232 - Hidden Depths

The Emperor of Atlantis floats alone in the waters of his secret citadel, and thinks.

Hand-picked soldiers attend him. Thoroughly vetted servants attend to his few needs. Trusted messengers relay information from outside. Beyond them, few even know where he can be found.

He does not attend the war planning sessions. He does not give opinions on the progress of the surface assault. Instead, he reads messages about others’ decisions, and the consequences of their actions. He is informed of things such as the unsuccessful launching of several tidal waves around the globe, and what the Atlantean military is about to do in the wake of that attack. But this is not what he thinks about. They don’t need him for this.

With gentle prodding from Ji-a Lee, he investigated the histories and natures of the “heroes” and “villains” of the surface world. He knows they occupy the popular consciousness. He grasps the nature of their battles. He has an idea about how they interact with their societies, and the lawful guardians of those societies.

He does not understand why they do what they do. And yet, they do it.

This is what he thinks about.

Atlantean logic is that human beings are basically inferior as a civilization. They have to be. They’ve placed their most important centers of power at coasts and along rivers - places the superior Atlantean forces could destroy with ease in the past. But they have no alternative, because they can’t move across land as easily as they can across water. They take the plenty of the ocean, the way the Atlanteans do, but they aren’t native to it. They are guests in the Atlanteans’ domain.

It’s therefore logical to think of humans as more expendable than True Atlanteans. The Emperor acknowledges that the Blood are thought of in the same way, and have been since they were created.

Without any better point of reference, he thinks of the surface’s superheroes as the True Atlanteans of their people. More powerful. Wiser, and acknowledged as such by a society that encourages their extra-legal activities. Harder to kill, certainly.

Why are these same heroes placing themselves in danger for the benefit of their inferiors?

He thinks it comes down to a social trick. Ji-a Lee has told him of the religions of the surface, where saviors emerge and are sacrificed, only to be resurrected. These belief systems are taught to surface children, some of whom become heroes. They then make sacrifices for the ordinary human beings around them. Yes, this is logical.

It’s logical, but it’s unsatisfying.

Occasionally, the Emperor regrets the secrecy that assists in his safety. It would have been interesting to go out among his people as they carved their own history, to watch them and question them and understand them. And perhaps to have witnessed the humans, too, as they told these stories about champions and messiahs.

Perhaps then he would understand. Perhaps this would have satisfied the question he has.

Senior Commander Saito had come to retrieve Ji-a Lee, to hold her as hostage so that one of their human pawns, “Rossum”, would cooperate. She’d asked for a moment, and of course the Emperor had granted it. He understood her strategic necessity, but she had also been a good companion, and he valued her words.

She’d asked a question. “If your people had to die for you to live, or if your death was all that would keep your people safe… which would be better?”

At first it sounded silly. The point of Atlantis was to sustain and protect the Emperor. The point of the Emperor was to share wisdom that would shelter and guide Atlantis. Many creatures in the ocean had such a mutually beneficial relationship. The manta ray provides the remora benefits, and the remora keeps its host clean of parasites and harmful microscopic organisms.

The risks of war might endanger that arrangement. The Emperor realized Ji-a Lee’s real question. When the harmony of peace was shattered, when one made difficult choices in uncertain moments, what would guide those choices?

He wonders if that is what heroes really do. Perhaps it is not for them to rule in peace time, when the seas are calm, but to hold fast when the current turns dangerous. But hold fast to what?

What do I value?

This, above all, is the unanswered question that now haunts him.

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The Atlantean attack comes not four hours after the tidal waves.

This is the worst time for it, from the surface’s perspective. This is when rescue parties will be searching the flooded regions, looking for survivors or people in need of help. This is when the city’s defenders will have stood down, letting exhaustion replace adrenaline.

Fortunately, the world’s planners anticipated this. The team listens in via INTERCOM - the International Emergency Response Communications network, the successor of the “Red Telephone” connection between Washington and Moscow. The network now connects to most of the nations on the planet, and is reserved for appropriately high-level, world-spanning issues such as alien invasions. That the invasion is coming from beneath, rather than above, makes little difference. Orders are ready for this contingency, and the team listens to them being given.

Of the team’s members, only Alex, Alycia, and Jason knew about INTERCOM already. Only Jason has legally been allowed to listen in on it. Today, it’s his first time to speak on it.

The call comes through. “HLCQ, HLCQ, from NAEC. Come through. Authenticate.”

“That’s us, Halcyon City Quill compound,” Jason explains to the group in low tones. He clears his throat, licks his dry lips, and takes up the microphone. “HLCQ here, my authorization is 0252949.”

“HLQC, you are authorized. Operation Orpheus is a go. Repeat, Operation Orpheus is a go. Acknowledge.”

Jason takes a deep breath. “HLQC acknowledges, commencing Orpheus.”

Off the microphone, Jason rubs his hands together and finds them sweating. He turns to his friends, with a tight, tense smile. “I guess this is it. Leviathans are ready to launch. I know you all know this, but this is really real. A whole population is depending on this. Now we’re in the big leagues, and we gotta show we can handle it.”

Murmurs of support come from his friends and allies, and Jason smiles through a few stray tears.

The first big decision was whether the team should stay up top, to defend Halcyon City, or go with the Leviathans. Everyone agreed that whether Halcyon could weather an attack from Atlantean forces, the civilian rescue was full of unknowns and possible traps. That meant specialists, superheroes, people unusually adept at adapting.

A10, Armiger, and other members of the Chosen and the Irregulators are already deployed to defend Halcyon. To Alycia’s faint surprise, Emma is joining them. “It’s a fish fry. I’ll bring the heat, someone else brings the tartar sauce,” she quips on her way out the door.

Nono isn’t going, at Alycia’s instructions. But Alycia makes it clear where the girl’s talents can be used. “These people have been underwater months, years, maybe all their lives. We don’t know what’s going to happen when they’re introduced to the surface’s atmospheric pressure. You’ll be part of the Quill science team, and you’ll be studying those effects as we bring people up.”

Alex isn’t going either. They spent time between the shakedown cruise and the operation’s commencement figuring out Nautilus’ underwater laser communication technology, and they’ve modified existing Navy ROVs with the system. Now, they’ll be coordinating communications.

Everyone else who needs it suits up in Stingray’s suits. A pair of Quill VTOLs are waiting on the roof, ready to take the team to the coastal launching site. Nobody talks during the flight. Nobody’s sure what to say.

The team is deploying with two people per Leviathan. The technologists, people who understand the machinery behind Leo’s creations, pair up with someone else. Thus, Jason, Leo, and Alycia find themselves paired with Adam, Charlotte, and Harry. Summer and Aria are riding along in Otto, who will magnetically attach to Stingray’s sub. Otto’s rescue-vehicle creation and brother, Mo, is similarly riding along. Most of the team hasn’t interacted with him very much, but Otto assures everyone he’ll be useful.

The dive feels faster than it is. The Leviathans’ underwater propulsion is based on Stingray’s. Leo remembers the hours-long journey to Atlantis the first time. Then, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Now, everyone knows, and can spend the time acclimating to their gear, discussing strategy with each other, and catching up on surface updates.

At one point, music bursts from the speakers. “Ignore that,” comes Alex’s voice. “Just doing some bandwidth testing. If the music gets glitchy, let me know.”

“What is this?” Adam asks.

