215 - Invisible Invasion

This is the second time Trace has had to pass as an Atlantean captive. The first time, he had his father coaching him, and he was terrified. Now, he feels like a veteran.

The Atlantean security checkpoint is staffed by a Blood officer. “We don’t show any record of your exit,” he says gruffly.

“I was sent on or’azath ooboshu,” Trace replies confidently. “Wild goose chase” is the closest English idiom. “I report to Yog N’ghftnah.”

The security officer grunts again. “Well tell Yog N’ghftnah that there’s proper procedures to follow. Go on through.”

The name is made up. What the officer was looking for was Trace’s conviction in explaining himself. Escapees always show fear, or hesitation. Who wouldn’t? It’s miles to the surface, and nobody really escapes Atlantis without a plan.

Walking through the checkpoint and into the capitol, Trace muses on that. We’re here to help Leo escape Atlantis. So why has our plan suddenly gone wrong? Where the hell is Fuko?

Leo feels his throat tighten with emotion as he says the words. “Doctor Lee, I’m Leonardo. My father is Karl Taitale. I think… I think you might be my biological mother.”

He takes an involuntary step forward, everything focused on her response, whatever it might be.

The first thing he sees is her smile.

Now I know where Pneuma got that from.


Leo moves to her bedside, leaning in. “I’m here. I’m a tissue match. Listen, we’re going to do the procedure. We’ll get prepped–”

Doctor Zap’s monotone voice causes a spasm of irrational anger in him for interrupting. “Doctor Lee’s condition is stable. It is important to maintain your cover for the moment. We will proceed with the treatment in a short while. But first, please come with me.”

Leo wheels and stares the squid straight in the eye. “This is my mother.”

The voice comes again, as strange colors play across Zap’s skin. “I do not share your mammalian instincts related to family. I wish I understood better. I can sense your strong emotion. You empathize with her pain. She has endured this much, and more, for much longer than you have been here. She will be well soon. Thanks to you. But now we must go.”

Leo’s fists tighten, but he complies.

Doctor Zap’s caution is well founded. Not twenty minutes after starting his first assignment, Leo and the squid scientist receive a surprise visit from Senior Commander Saito.

“I returned to hear how our mechanic is working out for you,” Saito announces.

Doctor Zap ‘smiles’ - Leo is starting to recognize the color patterns - and vocalizes. “He has begun to assist me in working with my language computer. As you know, but Leo can only guess, electronic technology is rare here in the capitol. However, it will be a great benefit to helping True Atlanteans communicate more easily.”

Saito grunts and turns to Leo. “Explain the mechanism for me, please.”

Leo knows this for what it is - a test. But he can pass it. He’s been around Doctor Zap only a few minutes, but that was enough. “The translation computer takes pressure and light readings from the tank occupant. It processes these into–”

Saito holds up a hand. “Explain the basics of a computer. And why it is rare here. Explain as you would to a child.”

This too is a test. Zap could have briefed him on the computer’s functions, but he’s a physician, not an electronic engineer. There are things only a real expert could condense into simpler terms.

“Okay. The computer uses electricity, which pours through a circuit. Everything a computer does comes down to counting numbers. This is like… how water flows, like currents. The computer is binary. That means there’s only two ways for the current to be. It’s either strong, or weak, and that’s how it counts. Weak is zero, strong is one. If you can reduce a problem down to counting numbers, you can make a computer work with that problem.”

Saito nods. “Very good. What is the difficulty of using this in our empire?”

“The material that computers are made of is stuff that conducts the electricity. But you don’t want it conducted everywhere, or you can’t count any more. Water is everywhere here. Water also conducts electricity. A computer in water would experience a short circuit. It would harm anyone touching it, and the computer itself would become damaged.”

Saito nods again. “Would you say then that using a computer around, say, a pod filled with water, presents a dangerous hazard to anyone in the pod?”

Leo now understands where else this is going, and glances at Doctor Zap. “That’s a possibility, sir.”

Saito’s expression is arrogant and triumphant. “Your new assistant is very perceptive, Doctor. Perhaps you should listen to him.”

“He is, and I should,” the Doctor answers blandly. “Perhaps next he will make me a computer that replaces my need for security personnel.”

Saito’s arrogance melts into anger, but he turns on his heel and departs rather than give voice to it.

Doctor Zap winks at Leo. “Saito will not return for a time. He will stew in his anger and then devise another way to insult me. We will use that time to good advantage.”

They were supposed to get in, head to the Surface Science Center, do their business, and get out. Then Saito showed up. Fuko controls her thinking, puts herself in the moment, moves with the current, the way she’s been trained to as a ninja. Dominate your emotions with procedure, the old masters told her. Your training is an oar that will steady your course in turbulent waters.

What is procedure right now? Report in. Where does she do that? A Reformist gathering site, one of the old taverns in the Undercapital. She finds a public transit bladder, lets it cycle from air to water, and swims downward.

It’s the green current, then the one with the tangy scent, then down to the roof with the spines in it. She’s never been there, but she’s been instructed in the path. And the instructions turn out to be good.

Fuko swims into the tavern. Rather than the tables and chairs of the surface world, this establishment has regular rails and bars affixed to the walls and ceiling, letting patrons literally cling to the building while drinking. The idea of a “tavern” has been with Atlantis almost a century, long enough for local traditions to develop.

It’s quiet, with what look like a few regulars quietly conversing. Though they don’t drink alcohol here, they eat small fish that have been infused with it by the establishment’s staff. The smell of carefully prepared fish fills the water, and Fuko feels herself getting hungry.

She spots the Reformist contact she’s supposed to look for, and reports in whispered Atlantean. “A donor has been found and delivered to the Surface Science Center. Senior Commander Saito took a personal interest, however. I’m concerned that we may be exposed.”

The old True Atlantean pauses in the act of tearing apart a fish, and answers without looking at her. “Circumstances changed rapidly after you were sent on your mission, child. Rumors say the Emperor is preparing for another invasion of the surface world. Secret military preparations have been observed. There may be nothing to stop this now. Leave the capitol and await instructions.”

Fuko balks. But we just got here…! “What of the donor?”

“They will remain a captive of the Empire, probably. You did well in finding them, and are to be commended.”

“No… No, it can’t be like this.” Fuko looks at the Reformist with renewed determination. “I have to get him out of here. He’s a hero of the surface world. They need him.”

“One more hero will not stop what’s coming, child. Go, and keep yourself safe. We will find our time again. Perhaps in a century.”

Fuko leaves the tavern, her stomach too knotted to consider food.

What do I do now?

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It’s been twenty agonizing hours. Leo has slept for two of them. The rest of the time he’s been marshalling his knowledge of medicine, pacing in the confines of his quarters at the Surface Science Center, or working on the machinery that the Center studies.

The people here are, basically, like a team of anthropologists watching a tribe of uncontacted peoples. They’re trying to learn what makes the surface world tick, but without giving away their presence. Their job is made easier by shipping containers that go over the side of a ship - or when an entire ship sinks. A retrieval team brings containers back to Atlantis for processing. Sifters catalog the containers’ contents, and forward interesting pieces to the Center. From there, scientists take charge.

Few things survive a violent storm and a sinking in salt water with much grace. Although some objects are now shipped in watertight plastic seals, much is not. It’s Leo’s job to do something with the damaged objects. In the twenty hours since he saw his biological mother, he’s been asked to consult on an old VCR, a Thai rice cooker, and a personal helicopter bound for the Philippines.

Sensing his impatience, Doctor Zap has relayed a series of updates about his mother’s condition. Now, the Doctor announces, it’s time to begin the procedure.

Leo takes his place on what amounts to a wheeled gurney, with Doctor Zap in his water tank beside him.

“So what all are we doing?” Leo asks.

“We extract your bone marrow and blood. We inject it into Doctor Lee. Then the bthnk sll’ha’drnn.” The Doctor speaks the Atlantean term for himself; it’s doubtful the computer could handle it, and Leo is now curious about it.

“Bone marrow transplant recovery times are between two and six weeks,” Leo estimates from memory. “Are you going to hold off Saito for that long, or is there another plan nobody’s told me about?”

