233 - Love Is the Seventh Wave

Hours after arriving in Site 5, the team receives reports that an EMP bomb did indeed go off at the Quill compound. Most of the front offices were affected, but the heavily shielded core systems, the hypertech warehouse, and other critical locations made it through just fine.

The world’s navies are frantically mobilizing ships whose sonar sets can detect human-scaled objects in shallow water. Those who can’t set up such a detection net continue to be hit by waves of Atlantean Blood at sadistically inconvenient times.


Summer came and went from where Leo is resting. Alycia saw her face going in, and the contrast when she came out was startling. Her eyes were pinched in disbelief and sorrow. Her face was ashen.

She’s a machine. Like her sister. But some machines can be human too. So much engineering went into letting them reveal their feelings.

Alycia steps through the door. Aria looks up sharply, defensively, eyes narrow.

She’s protecting him against all threats. Am I a threat?

Leo seems to be conscious, but unresponsive. Alycia keeps her voice low, to avoid distressing him. “It’s obvious that they… that they tortured him. I have… some-- expertise-- in such matters. Including how to endure. And recover. I want to help. If you let me.”

Aria’s stare holds for a lot longer than Alycia likes, but finally the robot girl nods, and pats the ground beside where she sits, holding Leo against her. Alycia takes up the indicated position.

She inspects. She speculates. She advises. When it’s time for Leo to get some water, she fetches a water bottle from the fridge in the main room and brings it, but it’s always Aria who administers it.

“How long is he going to be like this?” Aria finally asks. She’s still guarded, but Alycia has watched the wariness melt away, revealing the exhaustion and terror beneath the armor.

“There’s probably going to be psychological consequences, for a long time. As… as you know. Physically, they did an extraordinary job of putting him back together. I don’t foresee any long-term health effects.”

“He’s strong,” Aria murmurs. “He’s going to make it through this.”

At first, Alycia is at a loss for words. To her, Aria sounds like she’s trying to convince herself against a prevailing doubt. Reassurance has never been her forte. People don’t request or receive kindness from her, as a rule. But she finds a phrase coming to mind.

“I think he gets that from you.”

Aria tilts her head a moment, taking that in, then smiles in tear-tinged gratitude.

And that’s the end of my emotional quota for the year.

“Your body may not get tired, but you do,” Alycia adds, remembering Summer’s words to her. “Doss down when you need it, and call one of us to attend him until you wake up. Promise me.”

Aria scowls, just a little bit, but finally gives a quick, sharp nod. “Fine. I will.”


Aria jerks out of her sleep with a startled yelp.

“Leo is here, and he’s okay,” comes a voice.

Her attention focuses. Charlotte Palmer is here, her skirt folded neatly under her legs, keeping Leo comfortable. The boy himself has fallen asleep, but he’s still fitfully twitching.

Aria gets up, clearly intent on retaking her position as caretaker. Charlotte holds up a hand. “First, dear, are you yourself doing well?”

Aria scowls some more, and thinks. “I could eat something,” she finally admits. “Something to get my mind off that dream.”

“Here. I’ll get you something, and you take over,” Charlotte offers, and the switch is made.

Charlotte returns with a bowl of oatmeal, slathered with butter and covered in blackberries. To allow Aria to maintain contact with Leo, Charlotte holds the bowl so Aria needs only one hand for the spoon.

It’s comfort Aria needs, not calories, but the oatmeal is finished off just as thoroughly. The warmth of the food settles into her bones and brings a smile to her face.

Charlotte’s question, out of the blue, brings her out of her reverie. “Is there something special about your left hand?”

“Eh?”

Charlotte seems to realize she should explain herself. “My apologies. That was abrupt. I was watching you eat while occupied, and thought about the uses of your hands. You see, when I was searching for a path through Atlantis’ wards, I looked for sympathetic connections between you and him. And the strongest connection was focused on your left hand.”

Aria makes the connection. With an effort of will, the engagement ring on her left hand unlocks itself from under her skin, unfolds and reconnects itself.

Charlotte inspects it. “Ah, yes. Your engagement.”

“It’s more than that,” Aria explains. “The ring contains Leo’s DNA data and a connectome snapshot. In plainer language, the records of his body and mind, enough to reconstruct him entirely as he was.”

“A powerful sympathetic bond,” Charlotte acknowledges with a smile. “I’m unsure of what my kinfolk and neighbors would have made of the circumstances of your engagement. All I will say is that I believe it’s your love for each other that let me find him. And love matters more than etiquette.”


For Ji-a Lee, the return to the surface is a mixture of nostalgia and mystery. Her eyes are adjusting to a spectrum of light she hasn’t seen in close to twenty years. After a life of eating fish, seaweed, and other products of aquaculture, the memories of the three jang - soy sauce, soybean paste, and chile paste - come rushing back the moment they touch her tongue. She found herself crying the first time she minced her own dae-pa again, just an hour ago. The ubiquity of these new “cell phones”, considered a treasured object of research at the SSC, is challenging to fully grasp. The fashion, the modes of speech, are strange, and these people were the age she was when she was last on the surface.

Strangest of all is to think about the young man in the other room as the same baby she carried, cradled, and cared for. To imagine that the sneering man being held captive at gunpoint is the same bright young genius who courted her, cheered her on, and eventually gave her that baby.

In a way, she’s more lost than when she was swept into the sea, so many years ago.

She finds herself at the door to the side room where Leo is being kept. She sees a pretty girl, with a mixture of Korean and other features. That girl is watching Leo slowly spoon oatmeal into his mouth, bit by bit, hand trembling as he does. And she sees the girl using her fingers to gently ruffle through and smooth out his tangled, sweaty hair.

She can see, right now, that she is the stranger here.

She waits until the food is finished, and steps halfway inside. “I am welcome here?” she asks.

The girl hesitates, glances at Leo, sees something in his face, and responds with a nod.

Ji-a doesn’t sit down too close. She’s still feeling out the distances here. “You’re Aria. He told me about you, in Atlantis.”

“Dr. Lee.”

She smiles at the use of the title. This girl is feeling out the distance too. “To someone so close to my son, Ji-a, if you wish. You are… a robot, yes?”

Aria’s eyes narrow the slightest bit. “That’s right.”

“He told me you were recommending shampoo to him. What do you like?”