“It’s Mongolian throat-singing techno!” Alex replies enthusiastically. “I got really into it while on the road with Charade. Next up on our playlist will be the HU, which is folk metal, and then…”

“Contact,” Stingray announces tersely. “Countermeasures.”

Atlantis’ enormous animal defenders, prowling the outer security perimeter, come for the diving Leviathans. Stingray’s sub launches torpedoes that fill the ocean with distracting scents and noise-makers. While the initial mission required the utmost stealth, no such precautions are required here. The countermeasures are effective for just long enough for the swarm of robot beasts to blow through unscathed.

Minutes pass. “We just passed the inner perimeter,” Stingray calls. “The Attic should be right below us. Have your bots break through.”

Leo instructs his Leviathan, which voices the order to the others in turn. Privately, Leo is still absolutely uncertain when and how they learned to talk with each other this way. That’s the mystery of life, he tells himself.

Tentacles drill through resistant rock, and break through into open air. With the atmosphere sensors looking good, the airlocks begin cycling people through.

Stingray blows a hole in the rock with explosive torpedoes. Water rushes in, carrying Otto and Mo with it.

“Do your thing, bro!” shouts Otto.

Mo is currently configured like a fire truck. But the “ladder” mounted on his back is also some kind of multipurpose launcher, and what it fires now is a steady stream of a compound resin material. The stuff is sold professionally in Halcyon under names like Hydrostall. It’s being used on the surface to control flooding in the cities hit by Atlantis, and here serves to patch up the hole. It won’t hold forever - but the team will need an exit eventually.

The first order of business is security. Ghost Girl and Adam will handle fortifying the breach point. Harry runs ahead, following the crude map supplied by Fuko via Stingray, to make contact with human beings living here in the Attic. Otto and Mo are in charge of evacuating anyone who has trouble moving under their own power, with Summer and Aria assisting. Alycia is in charge of security arrangements at the breach, Leo goes with his friends, and Jason stays on the radio to coordinate everything.

The team is wearing high-visibility symbols, either over their bodies or on the underwater armor, with an American flag, a red cross, and the word “RESCUE” in English. If anyone sees them, hopefully there’s no confusion about their origin and intent.

The Atlantean Blood show up in numbers around the time Harry is a third of the way through the neighborhood. To nobody’s surprise, they aren’t just armed with their usual tridents. A few are carrying anti-super weapons, such as Rook bioweb rifles. Harry can dodge it, but it’s a distraction.

Summer and Aria leap out of Otto as he charges forward and transforms. “Link up!” calls Aria to Otto, and the two fuse into a hyper-fast humanoid form. The fusion charges into the ranks of the Blood, scattering them. Some of the bioweb shots hit, but are ineffective against the robots. Trident-launched nets don’t even slow Otto down.

Summer’s drones fly outward, through the streets and tunnels, mapping the interior of the Attic. Her visuals are relayed back to Jason, watching in the holographic tank of one of the Leviathans.

“Can your force fields block off these passages here?” he asks, indicating some key choke points.

“Sure can!” Summer calls back.

The first waves of human captives are starting to emerge from their homes and businesses. They see the Blood fighting against the Menagerie, see the “RESCUE” signs, hear Harry Gale shouting “we’re evacuating you from Atlantis! If you want to go, we have room!”

Some, fearful of retribution from the overlords of the underwater empire, hold back. Some, for their own reasons, shut their doors, or even shout at the Atlantean soldiers to protect them. Others begin running for their seeming rescuers.

The Blood aren’t here to stop the civilians. Their orders are to deal with the intruders. Just in case, Summer hovers near the lines of fleeing human beings, pointing toward the breach site and shouting “that way! That way!” Sometimes, an exhausted butterfly returns to her for recharging, and she deploys a replacement. She can see Blood soldiers piling up against her force fields, trying to use their weapons. Then, one of her drones goes offline. So does another.

“Something’s happening, guys,” she reports back through the radio.

The next thing she knows, her left arm has a hole in it the size of a golf ball.

Summer spins from the force of the impact, and falls to the ground. She looks unbelievingly at the damage, then at the tunnel from which the shot came. She can see Blood moving toward her. Two are armed with some kind of over-the-shoulder weapons system. The others are carrying Rook-type force screens.

“Bad news, folks, they’ve got some kinda weapon that goes through carbon armor and force fields like they aren’t there.”

“Radiance, Retreat,” comes Jason’s order. “Concord, want to go try your screens against it?”

Summer grits her teeth. “Negative. I’m going to take these guys out.”

Harry stops at one door, finding a bearded human man standing in it. “We’re here to rescue you…” he starts.

An Atlantean Blood, pregnant, steps into the doorframe and slides an arm around her husband’s waist.

Harry looks between the two and smiles. “Everyone’s welcome. If you stay, that’s okay too.”

They shut the door, and he moves on.

He finds a pair of human men who beckon for him to come to another building. Inside, a feeble-looking old man lays in bed. He’s got some kind of Atlantean bio-devices attached to him.

Harry realizes the choice ahead of him. Just to be sure, he asks. “Is he being treated for something?”

One of the men nods, with a sad glance toward the elder that tells Harry there’s a family connection.

“I don’t know if we can do the same thing,” he admits, hating the honest admission. “What do you want to do?”

The two younger men glance at each other. “We’re going to stay,” says the other.

Harry nods, and dashes.

Ghost Girl beckons person after person into the many tentacle-tunnels the Leviathans have used to breach the Atlantean Attic. As one climbs into and through the tunnel, another climbs in after them. As each one cycles through the airlock and reaches the habitat, they find chairs waiting, and buckle in. Once a habitat is full, the Leviathan exchanges it with another waiting unit, who then leaves for the surface. When they get there, an international fleet of ships are waiting to take people aboard, then deliver the empty habitat back to its Leviathan.

From Stingray’s sub, it looks like two octopi trading pearls. He doesn’t have much time to watch, though. Short-range sonar picks up numerous contacts.

He starts readying his weapons, and grits his teeth. “If we win this war, I am getting outta the submarine business forever.”

Charlotte finds herself and Adam under attack by Atlantean Blood, who have bypassed Summer’s blockade. They’re coming through air bladders connecting the Attic and the underwater parts of the city beneath it, and emerging from nearby buildings.

Charlotte wields the Agate Staff to weave a defensive barrier around the breach site, as well as the people awaiting rescue aboard the Leviathans. But keeping people safe is more than deflecting stray tridents and nets.

Every person here is leaving a home they’ve known for weeks, months, or even years. Perhaps some of these people were born here. They’ll be taken to the surface world, but what then? Will they have homes? Do they have surviving family, friends, dogs, debts? What did they leave behind - or what new things will they discover?

Charlotte awoke in a strange new century. With the aid of friends, she’s fitfully learned to adjust to it, even found a place for herself there. But it wasn’t easy. And so every single person who approaches the Leviathans meets her gaze, full of resolute compassion and determination. You will be taken care of, her eyes tell them. It’s going to be difficult. But we are here for you.

Nobody who sees those eyes hesitates any longer.

Adam methodically clears the area around the breach site. As soldiers approach, he’ll blast their weapons out of their hands. Groups of soldiers are knocked around, pushed away, or blocked in by his powerful zones of force.

He hears Summer’s call, realizes she’s been hurt, and hears Jason’s recall order. He listens as she defies it.

