LAST EDITED ON Nov-18-13 AT 07:50 PM (EST)
Long ago, in the early days of the Chun Tai era, Avatar Korra helped the five nations of our world find a new balance among themselves. The world of Dìqiú entered a peaceful age of invention and discovery... but then everything changed when we discovered the world beyond the Veil.
Now, seventy years later, we enter a new galactic age; and it has become the Avatar's new duty to seek balance between her homeworld and the universe beyond...
Tuesday, June 25, 2391
International Police Headquarters
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni
It had just occurred to me for about the thousandth time that day that my determination to start working out of my office in the new IPO headquarters building had been a bit premature. A smarter or less stubborn man, I felt sure, would have called a halt to the attempt midway through Monday morning and decamped back to his study at home. That was where I'd managed the opening stages of setting up the organization while the crews finished the outside of the building, after all.
Kei would surely understand that Headquarters, while topped out and fully enclosed, was nowhere near ready to be occupied on the inside yet, thanks to delays in construction inflicted by some truly epic winter weather and spring rains. Even if the Chief's office on the 38th floor was more or less serviceable, the building surrounding it was no fit place to work. The interior consisted almost exclusively of bare sheetrock, plastic sheeting, and noise as the crews worked at a furious pace to make it ready for the rest of the IPO's headquarters staff to move in and start work on August 5.
But nooo. I'd promised her that I and my interminable conferences (video, holographic, telephonic, lenticular, and in-person), innumerable timelines, and seemingly infinite documents-in-progress would be out from underfoot on Monday, June 24, and I was sticking to it. She and Yuri were busy wrapping up their affairs with the 3WA, and under the present circumstances, she had a much greater moral right to the office facilities at home than I did. I, after all, was not nine months pregnant with our second child.
Earphones and cussedness had seen me through a slow but steady morning's work despite the noise and confusion around me. By quarter-past eleven I was even into kind of a groove, automatically nodding to the beat pumping into my ears as I worked on one of the several hundred standards-in-practice documents I had to file in order to make the Royal Salusian Ministry of Public Security happy to cooperate with my new agency.
In fact, though I was not consciously aware of it at first, I'd started singing along, and when the current song got to a bit I particularly liked, I was far enough into it that I tipped back in my desk chair, laid down some primo air guitar, and - when the vocal came back in after the bridge - addressed my remarks to the empty room in general:
But IIIIIIIIIII -
Never seen nothin' like you!
Do ya, do ya want my love?
Do ya, do ya want my face?
(I need it!)
Do ya, do ya want my mind?
(I'm sayin' - )
Do ya, do ya want my love?
Well I think you know what I'm try'na say to you, woman -
"Actually? I'm completely at a loss."
" - gah!"
I'm proud to note that I did not actually fall out of my chair, but in the process of not doing so I did knock one entire heap of documents off my desk, which, even on Day Two, was already a catastrophic mess to any uninitiated observer. Grabbing onto the corners of the desk, I had reason to be pleased once again that I'd chosen to go with a heavy, sturdy antique like this one. That glass and tubing job Vision had tried to convince me to go with would have collapsed under such treatment.
Blinking, I swept the earbuds reflexively out of my ears, the tinny clash of the music instantly lost in the jagged roar of power-hammering from a few levels below. The person who had addressed me was standing in the doorway to my outer office, leaning casually, hand on hip, against the doorjamb with all her weight on one soft-booted foot and the other crossed casually at the ankle.
She was a woman, apparently human, who looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. Of just a little less than average height, she was built like a fighter or a long-distance swimmer: perfectly toned, with broad shoulders and powerful arms shown off to advantage by the tight-fitting, sleeveless blue top she wore. Baggy trousers concealed her legs, but I would have bet they were as rugged and well-balanced as the upper half of her. In fairness to me, though, I have to insist that it was her eyes I noticed first. They were big and merry and an amazing shade of blue, one I could swear I had seen before, pleasingly contrasting with the warm medium brown of her skin.
Despite her almost Chandlerian entrance, she wasn't a Chandlerian beauty - but then Philip Marlowe didn't like his women too capable, and he'd probably have written that spectacular physique off as mannish. He was a product of his time. I suppose I'm a product of mine, as well, because I thought she was just about perfect - not just her body, but her eyes and the lines of her face and the mischievous little smile she was giving me. After a quick poll of relevant internal databases, I marked her among the five or six most beautiful women I had ever seen.
