"Mission briefing in five."
It rarely took more than two or three minutes for the Team to assemble when they heard that phrase any more. Kaldur was the first to arrive, businesslike as ever. Robin sauntered in seconds behind, not looking up from his wrist computer. Kaldur fought the urge to roll his eyes when Artemis and Wally strode in hand in hand; for the past month they'd barely been apart for more than two minutes. It was beginning to get ridiculous. Conner and M'Gann had at least settled down, and seemed able to enter the room without grabbing each other or dissolving into giggles.
Kaldur's eyes glanced over the Team. Four minutes had passed. "Zatanna? Raquel?"
"Out," Conner shrugged. "Some party thing."
Kaldur's eyes narrowed. He should have known that. He needed to start thinking of those two as part of the Team and keep an eye on their availability as he did with the others. "I see."
Batman's face winked into existence on the viewscreen. He didn't waste time with pleasantries. "Several shipments to Antarctica have been traced to Intergang," he said. "We're not sure what's being moved, or why. But for two days, we've been detecting strange energy patterns from a point near the South Pole." A holomap formed, marking the relevant spot with a large red dot. "You will head there and identify the contents of the shipments. Identify the source of the energy if you can. Don't get caught. We do not want Intergang to know that we're onto them."
"We've been detecting strange energy patterns from here," Dick said, nodding to the holomap where a point near the South Pole was highlighted.
"Oh... kay..." Conner said. "And which of our enemies do you think is behind it?"
"Intergang. Maybe. Can't be sure."
"Conner, we've been to the South Pole exactly once. And we went to this exact spot. Remember?"
Conner's eyes widened. "You mean when – ?"
"Oh, sorry, I thought this was going to be something dangerous. I mean, last time we barely needed to touch anything and the problem solved itself."
"Yeah... I guess so. Never mind."
Conner shrugged and moved on. Dick waited until he was alone, then pulled down his right glove to absent-mindedly rub his forearm. Of course Conner underestimated the danger. It wasn't his fault. But Dick was mostly stressed that he had no idea what they were facing.
They'd faced trouble at the South Pole before. He just wished he had enough information to beat it.
"How long until Rocket and Zatanna are free?" Kaldur asked.
Conner shrugged. "It's a party. A few hours?"
"Want me to call them in?" Artemis asked, reaching for her communicator.
"No." They'd worked without a full team before. No need to pull everyone away from their lives for every mission. "We will manage. Let us go."
Their roles were well-practised. Conner went to grab Wolf and the SuperCycle. Artemis did a quick arrow check, Wally checked his food supplies, M'Gann called the bioship into action. Within minutes, they were in the air.
Kaldur held some lingering doubts, but... the six of them would be enough. They'd worked with less, especially on a simple recon mission. Not a problem.
Picking the right team was the key. The rest they could figure out. Probably.
Dick called in his Alpha Squad privately. He told them not to mention the mission to the others. He didn't yet know how dangerous letting the mission be known could be. Conner, frowning in the corner, had been an obvious choice, being part of the original Team. M'Gann was too, although it was hard to convince her to do anything recently. She entered the room arm in arm with La'gaan. He'd been chosen to replace Kaldur's sorcery and water-breathing, in case that became important. Had M'Gann told him what had happened with Kaldur on the Reach ship? Probably not, judging by his worried glances at her. Dick hoped she'd rally soon. They were lucky they didn't need a speedster; Impulse was... tricky to control and he wasn't going to try to drag Wally back in. He had to respect his friend's decision, and anyway, it would be impossible to convince him to help when he was still so angry about Artemis.
Artemis... couldn't be replaced. They had no archers. Dick had briefly considered Jaime, but the Blue Beetle's still-vague connection with the Reach troubled him. This could be a Reach operation. He'd considered bringing in Barbara too, but with Batman in space, somebody needed to defend Gotham.
And Gotham would be undefended without her, because Tim was already in the corner opposite Conner's, leaning casually on the wall. Dick had no logical justification for that. He didn't need a replacement for himself. He was going. But it felt... right. There should be a Robin.
