“You’re lucky they build these post-Golden cars to last, Impel,” Khalid El-Amin said, stroking at his thick, black beard before he set his hands on his hips and surveyed the beaten, crushed hood of Fisher’s car. “What on Earth happened?”
Fisher glanced to his wrecked automobile and wondered where to begin. Simple questions always had dangerous answers.
His car was sitting where it had been towed following the damage it had sustained from Sabra (who was now Fulcrum, if the feeds and media were correct; why that name of all names?) crash-landing on top of it. It’d been resting there as an inoperative wreck in his designated parking space ever since. It felt strangely apt, given the wreck he had drunk himself into.
But he had a purpose now. A mission if he was kind to himself, a death wish if he wasn’t. If he was going to go minotaur hunting, he needed his mount to be in working condition.
That had led him to Gauntlet.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” Fisher said, flicking his cigarette from his fingers. “You know how it is, Gauntlet. Power-armored lady came down right on top of it.”
Neither of them appreciated the old names being said, Fisher knew. But it was the old taunts of old men, where half-hearted verbal jabs were about the closest thing to any hint of possible friendship. Despite Gauntlet’s reputation as a technological genius, Impel had never known him, not back when either of them had been active. But he had known of him: an innovative genius and member of the Twelve Champions, the irregular group that had saved Europe from some mad psychopathic AI towards the end of the Collapse.
But FireWatch knew he was here – and, therefore, with the magic of still-functioning network access codes, so did Fisher.
And Fisher needed someone to fix his car. At the very least, a kindred old Golden soul might result in a kindred golden discount.
“That fighting’s really spreading out if it hit your garage,” Gauntlet said.
“Not really, I was there when it all kicked off. The new kid, the one they’re calling Fulcrum, and Taurine.”
“Huh,” Gauntlet replied as he popped the crushed-in hood of Fisher’s car open. “I assumed that they’d knocked her off years ago.” He began to poke at and examine the various bits and pieces of the engine, not that Fisher knew what any of them were called. “What’ve we got here… standard Saab electric… nothing seems damaged beyond repair…”
Fisher’s eyes were focused on Gauntlet’s bare hands and fingers as he worked. Years ago, his ability to build paired gauntlets that could perform all manner of technological feat had put him in high demand. Not just as a hero, of course. Corporations wanted more than heroes.
Seeing him without them felt confronting, almost.
Particularly when he had seen those gauntlets, or a descendant of them, fairly recently.
Fisher said, “I saw someone using your farhold gauntlet designs the other day.”
“Not too surprising,” Gauntlet murmured. “Who did they farm my knowledge out to now?”
“Star Patrol. Doctor Apocaeucalyptus.”
“Hah! Imagine trying to say that name in an emergency. I didn’t realize they had someone like that here.”
“They don’t. It was a work call.”
“You were on a call with the high-ups of Star Patrol?”
“It’s a long story. Complicated.”
Gauntlet worked silently for several seconds.
“Well… Nothing that can be done about that now, I suppose,” Gauntlet said, and Fisher could hear the lilt of melancholy in his voice. “I made my peace with that long ago, when I traded my gauntlets and mask for these overalls.”
It wasn’t that unusual. One of the shifts that had marked the end of the Golden Age was that empowered knowledge had been cleaved away from the individual empowered who held it – heroes or villains. For a time, everyone had thought that the empowered who could create were the only ones who could unlock whatever technological designs they pulled from the ether only they could plumb. It gave them power and it was a certain kind of power that even the most prominent empowered heroes lacked. It was one thing to punch through a vault door, it was another to give that power to a dozen others.
But then, of course, the technologies were reverse-engineered. Whatever iridic ether they drew their works of art from, there was a certain rhythm to it, a certain pattern, and the governments of the world had set themselves on solving it – and they had.
Fisher knew how it went. He’d been there to see it, to hear about it. Some of the artisan-creators immediately cut deals, selling their knowledge in exchange for security, safety or other perks. Some of them destroyed their creations and refused to speak of them ever again — for some of those artificers this was even enough to preserve their pride and ego. Some withdrew from the world. Others turned on it and found themselves fighting things they had once helped create.
Some – and Fisher had only heard these as grim, whispered stories – had been compelled to pass on their knowledge to governments and corporations and were, after that, discarded.
He wasn’t sure which category Gauntlet had belonged to.
“You never told me what you were doing in Paradigm,” Gauntlet said.
“Work. Well, semi-retirement, really. Like you, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Of all the places you could go, why here? Weren’t you a member of the Twelve Champions?”
Gauntlet made a non-committal noise, shrugged. “Close. I thought about the Neo-American Front for a time, given that they seem to be the only ones able to keep their tech secret. Those mac-guns.” He whistled. “But I saw the way the wind was blowing. After all, IPSA got Ironheart – of all people, Ironforge’s daughter – on a leash.”
“Yeah, a leash that reaches into orbit. Seems a good deal to me.”
“It’s all the same. A leash is a leash. Anyway, I saw the collar and chain coming, so, I decided to be a good little dog. They asked for my technologies and I handed them over, and they let me walk. Otherwise, speak of the devil, I would have ended up like Ironforge.”
Fisher scoffed. “You don’t really believe that trash, do you? One of those ‘Sentinel knew,’ ‘Ironforge was an inside job’ types?”
Gauntlet looked up. “Sentinel was just taken away on charges of conspiracy.”
“True, but proof of that – if it’s true at all – isn’t proof that there was some conspiracy to have Ironforge assassinated.”
“If you had’ve said Capetown was a conspiracy back in the 30s, people would’ve called you crazy, too.” He turned his attention back to his analysis. “We live in interesting times, my friend.”
Fisher snorted. “Sure. The day of small heroes has passed away; the day of heroic empires has come.”
“Chamberlain. People attribute the– Oh, forget it, it’s not important. You have a family, kids?”
Gauntlet tensed for a moment. “No,” he said. “You?”
An uncomfortable beat passed.
Fisher said, “I’m surprised no one’s tried to pull you into this growing brawl.”
Gauntlet looked over, but only for a moment. “There’s very little I could do to be of help. Besides, I keep to myself. If they need something repaired, well, I’m sure we could cut a deal.” He looked back again, and there was meaning in his eyes.
“Right. How much for the car? I need it in two days.”
Gauntlet named a price. Fisher frowned. “Guess I’m lucky I don’t have a family.”
Gauntlet shrugged, arms wide. “Business isn’t good. But I can get it done in two days.”
“Maybe it’s not good because you price everyone out of coming to see you.”
Gauntlet laughed, a single bark of a note. “Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I know something you don’t. Maybe it’s the end of the world.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. It’s the kind of guess where you only need to be right once.”
“Well, isn’t that optimistic?”
“Sure. Gotta be an optimist to get out of bed on this island. I’ll see you in two days, first thing in the morning.”
“You’ve got it,” Gauntlet said, nodding his head. Then, as Fisher turned to leave, he heard him speak again.
“You want to do this again, Impel?”
Fisher looked at Gauntlet, wiping his hands off on his coveralls. He knew him enough to know that Gauntlet was like him. Old, alone, hiding in Paradigm because of what it used to represent. With no one else. Maybe a cat. There was no nervous flirtation in the question – both of them were too old for that, if that was even on the cards – but just a sense of sympathetic recognition.
He thought for a moment, of his hunting mission, and of the probable result. Of what Miss Millennium had said. Of what he knew was the likely outcome of going after Taurine, even if he was successful.
“Sure,” Fisher said. “It’d be fun to reminisce.”
It was never fun to reminisce. But it was an easy lie because, in two days – three at the latest – Taurine would be dead.
And so would he.