“Recovery time?” The doctor sounds genuinely confused, despite the flatness of his electronic voice.

“Yeah. Recovery, you know? Like my body has to heal from the incision, produce more bone marrow, fight off inflammation, all that stuff? That takes weeks. You knew that, right?”

“Ah. I understand your misunderstanding. I do not know the scientific terms to explain it to you. Before the discovery, it is as you say. Surgery required recuperation. Those are the words, yes? Now, we treat the patient’s body with bthnk sll’ha’drnn.”

There’s that term again. “Some kind of anti-inflammatory?” Leo asks.

“Imagine cutting off an arm. If you were made of this, your arm would grow back.”

Leo thinks he gets it. “Oh. Oh! Echinoderms can regenerate severed limbs. You’re saying… that you have a way to accelerate the recuperative period by triggering morphallaxis? Oh! Is that how you’re able to create the human-squid hybrids?”

“I do not know if I am saying that,” Doctor Zap replies calmly. “But the process will take hours, rather than weeks. Now we will put you to sleep, and you will be brought into the operating room.”

Leo reaches out, grabs the doctor’s pod, and holds on. “Hey. Promise me. She’s gonna recover.”

The tentacle is slimy, and the texture strange, but the gentleness as it pats Leo’s hand is reassuring in its way. “Doctor Lee’s life is important to me too. Now, rest.”

Leo feels the spines of some kind of specialized sea creature sticking into his arm. “The anesthetic, it’s delivered by…” He doesn’t finish the sentence.

“Stingray, come in.”

Trace sits bolt upright. He’s taken refuge in a dry cave on the outskirts of the capitol, unable to come up with any plan better than “light a fire, open some tinned food, and wait”. Now, the voice over his team communicator changes all of that.

“Ninjess. What’s going on?”

The girl’s voice comes quietly, half-audible in the hiss of noise from the unit. “I had to ditch my gear to avoid suspicion. Sorry. Listen. We have to talk.”

Trace gives directions to his cave, and in half an hour Fuko has arrived. By that time, he’s finished making the modifications to his suit, from “fish” to “frog” configuration, and done whatever he could to clean up the campsite.

The squid girl emerges from the shadows, and flops down beside the fire. “God. There’s so much going on, man.”

Trace takes a deep breath. “Alright. Let’s go in steps. First, Leo Snow?”

“He’s in the Surface Science Center. They confiscated his suit. I haven’t been able to get it back. Senior Commander Saito is watching him like a hawk. I dunno, I thitnk maybe he suspects.”

Trace nods. “Alright, good to know. Next. Are you in danger right now?”

“No…” Fuko hugs her knees and stares at the firelight. “At least I don’t think so. The Reformists think war is coming, though, An invasion of the surface.”

Trace sits unsteadily, opposite the fire from his teammate. “Whoa. That’s serious.” He glances up with urgency in his eyes. “How certain are you?”

“I don’t know. It’s speculation from my contact, but he sounded pretty convinced.”

Trace nods. “Alright. Uh. So, we gotta get the word out. The surface world has to be told.”

Fuko winces. “Wait, can’t we… I don’t know, confirm it or something?”

“Are you kidding?” Trace demands. “If they attack the surface world, it’s going to be a calamity! How are you going to confirm that?”

“I don’t know!”

Trace sighs, holding up hands for peace. “Okay. Okay. What’s the harm in telling them - people we trust, anyway - that it’s a possibility? At least let them prepare, just in case?”

Fuko buries her head between her knees. “No, you make sense, I get it, I just hate it.”


Fuko squeezes her knees tighter. “Because, uh, because, this is going to sound stupid to you, okay? So I’m stupid, so what, but because everyone’s gonna hate us - Atlantis, us, people down here, you know - anyway! We’re gonna be the enemy, and you and your dad already hate people like me and that sucks, and I just… I just wanted us all to get along.”

Trace comes round the fire to sit closer. “Whoa, hold on. My dad, whatever, but I don’t hate you.”

Fuko glances over. “I’m one of your family’s enemies. Even though we’re on the same team.”

Trace looks anywhere but back at his teammate. “The Atlanteans who want to start a war with us, that’s a problem, but look, I don’t hate you, Fuko, you’re perfect.”

A sudden awkwardness descends on both of them and lingers for a few minutes.

Trace is the first to break it. “Okay, listen. Let’s dodge Saito, sneak back to the Surface Science Center, find Leo, tell him what’s what, and then the three of us will get out of here.”

Fuko nods. “Okay.”

Trace gets to his feet, and goes for his gear. “My dad’s beard is gonna fall off. After everything people did to stop that invasion twenty years ago, now it’s happening again.”

“Twenty years ago?” Fuko stands too. “No. The last concerted Atlantean attack on the surface was in the 1930s.”

Trace turns. “Is that what they taught you?”

“Yes!” Fuko takes a breath, unsure if she dares to ask. “What invasion are you talking about?”


Leo’s eyes open.

He’s never really been skiing. But he imagines that this is how it would feel to go skiing downhill at high speed, get caught in an avalanche, run into a bunch of trees as you get caught in the torrent of snow, and finally get buried.

He’s cold. He’s numb. He feels logical and lucid, but also somehow knows that he’s disconnected from his own body.

“Do not look down at your limbs,” he hears Doctor Zap say. “It will make you will feel uncomfortable. However, you are healthy.”

Leo has trouble vocalizing. Doctor Zap anticipates his question. “Doctor Lee is recovering as well. Her illness means it will take longer. However, once you have rested, I will take you to see her.”

Good enough. Leo feels consciousness slip away again.

He wakes up and passes out again a few more times. He doesn’t remember if anything was said or done. In a lucid moment, he sets himself a problem: figure out why he’s so okay, being trapped under Earth’s ocean in a hostile country, having just undergone surgery.

The next time he wakes up for real, he’s sitting upright. The light is very bright, and he closes his eyes once the discomfort grows too much.

He hears Doctor Zap’s voice, but not nearby. Out in the corridor? Is that… Saito?

If they were speaking English, they definitely aren’t now. Leo’s head is still foggy. He’s pretty sure the conversation is in Atlantean. No use trying to listen in, he doesn’t have the first idea where to begin.

Time passes, and the door to the chamber deflates and opens. Doctor Zap enters. Behind him, a human captive wheels in a chair containing a fellow patient. It’s her. Ji-a Lee. Doctor Zap signals the attendant to leave. He follows as well, after a wave of a tentacle.

“How do you feel?” Leo asks.

There’s energy in her voice, and color in her cheeks. She doesn’t move much, but Leo’s own limbs are still weak, and he figures she’s in the same boat. “Ah! So much better. Finally, the pain is gone.”

A rush of relief washes through Leo. “Good. I’m glad.” He laughs, and it hurts, but it’s worth it. “Honestly I thought you were dead, so I guess anything’s a step up from that.”

“Dead? Ah. Perhaps you know, then? Is Karl okay?”

Leo draws in a sharp breath and winces. “Dad’s alive. He’s uh, he’s in a safe place. Because there’s a lot going on there. Let’s put that off for now, I promise I’ll get to that.”

Ji-a sighs in relief. “Okay. Thank God. I was so worried, with everything that happened.”

“You mean the tsunamis?”

“Yes. Everything was shaking. We had no warning. Do you know what happened?” Ji-a leans forward in her chair.

Leo thinks back to what Rossum told him. “King Winter, a supervillain, was conjuring ice comets to Earth. It was going to destroy all life.”

Trace blinks at his teammate’s question. “What invasion? The Atlantean invasion that King Winter was working to stop.”

Fuko shakes her head. “I can’t imagine not learning about it. Why keep it a secret?”

Trace shrugs. “Probably because nobody likes talking about what losers they were. But they apparently thought they could win at the time. Nautilus went to anybody who would listen, saying Atlantis was coming. Nobody did. They all said it was just some underwater thing, nothing as big as an actual alien invasion from outer space. That if he couldn’t handle it when it happened, he could call them for help. So he went to supervillains, like King Winter. And King Winter called in the comets.”

