Some things in life are cyclical. Asami is thankful for the things that aren't.
Part 3 - This M.A.D. World of Ours
Section 4: "Rotunda"
General Iroh contemplated his next move. The First Division of the United Forces had been slowly advancing east into ex-Empire territory since Kuvira's defeat, and they'd had their fair share of scuffles with well equipped fanatics and bandits.
A few bandit camps had even managed to stockpile spirit vines, which the United Forces were thankfully able to secure before they fell into the wrong hands.
The goal was to survey Ba Sing Se, and get a good read on the situation there, while also clearing a path for the rest of their forces to follow behind them. So far, they'd been able to march just past the Great Divide, which had been a logistical nightmare to cross with a full military division.
He stared down at his map of the former Earth Kingdom and tapped his finger on the landmark labeled 'The Serpent's Pass'. "This is where we start. We can bypass most of the mainland if we fly over the sea and have pathfinders secure a forward base for the rest of our forces. The Earth Empire didn't have a navy, so we shouldn't be detected by any holdouts. If we want to make it to Ba Sing Se in one piece, this is the way to do it." He looked up at his commanders, waiting for input. They all nodded. "If no one has any objections, we'll begin making preparations immediately."
"I'm sorry to interrupt, sirs, but we've got a sandstorm coming our way."
Iroh looked out from his command tent to see one his scouts, a younger woman from the Fire Nation, sprint toward them. "Sandstorm? We're not in a desert." Far off in the distance behind the woman and beyond his camp was the single largest cyclone he'd ever seen. Bit by bit, it was getting larger. And closer. "What in the world…" He extended his open palm to the scout, and she handed him her telescope.
As Iroh walked through camp with the scout close behind, his soldiers began creeping out of each and every barracks. Slowly at first, a few at a time, but it very quickly turned into a crowd. All of them gaped at the peculiar sight.
Iroh extended the telescope and sighted the cyclone. It was at least two hundred feet in diameter and definitely composed of sand. The way it moved struck him as odd, though. Sandstorms didn't behave like tornadoes. Its shape was also oddly symmetrical, like a perfectly molded drill. Then, something clicked in the back of his mind.
Old, sage advice.
"You know, I was in a similar situation once. My platoon had crawled through the desert with no water for a week, but when we finally located the only oasis for a hundred miles, it was surrounded by angry sandbenders. I realized our only chance to get to the water was to drop in from above."
General Iroh increased the magnification and paled. "That's no sandstorm." He turned back to his men, conviction burning in his golden eyes. "We're under attack! Battalion commanders, form a defensive perimeter around the vines! Protect them at all costs!"
His soldiers scattered in a swift, orderly fashion. The combat alert horn began to blare throughout the camp and Iroh took another closer look at the source of the cyclone.
It took a considerable amount of willpower not to drop the telescope.
"Sandbenders, sir?" asked the scout.
"No. Just one."
"I think you're taking the term 'bath time' too literally, Korra."
Korra sat across from Asami in her luxurious marble bathtub. She smiled and raised a ball of water into the air, putting it into a controlled spin. "I disagree. Baths are a great time to practice waterbending, because you can't use your legs."
"That's...not quite what I mean. Do you want me to get some bath toys for you? Honestly, I think I still have my old ones in the basement…"
"I don't know what qualifies as a bath toy." She wiggled her eyebrows. "Unless that's-"
"It's not a euphemism."
"Oh. Well, then is it a...doll or something?"
Asami shrugged. "Depends. When I was a kid, I used to always take my baths with a wooden turtle-duck."
Korra gaped into a wide smile. "That's adorable." She cocked her head toward behind her. "C'mere. I want to see if we can cuddle while I do this."
"You are ridiculous." Asami laughed heartily and shifted across the bath, resting her very warm and toned back against Korra's chest. "This doesn't really work as well without your arms around me, and before you suggest it, no water tentacles don't count." She hummed contently and closed her eyes. "Do you use your legs a lot in waterbending?"
"...not really, no."
"Wow. It took me this long to realize my dad said that just to get me in the tub."
Asami chuckled. "It makes so much sense that you were the kind of toddler who hated baths."
"I didn't hate them. I just...there were better and cooler things to do!"
"Not a lot of games to play in the bath."
"Oh?" Asami turned herself around and looked up at her with eyes that were somehow still smokey despite the fact that there wasn't any makeup on them. She placed one hand on Korra's stomach and cupped her cheek with the other. "I think I know of a game that might be fun..." she said, tracing lazy circles on her abdomen.
Korra blushed, but only a little. "What kind of game?"
"An endurance challenge. It's called 'How long can Korra keep the water in the air'?"
"...how do I play?"
Asami smirked. "Oh, you don't." She brought her lips right next to her ear. "I do."
"Ooohhkay, I like this idea."
"Korra! Raiko is holding an emergency-OH SORRY SORRY SORRY!"