The question seems to take Aria aback. She struggles to context switch, from the dire reality of the moment to such a light domestic detail. But giving her that release is what Ji-a hoped to do.

“Cream of Nature,” says Aria at last. “It’s got coconut oil, which is a natural moisturizer. His hair gets pretty damaged when he’s working around his equipment, because there’s so much ozone in the air. We all run on ionic compounds - I’ve got an ionized fluid in place of blood, for example. The downside is it can hurt sensitive scalps, but I think he’ll be fine.”

Ji-a smiles as the words come, once the pump has been primed. “He said he didn’t want anything girly, but that he should try switching. Is he like that? Does he need to be masculine?”

Before Aria can speak, both she and Ji-a hear Leo’s weak voice. “Mom… Saito… he’s…”

“Saito isn’t here. You’re in Otto’s garage,” murmurs Aria.

Leo isn’t quite processing things. “Mom… Saito… Mom… you gotta… get… out… he’s gonna hurt you… like… he…”

Aria and Ji-a look at each other. Mutual comprehension dawns. Ji-a’s presence is triggering bad memories, ones that threaten Leo’s short term recovery.

Ji-a rises. “I’ll have some tea sent in for you two,” she promises, and departs.


She finds Karl standing nearby, still being watched like a hawk by that boy, Jason Quill.

Karl’s eyes glance at the door, then back to her. The unspoken question is clear: how is he?

“She’s not going to leave his side, is she?” Ji-a asks, with a half-smile.

“That creation of his? No.” Karl Taitale, without the swagger of his persona as Rossum, looks and sounds sadly thoughtful. “She is, if you’ll excuse the expression, his dream girl. And I have become convinced that I can trust my son’s life to her.”

He smiles at Ji-a. “Our son’s. I think you will see it too, in time.”

Ji-a nods. “I’m starting to.”

Karl’s next words shock her memory. “Saito wants that same technology to enact his coup.”

“We have to warn the Emperor.”

“Or collapse Atlantis,” Karl says casually.

Ji-a bristles. “Those are people. I will not have you uttering this monstrous proposal of yours any longer.”

“It’s us or them,” Karl replies with a sudden vehemence.

The argument is cut short with the sound of Jason Quill, still nearby, cocking the pistol he holds in readiness.

“We’ve been in need of a plan since the vote. So I wanna hear more about this ‘warn the Emperor’ business,” he says firmly.

The discussion is contentious. Objections are raised, disputed, tabled, reheated. Ji-a Lee’s knowledge of the Emperor’s nature, and Fuko’s expertise on Atlantean operations, help contribute to the overall plan. If the Emperor can be convinced that the surface invasion was only a cover for Saito’s coup - and that’s a big if - then further hostilities can be called off. But neither of them can provide insight into the key question. How does the team find the Emperor?

It’s Harry who holds up hands, and calls for attention. “We all need a break,” he says. “Let’s go for a drive or something.”


Aboard the Q-disc, Jason and Alycia look at the city, but what they talk about isn’t the damage it’s taken.

“I’ve cataloged 44 ingrained threat responses,” Alycia says quietly. “Reaching for a pistol on my hip. Adopting one of several martial arts stances. Readying a sleeve gun. A poison dart, curled on the tongue–”

“You know a lot of ways to take someone out,” Jason concedes.

“Obviously I don’t commit to them. But they still trigger when we’re together,” Alycia responds, looking away from him, arms folded over the railing of the flying disc. “Having to stop them, every time… It’s a reminder, isn’t it. Of what our parents shaped us to be, whether they’d admit it or not.”

“Proxies for their own conflict,” fills in Jason.

Alycia hugs herself, more for the feeling of comfort than out of a sense of cold. Jason is watchful but unmoving, letting her decide where she wants to be.

“I think I finally understand Pneuma. Aria, and Summer. What they went through. Created for something, feeling closeness, fearing how artificial it was…” Alycia glances at Jason, but isn’t quite ready for sustained eye contact. “You and I. Same age. Time after time, thrown into conflict, finding common cause even when we were on opposite sides. Intense passions, conflicting emotions, excised through our parents’ science, leaving blast craters in our souls. We were programmed, weren’t we.”

Jason nods. “Programmed and reprogrammed, until we both suffered a system crash.”

Alycia flexes her fingers, makes chopping motions, gestures with nervous pent-up energy. “And I guess… I guess it feels like we’re the two broken toys who are destined to play together. I hate that feeling. I hate feeling like the only person who’ll take pity on me and love me is you.”

Jason’s own fingers knit together as he closes in on himself in thought. “I missed my dad, before I found out he was alive after all. I was grieving. But I think it was more than that. I felt like that cartoon character. I needed my dad and Rusty to give me a script for my life, tell me who to be. To give me purpose.”

He exhales, and stares at the pavement disappearing rapidly beneath the Q-disc as it flies. “Who was I supposed to be, when everyone who’d told me who to be was gone? I thought I’d start a superhero team, get it official, be the new leader, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I didn’t commit. I just needed something to hang my self-image onto.”

Alycia listens, and nods. “I lost a teammate. John Black - SNOWMAN. He might be recoverable. He might not. But I keep blaming myself for that, too. I should have found another way. I should have done something different.”

“You’re waiting for someone to blame you. And when nobody does, you do it to yourself,” Jason prompts gently.

“Yes. Exactly.”

Silence falls over the Q-disc for awhile. Alycia is the first to speak, and for the first time she looks back at Jason.

“I don’t want to break up with you. But what can we do about a relationship built on such strong self-doubt?”

Jason’s smile is wobbly. “I’ve been thinking about that too. My suggestion is that we find a new basis for the relationship, not just ‘hey we knew each other in the world’s most fucked up childhoods imaginable.’”

Alycia takes this in, and nods at long last. “I can see it. But what if we don’t find anything?”

Jason shrugs. “Well there’s my stellar bedroom technique–”

She hits him in the shoulder, and he holds up hands in surrender.

“Okay, okay, I was joking. But this doesn’t mean ‘date other people’ either, or doesn’t have to. It just means that whatever relationship we have enters a new phase. Here’s what I mean. How would you characterize Aria’s relationship with Leo?”

Alycia tilts her head. “They’ve discussed marriage. They’re in a romantic and professional relationship. But it’s… unique, isn’t it.”

