she knew it, so she didn't feel particularly self-conscious as she caught the N uptown - just confident. Maybe even a little bit daring, though it wasn't as if she was actually planning to do anything that required intrepidity tonight. She felt good, was what she felt, ready for the kind of night on the town (any town!) that she hadn't had in a while, and looking forward to the evening for more than just its informational value.
"I'll bet you fifteen credits she doesn't show up," said the blonde in the red PVC minidress.
Next to her, a lean, swarthy, black-clad man with an Errol Flynn mustache grinned and said, "I'll bet you twenty credits she doesn't even exist."
The blonde giggled. "Oh, that's cold, Rafik," she said. With an apologetic smile for the well-dressed, rugged youth to her right, she added, "I wasn't going to go that far."
"Hey, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Mike's a liar, " Rafik interjected. "I just think he was hallucinating. Math allnighter plus double shift equals spaaaace madness," he said, widening his eyes crazily.
Mike Zant sighed and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh, you guys'll see," he said in a long-suffering tone.
"Seriously, dude," Rafik chided him good-naturedly. "There are no women who look like that... " As he said it, he noticed someone emerging from the Queen Shiva Square North N station, where Mike had told them their companion for the evening would be joining them. Taking a closer look, he trailed to a halt, then said, "Except that one."
Seeing the expression on his face, the blonde turned to look, then blinked, her eyes going wide. "Oh... my," she said.
"I know, right?" said Rafik.
Mike would've taken the opportunity to gloat a little, except that he was as blown away as his friends. The woman walking toward them from the N station was the one he had met at the spaceport the other day, all right - same distinctive hairstyle, same face, same smile - but she was dressed entirely differently, and the effect was just shy of a smack to the forehead. Instead of a snug singlet and a spacer's coverall with the top tied around her waist, she wore a sleek miniskirt- and-jacket combo, mostly royal blue leather. The skirt had a panel of lighter blue in front, cut to mimic the drape of a jaunty sash, and an angled white stripe just below the waist.
The jacket was abbreviated, half-length, with a narrow white shawl collar and sleeves that were really just epaulets with delusions of grandeur, so that - as before - her nicely toned arms were accented. Under it she wore a tight-fitting bustier of some vertically ribbed light-blue fabric, so that her finely honed abs were on display as well, and - given the dark tights and low, sporty boots she wore with the skirt - Mike could plainly see that her legs, hidden by that baggy jumpsuit she'd been wearing at the spaceport, lived up to the rest of her.
"I want that jacket," said Rafik quietly.
"It wouldn't fit you," the blonde pointed out.
"I want those shoulders too," Rafik agreed with a nod.
"Hey," said Korra, grinning, as she came within earshot. "Nice to see you again, Mike. Thanks for letting me tag along tonight."
"No, uh, no problem," said Mike, making a concerted effort to reel his tongue back in. "Uh, let me introduce my friends. This is Rafik - " he gestured, " - and Gisele. Guys, this is Kōra."
"It's actually pronounced 'Korra'," said Korra. "I keep telling the passport office that macron doesn't really belong there, but, you know, bureaucracy. What're you gonna do, right? Nice to meet you."
Gisele looked like she wasn't quite sure what to say, but already Korra had the suspicion that that was rarely a problem for Rafik, who poked one of her leather-clad shoulders with a finger, then grinned and said, "OK, you do exist." Turning to Gisele, he added cheerfully, "I owe you 20 credits and you owe Mike 15. Or should I just give you five and the rest to him, for efficiency's sake?"
"Beg pardon?" said Korra.
"Ignore them," said Mike hastily. "You look amazing."
"Thank you! I have to give the credit to the girl at Ditko's downtown, though," Korra said. "She really fixed me up."
"Not all the credit, surely," said Rafik. "Some of it has to go to whoever those genes came from. And your trainer, too, come to that. Just look at those arms! I'm so jealous."
Mike palmed his face. "Rafik," he said.
"What?" Rafik said innocently.
Korra laughed. "Down, boys," she said merrily, "you'll give me a complex. Besides, you three are looking pretty sharp yourselves. What do you say we get started?"
The trick to an evening like this, Korra had long believed, was to come at it like an airbender: indirectly, with careful, gentle redirections rather than a sort of relentless, eyes-on-the-prize charge to the main objective. Subtlety had never really been her strong suit, but as a friend of hers who was long on practical wisdom and short on tact had once put it, even the dumbest animal eventually learns not to stick its nose in a fire.
In this case it was no great hardship, since she was gathering general information of the kind that would naturally come up in friendly conversation anyway. All she had to do was be exactly what, on one level, she was - a girl from out of town, looking to make some new friends and have a good time - and the rest would take care of itself.
So she did make some new friends, and she did have a good time, but in the process she also learned more about the way life worked in the city, as perceived by people who were actually living it.
About the so-called "immortals' club" she had heard supposedly ran the place, Mike and his friends didn't know a lot. They were not, perhaps, the most politically aware kids in town. Mike, as she already knew, was studying to be a civil engineer and worked for the Customs and Immigration Bureau. Rafik was a budding fashion and costume designer with a self-confessed "vintage bent" (which partly explained why he so coveted her jacket) and Gisele was studying to be an industrial chemist. None of them was particularly interested in the top-level governmental workings of the Republic of Zeta Cygni or its capital city.
The place ran smoothly, the bureaucracy didn't go out of its way to bust your chops, you weren't very likely to get stabbed on the subway, and the Federation Charter of Basic Sapient Rights was observed more scrupulously than it tended to be by the Federation itself. Generally speaking, if the cops kicked down your door in this town, it needed kicking down. What more could a person ask for, particularly so soon after the Corporate War?
Korra picked all that up over the course of six hours at four different nightclubs, punctuated in the middle by a fantastic stand-up dinner of mysterious meat rolled up in a bread product at a street cafe. (Some part of her wondered whether that dish was some sort of pan- cultural universal feature, like she had once read that the word "huh?" was.) It took her a while to develop a taste for the local standard in club music - a bit thumpier than she was used to, with giant fistfuls of sawtooth waveforms - but she had to admit it was eminently danceable, and she was in a mood to dance.
So were Mike and his friends, and they were all quite good at it. The hours melted away into a blur of exhilaration and camaraderie. Even though she was technically working, Korra figured she hadn't had this much fun in years. Not much of a drinker at her most abandoned, she paced herself carefully, avoiding the appearance of priggishness without getting more than pleasantly high. By midnight, the others were a bit further along, but none so much as to become obnoxious, and she was still enjoying the evening immensely as she sat in a corner booth at a club called HiRez and caught her breath after a particularly fast- paced number.
This far from the dance floor, it was just about possible to carry on a conversation without having to shout at the top of one's voice. Slipping into the booth next to her with a tall glass of something neon orange, Gisele was able to make herself heard without difficulty.
"So Mike," she said, gesturing with her chin to the young man in question (who was just disappearing into a short corridor with a glowing RESTROOMS holosign above it), "says he met you at work?"
Korra nodded. "Yup. I came in on a freight run from Zipang the other day, and he was on the Customs desk."
"You're on a freighter crew?"
"No, I was just a passenger," Korra said. "It's cheaper than the commercial lines." She grinned. "And usually more interesting."
Gisele looked like she didn't quite know what to make of that, then said, "Oh. So... what do you do?"
Ah, the eternal question. Korra found it hard enough to answer when she wasn't "undercover", as it were; when she was, it always gave her considerable pause. What did she do? "I'm a roaming agent of metaphysical balance" sounded crazy to normal people. And a lot of not- normal people, come to that.
"I'm, uh, an engineer," she said. "Civil."
Gisele looked interested. "Oh yeah? That's what Mike's training to be."
Korra nodded. "Yeah, he told me. It's a noble profession."
"What do you build?" Gisele asked.
"Oh... transportation infrastructure, mostly," Korra replied. "Bridges... and such. It's not very exciting, but I like it."
Gisele snorted. "Well, you've definitely built one to Mike," she said without rancor.
Korra gave her a puzzled look. "... pardon?"
"Sorry, I think I'm drunk," said Gisele. "But it's obvious he's totally into you." Giving Korra a frank look, she asked, "Are you gonna put him out of his misery?"
"Uh... hadn't planned on it?"
Gisele smirked sardonically and raised her drink in a toast. "Well, good luck if you decide to." She rolled her eyes. "I've been trying for two years and he keeps ducking me. 'I don't want to endanger our friendship.' You know what's endangering our friendship? My frustration level." She frowned. "Sorry. Why am I telling you this?" She shook her head. "I'm such a dork."
"No worries," said Korra, adding sympathetically, "Believe me, I've been there. Not fun."
"I was thinking of trying again tonight," Gisele went candidly on, "but, well, then you came along." She blinked in surprise at her own words, then blurted, "Wow, sorry, did that come across all bitchamatic or what?" Shaking her head, she raised her glass in ironic salute again and said, "I just mean I know when I'm outclassed, that's all."
"No, listen," said Korra seriously. She leaned closer and looked the blonde in the eye, pitching her voice more privately. "Gisele? Honestly, I'm not after anything like that. I came out to dance, and talk, and have fun tonight, and that's all. Promise. Mike's a good guy, I think he's a lot of fun, but I'm not looking for love. Especially not the temporary kind."
Gisele contemplated her for a few seconds, then said, "Huh. I think I believe you."
"I hope you do, 'cause it's the truth."
"Well, in that case... what do you think I should do?"
Korra had to suppress a snort as she thought, Someone's asking ME for relationship advice? Somewhere, Asami just spat an entire cup of tea on somebody.
Then she smiled and said, "Well... keeping in mind that I don't really know you guys very well, or any of your backstory... I'd go for it. Maybe it works out and maybe it doesn't, but at least you tried. And if you're the right kind of friends and it doesn't, you'll survive." The smile became a wry grin. "And laugh about it later."
Gisele considered the matter gravely for a few moments, swirling the ice around in her drink as she gazed thoughtfully down into the glass, then looked up at Korra with a little smile of her own. "That's so crazy it just might work," she said. Then, more seriously, she added, "Thanks. I'll think about it. I really will. Thanks for caring."
Korra grinned less wryly. "You're welcome," she said. Then, rising, she excused herself and headed for the restroom hallway.
As luck would have it, she met Mike as he was coming out. The music was louder here, so she leaned closer to him and said, "I think Gisele's had enough. Where's Rafik?"
"Still dancing," Mike replied. "Pretty sure he's ready to call it a night anytime the rest of us want, though. How about you?"
They moved out of the way of a man in a dark suit, bound for the restroom corridor himself, and Korra said, "I could stand to start winding down, I think. Maybe get something else to eat? Someplace a little quieter?"
Mike nodded. "Works for me. I'll go round up Rafik and Gisele."
"OK. Be right out."
Mike went out into the club again. Korra, heading down the corridor, saw that there were several doors on either side before the T leading to the restrooms at the end. The man who had passed her and Mike was entering one of them as she went by. Korra paid him little attention, but something about him tickled an instinct at the back of her head. She put it aside and continued on her way.
Coming back from the bathroom a minute or so later, she saw the same man emerge from that room and make his way outside. A moment later another person - younger, paler, with slicked-back blond hair - all but lunged out of the same door, nearly colliding with Korra. She pulled up short and he recoiled with a soft, startled cry.
"Whoa, easy there," said Korra. "You want to watch yourself pulling into traffic like that," she added with a grin.
The guy didn't seem to think it was funny; without a word, he turned and all but fled.
Well, that was weird, thought Korra, and then she put it out of her mind and went to join the others.
They ate a late-night dinner at a Salusian restaurant that seemed to specialize in chucking-out-time sobering-up food, then went their separate ways at the N with professions of friendship and goodwill, proclaiming it a great night out. As the three friends walked off up Avenue Queen Shiva toward their lodgings, Korra saw Gisele take Mike's arm and lean against him, pretending, she was fairly sure, to be drunker and/or more tired than she really was.
Good luck, kid, she thought with a smile, and then descended to catch a train downtown.
Sunday, June 23
With a mumbled groan, Korra slowly opened her eyes to regard the digital clock on the nightstand. 10:35 AM - no, 10:36 now, according to the glowing digits.
Spirits, how late was I out last night? Korra wondered as she tried to extract herself from the tangled-up bedsheets. She hadn't had a night like that for several years now, at least since the current crop of airkids had come of age and started their Air Nomad sojourns and their friends in Republic City had grown up and entered the workforce.
Korra sighed and sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. For nearly a century now, she and mornings had maintained a tentative détente, but it was times like these that made her return to her original opinion: The Morning Is Evil.
Grumbling, the Avatar finally pulled herself out of bed, staggered to the dresser and the hotel coffee maker thereupon, and set the machine brewing with the complimentary bottle of water that had been left in the room the afternoon before. With that process started, she retired to the bathroom to perform her morning ablutions.
A half-hour later, refreshed, dressed, and fortified with the hotel's admittedly-decent coffee, Korra considered her plans for the day. Something she had seen the night before was triggering warnings in the back of her head - the same sorts of warnings she got when she visited the seedier sides of Republic City (or Caldera City, or Ba Sing Se) in the execution of her duties, but she couldn't consciously remember what it was. She just had the hard-to-define sense that something was stirring in New Avalon, something unpleasant. She couldn't pull what it had actually been out of her memory yet, though; and even if she could, until she gained more information and evidence, her usefulness as an information source to the police would be nonexistent. Here, she didn't have a century's worth of experience and exposure as The Avatar to add weight to her testimony. It would all be on her for the burden of proof.
In a way, it was invigorating. Complacency had doomed many an Avatar in their time, and had almost doomed her own self more than once. With the galaxy developing as it was, Korra couldn't afford to take chances like that anymore.
Still, there was something to be said for a century-plus of experience, and thanks to her week in New Avalon so far, she knew exactly where to look.
Korra's afternoon was spent, once again, in the press archive room at the central branch of the Avalon County Public Library. Ensconced in a study carrel, she dove into the past decade's news reports on the city's criminal element and the emergency services' eternal task of protecting its citizens from harm.
In short order, Korra came to two conclusions. The first one was rather encouraging: that the government of New Avalon had spared no expense to get the "best and brightest" of the galaxy's law enforcement communities to set up shop in the City in the Sphere. From Police Commissioner James Gordon, headhunted from the rough-and-ready streets of Gotham on Kane's World, to the head "supercop" detective-inspector "PCHammer", all the way down to the beat cops like Schweickart and Ragnarsson, they were wholly invested in their duty to their city, and proud to be a part of the machinery that kept the city safe.
A far cry from the early days of the RCPD, Korra reflected ruefully to herself. Basing a police force on the force of personality of a few police chiefs may have kept their closest members in line, but it rapidly broke down once the strong-arm tactics were removed or shown to be powerless. A bitter pill to swallow, but one she had come to realize in the studies leading to her master's thesis, that the Beifongs hadn't been as ideal for that job as they had hoped. She had to give them credit for trying at least, but it had taken several housecleanings (some would say "purges") to get Metalbender Central's house in order.
The second conclusion was much more worrisome. Much like Republic City before it, New Avalon's status as an open port was a double-edged sword. The relatively "free" immigration and visiting protocols, as well as the sheer size of the Zeta Cygni Dyson Sphere, made it hard to screen for those of ill intent. And the sheer scope of the city itself meant there were far too many places for people to fall through the cracks. Their social services appeared to be doing better, on average, than most of those in the galaxy (and certainly better than many back home) but even one person lost to the streets was one too many, in her opinion.