Korra and Asami screamed as Jinora's blue spirit flickered to existence in front of them. In less than a second, Korra shifted the water she was bending into a cloud of thick fog, shielding them from Jinora's eyes.
"What the hell, Jinora?! Don't you know how to knock?!" yelled Korra.
"It's spirit projection! How am I supposed to knock if there's no door?!"
"I don't know! It's your technique, you figure it out!"
Asami sighed. "Guys, calm down. Jinora, you said something about an emergency?"
"Yes! Raiko is holding an emergency meeting in his office right now and asked me to find you guys. Asami, you should bring your notes for the thing you're working on, whatever that is. Dad says it's really bad, but apparently he's not legally allowed to tell me more than that. So, get over there!"
Korra groaned. "Ugh! Fine! This had better be some huge crisis, or I am going to tear him a new one! Raiko, not your father."
"You want a crisis?" asked Asami.
"Well, no but...you get my point. Jinora? You still there?"
Korra reformed the fog into water and dropped it back into the tub. "Remote mood killing. The future of the Air Nation, right there."
Asami snorted. "I guess."
Korra furrowed a brow. "...wait. If it's an emergency meeting then…" She closed her eyes, placed her palm on the marble counter beside her, and took a deep breath. "Let me check something real quick."
"What are you doing?"
"Using spirit energy to spy on people."
Jinora opened her eyes, finding herself back in Raiko's office. She looked around the room and suddenly felt a little uncomfortable since Raiko, his bodyguards, Lin, Kuvira, Mako, Zhu Li, Varrick, and her father were all staring at her intently.
"Well, are they coming?" asked Raiko.
Jinora opened her mouth, but found she couldn't speak. Her entire head turned red.
Lin snickered into a loud bout of laughter. Mako looked at the ceiling with a badly hidden smile. Everyone else was baffled, and Jinora wasn't about to explain it. Instead she gave Raiko a silent nod.
"Good. Thank you for your help. Now, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you leave."
Jinora got to her feet and began walking toward the door. Then, just as she was about to leave, Kuvira actually squealed and shuddered.
"I, uhm, must have gotten the hiccups."
"I was right." Korra frowned. "Kuvira's there. Finally."
"Finally?" Asami scowled.
Korra cleared her throat. "Uh, it well, since she's not in prison, it means that...things happened, and once I get Raiko's clearance…" She bit her lip. "I can explain everything."
"That was weeks ago." Asami stared at her for a few moments. "What the hell has Raiko been doing?"
"You know I can't answer that."
Asami huffed. "Okay. Fine. Let's just get this over with."
Asami bursted into Raiko's office with a folder in one hand and Korra in the other. "What's wrong? What's the emergency?"
Kuvira, who was thankfully on the other side of the room between Mako and Lin, didn't seem to be interested in her at all. Her eyes were solely on Korra. Well, that was lucky. The fallen dictator looked lethargic, and Asami felt a sense of morbid satisfaction in that.
Raiko motioned behind her. "Close the door."
Korra slammed it shut. "There. What happened?"
"What I'm about to tell you, as well as everything said in this room, is classified top secret. Revealing this information to anyone who is not present, without my explicit permission, is a crime tantamount to high treason." He folded his arms behind his back. "Is that clear?"
Everyone nodded, even Kuvira.
"Good. Approximately seventy-two hours ago, General Iroh and the First Division of the United Forces were attacked just south of the Great Divide. They suffered minor casualties, but the Spirit Vines they'd been securing through their march to Ba Sing Se were stolen. They've only just now restored communications."
Asami's eyes widened. "Do we know who did it?"
"That's all we know so far, as that was General Iroh's preliminary report. We've been waiting for the two of you before he gets into more detail."
Korra looked around the room. "...but he's not here."
"Well, not physically, but with the power of radio, I may as well be."
"To answer your question, Miss Sato, we do not. As far as we can tell, we were overwhelmed by a single assailant."
The entire room was silent.
"...hello? Are you receiving me, Mister President?"
"Yes, General, we were simply very...surprised that this was the act of a single person. Are you absolutely positive that is the case?"
"Almost entirely. I'm putting this together from a few hundred reports but we're nearly certain it was only one bender. A master sandbender, considering he was able to create a massive sandstorm without any sort of body movement. I was able to catch a glimpse of him before they arrived at the camp, but I couldn't make out much more than the fact he was wearing a brown cloak and hood."
Kuvira blanched and seemed to struggle in her bindings.
"Typical." Lin grumbled."Height, build, gender?"
"Undetermined. The sandstorm made visibility almost non-existent."
"Of course it did..." said Lin, pinching her brow.
Korra raised a brow. "Sandbending? Seriously?"
"Many of the techniques employed by sandbenders are quite similar to airbending," said Tenzin. "In theory, a skilled enough sandbender could mimic the abilities of an airbender in conjunction with regular earthbending."
Korra shrugged. "Well, that wouldn't be the craziest thing we've seen."