He wants to go help her, at first. He wasn’t even sure she could be hurt. Wants to go, even when she said she’d handle it. He worries about her, as a teammate and as a friend.

And then he experiences a realization. As the youngest member of the team, this was how people sometimes treated him - or how he felt they did. “Adam’s in trouble, go rescue Adam.”

Right now, everyone in the Menagerie is busy doing something. And right now, they entrusted breach security to him. He’s not going to let them down.

Right now, he has to trust his teammates in return. Because he can feel the fear radiating from everyone who’s coming here for rescue. It soaks into Tau, empowering his blasts. It creeps into Adam’s soul, too. He can feel the waves of emotion radiating from the Blood, from the human captives, from everyone here, everywhere, and it’s overpowering.

Right now is the time to conquer fear. Or it will wash like a deadly wave over everyone.


They aren’t going to get more than a fraction of the people out of here, Stingray realizes.

Nautilus has been telling everyone about Atlantis since forever. But the ninja corps and intelligence service have been infiltrating world governments for decades, at least. It’s easy to falsify reports, deny funding, put a thousand bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of any real action. Apathy is a powerful tool. Many governments have enough trouble taking care of the citizens already in their care. What’s with these wacky tales of people being held captive underwater? And Nautilus as a person isn’t the most charming and charismatic sort to begin with.

Jason Quill isn’t Byron, but he adventured with him. The two of them came back from their world travels with some outlandish stories, sure, but they brought back trophies as hard evidence. There were plenty of people who disliked Byron, but nobody who doubted him. And Harry Gale - ‘nuff said. The son of two legends, and fast growing into a legend of his own. So when the pair of them took Nautilus’ place to spread the word about Atlantis, folks listened.

On the one hand, Stingray remembers things Leo has said to him. “Connection is strength”. The value of friendship. It all sounded soppy and sentimental, but when you have connections like Quill and friends like Harry Gale, maybe there’s something to it.

But what if you don’t have that? That’s why Nautilus and his few supporters went to a supervillain, almost twenty years ago, reflects Stingray. The only person they could get to try and do something was King Winter. And then the Gales intervened. And then everyone wrote it off as a maniacal supervillain attack and went back to their lives.

He’s finished fighting off the first wave of Atlantean open-ocean defenders when he hears a commotion over the communication system.

“Hey, what’s happening in there?” he asks.

“Ninjess is here. Some of the rescuees don’t seem like they wanna be friends with her,” reports Alex.

A surge of anger runs through him. “The hell they aren’t,” Stingray growls. He maneuvers his sub toward the nearest Leviathan, matching his airlock with one of its loose tentacles in seconds, unbuckles himself from the command chair, and bolts.

He passes through airlock after airlock impatiently, pounding on the durable carbon hatches in a vain effort to get them to open faster. Finally he emerges into the Attic, only to find Ghost Girl doing her best to calm the crowd. He sees Fuko nearby. Adam is still battling the Blood attackers, but let her through. Now the crowd, who doesn’t know her like the Menagerie does, is confused, angry, and shouting.

Stingray reconfigures his suit for Frog, and makes a mighty leap over the crowd. He lands in a four-point posture, and tears off his helmet so the people here can see his human face.

“Hey! HEY! What the fuck? She’s on our side!”

Calls come from the crowd. “She’s one of them!” “Why is she here?” “Don’t let her hurt us!”

Stingray glares at the crowd, bristling with defiance, making eye contact wherever and whenever he can. “She is the reason we can even be here to rescue all of you. She’s a Halcyon City hero. Her name is Ninjess. You better remember it!”

“How can you trust her?” demands one voice from the crowd.

“Because we’ve been teammates, we’ve fought back to back, and because she’s trusted me with her life before,” Stingray answers sharply. “She risked her life to be down here for all of you. Now we’re getting everyone out. You, and her.”

He scoops his helmet up, plunks it back on his head, and reaches out a hand. He feels Fuko’s hand close around it, and he starts walking. Past the people, past Ghost Girl, and toward the Leviathan.

Only when they’re back in his sub does he take off the helmet again, and let out an exhausted sigh.

Fuko is watching him from the other seat, with a strange smile on her face. “You don’t usually stand up to other people.”

He manages an embarrassed shrug but not eye contact, and focuses his attention on the sonar display.

To his great surprise, he feels her lips kissing his cheek. “I liked it. But you should stand up for yourself too, okay?” she tells him.

Stingray feels his face burn, and his mouth turning into a goofy smile in spite of himself. “Aye aye, Captain.”

Mo hears the call go out. “The hospital ships are nearing capacity. We’ve got a long queue down here still, so bring whoever you have and we’ll focus on getting them aboard.”

Configured as an ambulance, he’s got a couple of people in the back who aren’t doing well. Whatever they have, Atlantean science hasn’t been able to treat it. His human shell is in the driver’s seat now, remotely operated, when it’s not being used to carry people into the back of the vehicle.

“Bringing two,” he acknowledges, via the radio. “Won’t go for more.”

He hears the people in the back talking - to him?

“You can leave us if you need,” one says, weakly.

“No can do,” he replies, and keeps driving.

“It’s okay. The healthy and the young should be going,” the other passenger adds.

“S’fine,” Mo remarks.

There’s a moment of silence, and he can feel their discomfort at the thought of taking the place of someone else. He sighs mentally and puts together whatever words he can. “Look. Everyone we can fit, goes. Y’all fit. I promise.”

He glances over his shoulder to see their faces. There’s still worry, but it’s now giving way to relief.

I already hate how many we have to leave behind. Like hell would I take the guilt for abandoning two more.

“Weapon is some kind of railgun,” reports Summer. “Maybe some kind of metamaterial ammo?”

She’s taken two more hits, despite her evasive tactics. She’s switched to offense, aiming beams at the Blood soldiers and forcing them to hide behind their shields for cover. But she can’t do this forever.

“There’s more of them,” reports Aria via the radio. “They took a chunk out of Otto and he ejected me. I’m on my way back to the breach site, and he’s keeping them busy.”

“If they reach the breach site, they’ll tear through the Leviathans’ armor,” Leo concludes. “That’ll trap everyone we’ve still got here. You can’t let them get close.”

Summer gets an idea. She’s got most of her drones left. They can project barriers - and maybe she can line the barriers up, create a line of force fields they’d have to shoot through. But they can project images too.

She collects her drones around her, manifesting a holographic Summer through each of them. And then they - and she - disperse. Without a clear target, and with only one railgun, the Blood show momentary confusion.

She hears a loud squeal, guesses it’s biological sonar, and worries for a moment. But the drones project a hard-light image. She can wrap herself in the same kind of barrier, and now does so. Whatever sonar image they’re going to pick up, it’ll all look the same. She hopes.

The drones whirl about the knot of soldiers, and Summer dives at the railgun rifleman. Decoy beams come from the drones, forcing the shieldmen to raise their barriers. She lines up her own shot, hitting the hefty power pack. The Blood is forced to throw away his weapon before the whole thing explodes.

The mecha-medica are already healing her shell. That’s good - but this was against only a single railgun.

How many more are there?

“Looks like every squad has one of these danged things,” Otto says over the radio. “I’m starting to feel like Swiss cheese.”

From his position, Jason Quill observes the situation via the Leviathan’s holographic projection. “Otto, fall back,” he calls urgently. “Ghost Girl, how are we doing?”