It was nowhere near the worst she had ever seen; she well knew that in a city this size - particularly one that was a major port - the line between liberty and anarchy was a fine one. Maintaining such a city on the right side of it, so that it was safe for decent people without stifling them under police-state tyranny in the process, was a damned difficult job. That the people responsible for doing it here in New Avalon seemed to be adept at walking that line - and, moreover, specifically committed to doing so - was a very hopeful sign to Korra.
It hit her suddenly, while she was eating dinner in the bistro across from the library, what she had seen and where. She closed her eyes and replayed the mental tape, concentrating on pulling out as much detail as possible.
Club HiRez, at the end of the evening, when she went to the bathroom. The man entering the side room. Coming out again. The twitchy guy following, nearly running into Korra, then all but fleeing.
Weird, but why was it setting off her mental alarms?
The man entering the side room.
Tall, thin, nondescript, middle-aged.
Middle-aged? In a club where virtually no one was over 25?
(Except me, she thought wryly. But I digress.)
Tall, thin, nondescript, middle-aged, carrying a black leather briefcase.
Coming out again.
Tall, thin, nondescript, middle-aged, carrying one of those silver metal briefcases.
The twitchy guy following, nearly running into Korra, then all but fleeing.
With a black leather briefcase.
"A switch," she murmured under her breath. The man at the next table over eyed her warily, then rattled his newspaper and pointedly immersed himself in the sports scores.
It was with a new resolve that Korra returned to her hotel room to change clothes. She kept her jeans, sleeveless top, and boots, but pulled on the jacket from her prior night at HiRez for urban camouflage. Thus attired, she headed for the club proper.
The club was less packed than it had been the night before. Korra assumed it was most likely due to the following morning being a workday. There was still a sizable population among which she could mingle, so mingle she did, passing in orbits around the dance floor, the seating areas, the full-service bar, and the DJ station. She casually chatted up anybody who was willing to talk, gathering information and serving as a lure to whoever actually ran the place.
(She tried talking to the two DJs; but since they hadn't seemed to register her presence when she came up, waved to them, and asked how they were doing, she had put the attempts on hold after the third try. There was something unsettling about the chrome and gold helmets the two men wore, though the digital LEDs blinking through their visors were cheerful enough.
At least, she hoped those were helmets and they were men. Spirits, for all she knew, they were some sort of new-fangled disk- jockey robots.)
As the night progressed, Korra learned several interesting tidbits from the die-hard partiers and the club's waitstaff. The club itself had been founded eight years ago, during the initial waves of settlement while inner-city floor space was still relatively cheap. It mostly served the 20 to 30 (or nonhuman equivalent) age range, though there were some outlying variances in that spread (and plenty of non- alcoholic drinks were stocked for the few cardable patrons who managed to get in when attending in groups or by invite). The club occasionally rented out parts of the seating area for large parties of young urban professionals, and the occasional electro-gaming group. The manager paid the staff competitively, and did his damnedest to keep the riff- raff out - a fact corroborated by the mostly-unobtrusive bouncers of various species that kept watch on the crowd from the periphery.
Hrm, this could be a problem, Korra mused to herself. She wasn't looking for a fight tonight if she could help it, but life for the Avatar was never easy, and she factored in their presence as she continued her meandering through HiRez. Hopefully, the management's desire to prevent harm to its patrons, and the historical artifacts preserved in large illuminated display cases, would keep things from escalating.
She dwelled on this for a bit as she stood in front of the case for one such artifact, which was doubling as a seating divider due to its placement and size. It consisted of two tall rectangular columns, wider than they were deep, connected at the base, as well as a much smaller wood-sided console that was covered in buttons and lights in neat rows, secured within its own case. A curious device was adjacent to the console, containing what looked to Korra like a spool of mover film. The whole machine looked simultaneously out-of-place yet timelessly industrial, the exposed relays and wires for memory and arithmetic/control logic easily visible.
The sight brought a twinge of nostalgia to the Avatar's heart, since she'd been present for Dìqiú's own computational revolution. She stood there, letting memories traipse across her mind, tuning out the thumping bass of the background music.
As she leaned closer to get a better look at the relays used, a figure stepped over and addressed her. "Ah, I see you have an appreciation for the classics," the male voice said with an amused tone.
Korra made a wordless questioning sound and blinked, straightening back up. "I'm sorry?"
"The Zuse Z3," said the man with a grin and a wide gesture with a white cane to the machine in the display case. "Earth's first fully programmable computer! A replica, sadly... but still fully functional! This is the one built for the Deutsches Museum in Munich back in the 1960s, if you can believe it. Cost quite a pretty credit to get it here, too," he continued with a mischievous twinkle in his shining eyes.
Korra took this all in and made a low whistle of appreciation as she sized up the newcomer. He was clad all in white, from the tips of his shoes, to the slacks and curiously long-tailed jacket he wore, to the white bowler hat atop his slicked-back greying hair. There was a subtle sheen to his clothes and hair, the source of which she couldn't easily identify.
"Ah, but I'm forgetting myself," he went on, an apologetic smile on his lips as he gathered himself up. "I'm Michel Dufresne, your host. Provider of any and all entertainments and diversions. At your service." With that, he sketched an ornate bow which ended up involving both his cane and his bowler hat, the latter rolling down his arm to his outstretched hand. Korra couldn't help but briefly applaud at his performance, as did several of the nearby patrons.
"Thank you, you're too kind," he said as he straightened up and replaced his hat upon his head, tucking his cane under his arm. "And who might you be, my dear?"
"Korra," she smoothly replied. "Korra Mizuzoku."
"Charmed," said the owner of the club, though to her relief he didn't make as if he wanted to kiss her hand or anything. This was fortunate, as she suddenly had a realization, putting together something said to her earlier in the evening.
"Oh! You're the man they call 'Zuse'."
Dufresne's expression brightened. "Ah, you've heard of me?"
"Well, that's what your bartender calls you," Korra said as she jerked a thumb over her shoulder towards the bar. "I was wondering why, actually - but I suspect this right here is part of the answer," she continued, nodding towards the ancient computer in its display case.
Zuse chuckled. "Ahh, that's a pretty tale, my dear Korra." He gestured towards one of the booths that ringed the periphery of the seating area. "If I may offer to share a drink or two with you while I tell it? On the house, of course."
Korra smiled and checked her watch. "Can it be fresh water? It's getting late, and I want to make sure I can make my way back to the N without getting lost."
The owner nodded agreeably. "All right. Shaddix, a round of of the Crystal Alpine, if you would?" he directed towards the bartender on duty, before escorting Korra to his personal booth.
The next half hour passed in a reasonably pleasant fashion for Korra. Zuse appeared to be a gracious host, quite rightly proud of the niche he had carved into New Avalon's nightlife with his dance club. With his mix of high-power electronic house music and his collection of antique computing equipment (not only from Earth, but from Salusia and Vulcan as well), HiRez had become one of the youth culture nexuses of the growing city.
"As you can imagine, resolving such a dispute between members of the Vulcan immigrants and Romulan expatriate community here was something of a conundrum!" the club owner expounded as he gestured with his own flute of water. "The Surakite Vulcans didn't want to admit that the refugees were better poets and dancers than they were, and the Romulans just couldn't conceive of the idea that Vulcans, Surakite or charismatic, would have a better grasp of the basics of rock and roll."
Korra nodded, to show she was paying attention, as she idly swirled the water in her glass. It was the second glass she had imbibed that night, and while Zuse had poured his own drink from the same bottle, she wasn't taking any chances. Discreetly separating the water in a beverage from... whatever else might be in there... was basic waterbender-in-the-city stuff, a technique she often found herself teaching her younger cousins when they came to Republic City for the first time.
"How'd you get them to stand down?" she enquired with an arched eyebrow.
Zuse curled his lips in a sly grin, his eyes twinkling at Korra over the rim of his glass. "Challenged them to a dance-off. With an all-Vulcan rock band."
Korra's other eyebrow joined the first one in the raised position. "Seriously?"
Zuse laughed. "Indeed!" He then straightened, leaning forward. "The talent is there, if you know where to look. One of them was even a local boy from one of our fine city's high schools! I think the five of them will go far, once they get their act settled."
"Well, good for them." Korra smiled. "So, how'd it all turn out?"
"Oh, with a minimum of bloodshed, fortunately," Zuse said coyly. "The Vulcan team tried to make it best seven out of thirteen, while the Romulan leader tried to sign the band up for a recording contract. Never mind he wasn't a record exec in the first place! They were just that good."
"Wow. I wish I could've seen -that-," Korra said with a grin.
"Oh, video of that night's easy enough to find - again, if you know where to look," Zuse replied, refilling Korra's glass and his own with more of the bottled snowmelt water. "The video streaming services have their own copies, of course, but they're rather raw and haphazard from the source material - people's mobilecomm cameras, optic recordings, things like that."
Korra's focus intensified, even as she thanked the club owner for the refill. Over the past hour, the club's population had slowly decreased. This late at night, the only people remaining were the die-hards who were in their own little worlds and the service staff. She had a feeling, honed by long experience, that she was coming to the real nub of the evening now, one way or the other.
"Mind you, I do know a few people that I could get you in touch with... if you'd be interested?" he continued with a questioning eyebrow.
"Thanks, but I don't have anything to play it on," she apologized, then amended, "At least, not right now."
Zuse tilted his head, apparently in thought. "Well, that's not a hard problem to solve in a city like this. If you don't want to invest in the legwork yourself, I could make some arrangements for you to meet with them on some neutral ground, like - "
"Like the rooms in the back?" Korra interjected, watching his reaction carefully.
Zuse stilled, and set his glass aside on the table between them. "Yes, precisely." His eyes narrowed slightly. "And I wonder why you bring them up?"
She made an apologetic shrug, and gave her best embarrassed grin (one that had been passed down from Avatar to Avatar through the centuries). "Well, I happened to be in the club last night, and I bumped into a couple of people on the way back from the bathroom. One in particular was a little freaked out, for whatever reason. I thought maybe it'd be possible to send a note to them to apologize?"
The club owner tapped his fingertips together as he leaned back in his booth seat, the very picture of nonchalant ennui. But the Avatar easily noticed how his eyes flicked from side to side, reflections of the rest of the club in his pupils, before returning his focus on her.
"I've made it my business not to pry into the business of others who use them, my dear Miss Mizuzoku. In fact, those who do often find the experience... distressing."
"But you must have some idea," Korra continued to press.
"Certainly I have some idea. In fact, I have many ideas. I pride myself on being an idea man, so to speak," Zuse expounded, becoming more animated, gesturing widely. "I had the idea of this club, a haven for those nocturnal recreation-seekers with more refined and modern sensibilities." He picked up his cane, and waved the curved end vaguely towards the inhabitants of the rest of the club.
"I had the idea that there would be those in this city who would value highly an establishment with a certain reputation for genteel discretion. I had the idea that those who don't appreciate such discretion might require a demonstration of its value and selected my support staff accordingly." He gave Korra a thin smile, his eyes flashing beneath the brim of his bowler hat.
"And right now, I have the idea that either you're not here in any official capacity, or you're so far outside your jurisdiction that it makes no practical difference. You're a guest in our fair city, Korra Mizuzoku of Zipang, and you're behaving most awkwardly. You're looking for facts, very well, here is one." Zuse leaned forward over the table, his prior urbane facade falling like a cheap mask, his eyes meeting Korra's, as he enunciated:
"Tourists shouldn't stick their noses in."
Despite herself, Korra felt a little thrill course through her body. While she honestly had come here without the intent to resort to violence, she could practically smell it in the air as her ears picked up the sound of men on the move behind her, and on some level she welcomed it. Through a long and difficult process she had learned the value, and the beauty, of not starting fights; but she would never be able to say that she didn't love to finish them. To do so would be to deny one of the essential elements of herself.
Still, she was the Avatar, and so she felt duty-bound to make one last attempt at resolving things peacefully. Jinora would be disappointed if she didn't at least make the gesture, however futile she might know it to be.
"Look. I've had a nice night in your club - two of them, actually, last night was one for the book - and you've really been a great host, Mr. Dufresne," Korra said, gesturing with her free hand towards the club owner. "Seriously, I mean it. I don't want to end things on a sour note tonight. So, I'll make you a deal: if you just tell me who used that room last night, I'll get out of your hair and not come back. No one will ever know where I got the information. All right?" she offered. "Believe it or not, I really don't want to cause any trouble here."
Zuse stood up from his seat, cane in hand, looking down at Korra from across the table. His expression told Korra everything about what he thought about her offer.
"I'm afraid it's rather too late for that, Miss Mizuzoku."
Still seated, Korra glanced again at the nearly-full glass in her hand. She could see parts of the club behind her, reflected off the surfaces of the glass and water within it, as well as the two bouncers who were now directly behind her to either side.
"Yeah. You're probably right about that," she admitted, and took a final, unconcerned sip from her glass.
Zuse glanced over Korra's right shoulder; a moment later, a heavy hand came down upon it.
Yep, Korra thought. Here we go.
The first thing Korra did was to fling the contents of her water glass back into the bouncer's face, behind and to the right of her. For anybody else, this would have resulted in achieving little more than a wet and irate bouncer. But thanks to Korra's subtle waterbending, the flung water maintained its cohesion and hit the man in the face with the force of a heavy fist.
With a startled grunt, the first bouncer staggered back, both from the force of the blow and the fact that the water was not falling away from his face like it was supposed to. This gave Korra enough space to shove herself back, her chair shooting out of the way as she pivoted to throw her now-empty glass towards the face of the second bouncer. He threw his hands up to prevent getting a face full of broken glass - as she expected he would, which left him unprepared to defend against the leg sweep she then performed, knocking him off his feet.
The immediate threats dealt with for the moment, she backed up and turned to face the club proper, all her senses open to size up the environment and her opposition. About ten humans and alien types, of that particular breed of person who favored direct force over subtlety, already closing on her position from all directions. Over by the entrance at the far side of the club, she could see a knot of patrons trying to make for the egress with all due haste, along with some of the waitstaff. Interestingly, a few other security people were helping with the evacuation, which was a point in HiRez's favor.
This didn't mean Korra would go any easier on the security staff, but she did appreciate it. It meant she wouldn't need to worry so much about getting innocents caught in the crossfire should she need to break out the overt bending.
Given the look of things, Korra doubted she'd have that much trouble. With a quick jump to a tabletop, and a hurdle over the nearest seating divider, she planted herself in the middle of the dance floor, easily evading the two humans who had tried to take advantage of her momentary pause. Now well-situated, Korra allowed herself a thin smile as she widened her stance, her fists up and ready for action.
What followed was a virtuoso display of martial ability on the part of the Avatar, not that the bouncers and thugs were in a position to really appreciate it. She shifted between movement styles like the water that was her native element, dodging like an airbender before lashing out with fists and feet that would be the pride of any firebender worth their flame. She held her ground like an earthbender when it was appropriate, but flowed like a waterbender when it was advantageous to do so, deflecting her current opponent's attack and often sending it careening into one of the others.
On top of that, she added the various skills she had learned from her worldly travels and her cadre of friends over the years. The evasion and stunning techniques of the Kyoshi Warriors, plus the bare-knuckles brawling favored by non-benders in the back alleys of Ba Sing Se and Republic City, seemed to work just fine regardless of the species of her opponent.
Absently, Korra noticed that the two DJs had not left their station once the fight had started. In fact, they seemed to have cued up some more music to go with the violence she was dealing out. She tossed them a jaunty wave in thanks before proceeding to introduce number five's chin to number seven's knee.