It wasn't love at first sight, but it was definitely top-grade aesthetic, almost artistic, appreciation. Believe it or not, there wasn't even really a sexual component to it at that point, or if there was, it was incidental. Whoever this woman was, whatever she wanted with me, she was just flat-out pleasant to look at - like a sunset, or a Van Gogh, or a cable-stayed bridge, or a really-well-made machine tool. There was the same satisfying feeling that whoever made that knew what the hell he or she was about.
Based on prior life experiences, I calculated a 33% chance that she would now pull out a weapon of some sort and try to kill me, even though she hadn't triggered my zanshin coming in. I decided I was OK with that outcome if it happened. In fact, it would probably be fun. She didn't move, though, and when the jackhammering stopped a second later, her mischievous smile became a friendly grin as she said,
"Hi!" Angling a thumb back over her shoulder, she added, "There was nobody in your outer office and the door... " She took a closer look at the doorjamb where she was leaning. " ... isn't here, so I just came in."
I shut off the music and stashed my earbuds in the top pocket of my shirt, to buy myself a couple of seconds in which to formulate a response, but all I managed to come up with was, "... I can see that." Then, since I had Raymond Chandler on my mind now, I rose to my feet and remarked, "Customarily, when a tall, dark stranger comes into an office at a moment like this, she's wearing something a bit more slinky. Or he's wearing a trenchcoat."
She rolled her eyes slightly and advanced into the office, and she looked as good in motion as she did standing still. Again, someone who didn't know what the hell he was talking about would probably have said she walked like a man, but that wasn't the case at all. She walked like - she obviously was - an experienced martial artist. She didn't look old enough to contain that kind of experience, but then, neither do I. Curiouser and curiouser.
"I'm not tall," she pointed out, still grinning, "and people stopped making those films middle of last century."
"More's the pity," I agreed. That was two checkboxes already: I liked looking at her, and I liked talking with her. Now I really hoped she wasn't going to try to kill me. Fifteen seconds in and she was already giving good banter; surely acquaintances like that are too rare for the fates to squander them on assassination attempts.
She paused partway to my desk and regarded the structural beam in the middle of the office's front wall, which had not yet been covered with whatever the decorators planned to use to hide it. I made a mental note to ask if they couldn't just paint it. I hadn't really noticed it before, but now that I had I thought it added a nice industrial touch.
"Nice building," she said, giving the beam a thump and nodding. "Very sturdy. Earthquake-proof? Do you even have earthquakes here?"
"Not if we can help it," I replied, then added, "I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you're not here about the administrative assistant opening which is the reason why there's no one in my outer office."
"No, not really," she said. "Anyway, I apologize for barging in like this. It took me a little while to find you, and I had to help Ragnar with some things, 'cause he's been the best guide ever, you should give him a raise, OK, I'm rambling." She shook her head. "Let me start again."
Ragnar? I thought. Hang on...
She looked at me for a moment as if sizing me up, not personally but professionally, if that makes any sense; then, seeming to come to some internal decision, she said,
"Hi, I'm Korra. I'm pretty much the highest authority in the world of Dìqiú. About nine months ago, the spiritual realm attached to our world experienced a severe metaphysical upset. I'm not here to put blame on anybody, but around the same time you, and several others, were involved in some sort of fleet action. We can't help but think there must have been some sort of correlation between the two, and I'm here to find out what, if any."
She delivered that extraordinary speech in exactly the same friendly, candid tone of voice she had used to remark that there was no one in my outer office, as if it were all a matter of established and not-at-all-weird fact to her, then waited for my response. I regarded her for a few seconds, partly because I was trying to see if I could detect any telltale signs of The Crazy in her eyes, partly because, well, her eyes. (Suddenly I remembered where I had seen that shade of blue before: It was the color of the sky on a clear, sunny, freezing-cold winter morning, that unbelievably intense blue no other atmospheric conditions can yield.)
I think she may have realized that second part, because after a couple of seconds a faint blush began to rise on the bridge of her nose. Gods help me, that made her even more charming; any moment now I was going to be doing the same thing, and then, who knew, she'd either slap me and storm out or kiss me and true love forevermore, I can never tell how these things are going to go down.
Fortunately, I didn't have to find out, because the thing that had been trying to occur to me since she said the name "Ragnar" suddenly popped to the surface of my mind. "Oh!" I blurted, almost involuntarily, and started hunting around in Pile C, Subpile 2A on my desk. "Wait wait wait - I saw a report on you!"
"... Come again?" she said, looking genuinely puzzled.