“We’re still behind schedule,” Charlotte reports. “I can keep these people safe. But I don’t know what those weapons will do to my barriers, stretched thin as they are.”

“Evaluation. Can they use those weapons underwater?”

Alycia answers this, and Jason can hear the repeated firing of a sniper rifle from her comm chatter. “Negative. Underwater weapons need to be self-propelled, like a torpedo.”

He directs his next question outward. “Stingray, Nautilus, status.”

He can see the Leviathan’s own sonar. Numerous blips are on screen. And a blip at this scale isn’t just a swimming Blood. It’s something big. Really, really big.

“Third wave of attackers is already here,” Stingray reports. “We’re running low on munitions. They’re targeting us for now, probably because we’re Atlantis’ Most Wanted, but if we go down they may turn on the Leviathans.”

Jason digests and analyzes and thinks, at the lightning speed he’s capable of achieving. “Right. Goal right now is to get everyone aboard a Leviathan as fast as possible. Newmen, retreat to the breach site.”

He hears Summer and Aria acknowledge. Mo acknowledges, having pulled up to drop off his last two passengers.

“Otto, acknowledge,” Jason says after a moment.

“Got a problem,” Otto announces.

“Are you on your way or not?” Alycia asks, and Jason can hear a bit of worry in her voice.

“Uh, negative. I don’t think I can move or transform right now. They’re–”

The call stops.

“I’m goin’,” announces Mo.

“We’ll come too–” Summer and Aria both voice the same sentiment, but Mo cuts them off. “You leave him to me. Tend to the folks who need you.”

When Otto created Mo and Big Bill, it was an experiment. He didn’t have anything specific in mind, other than a couple of buddies who could do rescue work with him. But personality emerged anyway.

Big Bill, the transport plane, is friendly, outgoing, honest, self-effacing. He’s the sort to tell you “aw shucks” if you compliment him. You could put him in a cowboy hat and give him a banjo, and he’d fit right in as the winsome young man at the country cotillion.

Mo knows what Otto had in mind with him. He is Otto’s memory of men like Mr. Dorsey, one of Leo’s foster fathers. Taciturn, capable, dedicated. Since his creation, he’s been assisting Otto, performing rescue work while the other bot fights bad guys. This is his first time working with the bigger team, rather than attending to mundane matters like house fires.

Mo doesn’t like to fight. But he inherited something from Leo, through Otto. You don’t not fight, you just save it up inside yourself until it has to come out.

He roars at top speed through the streets of the Attic. He finds dozens of Blood surrounding where Otto lays. Without hesitation, his launcher fires gobs of quick-freezing foam packets at them. As they scatter from the initial assault, and before they can re-form to make a counterattack, he’s plowing through their ranks. His brakes engage and his grapples lash out, and the angular momentum of the handbrake turn causes the lines to whip through the Blood.

As the enemies go sprawling, two of his industrial-strength grapples target and grab hold of Otto. His tires get traction against the rocky ground of the Attic. He speeds away from the scene, dragging his brother across the rough stone, not noticing the railgun shots that whiz past him - or those that occasionally find their mark in his own chassis.

Alycia is using the grapples built into her shock gloves to move between different vantage points in the Attic. Now, staring through the scope of the rifle she brought along (“just in case”), she spots Blood soldiers approaching the breach site’s perimeter. Some of them are carrying heavy power packs and long barrels. The railgun.

“Enemy approaching,” she whispers into her throat mic for the benefit of the team. “I count eleven special weapons.”

She aims, fires, aims, fires. “Ten. Nine.”

She’s shooting the power packs, not the people, which is galling to her past self. On the other hand, the power packs explode after a few seconds when hit, which adds to the chaos and causes the Blood to break ranks.

The Blood are well-trained. They scatter for cover as soon as they start receiving fire, and Alycia is pretty sure they’ll try to flank her current position. Fortunately she’s got the grapples. Unfortunately, the more she falls back, the closer they’ll get to the breach site.

She realizes something important. “The Blood at the breach don’t have the railguns. They were trying to bait the Newmen out and dispose of them. The attackers at the breach are a decoy. Radiance, Mo, take over breach defense. Ghost Girl, Concord, rally on me. Mercury, can you dispose of any guns you find?”

After half a second of tense uncertainty, she hears the voice she needs to hear. “Yeah, I concur,” Jason says via radio. “Team, let’s hop to it.”

In a few moments, Alycia can see Ghost Girl and Concord fly past her. The two erect their various barriers and shields. In turn, the Blood raise their weapons and fire. The railguns aren’t able to penetrate these defenses, despite repeated attempts.

Alycia grapples away. “Some probably got through already. I’m on the hunt.”

Mo is busy spraying construction foam to create a barricade around the breach site. Leo, Jason, Aria, and Summer are engaged in hand-to-hand with the Atlantean Blood still trying to reach the site. Otto is unconscious but still alive.

Behind the barriers that Charlotte and Adam are holding fast, Harry Gale is a blur. He streaks from squad to squad, leaping up and over, or ducking under, anyone in the way of his objective. When he finds a gunner, he yanks hold of the cables connecting gun and power pack, then grabs hold of the gun and dashes away. Breaking the guns is easy enough - he swings them at solid things he passes at super-speed, and the devices shatter satisfactorily.

“Five, four, three,” he chants, keeping up Alycia’s count of remaining weapons. “I’ve got all the ones I can see. Charade, where am I going now?”

In the distance, he sees a red flare light up the air. “On my way!” he calls.

A bold voice, amplified somehow, rings out over the sound of melee. “Menagerie! Parley!”

The Blood soldiers at the breach seem to recognize this as a signal, and begin backing off. Jason looks at his friends and nods. The battle comes to a tentative halt.

Senior Commander Saito emerges from the shadows. He’s accompanied by three Blood, carrying a heavy device.

Alycia arrives just in time to recognize it. “That’s one of Pyrrhus’ EMP bombs.”

Saito smiles. “Actually it’s our design. We gave it to him in exchange for the drug, which he did not deliver.”

The Blood commander turns his attention to Leo. “But you’ve upheld his end of the bargain anyway. Leo Snow. You will come with me, as prisoner.”

“Or you set off the bomb, knocking out all our Leviathans and trapping us all here?” Leo asks. “Why not threaten my mother while you’re at it, you fucking scumbag?”

“Her life buys me a different asset,” Saito replies smoothly. He stands next to the bomb, and holds up one hand. In it is a dead man’s switch - a device that’ll activate if he’s incapacitated for any reason. “Choose now. Surrender yourself, or doom yourself and your friends.”

“If I surrender, the evacuation continues,” Leo insists. “Take your jackbooted goons home and let us get these people to the surface.”

“Acceptable,” Saito says, to Leo’s great surprise. “Of course, the surface world may not be as welcoming as we were.”

A long quiet falls over the group. Leo finally turns, and looks for Jason and Alycia among his friends. “Aria and Summer can help you repair Otto,” he says.

Jason reaches out a hand. “Leo, don’t–”

Leo starts to walk toward Saito.

Together, the two depart the battlefield. Saito’s Blood soldiers melt away as well, leaving the evacuation to resume in silence.

The Leviathans are nearing the surface when Alex announces the news.

“The Blood invasion of the surface brought along EMP bombs, the kind we saw in Cairo. They made surgical strikes targeting data centers, City Hall, anything holding official records, paper or digital.”