Across the distance of the club, Zuse watched the goings-on with a critical and souring eye. The girl was good, make no mistake, but such a display was not doing any wonders for his bottom line. The incidental damage from all the thrown bodies alone would cost him a pretty credit. And the medical bills for his personnel didn't bear thinking about - his establishment covered all reasonable medical expenses, but this was pushing it.
The only bright spot in the whole affair so far was the fact that the investment he had made in transparisteel display cases was paying itself back with interest - as Miss Mizuzoku flung one of his guards into the case containing a Salusian SRT-08 with a resounding WHONG, but no harm to the equipment. Still, a man had to consider his reputation. If this kept up, it could negatively impact the public's perception of HiRez in more than one fashion.
He caught the eye of and gave a quick nod to one of the bouncers who had helped escort the customers who didn't want to hang around, and was answered with a returned nod and a significant pat of the side of his jacket. Thus reassured that the matter would be handled, Zuse shifted his focus away from the scene briefly. He had to make some calls.
Korra missed the brief interplay between the owner and his staff; she was too busy dealing with more pressing matters, like how to avoid getting her face slammed into one of the display cases by one of the bouncers. She avoided this fate with a quick twist of the torso and waist, shifting momentum to cause the bouncer to meet the transparent material instead. This still left her in a good position to appreciate the equipment inside (something called a "Shi'Kahr Cognitive Engine") as she followed up the reversal with several quick punches of her own.
Her attempt to finish off the woman was interrupted by a reflection caught in the 'glass' behind them - a flashing arc of metal that was headed towards them at rather high speed. Her protective instincts overriding all other priorities, she hauled the woman by her jacket lapels to the side, barely avoiding the oncoming knife blade as they fell to the floor. Some part of her was shocked that the display case was pierced, not shattered, by the blade, but the rest of her was too pissed off at the moment to care about the structural integrity of advanced transparent metals.
"Hey, watch it!" Korra and the bouncer exclaimed at the same time, then looked at each other in surprise. The Avatar didn't allow the woman to get a fourth word in, as she hauled off and headbutted her, putting the bouncer out of the fight. With her out of the way, she could now aim her focus on the blade-wielding opponent, who was just now wrenching the knife out of the case with a metallic squealing sound.
"Seriously, is this how you treat your coworkers?" Korra asked as she jumped to her feet, dodging out of the way of another knife swipe. Whoever this guy was, he was definitely of the direct- stabbing school of knife fighting, preferring direct strikes with his weight behind his arm, instead of fancy body maneuvering to get into place.
"Eh, she'd heal," the thug replied, continuing to try and score a hit on Korra, who continually dodged and batted the blade-wielding arm aside. During one pass, she blocked a downward strike with her forearm, and while the man struggled to force his way past, she drove her free fist into his gut. She could feel things breaking underneath the skin; the displacement of soft tissue, the pressure wave that took out one of his lower ribs as the blow travelled upward.
Normally, Korra would expect this sort of injury to take her opponent out of the fight. He had certainly felt it, if the pain lines on his face were any indication.
Instead, the thug grinned through his pained grimace, drew back, and punched her in the abdomen in return.
Instinct and quick reaction saved her from a broken rib or two of her own; with a gasping exhalation, Korra rolled with the blow, staggering back out of the way and barely avoiding another full-powered punch to the side of her head. Even so, the fist managed to clip her, and she had to blink the stars out of her eyes as she tried to regain her breath and focus. The guy was startlingly strong, much stronger than his wiry build suggested - stronger, come to that, than many a much larger man she'd fought in her time.
"What the - ?" she blurted as she regained her bearings.
"You really are new here, lady," the thug said smugly. He ran his free hand through his hair, revealing the second set of furry ears that had been hidden beneath it.
Korra blinked. "I'm sorry, what?" she replied, even as she backed up to get some distance to take another approach. "Is that supposed to mean something?"
As the thug sputtered, a metallic voice chuckled behind Korra. "Told you she wouldn't be impressed, Carl." She spun on her heel, and her eyes widened in shock. Unlike the first knife-wielder, who had at least looked human, this one was much taller, thinner, and appeared to be covered in smooth bony plates over his exposed face, flowing backwards to a flattened, pointed crest behind his head. The knife in his bony, two-taloned hands was nothing to sneeze at either, putting Korra in mind of some fancy ancient metalwork she'd seen in a museum in Ba Sing Se.
Further reflection and questions would have to wait, however, as her new assailant immediately moved to attack. Unlike the first knife-wielder, this one moved like a bird, all quick jabs and sudden darting movements. He was clearly military-trained, Korra realized. It showed in both his positioning and the efficiency of his attacks. Army knife fighting, it appeared, was army knife fighting no matter what species the army belonged to.
Matters didn't improve when the first knife wielder resumed his own efforts at trying to stab the Avatar. This went on for at least a minute longer, as she kept herself away from both attackers' knives, shifting straight into airbending and waterbending forms to best avoid the slashing metal.
"Stand still, you slippery little pyjak!" exclaimed the plated-face assailant; he had narrowly avoided stabbing his compatriot when Korra pulled off a particularly complex twist and flick that was an Air Nomad specialty. She didn't dignify the remark with a response; she was too busy trying to get into a more advantageous position.
She was so into the airbending groove at this point, giving priority to reaction and evasion, that the next thing she did was practically automatic. A sudden compression of the air behind her, felt along her back, heralded what could have been a body rushing toward her. Deciding to take care of two issues at once, Korra slid under her spindly opponent's reach, grabbed him by his flared waist and chest, and flung him up and back, lifting him over her shoulders as she fell backward herself.
In the normal course of events, this suplex would have thrown her plated assailant into the attacker she assumed was attempting to ambush her from behind. Instead, as her opponent hit the floor with a painful-sounding crash, a pressure wave - concentrated acoustic energy - crossed the space where her torso had been, all but invisible for somebody who wasn't as well-versed in the airbending arts as Korra was. She wasn't entirely sure what that was, but the effect was definitely evident, as the sonic wave slammed into her other knife-wielding opponent's body right where she had punched him earlier.
With a pained cry, the four-eared man clutched at his chest and stomach and staggered back, his furry upper ears flattened back as if he'd heard a particularly unpleasant noise. Capitalizing on his discomfort, and needing to gain more space for herself, Korra twisted herself into a whirling handstand, her legs windmilling outward into the classic airbender hurricane kick.
The gusts of wind created by her move finished Four-Ears the rest of the way off, knocked over Plateface (who had been trying to get up again), and did a number on the other bouncers who had been jockeying for position around their little group. They scattered, flung backward by the remaining wind, as she sprang back onto her feet, having earned herself a temporary respite as they recovered.
"She's some sort of teek!" one of the bouncers blurted out.
Taking in the shocked expressions of those assembled, Korra allowed herself a brief smirk as she took several panting breaths, re-centering herself. "So," she asked conversationally. "Ready to give up yet?"
There was a brief moment of befuddlement as the bouncers and other thugs looked among themselves, then at their boss, who hadn't moved a step away from his private booth.
Zuse looked at his employees with an annoyed, put-upon expression. He pointed at Korra with his cane. "Well, get her!"
Korra's face fell in disappointment. "... guess not," she sighed at the sight of guns being drawn from hidden holsters and aimed at her. "Why doesn't anybody ever just give up? It would save so much time."
The next phase of the battle between Korra and the bouncers had a very different flavor. Forced on the defensive by the flying slugs of metal and highly energetic particles of varying types, the Avatar moved as fast as she was able to evade getting pierced or fried. Tables, chairs, and pieces of the wall and floor splintered and cracked as shots failed to make their mark. Absently, she noticed that the two DJs were unconcerned about the chaos erupting around them, and didn't even appear to react as a stray shot pierced one of the speaker units, causing it to short out in a squeal of feedback.
While the concept of accelerating a metal slug via combustible propellant through a tube had existed for centuries in Dìqiú, there had never been any traction towards a culture of "firearms" in its long history. If anything, the very term was more associated with firebenders in the Fire Nation military than any particular weapon system. Explosive cannons and artillery catapults had been some of the preferred methods of siege warfare and even ship-to-ship combat for centuries, but for personal-level conflict, the abilities of benders or the precision skill of archers and lancers had reigned for as far back as anybody could remember.
It had come as a shock that Zipang -had- a firearms culture, despite their preferred cultural leanings towards the Edo and Meiji periods of ancient Japan. The Zipangi had never abandoned their galactic technological skills, only scaled them back after the settlements became entrenched. With the opening of the Veil to Dìqiú, these advancements - including guns - made their way to Korra's homeworld. Although they weren't prevalent, they were always a possibility, and the law enforcement communities (especially their bending components) had adapted in response.
With her bending now revealed, Korra's options opened up somewhat. The debris caused by the firearms damage provided her with ammunition of her own to propel with sweeping airbending thrusts. This was augmented by the careful application of air-punches to force the gunmen back without hurting them too much. Still, it appeared that at least a third of the staff still standing had a pistol of some kind, so she had to focus more on protecting herself from the shots than she normally would in a running fight. She would feel more comfortable if it was - that would at least give her some distance to break out some of her better defensive counterattacks. The close confines of the club, while eminently suitable for hand-to-hand, were now a serious disadvantage for her.
Circling as fast as she could through the seating areas, she carried out a world-class dive-and-slide that would be the envy of any baseball player back home, taking her down behind the bar counter. Above her, various bottles and pipes were shattered as the gunners' aim shifted to track her, and they released their contents to the floor in front of her.
OK, I can work with that, Korra mused to herself, and then with a quick waterbending gesture, she pulled the liquid on the ground up to surround her forearms. On the count of three, she lunged back up, revealing herself to the gunmen who had been moving to corner her.
Their surprise at her sudden appearance was only compounded when she lashed out with the liquid from her arms, forming a pair of long, narrow water whips. While insufficient to immobilize her attackers entirely, the prehensile tendrils were more than substantial enough for Korra to entwine them around the pistols and yank them out of their owners' hands without them getting off another shot. The Avatar flung the guns away into the depths of the club, then followed up with another sweep that smacked the newly disarmed shooters down hard - sending them all, as well as two others who had been following them, back toward their confused compatriots.
Not waiting for them to recover their senses, Korra pulled the water back around her arms as she decamped from behind the bar. More dodging found herself in one of the seating niches - ironically, the one containing the Zuse Z3. With the mass of the clear display case blocking most of the shots for the moment, Korra could properly size up the situation and see what else she had to work with.
Quick glances through the case confirmed that the few remaining patrons, who had not left when the punching began, had finally decided to exercise their common sense and evacuate when the guns came out. The damage in the club itself had already reached the point where a good portion of the furniture would need to be replaced outright.
(Once again, her focus was briefly turned towards whatever the display cases were made of. The material was transparent, but seemed to react more like a metal, if the blaster scorch marks and bullet dents and holes were any indication.)
Korra shook her head and ducked down again as another shot managed to ricochet through the case (and somehow narrowly avoided the computer within). This wasn't helping matters any. If she was going to make any headway now, she needed to take drastic action.
She slapped the floor with her hand, and felt the concrete underneath jump slightly as it reacted to her attempts to earthbend. This was a basement club, and the building itself was probably of steel- skeleton/curtain-wall construction, given its height. That meant the basement floor wouldn't be structural. As long as she kept far away from any of the load-bearing columns...
... Yeah, that would do it.
Her decision made, Korra allowed herself a sly grin before stomping the floor in front of her. Immediately, the concrete beneath the flooring halfway across the club surged upwards, throwing the goons who had been standing there up and away. They hit the lighting units and the ceiling with painful-sounding thuds, followed by more of the same as they fell back to the floor. As the remaining thugs reacted to this sudden shift in the battle, she broke cover once again, and charged at them.
This time, incoming shots were blocked by rapidly raised concrete shields, some of them floating around her body to intercept blaster shots and to be flung out into the fray when opportunity presented itself. Continued use of the water still sheathing her forearms added extra punch when she managed to get in close, occasionally even freezing the guns to their owners' hands, making it impossible for them to fire.
By this point, nearly every thug who had confronted Korra was either on the floor, just about to end up on the floor, or being supported by one of their less-damaged brethren. The dance floor was not doing much better, having been ripped to shreds by the concrete breaking through, thanks to her earthbending. If there was anybody else willing to give her any resistance, it wasn't apparent to her. Even the DJs seemed to think it was over; they let their current track end without cuing up another one, watching inquisitively from their booth to see what would happen next.
Flicking off some sweat from her forehead, the Avatar looked up at Zuse, who still hadn't left the vicinity of his private booth. His gaze was flinty, his jaw clenched in frustration. She could almost hear his teeth grinding from where she stood.
Korra took a deep breath. But as she was about to speak, the doors to the back hall burst open, admitting a squad of paramilitary types with rather large guns. They immediately spread out and raised their various rifles, drawing down on her. The DJs nodded to each other with evident satisfaction and threw down their most frantic track yet, opening with a thunderous, driving beat.
"... oh come ON!" Korra exclaimed, ripping up another concrete shield to retreat behind, as the shots started flying once again.
On the upper level, Zuse looked at his watch with annoyance, then back at the lead element of his "Heavy" squad. "Did you get stuck in traffic?" he demanded, his voice slightly shrill with mounting alarm. "It's about time you got here!" He didn't give them a chance to talk back, just began directing them to where they were to go (as if it wasn't obvious enough already).
Now, Korra was getting annoyed. This evening had gone on much longer than she had originally planned. She wasn't particularly tired, but her frustration level was rapidly rising. And as anybody back home in Dìqiú could tell you, frustrating and annoying the Avatar was a very inadvisable course of action.
The rubble of the club made maneuvering difficult, especially as she wanted to prevent any further damage or risk to the artifacts. Ripping out the entire ceiling above them would also be inadvisable. She flung loose chunks of concrete at the nearest riflemen, no longer particularly caring if the guns (or the arms holding them) were broken in the process.
The burliest of the new arrivals stepped to the fore and unslung a bulky, blocky rifle from his back, shouting to any and all colleagues in the vicinity, "STAND CLEAR!" Korra's sharp ears caught the rapidly rising whine of a charging energy weapon. She prepared to deal with more blasterfire, but what emerged from the rifle's muzzle was not a bolt of plasma. To her bending senses, hyperextended as they were in her heightened fighting state, it resembled the acoustic pulse attack she'd dodged earlier, but on a much grander scale.
The blast was visible not just to Korra's airbending, but to the naked eye, as an obvious distortion in the air. Moving on pure instinct, she evaded it cleanly; it passed straight through where she had been standing and continued on towards one of the few remaining intact seating groups in HiRez (which happened, she realized as she whirled to track its path, to be the one she and Gisele had been sitting at the night before).
When it struck the back of the booth, the concussion rifle blast blossomed into a supersonic shockwave, ripping the table and seats apart as if a bomb had gone off and leaving twisted debris in its wake. A couple of thugs from an earlier wave had been starting to get to their feet nearby, but the blast wave put them down again. Even more than a dozen paces away, it left Korra with a hollow roaring in her ears; for a few seconds the frenetic music sounded like it was playing underwater and some distance away. That was uncomfortable and disorienting, but she couldn't let it stop her, not now.
Instead, she turned back to see the concussion rifleman readying for another shot. Time seemed to distort along with the audio as she saw the second packet of supercompressed air emerge from the rifle. Smoothly, automatically, she counterstruck with a shockwave of her own. It streaked across the ruined dance floor, drawing a faint crescent of condensation in its wake, and sliced the con-rifle blast neatly in two a foot or so beyond the weapon's muzzle.
The explosion wrecked the rifle as if its wielder had fired it at a wall, the barrel splitting and peeling back like a bananarine rind, and sent the man who had been holding it slamming back against the wall behind him. He slid limply down, utterly uninterested in further conflict. Still in the zone, Korra pivoted, saw another of them drawing a bead with what looked like some kind of shotgun, and decided she had had quite enough of all these people and their toys.