Varrick and Zhu Li exchanged a look. "Feel like I've heard this story before…" mused Varrick. "Don't think I wrote it, though."
"General, this may sound like an odd question, but were any of your armored vehicles destroyed by this person?" asked Kuvira.
"...Mister President, may I ask why Kuvira is present?"
Asami frowned. "I would also very much like to know that."
"As of today, Kuvira is acting as a special consultant to the United Republic on all things regarding her former Empire, re-stabilizing the Earth Kingdom, and Spirit Vine weaponry."
"What he means to say is that I'm here because I'm more useful alive than I am dead. If you want me to help you, at least be transparent. I'm also bound in chains, in addition to being chi-blocked, if that alleviates some of your concerns."
Asami tried very, very hard not to smile. Only Korra elbowing her in the ribs got her to stop.
"Watch your tone, Kuvira. You know how this works. One step out of line, and you're done. End of story."
Kuvira frowned. "You should remember that I am doing this voluntarily."
Tenzin sighed. "Please, everyone, can we focus on the matter at hand? Spirit Vines were stolen."
Varrick clapped his hands together. "Which is bad, in case anybody forgot that little fact. Really bad! As in, end of the world bad!"
Mako slapped his forehead. "No one needed to be reminded of that!"
"I agree with Master Tenzin, and Varrick, I suppose. Though I have reservations with discussing confidential information-"
Raiko pinched his brow. "General. Just answer Kuvira's damn question."
"Yes sir. Two of our airships were shorn clean in half and several mecha-tanks were...well, they're gone. We're still finding bits and pieces around the area."
Asami raised her brows, remembering how tough and sturdy the armor plating on the mecha-tanks she'd sold to the United Forces were. "That...shouldn't be possible. No bender could move sand fast enough in order shred the armor by sheer friction."
Kuvira furrowed her brow. "It shouldn't be possible, but it very much is. I've encountered this before."
"When?" asked General Iroh, sounding a bit more urgent.
"Ba Sing Se. Three and a half years ago."
Varrick laughed once. "Oh, right! That time when Bolin lavabended the outer walls!"
"What?" Kuvira looked at him like he'd grown a second head. "What the hell are you talking abo-"
Kuvira's fleet of airships flew over Ba Sing Se's outer wall. The walls began to shudder, and she held her gaze, refusing to blink. She wouldn't miss a single moment.
The great outer wall of Ba Sing Se splintered and slowly began to crumble from the bottom up. The hardened and now weakened earth, built centuries ago, was being ripped apart by her legions.
Kuvira narrowed her eyes and held her hands behind her back. There would be time for celebration later.
Her soldiers worked in tandem, grounding themselves as they pulled down the wall with more and more power. VarriMechs drilled into the melted foundation, shredding the rock into dirt. Her tanks blasted apart slab after slab of the wall, their superior firepower puncturing the ancient structure.
Finally, it had reached its tipping point. The wall wavered, shuddered, and collapsed in on itself in a massive cloud of dust and debris that echoed throughout the desert.
The wall had fallen and she could feel the sense of triumph radiating through her army.
Kuvira's lips twitched, granting her the slightest of smiles. She gave Bolin, who was still sitting in the jeep, a sidelong glance. "Excellent work. You've just made history."
Bolin shrugged and picked at his teeth. "It's what I do."
Baatar listened to his headset for a moment. "We have boots on the ground. General Yao's metalbenders have made a successful jump."
Colonel Shu marked a few spots on their tactical map, just inside of the wall. "Our first squad of VarriMechs have also advanced forward. Reporting...no resistance. Streets are clear."
Kuvira folded her arms behind her back. "Good. We continue as planned." She squinted as she saw a thin, light brown line flicker in and out of existence around Yao's airship. She looked over at Baatar. "Did you see that?"
Baatar nodded slowly. "I did." He tuned his radio and tapped his headset. "General Yao, we saw some sort of disturbance or presence in your airspace. Can you confirm on your end?"
"We saw it too. Not sure what it...wait, hold on. Oh no."
Kuvira quickly moved back to her radio and yanked it out of the jeep. "What? What's wrong?"
"Ma'am, these buildings aren't made of rock. They're made of sand."
Colonel Shu raised a brow. "Why would they be made of-"
"Uh, guys? I think something's wrong," said Bolin.
Kuvira's first airship, a dreadnought in it's own right, was brutally torn to pieces by a dozen arcs of sand. It sliced through the engines and most of the hull, leaving black smoke in it's wake as the internal components slowly exploded. It began slowing down and teetering toward the ground.
"What just happened?!" barked Kuvira. "General Yao, respond!"
"It's the Dai Li! I repeat, the Dai Li are on the front lines! I, they really tore the ship up bad, ma'am. There's no way I can keep her in the air. At...at least five city blocks are sand facades! When did they become sandbenders?! I don't think-"
He was silenced by another barrage of sand arcs cracking through the airship, this time severing it in half and sending it crashing to the ground in flames. It crashed into the ground with enough force to kick up sand all back to her position.