Alycia breathes out. “But not dams, farms, or hospitals. They’re inciting social chaos, without taking human life en masse.”

“Yeah.” Alex’s voice wavers. “Shit. They knew right where to hit…”

“And the city’s heroes?” Jason asks urgently.

“The Blood had the numbers to tackle them,” Alex reports. “Early reports make it sound like they moved bombs through the sewers, and the surface forces made some pretty convincing feints. The heroes went for the short-term targets the Blood seemed interested in. We have a huge number of captives now, but eh, it doesn’t feel like that does us any good.”

Alycia raises another point. “Those ninja might have left a bomb on a timer anywhere. Like outside the Quill compound.”

“Let’s go to Site Five,” Mo suggests. “Nobody knows about it.”

Most of the team has been there before, thanks to Otto’s invitation to the debut of Mo and Big Bill. Jason, looking worn down, can only nod. “Alright. We’ll get Otto fixed up there. Then we can figure out our next move.”


The mechanical noise of Otto’s Garage slowly comes to a halt, as Harry slams his palms down on a workbench all of a sudden, sending a spray of corn chips into the air with the impact. “Why aren’t we just going after them?”

The others stop their tasks and turn. Jason and Alycia, repairing and reconstructing the shells of Otto and Summer respectively. Adam and Charlotte, talking in low tones about the state of the hostage recovery. Stingray and Fuko, looking at a map of Atlantis. Aria, working on a laptop. Mo and Big Bill in their human avatars, pulling broken modules out of Mo’s vehicular shell.

Harry points at Charlotte, then Adam. “We can just, I dunno, portal down there, get Leo, fight Saito. You can travel in time and space. You can find people.”

He looks at Alycia and Jason. “What do you two need to plan the operation? Come on.”

His eyes seek out the others, one by one. “Why isn’t this simpler?”

Aria is the first to respond. She folds the laptop screen down, stands with deliberation from her chair, and finds and faces Harry head on. “Do you think I don’t want to burn through that whole god damn fish tank and get him back?” she asks, in words of frozen fire.

Harry swallows and shakes his head.

She draws her emotions back into herself with a long breath. “We’re both frustrated. So maybe let’s talk about what I’ve got worked out so far. It’s not what you want to hear. But it’ll answer your questions.”

She returns to the laptop and projects its contents onto the big-screen TV on one end of the garage. It’s usually reserved for multiplayer console games between the Garage’s boys, and now illustrates a conflict of vastly more serious purpose.

Aria clicks from slide to slide as she speaks. Her presentation is slick, clean, and visually informative. “First. The scope of the problem. We hit their biggest city, but not their only city. Within the ‘attic’, the level where human beings can function, we rescued almost four thousand people in a few minutes.”

The slides shift to a map, with the rescue area projected onto a larger map of Atlantis. Aria’s voice grows softer. “Debriefing interviews with those people, plus estimates on the extent of the attic, put the human population of that city at one hundred thousand people.”

She stares around the room. “That’s a hundred thousand hostages. Senior Commander Saito let us take those people out, but what about everyone else? He’s clearly prepared for the tactics and technology we brought. He has weapons capable of neutralizing us robots, for which we don’t have a counter. He’s got EMP weapons to disable almost anything electrical we bring there. So we have to consider the hostages still at risk.”

The slides advance. “Next, our understanding of the Atlantean high command, from Shinkai Hafuko aka Ninjess.” Aria nods to Fuko, and withdraws to run the slides while she speaks.

“The current government reports to the Emperor through a series of hmm, ministers is probably the right English word. Seniority is very important within the upper echelons. Atlantean society associates wisdom with longevity, and True Atlanteans can live very long indeed, so most senior posts have been held by the same people for quite a long time.”

“Below them are the Blood. People like me, and like Senior Commander Saito. We rise through the ranks based on merit. We’re preferable to True Atlanteans for roles where things change relatively rapidly - like gathering intelligence on the surface world - because, frankly, we die out, meaning old ways of thinking don’t contaminate fields where innovation is required.”

More slides clicks through. Fuko has no photographs, but does have descriptions, for each of the leaders she names. First, the different divisions of the military, who handle perimeter defense, the logistics of invasion, and so forth. Second, the intelligence service and ninja corps, who spy on the surface world. Third, the civilian echelons, responsible for regulating life among Atlantis’ many peoples.

“The invasion is a close partnership between the military and intelligence arms,” she explains. “They in turn report to a handful of True Atlanteans, and in turn to the Emperor.”

Harry speaks up. “So okay, we just take down the Emperor.”

Fuko looks like she’s been struck with a hammer. It takes time for her to recover, and explain.

“That’s… that is, what you say is as close to impossible as I can imagine.”

Harry tilts his head. “Okay, why?”

Fuko composes herself, to try and think the unthinkable. “Er, well, for one thing nobody knows where the Emperor is. Or who he is. What he looks like. How to recognize him. Where to even start looking for him.”

Harry takes this in. “Okay, what else?”

“Well, second, he’s the oldest of any True Atlantean, and has wisdom and secrets to match. Many legends are told about him.”

“Many legends are told about my parents,” Harry retorts. “I’m willing to take my chances.”

The slides continue, and now Jason takes over the presentation. “Complicating things is that we’ve been coordinating this via INTERCOM, a network of numerous countries. We discussed plans, shared intel, and so on. Unfortunately, we also warned people that governments might have already been infiltrated by the Atlantean intelligence service’s human agents. Those people might also have access to the plans.”

A set of slides show the countries suspected of harboring such agents, intersected with those who use INTERCOM and contributed materially to the rescue operation.

“Going up against a civilization takes numbers,” Jason explains. “We’re still producing more Leviathans, but they’re limited-use tools. Anything that isn’t an intensely surgical strike by our team - such as trying to take down an Emperor, or Saito, or a similar target - runs the same risk of discovery by Atlantis. People are taking our warnings more seriously now, but it’ll take time to root out the moles.”

Aria speaks, as the slides come to an end. “There’s a question that’s been bothering several of us, and it’s the one that I think should guide our next steps.”

Harry blinks. “What question is that?”

Aria smiles grimly. “What exactly does Atlantis want with Leo Snow?”

Leo finds himself in a holding cell, inside what he assumes is a building owned by the intelligence service. It’s underwater, so there’s nowhere for him to go if he escaped the cell. There’s air and water partitions, like the Surface Science Center had, but none of the signs here are in English.

To his great irritation, he sees his father - Rossum, the Minion Maker - approach the cell from the hallway.

“Our positions appear to be reversed since our last encounter, my boy,” Rossum says with a glance at the cell’s bars. But although it’s a smirking, sardonic thing to say, it’s curiously devoid of venom.

“What are you here for, old man?” asks Leo in a weary voice.

“You failed to tell me my wife - your mother - was alive.” Now Leo can hear genuine emotion. Hurt, anger, betrayal.

“Yeah, sorry, the minute I got back I was taking steps to fend off an invasion, and then was being chased underground by fucking ninja assassins,” Leo retorts. “Thank your new buddy Saito for that, by the way.”

“I owe Saito quite a debt, for the way he’s treating Ji-a Lee,” Rossum growls. “But… it is true that while he has her, he has me.” His eyes study his son, trapped behind the bars. “And he has you, does he not?”

It is a question Leo does not want to answer.