Jason grins. “Our relationship is unique too. It’s reductive to call us ‘dating’, or ‘friends with benefits’, or ‘people dancing around each other’. It’s way more complicated. It’s like… You see out here? Halcyon took a big hit. Halcyon’s going to rebuild, the way it always does. You and me, we’re the same. We’ve been given the freedom to be ourselves, rebuild something new out of the ashes of the old. So we can explore that freedom together. See where it takes us.”

Alycia nods slowly, digesting this. “And honestly, if we saw other people, I don’t know who I’d think about. I’d endorse Summer for you. But who would you recommend for me?”

Jason shrugs. “The best guys I know are spoken for, honestly. But I think, Alycia Chin, that you are a wonderfully caring, immensely capable person. You’re charming and attractive. If you set your mind to it, you could get the attention of any man you wanted.”

Alycia raises an eyebrow. “Oh? And what if that was the blond scion of a famous science hero?”

“I’d rate your chances as better than average.”

Otto and Summer volunteered to look after Karl Taitale, aka Rossum the Minion Maker. He now sits in the front passenger’s seat. Ji-a Lee is in the driver’s seat, but does not steer. Summer sits behind them both, watchful and ready for anything.

“What is ‘streaming’?” Ji-a asks at last.

“Movies and TV shows in digital format, sent over the Internet on demand. It replaced cable and broadcast television,” Karl replies.

“And ‘yeet’?”

Summer answers this one. “Throwing something or someone with great force. Or just the excitable, nervous energy of doing something like that. It’s just one of those words that means whatever. It’s an emotion with syllables.”

“Why is everything so expensive?”

Karl has this one. “Inflation. We were young adults - only starting to pay for things - when you disappeared. The politicians and financiers - the real villains of our world - have raised prices on people without increasing compensation to match.”

Ji-a nods thoughtfully, and watches the damaged city roll past. “So much destruction… Summer, Otto. Be honest. Do either of you speak Korean?”

“No ma’am.” “No.”

She nods, and turns to Karl. “솔까말. Straight talk.”

The two switch languages, to hold a private conversation in the presence of Rossum’s jailers.

“Tell me honestly, Karl. Were you always the monster you are now, and I just didn’t see it? If things had been different, was this shadow hiding in your soul going to come out in some other way?”

Karl shrugs helplessly, but not too expansively. He’s mindful of any quick or unexpected gestures, with all the suspicious eyes on him. “What can I say that will not sound either self-serving or an admission of awfulness? What sort of answer would ever satisfy such a question?”

Ji-a draws breath, and nods in acquiescence. “Very well. Instead, let me talk about Leonardo. When I met him in Atlantis, I became sure that he hoped I could come to the surface and that his conflict with you would come to an end. That my presence would somehow cure you of twenty years of darkness. I am afraid that our son is going to be very disappointed that I cannot wave a magic wand and undo whatever damage has been done to you - and the damage you have done in turn. But that is the reality, isn’t it.”

“Reality is always complicated,” Karl says with a shrug. “I’m vilified for crimes against the world, but Rook Industries and other corporate entities also used my technology. I sold robot minions to master villains, but with safeguards to avoid hurting civilians - a nicety most of my customers wouldn’t have asked for. Ask people in the Middle East if the United States’ weapons sales gave them the same consideration. Darkness? The child of love and rage is what you call my darkness. I’ve done things I might regret, but I will not deny the reasons for my fury at this world.”

Ji-a leans back against the seat. “You’ll be sent back to prison. Once again we’ll be separated. Our son will have a mother, at least.” Her head turns, to look at her husband. “Did we buy each other shoes and forget about it?”

Karl tilts his head, then grins unexpectedly. “You know, I thought about what would have happened if our positions had been reversed. They’d have put my genius to work on their war plans. I certainly would not have befriended anyone, Emperor or no. The world might be groaning under the oppressive yoke of Atlantis today. But Leonardo would have had you, instead of me. Perhaps that would have made things easier, eh?”

“That’s not funny.” Ji-a scowls. “This… this… nihilistic attitude is infuriating, you know! You act as though nothing matters and that life is worthless.”

“My life ended almost twenty years ago, my dear,” Karl answers softly. “My hopes, my dreams, all the harmony I’d hoped for… all gone, wiped away by a family of grinning demigods.”

“You had your son!” Ji-a exclaims.

“AEGIS took him from me!” Karl counters angrily. “I had to fight for the few moments we could have together!”

“Because you let this vengeful shadow consume you and turn you into such a danger?”

“Yes! I am responsible for my actions, but that grief - it overwhelmed me. It… changed me.” Karl slumps into his seat and covers his face with both hands.

Ji-a calms herself down. “You were full of light and life when I knew you. You pioneered whole sub-fields of neurobiology, just because you thought you could build a device that let us communicate with marine life.”

“Because that’s something you wanted,” Karl mutters. “When I lost you, I… forgot. What it felt like to turn someone’s dream into working reality. I lost sight of all the good I could do, because I was only doing it for others. But you were my dream. And now that you’re back, it’s like… I can see it all, everything I could have done differently.”

He raises his head in sudden recognition. “That’s why he built these robots. That’s what they’re for. To steady him.”

“Robots?” Ji-a suddenly realizes where she is, and with who. She looks over her shoulder to see Summer, and around at the car she’s in, a car named Otto. And she reverts to English to ask a question.

“Otto, and Summer… if you don’t mind my asking a very impertinent question, why do you both exist?”

That gets a chuckle from Otto. “I’m the boss’s big bro.”

Summer chimes in. “Pneuma was created to be Leo’s girlfriend, but we’ve all developed since that point. Aria and I are now effectively twin sisters. I think the answer to your question is, ‘we exist to be a family Leo can never lose’.”

“What do you suppose would happen if he did?”

Otto answers this one. “Well, uh, we traveled to a future where that kinda happened. The boss lost Pneuma to Rook - oh, Rossum, just FYI, I think you worked there around that time–”

“That was the clone, dear boy.”

Otto harrumphs. “Whatever. Anyway. Boss goes to the bad future, pissed as hell at how they got his attention. Turns out it’s an older Leo, minus the services of moi and with a uh, not great experience with Pneuma going on. He was pretty messed up. I think the boss got him back on track, but he was a seriously sad sack all around.”

“A family whose members so keenly need each other, fated to be broken apart…” Ji-a murmurs to herself.

