Secrets and Tunnels
Asami takes two steps forward on one path and one step back on another. Or three. Nine. Fifteen. She has no idea.
Also, Mako gets back to business.
Part 3 - This M.A.D. World of Ours
Section 2: "Secrets and Tunnels"
Asami stood in the wrecked head of the Colossus.
The command center was a mess of exposed wires and cables, obscuring the room. The once mobile central platform was lodged into the ground at an ugly angle, and the complex hydraulic systems that controlled spilled out onto the cold metal floor.
Asami carefully moved a curtain of wires out of her way and swept her flashlight along the instrument panels at the back of the helm. Most of them were shorted out or partially crushed from the impact, but a few were more or less intact. She traced her gloved index finger along the edge of the panels, eventually stopping at one that looked relevant.
'Power Control System'. Simple and concise. All of the buttons and dials, however, were anyone's guess. She wished she had a manual. Everything was labeled in MVs. She had no idea what that was.
"Any luck in there, Asami?!" barked Varrick.
Asami jumped and spun around to see Varrick's head poking in from above the shattered view port. "Sort of! The power readouts are still legible and..." She crouched down and yanked off the metal grate of the enclosure, revealing a few thousand wires of many, many colors. "Yup! Internal wiring is pretty much intact, too! Only problem is I can't read the measurements. It's some sort of proprietary unit of energy."
"You mean it's not in Teos?"
"No, it isn't. I mean, that's been a standard for power for over seventy years. Why change it now?"
Varrick raised a brow and massaged his mustache...while still upside down. "If I had to guess, she just renamed it without changing anything else. Egotistical tyrants love that sort of thing. What's the needle stuck at?"
"That's where it gets odder." Asami tapped one of the glass covered readouts. "Ten."
"That's barely enough power a lamp! All right, I'm comin' down there!" He clapped his hands together. "Bolin, let me down! Gently." Varrick front flipped down to the ground and landed perfectly. He looked up and grinned. "Thanks!"
"I was about to drop you anyway! You're really heavy for someone your size!" Bolin poked his head into view in much the same way Varrick had. "Oh, wow, this thing looks even weirder on the inside. Hey Asami!" he said, waving and grinning.
Asami smiled and gave him a mock-salute. "Hey Bolin. Did you go make sure the press won't step anywhere near the estate?"
"I think so. I made a giant lava moat in front of your really long driveway."
Opal's head popped up, or rather down, beside his. "And I pushed the few who were brave enough to try and cross it really far back. Quite a few waterbenders in that crowd."
Asami smiled. "Thanks, you two."
Varrick hopped and skittered over toward her and snatched the flashlight out of her hands. He squinted and swiped the light over everything in the room, including her eyes, and returned to the read-out Asami had been looking at. "Hmmmm..."
Asami bristled and buried the instinct to punch him in the head. No respect for personal space. No respect for anything or anyone that wasn't Zhu Li! Unprofessional! "You're just doing that to get on my nerves, aren't you?"
Varrick waggled a finger at her. "Keeps you on your toes!" He squinted at the needle. "MV? Oh!" He laughed and handed the flashlight back to Asami. "Varrick! It's in Varricks! Of course it is! That's the only thing that would make sense on a scale this large! And it's in Mega Varricks! Hah!"
Asami wrinkled her nose. "You named a massive unit of power after yourself?"
"You betcha! Did the same thing with Zhu Li! A single one of her, well her average weight, is approximately 7.33 Sokkas. A Varrick is...uhhh..." He counts on his fingers several times in rapid succession. "Three hundred trillion Teos. Yes! Three hundred trillion! That's not just some random number, by the way. It's more or less how much energy is generated when firing the spirit cannon."
"Are you telling me..." Asami heard her heart pound in her chest. That was...more power than should ever exist. It was several magnitudes more energy than was needed to power the entire planet. Several hundred thousand times. "That it takes ten times that much to power this thing?!"
"Hah, I wish! It's in mega Varricks! It's actually a ten million times more. Literally! Which is...wait, I forgot how many zeroes this was…" He mumbled several dozen words that Asami couldn't make out. "Right! 1.2 times 10 to the 21st power. In Teos."