Dick cleared his throat. "Alright, guys." He brought up the map again and briefly explained the situation.
"So we're finishing an old mission?" La'gaan asked.
"Something like that. The location could be coincidence, it could be something new. But whatever Intergang were trying before, they might've tried again. So we might have a second chance to unravel this plot." Nightwing realised he was rubbing his forearm and stopped. "And if not, we need to stop it anyway. We move out in ten minutes."
"You're leading this one?" Conner asked, surprised.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm leading this one."
"Miss Martian?" Aqualad prompted as they neared their destination.
-Psychic link established,- she responded. -Bioship in camoflage mode.-
-Superboy, take the lead and scan for Apokaliptan and New Genesis technology,- Aqualad commanded. -Try not to be seen. We will follow in case you need backup.-
Miss Martian slowed the ship. Superboy scooted ahead, riding the SuperCycle close to the ground. From the ship, they could just make out Wolf leaning forward to sniff the air. Slowly and quietly, they neared the site.
-Not yet. But Intergang have shielded themselves from detection before. Ah, wait. Yeah, Apokaliptan weaponry, 100 feet ahead.-
-100 feet ahead?- Kid Flash asked. -There's nothing but snow 100 feet ahead.-
- In snow like this? It's probably in a bunker under the ice,- Artemis pointed out.
- That seems likely,- Aqualad agreed. -Miss Martian, you sense anything?-
-... No. If there are minds there, they're shielded.-
Aqualad hesitated. Their energy signature was a little more than 100 feet ahead. It was unlikely to be somebody messing with their minds, or they'd just attack. The Supercycle would've sensed a hologram. Artemis was probably right. But he really didn't want to go in blind. Were they facing automated weaponry, or people shielded from psychic attack? It made all the difference. -Kid, get down there and check it out. Miss Martian, Robin, go in thirty seconds behind and stay invisible. Artemis, take the helm, you and Superboy are air support, should something go wrong.-
Kid Flash had deployed before Aqualad even finished giving instructions. As he watched, Robin and Miss Martian each gave a nod and dropped.
-What about you?- Superboy asked.
-This close to the shore, the ice should be quite thin. I am going to test that theory.- Aqualad nodded to Artemis and she pulled the bioship back towards the water.
-Can you withstand the cold?- Flash asked. They could already see the trail of snow he threw into the air as he zipped around the area.
-We will find out.- It had never been a problem in Atlantis, which could get extremely cold by any surface-dweller's metric, but then, Atlantis wasn't sub-zero. -Artemis and I will may drop out of telepathic range for a few minutes.- As soon as the bioship was over the water once more, Aqualad dropped.
Like most Atlanteans, Aqualad had an excellent sense of direction. It was hard to go outside the cities underwater without one. He swam back towards the site, under the ice.
He was right; it wasn't too thick. The cold was bothersome, but he suspected he was handling it a lot better than a surface-dweller would. Although he did feel a little... sluggish. No. Don't give in. You need to fight. -Miss Martian? Somebody respond.- Nothing. He kept swimming.
The ice above him began to thicken as he neared the target site. He tried again. -Miss Martian? Somebody respond.-
-Aqualad!- M'Gann sounded distressed. It was faint, though; on the edge of her range.
-Miss Martian, what is happening?-
-Uh, battle. We got into the bunker. Kid Flash and Wolf are still outside, but – look out, Artemis!-
-I see him. Aqualad, this is looking bad, there are guys everywhere.-
-Miss Martian, can you sense my location?-
-Then tell me how to get to you.-
-Almost directly North, about 500 feet... but you won't be able to reach the bunker from under...-
-Let me worry about that.- He sped up. -Now where?-
-30 feet West should put you just about under the tunnel.-
-Just about?- Just about would have to do. Aqualad drew his water-bearers, let himself sink a little, and not for the first time wished he's stuck around the Conservatory for a few extra months before becoming Aqualad. He concentrated, raised both arms, and started to spin.