After a couple of seconds, the file folder came to hand; I tugged it out of the pile, vaguely pleased that I managed to do so without toppling it, and opened it up. "Here it is!" I confirmed, mostly to myself, as I skimmed the report within. It was a one-pager from my liaison at the New Avalon Police Department's dispatch office, summarizing certain activities lately taking place in the Fourth and 17th Precincts that she thought I might be interested in.
"Inspector Frantzen over at NAPD forwards me anything, and I quote her here, 'that belongs in the crazy box,'" I explained to Korra's quizzical look, "and I guess she figured a tourist becoming pals with a patrolbear qualified." I smiled. "That and the, uh, unspecified incident at Club HiRez."
("Unspecified incident" in this case meant, as far as the investigators from the One-Seven had been able to piece together, that the "management" at HiRez had copped an attitude with what they thought was a nosy tourist and had gotten their place wrecked like a saloon in a Western for their troubles. Since that was nothing any uniform in the One-Seven hadn't wanted to do for months, they had nothing but admiration for the thoroughness of the job.)
"Well, that's refreshing," said Korra, grinning wryly. "Usually it only takes a day before I come to the notice of the cops. Three days, tops. I'm getting better at this, I think," she added airily, taking a showy look at the unbroken fingernails of her right hand.
With that matter disposed of, I put the folder down and returned to considering what she had told me before. Her sincerity was no longer in particular doubt, but a number of the details were yet eluding me - to start with, I'd never heard of the homeworld she cited, which struck me as fairly odd. I knew the name - pronounced "deecho", it was the Chinese word for "Earth" - but from context, it was pretty plain she did not actually mean old Sol III.
"So," I said. "Dìqiú. Hmm. Here I thought I'd heard of pretty much every world in human space. Is that one of those new colonies Neo-Taipei is establishing out on the Rim?" I scratched the back of my head, considering. "Not the most original name, but hey, sometimes you have to go with the classics, I guess..."
"Not exactly," she said, shaking her head.
Remembering a detail my eye had passed quickly over a moment before, I flipped the folder from Frantzen open again. "Says here you're from Zipang," I said. Zipang I had heard of; it was a Japanese colony in the Enigma sector, not far from the Kresge border. Out-of-the-way, but not actually on the Rim. I'd never been there, but I understood it was a little like Ishiyama, in that its far-flung position and relative isolation had led its cultural evolution in interesting and curious directions since it was settled.
"I am. Kind of," Korra qualified. She came the rest of the way over to my desk and handed me a red Zipangi passport. I opened it and had a look at the bearer information. It somehow didn't surprise me that she had the best passport holo I'd ever seen.
"Mizuzoku Kōra," I read, skimming the rest of the details. Nothing glaringly contrary to expectations there. "Hmm." I returned her passport and remarked, "If you don't mind my saying so, you don't look particularly Japanese."
She gave me the wry grin again and said, "I didn't say it it was a good alias. Now, if I was Fire Nation, I'd probably pull it off. But I'm from the Southern Water Tribe, and we get a lot more sun than those guys." With a thoughtful little frown, she went on, "Always wondered about that, 'cause they're equatorial and we're from, y'know, the South Pole, but hey, I'm no biologist. And that probably made no sense to you at all," she concluded.
"Well, not much," I admitted, "I mean, 'mizuzoku' being Japanese for 'water tribe' makes me want to give whoever made your passport at least a couple of points back for style, but the rest went right over my head. As did most of your introductory remarks, come to that. However! Although confused, I also find that I am terribly, terribly intrigued. And since it's not quite 11:30 and it's already been a long day, and I CAN'T HEAR MYSELF THINK IN THIS PLACE!" I roared as the power hammer started up immediately below the office again.
A moment later it stopped. (I'd like to think that was because the operator was duly abashed by my fury, but more likely he or she didn't hear me at all and it was just a coincidence.) In a more normal tone of voice, I went on, "Why don't we go someplace quieter and I just realized how all of that must have sounded."
I know. Smooth. How do I do it? The answer is simple: Volume.
She was eyeing me, not really skeptically so much as thoughtfully, and then said slowly, "You're... not what I was expecting."
I had to chuckle at that. As I went and got my swords off the coatrack I told her, "Well, I guess we're even, because I wasn't expecting you at all."
She laughed. (Do I even need to specify at this point that she had a really good laugh? Well, I will anyway.) "Fair enough," she agreed. "Got any nice open spaces nearby? I've been so busy doing my research I haven't had a chance to find all this city's parks yet."
