Sabra poked at her standard hospital-issue gelatin with her standard hospital-issue spoon. It wavered about in a way that Sabra had never found enticing. Food wasn’t supposed to wobble and wriggle like that. It was about as appealing as the chemical orange taste of the rehydration fluid that she’d been provided with – which was to say, not very.
Incarnate had provided them both without so much as an enjoy your meal or an explanation. She’d dropped them on the bedside table and wandered away to whatever her next important task was. Without her mother’s occupational knowledge, Sabra might’ve wondered why she was being served a remarkably semi-solid version of gelatin and something that tasted like a robot’s take on oranges.
But even the physical stress she’d been under combined with the lack of any food since the night before couldn’t make the gelatin any more appealing.
She could’ve devoured a cheeseburger, though.
Sabra poked at her gelatin again, considering that. She wondered, idly, if Fisher would bring her one. Incarnate certainly wouldn’t.
But Fisher was gone. He’d said that he hoped that she would get better soon and then left the small medical wing. Sabra tried not to think about the bad news he had brought to her, the loss of her suit. It had only been in her possession for just over two months, but it felt like it had gone with her to hell and back in just that short time.
All that work… gone.
Sabra tried not to think about it. She felt selfish when she glanced to some of the other beds, which had slowly but surely become filled with the wounded. She’d lost a suit, some of them had lost limbs.
There was little to take her mind off her present state, bedridden as she was. Of course, given that Sabra felt more hungry than sore, she was sure this was just a slightly more comfortable cell than the other ones in the tower. She watched Incarnate move between the beds, seeing to the patients — her crisp motions speaking of intense precision and discipline — and Sabra wondered at the level of training a SOLAR cape went through to make them move like that.
The door opened. A team of PCPD officers stepped through, guiding a pair of floating stretchers. Blueshift followed behind, helmet cradled under one arm. Sabra craned her head to get a better look at the dark shapes they were carrying. A man and woman in black combat gear, cat-like chrome helmets at their feet.
They’re here too?
“Incarnate,” Blueshift said. “Keep these two alive and under guard. The man will live, the woman may not. Ensure that she does. She took a direct hit from Anima’s weaponry, expect severe phased plasma burns.”
Incarnate nodded, the motion crisp. “I understand.”
“When our John Doe is out of any possible danger, the Captain wants him thrown in a cell. Before that, search him thoroughly, scour his body for anything out of the ordinary — implanted weaponry, gene mods, Concordiat conditioning, the works. And be sure to screen them both, they may be empowered.”
“These mercenaries worked with the Concordiat. Anticipate anything, no matter how slim the probability. Part of me is loathe to leave this to you.” Blueshift reached into a pocket of his uniform, pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He tapped one out.
“Please, Blueshift,” Incarnate began, “Do not smoke in this room.”
“Habit,” he said, and slipped the pack away. “What I mean to say is, I would assist — but I’ll be bringing the networks here back online.”
Incarnate was already examining the wounded woman. Sabra could smell something like roast pork, and she felt a sharp pang of disgust that quickly curdled into sick horror as she realized why.
Blueshift was leaving the room, and Sabra swung her way out of her bed, disconnecting her various monitors in the process. Took another second to tug the last set of wires free. Incarnate’s head snapped up, staring at her. “Fulcrum,” she began, but Sabra had already raced out the door.
Incarnate didn’t follow. Too busy with two people who were in more need of attention than Sabra was.
Blueshift was already halfway down the corridor, still lit by emergency lighting and the occasional shaft of daylight. He was a crimson outline in the dark, moving with determined strides.
“Blueshift!” she called, trying to match his pace with a frantic half-jog. It hurt to run, somewhere in her belly, in her joints. Maybe she wasn’t as cured as she thought she was. “Blueshift, yo, wait!”
Blueshift turned at the second time his name was called. There was a cynical amusement in his eyes, indicating that he’d heard her the first time but only chosen to turn around on the second.
“Ah, Fulcrum,” he began. “I was unaware that you had recovered to such an extent that you could run down the halls of Paradigm Tower, shouting my name. I’ll need to recommend Incarnate for a commendation.”
Sabra scoffed. “Her bedside manner sucks.”