Holding the watery shape of a giant drill bit wasn't the easiest thing in the world, but the ice crushed a lot more easily than he'd expected. Finally, climate change had done something useful. He wore away at the ice, electrocuting it when it seemed like that would help, and bore his way upwards, towards the tunnel. The tunnel itself was simply cut into the ice with no obvious support at all. Not very safe.
By the time he got into the tunnel, Miss Martian had already gilled up; Robin, Artemis and Superboy immediately reached for rebreathers. They were grouped together in the confined of the tunnel with enemies that Aqualad didn't recognise on both sides. Their enemies had guns but seemed reluctant to use them in the tunnel, which was probably all that had allowed the Team to last so long. Superboy had paused in his frontward assault to slip the rebreather on while Robin and Artemis guarded the back. Miss Martian seemed to have decided that the best strategy was to telepathically pick up enemies and simply throw them into other enemies; she floated above them doing just that.
Aqualad only got a momentary glimpse of the fight before their enemies got a sharp lesson in what the Team had already realised; the tunnel was below the water level.
Superboy grabed Robin in one arm and dug his other hand into the ice to hold against the sudden rush of water. Artemis already had an arrow anchored in the floor and laid flat. Miss Martian took Aqualad's lead, easily swimming against the current as various uniformed hostiles were swept past them. When the pressure stopped, Aqualad remarked, -Let us continue.-
-Shoudn't we go help Kid Flash?- Artemis asked. -We did just basically give him all our enemies to fight.-
-He has Wolf, and Sphere, and the Bioship. The sooner we complete the mission, the sooner we can collect him and get out of here.- He started to swim. The tunnel led upwards. -Is this the right way?-
-Yeah,- Robin said, -the architecture is odd in here.- The tunnel kept rising out of the water. Aqualad hesitated. If it was his base and it was suddenly flooded, he'd post any remaining soldiers right outside the water to take out anyone who walked out of it. -I'll go first. Superboy, behind me.- He walked out of the water, refilling his lungs with air. No attack. Water-bearers at the ready, he glanced down the long, straight hall. Deserted. Perhaps they had washed the entire staff out of the tunnel.
The tunnel ended in a steel door. Superboy removed it easily. It led to a small, steel-walled room, inconsistently lit by soft lights scattered at apparent random on the surface of a steel box in the centre. The box was about the size of an elevator, and humming. The lights pulsed.
Cautiously, Robin walked over and pressed one hand against the side. "It's warm."
"What is it?" Aqualad asked.
"Don't know. I'll try to find an access panel or something, see if I can get to the electronics..."
The lights pulsed faster. Humming grew louder.
"Everyone out!" Aqualad shouted unnecessarily as teammates ran for the door or hit the floor depending on where they were in the room. Aqualad drew as much moisture as he could from the ice walls outside and tried to hide them behind a shield of water.
There was the shriek of tearing metal, and the box exploded.
The site wasn't hard to find. Flying over the ice brought back the memories of how they'd found it the first time. The coastline had changed since then, the ice melting and breaking to bring the bunker closer to the water, but the magic of GPS made that unimportant.
"Miss Martian?" Nightwing prompted.
-Not picking up signals of any kind,- he reported from the SuperCycle.
-Not even Apokaliptan technology?-
Nightwing hesitated. Not finding anything didn't mean they were safe. They'd been shielded from Miss Martian's powers last time; if they were expecting company...
That meant they couldn't use the same strategies as last time, either. Well, not exactly the same strategies. But there was no knocking a winning formula. -Lagoon Boy, Superboy, find the entrance. Robin and I will go stealth and back you up. Miss Martian, you're air support.- The Team deployed.
The cold was biting, even through his full-body, cold-resistant costume. Behind him, Robin squinted in irritation and pulled his thermal cape further over his shoulders. Nightwing couldn't imagine how Lagoon Boy felt. Atlantean cold resistance was one thing, barefoot in snow was another. He should've left him to pilot the ship and taken Miss Martian. Of course, then he'd have to handle her... listlessness... instead, but that was better than teammates freezing to death.