She rests a hand on Otto’s dash, and smiles back at Summer. “I can’t regret too much. Were things different, I’d never have gotten to meet the two of you, and your sister Aria.”

Another question comes to mind. “And how do you feel about the both of us?”

“We don’t hate you, either of you, I promise,” Summer says. “You’ve both been strong influences on our lives, in your own ways.”

“Wish Rossum would get off his bullshit, mostly,” grumbles Otto. “He’s still got a lot to answer for.”

Karl adjusts himself in the passenger seat, and folds his hands behind his head. “There’ll be time to make me feel guilty and awful and send me away forever and ever, after you resolve the Atlantean situation. Let me know when you need my help with that - and you will.”

His words are biting and sarcastic, but Ji-a Lee can see the truth in his eyes.

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Mo Newman’s vehicle shell has a lot of configurations, all truck- or van-like. Fire truck, ambulance, riot van, even tow truck. Today he’s set up as a mini-bus. The interior is supremely functional, with no affordances for appearance, but still comfortable.

Harry, Adam, and Charlotte sit in the seats, looking out the windows as Halcyon rolls by.

Despite the use of the EMP bombs, more lights are on in the city than the three of them expected. And everywhere there’s light, they find pipes and hoses and conduits, hastily erected over streets and under bridges.

“What is this?” Adam asks.

Harry gets up from his seat. Mo, guessing his intent, halts and opens the door. Harry bolts out, and Charlotte and Adam see him whizzing past, away and back.

He returns seconds later with an explanation. “Pietro Mancini. The Plasma Prince. All this stuff is his. He’s creating something called ‘plasmoids’ around the city, in big containers, and piping plasma through the pipes. It terminates at hospitals, fire stations, anywhere that can’t be without electricity. Says it’s EMP-proof.”

Harry produces a pamphlet for inspection, and Charlotte takes it and studies it. “PETER MANCINI PLASMA DYNAMICS,” the text says. There’s no picture of Pietro, no ego-expanding quotes in praise of the boy himself. Just the explanation Harry provided, and a tagline. “Integrity.”

“Isn’t that the guy you went to the dance with?” Harry asks, looking at Charlotte.

“Yes, it is. I am quite gratified to see him making good on his potential.” The girl smiles, and tucks the pamphlet away.

“I wonder how many other Gardner students are out there, taking care of business right now,” muses Harry.

“Or Halcyon High,” adds Adam, remembering his old school.

“The Ponies have been busy at the Quill compound,” Charlotte says. “They’re coordinating heroes through that new program.”

Mo resumes travel, and Harry takes a seat again, facing Adam and Charlotte, arms propped up on the back of the seat. “What about it? Would you be happier trying to take on the Emperor of Atlantis - or be here, working the streets?”

Adam doesn’t look happy to say what he says, but he says it anyway. “Honestly, it feels like it doesn’t matter. We’re the ones who can do something about the Emperor. We have all this power. We have to use it. The three of us are heavy hitters. Leo and Alycia and Jason are good at thinking, and fighting all kinds of stuff. Summer’s pretty strong, and really kind. But I feel like we’d have to be involved.”

Charlotte nods. “As much as I believe in defending home and hearth, I reluctantly agree. We’ve been blessed with great power. It’s our responsibility to use it appropriately.”

Harry’s chin slumps to his folded arms as he stares disconsolately out the window. “Yeah, I know. I just wanna be doing some good.”

He looks up and around. “Mo? How about you?”

“What?” rumbles the vehicle.

“Would you rather be tackling the Emperor, or doing street-level heroics?”

“S’all good.”

“Don’t talk much, huh?” grins Harry.

“Nope.”

“How about you, Harry?” Adam says. “Would you really rather be out on the streets, doing regular stuff?”

The speedster sighs. “My mom and dad are back in the hospital, somewhere in Australia. They won’t say where, so the Atlanteans don’t get wind of it and take a shot at them. And dad was in the hospital a year ago. I worry about them. And I honestly worry about me. How am I gonna fill in for them? Part of it is power, sure. But a lot of it is willingness. I can’t say no when people need help, even if I don’t know how. So, yes. I guess I’d be more comfortable out on the street. Doesn’t mean that’s where I’m going to be, though.”

Charlotte smiles. “‘To whom much is given, much will be required,’ the Good Book says.”

“Well I’ve been given much. I’m doing my best with it - I think. Just wish I’d kept the receipt so I could get a refund if necessary.”

Adam chips in. “The Concordance has a lot of power. But I guess stuff like this, just one invasion on one planet, is their idea of ‘street level’ heroing. They’re fighting guys with names like ‘Moon Eater’. I don’t have any idea how I’d tackle that one. But the people giving the orders up there are pretty messed up too. I don’t know if I’d want to work with them, unless it was something big and important.”

“The HHL, all over again,” Harry sighs.

“Is it possible to grow into that much power without being corrupted by it?” Charlotte asks hesitantly. “Perhaps that is the value of ‘street heroism’. It helps one stay grounded in the needs of the people we strive to serve.”

Harry straightens up. “You know what? Let’s find out.”

He bangs on the vehicle’s interior with a fist a couple times. “Hear that, Mo? Let’s go find a fire, or a street collapse, or something. Let’s go do just a little bit of good, right now.”

“Roger,” acknowledges the rescue robot, and his tires screech with a sudden burst of acceleration.

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Man, Rossum is good at making me almost like him. Like I get why he did it, and in another setting he could probably be the protagonist of his story (Genius inventor who takes the dark path of revenge to avenge the wife he lost in a global tragedy? I’ve seen movies do a lot with less motive.) but I got to agree with Otto, dude needs to get off his bullshit. :wink:

Hope we get to see a bit of this. Big fights and rescuing captives of Atlantis are great and I love reading stories about that, but “lets go do some local good” is still my favorite part of these kids. :slight_smile:

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The Garage exists to build and test prototype vehicles and robot shells. This one looks sort of like Otto’s shell from the outside, but doesn’t have its own AI. It’s meant to be piloted by a human being in armor. Mary, Otto’s girlfriend, got the first such prototype, and now Otto and his brothers have been refining the design.

Nono has just returned from the hospital ship, courtesy of Big Bill. While he’s too big as a jet to provide a casual driving tour, he can drive the prototype in his humanoid form. Alex sits in the passenger seat, and Nono and Emma occupy the back.