Baatar was cycling through radio frequencies, getting panicked reports from the front line. "Kuvira, it's not just the airships." He'd gone through them quickly, but Kuvira had caught enough terrified screams to know something had gone horribly wrong. "Every squad who has entered the city is being torn to pieces. They're..." His eyes glazed over. "...flaying them with sand."
Colonel Shu shouted expletives the table as he scurried from radio switchboard to switchboard. "Every VarriMech and tank we've sent through the wall are reporting complete mechanical failures!"
She snatched a radio off of the command table. "ALL DIVISIONS, FALL BACK! I REPEAT, FALL BACK! THIS IS A FULL TACTICAL RETREAT! DO NOT ADVANCE PAST THE WALL!" she yelled into the microphone, her heart beating in a panic. "Would someone like to explain to me how any of this is even possible?! Sandbending is a brutish, relatively useless form, so how exactly is it tearing my army to pieces?!"'
Baatar stuttered. "I-I have no idea how they're doing it."
Bolin's eyes could not have been more outside of his head. "Uh, this is bad. Really bad."
"I refuse to believe that was only sandbending." Kuvira furrowed her brow at the fallen wall, her jaw setting powerfully. The entirety of her army was making a tactical retreat. She saw two more airships get systematically torn apart by the wrath of the sand, causing even more high explosives to send shockwaves toward their position.
"My VarriMechs are made of pure platinum. They cannot be bent. They are equipped with the most advanced military weaponry in existence, and you're telling me that sandbenders beyond that wall were able to decimate my troops, destroy my airships, and disable my VarriMechs, as well as my tanks? No single weapon or bending art, with the exception of lightning and combustion, could possibly accomplish that feat."
She glared daggers at the wall.
"We would have heard the explosions of a combustion bender, and seen thelightning if that were the case. It cannot just be sand. I need another explanation. Now."
Bolin shook his head, frowning. "Well, if we assume they're earthbenders, which we should since, well, it's Ba Sing Se. Who else would defend it? Also since they're the Dai Li, so...yeah. Earthbenders."
He got out of the jeep and stood beside her.
"It's not lavabending, though that should be obvious. It can't be metalbending, and no form of basic earth could cause that much damage in such a short amount of time." Bolin shrugged. "If you're positive it's notsandbending, maybe they've got a powerful spirit in there."
Baatar and Shu eyed Bolin, unamused.
"Really? A spirit? That's your best idea?" said Shu.
"What? It could happen! I'm just saying we can't rule out a possibility because it sounds crazy. The last time I did that, there was a giant monster fight in Yue Bay. I thought it was impossible that Unalaq wanted to take over the world and had some kind of doomsday device in order to do it. Well, turns out, he actually did!" He wiped off the sand from his uniform and hair. "I'm gonna be super happy to get out of this desert. Sand is just not fun to walk around in, and it gets everywhere!" He sighed. "The engineers for the airships and VarriMechs have had to work twice as hard since we started moving through the Si Wong. I feel bad for 'em."
Kuvira slowly turned to Bolin, the pieces falling into place. "Yes, that is unfortunate..." She inspected her own uniform to find little pockets of sand stuck against her. "They're not using sandbending as a hammer. They're using it as a blade. By forcing sand into every little nook and cranny of our armor, airships and VarriMechs, they can tear the target apart from the inside!"
"VARRICK!" yelled Kuvira. "Bolin wasn't there, the timeline is completely wrong, the Si Wong Desert is separated by a sea from Ba Sing Se, we flew over the wall and were taken down by the Dai Li once we reached the upper ring! Why would we need to tear it down?! We had airships!" She groaned. "And the VarriMechs didn't even exist yet! You were there! How are you remembering this wrong?!"
"I'm not remembering it wrong, I'm making it more entertaining." Varrick scoffed. "And this is why nobody likes your story. It's not dynamic or exciting! It's just sad and boring and dark! Gotta add some spice to it! Like lavabending!"
Asami raised a brow. "Bolin didn't even lavabend in the story you just told us. You...kind of implied it, but it wasn't there."
"Well, if I told you the whole story we'd be here all day."
"Okay kids, shut up." Lin covered her face with her hand. "Sandbending. Dai Li. Metalbending principles. Is that accurate, Kuvira?"
"And it wasn't just one person? It was a group of them?"
"That was something we never quite figured out. Once we'd rounded up the Dai Li for execution, we tried to discern which of them were sandbenders. They had caused the most destruction by far, but not a single one was among them."
Lin raised a brow. "...did you ever consider that they might have been lying?"
"Of course. However, these sandbenders had the same capability as the one General Iroh described, so one by one, as they were put to death...not a single one resisted effectively. If they were the ones who'd nearly obliterated Ba Sing Se just to ensure we couldn't take it, they would have easily won against our very...minimalistic approach."
"You're sure you didn't miss a few?" asked Mako.
"I was very thorough," she said, clenching her jaw.