Ji-a is listening intently. “But the comets were stopped, or we wouldn’t be here. How?”

“The Gales, Tempest and Silver Streak pushed their speed powers to the limit and shifted the Earth’s magnetic field to push them back. They saved the world.” Leo grins. “And then I ended up on the same super-team as their son, Harry.”

Trace smirks. “And then I end up on the same team as King Winter’s son, who tells me some of this, and you from Atlantis itself, and I have Nautilus who tells me the rest. This is kind of my topic, you know?”

Fuko frowns. “That event devastated the world, and killed thousands, even when it was stopped. Did Nautilus know what he was doing?”

That question stops Trace for a moment. He shrugs it away. “I don’t think he did. Kid Kelvin thinks the stress of doing it broke his dad. Or the guilt of it. At least AEGIS knew what happened. They set up a pension for the family and put the old man in a secure location.”

Fuko frowns. “And now it all might start again.”

Leo watches his mother’s smile fade.

“I was worried that the tsunami was related to Atlantis,” she confesses. “While down here, I learned that they had happened at the same time as a military build-up, for an attack on the surface world. Perhaps the threat of the comets made them draw back.”

“I overheard Zpa’kadishtuor and Mgepnnn Ah’lloigshogg speaking in the corridor earlier. The Surface Science Center is to be incorporated into the military. I think what happened all those years ago might be happening again.”

Leo wants to stand up, wants to act, but still feels the weakness of recuperation holding him down. “We have to stop it, then.”

Trace sighs. “I don’t know how to stop it. A whole nation, that nobody knows about, suddenly invading the rest of the world? How do you stop something like that?”

For the first time, Fuko feels herself on solid ground. “The Menagerie did it, with Vyortovia. We can work together. We can do it again.”

She packs up her own gear, and heads toward the exit to the cave. “Come on, Trace. We’re going to find Leo, and we’re going to save the world!”

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The security checkpoints are now heavily guarded. Neither Trace nor Fuko think they’re likely to get through with a weak cover story.

Trace has his suit, configured for frog mode. The configuration is ideal for amphibian assault, with powerful jumping muscles, a grappling system, and an adhesive surface that can stick to hard surfaces. Since the checkpoints are there for air-breathing human captives, the pair decide to find an underwater access point.

They dive, and swim through lightless depths, guided by Fuko’s uncanny eyesight and Trace’s tactical sonar. Here and there, they run into Blood or dolphin patrol. Her training in evasion, and his suit’s natural chameleon coating, keep them out of trouble. Twice, Trace is forced to turn off his sonar to avoid being detected by the dolphins, and he navigates the cramped underwater tunnels blind. His only guide is Fuko’s hand, holding onto his as she leads the way.

The pair emerge through a pressure maintenance tube leading into the capitol. The true capitol of the empire - Nw Uh’eagl ot Nilgh’ri - lies before them. Lit by bioluminescent fungi, warmed by hydrothermal vents that belch smoke into the water, covered by a dome of rock, defended by deadly ocean pressure, the city is truly an underwater marvel. The sulfide minerals emitted by the volcanos congeal into chimneys, and these have been carefully sculpted over the eons into towers, giving the impression of glowing skyscrapers from a surface city.

Trace, who has never actually seen this sight, whistles in appreciation. He realizes he’s still holding Fuko’s hand, and self-consciously releases it. “Okay, what now?”

“Now, we put some of this on…” Fuko fishes out a seaweed-wrapped package from one of her pouches. “Anti-colane. Frankly, your suit smells. And to be honest, I do too. Neither of us want the trackers on our trail.”

Neither hero seems willing to even discuss that it’d be easier to apply to each other, so they fumble through a self-application, each looking in a different direction.

Leo has absolutely no idea how or where to find Fuko or Trace. He knows that they know where he is. Doctor Zap has kept him busy on the Surface Science Center’s many projects, and regrettably away from his mother. Still, the pair have run into each other a few times. Each time, they’ve had more questions for each other. Leo still hasn’t broached the topic of Rossum, and he senses Ji-a Lee’s growing impatience to learn about her husband.

He’s not surprised when Saito shows up again. The Senior Commander apparently has taken a personal dislike to him - nothing new, in Leo’s experience with authority figures. But this feels different.

“How are you liking the work?” Saito asks.

“It’s … okay?” Leo mumbles. “It’s just work, a way to keep busy.”

“Must be a step down from being a superhero,” says Saito casually.

Leo freezes. His mind starts to process, reason, analyze, only to watch the Atlantean hybrid pull out a Q-phone and hold it up for inspection. The screen shows a news article about Leo’s time as a hero and announcement of retirement.

The only thought that manages to fight its way out of Leo’s turbulent mind is a scientific one. “How did you get cell reception down here?”

Saito smiles, showing sharp teeth. “It’s your ‘wi-fi’ actually. Like Doctor Zpa’kadishtuor’s computer, the scientists here are quite taken with your electronic tech. They’ve gotten much of it to work. And of course, there are the submarine communications cables your kind have draped over our territory.”

“Doctor Zap didn’t tell me anything about that,” Leo says warily.

“Of course not. Like all scientists, he knows his work depends on the patronage of those in power, and they will not tolerate anyone who compromises the empire’s security by handing out comms devices to human captives.”

Saito walks in a slow orbit around Leo, always watching him. “You’re a surface spy, here on the orders of Nautilus, or his subordinate Stingray. Nobody would have been fooled by your armor, weapons or not. You’re here to uncover details about our military build-up. I’ve ensured you can learn nothing of value. And now your friends are coming to extract you. We will capture them as well.”

No. I have to get out of here. I have to get mom out.

He thinks briefly about Doctor Zap. The guy is an alien squid, but he’s been nothing but good. Will he be okay here? Probably.

He needs a plan. His eyes are taking in the room, his mind furiously devouring every scrap of data and spitting out a pattern.

One question comes to mind. How much does Saito know about the phone he’s holding?

“You know about my friends, huh? You know about Agent Q?”

Saito is profoundly unimpressed. “We will shortly.”

Leo raises his voice, and enunciates clearly, the way he’s learned to whenever talking to a digital assistant. “Hey You Q! Can you hear me?”

The Q-Phone was built to last. Having survived its way from the surface, through the cold waters of the ocean, and into the hands of curious Atlanteans, the voice system still responds in a chipper tone. “Coming through, loud and clear!”

Saito, startled by the possibility that his communications have been monitored this entire time, focuses his entire attention on the device in his hands. This is all the opening Leo needs. He launches himself at the larger man-squid hybrid, landing an elbow deep in the solar plexus. His right foot swings forward and around the back of Saito’s own, and with this as a point of leverage he sends Saito falling backward with a body check.

Saito falls, and Leo sprints for the exit.

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Leo isn’t sure how to kick in a door when it’s basically a sphincter of bio-engineered eukaryotic muscle. That means he has to be impatient while it opens.

Ji-a Lee is inside, speaking with one of the hybrid squid people. She turns and smiles. “Leo, hello!”

He takes a breath. “No time. We have to leave.”

She senses his distress, sees his perspiration, hears his rapid breathing. She says a quick goodbye to her lab partner, and jogs to the door.

There’s a distant noise, like a foghorn, that Leo interprets as an alarm.

“What’s going on?” Ji-a asks.

“That Saito guy. He thinks I’m a spy. I’m not - but I don’t think he’s willing to listen. But it’s complicated, sooo–”

Two armed hybrids, both clutching tridents, come round the corner at the end of the corridor. They raise their weapons, clearly on alert and recognizing their targets as such. Leo leaps, kicks off one wall, and lands a spinning roundhouse kick onto the armored head of one. He comes down in a crouch. As the other guard tries to spear him, he falls to the side, grabbing the trident’s haft and yanking it. The guard goes off-balance, and from the ground, Leo kicks him in the abdomen. He’s able to kip up faster than the guard can stand, and puts him out with a kick to the helmet.

“You fight very proficiently,” his mother observes, and Leo’s not sure if he hears pride or disapproval.

The front entrance of the Surface Science Center is well-guarded. Leo can spot the massed humanoids through one of the transparent membranes that serve as windows here. “Is there another way out?”