Lagoon Boy didn't complaint though; after a brief (if testy) telepathic discussion about coordinates, he raced off after Superboy.
"You sure about putting them in the field together?" Robin asked quietly when they were alone. "They're not... exactly..."
"Doesn't matter. They both know how to do their jobs. You okay in these conditions?"
"I've been in worse."
"Then let's go. Be careful."
The boys shared a nod, and disappeared into the snow to tail Superboy and Lagoon Boy, who were determinedly heading for the tunnel entrance without speaking, Superboy on the Cycle, Lagoon Boy running through the snow.
No attacks. No hostile activity.
Superboy jumped down and kicked snow off the large metal door leading down into the tunnels. Before he had a chance to grab it, Lagoon Boy inflated and, with a roar, dug his fingers into the ice around the metal and ripped it open. Superboy glared at him.
No attack. No hostiles.
-Miss Martian, follow us in,- Nightwing instructed as he and Robin crawled out of the snow to fall into step behind Superboy and Lagoon Boy. The corridor was dark and icy, just as he remembered. The walls looked more fragile. That was a worry. Robin took the lead, glowstick in hand; Nightwing guarded their backs. About 50 feet in they were joined by Miss Martian in camoflage mode.
Robin stopped suddenly. The tunnel ahead was flooded.
-Huh,- Superboy said. -I guess these tunnels would be impossible to drain.-
-This isn't a good sign,- Nightwing pointed out. -We flooded this tunnel last time we were here. This means it's deserted. So why are we getting energy signatures?-
-Maybe they built another entrance?- Lagoon Boy said.
-Yeah. Maybe. Lagoon Boy, Miss Martian, take front.- Miss Martian grew gills as the two entered the water. The others grabbed rebreathers from their belts (Nightwing handing a spare to Superboy) and followed.
The room was there, same as before, door still torn from its hinges and resting where it had been flung against the wall. The inside of the room was scarred with burn marks and metal scraps where something large had exploded. It was otherwise empty.
"Well," Nightwing said, "this is..."
Suddenly, the room was filled with a mechanical hum and pulsing light.
"Everyone in the corridor, now!"
The squad retreated. Lagoon Boy darted between the rest of the group and the room, expanding his body to fill the corridor and shielding them with his own back. There was a... force. An explosion without heat or light, just a roaring hum. Then silence. Some groans.
A chillingly familiar voice.
"Is everyone okay?" Aqualad asked.
"M'Gann's unconscious, but she's breathing." Superboy. Concerned. But Superboy, crouched in the tunnel next to Nightwing, hadn't opened his mouth.
Everything snapped into place. Ugh, I'm an idiot! It's so obvious!
M'Gann spoke up. Her mental voice was full of hope and joy... and more than a little confusion. -Hey, I... I sense...-
-No!- Nightwing snapped. -Nobody say or do anything!-
"Is everyone okay?" Aqualad asked. The Team was crouched together against the wall right next to the door. The water that had formed their shield had collapsed and pooled around them when he lost grip on his water-bearers. He crawled over to pick them up.
"M'Gann's unconscious, but she's breathing."
That explained why the psychic link was down. "Can everybody else walk?" A general chorus of assent. Aqualad looked around. Nothing but shrapnel. They had not exactly determined the nature of what they had faced, but thy had eliminated it. There was not much else they could do. "Then we are done here. Time to go." They clambered to their feet, Superboy picked up Miss Martian, and they strode into the corridor.
Four extremely familiar faces, and one he couldn't immediately identify but hidden behind a fairly familiar mask, stared back at Aqualad. Not a single one of them made any sense.
"Oo...kay, should we be running or fighting or what?" Artemis hissed in his ear.
-Just what the hell is going on?!- Superboy's voice shouted in Nightwing's mind.