Throwing off her metaphorical gloves at last, the Avatar began to unleash short, controlled bursts of firebending, along with the rest of her skills, eager now to put an -end- to this business.
Unknown to Korra, Zuse was having similar thoughts.
"Why do I even hire you people?" Zuse muttered, beyond frustrated at the outcome of events. This had dragged on for far too long - at this rate, he'd be lucky if there was even any floor to rebuild the club on. "Well, if you want something done right, do it yourself," he growled, raising his cane and pointing it at Korra from across the club. She was currently trying to use concussive fire shots to knock down two of the more persistent (and armored) gunmen, and was facing away from him.
A targeting reticle appeared in his field of view, and he lined up the shot. At this range, he couldn't miss. With a mental command, a compact explosive round was launched from the miniature barrel hidden within the cane, and it lanced through the air towards the source of all his current frustrations.
Reacting on instinct, Korra spun around and swung her leg down, striking the floor with her heel. Another section of the club foundation ripped through the flooring and hinged upwards at an acute angle, blocking the shot.
Except the flare shot wasn't blocked; it ricocheted instead, deflected up towards the ceiling where it impacted and detonated -
- triggering one zone of the emergency fire sprinkler system.
The cascade of water that followed immediately changed the entire tone and tempo of the fight. Even the DJs felt it. The next track they laid down wasn't as frenetic as the last, though still with a driving beat, and the rap-flavored vocal had a cocksure swagger about it that certainly didn't go with the increasing desperation of Zuse and his thugs.
That one sprinkler zone's activation didn't trigger a chain reaction and set off every one in the club - that sort of thing only happened in particularly overindulgent action movers back home; but the average wet-pipe fire sprinkler system in Republic City was designed to release about 30 gallons of water per head per minute. Assuming that the fire codes in New Avalon were comparable, these six would provide an abundance of water for the use of any waterbender worthy of the name. Thus supplied, Korra was once again able to go on the offensive, yanking the water to her, then setting it spinning in a widening ring around her body.
The bouncers and thugs, to their credit, did not let up their assault at the sight of this latest unexplained ability. The weapon fire doubled, but the blaster bolts were dissipated by the increasing mass of water, producing only small steam explosions, while the bullets were shoved off-course by the whirling fluid and flung back out into the club. Then, redoubling her focus, Korra shaped the ring of water into a spherical dome enclosing her.
It would be easy at this point to turn the water into ice, forming an impenetrable barrier around her, but that would do nothing to actually solve her dilemma. Instead, she borrowed a page from the playbook of one of her earliest foes, unleashing a flurry of sweeping jabs towards the rippling inner surface of the dome.
What resulted on the outside was a storm of ice shards launched in every direction around her, lancing out towards those people still standing. The gunmen and remaining security staff tried to protect themselves with upraised arms, but the sharp chunks of ice hit as hard as being out in a hailstorm, and made it difficult for them to keep a hold of their weapons. Several of the guards took cover behind the overturned tables or the display cases, trying to avoid the fates of their less-protected brethren.
All right, that's a problem, Korra mused, even as she kept up the assault of ice shards. Fortunately, the continued deluge from the sprinklers was rapidly replenishing her 'ammo', thickening the water dome around her.
She caught sight of Zuse across the club through the rippling water, and allowed herself a brief sharp grin at the gobsmacked expression on his face as one of the ice shards managed to knock the hat right off his head. Before he could respond to that affront, Korra made one final series of gestures, twisting the water from a dome into a circular wall of spinning fluid.
The wall of water abruptly surged like a tidal wave across the expanse of the entire club, sweeping the debris and any opponents still standing before it. The wave knocked people off their feet, then slammed them against the display cases, the outer walls, and the few still-standing shells of seating booths. The abrupt flood left the dance floor and lower seating areas awash in several inches of water as it finally settled down.
Taking several deep breaths, Korra straightened and surveyed the resulting damage. Except for herself and the two DJs, not a single person appeared to be standing at this point.
"Over and out," the vocalist declared after one last decisive guitar riff, and silence fell on HiRez.
Korra sighed and shoved some of her waterlogged hair out of her eyes; with an offhand gesture, she metalbent the sprinkler heads closed, cutting off the cascade of water. With the internal rainstorm ended, she took another long look at the remains of the club. While there was little she could do about the furniture damage, and the drink stocks behind the bar were a lost cause, the damage to the floor due to her bending would be easily fixed - and would allow her to take care of the standing water as well.
Leaning against one of the upright display cases (to her profound relief, it looked like none of the computing artifacts had been damaged during the battle), Korra reached down to pull off one of her boots. She stomped the floor with her bare foot and used a combination of seismic sense and waterbending to determine the location of the nearest low-pressure water line. Twisting her hands upwards to open a channel through the concrete deck down to the pipe, she made an impromptu drain in the floor; in a welcome stroke of luck, the pipe turned out to be a storm drain and not a sanitary sewer line.
With a set of flowing, pulling gestures, Korra waterbent the the remaining water down the drain. This had the added side effect of pulling the unconscious thugs out from wherever they had ended up and depositing them in an agglomeration on the dance floor.
"Protip, fellas," Korra remarked to the inert heap of muscle as she pulled her boot back on. "Don't ride the unagi. Not fun."
Looking over the pile of security guards and bouncers, Korra noticed that one notable individual was not among them. Glancing over to the side, she could see that Zuse had not been spared the final assault. His formerly-white suit stained with a melange of various beverages, his hair in total disarray, he had fetched up against one of the booth benches, sprawled across it with his limbs at odd angles.
Korra shook her head with mild disappointment. Retrieving a non-damaged chair, she dragged it over to the bar counter, dug out a glass and an unbroken bottle of juice ("orange", apparently), and filled the glass to the top. She sat down with her back to the bar, saluted the two DJs from where she sat, and took a long swig of her juice. It was very tart, like a less sweet version of tangergrape; she considered it for a second, then shrugged and drained the glass.
She sighed again once she finished, looking once more over the ruined club, and muttered,
"... Now I have to get one of you idiots to wake up."
Monday, June 24
Korra took Monday morning off, partly because she figured after a weekend like that, she'd earned it, and partly in order to give what she'd learned the consideration it deserved before deciding what to do about it. There was no mention of any incident at HiRez in the morning papers, which didn't particularly surprise her; the police wouldn't have had much of anything to say about the matter to the press, and she doubted the man who ran the club had anything to say to anyone.
On a whim, while considering the matter in the back of her head after lunch, she put her clubbing jacket on over her regular clothes and went back to Ditko's. A different clerk was manning the shop that morning, a young man with the most preposterously tall pompadour she'd ever seen.
"Help you?" he inquired.
"Maybe, I'm not sure," Korra said. "I bought this jacket here the other day."
The clerk arched an eyebrow curiously. "Is there something wrong with it?" he wondered. "It looks good on you. Doesn't really go with that top, though."
Korra chuckled. "No, nothing like that," she said. "As a matter of fact, it was a big hit Saturday night. A friend of mine really liked it, but it would never fit him, so I thought I'd swing in and see if you had anything else like it, only bigger."
"Ah," said the clerk with an understanding smile. "Let's see what we can find."
Half an hour later, she left the shop with a package under her arm, whistling a little tune. Only when she got back to her room and put it on the desk did she realize she had no idea where to send it, nor, in fact, what Rafik's last name was.
She sat down at the dataterm and dashed off a quick email to Mike Zant to that effect, taking a moment to thank him again for inviting her and reiterate what a great time she had. Then, after sitting awhile in uffish thought, she decided what she was going to do about what she'd discovered the night before. Rising, she shut off the terminal, hung up her own jacket back in the closet (the guy at Ditko's was right, it didn't really go with her regular top), and left the hotel.
Sgt. Morris was on duty at the 4th Precinct front desk when Korra arrived; she looked up at the sound of her entrance and smiled.
"Hello again," said the sergeant. "Got something else to report? Better be careful, you'll end up in the Eventful Civilians file."
You have no idea, friend, thought Korra as she suppressed a wry smile; then she said aloud, "Maybe, I'm not sure yet. Got something I want to run by Ragnar."
Morris nodded. "He rolled over to third shift yesterday, so he's off-duty right now," she said, not even needing to check the duty rota. "You can probably find him at his local." Pointing back toward the front door, she added with a grin, "One block north, two blocks east, look for the building that doesn't fit the neighborhood in any way."
Korra was slightly bemused by the directions, but only until she caught sight of her destination. At that point she had to concede that it was really the only way Morris could have described it. Standing in the middle of the block, on a street otherwise made up (like all the others in the vicinity) of low brick buildings and glassed-in storefronts, was a long wooden structure with a rounded roof that put Korra in mind of an overturned boat. It wasn't so very different, in fact, from the longhouses her own people constructed as festival halls on special occasions. She wouldn't have been that surprised to go inside and discover a Water Tribe wedding or conclave of elders in progress.
What she found instead was a surprise, one that stopped her in her tracks just inside the door. The inside of the building matched the architectural idiom of the outside, a big, open room with a central hearth on which merrily blazed a small (holographic, at this time of year) bonfire. The walls and floor were made from long, narrow planks of polished blond wood; inside the roof, the dark timber ribs of the boatlike structure could plainly be seen. Long, bench-like tables ran fore-and-aft, and along the wall to the right of the entrance was a long, wide-topped bar. The decor was not quite exactly what it would have been at the South Pole, but it wasn't far off. Korra felt immediately, automatically comfortable, at home in a way that, for all its charm, she hadn't yet felt in New Avalon.
And everybody in the place...
... was a polar bear.
Not that there was a crowd, as such - there were maybe a dozen customers sitting (not in chairs, naturally) at the various tables or by the bar, plus the bartender. He looked up at the sound of the door and smiled slightly to himself at the sight of the small (relatively speaking) figure entering. Humans did occasionally wander in here; usually, at the sight of the clientele, they hastily turned around and wandered right back out again.
This one, on the other hand, stood in the entryway and looked around with an expression of astonished delight on her face, like a child who has just discovered that they didn't make it up for TV, there really ARE cops with jetpacks. The bartender wasn't sure that was any better, practically speaking; his customers didn't come in to be stared at like zoo animals, after all. Still, he was an easygoing sort of bear, and he'd give her the benefit of the doubt, unless and until she did something obnoxious.
"Sure you're in the right place, li'l'un?" he asked in a skeptically friendly kind of way.
The bear seated at the end of the bar turned to look, and Korra saw that he was Ragnar. Arching a brow ridge, he remarked, "I think she's looking for me."
The bartender gave him a wry grin. "What, are you pickin' up strays now, Ragnar?" He shook his head, tsking. "Agata's not gonna like that... "
Ragnar rolled his eyes. "If you were half as funny as you think you are, Manitok, you could be on TV," he remarked, then lumbered away from the bar and across to greet her. "Ignore him, he's jealous of anybody who has friends."
"Ouch!" said Manitok with a theatrical wince.
They went to a corner table which had a couple of chairs, on the off chance that someone other than a bear might come in someday and not immediately leave. Korra felt it was rather too early in her personal day for beer, but on the other hand, it would've been rude not to order something, so she got one anyway. Next to Ragnar's bear-scaled tankard, her pint glass looked like a shot, or maybe one of those little plastic cups of cough medicine.
"So," said Ragnar when Manitok had bustled back off to the bar and left them more-or-less alone again. "What's up?"
"I was thinking this morning about what we talked about, Sunday before last, and I think I might have something for you," said Korra.
Ragnar's brow ridges went up. "Have you been out fighting crime without a permit again?" he asked her mock-chidingly.
"No," Korra replied. "Well, not intentionally. Do you want to hear what I've got or not?" With a wry little grin, she added, "I can always take it to Schweickart if you'd rather not be bothered."
Ragnar chuckled. "Russ always gets the breaks from the ladies," he said dryly. "Lay it on me."
Korra told him what she'd seen at Club HiRez on Saturday night, and the results of her follow-up efforts the next day. At the latter part, Ragnar guffawed, momentarily silencing the other conversations around the room and drawing glances from the other patrons, which he waved cheerfully away. Then, in a lower voice full of amusement, he said,
"I heard about the disturbance at HiRez last night from a buddy of mine in the One-Seven." At her curious look, he elaborated, "The Seventeenth Precinct - Salutown station. They caught the call." She nodded. "Most of the usual suspects at HiRez weren't talking at all, but the couple who did claimed that the place had been trashed by half a dozen guys. One of them even said he thought they were on combat stims, whoever they were. Anyway, I hear Zuse and his boys were verrry subdued about it. Didn't even want to file a complaint about the damage. One- Seven CID's got it down as a gang-on-gang incident."
Korra chuckled. "It's a common mistake," she said modestly.
Ragnar's own laugh was a low, pleasant rumble. "I bet," he said. "Did you get anything out of them?"
"A little," Korra said. "According to the club manager, they hire out those rooms for all kinds of little transactions like that from time to time. When I realized the two people I'd seen had switched cases, I assumed it was probably a drug deal - one case full of cash, and so forth."
Ragnar nodded. "That'd be the usual thing." Then, with a sly little smile, he added, "I get the feeling the usual thing doesn't happen around you very often."
Korra looked a little sheepish and replied, "I think it's more that my usual things aren't the universe's usual things. Anyway, you're right. It wasn't that."
"You actually got Zuse to give away free samples?" said Ragnar, impressed. "Girl, you could sell ice to a polar bear."
Korra chuckled. "Thanks. Anyway, that's the deal."
Ragnar nodded, his eyes narrowed in thought. "Definitely not the usual thing. The Sky Raiders are wreckers - techno-pirates. They don't deal drugs. Too much overhead, if you'll pardon the pun."
Korra nodded. "So I've read," she said. "Which means whatever was in that metal case was probably a lot more interesting." She sighed. "Unfortunately, I don't think Zuse was lying when he said he didn't know anything about that, or who the other guy was, the nervous kid who left with the money. So there's still some legwork to be done, but I think it's a pretty good start."
"Hmm," said Ragnar with a judicious nod, his bearish face thoughtful. After a few moments' pondering, he glanced at Korra's beer and said, "Are you going to drink that?"
She shook her head. "Too early for me," she said. "I just ordered it to be sociable."
"Hmm," Ragnar repeated. Then, glancing to be sure Manitok wasn't looking, he picked it delicately up between thumb and foreclaw and poured its contents into his own tankard, where they raised the level by perhaps five percent, and put it back down. "Waste not, want not," he said philosophically as she snickered.
Then, after a further time's consideration, he nodded again and said, "Definitely a start. You're right, something more interesting than a drug deal was happening there. What are you proposing? That we look into it together?"
Korra shook her head. "I'm just a tourist," she said piously, drawing a snort from him. "I don't have any business investigating a possible crime in this city. Consider it a tip from a concerned non-citizen." Then, with a sly smile, she added, "Of course, if I subsequently happen to find myself in the wrong place at the right time, well, I understand Zeta Cygni has pretty liberal self-defense laws."
"You have a devious mind," Ragnar observed, finishing off his beer. "Snow gods help us if you ever decide to take up crime." He glanced at the clock on the wall behind the bar. "Hmm. I should be getting along home, I suppose. Mrs. Ragnarsson will be most annoyed if I'm late for dinner. Care to join us? I believe we're having walrus steaks."
Korra gave him a surprised look. "Are you sure your wife won't mind?"
Ragnar chuckled and got to his feet. "Not at all," he said.