Ji-a nods. “There is a cargo entrance. That may be guarded as well, but it might be possible to sneak past the soldiers. There are always boxes and crates and things kept on the dock.”

“Perfect. Lead the way.”

The two descend the corridors of the Center. Leo must fight off three more soldiers, and Ji-a draws his attention to the small shells each of them wear. “Here, take one. These creatures react to UV fluorescence and turn it into sound. It’s how the central command sends orders to the solders. I don’t know the code, but if it screeches in your ear, that means soldiers are being given new instructions.”

Thus armed, and wary of further patrols, the two arrive in the cargo dock.

There are no soldiers. Instead, Doctor Zap is waiting for them. Leo is immediately wary, but Ji-a puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder and steps past him toward the doctor.

The squid pats a watertight container. “Saito has forced me to keep secrets. I have kept some from him, too.” The lid of the container comes off, revealing two sets of SCUBA gear. “The guards are searching for air-breathers. They won’t search the water.”

“Where should we go?” asks Leo.

“There is a haven for Reformists in the city. I have sent a message to them, to intercept your friends before they come here.”

“Will they have a source of air? Those tanks don’t last more than an hour.”

“They will be able to escort you to a safe place.”

Ji-a pats Doctor Zap gently. “Zpa-ka, there are questions I need answered, and only my son can do that for me. Right now, I need to go. Thank you for everything.”

The squid changes colors rapidly. “Ji-a, it has been a pleasure to collaborate you as a fellow scientist, and as a friend. Go. The soldiers will return soon from the fool’s errand I assigned them.”

Leo and Ji-a suit up, and with a farewell wave to the Doctor, they dive into the lightless depths of Atlantis.

Leo and his mother can’t speak, so must settle for gesture. When a light appears in the distance, they sign caution to each other. The light turns out to be coming from a True Atlantean carrying a waterproof flashlight and a dive slate. The slate clearly reads “DR. ZAP SAYS FOLLOW”. Good enough.

The True Atlantean swims ahead of the two divers. It takes twenty minutes, during which both humans get to experience the sights of Atlantean civil engineering and aesthetic development. Sometimes they lag behind their guide just to look at it all, and the impatient squid scurries back to wave frustrated tentacles in their direction.

The pair surface inside a building that seems to be a warehouse of some kind. Like the cargo dock, it’s full of containers, crates, and other surface storage solutions. Leo and Ji-a pull themselves out of the water and carefully unhook themselves from the SCUBA.

The True Atlantean who came with them writes a new message on the dive slate, tosses it out of the water behind them, and swims off in a huff.

Leo peeks down to read the message. “GOOD LUCK DON’T DIE.” He looks into the water at the fleeing shape. “Yeah, thanks a bunch, dude.”

Turning back, he sees a door in the corner open, and Trace and Fuko come through it.

The four humans exchange stories, under the watchful eyes of True Atlanteans and Blood citizens. The place they’re in is the equivalent of a smuggler’s den, bringing surface-world amenities and toys into Atlantis for the private enjoyment of privileged citizens. It seems even the Reformists have their vices, Leo decides.

The bad news comes first. Fuko got a message from Gun that Saito’s men have found and confiscated the mini-sub. “That means we have no ride home,” mutters Trace.

“They have cell phones,” says Leo. “And wi-fi at the Center. If we can get back there, we can get a message to the surface. Otto should be able to make it down here.”

Fuko nods. “I can sneak back there without interference. I can make the call.”

Trace nods. “Don’t count on any help from Nautilus. But if you got another option, great.”

Leo speaks up, looking at both Ji-a and Fuko. “I need to know something. When I was asked to come down here, Fuko said ‘a captive’, but she also said, ‘a favorite of the Emperor’. It felt like just a random detail at the time, but now it feels pretty fuckin’ important. Was that just a thing you made up, Fuko? Or is that a real thing? What’s the deal there?”

Fuko looks to Ji-a, who nods and turns her attention to Leo. “You must understand the situation of the human captives here in Atlantis, and what we are told.”

“For me, the surface world was at an end all those years ago. Comets, tsunamis, chaos. I had a husband, and a son, but I thought them lost. Every human captive who comes here is like this in a sense. Their old life is gone. Their new one has begun. How we react to our new captivity, in an alien world, is what’s different.”

“Some give up their old feelings. Some rebel. But I was unique. I knew this undersea world already, from my observations on the surface. Now, I was living among it. It was the experience of a lifetime, something any marine biologist would want. The Atlanteans are like that, but for us above. I learned, but I also taught. I was the ambassador of the surface. And the Emperor respected that.”

“We’ve spoken several times. He would ask questions about the surface, and what life was like for a human being, and I’d explain.”

Leo isn’t sure he likes where this is going. “So were you helping him plan an invasion of the surface world, and just didn’t know it?”

Ji-a laughs. “Not unless conquering the Earth has anything to do with how coffee tastes, or what cream and sugar do to it. Or the calendar. The idea of a holiday. Do you know how they keep track of time down here? It has nothing to do with the spin of the Earth, because they can’t see the sun and moon.”

Leo pulls back, thoughtful and silent. Ji-a continues.

“I want you to appreciate the situation here, all of you. These people are just like the surface people. They feel the emotions we feel. But at the same time, they are profoundly alien. I computed Doctor Zap’s age. He’s 4,500 years old. The Emperor is at least 80,000. Think about what that means.”

Ji-a leans forward. “When death isn’t a constant factor in your society’s existence, you stop needing to explain it. You don’t develop things like an afterlife, or a soul, or gods who shepherd souls to afterlives. You don’t think about things like dynastic succession, or primogeniture. People die, in accidents or through violence or due to illness, but it’s not the same thing. Those folk were just, uhh, unlucky you might say. The Atlanteans have a term for it. ‘Lost to the currents’.”

“And that is also why there is a caste system here. The True Atlanteans. Beneath them, the Blood, the hybrids, those who die, but also who can interface with the surface world. And beneath them, human captives, dolphins, bio-engineered organisms, natural sea life. Life here is stacked like a pyramid. The longest-lived are the wisest, because they’ve held fast against the current and have experience. In practice, it’s a function of luck and caution.”

Leo spots Fuko nodding along to much of this. He also finds a nagging question demanding to be spoken. “So if they’re so alien, and so cautious, and they’ve got this fantastic civilization down here, and my guy Zap is older than Korea, like, what’s their fucking play here? They’re gonna invade the surface world, and then what?”

He looks from face to face. “We got Sub Guy and Squid Ninja Girl and my mom the marine biologist who’s been hanging with these people for 20 years, and I ain’t heard shit about this. Seriously, what’s the play?”

Trace shrugs. “They’re just assholes. Well, not all of 'em. And that’s what my dad would say.” He peters off, aware of Ji-a’s presence. Leo can hear the words, but they lack conviction. He’s parroting his dad’s lines.

Fuko is the next to take a shot at it. She’s a lot more careful about her choice of words. “We - those of us serving on the front lines - always assumed that our superiors knew what they were doing. We were trained to take orders unquestioningly.”

Even Ji-a shakes her head. “They don’t really share military strategy with prisoners,” she admits. “I do know that the Surface Science Center isn’t popular with much of Atlantis. The surface has been polluting the ocean, dumping plastic and oil and other substances, for years.”

Leo is tense, and vibrating. He’s got thoughts. “There’s no way you can put the industrial genie back in the bottle, even if you have amazing military might. Unless the squids have nukes - which I guess they could, submarines sink too - but like unless they have 'em and are going to glass the Western world, it’s not going to be enough. And nuclear fallout on that scale would be way worse, environmentally speaking. Like maybe you just kinda hit one place, to make a point, but–”

A thought hits him like a hammer. “Mom. You were talking about these facts of biology, how they’re intersecting with societal development, right? Lack of senescence leading to different social values? Is this just deimatic behavior on a large scale?”

Ji-a looks both thoughtful and immensely proud. “Startle display? You are a scientist, Leonardo.” She thinks. “In other words, they don’t mean to invade and hold the surface world. They just want to intimidate it. They would find a casus belli such as pollution, identify a weak target responsible for some of it, and strike in a way that doesn’t demand overwhelming retribution. The predator defeats a weak member of the herd, and the rest flee. Yes, I could see it.”