Bolin hopped down to the ground. "Well, I guess you'd need that kind of energy if you wanted to shoot...purple beams of death everywhere." He looked around the head. "Still not really sure what that was, by the way."
"Neither do I! Only thing I do know is that it's not electrical energy. Otherwise, an electromagnetic pulse would have taken this down with no trouble at all."
Asami frowned and pinched her brow, pushing the sheer power output madness to the bottom of her stomach. Deal with it later. "Oh, yes, I remember that part very vividly. You told me to unplug everything and ran out the door. I'm still replacing my building's entire electrical system, by the way."
"Casualties of war, Asami. Gotta learn to roll with the punches."
Asami stared at him for a moment. Casualties. It was amazing how she'd bury one gripe against Varrick, just for another to surface. "Yeah, you and me both." She punched him in the stomach. She flexed her fingers and glared at Varrick. "You really can't blame me for that one."
"I get it, okay? Poor choice of words. Ugh, you punch like an angry elephant-rhino!" Varrick groaned and clutched his stomach. "At least you didn't hit me in the head."
"And risk a concussion? We need your mind, not your stomach," she said, turning her back to them and crouching down to take another look at the wiring. "Varrick, why don't you go find Zhu Li and see if the two of you can piece together the remains of the spirit vine generator, or whatever was capable of generating 10 Mega Varricks of power."
Bolin scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, they're not going to find that."
Asami ducked her head into the access hatch and looked downward. It was almost as if the wires and internal lines were...seared off. "Why not, Bolin?"
"It just sort of vanished. Mako shot lightning into the big thing of spirit vines and next thing you know, lots of lights and...poof. Gone. It was really weird."
Varrick straightened back up to his feet and paced around Bolin. "That is weird! It only took enough vines to fill a barrel to blow up a big stretch of nothing! A few hundred feet in every direction, if memory serves."
"Wait..." Asami blinked and felt the gears in her head spin faster and faster. "We already know that when introduced to a powerful enough electrical current, spirit vines release exponentially more energy and eventually explode." She turned back toward the rest of them, pushing her confusion as to why Opal was still hanging upside down into the back of her mind. Maybe it was an airbender thing? "Bolin, how many vines did Mako shoot lightning into?"
Bolin hummed in thought. "I couldn't give you a number, because there were a lot and they were all sort of...tied together, but it was around as big as, let's say around three satomobiles? Maybe four. About the size of the nice blue one you drive."
Varrick's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "That's enough energy to destroy the entire city. And the mountains surrounding it!"
Asami nodded slowly. "That's just what I was thinking."
Bolin's eyes widened. "Uhhh, okay. That's pretty scary. If it didn't explode, then...what did it do?"
Asami and Varrick locked eyes for an instant. It was the only logical explanation. "It imploded!" they said in unison.
"Imploded…?" asked Bolin.
Varrick slung his arm around Bolin's shoulder. "Total opposite of an explosion! Instead of throwing big purple energy everywhere, it, uh, pushes it all inside of itself until it's gone!"
"That doesn't make any sense."
"I know. Implosions are crazy like that, but trust me---"
"I sorta don't."
"They do exist!"
Bolin looked at Asami and shrugged. "Okay, so it...imploded? Why'd it do that? I'm gonna use logic here for a second, yes, crazy I know," he said with a grin. "But it seems to me that, since lightning is energy...putting more into a thing that makes lots of it would make it explode. Which was the original plan, and wow that was not a good plan."
Asami smirked. "When has logic ever applied to the Spirit World?"
"Yeah, but that doesn't really help with this. There has to be a reason, right?"
Varrick shook his head. "There doesn't have to be a reason. It's the Spirit World."
Asami crossed her arms and leaned back against the panel. "I hate to admit it, but he's right. Nothing has to make sense."
"Uhh, okay? Well, just throwing this out here, random thought. Maybe it has something to do with the generator? It didn't look anything like the one Varrick made and then turned into a bomb. It wasn't even inside a tube. Just a big tangle of glowing vines."
"That's...certainly possible. I have no idea how that would cause an implosion, though."
Opal rolled her eyes. "Why don't you two geniuses just go and ask my brother about this? He's in prison, not dead."
"Oh. I didn't think he'd be so forthcoming."