"She won't mind at all, or you're not at all sure she won't?" Korra wondered mischievously as she rose from her chair.
"Yes," Ragnar replied.
The Ragnarssons' flat turned out to be on the second floor of one of those storefront buildings on Commercial Avenue, above a shop that sold remote-controlled toy vehicles and various supplies in support of the modeling hobbies. The door opened before Ragnar, in the lead, reached the landing; he seemed to know that would happen and hadn't bothered getting out his keys. The smell of something cooking drifted into the stairwell. Korra had never had walrus proper before, but - not entirely to her surprise - it smelled very like narwalrus.
"Hello, my arctic flower," said Ragnar cheerfully to the slightly smaller bear who greeted him in the doorway. "That smells divine."
"Don't 'arctic flower' me," replied the other, though there was no heat or aggression in her voice (which was not too different from a human woman's, Korra noticed, albeit pitched a bit lower than usual). "You're nearly late. Drinking at Manitok's instead of coming home after work, as usual, I shouldn't wonder." Looking past him, she noticed the human figure on the landing behind him and raised a brow ridge curiously. "Who's this?"
"We have company for dinner," said Ragnar, stepping aside and indicating her with his head. "This is Korra - I think I told you about her, we met at the baseball game last week. Korra, meet the redoubtable Mrs. Ragnarsson, my one and only tundra rose, Agata."
Agata rolled her eyes and came out to stand regarding Korra closely; then, lowering her head, she took a deep sniff of the kind that Korra fancied would have moved her hair in a cartoon.
"Hnnh," she said. "This one's going to get you into a lot of trouble, Ragnar. I can smell it on her." Then, shaking her head, she added resignedly, "Well, you'd better come in before somebody sees you."
Korra was about to utter some awkward demurral or another and try to slip away before she introduced any further domestic disharmony into the household, but just before she could, Agata caught her eye and winked, cracking a little grin in the process, and Korra understood that she was just harassing her husband. Ragnar appeared perfectly happy at this, as if he had expected nothing less, as the three of them went inside.
The flat was fairly small, particularly as it was occupied by two bears, but Agata was a meticulous housekeeper and kept everything well in order, arranged for maximum efficiency and comfort in the space available. As with Ragnar's local, the decor had a familiar flavor too, and the complete effect was to put Korra in a pleasantly homelike frame of mind.
Over a delicious dinner of walrus and mashed snabs, Ragnar and Korra carried on their discussion of her discoveries at HiRez, now with the full and incisive input of Agata. Mrs. Ragnarsson, it seemed, was not one of those police wives who preferred to know as little about their husbands' work as possible; nor was she the type to argue against his doing something that would distinguish him in the eyes of his superiors if successful, even though there was the chance that he could get himself into a spot of bother if it went wrong.
"You told my father when you were courting me that you meant to make a name for yourself," she pointed out when Ragnar, momentarily playing devil's advocate, raised the possibility. "I think we all knew that wasn't an ambition without a risk or two. Besides," she added with another wink for Korra, "what's the worst that could happen? You might get demoted to... foot patrol."
Ragnar laughed. "There is that," he conceded. "All right, I'll look into it some more. I'll have to involve someone from CID eventually, but I know a few people over there. I think I can find one who won't cut me out of the case."
"Great!" said Korra. "Keep me posted. If there's anything else I can do... in a purely unofficial capacity... just let me know," she added conspiratorially.
They didn't talk any more about that specific matter that evening. Instead, after pie and a cup of some amazing tea Ragnar said was Russian in origin, they retired to the Ragnarssons' comfortable little sitting room and chatted about police work, the expat experience, and the bears' hometown on Ice Planet Halloran V for a while before Korra, at length, said her goodnights and headed back downtown.
Back in her hotel room, she drew a hot bath and settled down with a book, mulling over the various threads of her project. Her investigation of the Wedge Defense Force's famous founders, all of whom now lived in New Avalon and still played significant roles in Zetan culture and public life, had reached a point where she was inclined to take action. No one had said it out loud, but she believed her purpose in making this trip, beyond investigating the recent Spirit World incident, was finding a nation or culture out here to be Dìqiú's primary point of contact beyond Zipang.
Korra's instincts told her this was probably the place. The next couple of days would go a long way toward confirming or dispelling that idea. The time had come to attempt direct contact with at least one of the key people here, and in New Avalon in 2391, that meant one of the WDF's "original five".
Of the five, the one called MegaZone was likely to be very hard to find, and based on the various profiles and historical documents she'd absorbed over the last few days, Korra suspected she wouldn't get much out of him that would be helpful if she did find him. There was a definite method to his madness, that much was obvious to her experienced eye, but the guy was a living koan, and she didn't have the mental bandwidth to tackle that as a primary point of contact. It'd be like trying to interface with the Spirit World primarily through Wan Shi Tong: possible, but maddening.
"ReRob" Mandeville, though a prominent figure in WDF history and the organization's future direction, wasn't very active in the social/cultural scene of the Republic of Zeta Cygni itself; in public life he was a retiring figure, preferring to do his work in the vast shipyard complex out in the Sphere. He sounded very interesting, and the fellow engineer in Korra did want to meet him someday, but he was clearly not the best choice for this particular task. Plus, he was behind several layers of security that she would prefer not to have to find a way past at this time.
Yuri Daniels was out of the city at present, on a planet in the Rigel sector called Meizuri, winding up the last of her business with the Worlds Welfare Work Association in preparation for taking up a role in the newly established International Police Organization. Her partner Kei Morgan was in town, but she was at home, handling her end of that same work remotely, as she was reportedly within a few days of giving birth to her second child. As such, Korra would prefer not to bother her just at present.
That left the man called Gryphon, real name Benjamin Hutchins, who had been the number-two man in the WDF for most of its original run. The book Korra was reading now was the most recently published biography of the man she could find, dating back only a couple of months. Already familiar with the part of his long and colorful life extending from the late 20th century to 2380, she'd skipped to the part of the book covering the decade since then, when - after emerging from an unjust exile that had begun in Korra's 17th year - he had been a veritable whirlwind. He'd reconstituted the WDF in time for the Corporate War, established the city in which she now found herself, and now, as if not satisfied with those monumental efforts, had undertaken the founding of a completely new take on the protection of the galaxy's innocent.
Beyond that, he was the most active and approachable of the five in public life right at the moment - and, suiting another of Korra's main purposes in coming here, he appeared to have been quite near the center of whatever it was that had happened the previous fall. As such, he looked like the best choice to approach about Dìqiú's line to the outside universe and to find out what in the universe had been going on back in September.
Korra closed the book and regarded the photograph on the cover for a few moments, then put the volume aside on the shelf next to the tub and sat back in the water, closing her eyes. No sense putting it off any longer, she decided. Tomorrow, I'll go and see whether I can see what's what.
Tuesday, June 25
Once again, Korra found herself considering her wardrobe options. They were a little more varied than last time, but the situation was a little harder to anticipate, as well.
She decided the jumpsuit she'd been wearing when she got to town was too industrial, her T-shirt and jeans too casual, and the clothes she'd worn clubbing too sporty. She considered her dressy tunic, but wondered if that might be going too far the other way. After all, she didn't want to come across as stuffy.
(Any of her friends back home would have laughed at that. Only Korra would have been concerned that her dark-blue, double-breasted tunic would make her seem stuffy; it might be one of the dressiest garments she owned, but it still didn't have any sleeves.)
Eventually, she punted and went with her old standby, figuring that if they were fairly casual, they were at least distinctive, particularly in this place. Besides, she felt most at home that way. She picked up her choice, tossed it over her shoulder, and went into the bathroom to get ready for the world.
Forty-five minutes later, she stood on the sidewalk across the street from the Entire State Building and regarded her destination. The headquarters of the newly-formed, much-heralded International Police Organization didn't look like much from the outside. By New Avalon standards, it was -tiny,- especially for this neighborhood. One of the tallest buildings in the galaxy stood just across the street, and no fewer than seven other buildings within a three-block radius were 3,000 feet or more tall, but the IPO building stood a mere 40 stories. That would've been modest by Republic City standards, let alone in this place. It put Korra in mind of a small child standing amid a forest of grown-ups' legs at some big family gathering.
It was handsome, though, she had to acknowledge that, with nicely terraced setbacks and Art Deco features that complemented its proportions well. She remembered reading that it had been intended as the headquarters of a bank, before the fledgling IPO had purchased its mostly-completed shell and set about fitting the interior for its own needs.
Korra went inside, expecting to find a fairly heavy security presence; this was, after all, the headquarters of a galactic law enforcement agency, even if that agency wasn't quite up to operating speed yet. She was, therefore, moderately surprised to find nobody there at all. The building's lobby, mostly completed but with its decorations and details shrouded in plastic and white dropcloths, was deserted.
"Um... hello?" she called, her voice echoing slightly. "Anybody home?"
No reply came, so, with a shrug, Korra proceeded to the elevators. She wasn't sure if these were working, but the UP button lit up when she pressed it, and a few moments later the car arrived with a cheery "Ding!" The panel inside went up to 38, skipping the 13th floor (why do they do that here? she wondered). Reasoning that the man in charge would probably be on the uppermost floor, she selected 38 and waited.
The elevator, like the lobby, was still mostly wrapped in protective plastic, with heavy, quilted blanket-like things hung from metal studs near the tops of the walls - to guard them, she supposed, from being marred by construction workers' tools or other unwieldy objects while the work was still going on. It worked well, though, smoothly and near-silently, and deposited her on the 38th floor within seconds.
The doors opened onto a scene of what looked, at first glance, like complete confusion, but Korra was familiar enough with job sites to know that the situation was largely under control. Most of the walls weren't up yet on this floor, and those that were consisted mainly of sealed-but-unfinished drywall; in most places the structural members could still be seen. There was a kind of skeletal hallway leading from the elevator to the other end of the floor, with what would eventually be offices and work areas branching off from it, and here too, many things were covered either in plastic or not-very-clean white fabric.
There didn't seem to be any work happening on this level just now; Korra couldn't see anyone around from where she stood. From below, though, coming up through the unadorned subfloor sheeting, loud grinding and hammering and power sawing noises indicated that there was a crew going hammer-and-tongs on the 37th.
In all this expanse of exposed studs and half-plastered drywall, there was but one door standing in its frame, and that was the one all the way at the end of the phantom corridor. This had a half-window, like office doors in old detective films, and on the window someone had painstakingly lettered the legend: 38-401 Chief.
Well, that must be the place, then, she thought. Upon arrival, she found that this door opened onto what was plainly meant to be an outer office, wedge-shaped, with the frame for another door standing open onto the room beyond. There was a battered desk and an old- fashioned wooden swivel chair here, the former with a telephone sitting on it, but the rest of the room wasn't finished and there was no one in it. With a mental shrug, Korra proceeded through, then paused before crossing the inner threshold.
OK, Korra, she told herself. Don't get your hopes up too high here. This guy is more than 400 years old, he's been from one end of this galaxy to the other and seen all kinds of crazy stuff. He might be operating on a completely different philosophical plane by this point. Avatar or not, you may well find that you can't even relate to him.
Then she took a deep breath, steeled herself for disappointment, and stepped into the doorway.
The man in the inner office was sitting at a massive antique metal desk, over near the far corner of the office from the door, such that she had him in three-quarter profile. Stocky, broad-shouldered, with dark brown hair that could have used a trim if he intended to keep it in that left-parted, businessy style and a vandyke beard with a couple of days' growth all around it, he was dressed not in any sort of uniform, but rather a slightly ratty dress shirt over a T-shirt with a mysterious logo and cargo shorts. Still, he was unmistakably the man she'd come to see: Benjamin Hutchins, widely known as Gryphon, formerly an admiral in the Wedge Defense Force and lately the architect of this wild new experiment in galactic policing.
He had clearly been hard at work in this room for some time. His desk was heaped with stacks of paper and bulging manila file folders, apart from a clear space to one side where a telephone stood. The long-heralded paperless office, it appeared, was not poised to become a reality at International Police Headquarters. He had a stylus in his left hand, as if he had been in the middle of processing yet another official somethingorother, but he wasn't doing that right now.
Instead, at first glance, Korra suspected he might be having some kind of a fit or something. He was sort of... thrashing in his desk chair, eyes closed, his head going forward and back, while the hand holding the stylus swung it in a choppy, rhythmic motion in front of him and the fingers of the other twisted into various clawlike rictus positions. She was just starting to wonder if she should call for help, or maybe go over there and try to get something leather in between his teeth, when she spotted the white plastic buds of earphones and realized, with an irrepressible grin, that he wasn't having a seizure; he was rockin' out. That wasn't muscle spasms, it was force-five air guitar.
Just as she had that realization, he abruptly swiveled toward her - still with his eyes closed - and broke into song:
But IIIIIII -
Never seen nothin' like you!
Do ya, do ya want my love?
Do ya, do ya want my mind?
Do ya, do ya want my love?
Well I think you know what I'm try'na say, woman -
"Actually?" she couldn't quite stop herself from saying, her grin turning mischievous. "I'm completely at a loss."
At which point he opened his eyes, saw her standing there leaning on the jamb of his outer-office door, and started so violently he almost fell out of his chair, raking a stack of papers off the corner of his desk as he grabbed at it to keep himself upright. Recovering with a shake of his head, he got fully upright again and plucked his earbuds out, then opened his mouth as if to make some remark.
A burst of jackhammering from below forestalled any response he might've made, and when it finished, Korra switched her mischievous grin for a friendly smile and went on, "Hi! There was nobody in your outer office and the door... " She took a closer look at the jamb on which she was leaning. "... isn't here, so I just came in."
Gryphon reflected on that for a moment, tucking his earbuds into the top pocket of his outer shirt, then replied, "I can see that." Recovering some of his aplomb, he got to his feet and quipped, "Customarily, when a tall, dark stranger comes into an office at a moment like this, she's wearing something a bit more slinky. Or he's wearing a trenchcoat."
Korra rolled her eyes slightly and stepped into the office. "I'm not tall," she pointed out (and neither was he, now that she got a look at him standing up - no more than two or three inches taller than she was), "and people stopped making those films middle of last century."
"More's the pity," Gryphon agreed.
"Nice building," said Korra, considering the structural beam that ran down one wall of the office. She thumped the steel with a palm, then nodded. "Very sturdy. Earthquake-proof? Do you even -have- earthquakes here?"
"Not if we can help it," said Gryphon. Then, after a moment's thought, he went on, "I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you're not here about the administrative assistant position which is the reason why there's no one in my outer office."
"No, not really," said Korra. "Anyway, I apologize for barging in like this. It took me a little while to find you, and I had to help Ragnar with some things, 'cause he's been the best guide ever, you should give him a raise, OK, I'm rambling. Let me start again." She paused, squared her shoulders, and regarded him for a second, then decided, what the hell. Might as well just lay it right on the table and see what he makes of it:
"Hi, I'm Korra. I'm pretty much the highest authority in the world of Dìqiú. About nine months ago, the spiritual realm attached to our world experienced a severe metaphysical upset. I'm not here to put blame on anybody, but around the same time you, and several others, were involved in some sort of fleet action. We can't help but think there must have been some sort of correlation between the two, and I'm here to find out what, if any."
He looked thoughtfully back at her for a few seconds, his expression hard to read. He could've been thinking about calling for backup, or for men in white coats; or he could've been considering her position; or (she realized with a faint blush) he might just have gotten lost in her eyes.
When he did move again, though, it was to turn and start digging around in the utter chaos on his desk, declaring brightly, "Oh! Wait wait wait - I saw a report on you!"
"... Come again?" Korra wondered.