“Would that really work?” Trace asks.

“They may believe that it would work. That is all that matters.”

Fuko hangs her head. “They’d already have a list of targets. We’ve-- Yes. We have infiltrated surface governments, allied with small groups within them. It’s only a matter of preparing the Atlantean military forces necessary to launch the attack.”

Trace lays a hand on her shoulder, and Leo spots his surprise as Fuko’s hand rises to meet it in turn. Leo returns to his point. “Okay. So they’re fearful. They’re angry. I mean, they have a right to be. But I don’t want to see people killed. In fact, I want to see everyone down here returned to their homes and families. How does that happen?”

Ji-a has composed her thoughts and has an answer. “Atlantis must no longer fear the surface world,” she says with a smile.

“How we gonna do that?”

Ji-a’s smile grows less warm and more steeled. “It means, Leonardo, that we must go our separate ways soon. You to the surface. I back to the Center, and to the Emperor.”

Fuko looks from face to face. “The original Reformist plan. Get you to plead with the Emperor for peace. Show the value of surface dwellers.”

Leo’s hands come down hard on his knees. “No! No. I’m taking you back. You deserve to go back.”

As much as he’s convinced of his declaration, he can’t meet Ji-a’s eyes. “Leonardo. If there is a chance to avert war, I will take it. I have studied these beings for almost two decades. I am no diplomat, but I can be an ambassador.”

Leo stands, and walks away, unable to handle what he’s hearing. With a glance at Trace and Fuko, Ji-a rises and follows.


The first words she hears are, “this wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Ji-a finds Leo back in the storage room. The gentle lapping of water against the dock is background for the sound of his sniffles. When he turns, she can see the tears in his eyes.

“I haven’t told you about - dad. Your husband. You’re not going to like it.”

Ji-a composes herself, and beckons with her hands. “Come. Sit with me. I’ll listen.”

The two park themselves on a crate. Leo rubs tears from his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Karl Taitale is Rossum, the Minion Maker. He’s a supervillain now. Has been for years. Ever since he lost you. Thought he lost you.”

“He took care of me, in his own weird fucked-up way. Put a chip in my head that fixed a fatal brain condition. Turns out, that chip unlocked all the tech I use now. See, I’m a superhero, and I fight bad guys like him.”

Ji-a crosses her arms over her chest, hunching up against this news. But she’s listening, and Leo goes on.

“He’d make robot minions for other villains. Build artificial henchmen, gadgets, whatever. Sell them to bad guys, and take a cut of their haul. The authorities found him. They took me away, of course. But Rossum, y’know, he was a genius. He’d just keep coming back and back and back–” Leo slams a fist down on the crate. “Outta I dunno, some kinda twisted love, but like, he was gonna make me some kinda general in his fucking army. So they finally got him. Fucking AEGIS got him.”

Ji-a’s voice is gentle, as she tries to pull him away from the worst of the memory. “When I knew Karl, he was already quite the inventor. Underwater drones for submarine exploration. He showed such promise. And he needed a focus for that promise. He found that in my work.”

Leo rubs his eyes again. “Well, he’s not doing that shit any more. They got him in maximum security now. He’s never ever getting out. Means I’m free to do my thing. I got the same inventive spark. I built - I built a lot of things. Cool armor. You haven’t seen that, it’s pretty neat. It’s got grappling hooks and shit.”

Ji-a smiles at that. “I would like to see your grappling hook system.”

Leo nods, rallying himself away from the worst of it. “Listen, hey, now that they got him, my job is done, right? So, I’ve been settling down. Building things. I got friends, smart ones, with that same genius, you know? We’re all working on great stuff. I uh, I did…”

He glances carefully at Ji-a, gauging her reaction as he speaks. “I made some robots. Intelligent ones. People. Like, real people. I took my connectome and did a - hey, do you know what a Variational Autoencoder is? Kaspar Martens, Christopher Yau?”

Ji-a laughs. “I do not know what this is. Tell me.”

Leo’s ragged breathing is stabilizing. “It’s uh, shit. This is gonna take too long. Listen, I know you’re smart but I’m gonna summarize, okay? You can take the pieces of a brain. You can reduce them to a mathematical model. Like tiny little LEGO bricks, you can break the model apart and put it back together in a new shape. There’s a direct mathematical relationship between that abstraction and actual neurons. So you can, y’know, dream up a person and make them real.”

“And you did this?” Ji-a sits up in genuine interest, and a little bit of shock. “You created these?”

“Yeah!” Leo is finally breathing steadily, and he’s smiling through damp eyes. “Otto. You’re gonna like him. And Pneuma. So, uh, a thing happened. Pneuma turned into two people. Aria, and Summer. You’re gonna like them both. Listen, mom, Aria and I are kinda in love, and like, uh, a lot is happening there, but I want to make a family. Dual connectomes. Aria’s working on the math. She’s making sure everything’s covered. Safety, you know?”

Ji-a smiles again. “This is a lot to take in, but I think I understand. Artificial lifeforms with human minds. Non-human people. Like dolphins. Or the True Atlanteans.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Leo is excited. “Listen. You have to meet them. And you’re gonna fix dad. When he sees you alive, he’s gonna realize he can stop his bullshit, he’s gonna turn around. Everything’s going to turn around. Mom…”

His shoulders sink, and Ji-a sees the fear and pain take hold of him again. “Mom. You can’t stay here. You gotta come back with me.”

Ji-a rises from her seat, laying a hand briefly on Leo’s shoulder as she does. She takes several steps, looking at nothing, thinking of everything. “What about what’s happening here?” she finally asks.

Leo sighs. “It’s… I don’t know this place. I just came here awhile ago. You know, I…”

He also rises, and begins pacing like a caged animal. “It’s Fuko’s fault. She could have told me all of this stuff. Atlantis. The factions. The everything. I thought it was going to be fine. You know? I trusted her. She’s on a team. I trust the guy with her. We played lacrosse in fucking high school! I’m supposed to know these people! We’re supposed to look out for each other!”

Leo aims a kick at an undeserving crate. “Thing is, it’s my fucking fault too. It was a weird thing to ask. I wanted this. I know, I know, I wanted it, okay? It’s my fault. Some part of me knew this was weird. But I wanted an adventure again. So I packed my armor, I didn’t tell Aria any details, didn’t bring a tracking device, I just jumped right the fuck in because I wanted some god damn excitement again.”

He throws his hands up in exasperation, then lets them down on the crate. Ji-a winces slightly at the impact.

She watches Leo turn, sees the fire in his eyes, and the hurt. “None of this was supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to meet my mom and then have her tell me she can’t come home with me. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair!”

Ji-a raises a hand. “Leonardo, I–”

“It’s - not - fair!”

Leo has started crying again. “I went from family to family. I was a little worm on AEGIS’s hook, and my dad always came for the bait. And he hurt everyone in his way. The Pucketts. The Delacruzes. The Lancasters. The Washingtons. The Dorseys. The Carsons. The Yamada-Kims. The Conways. I had so many people to call mom and dad, until they were snatched from me by my fucking father. And now you are telling me that there’s this thing that’s gonna happen because these fucking squids from a place I never even knew existed before, like, Tuesday, are afraid of surface people, and they’re gonna go to fucking war, and once again I’m gonna lose family. No. No.”

The tears have stopped, replaced with a furious intensity. His voice is a heady cocktail of indignation and disgust, words coming between sharp intakes of air. “They wanna be afraid of the surface? I’ll make them afraid. You have no idea, mom. You’re gonna see the shit I’ve built. The Phoenix was only the beginning. I will give them a god damn war.”

Ji-a sees and hears and understands the feelings radiating from the young man before her. She knows what she says next will be the fulcrum that moves his heart, but it’s so hard to know in which direction it’ll go.

She takes a chance, on the heart of the son she never knew before today.

“Aria. You said you love her. You wanted me to meet her. Help me meet her. If Aria were here, what would she say and do right now?”