As it happened, my favorite of New Avalon's several parks was right nearby: Avalon Center Park isn't the biggest (Veterans' Park) or the stateliest (Monument Park), but it is the one with the Grand Common, the concert shell, and - most important at a time like this - the sausage carts. I bought us a couple of sausage rolls and a soda apiece, and we sat on the small hill by the Little League field and had a nice little picnic lunch while the kids played ball. This was not how I had expected to be spending my lunch hour today; it was, in fact, a lot better.
"So," I said, "you said you're this Dìqiú place's highest authority? Have I just committed a catastrophic diplomatic faux pas by taking a major potentate for sausages in the park instead of, I don't know, ten courses at Le Coq Supérieure?"
Another laugh, and she replied, "No, not that kind of authority." She dug in a pocket and came out with an old-fashioned laminated photo-ID card (the photo wasn't as good as her passport holo, but it was still better than the one on my driver's license). It took me a couple of seconds to translate the writing; it was Chinese, but like some sort of Chinese equivalent of Ye Olde English Scripte.
"Order of the White Lotus," I said. "Hmm." Handing back the card, I quipped, "My wife's a member of an organization called the Order of the Red Lotus, but given that that's a drinking club on Shanghai Prime, I'm going to guess they're not affiliated."
Korra smiled. "Ah, no. Though in the old days, their members would get together to drink, and make friendly wagers at Pai Sho." I guessed that was some sort of game. "It's changed since then. Now, they're more my support network. I sort of have an... advisory capability in my homeworld," she explained. (There was that curious use of 'in' instead of 'on' again.) "Smooth over crisis spots, things like that. One of my major responsibilities is to maintain the balance between our spirit and material worlds, and whatever happened last fall severely threw things out of whack." She shrugged. "So, like I said earlier, I'm investigating."
Last fall, eh? I thought. That's consistent with facts in evidence, anyway...
What I said out loud was, "Well... I'm pretty sure I know, but what I'm not sure about is whether you'll believe me."
(I know, right? She lays that on me and I'm worried she might think I'm crazy.)
"Well, in that case, we'll be even," she said cheerfully. "The world I come from is... sort of a parallel Zipang. It's not a whole alternate universe, just... there are kind of... two planets there, that usually can't see or affect each other. I'm fuzzy on how it works, mostly because as far as I know everyone is fuzzy on how it works, but there it is."
That... could go either way, actually. I'd heard of such theoretical possibilities before, and hey, I spent 40-some years ramming around a parallel dimension once, so I'm the last guy to dismiss the possibility of weird sidereal phenomena out of hand. The fact that she was specifically claiming her homeworld wasn't a complete parallel dimension actually made her claim seem more plausible, because it was detailed, and crazy people's details don't usually line up.
Still, it was a little too early to tell. My instinct was to believe her, but then my instinct was also to lie down on the ground, put my head in her lap, and tell her all my troubles, and that wouldn't have been a good move at this point either. I needed more information, so I kept my face neutral and my response noncommittal: "Hmm. Interesting."
Korra seemed to find that encouragement enough. "On my side, the world we call Dìqiú, certain of us can manipulate the elements - earth, fire, air, water - and ages ago we organized ourselves into four nations: Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Air Nomads, Water Tribe," she said. Her face, not exactly stony to begin with, became more animated as she described the situation. "At any given time, one person - the Avatar - has the ability to manipulate - to 'bend' - all four elements. That person's job is to look after the balance, safety, and well-being of our world and the Spirit World that stands between it and Zipang, and for the time being, that happens to be me."
Then, with a salute similar to the one I'd been taught as part of my Wedge Defense Force hand-to-hand training lo these many centuries ago, she made a seated bow and finished with a smile, "Avatar Korra. A pleasure to meet you."
I have many weaknesses. I'm vulnerable to strontium-90. (ATTN supervillains: Before you go jotting that down like you've just uncovered a great secret, check with the nearest biologist.) Broccoli gives me a rash. I'm a sucker for a pretty face, a bright smile, and a good laugh (so we've already established that I was kind of in trouble here). But the one that's gotten me into the most trouble over the years isn't that one, it's this one: When I see a rabbit hole, however unpromising it may be, there is some part of me that will never be satisfied until I know how far down it goes.
In this case, I had reason by this point to believe that the bottom of this particular one was going to be excellent, and even if it wasn't, getting there to find out was almost sure to be good times. I stuck out a hand and introduced myself properly, noting ruefully that I had forgotten to do so when she originally presented herself to me. Excellent handshake, firm but not crushing, warm and dry (albeit slightly sausage-greasy). I decided the most informative and most entertaining course of action now was to be just as plain with her as she'd just been with me, about something equally crazy-on-its-face, and see where that left us:
"Here's what I figure happened. Last September, the Norse god of trickery and evil deliberately triggered the war of the gods that was foretold to end with all creation's loss in fire and death. Some friends of mine and I went and helped the Æsir and Vanir win the war and avert the prophesied end of the universe. We nearly didn't pull it off - the universe did get stopped for a few minutes there, but we managed to turn it back on. That was probably the astral noise you heard." As her eyebrows went up, I grinned and said, "Your move!"