"Here it is!" Gryphon said, pulling one of the thinnest folders on the desk out of a pile and opening it. Then, turning to her with a little grin, he explained, "Inspector Frantzen over at NAPD forwards me anything, and I quote her here, 'that belongs in the crazy box,' and I guess she figured a tourist becoming pals with a patrolbear qualified. That and the, uh, unspecified incident at Club HiRez," he added with an arch little smile.
Korra grinned wryly. "Well, that's refreshing. Usually it only takes a day before I come to the notice of the cops. Three days, tops." She studied her fingernails theatrically and said with exaggerated nonchalance, "I'm getting better at this, I think."
Gryphon put the folder down and turned to regard her again. "So. Dìqiú. Hmm. Here I thought I'd heard of pretty much every world in human space. Is that one of those new colonies Neo-Taipei is establishing out on the Rim? Not the most original name, but hey, sometimes you have to go with the classics, I guess..."
Korra shook her head. "Not exactly."
Gryphon flipped the folder open without picking it up again and glanced through it, confirming something he thought he remembered. "Says here you're from Zipang."
"I am. Kind of." Korra crossed to his desk, produced her passport, and handed it to him. "Officially, anyway. Our situation in Dìqiú is... unique. As far as I'm aware."
Gryphon opened the passport and considered the bearer information page. "'Mizuzoku Kōra'. Hmm." He closed it again and handed it back. "If you don't mind my saying so, you don't look particularly Japanese."
Korra's wry grin flashed again. "I didn't say it it was a -good- alias. Now, if I was Fire Nation, I'd probably pull it off. But I'm from the Southern Water Tribe, and we get a lot more sun than those guys. Always wondered about that, 'cause they're equatorial and we're from, y'know, the South Pole, but hey, I'm no biologist. And that probably made no sense to you at all."
Gryphon shook his head. "Well, not much, I mean, 'mizuzoku' being Japanese for 'water tribe' makes me want to give whoever made your passport at least a couple of points back for style, but the rest went right over my head. As did most of your introductory remarks, come to that. However! Although confused, I also find that I am terribly, terribly intrigued. And since it's not quite 11:30 and it's already been a long day, and I can't hear myself think in this place!" he bellowed sarcastically over another burst of jackhammering, "Why don't we go someplace quieter and I just realized how all of that must have sounded."
Korra eyed him thoughtfully. "You're... not what I was expecting," she said.
Gryphon chuckled, went to the coatrack standing in the corner, and took - to her mild surprise - a pair of swords from it, slinging them across his back. "Well, I guess we're even," he replied, unconcerned, "because I wasn't expecting you at all."
She laughed. "Fair enough. Got any nice open spaces nearby? I've been so busy doing my research I haven't had a chance to find all this city's parks yet."
He took her to Avalon Center Park, which was both the nearest of the city's greenspaces to the IPO building and the one that had the famous sausage carts. A short time later, with a couple of foil-wrapped sausage buns and a Pepsi apiece, they sat on the top of a grassy hillock that overlooked one of the park's baseball diamonds and half-watched a Little League game while they had their lunch.
"So," said Gryphon, "you said you're this Dìqiú place's highest authority? Have I just committed a catastrophic diplomatic faux pas by taking a major potentate for sausages in the park instead of, I don't know, ten courses at Le Coq Supérieure?"
Korra laughed again. "No, not that kind of authority," she said. She rummaged in the same pocket she'd taken her passport from earlier and came up with another ID, this one a laminated card with an old-fashioned photo of her and writing in what looked like slightly archaic Chinese.
"'Order of the White Lotus,'" Gryphon read. "Hmm. My wife's a member of an organization called the Order of the Red Lotus, but given that that's a drinking club on Shanghai Prime, I'm going to guess they're not affiliated."
"Ah, no," said Korra, smiling. "Though in the old days, the member of the White Lotus would get together to drink, and make friendly wagers at pai sho. It's changed since then. Now, they're more my support network. I sort of have an... advisory capacity in my homeworld. Smooth over crisis spots, things like that. One of my major responsibilities is to maintain the balance between our spirit and material worlds, and whatever happened last fall severely threw things out of whack. So, like I said earlier, I'm investigating."
Gryphon thought this over through about half a sausage roll, then said, "Well... I'm pretty sure I know, but what I'm NOT sure about is whether you'll believe me."
"Well, in that case, we'll be even," Korra replied. "The world I come from is... sort of a parallel Zipang. It's not a whole alternate universe, just... there are kind of... two planets there, that usually can't see or affect each other. I'm fuzzy on how it works, mostly because as far as I know everyone is fuzzy on how it works, but there it is."
"Hmm," said Gryphon. He seemed in no way skeptical, despite the improbability of what he'd just been told, and the only comment he offered at this juncture was, "Interesting."
Encouraged by his reaction, Korra went on, "On my side, the world we call Dìqiú, certain of us can manipulate the elements - earth, fire, air, water - and ages ago we organized ourselves into four nations: Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Air Nomads, Water Tribe. At any given time, one person - the Avatar - has the ability to manipulate - to 'bend' - all four elements. That person's job is to look after the balance, safety, and well-being of our world and the Spirit World that stands between it and Zipang, and for the time being, that happens to be me." Placing her right fist loosely in her left hand before her chest, she performed a seated bow to him. "Avatar Korra. A pleasure to meet you."
Gryphon gave her that thoughtful look again, then smiled, put out a hand and said, "Ben Hutchins. Friends call me Gryphon." As she shook the hand, he went on, "Just realized I forgot to mention that at any point. It's a terrible habit, just assuming people must know who I am, even if you did seek me out." Then, becoming cheerfully brisk, he went on, "Anyway! Here's what I figure happened. Last September, the Norse god of trickery and evil deliberately triggered the war of the gods that was foretold to end with all creation's loss in fire and death. Some friends of mine and I went and helped the Æsir and Vanir win the war and avert the prophesied end of the universe. We nearly didn't pull it off - the universe did get stopped for a few minutes there, but we managed to turn it back on. That was probably the astral noise you heard." He grinned. "Your move!"
Korra's eyebrows went up as she took all that on board and weighed whether she ought to believe it. "I had to placate a stuck-up knowledge spirit with severe control issues after that," she said wryly. "I'd sue for damages, but currency means little in the Spirit World."
"Wouldn't do you any good to sue Loki anyway," Gryphon replied, his grin slipping away. "All that's left of him is a bad memory and a creepy mask."
Korra nodded soberly. "Yeah... I know how that goes."
They sat in silence for a moment, each aware that the other had gone momentarily to a dark place, even if they were both reasonably sure it wasn't the same dark place. Then Gryphon rallied with a visible effort and went on, "Which is probably why - " He paused, his eyes going slightly out of focus, as if hearing something Korra couldn't hear. Then, returning his attention to her, he said, "Can we finish this later? I've got... a thing. Happening." Clambering to his feet, he balled up the foil from their sausages and lobbed it neatly into the nearest waste barrel. "Possibly two."
Korra perked up, the new note of tension in his voice sparking her to a heightened awareness. "Maybe I can help," she offered, taking his hand to let him pull her upright.
"Maybe," Gryphon replied, his tone suggesting he was trying for levity. "Do you know anything about obstetrics?"
To his visible surprise, she replied immediately, "Human or veterinary? I've delivered both."
Gryphon eyed her for a second, then grinned and said, "OK, why not. In at the deep end, right?"
"That's been my entire life so far," said Korra with a wry smile. "Why stop now?"
Gryphon laughed. "I like your style."
They hurried back to Headquarters; as they entered the still- deserted lobby, he suddenly asked, apparently apropos of nothing, "Can you fly a jetpack?"
"Um, no, not really," Korra replied.
"Ah, well." He detoured his finger to the elevator's DOWN button instead. "Parking garage it is, then."
IPO HQ's vast underground parking deck seemed ever-so-slightly silly with only one car in it. Korra, not being overly familiar with the automobiles of twentieth-century Earth, didn't recognize it at all, but she decided she liked the lines of it - big but low-slung, dark green, streamlined and with mostly sedate yet ever-so-slightly aggressive styling, she guessed it wouldn't attract a lot of attention, but could get the job done if it needed to. She went around to the passenger door as Gryphon got behind the wheel. Sliding in beside him, she noted the comfortably worn leather interior and a pleasantly familiar old-car scent.
"Nice wheels," she said, grinning, as he started it up.
"You like cars?" he wondered, guiding the machine onto the exit ramp.
"I have friends back home who're seriously into them," she explained. "It's rubbed off a little. I can't fix them, but I know what I like and I rarely ever crash them anymore." She ran a hand along the nicely-broken-in leather of her seat bolster. "This one's got character."
Gryphon's answering grin had a touch of a smirk in it. He finished pulling out onto the street behind the IPO building, then put his foot down and said, "It's the car I drive when I'm feeling like a bit of a bounder." Affecting a sort of mock upper-class drawl, he went on, "'Hmm, feeling rather caddish today. Think I'll take the Jaaag.'"
Korra didn't really get the joke (apart from having seen a badge on the back of the car indicating that it was something called a "Jaguar"), but his delivery sold it anyway, and she giggled, then grabbed for a handhold with a pleased little yelp as he hurled the car up another ramp and onto the Central Expressway.
In less time than it would have taken her to explain the route, they were somewhere north of the city center, racing up a long, looping street and then pulling up with a chirp in the driveway of a big, rambling white house. There was another car parked next to where they stopped, a sleek black convertible, much more obviously sporty than the Jaaag (as Korra now couldn't help but mentally tag it). It had a red stripe on the hood and a matching leather interior, which gave Korra a nostalgic smile.
"Wow. Flashbacks to the Future Industries summer lineup, back around 210," she remarked, pausing to check the nameplate. "Corvette Sting Ray" didn't mean anything to her, but she filed it away as another piece of information gathered about the "big universe" anyway as she ran around the Jaaag and followed Gryphon up the walk to the front door.
They entered the house to find a very beautiful, very pregnant redhead in the front room, putting on shoes. She looked up at their entrance and blinked in faint surprise.
"I told you, Kate's with Marty and Eiko," she told Gryphon. "Why aren't you on your way to Tomodachi? I've got everything under control here." Then, straightening up, she picked up a small white duffel bag marked with the 3WA logo from the floor by the couch. "Got my ready bag and everything." She noticed Korra then, standing a trifle hesitantly in the doorway behind Gryphon, and - slightly to her surprise, under the circumstances - gave her a welcoming grin.
"Oh, hi," she said. "Kei Morgan. I don't think I've seen you before. Are you Ben's new AA?"
"Uh, no," said Korra, slightly nonplussed by her cheerful welcome. "My name's Korra. I'm, uh, consulting with Chief Hutchins on a matter - "
Kei laughed merrily and smacked Gryphon's arm. "You didn't waste any time!" she said.
"Uh, no, she's serious," he replied, rubbing the arm. "She's looking into one of the side effects of the Ragnarok. And we've only just met, so behave," he added mildly.
Korra, who was fairly sure at this point that she was sporting the kind of flaming blush that was obvious even through her dark skin, stammered out some sort of denial as well, but Kei was already past that point.
"Well, by a strange coincidence, you are currently beholding another side effect of the Ragnarok," the redhead said with a wicked grin. "And I am off to Boyce Memorial to get it seen to." She turned to Gryphon, pointing at him, and said, "And you are more urgently required on Tomodachi, stud, so don't waste any time standing here wittering about me! It ain't my first rodeo, as you well know, and it is Skuld's."
"But what if - " Gryphon began.
"Oh, pff, I'm hours behind her," Kei said dismissively, shrugging the bag onto her shoulder, "so I don't imagine I'm gonna get much action going until sometime tonight or tomorrow morning. And I'm going to a proper hospital anyway, because not locked into weird Viking ideas about having to do this stuff at home," she added with a cheery smirk, "so GO, jeez, I'm FINE, professionals are involved." She leaned and kissed him. "I'll keep you posted, we won't let you miss the show."
Then, leaving him standing there at a loss, Kei turned back to Korra and gave her a less manic smile. "Nice meeting you, I'm sorry we don't have more time. And I'm sorry about before, the hormones are making me a little wacky right now. Didn't mean to accuse you of anything you weren't actually up to." Then she grinned again and clapped Korra on the shoulder, adding with a wink of one brown eye, "Although if you change your mind, he gives good consult! Seeya later!"
"At least let me drive you - " Gryphon protested, but Kei waved him off with a cheerful hand and breezed out, banging the door behind her. A moment later, while Korra watched throught the front room's window, that black car she'd noticed when they arrived darted past with a roar of high-performance engine and a screech of tires on tarmac, Kei grinning fiercely at the wheel.
Gryphon stood where she'd left him for a moment, one finger still raised as if to interject to the closed door; then he sighed, turned a slightly weary grin to Korra, and said, "So that was Kei... "
"Uh... what was she talking about?" Korra wondered. "Not the first part, I got that," she added with a mildly renewed blush, "the other thing. What's on Tomodachi?"
"Our friend Skuld lives there," Gryphon explained as he led the way back outside. "She is also having a baby today."
Korra gave him a puzzled look. "Your wife just sent you off to tend to another woman in labor first."
"Yes," Gryphon replied, nodding. He wasn't heading back to the car, but rather across the street.
"Not judging here, but that's a bit weird," said Korra.
Gryphon chuckled. "Tell me about it," he said.
None the wiser, Korra dropped that for the moment and asked, "Where are we going?"
"The neighbors'," Gryphon replied. "I'm just going to check in on my daughter before we leave."
The neighbors, a very tall man and his rather short redheaded wife, were all in a congratulatory flutter when they arrived; they were plainly old friends of the Chief and his wife. Gryphon introduced them as Martin and Eiko Rose, told them more or less who Korra was, but didn't get any further than that before a pretty little girl of perhaps two rounded the end of the couch and glomped onto his leg. With a smile, he gently extricated himself and hunkered down to be at eye level with her.
"Your mother's fine," he said, speaking not as a person stereotypically would to a toddler, but instead as if he were addressing a miniature peer. "She's going to the hospital now, and pretty soon you'll have a new brother."
"What about Skuld?" the girl asked, her voice a little thin, but perfectly clear.
Gryphon smiled. "Well, she's not going to a hospital, but she's also fine. I'm going over to see her now."
"Can I come?" she wondered.
"Best if you stay here for now," he said. "Things are going to be pretty crazy for a while. But if you're good for Marty and Eiko, then probably tonight or tomorrow, once things have settled down some."
She thought this over gravely for a moment, then nodded. "OK," she said, and hugged him. While doing so, she spotted Korra standing by the door, a little smile on her face. "Who's that?" she asked Gryphon.
"That's Korra," said Gryphon. "She's a new friend I've just made at work. Would you like to meet her?"
The girl gave that question all due consideration as well, then nodded, though she didn't look too convinced, and repeated, "OK."
Without breaking off the embrace, Gryphon straightened up, lifting the little girl along with him. With a comically exaggerated groan, he remarked, "Boy, are you getting heavy."
"Am not," she insisted.
Smiling, he turned and said, "Korra, I'd like you to meet my daughter Kaitlyn. Kate, this is Korra."
"Hello, Kaitlyn," said Korra with a bright smile.
Kaitlyn regarded Korra for a moment, her large brown eyes - very like her mother's, Korra noticed - thoughtful and just a little trepid. Then, very slowly, she said, "H... h... hhhh... hel... hello, K... K... K... Kor... Korra."
Gryphon had to admire the way Korra kept any reaction other than pleasant welcome off her face as she made the Water Tribe salute and said, "I'm very pleased to meet you."