The prototype is crude, unfinished, little more than a functional skeleton covered in aerodynamic armor plating. Right now, as the three teammates and their driver stare out the windows at a war-ravaged Halcyon City, what they see doesn’t look much better.

The earliest Atlantean targets were data centers, financial centers, business towers, and other places where official records and important transactions took place. The EMP bombs were special, burning through most of the conventional defenses against such attacks. The Atlanteans seemed to know the location of every off-site backup, every out-of-the-way support system, every fallback cloud used for disaster recovery.

When the surface’s defenders started patrolling the sewers, the Atlanteans flooded them. The moment hospitals and fire stations had reliable emergency power, the Atlanteans bombed the city’s power grid to cut off everyone else. The soldiers of the deeps would bait out heroes by attacking vulnerable evacuation shelters, but it was a feint to target the heroes themselves. They’ve been good about not injuring the vulnerable. But they’re demoralizing everyone.

The group still sees smoke rising into the city’s skyline. The distinctive flash of red and blue lights from emergency vehicles can be seen everywhere. Volunteer vehicles have been given their own sirens and patches when the supply of regular EMS vans ran low. Hyper-tech prototypes, not previously cleared by the city for regular use in civilian rescue operations, have been pressed into service. Some of these dart past on the streets, or can be seen flying and hovering overhead.

Street lights are out of commission. People have been rigging up NatureCon bioluminescent bulbs in their place. Traffic lights aren’t working, so people act as though they’re four-way stops. Alex excitedly points out blinking fixtures attached to the poles, identifying them as wireless mesh devices. “If the residential net and cell towers are out, people can still access Wi-Fi through those! I wonder who put all that up?”

“Looks like the city’s doin’ it’s best to hold on,” Big Bill remarks. “Everyone’s comin’ together in a wave of kindness. Sure does warm the heart.”

“I hate it,” says Emma. Her voice carries uncharacteristic venom, rather than her usual mixture of smugness and sarcasm.

“What could you possibly hate about it?” Nono asks in bewilderment.

Emma throws up her hands in a vaguely encompassing gesture, but doesn’t elaborate.

“You can’t be out there taking advantage of civic chaos to advance your villainous objectives?” snarks Alex.

Emma snorts. “Well, sure, let’s go with that.”

“Bullshit. You’re not the type to kick a city when it’s down.”

Emma punches the back of Alex’s chair, and finds it far more resilient than anticipated. She rubs at her throbbing knuckles and scowls. “It’s just fucking bullshit.”

“You’re upset about the Atlantean attacks?” Nono ventures.

“They did seem to know just where to hit,” Alex concurs.

“NO!”

“Well then stop pouting and tell us!” Nono exclaims, in a voice loud enough to surprise herself.

Nono’s outburst is the key that unlocks Emma’s secret. “Where was all this fucking kindness when people like us needed it?” she demands at last.

The car is awkwardly silent - even more so for being electric, without even a simulated engine noise.

“I just… I just…”

Emma waits, perhaps trying to think of what to say, perhaps hoping she can leave it there. But the others are listening. The silence demands that she fill it.

“I just wish it didn’t take a fucking invasion for people to start helping each other.”

“You never struck me as someone who wanted help,” Alex says softly.

Emma growls. “Yeah, well, go without something long enough and you stop asking for it.”

“But you don’t stop needing it,” Nono murmurs.

The car goes silent again.

“It’s been like two years since I slept in a bed I could think of as ‘mine’,” Alex says. “I was in a dorm, I’ve been globetrotting, but like, someplace I think of as ‘home’? Nada.”

“Probably a lotta people out there without a home tonight,” Nono muses.

“Probably cold for them.” Emma thumps the back of Big Bill’s seat, but is careful not to put too much force into it this time. “Hey. Lugnut. Let’s go find some people and help them stay warm.”

“Yes ma’am,” grins Big Bill.

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The first sign that something is wrong is the gentle tink-tink noise of a grenade tossed into the room and bouncing off the plasticrete floor of the side room in Otto’s Garage.

Aria has inherited Leo’s memories of homeschooling. She knows what a grenade sounds like, down to her bones. Without hesitation she grabs the first and nearest object - in this case the hardback book she’s been reading - and hurls it with superhuman strength at the still-bouncing cylinder. The force knocks it out of the room, where it begins to fill the main area with some kind of gas.

Aria leaps from the cot where she’s been holding onto Leo. She hears footfalls, positions herself behind the door, and kicks it savagely closed as the sounds come across the threshold. The impact of metal on the intruder is visceral and gratifying, and she hears a pained exclamation that isn’t anything like human speech. Atlantean ninja, then.

The door is shut, but that won’t last. Aria grabs hold of the metal cabinet next to the door, and is about to yank it down as a barricade. She feels Leo’s hand on her arm, and turns, wide-eyed, to look at him.

He’s up, out of bed, still sweaty. But there’s a fire alight in his eyes, and she reads immediately that there’s no telling him to lay down and stay safe. Instead, she nods toward the door, and he positions himself across from her, ready for the intruders’ next move.

The door explodes off its hinges. More grenades are tossed in, but Aria is able to snatch them out of the air with her prodigious speed.

The whine of electronics warns her of a new type of attack, and she is forced to retreat before the railgun round takes her arms off at the elbows. The grenades are still in hand, but the metal cabinet she’d thought to use as a barricade is right here. She punches through the protesting metal, drops the grenades inside, and is rewarded by the barest hint of smoke coming from the cabinet’s seams. At least it didn’t fill the room.

Gas grenades mean they want to take a living subject out of here unharmed. Railguns mean they’re expecting that subject to have a robot bodyguard. Aria and Leo exchange knowing nods to silently confirm their conclusions with each other. That means the railgunner won’t be shooting at flesh.

Leo lunges out the door.

The deduction proves sound, as he is not immediately shot. But there’s a dozen or more Atlantean ninja in the room, and several immediately fire their net-tridents at him. He ducks back inside, and the nets land heavily in the doorframe. But he got a view of where the railgunners were stationed.

They could move at any moment. He’s got a few seconds to capitalize on what he knows. Quick hand gestures to Aria convey the idea. He leaps out again, with her behind him. The gunners don’t fire, but more nets come in. This is fine, as Aria now has a human shield. Her grapples lash out and grab hold of the railguns, yanking them out of the grip of their Blood wielders.