“Indeed. Are you saying I should put a black mark on her record?” Sabra watched him closely. It felt like he was only paying half-attention to her – hell, not even that, a quarter-attention. His mind was elsewhere, and this little exchange was a distraction.
“If I was, I’d take it up with your team leader. Captain Mae.”
“Ng-Mae.” He corrected her with the same lazy tone.
“Yeah, her. I have to talk with her.”
“I was under the distinct impression that she would be talking with you. At her discretion.”
“She can talk with me now, or I’m going home.”
“Fulcrum, with all due respect–” Which wasn’t much if his smirking tone was anything to go by “–that is one of the most bizarre ultimatums I’ve ever heard. Walk with me.”
He’d gone three paces before Sabra realized what he had said. She hurried to catch up. “Not behind me, Fulcrum,” he stated, “with me.”
She fell into stride beside him. He was an inch or two shorter than she was and yet, somehow, Sabra felt like she was bending down to talk to him. Maybe it was just the uniform.
“You must have a reason to come after me directly. There aren’t many who would be so brazen. What do you want?”
“I want to thank you for what you did earlier.”
“You’re lying, but I appreciate the thought.”
Sabra sighed. Right, okay, fuck formalities. “Look, it’s about Star Patrol.”
“Be precise. What do you want?”
Sabra frowned. The question felt like a test. She hated questions like that.
“I want justice.”
“They sent someone – Bushranger — to attack my father, to make him give up information on me.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah. Look, aren’t you supposed to be the actual superheroes? You’ve gotta do something about this. I want them–” hurt “–punished.”
“First an ultimatum, now a directive. You truly are a wonder, Fulcrum.”
“You don’t need to talk down to me.”
“I’m not. Trust me, you’d know if I was. I have some manner of respect for you, perhaps even interest: you allowed us to apprehend Taurine. No, I am not giving you enough credit — you defeated her. How did you do it?”
Sabra tried to think back to it, but the only thing she could find in memory was that Fisher had told her she had done it. Nothing else. The sensation buzzed in her brain and on the tip of her tongue, like she had forgotten something important.
“I punched her, I guess,” Sabra said.
“You ‘guess’. You don’t know. Fulcrum, I am under no obligation to explain myself to anyone, no matter their prowess.”
“But you’re leading me somewhere.”
“Better not be a cell.”
“You would be back in that bed if that was the case — simply more efficient.”
They came to an open door. Blueshift rapped his knuckles against the frame. “Aegis, a moment of your time.”
Inside, a woman — Captain Ng-Mae, Sabra assumed — loomed over a coffee table. Over it was spread a dozen hand terminals, most of them displaying a variety of error messages, and a number of hardcopy reports. Her long black hair, streaked with the grey of stress or age or both, was pulled back into a ponytail.
She didn’t look up. “Blueshift,” she said, “The network is still in chaos. I’m beginning to doubt your technical– I see. You’ve picked up a stray.”
She had looked up. Her eyes were on Sabra, her lips an unimpressed line.
“She is persistent,” Blueshift replied. “She wants to speak with you.”
“Give her a number and tell her to get her ass in line.”
Her accent was as harsh as her demeanor, crisp, curt, disciplined, like she was talking with her lower jaw and nothing else.
“I would,” Blueshift replied, tired voice smooth, “But then she’ll leave.”
“Since when do you care about anyone except yourself? She might look like Ada at a brief glance, Shift, but I’m beginning to wonder if you suffered head trauma during the battle. And more so than usual.”
Sabra could hear the hint of familiarity in the barbs, the camaraderie that dulled the edges. Neither Aegis nor Blueshift smiled, but Sabra was reasonably sure that neither of them were particularly given to doing so.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this, Blueshift, but I’m going to find out,” Aegis continued. “Get that network up and running. As for you.” Aegis leveled a finger in Sabra’s direction. “You’ve got five minutes. Go.”
Sabra had to think on her feet. She was still processing that talk of the network in trouble. Everything on Paradigm went through that network, even Sabra knew that. If the network was down, then the city was in trouble.
She remembered the warning-threat from Miss Massacre.
“I’m Fulcrum,” she said. “I’m from West End.”