Leo winces with the hurt he feels. “No. No. You do not get to use her name to manipulate me.”

But Ji-a sees that it’s too late, that the name has already had its desired effect. Leo slumps against a nearby container, and Ji-a gently eases him back to a sitting position as he talks.

“She’d… She’d be upset with me, for not telling her. She’d… She’d do that stupid thing where she ruffles my hair. She knows I hate combing it, because it gets matted and tangles and that hurts to comb. So she uses her fingers to kinda ease the tangles out. Tells me I should change shampoo. I just don’t want to use any of that girly stuff. Maybe I should.”

He leans back, and draws breath more slowly than before. “But she knows it calms me down. And then she’d tell me it’s not fair, tell me I’m right, empathize with me.”

The rage is gone, and Ji-a can hear the rains falling on the ashen soil left by that fire. She smiles and speaks. “She sounds very kind.”

Leo’s cracked laugh leads to coughing. “‘Kind’ doesn’t begin to cover it. But yeah. She is.”

Ji-a carefully, experimentally, brushes her own fingers through Leo’s hair. Sure enough, she finds tangles. “You make me want to meet all of these people. And see the world you’re from. And I think you know why it’s important to stay here. So I can help keep that world safe, in my own way, don’t you.”

Leo nods. He’s out of words for the moment.

Ji-a lets out a sigh. To see the surface again. To see what’s changed in twenty years. To find out what happened to Karl… My god. But she shakes the thought loose from her head. “Let’s do that together. Bring peace to the world. And then you can present me to Aria, and Otto, and Summer. To your other friends, the smart people you’ve worked with. Let’s work toward that goal.”

Leo nods again. The energy is draining out of him, and Ji-a briefly worries he’ll actually fall off the crate.

She tousles his hair again and takes in a breath. “Take a few minutes and rest. Then let’s go back to the others.”

“Oh. And listen to Aria on the subject of shampoo, and hopefully she mentions a moisturizing conditioner as well. Your hair smells awful right now. You have no idea how damaging seawater can be.”

“Mom, geez.”

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“Okay. Chosen Challenge.” Trace sits cross-legged, watching Fuko carefully. “You’re a superhero. Do you want to hear about the invasion early, when it’s getting started, or do you just want invaders to pop out for you to fight?”

Fuko sits, mirroring her teammate’s pose and gaze. “Emotionally, I want them to just appear, so I don’t have to worry about questions like, could I have done something about it earlier. But as a superhero, and a ninja, I want as much intel early on as I can.”

Trace nods. “Your turn.”

Fuko claps her hands to her knees and leans in. “Chosen Challenge. Is a superhero defined by their power, or by their heart?”

“Hmm. If I say heart, you’re going to say something like ‘well anyone can be a superhero, so what is the super part’. But if I say power, you can say ‘but what about villains’.” Trace thinks about it. “I’d say heart, because there’s superheroes without powers. But it has to be exceptional. You have to be really motivated.”

Fuko gives a thumbs-up gesture, and Trace takes his turn. “Chosen Challenge. The worst–”

They’re cut short as Leo Snow and Ji-a Lee return from the other room.

“What’s the plan?” Trace asks.

Leo looks at his mother, and frowns.

Ji-a’s voice is controlled and determined. “If someone has a device that will use wi-fi to call for aid, then I’ll carry that back to the Surface Science Center. I’ll surrender to Saito, in the hope of averting war. And the rest of you will get back to the surface.”

Trace nods. “I have a waterproof phone. I’ve already set it up to send messages. Just carry it around in your pocket. The battery is good for days.”

Fuko is up next. “I do not believe there is a cover story that would dislodge the Senior Commander’s belief that Mr. Snow is a spy. So when questioned, my advice is to tell the truth. As a result, ah, I believe I am probably going to be, um… I am… er, that is, they will regard me as a traitor to Atlantis as well.”

The girl rubs her hands together in apprehension. “Mrs. Lee, may I ask a question?”

“Please do.”

Fuko can’t meet Ji-a’s eyes, and her hesitation comes through with every word. “Do you, um, do you ever worry that you are betraying the surface world, by staying here?”

Ji-a tilts her head, thinks about that, and smiles. “I worry about who and what I might be hurting by staying here, yes. That will weigh heavily on me. But am I doing something I think will benefit my home and my family? I believe that I am. And if you are doing the same, then I think you are also doing the right thing.”

Fuko looks up, startled. “I-- Well. Um. Thank you. But what if the Senior Commander has you arrested?”

Ji-a shrugs. “I have just learned that my husband is in jail. If that happens, I will learn an appreciation for his circumstances.”

Leo slams a fist into an open palm. “We’ll be back for you, one way or another. Count on that.”

Ji-a smiles. “Then let us proceed.”

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The real difficulty, as Fuko explains it, is patience.

忍び”, she says, pronounced “shinobi”. “Another term for ninja. It can mean to sneak or to hide, or to be stealthy, or similar things. But it also means to endure. We do not know when we will be picked up at the rendezvous site. Or if we will at all. The message may not go through. And we cannot allow the New Imperial soldiers to know where the site is, or they will overwhelm it and we will be captured.”

The girl looks from face to face. “This means if we are spotted, we must defeat everyone. Everyone. Anyone who is present, who could give an alarm, who could follow us. No exceptions.”

Trace and Leo nod together.

“Very well.”

Their goal is to escape Nw Uh’eagl ot Nilgh’ri proper, and reach the “attic” - the air-breathing partition above it. Leo puts on his SCUBA gear again. Fuko, who can breathe underwater, and Trace, who has his armor, will escort him. Fuko provides more anti-colane, and Trace demonstrates how to apply it. Leo spares a glance backward at Ji-a Lee, then dives into the cold and forbidding waters of Atlantis.

Leo doesn’t have a wetsuit, only the breathing apparatus. The cold permeates his skin. It seeps into his bones. The mineral-infused water tickles at his ears, pushes demandingly at his body’s defenses. His eyes are closed, to protect them from the high salt content of the water.

He’s holding onto Trace’s suit, which is making good time through the water thanks to its propulsion system. He can’t see Fuko, but feels the water churn nearby and thinks it must be her. He’s not sure how much air is left in the tank, only that it was supposedly “refilled” by the Reformists at the smuggler’s den.

The shell he pulled off one of the guards at the Surface Science Center begins to squeal. Soldiers. Orders.

He feels Trace push him away suddenly, feels the water start to churn. He can’t see anything, can’t make out details. There’s a sudden wash of blurry light across his eyes, burning through his closed eyelids. He starts to panic, tries instinctively to feel “up”, tries swimming that way. No good. The water is thrashing, churning, turning. Everything is chaotic.

He struggles to control his breathing. He focuses, analyzes. Fuko and Trace must have engaged some Atlantean soldiers. They’re fighting. His breathing is too rapid - he has to calm down, or he’ll burn through the oxygen in the tank. Shinobi, he tells himself. Patience. Endurance.

It feels like forever. A hand grips his wrist, and he feels another hand on his chest, drawing lines. One across, one down the middle. The letter T? Trace. Okay.

Hours. It feels like hours, anyway. He’s being dragged at full speed. Then they stop. Then they change direction. More movement. More waiting. His lungs are bursting. Then - out of the water. He feels himself hauled up, onto a dry surface. He rips the mask away from his mouth and draws in breath after greedy breath.

His eyes open, and the sting of salt makes him regret it immediately. He feels a splash of warm water across his face, and someone’s hands. Fuko?

The water drains from his ears, in time for him to hear his companions speak.

“We made it,” Trace says. “I think anyway.”

Leo spits out a mouthful of accumulated saltwater. “Fighting. Was there… fighting?”

“Yes. Sorry about that. They ambushed us.”

Fuko speaks up. “I had to lead us away from the nearest entrance to the attic. I am sorry. They are guarding the public interchanges, where air meets water. We are inside an abandoned um, I’m not sure what this place is actually…”

Leo glances around, is blinded briefly as Trace snaps on a light source and flashes it across the room they’re in.