More nets fly in return, and Leo is entangled. But that’s fine - Aria has more grapples, and they aren’t impeded by things like nets. She grabs hold of the ceiling, yanks herself and Leo high, and swings toward the exit.

The EMP goes off, fucking up absolutely everything in the Garage, from the kitchen to the work area. Appliances and computers explode. Even the railguns spark into uselessness. But they’d already failed, so perhaps the ninja either accept that, or have reserves outside.

Aria convulses, but keeps going. Leo feels the back of his head explode in pain, thanks to the neurochip implanted there, but he hangs grimly onto consciousness.

More nets fire at the pair, but Aria jinks and dodges via her spare grapples. Her limbs are free, and with robot strength she tears through the nets around Leo.

The pair land near the exit. Otto has placed brooms and mops against one wall, for cleanup in the Garage - there’s plenty of oil spills and filings that need regular removal. As the Atlanteans ready their next move, Aria snaps off the heads of a broom and a mop, one in each hand, leaving a sturdy staff. She tosses one to Leo, and both ready their improvised weapons as the ninja come.

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“This is Peter Mancini,” says the voice on the other end of the call.

Charlotte smiles at the phone in her hand. “This is Charlotte Palmer. You were kind enough to escort me at the Gardner dance a time ago. Is it Pietro or Peter now?”

“Charlotte! Hi. Hello. Peter is fine. What can I do for you?”

The call is on speaker, and Harry jumps in. “We’re looking at a break in one of your plasma lines.”

He describes what he sees. A plasma conduit was routed across an overpass, spanning a major boulevard. There’s an oversized semi that plowed through the overpass’s supports, and is now a burning wreck half-buried in an apartment building a block away. The lights are out everywhere, so only the fire and the team’s powers are able to illuminate the scene.

Harry turns to the truck driver, recently rescued. “Can you explain what happened?”

“I was drivin’, an’ everything suddenly went dark,” the husky woman explains. “Radio blew out, power steering went out, whole rig just went outta control.”

“Probably a nearby Atlantean EMP,” Harry concludes. “Peter, do we need to worry about the plasma conduit at all? We’re about to clear the apartment out, but not if this place is going to explode or something.”

“It should be safe,” comes the voice on the other end. “The conduits are both magnetic and electromagnetic. If there’s a break in the pipe, that severs the power running the electromagnets, and the regular magnets will take over, containing the plasma. Just in case, I’ll send a team down there.”

“Okay. I’m going to evacuate the apartment.” Harry pauses, and smiles. “Thanks man. You’ve done a lot of good for the city.”

“We’ve all got to do our part,” comes Peter Mancini’s voice, with only a hint of the emotion behind it. The call clicks off.

Mo reconfigures himself into a firefighting vehicle, and joins Harry in working on the apartment. Charlotte and Adam take to the sky, to look for other problems to solve.


Harry has done this before. People don’t just like being whisked out of their private homes without some kind of notice. Some might be in the bathroom - or the bedroom. Sure, a collision rocked the building a few minutes ago, but there’s no need to compound the stress of that.

He’s got a throat mic and bone-induction speakers, wired up to both team communicators for multiple groups and to a PA system for making announcements, embedded in his costume. It’s also got a cellular linkup, in case he needs to call EMS.

“Occupants of 8719 Waid Ave, this is Mercury. I’m entering the building to extract you, in case the fire spreads or there’s risk of structural collapse. Stand by for evacuation.”

The software in his comm system repeats the message in auto-translated Spanish and Chinese. After a few moments, he’s sure that people have heard him. He rushes for the entrance.

The apartment has a locked door with key and buzzer system, but he vibrates through it in a heartbeat. Once inside, he opens it up, props it open, and starts his sweep.

First floor - one second. Second floor - two seconds. Third floor - three seconds. He goes as high as the 20th floor, and checks the roof above it just for good measure. He can feel the vibrations of the building and its occupants. The building is shivering, just slightly, and he can feel the buildup of heat. Nothing life-threatening, not just yet. He notices that some doors are already starting to open, to admit him. He’s going to have to check everything, though, just in case.

Four seconds are enough to erect barriers on the street, so passing cars don’t run over the crowd that’s about to be there.

In through the door - grab people - make sure they have shoes - if they’re not dressed, grab blankets - rush out to the hall - out of the building - onto the street - set them down gently - run back in. If there’s more people in that room, repeat. Once done, close the door.

He passes people at super-speed, people who are already occupying the halls, moving at what to him is slow-motion. He can’t afford to run into them, so he works on them next.

Then, back to the remaining rooms. Every time a room is emptied, he shuts the door behind them. It wouldn’t do to have a nosy neighbor or opportunistic outsider sneak into someone’s room while he’s escorting them outside.

Everyone gets a business card-sized note, dropped into a shirt pocket if possible, as they’re deposited out on the street in a blur. “Rescue In Progress - Please Do Not Leave the Immediate Area”. It repeats the message in English, Spanish, Chinese, and other languages spoken in Halcyon.

Being a superhero requires you worry about a lot of things, muses Harry.

First floor - second floor - third floor - up and up and up. He worries about the side of the building with the fire before the others, clearing from lowest to highest to ensure that nobody from downstairs gets in his way while he’s running from upstairs.

Finally - finally - the operation has finished. It’s taken about three minutes of real time.

Fire and EMS are starting to roll up. Harry made sure to leave them plenty of room, of course.

He rushes up to the remnants of the damaged overpass, where he can look out over the crowd of people he’s extracted. Parents, children, elderly folk, couples - all kinds of folk.

“Emergency services are here,” he announces. “They’ll take care of the fire and get you folks sorted out.”

He hears an anguished call from someone in the crowd. “Why is this happening to us?”

It’s a fair question. Halcyon has weathered more destructive incidents, but nothing with the sustained sadism the Atlanteans have put into methodically dismantling the city’s services and the citizens’ lives.

He hears the wave of voices echoing the sentiment. Maybe it’s time to say something.

It’s at times like this that he’s glad he can think at super-speed. He’ll come off like he has an answer at hand, even though he doesn’t - not yet.

He reviews the facts. The Atlanteans are committing strikes against the surface world, partly in retaliation for offenses unknowingly done to them, but also as a pre-emptive deterrent. It’s like an animal bristling its fur and swiping at something that enters its territory - acting like you’re starting a fight, in order to stop one.