"Y... y... youuu... ohhh," said Kaitlyn, turning away to bury her face in her father's shoulder.
"Hey, it's OK," Gryphon said soothingly, stroking her hair. "You did very well. You can try again later. OK?"
The little girl leaned back to look at him miserably for a second, then lay her head back down again with a frustrated sigh. "OK."
"Here, I'll take her," said Eiko, smiling. "I think it's time for a nap anyway... "
Gryphon and Korra parted from the Roses and went back across to the Jaaag, climbing in without discussion. Not until they were on their way back downtown did he remark,
"I think you're the first person outside our inner family circle I've introduced to Kate who didn't ask me what was wrong with her as soon as we were out of earshot. Thank you."
Korra looked surprised. "I didn't think anything was wrong with her," she said. "She just has trouble talking to strangers. Nothing wrong with that." Seeing that he looked troubled, she reached across the front seat and touched his arm. "She's a beautiful little girl," she said, then added with a slightly sentimental smile, "And she clearly loves her dad. She sounded fine when she was talking to you."
Gryphon smiled. "Thanks," he said again.
After a few seconds of silent travel, Korra said, "So... the lady we're going to see on Tomodachi. You said she's also having a baby. Today."
Gryphon nodded. "Apparently so." He chuckled. "She and Kei have been coordinating this joint offensive for months, so it shouldn't really surprise me."
"Hmm." Korra thought about the matter for a moment, then decided she might as well be blunt; he seemed to like that. "OK. This is none of my business and feel free to tell me so, but, where's her baby's father? Shouldn't he be on hand for this?"
Gryphon nodded, evidently in complete agreement. "Yes he should," he said decisively. "And he will be. Just as soon as he can get there."
Korra waited for him to elaborate on that; after a few seconds he glanced across at her, a faint smile returning to his face, and added, "From New Avalon."
Another few seconds' puzzlement, and then the fen dropped.
"Oh," she said, her face going red.
Man, galactics are weird, she thought.
Gryphon let the matter sit while he navigated his way back off the expressway, then said, "Would you like the short version, or are you more comfortable just thinking we're weird?"
Korra coughed. "Busted," she admitted with a sheepish smile.
"How up are you on your Norse mythology?" Gryphon asked.
"Um, not at all?" Korra replied.
"Hmm. OK. Remember what I said earlier about the end of the world?" She nodded. He drove the Jaaag back into the IPO parking deck, put it in exactly the same spot it had been in before (which, even in her current state of bemusement, Korra couldn't help but be pleased by), and climbed out. As they walked back toward the elevator, he said, "The Norse pantheon has three goddesses in it, the Norns, who personify aspects of time. Urthr, the past; Verthandi, the present; and Skuld, the future. Skuld and I are old friends; she's how I ended up involved in the whole business in the first place."
"Mm-hmm," said Korra, to show that she was listening. They entered the elevator. She was faintly surprised to see that he didn't press any of the buttons; instead, he raised his right hand, around which some kind of holographic interface flickered into existence, surrounding his hand and forearm in orange light. He did something to this, the elevator control panel chimed, and then the elevator started going down.
"Omni-tool," he explained. "Wonderful invention. Gift from another friend. Anyway, Skuld. Goddess of technology and the future. On the evening before the prophesied end of the world. Think about that for a second. I gather you have some experience of what we might call the cosmic; try to imagine what that was like for her." He turned to her, his blue eyes intent on hers, totally serious now. "Imagine being the living embodiment of tomorrow and knowing that there aren't going to be any more. That every sign you've ever been trained to interpret says the next sunrise is going to be the last one. Not just for you. For everyone, everywhere, ever."
Korra got a brief faraway look, that seemed to add a level of experience to her that Gryphon hadn't seen before. Without having changed physically at all, she suddenly seemed much older - not only older than her visible years, but somehow older than he was.
"Yes... yes, I think I can imagine that," she said quietly, gazing solemnly back at him.
Tears were actually gathering in his eyes now; his voice was hushed and a little hoarse as he went on, "She was someplace out beyond despair, standing on an icy cliff, screaming at a cold grey sea." His voice caught briefly in his throat. "Raging against the dying of the light." Korra felt herself tearing up along with him as he wiped at his eyes, then continued, "Kei sent me to her; I... did what I could." Then, with a deep breath, he shook himself and seemed to pull himself out of the memory. His tone was more matter-of-fact as he concluded, "Next day, we won the war of the gods. Barely. And now it's nine months later and... " He spread his hands. "Here we are."
Korra kept her eyes on his, her own tears not quite shed, as she weighed his words with a grim expression; then, in a low voice, she said, "You know... I've been around longer than you probably think, and I've seen a lot of strange things. If I was anybody else from Dìqiú I wouldn't believe a word of that. But I was in the Spirit World that day."
(As she said it, the impressions of that day rushed through her, swift and distinct, like a fever-chill. A sudden hot wind bending the spirit-grass, carrying upon it a smell of burning. Naga and her pack howling disconsolately at a sky gone an utter starless black, their voices barely audible over a terrible thunderous roar that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at all.)
She closed her eyes, spilling the tears at last down her cheeks, and shook her head. "If you had heard that roaring sound, you'd believe that was the world nearly ending."
Under normal circumstances, Korra wouldn't have said she knew this man nearly well enough to hug him yet; but these were not normal circumstances, and after telling and hearing that story, she figured they both needed one. Besides, she remarked wryly to herself as she seized him, she'd always been impulsive. He seemed startled for a moment, but only a moment; then he returned the embrace. His arms were surprisingly strong, but also gentle, and for a moment she was reminded of older times; then the moment passed and they were standing side by side again, facing the doors, and it occurred to Korra for the first time that they had been going down for an awfully long time.
"Thank you," said Gryphon quietly, rubbing his hands down his face.
"Don't mention it," Korra said mock-casually, the warm little smile she gave him putting the lie to the words. A few seconds later, she went on, "So... I'm not the galaxy's greatest cosmographer by any stretch, but isn't Tomodachi a really long way from here? Also, why are we going down?"
"Yes, and it's all relative," said Gryphon. Before she could ask what he meant by that, the elevator arrived at its destination with a ding, and the door opened onto a place that was entirely unlike the unfinished chaos of the building above. They were in a matrix of brightly lit corridors clad in some sleek silvery metal, high-tech doors here and there, like the starliner interiors Korra had seen pictures of when researching ways of getting to New Avalon.
There were people down here, too, the first ones she'd seen associated with the IPO building apart from Gryphon himself: men, women and otherwise in blue coveralls, some with ballcaps, some with lab coats, going here and there on inscrutable errands. Their faces were almost universally sober but not somber, the expressions of people engaged in serious business but enjoying it. Something in their brisk, upbeat purposefulness reminded her of the glory days at URSA, bringing a little smile to her lips.
Some of the bluesuiters touched the bills of their caps to the Chief in passing, but there was no saluting or rushing about just because he had come among them, which Korra added to the list of things she rather liked about his style. He led the way down the hallway and through one of the doors, into a room filled with consoles and unfathomable techy equipment.
A small crew of IPO personnel of the kind with lab coats on over their coveralls were at work in here, apparently studying or servicing the object which stood on a dais in the center of the room. This was a massive metal ring, perhaps twenty feet in diameter, its surface covered in curious, almost runic-looking markings. A very pale, dark-haired, bearded man, wearing regular clothes under his lab coat instead of a uniform, looked up from one of the consoles and smiled.
"What is that," said Korra.
"Never saw a stargate before?" Gryphon inquired, not sounding all that surprised. "Then I bet you never -traveled- by one."
"Uh, no. Traveled?"
He grinned. "You're in for a treat. Andrew!" he called to the bearded man. "Fire 'er up!"
Three minutes later, Korra stood on an entirely different planet, wisps of sublimating ice vapor rising from her clothing and hair, looking back at an identical metal ring as it spun slowly down to a halt. Gryphon turned to take in her reaction - something he always enjoyed with first-timers - and blinked in surprise as he saw that her eyes were glowing, all detail blotted out by white light.
"OK, that was freaky," she said, and her voice sounded like many voices, as a crowd all speaking roughly in unison. She blinked rapidly, shaking her head, and the glow faded away, returning her eyes to normal. "Wha," she said, her voice singular again. "THAT wasn't supposed to happen." Then, brushing it off, she turned to him, eyes wide, and said, "You just bent space and time! How did you do that?!"
"Well, I didn't do it, the gate did," Gryphon replied, gesturing to the ring. "It's a machine!" He shrugged, squiring her off the stargate platform and across the very similar machinery room in which it stood. "I have no idea how it works. Andrew wrote out the main equation for me once." He grinned. "It took two hours, six pieces of chalk, and the entire length of the sidewalk on the 500-to-800 blocks of Allard Avenue."
"Hmm," she mused as they went out into the hall. "I'd like to get a look at that later."
"That was months ago, I doubt it's still there," Gryphon deadpanned, then smiled at her vaguely grumpy you-know-what-I-meant look and said, "But he has written a book about it, which I'm sure he'd be overjoyed to sell one copy of."
"I hope so," Korra said. "I could save days and who knows how many yuan if I could veilbend like that."
Upstairs, the Nekomikoka office of the IPO was a little further along than the main headquarters in New Avalon. Most of the walls were up, if not quite finished yet, and the lobby was staffed. One of the receptionists tossed Gryphon a set of car keys without even being asked as the Chief crossed the room.
Outside, the city was very different, not as vertical as New Avalon but a bit more sprawling, the streets a more orderly grid. The car Gryphon and Korra got into was tiny, so small their shoulders were rubbing together in the middle as Gryphon steered, and the driver's position was on the right, because people here drove on the left side of the street.
They drove to a quiet, leafy borough that was not quite far enough from downtown to be a suburb, past what was plainly a university campus, up a hill, and onto the grounds of what looked for all the world (to Korra, at least) like a Fire Nation temple complex. Here they gratefully abandoned the car, and Gryphon led the way to the front door of the main building, rapping briskly on the door.
A moment later the door opened and a slim, youthful-looking man greeted them, smiling broadly at the sight of Gryphon.
"Ben, welcome," he said, ushering them inside. "You're in plenty of time. Oh! Hello," he said, noticing Korra. "I'm Keiichi Morisato, Skuld's brother-in-law."
Korra introduced herself (as herself, not her Zipangi alias) with a bowing Water Tribe salute.
"Welcome," said Keiichi, bowing. "Are you with the IPO?"
"No, I'm just a - " She paused, not because what she had been about to say wasn't true, but because she was mildly surprised, at this early hour, that it was. " - friend," she finished, giving Gryphon a wry little grin Keiichi entirely didn't know how to read.
He didn't seem to mind, though, declaring cheerfully that any friend of Gryphon's et cetera, then led them through a foyer of sorts into the house. In the living room, a tall, dark-skinned, white-haired woman in elaborate tiger-stripe-trimmed clothes lay stretched out full- length on a sofa, a decanter of sake standing on the floor by her dangling right hand; she looked up as they entered, recognized Gryphon, and grinned a little blurrily.
"And here he is at last, the man of the hour," she said, her voice only slightly slurred. "Hurry! Hurry! The Prophesied One impends." Then, noticing Korra, she squinted at her for a moment with cat-green eyes, sizing her up, then gave the blurry grin again, raised her sake jar in salute, and said, "Hey there."
"Hello," said Korra, slightly at a loss.
"You're a good-lookin' gal," said the woman cheerfully. She took a drink, eyed Korra more judiciously, then said, "The tight top/baggy pants thing is a little weird, but you've got the front and back porches to make it work for you. I like it. Your health," she concluded, toasting her again.
"Urd, behave," said Keiichi in a tone that suggested he'd said it millions of times before, and didn't really expect it to have any more effect this time than on any of the others.
"Yeah, yeah," said Urd. "Hey, good luck in there. Let me know how it goes."
"Well," said Gryphon as Keiichi led them down the hall. "I haven't seen her that far gone in a while."
Keiichi chuckled. "She started when Skuld reported that she'd started," he said. "Hasn't slowed down since."
He paused then and knocked on the frame of one of the house's many sliding doors. At a quiet acknowledgement from within, he opened it far enough to put in his head and said, "Ben's here, and he's brought a friend."
"Excellent," the woman's voice which had acknowledged his knock said, and Keiichi opened the door the rest of the way. The room beyond looked to be a small bedroom (sans bed), decorated like the rest of the house in the Japanese style. It was neat and orderly, except for the stack of empty ice cream cartons in the back corner, and even those were arranged very tidily, for all that they seemed intrinsically out of place. In the middle of the room were two young women. One, with long black hair, half-sat, half-lay on the floor with her back and shoulders propped up on a large cushion. The other, whose golden-brown hair was even longer, sat seiza next to her, holding her hand. Both looked up as Gryphon entered and smiled.
"You're right on time," said the one in seiza. Korra guessed - based on subtle cues like her position and her obvious pregnancy - that the woman lying on the floor had to be Skuld, which would make the speaker Verthandi; a guess that was confirmed a moment later as Gryphon introduced them, though after he spoke the latter's name in a formal Norse way, she smiled and said,
"We mustn't stand on ceremony at a time like this, must we? In Midgard I generally go by Belldandy." Then, rising to her feet, she smiled brightly, her whole face lighting up with a sort of beatific delight, and bowed, adding, "But please, call me Bell, Avatar Korra."
Korra blinked - she hadn't said Thing One to anybody here about being the Avatar, and indeed, would not have expected any of them other than Gryphon to have any idea what she was talking about if she had. Then, looking more closely, she realized that there was much more to this lovely young woman than was apparent at first glance - which made sense, if she and her sisters were indeed goddesses embodying primal aspects of the universe.
Korra wasn't sure she believed that was -precisely- the case, but she knew spiritual power when she saw it, and this was a spirit entity to be reckoned with. She made her most respectful bow and said, "I'd be honored."
"How we doin'?" Gryphon asked Skuld as he took Bell's place at her side.
"Oh, y'know, the usual," Skuld replied lightly. "Except every eight or ten minutes I have a tendency to sort of try and stop time. It's not deliberate, but I can't seem to not do it."
"Now that you're here," Bell put in, "I'll be able to concentrate mainly on countering that."
"I'm a licensed midwife back home," Korra said. "I'm sure my credentials are no good here, but I can still help if you want me to."
Skuld grinned. "Hey, any pretty stranger Ben likes well enough to bring along on a day like this gets my vote," she said with a wink. "Pull up a - ooooooooh."
As she said the last, a drawn-out, breathy moan, the oblong mark on her forehead glowed, the way Korra had heard that airbender Avatars' tattoos did when they entered the Avatar State. Something in the air of the room seemed to ripple, tickling the higher centers of her consciousness, and she felt her own eyes flicker in sympathy, like they had when she'd come out of the stargate. Something felt odd about it, though; the experience was faint, attenuated, like an echo down a pipe or a bad telephone connection.
Bell closed her eyes and concentrated, the narrow diamond tattoo on her own forehead lighting up in response, and that weird twisty feeling abated, stabilizing until the contraction ended and Skuld relaxed, her brand going out.
"Pfff," said Skuld, puffing her cheeks. "Sorry. If you think that felt weird out there, try it from in here," she added with a wry grin.
Korra nodded to her with a similar little smile of her own, then said, "You said those are less than ten minutes apart now? Has your water broken?"
"Yep," Skuld confirmed.
"OK." Korra considered the room for a moment. "Hmm. Wish we had time to set up a tub, but... oh well, not the time to go changing everything up anyway. Not a problem. I'm going to need a few gallons of clean water, though. Doesn't have to be hot, just clean."
"I'm on that," said Keiichi.