"Well, you won't know until you try. Do you want me to call Auntie Lin and get her to grant you clearance?"
Asami chuckled. Auntie Lin. "That would be great, thanks."
"All right, I'll go do that," she said. With a burst of air, she heard Opal glide away.
Asami cleared her throat. "While I'm out, Varrick, I want you and Zhu Li to start making small-scale spirit bombs. The kind of thing we could blow up in the yard and not cause an international incident. Both the 'dirty' and 'clean' varieties. They're for testing, not for weapons development. " She clapped Bolin on the shoulder as Varrick sprinted like a wildman out of the Colossus. "Bolin, could you---"
"Get rid of the lava?"
"Well, yes, that, but I was wondering if you could come with me. Prisons..." She bit her lip for a moment and shuddered. "I don't like prisons."
Asami smiled gratefully. "Thanks."
Korra leaned against the thick padded walls of the platinum cell. She looked down at Kuvira, who had somehow managed to stay fit while in jail. Pride was a hard thing to humble. The former tyrant still wore green, but they looked more like rags than a uniform. Well, it still technically was a uniform. Just not as nice. "I'm surprised nobody has tried to break you out yet."
Kuvira shrugged. "I'm sure there have been attempts. Fanaticism is difficult to stem. However, it is very easy to encourage."
Korra chortled dryly. "Anyone ever tell you to write a book of proverbs? I think it would sell pretty well."
"...it is something I considered, to be perfectly honest. Something a bit more modern than 'The Dragon of the West', which is a fantastic book, if you've never read it. But, that would have been far more egotistical than I was willing to go."
Korra had not read that book. She did, however, remember seeing a signed copy of it in Asami's library. To Satoru, no less. "You do remember that people wore shirts with your face on them, right?"
"I didn't manufacture those. I didn't create them. I didn't suggest them. Personally, I thought they were ridiculous. Baatar bought one as a joke, which was, I'll admit, amusing at first." She smiled sadly. "The look on his face when I tore it off and threw it into the campfire was adorable."
Korra tilted her head. "Hey, so, I've got a question."
"You often do."
"Right, well, this time it's important."
"It often is."
Korra glared down at her. "Kuvira."
Kuvira held up her palms in a placating manner. "I concede. What is your question, Avatar?"
"Before you found the swamp, did you have any plans of smuggling spirit vines out of Republic City?"
"Smuggling? After Varrick and Bolin defected..." Kuvira narrowed her eyes. "I sent agents into the United Republic to investigate if such a thing were possible, but they ended up coming back empty handed...because for some reason they thought that I wanted custody of Wu." She rolled her eyes. "Capable though they were, they failed to understand that such an act was, inevitably, meaningless. What was I to do with him? Kill him? Throw him in a prison camp? No matter my decision, nothing would change."
Korra sighed. "I suppose not."
"Why are you asking this?"
Korra looked at the former tyrant gloomily. "We caught two trucks trying to smuggle several dozen bundles of vines across Kyoshi bridge last week. No identifiable markings on the drivers or the trucks, and one of them was a firebender, but...I thought I'd at least check." Korra rubbed her forehead. "I had to be sure."
"I understand. However, even if they were part of my old regime, they would not be attempting to build another mecha-suit. I promise you that."
"I figured as much. Not enough metal. Well, obviously, everyone is worried what this could all mean..."
"It can mean a lot of things, Avatar." Kuvira clenched her jaw. "Is anyone...actively developing these weapons? Not individuals. Nations."
Korra shrugged. "I don't know, but I don't think so. Neither my cousins or my father would have any interest in messing with the spirits after Harmonic Convergence, so the Water Tribes aren't touching this stuff. The Fire Nation, well, no. Needs no explanation. Same for the Air Nation." She crossed her arms. "As for the United Republic, I know Raiko wants them, but the only minds smart enough, as far as I know, all refused to make them for him. Or they're in jail."
Kuvira sighed deeply and looked...surprisingly relaxed. "Good. Let us both hope it stays that way."
"It won't," she said bluntly. The absolute certainty in her tone surprised her.
Kuvira scoffed. "Pessimism, coming from you? Interesting."
"I've been a pessimist for a long time, Kuvira. Ever since I left home and came here. Assume the worst, and you come out on top. It's worked for me so far. Mostly."