How to explain that?

They’re afraid of us. It’s simple, pithy, but jingoistic. It’s not something he wants people to latch onto.

They attacked us, and we’re doing our best. It’s true but inadequate.

There can be no “they” in what he says. “They” has been an enemy of human progress for most of history.

The superhero Mercury clears his throat, and speaks.

“A guy called ‘the Senior Commander’ is doing this. He’s from Atlantis - a secret underwater world. He’s hurting his own people, and he’s hurting yours and mine too. Governments and superheroes around the world, even Atlanteans, are teaming up to stop him. There’s a lot standing in our way, but we’re not going to give up until everyone is safe again.”

He draws a few apprehensive breaths, and watches the crowd’s reaction.

“Yeah!” “Get that bastard!” “We’re with you!”

He smiles in relief, pushing his panic down, and waves to the crowd. “I gotta go talk to emergency services now. Everyone, stay safe and help each other if and how you can, okay?”

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Several of the ninja have been soundly thrashed. Leo and Aria know that reserves are outside the Garage. It’s very likely they’re covering the door with railguns, and will simply shoot at anything with the temerity to step outside before receiving an all-clear.

As the less wounded help their injured comrades out of the way, one ninja in particular steps forward.

“I am Strike Captain Mina Onnanoko,” she announces. “You have been a stain on my professional pride long enough.”

She waves her subordinates back and beckons with one hand at Leo, seemingly inviting a duel.

Aria glances at Leo, and sees him looking back at her. She can see the berserk fury on his face, the willingness to fight and never stop that’s been building up. After a moment’s pause, she nods her approval to him.

Leo throws his improvised staff away with a casual, almost contemptuous motion, and launches himself at Mina. The ninja, ready, flings slim, sharp-pointed daggers at him, aiming precisely for the joints and weak points of the human body. Leo’s preternatural combat instinct sends him sliding under the flurry of knives, on his knees and leaning well back like someone skidding underneath a limbo bar.

He’s on his feet again in the time it takes for Mina to fill her hands with more knives. He feints with a few quick jabs, and she tries aggressive parries against the limbs. It leaves a slight rip in the sleeve of Leo’s shirt, but he’s out of the way before anything more serious happens.

Mina shuffles forward, with wild and intense knifework from her left hand. But it shields and shadows the right hand, which tries to impale Leo in the gut. He picks up on it, and knocks the stabbing hand out of the way with a hard hammer-fist at the last moment.

The knives fall from Mina’s hands. She creates an opening, hoping to draw in an attack, and Leo obliges. She grabs the forearm as the fist comes in, and falls backward, one foot going for his leg just above the kneecap, one hand grabbing for his shirt, and tosses Leo overhead in a sacrifice throw.

Leo comes down hard on the ground, but he’s perfectly positioned to throw a vicious elbow at Mina’s face. She sees it coming, but it still catches her on the side of the head.

Both fighters regain their feet in under a second. Leo, with his boxer’s training, is a little slower. As he’s establishing balance and stance, Mina is already launching a side kick at his abdomen. He crouches into it, grabbing the foot, sliding across the floor on the balls of his own feet. Despite Mina’s awkward angle, she’s already going for more knives to throw, which he can’t dodge as long as he’s got the foot trapped. He pushes her away, and she cartwheels, regaining her upright stance as she comes up.

He comes at her, swinging a couple of hard-hitting fists. She blocks one, but the other connects. The opening lets her aim a shin kick at his left leg. She connects, and tries again, hoping to capitalize on the hit by pounding on the injured area, but Leo pivots on the other leg and she can’t rotate far enough to deliver with any energy.

Now free, Mina throws the knives she’s got left. Leo backflips behind a rolling office chair, whose cushions take the hit in his place. She runs forward and flips over the chair as well, hoping to use the momentum to grab and throw him, but Leo makes his own sacrifice throw - falling onto his back, he grabs her outstretched arms, and with a savage kick to the abdomen sends her falling to the ground behind him.

She’s trying to kip up, as she’s done before. Leo’s seen it, and still on the ground, kicks her feet out from under her as soon as she’s up. She falls on him, and throws an elbow into his ribs. Grunting, he takes the hit and wraps one arm around her throat.

She strikes back, using elbows to try and free herself, but Leo holds on grimly and inexorably.

Several times Aria spots some of the ninja making the first move to come to Mina’s aid, and she herself moves to intervene. Unsure of what to do, and disciplined into obedience, the ninja corps back off, obeying their commander’s seeming wish for a one-on-one fight, and watch as she slowly loses consciousness.

Aria is thus free to watch Leo. For a moment, she fears he’ll administer a coup de grace. For a moment, she doubts him, and thinks she should step in and stop him.

For a moment, she’s not sure who Leo Snow is.

He stands, and stares defiantly at the rest of the ninja, inviting any of them to make the next move.

Aria smiles, and remembers, and her doubt departs.

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Battle damage during fighting with the Atlanteans led HCPD to cordon off a section of freeway. Big Bill is able to remote-pilot his aircraft form down onto the asphalt. Once they hear about it, local emergency responders start escorting people toward this improvised shelter. But only so many can fit inside.

Half a mile away, Emma and friends discover another shelter. The rain has started coming down as they exit the prototype vehicle and take in what they’re seeing.

Police herded everyone into a park, when a bunch of apartment buildings were in the blast zone for another EMP. Unfortunately, nobody was available to follow up on the evacuated civilians - another thousand people, slipping through the cracks of a city already bursting at the seams.

Without power, the apartments will be freezing. People would be out of the rain there - but would be stumbling around in the dark, perhaps for hours. They’re better out here, if the team can find a way to provide shelter and heat until EMS is notified.

Big Bill carefully navigates the vehicle through packs of people, stopping at the center of the park. Emma gets out, and positions herself on top of the car. She takes a breath, closes her eyes, and starts concentrating.

A layer of hot air forms overhead, spreading out from her position. It’s just enough to dispel the rain, just high enough that radiation downward provides a comfortable temperature and keeps the evening chill at bay. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Alex stays near the car, furiously operating their laptop, sending Nono out as their data farmer. Who has small children, or special physical needs? Who has medication back in the apartment that they need right now? Who hasn’t heard from a loved one, or needs to reassure one?