"Good riddance…" grunted Lin.
Tenzin stroked his beard. "Normally, I would say it must have been the work of a large group of sandbenders, but then, what would that say about Yakone? Or Amon?" He hummed. "Yakone was able to bloodbend, in broad daylight, an entire courtroom simultaneously without moving a muscle. Including Avatar Aang. His son was able to sever a bender's connection to their element. If they were capable of such things individually, then it's entirely possible that you may have been facing one bender when you were searching for many."
Kuvira nodded. "I would not discount it, even it is the far more dangerous reality."
"How did you manage to beat them the first time, Kuvira?"
"I didn't. They simply stopped attacking once I'd secured half the city."
Raiko nodded. "It most certainly does. Almost as if it was planned."
"Be that as it may, we have to focus on the more pressing matter. Someone is stockpiling spirit vines, and the United Forces is simply ineffective against that kind of weapon. I was informed a few weeks ago that there was research being done in how to combat this new threat."
Asami cleared her throat. "Yes, that's true, General Iroh. Varrick, Zhu Li and I have been developing a sort of...let's call it an energy transfer device. I won't bore you with the details, but we've discovered that it's possible to not only diffuse the energy of a spirit vine weapon, but to eliminate the spirit vine entirely by a specific type of implosion."
"Perfect. Is it ready?"
"Unfortunately, no. We're still not quite to the testing phase, but I'm confident we'll get there."
"We should be able to begin testing within three weeks, sir," said Zhu Li.
Asami shot her a very confused look, which Zhu Li returned with a confident smile. Okay. Apparently Zhu Li had some new theories she had to discuss.
"That's less than ideal, but it's better than what we had a minute ago."
Raiko nodded. "Agreed. However, defending ourselves isn't our only priority. We also need to address the growing concern that vines are being smuggled out of the city. Chief Beifong, I believe you and Detective Mako have made progress on this?"
Lin sighed. "We found yet another series of secret tunnels that go far into the countryside that just happen to also be directly underneath high concentrations of Spirit Vines."
"They're the same tunnels that Wu made to help evacuate the remaining civilians during Kuvira's siege," added Mako. "We've already sealed them, and we're getting the local authorities to watch the exit for suspicious activity. However, we're not convinced that the trucks you guys managed to catch and this tunnel system are part of the same smuggling operation."
Korra narrowed her eyes. "Why's that?"
"Well, one's incredibly sloppy and the other isn't. Above ground transportation with poorly concealed cargo just screams amateur, and the Spirit Vines they were carrying were barely bundled together."
Lin nodded. "It sounds like Triad work, because, technically, it was. They were hired through several intermediaries, most of which were either very clearly murdered or vanished off the face of the planet. We have a few in custody, but they're small time, and the next guy above them isn't much different. We're going to keep digging, but in my opinion it's wasted effort. This is a very long trail, and whoever's behind this knows exactly what they're doing." She frowned. "Honestly, it would be more suspicious if these people weren't terrorists. And considering the destructive capabilities of these weapons…"
Korra shook her head. "Let's not say it's them until we actually know. It could just as easily be something else."
"With all due respect, Avatar Korra, this motivation does sound like that of the Red Lotus. If they truly seek the destruction of government and society itself, this would be the most effective way to accomplish that goal."
Tenzin nodded. "I have to agree with General Iroh. We must prepare for the worst."
Asami turned toward Korra. "They're right. It sounds like them."
Korra crossed her arms. "I know. I'd rather it didn't."
"We all do. There's no telling where or when they'll strike, or even where they'd be keeping their vines. Well, no that's not strictly accurate. Kuvira, did you use all of your Spirit Vine stockpile in the construction of the Colossus?"
"No. As I already stated in my official report, we overharvested by a significant margin. The vast majority of them were stored in the manufacturing facility just south of Zaofu, but I doubt they're still there. Twenty-five stories underground."
"It can't hurt to check."
"Knowing my loyalists, it absolutely could."
The emergency meeting had lasted another hour, and Asami wasn't sure why. They'd gone over the same information and analyzed it a dozen times, when really that wasn't their jobs at all. Once it was finally over, she and Korra hung back in Raiko's office. She was going to get to the bottom of that...weird and probably stupid 'betrayal' Korra couldn't talk about.
Korra crossed her arms. "Okay. Kuvira's out."
Raiko raised a brow. "Yes, I'm aware of that. Your point?"
Korra gestured frustratedly at Asami. "Take a wild guess!"
"Oh, that. Well, Miss Sato, information regarding the details of Kuvira's...change in position were deemed on a need-to-know basis." He turned to glare at Korra. "Unless you have a habit of bursting into private meetings unannounced, it was unnecessary to inform you of this."
"Okay…" Asami pinched her brow. "...and why, exactly, was Korra forbidden to tell me this?"
"It was a matter of national security. Our plan needed to stay a secret for the time being. Having that leak to the press before it was already said and done would have been a PR nightmare."