Kuvira simply nodded.
"Okay, worst case scenario? How about you give me that?"
Kuvira stared off into space. "Avatar, you do not want to learn of this."
"Actually, I do. So spill it or this nice conversation ends."
Korra frowned. "Try again."
"I'm not telling you today, Avatar. It is a burden you do not have to carry. For now, at least."
"Fine, be a martyr again." Korra shrugged and rapped her knuckles against the platinum door. "I'll see you when I see you."
"I look forward to it."
For Korra, the sequence of exiting the cell and being escorted back to the main wing of the prison had become a blur of muscle memory. Always the same and an exercise in her patience of monotony. The same was true for actually getting in to the maximum security wing. Checked for metal, water, sand and rocks. Questioned the purpose of her visit. Signed lots of documents. As the Avatar, she thought at first that she should be exempt because she put her there in the first place, but then that would set a bad precedent blah blah blah.
Ugh. Politics were infuriating most of the time.
"Korra, I saw Naga outside. What are you doing here?"
Korra snapped back from automatic and found herself in the lobby of the prison staring at Asami, holding a stack of papers. Muscle memory is no longer to be trusted. "What are...you doing here?" Smooth, Korra. Smooth.
Asami slowly raised a brow. "I'm visiting Baatar Jr. We're getting his input on..." She gave her a look. That one. The one that she's supposed to know. "Seaweed noodle recipes." Oh, the vines. Right.
"Oh, I hear he's the best at that! Be sure to write them down so we can cook it later."
"Little too far there."
"Just a bit."
Bolin barreled through the front door, dozens of camera bulbs flashing behind him. He slammed the doors behind him with a scared look on his face. "Asami, I can't tell where the Nuktuk fans start and the reporters begin! That is a very confusing crowd! Also I think Naga might have eaten someone's camera." He looked over at Korra and grinned. "Hey Korra wait, why are you in prison?"
Korra blinked. "I was...looking for the bathroom."
Asami shot her an unamused look. "In prison."
"Yes. It's a water tribe thing."
"Looking for a bathroom. In a prison."
"Did you find it?"
"...no. Okay, so gotta go do Avatar things! Bye!"
"You're a terrible liar." Before she moved another inch, Asami had her hand on her forearm, gripping it like a vice. "Why are you here, Korra?" she asked quietly.
"I came here to see you, obviously."
"You didn't know I'd be here."
Bolin blinked twice. "Uh, Asami do you want me to let them know we're here?"
"Yes, thank you." Asami squeezed her arm tighter, cutting off circulation. "Korra, in about thirty seconds I'm going to see a sign-in sheet with your name on it. The prisoner you visited will be listed right next to that." She looked at Korra with an air of curiosity and veiled anger. There was something else there, too. Sadness? Hope? Denial? "Is there anything you'd like to tell me, before I do that?"
Korra bowed her head and covered Asami's vice-like hand with her own. It hurt, but Korra was pretty sure she deserved it at the moment. "I'm sorry."
"You..." Asami curled her lips into a snarl and pushed Korra away. "I can't believe this. Even you. Even you." Then, she got nose to nose with her and jabbed a finger in her face. "If we were anywhere else I'd punch you right in the mouth, and you'd take it because you know I'm right. With any luck, I'll be done in a few hours here. You are going to meet me at my estate, and then we are going to talk about this."
"It's not that simple-"
"We will talk later."
Korra closed her mouth and nodded.
"Good." Asami took a very long, deep breath, and just like that regained her composure. "I'll see you later." She walked off toward the main wing of prison cells with Bolin walking beside her. He looked over his shoulder at her with a raised brow, and Korra knew they were whispering something about her. Probably.
Korra walked outside and was immediately swarmed by a mob of reporters, their cameras and questions firing off faster than she could keep up. She balled her hands into fists and resisted the urge to just airbend everything away from her. Instead, she whistled with two fingers.
Naga roared in that terrifying way that she loved so much and the crowd fled in a panic.
"Nice job, girl," mumbled Korra as she walked up to her polar bear dog, rubbing her fur. Naga coughed and spit out a bunch of broken camera bits. Korra stared down at them with a frown. "Somehow I feel like it was worth it to see the photographer's face, huh?"