Whatever this place used to be, it’s bare now. Finally, Fuko spots a sign. “Oh! This is … I’m not sure of a translation. A beauty salon, where you’d go get your hair and nails done? But for people like me. More vitality and elasticity to your suckers. You see?” She holds up a tentacle for inspection, showing the row of suckers on the ventral side. Trace makes an expression that Leo can’t begin to put a name to but feels he can understand.

Trace sets up a portable heating element for Leo. Fuko, meanwhile, is pacing around the salon. “Why would they close this place? This would be so useful. I wish I had this kind of thing on the surface. My cuticles always get dirty, and it’s very hard to wash them…”

Trace interrupts, though Leo feels like it’s more from awkwardness than concern. “Dude’s freezing over here. We got anything in here for him to change into, while his clothes dry?”

Fuko heads into the back and returns with a number of towels. “A cleanup crew was here some time ago, by the look of it. They left these. I’ll go scout.” She heads for the front entrance, leaving the two boys alone.

Leo is the first to speak, after his teeth have stopped wanting to chatter. “So, this is the shit Nautilus does, all the time, huh?”

Trace shrugs. “Not all of us get a cool supervillain dad. Some of them are just weirdos with a cause.”

Leo knows to look past Trace’s bristling and get to what he’s really saying. “Seems like the cause is something you’re on board with. People who are alive down here, who aren’t being allowed back to their homes? That shit wouldn’t fly with anybody, but you’re acknowledging it and responding to it.”

Trace shrugs again, but it’s different this time. Not dismissive. Self-deprecative. “Just doing the thing I know how to do, man.”

“Well it’s the right thing. And now I’m on board too,” Leo grins.


Leo glances at the exit. “So what’s with you and Fuko?”

Trace startles. “What? Wha? Hey. Uh. She’s my teammate, that’s what’s up.”

“Sure sure.”

Trace stands abruptly and starts pacing. Leo knows avoidance behavior when he sees it, and calls it out. “Dude, it’s okay. You like someone, but there’s barriers in the way and you’re not sure about crossing them. You think you’re the first of us to feel that way?”

Trace gives up and sits down again. “How did you know?”

Leo lists off the ways. “Pupil dilation. Changes in skin coloration. Changes in voice. Non-verbal leakage.”

Trace throws a spare towel at Leo’s face. “That’s what I get for hanging out with a fucking brain surgeon.”

Leo laughs. “That’s what you get for asking me to talk about how you recognize love.”

“Love?” Fuko’s voice comes from the door. “Oh! You are talking about Mr. Snow’s mother?”

Both boys bottle up immediately.

Fuko explains the next problem. “If they believe Mr. Snow is a spy, then he will need a means to leave the capitol. They haven’t spotted us at any of the interchanges. That means they are going door to door, searching for private entrances to the attic, such as this one. We have two choices. Avoid the patrols or ambush the one that inevitably comes here. What do we think is better?”

Leo thinks for a moment. “The rendezvous can happen any time. But these guys don’t seem to have radios or anything, right? What kind of lag time is there between patrol check-ins?”

Fuko frowns. “I’m not exactly sure? But the patrols cross paths, to share information, so we might–”

The discussion is interrupted by a noise at the front door. “Guess it’s been decided for us,” Trace growls.

The incoming Blood guard have their tridents at the ready. They spot Leo and Trace immediately. Half of them rush. The other half fan out, seeking to block any exits from the building. Neither group notice Fuko’s smoke bomb until it’s too late.

As the room fills with acrid black smoke, Leo throws a towel around his mouth and Trace slaps his helmet on.

The first guard to attack fires his trident, which turns out to be a net launcher - the three spikes at the head of the weapon carry a densely woven net between them. Trace is prepared. His own trident fires a spike back, and the force of it collapses the net and its fast-flying spikes into a knotted ball on the ground.

The second guard fires another net, aimed at Leo. Although unarmed, he has the benefit of having seen how the weapon works. He throws himself to the ground and rolls, helped with a hefty push off the floor, and comes up out of the path of the net.

The floor is not a great place to be. Another guard, wielding a two-pronged bident rather than a trident, is aiming to catch Leo between the prongs. Leo blocks the oncoming weapon with a foot, then pushes off it to slide backward across the floor and away from the attack.

He looks about for the moment he’s bought himself. Fuko’s smoke bomb is obscuring her position, but he can hear the sounds of fighting. He looks over to where Trace is at and sees him in a spear fight against two Blood soldiers.

The two on Leo are bearing down, and he doesn’t have many options. He gets to his feet. The bident wielder is covering for his partner, who’s screwing a replacement trident head onto the used-up net launcher. Leo takes a chance, and spin-kicks the head of the bident, just as its owner is on one foot in his rush forward. The timing is perfect. The guard is spun off balance, knocking his partner over like a toy top.

Weapons - weapons - come on - ah! He has the towels.

Leo rushes the two guards, both struggling to stand. He’s got a towel in each hand. They’re both soaking wet, from absorbing all the salt water from his recent immersion. He snaps them round the shaft of the bident and yanks. Since its wielder was using it to right himself, he comes along with it, and Leo delivers a savage shin kick to the guard’s abdomen.

The man falls, and Leo holds onto the trident as he lets go of it. The other guard seems willing to delay re-arming his own trident and readies it like a staff.

Leo’s new bident is blunt. That’s good - he doesn’t want to kill this one. But it’s going to be tough getting past the defenses of his opponent. He readies the bident in a spear-like stance, then waits.

The guard aims a poke at him with the staff, and Leo knocks it away. He comes in from another angle, and again Leo deflects it.

How’s his grip on this thing? Pretty good. The shaft isn’t made of metal, but some kind of rock, with a very rugged texture. Will this move hurt his hand? Maybe. Will it work? It should.

When the next poke comes in, aiming to knock Leo’s bident out of his hand, he sidesteps. The head of the bident clangs against the extended shaft, and Leo launches himself into a leap over and around the shaft of his own weapon. The sudden rotation of the bident’s head against it twists the staff violently out of the other guard’s hands, and against an unarmed opponent, Leo Snow has never had a problem.

Trace has put his own two opponents. And both boys whistle as the smoke clears, for they can see Fuko’s four challengers beaten on the floor.

“Make sure they’re unconscious,” she advises. “Then we leave.”

Leo is learning to appreciate having a ninja for a teammate. Multiple times, she’s thrown what look like porcupine quills into the neck of a passing soldier, knocking them out immediately. Some kind of ninja toxin, Leo guesses. He only asks once, and Fuko’s only response is that it’s non-fatal. Still, he can see how using it is bothering her.

Trace is no slouch either. His trident comes equipped with a grappling system of its own. More than once the group has scaled a house or building, ridden a zipline across a street, and come down on the far side, to avoid a patrol. It feels weird to Leo, riding along on a grappling system that didn’t come from his own armor and isn’t under his control. It’s a lot like having Otto drive for him.

The group reach the outskirts of the “attic”, and the start of the natural cave system into which it was originally built.

“This is where I leave you,” Fuko announces.

“Wait, what?” demands Trace.

The girl smiles sadly. “I didn’t say anything earlier. I didn’t want to be talked out of it. But Mr. Snow, Trace is very competent and will be able to keep you safe underwater until your help arrives. I trust him completely.”

“Yeah, but you’re coming with us!” Trace insists.

“No. I’m sorry. Trace. I am.” Fuko glances over her shoulder. “There must be more sightings, more knocked-out guards, to make them think we are still traveling to our destination. And beyond that…” She rubs her hands together in apprehension. “Mr. Snow, I owe a debt to your mother. I want to do the right thing, but right now I don’t know what that is. I brought you here under, well, mysterious pretenses if not false ones. But now you’re on your way back. So I feel I must keep your mother safe, while she is here. Watch over her. And learn more about what the New Imperial regime has planned for the surface world.”

She looks up, from face to face. “Promise me that you will do everything you can, to warn people on the surface. And if you can, to make sure this doesn’t come to war. Promise me.”

Leo nods. “I promise.”

Trace shakes his head. “Fuko, this is dumb. You can do that on the surface too.”