"I wouldn't have said anything. I would have been beside myself with anger, which I currently am, but I wouldn't have said anything. I understand perfectly well what the consequences of that sort of leak would be. You know that." She frowned. "Riots, protests, large scale disarray all across the country. Oh, and lots of contention from the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation as well. Not to mention the innocents still in the former Earth Kingdom."
"I'm well aware. Avatar Korra was the one who suggested you be kept in the dark, as you would have taken it far too personally to keep quiet."
"I did not say that! I told you that I wanted to discuss it with her before I agreed to help you!" Korra scowled. "Because it is personal for her, and I didn't want to go behind her back!" She looked to Asami, worried. "I swear I didn't say that."
"Obviously. Don't you think I know that?" She turned to glare at Raiko. "Quit twisting her words. What did you say to her to keep her quiet? Because there's no way that was enough to do it."
Raiko pinched his brow. "Are you saying that she didn't tell you about this?"
"No. She did not," she said, lying far too easily. Not a trait she was proud of, but a useful skill at times.
"...the one time you actually do what I ask…"
Korra looked baffled. "You wanted me to… Wait a minute." She raised her palms in front of her. "You said that you'd be forced to use some sort of...president...thing so that for some reason Future Industries would have to start developing weapons again! If I told her!" She groaned. "And she doesn't do that anymore, so of course I did what you said! If I told her, it'd be my fault she has to go back into that business!"
Raiko scowled. "Yes! Forced to do so because of the riots and this country entering a state of emergency! We need to be able to defend ourselves, and Spirit Vine weaponry is by far the most effective way to do so. The materials for making them are in my office." he said, pointing at the large spirit vine growing through his window.
Asami couldn't decide whether to laugh or wring Raiko's neck for blackmailing the Avatar. She imagined the latter very vividly, but chose the former due to it being...not illegal. So she laughed. Very hard. "You are asick, twisted old man. Blackmailing the Avatar?" She glowered at him. "That's disgusting."
Raiko narrowed his eyes at her. "I don't appreciate your tone. And why are you laughing?"
Korra blinked. "...wait, I don't understand. Is this even about me?"
Asami shook her head. "No. It's not. Raiko just wants Spirit Vine weapons, so he...made you think that if word got out, the United Republic would need them, and he could probably spin the story that way, too. That way, he'd be entirely legally justified in forcing Future Industries down a path of his own design."
"What?!" Korra's eye twitched. "I'm going to go wait by the car before I blow up this office." She airbended his door open and slammed it closed as she left.
Asami winced as she heard the unmistakable sound of Korra screaming down the hall.
Raiko hummed. "I'll probably have to replace that."
Asami smirked. "You're also going to have to replace your antiquated notions of backroom politics and manipulations, Mister President."
"Really. And why is that?"
Asami fished a business card out of her pocket and gently placed it in his hands. "Because Future Industries hasn't been legally based in the United Republic for almost three years."
He stared at the card. "The Fire Nation? How did you..."
Asami laughed once. "I looked into the United Republic's new constitution and found that the government had the right to issue 'Executive Orders' to private corporations during 'periods of great turmoil' in order to 'ensure the posterity of the nation and the safety of the people'." She shrugged. "Obviously, that was a big red flag for myself and the entire legal division. We made the switch before you could try and pull anything like this."
"And what if war does break out? Or a series of devastating terrorist attacks? What then, Miss Sato? What if your company could prevent these things?"
Asami sighed. "It can't. Weapons don't prevent wars, they only instigate them. And if those things were to happen, well, then I'd have my integrity and the knowledge that nothing I built is being used to harm others."
"After everything that's happened these past few years, I find your idealism ludicrous."
"Close, but not an idealist. Optimist."
"Oh, so you're only slightly delusional?"
"Wow." Asami rolled her eyes. "Okay, I'm done. I'll send over reports when progress is made on the defense systems." She walked out the door and slammed it shut behind her. "And you just lost my vote!"
"Why is it that every politician seems to be out to get me?" asked Korra, leaning against the passenger door of Asami's blue roadster.
Asami shrugged as she walked down the steps of the freshly refurbished City Hall. "They probably feel threatened since your name carries a level of weight and legitimacy they can never hope to achieve."
Korra smiled a little bit. "...okay, you know what? I can live with that." Then, she frowned. "Of course, all of that sneaking around was for nothing. Now I feel even worse about it."
"Don't." Asami smiled kindly and shook her head. "And it was definitely not for nothing, as far as I'm concerned. You knew how much it would hurt me if I had to make weapons again." Asami wrapped her in a tight hug. "Thank you. You put my own self-worth, my integrity, above us. You are selflessly insane and I'm so sorry for doubting you."
"Yeah, I can be...sorta crazy like that sometimes." Korra gave her a crooked grin. "It's okay. You had a pretty good reason to. It's not like I was making any sense." She raised a brow. "...so are we okay, or…?"
Asami got in her car and turned on the ignition. "That depends on what we're talking about."