Despite the lightness of my tone, I was watching her reaction intently, all my zanshin brought to bear on the problem. If she took that on board with aplomb, then I figured we had reached a good starting place. If not... well, I wasn't prepared to kick her out of my park just yet, but I would definitely have to reconsider my lack of suspicion.
She thought it over for four and a half seconds, then said wryly, "I had to placate a stuck-up knowledge spirit with severe control issues after that. I'd sue for damages, but currency means little in the Spirit World."
Yep. Aplomb. Satisfactory.
"Wouldn't do you any good to sue Loki anyway," I said, and I felt my face and my spirits falling as a memory from the Ragnarök rushed back to the front of my mind: Grappling with the god of lies, knowing that even if I could break him, I'd be breaking my best friend, the man he'd possessed, in the process. "All that's left of him is a bad memory and a creepy mask."
Korra's face clouded too, I had no idea why, and she said in a subdued sort of voice, "Yeah... I know how that goes."
We sat there for a few seconds, weirdly united by the sudden brown study that had swept over us both, I suspected for completely different reasons. I hadn't intended to bring her down with me, and didn't really have any idea how I had, but I felt bad about it, all the same; so I pulled myself together and tried to get back the cheerful mood I'd just inadvertently wrecked as I went on, "Which is probably why... "
I trailed off as I felt the still-surprising psychic tickle that was another's consciousness touching mine through the Lens, and then Skuld's voice was saying in my mind, Uh... Ben? I don't want to alarm you, but you should maybe think about heading over here pretty soon if you're planning to be around for, um, well, things.
Before I could react, Kei's voice joined hers, replying, Oh man, I was just about to say the same thing! How long?
I dunno, I lost track, Skuld answered. I've been in denial since sometime this morning, but, uh, can't really get away with that any longer.
Haha, rookie, Kei mocked, not unkindly. I'm just getting started, it'll be hours yet before I get to the fun part. I'll send him to you first.
Are you sure? Skuld wondered. He's your husband.
Heck yeah I'm sure! Kei replied. It's your first trip to the big show, kid!
And my last, Skuld replied petulantly. This is horrible. Why didn't anybody warn me?
Would it have made any difference if anybody had? Kei wondered. Hang in there, kiddo, the man responsible will be on the scene to pay his dues presently. Morgan out!
... uh, OK, I "said" when I thought I could get a word in edgewise. I'm downtown right now. Let me just run home real quick and see to Kaitlyn - and make sure Kei's not bluffing - and then I'll be out as fast as I can. OK?
OK, replied Skuld, in that tone of voice that meant "it's not OK, but that's the only button this dialogue box has". Don't dawdle. Urd's already drunk, she'll probably start coming after Keiichi at any time now.
Roger that. Quick as I can. How's the egg?
No action there yet. Ah, jeez, I gotta go. If I don't concentrate time starts getting all weird, last time I think some guy from the 30th century was here for a second.
OK, I'm moving. ETA 30 minutes. I love you.
Then, breaking off, I returned to my physical surroundings. Supposedly Lens communication would get less distracting as I got more experienced at it, but for the moment it was still fairly new territory; but on the plus side, all that had happened at the speed of thought, much faster than we could have spoken any of it out loud, so I hadn't been sitting there staring into space long enough for Korra to notice more than a moment's pause.
"Can we finish this later?" I asked. "I've got a... thing. Happening. Possibly two." I got up, wadded the foil from our sausages, and threw it away in the trash barrel a few yards away, making a shot I would ordinarily have taken a moment to celebrate.
Korra became instantly businesslike, picking up on the urgency in my voice. She reached up for my hand; I gave it to her and braced to pull her to her feet.
"Maybe I can help," she offered.
"Maybe," I said, though under the circumstances I doubted it, and then added wryly, "Do you know anything about obstetrics?"
"And So They Met" - A Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins with Philip Jeremy Moyer
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
For the rest of Avatar Korra's first adventure in the City in the Sphere, keep an eye out for "An Avatar in New Avalon" - Chapter 1 of Undocumented Features Future Imperfect: The Legend of Korra, Book 6: Galaxy - coming Soon™ from Eyrie Productions, Unlimited!