Rossum perhaps senses this, and goes forward anyway. “Whether you like it or not, my boy, we’re now on the same side. You had your grand showdown with me, won your precious victory for the side of law and order, satisfied those sanctimonious pricks at AEGIS. Now isn’t it time for your dear old dad to get his redemption arc, where all is forgiven?”

Leo looks up at Rossum through the bars, and asks a question. “When they finally caught you - when that EMP went off in your face, courtesy of the robot you thought was me - how did it feel?”

The question strikes Rossum like a fist, as Leo can clearly discern.

At length, the older inventor finds his words. “I’ve always loved you, Leonardo. You’ve always been my son. I tried to raise you, but they always got in my way. I tried to homeschool you, to show you what it was really like when the powerful are in charge, to let you be ready…”

Rossum rubs his hands together. Leo finds his eyes drawn to the wrinkles, the way the signs of age makes the skin fold under the motion. “I know I was not the best of fathers. Perhaps you think one of the worst. But even under my tutelage, when I set traps to test you, I warned you. I gave you ways out. Not even I would have used that android, the way AEGIS did.”

Leo draws unsteady breaths. “It hurt me too, what they did. How they did it. It betrayed everything I’d created the robots to do.”

He looks Rossum in the eye. “When Vyortovia called for peace, and Congress said they’d do us for treason if we took them up on it, I said fuck that shit. We worked out a deal - made slow overtures. Finally Harry made the move. Nothing the bigwigs in charge wanted, of course. Not the way they wanted.”

Leo’s hands ball into fists. “So you’ll forgive me, dad, if I call bullshit on your ‘law and order’ and ‘friends with AEGIS’ crap. I didn’t need to impress anyone. I went after you because you. Hurt. People.”

“I had already lost my wife!” Rossum insists. “I wasn’t going to lose you - not to anyone. And I was going to make them all pay, for all the hurt they’d done!”

Connections form in Leo’s head. “And now the guy who’s had her for twenty years is your new boss. And you’re just itching to take him down. He knows that. So he lures me here, to be backup leverage against you.”

Rossum smiles strangely. “Actually, it’s the other way around. There’s something only you can do, something that Saito wants very badly.”

As guards approach from the hallway, Rossum nods in their direction. “I expect they’re here to take you to hear all about it.”

Ji-a Lee is there when Leo and Rossum enter the room. A glance at their faces tells Leo they’ve already interacted, and complex emotions are still there to read. He wonders how it went - what kinds of thoughts and words and wishes and feelings such a reunion must have generated.

But Saito is also here, along with several other Blood in what looks like the underwater equivalent of an Atlantean uniform.

All but a few of the soldiers leave. Some of the Blood nod to Saito, and he commences his explanation.

“Leo Snow, you are aware of our invasion of the surface. And you’ve no doubt surmised the reason for it. Atlantis has numerous reasons to fear the surface. Some of those reasons have long since come to pass. Others, not yet.”

Leo scowls. “Yah. Good luck surviving what comes next, asshole.”

“As it happens, survival is very much on my mind,” Saito answers smoothly. “Leaving your armor here allowed us to craft weapons effective against your technology and test that effectiveness first hand. But that took considerable effort. Furthermore, even before we got to see the performance of your robots first-hand, I’d taken some time to research their past exploits in Halcyon City and elsewhere.”

Leo rolls his eyes. “Proceed directly to the point, please.”

Saito, hands folded and clasped behind his back, smiles with the satisfaction of a cat in the final stages of trapping a mouse. “We’ve seen from your armor’s construction that safety and durability are paramount to you. And your technology allows the exchange of living minds into artificial bodies. You will give it to us, and we will live forever.”

Leo’s breath catches. This is so far beyond anything he’d seriously considered. Uploading an entire civilization of minds - a whole society of robots - the scale, the magnitude of it–

Something’s not right here.

“Wait a minute. Your biology is spectacular,” he says, reasoning aloud. “There’s no reason you couldn’t have started longevity research, or engineering the Blood to have the lifespan of a True Atlantean, or researched healing factors. You don’t need me. You’ve got all the…”

It hits him. “You don’t have the support of the True Atlanteans. They could do this. They haven’t. They let you grow old and die. You’re supposed to be expendable!”

Saito’s eyes light up. His voice is low and even, like a cat’s satisfied purr. “You are very discerning, Mr. Snow.”

Leo looks wildly to Ji-a Lee, then to Rossum, then to the other Blood and back to Saito. “While the Atlanteans are off fighting the surface world, you’re going to stage a coup. You’ve bought the support of other Blood with promises of technological immortality. You’ll use that to overthrow the True Atlanteans and take over.”

Saito draws back, and beams at Rossum. “You said you had educated him on strategy. I see you spoke the truth. Very good. But will he cooperate?”

Rossum’s eyes flash to Ji-a Lee for just a moment, then back. “He has to, doesn’t he. We both do.”

Saito claps his hands. “Wonderful.” He returns his attention to Leo. “You understand the stakes. You understand the command. Now it is on you to fulfill it. You have no choice, boy.”

He smiles and watches, and Leo stares back, rage and hopelessness fighting behind his eyes.


Saito stands before Leo, looking down expectantly.

“Well, boy? What is your answer?”

Leo glances at his biological mother and father, who are both looking at him. On his mother’s face, he reads concern and earnestness. In his father’s eyes, he sees shrewd calculation.

He takes a breath.

“Before the omnipotent witness, I swear to use this power only for good.”

Leo meets Saito’s eyes. “I’m not helping you do this.”

Saito gestures, and the Blood near Ji-a Lee turn on her, menacingly.

“If I won’t do it, you think my father can, and will,” Leo deduces. “But you can’t hurt the one person keeping him under control.”

The Blood don’t move. Saito’s smile grows wide and shark-like. “He can. And he will. And if you will not serve as a technician, you will serve as a hostage, ensuring his cooperation.” The Atlantean commander turns to Rossum. “Begin preparations. This is your first priority, and–”

“Hey, shitbag,” Leo says, interrupting Saito. The man turns, curious and furious in equal measure.

“I don’t build weapons. I build friends. I’ve always given my creations independence. It’s not in me to add bombs, booby-traps, or mental back-doors to them. But that guy? He scratched a message into the brain of one of those creations, just to say hello to me. He used me as a transmission system to control an army of robots intent on freeing him from prison. His name is ‘the Minion Maker’. Do you really want to entrust the bodies and minds of your entire civilization to a guy who always - always - has to be in control of everyone around him?”

Saito hesitates, and looks back at Rossum. A knowing smirk crawls across the villain’s face. He could do what Leo’s just said and more, and now Saito knows it.

“There are ways to persuade you,” the Senior Commander says at last. “Our bioscience, as you recognized, is quite advanced. Though you may wish for death after a few treatments, you will be denied even that release.”

Leo smiles, despite the fear he feels inside - for those he cares about, for himself, of the uncertainty of everything. “The coward knows only cowardice. You’ll never understand the courage that’s already defeated you.”

“Return him to his cell!” Saito barks at the Blood nearby. Leo knows that - for the moment - he’s won. Soon he will learn at what cost.

The team has begun serious training. They were caught flat-footed in an air-filled environment. Maybe it’s time to change the playing field.