The girl smiles again. “My family - Japanese and Atlantean - have always told me what to do. What is traditional. What is proper. I am not a child of two worlds. I am a child of tradition. I was made to be obedient. I cannot obey what they want me to do. And I cannot obey what you want either, Trace.”

She lets out a sigh. Leo can sense the weight of her decision, drawing her toward the surface even now.

“In my heart, I don’t know what is right, aside from this one thing. Let Ji-a Lee work to sway the Emperor. Keep her safe and free. So I am going to do that. I am going to trust myself. Please, Trace, be okay with that.”

Trace doesn’t have words. So he leans forward, and pulls Fuko into a long hug. He whispers something to her. Leo doesn’t catch it, but he sees her face flush red in response.

The girl runs off without another word, and Leo casually punches Trace in the shoulder.

“What? What? I just said she’d do a great job.” Trace shakes his head in seeming disgust and turns away. “Mind your business.”

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It takes a day and a half before Trace decides to go spearfishing, leaving Leo alone in the cavern.

The two boys have spent hours and hours together. There’s been no shortage of potable water - Trace’s suit can desalinate sea water, and there’s no shortage of sea water. Food is another matter.

The fire was warmly comforting at first. Now, Leo can feel the way it heats everything that’s close to it, and nothing that’s just slightly further away. He keeps having to roll over and around so that one side doesn’t get too toasty and the other freeze.

He misses his armor. He misses life on the surface. He misses coffee, and burgers, and protein shakes. He misses hot chocolate, of all things.

He and Trace talked, probably more than they ever have at a single time. Thinking back, Leo realizes how much of it was empty bullshit. Sure, they expressed a common desire to deal with a war crisis. But concrete plans? Good ideas? Nothing. Other topics included super-team leadership, or Halcyon culture, or movies. Since they ran out of ways to run their mouths, and in mutual recognition that they were just passing time, both boys adopted a friendly silence. What’s left is announcements of intent - like going spearfishing - and grunts of recognition.

They can’t go to Whitewater Outpost. Saito captured the sub there. Saito’s men will still be guarding it. Leo’s not sure if Trace’s armor could withstand a trip back to the surface without his mini-sub. Trace hasn’t brought it up, so he assumes that’s a no-go.

Neither of them broached the topic of the rescue call. What if Saito shut off the wi-fi at the Surface Science Center? What if the call didn’t go out as expected? What if a search party comes this far, spots the fire, and captures them? What if the rescue party got intercepted on the way down?

There’s a primal instinct that keeps their mouths shut. Speaking a thing might make it true.

Shinobi. To conceal. To endure.

To suffer in silence.

That’s what we’re doing now, Leo thinks. That’s what ninja really do. Silence themselves, for the sake of the mission. It’s the only way to achieve an invisible invasion.

Trace isn’t alone when he comes back. But it’s not Otto, or Aria, that comes with him.

It’s Nautilus.

“Lost your armor, boy?” the HHL man booms. “That won’t do.”

“They confiscated it,” explains Leo.

Nautilus turns to Trace. “Lost your sub the same way, eh?”

“Yes sir.”

Leo notes that Trace put his helmet back on. Even now, he’s got it on. Nautilus is carrying, not wearing, his own.

Not ready to show his face to his father? Leo wonders. But right now they have bigger fish to fry. “Has Stingray told you what’s going on?”

Nautilus smirks. “He told me what I already knew. Nice to know someone else is finally ready to listen. Now get aboard, we’ll get you two boys back home.”

Leo extinguishes the campfire while the others wait, then jogs to match their pace as they retreat down a tunnel. Leo can see a submarine in the distance. It seemingly rammed its way through the cavern wall from the ocean side.

He wants to ask, doesn’t think he’ll get an answer from Nautilus, and isn’t sure he’ll get one from Trace either. He nudges the boy on the elbow, and gestures as subtly he can at the still-distant sub. Trace shrugs helplessly.

The trip back to Halcyon is a matter of hours. Leo fills the time by taking a long-overdue shower, changing into one of the spare wetsuits Nautilus keeps in his armory, and checking out the sub’s tech. He can’t disassemble it to learn everything he needs, but he learns plenty. He’s going to need plenty for what comes next.

Otto is waiting at the dock. Aria is with him. Leo knows he’s in for a hug, and a thorough chewing-out, and he receives both in short order.

He’s not sure if it’s cheating, but he breaks through Aria’s recitation of his numerous sins by announcing, “I met Ji-a Lee. She’s alive.”

Otto perks up, and Aria gasps. “Alive? What? Where? How?”

It takes the drive back to the Extension for Leo to share his story. All the while, Aria is transcribing key details on her phone and relaying them to Summer.

“We have to tell people about this,” is Aria’s conclusion. “We have to get people involved.”

Leo shrugs. “I mean Nautilus has been trying for years, by the sound of it, and nobody listens to him. Sure, he’s a hard dude to listen to, but so am I. So I agree, but I’m not going to wait for that.”

Aria narrows her eyes. “And you’re going to review your plan with as many people as you trust, to make sure you’re not doing something dangerous or ill-considered.”

Leo grins. “Of course!”

He grows more serious. “Lives are on the line. Lots of lives. I’m not going to half-ass something like that. And I’m not going to mess with what Ji-a Lee and Fuko have already started. We’ll do this carefully, but effectively. We’ll do this without aggravating the Atlanteans, without causing still more fear.”

“We’re starting our own invisible invasion.”


So this was a lot! But there was a lot of story.
As always, I’m interested in where people think this will go, what people thought of the assorted sub-plots and stakes, all that great stuff.

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Very enjoyable. Definitely feels like the most ambitious of the Phase 2 stories so far. There is a lot going on here, juggling a new and interesting society, secret history, exploring character motivations, and a whole host of new characters. It’s not wild and unwieldly though, it’s pretty contained since we’re (generally) following Leo’s POV and learning things as he does.

I would like to see more of Saito as antagonist. He’s very much a fascist authority figure (not unlike a Red Skull) and it’ll be fun to see him get his teeth kicked in (or whatever the equivalent is for Atlanteans) at some point in the future. I also feel like Saito confiscating a spare Link suit (even if it’s just in a storage locker for now) and his willingness to use surface technology (like the Q Phone) are a sign we’re going to see him in Atlantian reverse-engineered armor next time. (A man can dream of superhero fights.)

All that said, my favorite part is very dumb:

These very much feel like a callback to old comic book/Batman TV show/Saturday morning cartoon ending the story with the characters discussing the Aesop they learned along the way. Very cheesy, but in a fun way.

If the Menagerie were a sprawling comic book universe with decades of continuity, this feels like something that would be a callback to a regular feature in some 60’s era Chosen team comic that edgy fans learning about the team’s history groaned about in the dark age of 90’s comics. :slight_smile:


Saito will definitely be back.

The Chosen Challenge is a little ritual that members of that team have started doing. In the wake of the HHL’s departure, they’re sort of self-educating on what being a hero ought to be. We’ll see more examples of that in the future.

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Agreeing with Mike – this was really complex, with a lot of characters, an unusual environment, and a lot of uncommon action, and all those pieces worked pretty darned well.

My one narrative issue is with the very end. We get a lot of “the surface must be warned!” but once back up there it’s “yeah, but they probably won’t listen, so we’ll have to do this our way.”

Leo’s still got ties into AEGIS, and he’s not the only one. For that matter, this is or should be an all hands on deck kind of moment. Harder to write, of course, but, as presented, if he’s not drawing on Jason for assistance (think the Foundation has some underwater equipment?) if not further connections to spread the word, then it’s going to seem odd.

(Alternately, on rewrite, that pessimism about spreading the word could be established earlier.)

My LOL moment.

Really, this was all very good. Just one persistent problem that dragged me out of it every time I ran across it.

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This is going to affect the entire world and will be part of the finale for Phase 2, yeah. Leo’s just also not going to sit back quietly and let international deliberation happen. He’s going to take some kind of action as well, along with everyone he can get in contact with. We just haven’t seen the continuation of this part of the story yet :smiley:

Jason hasn’t shown up for much yet and that’s going to be changing very soon. But he’ll be as involved as anyone.

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I’m shocked, shocked …

Casablanca shocked shocked

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