Naga panted happily.
Korra had no idea how to feel. Should she feel wrong? Guilty? Right? Justified? Korra supposed it was high time for the arguing to start. It wouldn't stay that way forever. No. Korra was not going to let that happen. Maybe she should write a speech. Or, well, no, not that.
Heart to heart, that was the best plan moving forward.
Bolin saw Korra's name on the registry. He saw that it wasn't her first time there, and that her name reached back nearly three months. Of course, he wasn't going to tell Asami that. Korra would, if she had any sense at all. She was the Avatar but...Kuvira still tried to kill them and everyone they knew and loved. Him, especially! Bolin! Twice!
He walked alongside Asami, racking his brain for something to take her mind off of the situation. If that wasn't betrayal...sort of, then he...man, it was really complicated. Not for Asami, he assumed. So, distraction. Yes, because Bolin was the undisputed best guy to have around when you needed, well, anything.
"I don't want to talk about it," she whispered. "Please, Bolin. Let's just focus on this for now."
Bolin hummed 'nonchalantly'. Oh, he had this. "Really? That's too bad, Asami. 'Cause I would've thought, as one of my best friends, you'd find..." He reached into his pocket and displayed his little engagement ring box to her. "This pretty interesting and important."
"Bolin."Asami's frown very quickly turned completely upside down. She covered her mouth with her free hand, her other arm still holding on to her files. "You're going to get married." She laughed into an even bigger smile. "You're getting married."
"No, no. No. She will say yes. She's going to scream it. She's going to start flying around and make tornadoes. You two are basically made for one another, and she loves you just as much as you love her which is something that I honestly thought would be totally impossible for someone to do, but there she is!" She wrapped him in a big hug. "You're going to be a Beifong!"
"Yeahhh...most likely! Is it weird that I don't feel bad that I told you this in a prison." He slipped the box back into his pocket. "While...visiting her older brother?"
Asami shrugged. "Oh, who cares? You're getting married. That's all that matters."
Operation: Make Asami Forget About the Thing was a complete success.
Bolin grinned and skid to stop as they approached a...regular old prison cell. "Well, this takes me back..."
Asami nodded to the metalbending officer and he slid the door open, revealing a very surprised Baatar Jr. lying on his bed.
Baatar raised his brows. "...you two are the last people I ever expected to visit me."
Asami walked into the cell, along with Bolin, and it closed behind them. "Normally, I wouldn't bother, but there's been a...troubling development." She handed him a folder. "Two trucks were caught trying to smuggle a large amount of spirit vines out of the city. I trust I don't need to explain what that means. Varrick, Zhu Li and I are developing countermeasures against the kind of energy generated by spirit vines, and we realized something while examining the wreck of the Colossus." She sighed. "The entire generator is gone."
Baatar skimmed through the documents. "Well, you got the math right, I can tell you this much. What makes you think I'd be willing to help with this project?"
"Opal said you would."
"Opal? Oh, well...fine."
Bolin tilted his head curiously. "Wow. That was really easy."
"What do you expect, Bolin? I'm in jail. I'm bored!"
"Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense."
"So, when you said that the generator was gone, what did you mean by that?"
Asami shrugged. "It's just...gone. Vanished. Our working theory is that, somehow, the way your generator worked caused an implosion when it overloaded, rather than an explosion. Since..." She gestures around them.
Baatar nods. "Everything would have been destroyed. Bolin, I thought you and your brother managed to shut it down."
Bolin chuckled darkly. "No, no, didn't manage that. We pulled the levers at the right time, but it didn't turn off so Mako shot lightning into it. A lot. Then poof, gone."
"He did what?!"
"Lightningbending. You know, special firebending."
"No, I know what it is, I'm just wondering how the both of you are even alive! How any of us are! That should have killed us all!"
Asami cleared her throat. "Exactly my point. The only unknown factor here is the way your generator worked. If you could outline it, or tell us a location of the design documents, really any information at all, we'd very much appreciate it."
"Very well." Baatar rested his head on his hands. "Tell me, though. Did Varrick ever figure out how Spirit Vines actually work? Because that's sort of important to this."
Bolin shook his head. "No, he did not. Pretty sure that was on purpose, though."