Harry, wearing a respirator, is at a deep-dive tank in one of Halcyon City’s many research institutions. He can’t run underwater the way he can in air - but he can vibrate through solid substances. Now the test is to see if he can maintain that vibratory state long enough to run at super-speed underwater.

What’s left of Orion Schema is still in orbit. When Harry isn’t in the tank, Adam is, practicing how much of its force is required to move large volumes of water. It’s a lot - but it’s doable.

Summer and Mo are patched up and functional again. Stingray has equipped them with his own underwater propulsion tech, in the form of attachments they can wear while underwater. Otto will require further overhauls, but he’s conscious and cracking jokes.

While the Atlanteans don’t typically use radio underwater, Alex has figured out a plan to disrupt the communication system their soldiers use. Flood an area with ultraviolet strobes, and it will scramble the bio-engineered earpieces.

Emma has been practicing pyrokinesis in reverse. If she’s able to cool down hot stuff, why can’t she cool down cool stuff, like water? Kid Kelvin has left Halcyon City for awhile, for unspecified reasons, but he’s still able to hop on a video call with her and coach her through her first fumbling steps into cryokinesis.

Nono has been studying the short-term effects of surface life on the people rescued from the Atlantean attic. She’s no doctor, but she has been helpful performing some of the chemical analyses that the professionals need, and she can relay summaries. There are some signs that people will need long-term medical treatment, and direct exposure to sunlight has been problematic for many.

Alycia is debriefing Fuko on every aspect of Atlantean society she can think of. Fuko, in turn, is cooperating to the greatest extent possible, and Alycia’s skill at interrogations - no, interviews - is helpful in extracting things Fuko didn’t even guess she knew. But there’s limits to what the Atlantean girl can really reveal, because of the ways they compartmentalize and manipulate information.

Jason collects and synthesizes everything his teammates are learning and doing. There has to be a plan here, something they can do, and he’s going to find it if it kills him.

Of everyone on the team, Charlotte is the closest to taking meaningful action. Time and again she projects herself into the spirit world, diving and diving through the layers of Earth’s history and into the endless sea of the afterlife. She has found Atlantis to be guarded psychically, not just physically, and now seeks a way in that will not also alert whoever - or whatever - watches over the wards.

And as Jason is washing down his third mug of coffee for the morning, she announces success.

Charlotte relays what she has to the team. “I found a route to where he’s being kept. I can open a portal there, enough for a small group, for a short amount of time.”

Jason nods. “We know that Saito took Rossum out of AEGIS’ hands. We know that Leo’s biological mother is in Atlantis. It’s likely that Saito is keeping the three of them close together.”

Alycia carries the thought forward. “If Saito is getting the anti-robot railguns from Rossum, we need to retrieve those three together. But there’s that EMP weapon, which definitely predated the Rossum jail-break. It’s possible he has other inventors he’s working with.”

“We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Jason says firmly. “The world is mobilized now. We’re just one part of the larger defensive effort. Let’s do what we can do. Right now, that sounds like getting our people back.”

A plan is hatched, and details are refined. The team debates notifying INTERCOM, but they decide the element of surprise is more important. There may still be spies on the network.

The team emerges through Charlotte’s portal, two at a time. They find themselves in a cramped cell made of thick stone, with bars constructed of some kind of durable-looking artificial coral.

Summer is first, to tank any surprise attacks. She sees a body curled up on the floor and gasps. “Leo! He’s here!”

Aria is next up, and she wastes no time grabbing her partner and hoisting him into a carry. She can’t help but notice the scars and seams on his skin. He’s been worked over, and she shudders to imagine how. But she has a job to do, and pulls him back through the portal.

While Summer is demolishing the bars, Jason and Alycia come through, and they take up positions in the hallway once the path is open. “Concord, you’re up,” Jason calls.

Adam floats through the portal into the cell, then into the hallway. He gathers his concentration, then starts to push. At first, nothing seems to happen. But the exertion is having an effect. Water throughout the intelligence office is forced out of the doors and into the surrounding city. Conference rooms are drained dry. True Atlanteans swim desperately for freedom, or are sucked out of the doors and into the ocean by the force.

“Radiance, make a hole. Agent M, Superdome,” calls Jason.

Summer moves to an open area of the hallway, to avoid rubble raining down on her teammates, and punches her way up through floor after floor. Now on the roof, she can see the effects of Adam’s power for herself. The building they’re in now sits in a giant air bubble, beyond which is the undersea city of Atlantis.

Emma rides a grappling line up to the roof next to her, and grins. “Wanna see something cool?”

Adam has gifted her a link to Orion Schema’s remnants. Now she draws on that well of power and focuses on this new application of her power. The bubble Adam created starts to freeze over, the water becoming ice as it reaches outward. She can hardly freeze all of Atlantis, but a dome several feet thick will give the team the uninterrupted time it needs.

“Mercury, recovery,” orders Jason. Harry takes off. Floor by floor, room by room, passing the Atlantean Blood soldiers and officers by as though they were statues, he scans for human beings. He finds seven.

He tosses grenades, one after another. They aren’t meant to hurt, only disorient, by strobing intense UV light in every direction. Every soldier in the room with a communicator clutches their head in sudden pain, as random sounds fill their ear. And while they’re distracted, Harry grabs hold of his next target, and runs back to the team’s entry point.

Soldiers are converging on the hallway. Summer is out front, projecting barriers to soak their attacks. Behind her, Jason and Alycia fire through pinpoint holes in those barriers, bringing the attackers down.

One - two - three - four - five - six - and seven people flash by, lugged by Harry at ultra-speed.

“Agent M, we’re done. Come down. Team, break contact. Radiance, cover our retreat.”

One by one, the team shepherds the recovered humans back through Ghost Girl’s portal. Jason and Alycia retreat back to the cell, firing the whole time, and Radiance is the last one through.

Everyone’s back safely. Aside from Rossum and Ji-a Lee, there’s five unknown people, and Mo has volunteered to keep an eye on them, just in case.

Aria is tending to Leo in another room. Alycia happens to peek in, and her breath catches. She recognizes the signs of torture and the extent of the harm they did, and how expertly it was all undone - except for the memory, which is something that never fades. As she sees Summer approaching, she blocks the door and shakes her head.

“He’s okay. Aria’s with him. You don’t want to see this.”

Summer smiles, just for a moment. “I appreciate your concern, Alycia. Now move, or I will move you.”

Alycia pauses, and stands aside.

Jason has a gun pointed firmly at Rossum.

“I assure you, Mr. Quill, I mean you and yours no harm,” Rossum says for the third time. “My wife is here, and safe, and that’s what I value more than anything else.”

“Cool cool,” smiles Jason. “You’re still dangerous, so I’m treating you as such.”

Ji-a Lee is nearby. Jason notes she hasn’t spoken or made a move yet. Twenty years away from this man, and now she’s waiting to see what he’s become, he thinks.

This time Rossum takes a different tack. “Yes. I am dangerous. For example, I know how to take down Atlantis.”

“Good for you,” says Jason coolly.

Rossum can discern how futile this is, and finally shrugs. “Fine. You can send me back to whatever hell-hole you need. I’m sure AEGIS would insist on it anyway. But I hate those bastards enough to bring about their demise anyway, so I’ll just tell you.”

“We’re not interested in being mass murderers,” Jason answers.

“But the threat! The threat should be enough!” Rossum exclaims. “You don’t have to do it!”