Korra hopped into the passenger seat. "The whole 'stabbing you in the back' thing."
"Korra, you didn't actually do that. You did the opposite. So, yes, of course we're okay." Asami cleared her throat as she sent the car roaring off toward her office. "But not on the other thing."
"I didn't think so." Korra leaned against the side door and shrugged. "Yeah, well, I doubt we ever will be."
"At least she's all chained up and chi-blocked. I feel a little better after seeing that."
"You enjoyed that sight way too much. I think Mako noticed, because he was making that face he makes when he thinks you did something ridiculous."
"He has a lot of those faces."
"Hah. Yeah." Korra tapped her thighs. "You know what we should do now?"
"We should...continue our game."
Asami sighed and turned down a sidestreet, merging in and out of traffic like she'd been born behind the wheel. Which wasn't too far off base. "As much as I'd enjoy that, we sort of have to deal with this whole...spirit vine terrorism issue. Hopefully Zhu Li wasn't just bluffing back there, because we are not progressing as quickly as we need to be."
"Why don't you just see if you can get Baatar Jr. to help you on work release?"
Asami winced. "I tried that already. He, uh, actually wasn't able to replicate the generator after the first prototype. It just sort of...started working, and he doesn't know why."
Korra blinked. "Wow."
"Yeah…" She frowned. "I was able to track down one of the engineers who worked on the Colossus, though. I'm interviewing her as soon as she gets to the city. There was a stall on the political asylum paperwork, or something."
"Oh, right, yeah, you mentioned that this morning. I'm sure that'll go well."
Korra was silent for a few moments. "...how badly is the project going?" she asked quietly.
Asami's shoulders slumped in her seat and she let out a shaky breath. "Horribly. I just...we can't figure it out. We found out how to make the generator, but every design permutation we've tried doesn't transfer nearly enough energy back into the Spirit World. It just explodes. I try to make the opposite of a bomb, and I end up making an inefficient one." She gripped the steering wheel tighter as she made a hard turn. "I keep thinking it might have been a fluke. A one time only thing."
"It wasn't. You will figure it out."
"...dad would know how to fix this," whispered Asami involuntarily. She felt a sudden rush of pain in her chest and crushed it immediately with a small breath, burying the feeling with the rest of her irrational bursts of emotion. Her eyes stung and she blinked the redness away. "You're right. I'll find a way. I always have."
Korra frowned, concerned. "I know you're sick of hearing this, but are you sure you don't want to-"
"There's nothing to talk about, Korra. I did my grieving a long time ago. There's no sense in repeating it."
Korra hesitated, but then nodded. "Okay. I know his birthday is coming up. Do you want to do something for that?"
Asami shrugged. "I really hadn't put that much thought into it. I guess we could do what I did the first time."
"You mean when he went to jail."
"Yeah, but he was effectively dead to me. It's just a difference in semantics. Meaningless, really."
"Well, what did you do?"
"Nothing special. I sat next to my mother's gravestone and drew whatever came to mind."
Asami huffed. "I don't know. I doubt I even have those sketchbooks anymore. I think I lost them during that home invasion. There was a lot of fire damage."
"Hey." Korra reached across the car and rubbed Asami's leg. "We can do that again."
"...you don't get vacation time, Korra. At least, not typically. I'd normally clear my whole day and just...sit."
"Well, this isn't a typical situation, then."
"Okay, but you don't have to stay with me the whole time. Something could happen, so you probably shouldn't."
"Too bad, 'cause I am."
Asami gave her a sidelong glance. "It's going to be really boring."
Korra smiled and shrugged. "Then I guess it'll be boring."
Asami flattened her lips and turned her eyes back to the road. "All right, then."
"...this might actually work, Zhu Li," said Asami, inspecting the highly detailed blueprint. "But I'm worried about the power dispersal that circles back through the vine circuit. I know the idea is the ensure that it retains its physical structure in our world, but if it radiates outward, where does the excess energy go?"
"Ideally? It'll shoot straight into the sky and fly off into space."
"There's always the chance that it could just explode."
Varrick shrugged. "There's always the chance that anything could just explode, but you can't let that slow you down. It's just part of being a scientist."
Asami narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm an engineer."
"That too," he said, pointing at her with a screwdriver. "By the way, are we still getting that...uh, Zhu Li, what were we waiting for, again?"
"I believe Asami mentioned hiring one of the engineers who worked on the Colossus."
"Yes. That. Are we getting that?"
Asami massaged her temples. "I don't know. And it's an interview, not a job offer. Baatar spoke highly of her, but he basically built the most important part of the thing with dumb luck." She frowned. "It doesn't really fill me with confidence."
"I suppose it wouldn't, but then that's why I'm here in person," said an unfamiliar voice.
A taller, fit woman with a clear mix of both Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation ancestry, if her dark amber eyes and tell-tale brows were any indication, stood just inside the doorway of Asami's personal workshop.