"If you've got it, bring a big cup of crushed ice while you're at it, please," Korra called to him as he left the room at a trot.
"Crushed ice! Check!" Keiichi's reply came back up the hall.
"Gryph, you stay right there," Korra directed. "Once the ice gets here, your job will be to supply it as needed. She won't be able to drink once things really get moving." Then, hands on hips, she looked around again, as if taking stock of her surroundings.
On this sweep she noticed the table standing to one side. At first she thought its gleaming, polished surface was glass, but now, looking more closely, she realized it was ice, a big slab of it, set into a handsomely worked metal surround that was intricately carved with winged, serpentine creatures. Sitting atop this, slightly sunken into a depression in the surface of the ice so that it couldn't roll away, was a spherical white object about a foot in diameter.
"What's this?" she wondered, stepping over to inspect it more closely.
"That," said Gryphon without batting an eye, "is a dragon's egg."
Korra blinked, but the question she asked next was not, "Are you crazy?" It was, "Why is it sitting on ice?"
"It's a white dragon's egg," Skuld said. "They won't hatch if they're too warm."
"Oh," said Korra. "OK, fair enough. Is it hatching today?"
Skuld nodded. "Ought to pop within an hour or so of me," she said wryly.
"Hmm," Korra mused. "Been a long time since I was at a dragon hatching." Then, turning a grin to Gryphon, she said, "This is turning out to be a more interesting day than I was expecting."
"We aim to please," he replied with a smile.
Korra chuckled, then seemed to settle into herself, folding her hands before her chest in a meditative gesture and closing her eyes. For a moment she didn't speak, didn't move, just arranged herself into a state of perfectly composed concentration.
Then, opening her eyes again, she smiled. "OK," she repeated. "Where can I wash my hands?"
Several eventful hours later, all was quiet at the Morisato homestead once more. The afternoon was turning toward evening as Korra and Gryphon stood by Skuld's bed, enjoying a cool celebratory beverage while mother, child, and dragonet slept, all cuddled together into a single achingly homey bundle. Corwin Virgil Ravenhair and his boon companion, Nall Silverclaw: Korra wasn't entirely sold on the boy's middle name, but it was apparently to honor an old friend of his mother's, and the Avatar was not going to argue with a thing like that, even if she had been inclined to be so gauche as to criticize a parent's naming choices out loud in the first place.
After fondly contemplating the sleeping baby boy's face for a few moments - some distant, muffled past-life voice, maybe Yangchen's, was of the opinion that he was going to be a very handsome lad when he grew up - Korra slugged back the last of her lychee juice and nudged Gryphon with an elbow.
"Hey," she said quietly. "I don't mean to trample your moment here, but shouldn't you check in with Kei?"
"I have," Gryphon replied. At her quizzical look, he showed her the face of the wrist computer he was wearing. There was a round red gem set into its metal casing, like the face on a wristwatch; as he turned this toward her and she looked into its softly shifting scarlet glow, it gently touched her consciousness to impart a simple, wordless message: the knowledge - if she hadn't had it already - that this was Benjamin Hutchins, Gryphon of the IPO.
"Wha - um," said Korra, struck momentarily speechless. "Oh."
"You're right, though, we should get moving soon," Gryphon murmured, lowering his wrist. "Just... you know. In a minute."
Korra smiled. "Yeah," she agreed, putting a friendly hand on his arm. "In a minute."
As they were leaving the house, they saw that Urd had either fallen asleep or finally reached her limit and passed out on the living room sofa; someone, probably Keiichi, had covered her with a blanket. Keiichi and Belldandy saw them off in the foyer. Korra was surprised to see that Bell too had a baby, a little black-haired boy not too dissimilar from Skuld's newborn son, in her arms.
"Our firstborn, Hiroshi," she explained to Korra's questioning look. "Another of the Ragnarok's happy aftermaths. He was born last week."
Korra gave her a thoughtful look, then said carefully, "You recover... very quickly."
"There are a few advantages to being a goddess," Bell said merrily, and Korra, laughing, had to allow that she had a point. Then, becoming serious, Bell said to her, "Thank you for your help today, Korra. I feel as though great friendships have been forged. Perhaps, in a couple of cases, literally lifelong ones."
Korra smiled. "I hope so," she said. Then she bowed, fist in hand, to both of them and said formally, "Thank you for welcoming me into your home, Professor Morisato, Lady Verthandi."
"It was our honor, Avatar Korra," said Keiichi with a deep bow; then he grinned and added in a more natural tone, "Safe travels back to New Avalon, you two. Hopefully we'll be seeing you again soon."
"Both of you," Bell put in.
"What nice folks," Korra mused as Gryphon drove the tiny IPO pool car away from the temple.
"Bell and Keiichi?" Gryphon asked. "Yeah, they're the best. You weren't really catching Urd at her finest today, but between Hiroshi last week and Corwin today, she never really had a chance. She's scared to death of childbirth." He grinned wryly and added, "As am I, actually, so the prospect that I've still got one to attend today... "
Korra laughed and patted his knee. "You'll do fine," she said. "You handled the first one like a champ."
"For the first first one I didn't have a choice," said Gryphon with a laugh. "Due to an astonishing failure of foreplanning for which her mother and I have to split the blame, Kaitlyn was born aboard ship, in hyperspace. Kei and I were the only ones there. That was a trip. I didn't have time to freak out until it was all over, and by then I was too tired."
"Something to be said for that," Korra agreed, recalling the birth of another lifelong (so far) friend.
The stargate jump back to New Avalon was less jarring, now that she knew what to expect. It was a bit weird to emerge from Headquarters back onto Allard Avenue, transported all but instantly back where they'd started from, and doubly so because the time in Nekomikoka was different; there were still a couple of hours of daylight left in New Avalon now.
While they walked the three blocks to Philip Boyce Memorial Medical Center, Korra asked, "So... that psychic jewel there."
"The Lens," said Gryphon. "It's a means of identification, a communications device, and a psionic shield, among other things. Skuld's invention. We use them to identify and protect the IPO's best people, including our top-level field agents, the Experts of Justice."
"Nice title," said Korra.
"Kate came up with it," said Gryphon with a fond smile.
As they walked, Gryphon explained the basic remit of the IPO and the Lensmen, quoting the remark from Autobot leader Optimus Prime that had become the Lensman program's motto: "Gather our galaxy's best and our brightest, and stand them up in line against the darkness."
"The Lensmen are our best and brightest, and the Experts of Justice are the best of the best - people who have not only the strength of will and moral character to be Lensmen, but also the personal power and skill to face the greatest threats to freedom and peace that the forces of darkness have to offer." He gave her a speculative look, then added, "People like you."
Korra looked skeptical. "Me? C'mon." With a self-deprecating chuckle, she went on, "After today, I'm fully prepared to believe that you and I are fated to be insta-BFFs for some reason, but it's a long jump from there to 'galaxy's best and brightest'."
"Well, we can find out," Gryphon said. "There's a test - complicated bit of sorcery, really, but she makes it look easy - Skuld does to determine if a likely candidate has what it takes to be a Lensman. We call it the Test of Light. When she's back on her feet... and you saw Bell, that's not going to take long... she'd like to test you."
"How do you know that? She never mentioned it."
Gryphon smiled. "Not out loud, but she has one too," he said, holding up his Lens again.
"Well... I dunno," Korra said. "I have a lot of responsibilities back home. I intend to keep in much better contact with the 'big universe' now that I have some friends out here," she added, grinning and bumping his shoulder with hers, "but I'm probably not going to be able to come Outside all that often, or stay for terribly long. However tempting the idea is, I can't join a space police force on top of everything else I have to do."
"That's not a problem," Gryphon replied. "Lensmen and IPO members aren't completely overlapping sets. The program for selecting and equipping Lensmen has only been operational for nine months, since Skuld unveiled the idea in the aftermath of the Ragnarok, but there are already a handful who aren't formally IPO officers.
"We call those Grey Lensmen," he went on. "You might think of them as Experts without portfolio. People we count among the galaxy's best and brightest, and know we can rely on in an emergency, but who, for whatever reason, can't or don't want to join the day-to-day of the organization itself."
"Hmm... well, I'll think about it," said Korra. "Meantime, this is your stop," she added, nodding toward the front entrance of the hospital.
Gryphon regarded the building's frontage for a moment, then nodded. "Yup." Then he turned and said with a smile, "I am reliably informed that I have time to get a quick bite to eat, and it's just occurred to me that those sausage rolls were a long time ago. You like noodles?"
Korra grinned. "That's a safe assumption."
The noodles in question turned out to be in the hospital lobby itself, served by a small Japanese restaurant tucked away between the gift shop and the main reception desk. It was fairly busy at this hour, with its clientele balanced between about half civilians and half people in scrubs. Korra staked out a corner table while Gryphon got them a each a styrofoam box of yakisoba and a bottle of water.
"Hey, Zipangi-style," said Korra cheerfully as he put hers down in front of her. She snapped apart her chopsticks, dug in, chewed her first mouthful thoughtfully, and swallowed. "Not bad!" she pronounced. "It's no Narook's, but it'll do."
Gryphon smiled. "Sometimes I get lunch here even when I don't have business in the hospital," he said. "There used to be another one in the Entire State Building, but they closed when the Marche opened."
They talked about favorite eateries and their hometowns in general while they scarfed down their noodles, both having realized all at once how hungry they were. It wasn't deep conversation, nor even particularly consequential - just cheerful mealtime chatter - but it was free and comfortable. She told him the details of her first afternoon in Puckett's Landing, then compared it, with hilarious wryness, to a similar day back in Republic City, which had ended in a somewhat less congenial meeting with the local constabulary. He, in turn, almost caused her to laugh a noodle out of her nose with an anecdote about an undercover expedition to Earth he and some other WDF founders had taken once, at a time when they were all outlaws on that world.
At meal's end, they tidied up their table and left it to a pair of hungry-looking interns, then sauntered out into the brightly-lit hospital lobby, still giggling about the latter story's punch line ("So Zoner says, 'It depends - how much of a hurry are you IN to get to Lhasa?'").
When their course brought them even with the revolving doors, Korra said, "Well, Gryph, I have to say, you know how to show a girl a good time. Weird," she qualified, "but good. I've had actual dates that weren't this much fun." She frowned thoughtfully, then said, "Actually, bad comparison, I've had actual dates that were complete frickin' disasters. Anyway!" She grinned brightly. "Good luck with your evening's program, and all my best to Mrs. Gryph."
"Aren't you coming up?" Gryphon asked, sounding mildly surprised. "We won't put you to work, but I'm sure Kei would like to see you again."
With a little smirk, Korra tapped him in the middle of his forehead with the first two fingers of her right hand. "Remember, I am a total stranger to everyone you're taking me around to see today. Hell, I'm practically a total stranger to you."
Gryphon smiled at her, entirely without irony, and said in a perfectly sincere tone of voice, "I feel like we've been friends for years."
Korra blinked at him, momentarily thinking he was either having her on or hitting on her; then blinked again as she realized that she agreed with him.
"I wonder if I knew you in a past life," she mused, then shook her head. "Sorry. I know that probably sounds seriously dopey and new- agey from your perspective, but it's a real thing where I come from."
"No, I'm... not unfamiliar with the concept," he said. "It could be. I'm reasonably sure I've never been to your homeworld; I'd remember a phenomenon like that. But you never know." He shrugged. "I'm not inclined to argue with it or dissect it. I just feel it, and I've learned over the years to trust my instincts."
"Mm," said Korra, nodding thoughtfully. She looked off into the middle distance for a moment, like she had in the elevator, seeming momentarily much older; then she returned, shook her head again, and smiled. "Anyway, you've got an appointment and I've got to take care of some other stuff, but I'm not leaving town right away. You'll be hearing from me again soon." Then, not because it was of the moment like the first time, but because it just felt right, she hugged him again. "Thanks for taking me along today," she said. "It was really..." She groped for a word. "... special."
"Thanks for coming." Gryphon released her and stepped back a pace with a slightly bewildered smile. Around them, medical personnel and visitors passed here and there, paying their display no attention at all. It was Boyce Memorial; they were used to people getting sentimental in the lobby.
"This would've been a great day anyway," Gryphon continued, "but you've made it greater."
Korra grinned again. "It has been pretty great," she agreed, then thumped him on the shoulder and promised, "I'll be in touch," before stepping into the revolving door and letting it sweep her out to the street. He stood and watched her go, until she vanished out of sight beyond the lobby's glass frontage, then turned and headed for the elevator.
Excerpt from Avatar Korra's field report
to the White Lotus Advisory Council
Date: Xinqier, Liuyue 25, 272 ASC
Section: Persons of Interest
HUTCHINS, Benjamin, aka "Gryphon"; chief, International Police Organization. Born June (Liuyue) 20, 1973 (yes, you read that right, 146 years before Sozin's Comet - more on this in a bit) on Earth. Human, but - like most of the founders of the Wedge Defense Force - genetically modified in a way I don't even vaguely understand (and I don't feel bad about that; not many people out here understand it either, to judge from the press reports I've read) such that he's basically immortal. Looks like he's about 30.
This guy's CV reads like mine, Aang's, Roku's, and Kyoshi's all run together, if we had been operating on a galactic scale. Seriously, it'll make your head spin. He's been almost everywhere and done all sorts of crazy things. He might know pieces of more martial arts than I do, though he hasn't bothered mastering most of them; too busy being a fighter pilot, starship captain, and wandering troubleshooter, founding major cities, organizing galactic protection forces, and so forth.
The really startling thing about him is how normal he is, considering all of the above. He has moments where how old he is and how much he's seen slip out around the edges, but for the most part spending time with him is like hanging with a regular guy. He lives in a normal (if big) house in a decent neighborhood with his wife, a fellow 400-year-old galactic badass, and their (as of about 20 minutes ago) two children. We hit it off almost immediately, which you'll see in the section about what I spent the day doing. (You'll also see there that his domestic situation is a bit odder than I implied above, but, well, you'll see.)
In fact, we hit it off SO well I could swear I knew him already. The obvious way for that to have happened is if the Avatar Spirit met him in a previous life (mine or his) - but as far as he knows (strangely enough, in the light of the above) he HASN'T been to Zipang or Dìqiú before. I'd ask the others, but I'm a loooong way from the Spirit World out here, and so far I haven't had any luck making contact. (I know you're smirking at me, Jinora. We'll see how funny you think it is when it happens to you.) Anyway, might just be one of those things. Either way, it's a good thing, since it seems likely that if we are going to have closer contact with the galaxy beyond Zipang, Gryphon and his agency are going to be our interface.
The next phase of the operation will consist mainly of following up on this possibility. It's too early to say for certain, but my gut tells me I've found the right man at last. Not in that way. Stop laughing, Jinora.
Stay tuned. -KORRA
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
The Legacy of Korra, Book 6: Galaxy
Chapter 1: An Avatar in New Avalon
(in order of appearance)
Salutown Marriott Concierge
Ditko's Clerk 1
Unknown Person 1
Unknown Person 2
Ditko's Clerk 2
Agata (Geirmundsdottir) Ragnarsson
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Belldandy (Wishbringer) Morisato
The New Avalon Knights
The Mega Tokyo Giants
Assorted Cops and Robbers
Club HiRez "staff"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Philip Jeremy Moyer
Korra created by
Michael Dante DiMartino
and Bryan Konietzko
Legacy devised by
Philip Jeremy Moyer
ye suspicious Behaviour
The EPU Usual Suspects
Book 6 will continue with Chapter 2:
The Great Ziggurat Zeppelin Raid of 2391
E P U (colour) 2014