Jason considers this. Finally he shrugs. “How about we let the team get back together, and you share what you have.”

Rossum bows his head, but his lips curl into a satisfied sneer.

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Leo is in no shape for conversation. Aria refuses to participate, preferring to stay by his side.

The others listen.

“There’s an ancient civilization - hundreds of thousands of years old. They wielded the elements as their technology. They built an empire of stone and sea, and then vanished. But they left relics behind. Cities. Temples.”

“Yeah, we visited one of those,” Alex remarks. “Water funiculars and polygonal rooms, yeah?”

“Quite so.” Rossum sounds pleased. “Well. The Atlanteans don’t have that technology in its entirety. But have you wondered why the water pressure around their cities is so low? Why they still build with stone? They have some of it. They use what they’ve scavenged to manage water pressure in their habitats.”

The villain clenches his fists. “Destroy that ancient technology - the regulation nodes - and their cities will implode.”

Jason is unimpressed. “Along with a hundred thousand people in the Attic. Or are you the sort to write them off as collateral damage in your quest for revenge?”

Rossum shakes his head. “Target the regulation nodes, and the Atlanteans will have much more on their minds than drowning those hostages. You’ll be free to evacuate them with your giant robot squid.”

“And how do you know about this?” Alycia asks.

“I used to have a base on Dinosaur Island. There are many old secrets buried there.”

Jason puts this together. “So you’re saying we demonstrate that we can destroy these regulation nodes - but don’t do so, not yet - and use this as leverage to rescue the people still trapped down there, then negotiate a cease-fire.”

“That is my proposal,” Rossum says. “And of course if they betray you, bye bye Empire.”

Ji-a Lee steps forward. All eyes turn to her as she speaks. “I have another idea. I don’t think you’ll like it as much.”

“Any path to peace should be heard. We’re listening,” Jason says.

The biologist nods and clasps her hands. “As Leonardo identified, the True Atlanteans and their progeny, the Blood, are prone to deimatic behavior, also called startle display. They’ve incorporated this biological tendency into their social structure. As a result, they have developed some of the same traits we see in human cultures, such as the politeness protocols of the Japanese and Koreans. I think this is why they’ve found the most success infiltrating those cultures.”

“But this is important to understand, because it is a nonhuman reaction. I will say this again. You are not dealing with human beings. They are, for all intents and purposes, alien but not extraterrestrial beings. Our human reaction is to engage in dominance displays. We’re so accustomed to that, and so used to making war with each other, or doing trade deals with each other, or anything else - that biological trait has entered our social fabric as well.”

“You’re saying we need to resolve this conflict by acknowledging the psychosocial differences,” Alycia infers.

Ji-a nods. “That’s exactly right. I believe the key to peace is to find ways for Atlantis to not fear the surface world. I wish I could tell you how to do that.”

She glances at Rossum. “And I acknowledge destruction is easier. But I think in this case, that will not achieve the peaceful outcome you hope for.”

Jason thinks about this. “So we have an extremely unpalatable plan, or a more hopeful and perhaps more productive idea in search of a plan.”

He takes a long breath, closes his eyes, and thinks. When his eyes open, they look with determination at his teammates.

“Nono’s not here. Amir went back to the Florida Keys. Leo and Aria are out. Otto’s under repairs. That leaves the rest of us. So I’m going to put this to a vote. Every member of this team can say yes or no to Rossum’s proposal of taking out the regulation nodes - or threatening to. If you say no, you’re voting to try and find a peaceful way forward, as Dr. Lee advocates.”

“If someone wants to push this off onto the military, tell them about this plan, we can talk about that. Or, we can take responsibility for this ourselves, whichever way this goes down.”

Nobody says anything about involving the military.

After a few moments of waiting, Jason nods. He looks around the room, steeled and serious. “If you vote, even if you vote no, I expect you to participate if we say yes. So if you can’t bring yourself to do that, abstain. This will be a secret ballot. Nobody needs to advertise or defend their vote. We’re not debating the morality of anything here. We’re voting on what we do next, in the name of peace, with a civilization at stake.”

Provisions to cast ballots anonymously are made. People scatter to cast their votes. They return to find Jason holding a wastepaper basket, drop the ballots inside, then depart to dwell on their private thoughts.

At length Jason calls everyone back together.

“Before I announce the totals, does anyone want to say anything?”

Summer is the first to speak. “I don’t want to hurt anyone, or even threaten to. I think there have to be better ways. But if this is the way we keep people safe, I’ll help. I voted no.”

Harry steps up next. “I don’t like this idea of two sides holding each other hostage. There has to be a right way out of this. I voted no too.”

Adam isn’t far behind. “I voted no. The Concordance has done some pretty scummy things, and they say it’s to keep the universe orderly and harmonious. But I don’t think you can do the right thing in the wrong way, and expect it to work out. I think we have to find another way. But if we can’t, well, this one will have to do.”

Mo nods in agreement. “What they said.”

Ghost Girl concurs. “I don’t think this kind of destruction is a necessity. Even the threat of it feels aggressive. It’s an escalation. I don’t want to take part in a Sherman’s march. But I won’t stand by and do nothing either.”

Alex nods. “Yeah, that’s a no from me, dawg. I got caught in the crossfire of Rook versus AEGIS, and while I know where my bread is buttered, I have no illusions that the people working to keep me alive are the good guys. Given the choice, I’d rather try to be a good guy. Well, good person. You know.”

Alycia draws breath and collects herself. There’s a moment of hesitation, but only a moment. “I voted no too. Rossum’s solution is pragmatic, well-defined, and effective. At one time, I would have voted yes without hesitation. But I think I’ve realized… I haven’t become some kind of better person by being around all of you. I think… I think I’m finally letting myself be the person I want to be, because you all accept me. I have to be true to myself. There has to be another way.”

Emma tosses her hands up in an exaggerated, dramatic shrug. “I suppose you all expect villain camaraderie here, the fiendish pyrokinetic to cackle as Atlantis falls… and… The truth is, I thought about it.” She grows surprisingly quiet, even pensive, and looks from face to face. “The boss says a villain does what they want. I voted no. I don’t wanna do this.”

Jason smiles, and reaches into the basket. He scatters a handful of ballots across a table for inspection. “The vote is a unanimous no. We try for peace. Even if we don’t know how.”


We’re going to leave things here, and see what people think of these developments?

While I liked this section of the story overall, after seeing this followed up in 233 - Love Is the Seventh Wave I definitely am not a fan of where Leo’s story went at the end here and into that current story. I’ll probably look back on this more fondly later once that story wraps up, but I just don’t like seeing my blorbos suffering in such a helpless way with no light at the end of the tunnel in sight.

That said I’d be aghast if you changed any of your plans on my account, so carry on and hopefully we’ll get to see that light soon. :slight_smile:

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Very Randian.

I am very gratified seeing Jason become the tactical leader he is becoming.

I am also enjoying watching Alycia’s growth.

And a thoughtful reaction from Harry, who a few segments ago was voting for going in and bashing heads.


I mean, I think Alycia might have reasonably equivocated a bit here – pursuing the potential of a more stable and constructive relationship doesn’t preclude, if that fails, taking a more dire path, and I would expect her to be sure that’s clear to the others.

That said, Rossum’s plan is pragmatic, but also just the sort of thing her father would have come up with: another, clearer reason for her to pursue another course if at all possible.

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