"Artana Kuze, I presume?" asked Asami, giving the newcomer a calculating look. She looked well into her thirties and had dark brown hair pulled back into a loose bun. She was dressed practically, with a blue-grey Earth Kingdom tattoos peeking out of her neckline, like she'd been welding and hadn't had time to change.
"You presume correct. I got here as soon as I could, but I was a little turned around by the trolley system. Have I come at a bad time?"
"No, simply the wrong place." Asami raised a brow. "I'm certainly not going to be conducting an interview in here. It's not proper. Go back to the elevator and head down to the lobby. I'll be with you in around half an hour. My office is on the fortieth floor."
Artana gave her a short bow. "Of course. Sorry for the interruption." She spun on her heel and walked out the door.
"So that's the, uh, mecha lady?" asked Varrick, picking his teeth with the same screwdriver.
"She seems polite enough," said Zhu Li.
"She seems...oddly well built."
Zhu Li gave her a dead stare.
"Fair point. But manners aren't everything. Varrick is living proof of that."
"Normally, I'd dispute that with a well versed argument, but we really don't have that kind of time to waste. We've got terrorists to deal with!" Varrick looked between Zhu Li and Asami. "...look, just putting this out there. My thoughts. If this lady worked on the giant mechasuit, we have to give her a chance. I didn't work on the mechasuit. Zhu Li didn't work on the mechasuit. You didn't work on the mechasuit. We've got a wreck, but even then it's an intricate and almost incomprehensible piece of technology. She could have a manual! For the mechasuit! Well, the generator, but you get the idea."
Asami sighed. "Fine. You...have a point, Varrick. And everyday that phrase somehow becomes easier to say."
"Told you I'd grow on yah!" he said with a wink and a smile.
Asami, now fully poised and presentable after a quick wardrobe change, sat at her desk, sketching new improvements for the Satohawk. Designing it to be modular, so that she could sell a universal production model to the public while still maintaining her own private custom work, had proved to be an increasingly complicated task. Which, of course, only motivated her more. It was a challenge that didn't involve anything but her own mental prowess, as opposed to all of her other projects.
Which mostly involved everything but her mental prowess. Because investors liked to whine, and the defense project was...mind numbingly frustrating.
There was a knock at the door.
Artana entered with a humble smile. "Thank you for taking the time to see me, Miss Sato."
Asami flattened her expression and gestured to the chairs in front of her. "Close the door and sit down."
Artana did as she was told. "I have what documentation I was able to recover from the rather...shattered remains of the Earth Empire, but unfortunately official records from Ba Sing Se University were-"
Asami slapped a Pai Sho board on to her desk and slid a box of game pieces beside it. "The guest has the first move."
Artana examined the board for a moment. "Your reputation as a tactician precedes you, Miss Sato." She looked up at her with a confident smirk. "I was almost positive that these rumors were completely fabricated." She carefully put each tile into place, most likely assuming that the set was very expensive.
It was not. Asami had bought it on a whim from a department store. Well, not a whim, but...on hope. Regardless, the nice boards were at home.
"Who do you think is encouraging those rumors? It's a Sato tradition. Whenever we hire a new high-level engineer, they have to prove that they can keep up with the rest of us. Documentation can be bought." Asami arranged her pieces with practiced precision. "Skill cannot."
Artana rubbed her chin. She placed a white lotus tile in the corner of the board.
Asami raised a brow. Surely this woman wasn't...well, she had to find out. It was far too interesting an opportunity. "I see you favor the White Lotus gambit. Not many still cling to the ancient ways."
Artana simply nodded. "Those who do can always find a friend."
Asami rested her chin on her hands. "...then let us play."
In less than a minute, they'd performed the traditional sequence perfectly, the both of them clacking their pieces to the board one after the other in rapid succession. Then, it stared up at them.
A lotus in bloom.
Asami chuckled in disbelief. "No one has ever tried that before. In fact, I've never met anyone who actually knew the historically accurate sequence."
Artana shrugged. "I've met plenty who know it. It might just be more common in the Earth Empire...Kingdom. Although that's hardly a demonstration of skill."
"Well, no, but I do appreciate it all the same. Not even the Avatar thinks fondly of the White Lotus these days."
"Wait, so they actually did lock her in a prison for most of her life? I thought that was just the tabloids making things up."
"Well…" Asami bobbed her head from side to side. "Yes and no. It's complicated, and not really that important. She got out."
"Fair enough." Artana hummed. "Do you know if they even still do this? With Pai Sho?"
Asami frowned. "I've met a lot of members, and not once have I seen them playing a single game."
Artana looked a little downtrodden, but not surprised. "That's a shame. I'd hoped that, at the very least, this tradition would have endured." She shrugged. "Ah, well. There's no sense clinging to the past. Things change, and new needs arise. The heroes of old aren't the legends of today, after all."
"That's for sure. I used to idolize them when I was a girl. Now? They're just not the same."
Artana smirked. "My sentiments exactly."