"Probably, knowing the lengths he went to in order to destroy his research." He frowned. "I...apologize, Bolin. I just realized I never got a chance to do that."
"Apology accepted. Half because you're my girlfriend's older brother, and the other half because...well, it's not your fault I almost died. That was Varrick."
"Very true. Well, in any case, Spirit Vines aren't actually a form of pure energy, but it's easy to make that mistake. They act in a very similar way, but in reality they're far more complicated."
Asami nodded and scribbled down lots of things on her notepad. "Okay. Varrick...was...wrong. Got it. What else?"
Baatar smiled a little. "Okay, think of a Spirit Vine as a sort of...thin barrier between our world and the Spirit World. Now, when you turn it 'on', by running an electrical current through it, the barrier between our worlds weakens, and spirit energy is moved from the Spirit World into our own. They're not actually generating anything! They're conduits."
Asami gaped and wrote down a lot of words and symbols and...most of that was math he didn't understand. High level stuff. "Wait, wait, so then the explosion isn't an overload of power generation, it's like a pipe bursting. The vine can only sustain so much energy, but when it reaches its limit, it explodes, dumping all of the energy it can into our world."
"That's...well, that makes sense. But, your generator, how did you compensate for that?"
"By redirecting the excess energy back through the vine itself."
"You mean..." Asami's eyes widened. "Back into the Spirit World? How?"
Baatar smirked. "I'd tell you, but the Asami Sato I've heard of would rather figure that out on her own."
"You would be right. Besides, now that I know it's possible, that...that's perfect!" She beamed at Bolin. "Bolin, we wouldn't have to deflect or even nullify the energy. We could just send it back into the Spirit World!"
Bolin cleared his throat. "Okay, yeah, that's great, but wouldn't that make something explode in the Spirit World?"
"...maybe? We'll test it." Asami hopped to her feet and grabbed the folder Baatar was holding. "Thanks for your help, Baatar. I'll be sure to let you know how the project turns out."
As they turned to leave, Baatar called out to them. "Asami, wait."
She turned to him, curious. "Hm?"
"I know nothing I can say can undo the damage I've done. To the city, to my family, and to...well, everything. And that I don't deserve forgiveness, but I still want you to know that I am truly sorry for what happened to your father." He buried his head in his hands. "I looked up to him when I was-"
"Baatar. Stop," she said firmly. "Just stop. I don't blame you for that. You may have built the weapon, but you weren't the one using it. To be honest, I'm more impressed by the mecha-suit than anything I've seen in a very long time. Well, now that it's not trying to kill us anymore."
"Oh. Well, then I'm sorry for your loss. And thank you, I think."
Asami shrugged. "It is what it is. C'mon, Bolin."
"Oh, and Bolin? One last thing." The next thing Bolin knew he was pinned to the wall by a surprisingly strong Baatar Jr. "If you hurt Opal in any way, and don't marry her, I will make it my life's mission to invent things that serve only to make your life a living nightmare." He released him and sat back down on his bed.
Bolin blinked. "...I'm confused. You want me to marry your sister?"
"GET OUT OF MY CELL!"
Lin stomped her bare foot into the ground, feeling the vibrations and echoes of the earth. Top soil, concrete. Metal. Large empty pocket of air. Wait. Tunnel, tire tracks stretching on for...miles and miles and...oh for...
"Your gut was right on the money, Mako. Straight out of the hospital, no less." She scowled and opened several stories worth of earth in front of her. "Another set of secret tunnels running below the city and deep into the countryside. We should really just check for these periodically."
Mako nodded and pointed his flashlight down the shaft. "Wow. They look like they were made by...really sloppy earthbenders. And are those claw prints?" He asked, raising a brow. "What kind of animal could---oh no. No."
Lin pinched her brow. "Badgermoles. How did we miss this?! This should have been the first thing to fix! Months ago!"
Mako groaned. "I can't even blame Wu for this! This was just bad labor scheduling!"
"...no, we can still blame Wu."
"Sure, why not? He made the tunnel and didn't clean it up."
"I like that plan." Mako chuckled. "You have no idea how much I've missed being a detective, Chief."
Lin smiled, but only a little. "Trust me, kid. I do. I really do."