Big Bill, meanwhile, has heard from Mo, and tells Alex about an option for restoring power. “Sounds good, I’ll give him a call,” Alex responds.


Nono is surprised when Pietro Mancini, the Plasma Prince of Gardner, shows up riding in a big oversized work truck. He’s got a crew with him, and they begin running some kind of big flexible pipe out of the back of the truck, toward the apartments.

“Nono Rodriguez. Hi there,” he says, and approaches her.

“Huh? You know me?”

The young man smiles. “I remember you punched out that villain. When we were in high school. Since then you’ve been doing amazing work for the Quill Foundation, from what I hear.”

Nono is shocked out of the ability to speak. Who the hell remembers her?

Alex calls out “Hey, you’re Mancini, right? Plasma power, EMP resistant, right?”

“Yes, that’s me,” the inventor answers. “It’s just Peter these days, though. You folks–”

He catches sight of Emma on the roof of the prototype car, and his eyes widen. “Another familiar face.”

Nono finds her voice. “Yes, that’s the girl I um, punched out that day. That’s Emma.”

“Hot Mess. A villain…” Peter is quick to spot her concentration, and the rain shield she’s projecting. “Perhaps not one any longer, eh?”

“I’m still a villain,” Emma calls, not looking away from her responsibilities.

“What are you doing here, then?” Peter asks.

“What villains always do. Doing whatever the fuck I feel like.”

He smiles. “I see. Well you’re doing a great job of it.”

“Stop distracting me, pencil-dick.”

Peter just laughs. He returns his attention to Nono. “If you’re ever looking for reliable work in plasma chemistry, let me know. I’ll keep a workstation open for you. Until then, if you’re happy where you are, I’d like to help out a little. My people are installing conduits for emergency power. Would you like to take a look?”

Nono finds herself nodding more energetically than she wants to.


The plasma conduit terminates at a big metal box hauled off the truck by workmen. In turn, it plugs into the mains of the apartments, taking the place of street power for the moment. Nono can smell the ozone and hear the thump as the conductors start handling the prodigious load.

“400 amps per building. But we could offer a hundred times that,” Peter remarks. He’s holding an umbrella over her head, as a gentleman ought.

“Gas discharge plasma, right?” asks Nono. “CO2?”

“That’s right. With a Pt/Al2O3 catalyst.” Peter smiles.

“And no risk of explosion in the conduits. Someone might get burned if they were too close, I suppose?”

“True. But that’s also a risk for loose electrical wires today.”

Lights in the apartment start coming on. The workmen cheer, and are joined by some of the more curious citizens who’ve ambled over to watch.

Peter nods back toward the park. “There’s room for your friend, too. Pyrokinetics with that kind of control over their power can write their own check in high-energy research.”

Nono smiles. “I’ll tell her. But um, I’m not sure that’s the sort of thing she wants to do…”

Peter nods. “I get it. I thought I was going to be a superhero at one point. It took time and struggle to figure out what I really did want. Now I’m there. Helping people with my inventions is what I really care about, not wearing a suit or having a code name. Whatever both of you think is best, keep doing it, okay?”

Nono grins. “Okay.”


Nono is still thinking about that conversation on the way back. Finally she broaches it to Emma, sitting beside her in exhaustion after her exertion.

“Have you ever… I dunno, thought about doing a regular paying job?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“No.”

Nono blinks. “No, as in, you’d never do that kind of thing?”

“Bingo.” Emma flops about like a lazy cat trying to get comfortable. “People telling me what to do. I hate that. Business hours. Dress codes. Fuck all that noise.”

Nono puts pieces together in her head. “If nobody did anything for you, why should you do anything for them?”

Emma’s grin is like the Cheshire Cat, and she idly thumps Nono on the shoulder with a fist. “That is straight up villain thinking right there. That’s how it is.”

“Well… I’m here now. So what would you like me to do?”

The question catches Emma distinctly off guard.

Nono waits, and smiles.

“My mom used to braid my hair,” Emma says, in the softest voice ever.

Nono pulls Emma partially onto her lap to rest, and with careful fingers, starts combing out knots and clumps. She’s never done this before, but she’s willing to learn something new.

Up front, Alex and Big Bill do their best to act like the conversation is miles away from them.

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The gang returns to Site 5 at the agreed-upon time.

Inside, they find a handful of ninja, tied up with Aria’s detached grappling lines. Leo is, well, perched on a table, watching them intently. Aria is near him.

“Leo, you’re up–” Harry starts. Aria holds up a hand in warning, and turns to Leo, who has bolted off the table and is already into a fighting stance. He seems ready to go, until she shakes her head at him.

She turns back to Harry, and the rest of the group. “Don’t talk to him. He’s - not communicating right now. Let me handle him.”

Nobody’s sure what to make of this. But having others watching over the prisoners gives her the freedom to take him back into the side room.

Before that, she calls out to the group and points to one of the captives. “That woman there. Mina Onnanoko. Strike Commander, works under Saito. She’s important.”

Fuko, standing behind Stingray, seems unwilling to look at or be seen by her fellow Atlantean Blood. And Mina seems uninterested in acknowledging her presence in the slightest.

Jason speaks up. “Serious bad news. Alycia and I stopped by the house on the way here. INTERCOM announced the military alliance is going forward with a strike on the Atlantean regulation nodes. No word on how they found out about them.”

All eyes turn to Rossum.

The inventor holds up his hands. “I swear to you all, I said nothing to them or anyone but yourselves.”

“It was Nautilus,” Stingray says from the back. People now turn to listen to him.

“He’s had a grudge for twenty years. He knows more about Atlantis than anyone. I’m willing to bet he knew about this too. Now that people are actually paying attention, he must have found an ear in the high command. Someone willing to sacrifice a hundred thousand human lives to bring down the enemy.”

“We have to bring this war to a close before that happens,” Harry declares.

“It’s too late,” Jason says. “The strike is already getting underway.”

“Then we’ll need to stop them,” Alycia growls.

“We’re not even sure how to stop the Emperor,” Summer points out.

Adam takes a long breath. He looks around, from face to face, and heart to heart.

He didn’t ask for what was given to him. But now he has it. It’s time to really see what he can do with it.

“I have an idea,” he announces.

All eyes turn to him.

“We’re gonna do it how Leo always did it.”

Next story will be the conclusion of the Invisible Invasion, and Phase 2 as a whole.