“I know who you are. Of the dozen or so problems before me, you were about seventh on my list.” Aegis scooped up a pill bottle from the table, tapped her thumb against the cap. “You’re wasting your minutes. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Sabra knew she should try and compose herself in the presence of a superhero, particularly one from IPSA. She knew she should consider her words, but that would take time which she knew she was running out of. She knew she wasn’t blameless — she’d resisted arrest, taken off someone’s arm — but all she had done was responded.
If someone hit you, and you couldn’t run away, then you had to hit back. West End taught that you could never, ever allow someone to walk all over you.
It all came out of her in a single breathy rush. “It’s about Star Patrol. They went after my family to try and get information on me — they hurt my father! It’s not right, y’know? It’s bullshit! You have to do something. Please. I was only trying to do the right thing.”
Aegis stared. “What do you expect me to do?” she asked, rebuking everything Sabra had just said with a simple question. “In case you hadn’t noticed, Fulcrum, this facility was just blitzed. This city was in a bad enough state before all of its infrastructure was collapsed.”
“This city is my home. It’s been in a bad state for years!”
“Everywhere is someone’s home. Forgive me if I don’t break down in tears over this one. I’m here to work with Star Patrol and whatever local elements remain in play, not against them.”
“But the way Blueshift was speaking to– I thought you’d come to…” She trailed off, as if suddenly adrift.
“What, to punish Star Patrol for following the letter of their orders? Hah!”
Sabra felt her face collapse. And she saw that Aegis noted it. The older woman’s expression softened, but only slightly.
“Listen. Look. I understand things are rough. I understand that you feel like you haven’t been listened to — God knows Sentinel never listened, right? But I meant what I said. There are more important things that demand the attention of myself and my team.”
“Like the network.”
“Smart kid. The network, finding out more about those animal-headed fucks who did it, and trying to head off the imminent civil uprising that will hit us by tomorrow morning. However — however — what happened to you and your father was wrong. I will look into it, but I cannot do that now.”
Sabra nodded, mutely, but she couldn’t help but see SOLAR as the third in a long line of system failures. It hurt now, however, because she’d dared to hope.
“We’re here to stabilize the city, kid,” Aegis continued. “Four people can’t police a city, even SOLAR capes. Destroy it, maybe, but sure as hell not secure it. And we’re going to need what resources we can get from Star Patrol in order to have any chance of seriously maintaining order. Work with me, and I’ll do my best to work with you.”
She hated it, but it was about the best offer she’d heard since being hauled into that secure van that morning. Christ and Allah, that felt so long ago.
Exasperated, Sabra jerked her shoulders in a rough shrug. “Fine, yo. What’s your price for me for this?”
“Low enough. What you wanted, by the sounds of things. Go home. Don’t give me any reason to doubt that you’re just some sweet young woman whose teenage idealism got her caught over her head. Make it easier for me to frame it as you reacting to Star Patrol and not the other way around.”
Sabra nodded. “I can do that. But I can help–”
Aegis held up her hand. “Can, but not will. You get back out on those streets and Star Patrol is going to push so much fucking harder to bring you in. Don’t give them that momentum.”
“Momentum is the only thing that matters, Fulcrum. And presently, we need to regain it before this island becomes a killing field.”
A voice from the doorway. “Captain, the media is here.” Sabra turned, saw a woman in SOLAR armor. Anima.
Aegis rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “Oh, throw them in the fucking holding cells, God knows we’ve got enough empty ones. You know how I feel about these bullshit circuses. Fucking dog and pony shows.”
“As good as that might feel, I’m pretty sure that’s counter-productive.”
“You’re right,” Aegis sighed, popped the top off her pill bottle, swallowed some. “Keep them waiting for just a bit longer and find Great Barrier, bring her to me. We need to deliver a joint statement on this mess.”
Aegis returned her attention to the table. “As for you, Fulcrum, I suggest you get out of here before Great Barrier gets wise to it.”
“You’ve got it, Captain,” Sabra said, and gave her a lazy salute.
Sabra decided not to go back to the medical ward. While Aegis had let her loose, she had the strange feeling that Incarnate wouldn’t be so easily defused. She would just have to come back for her helmet later.
If they destroyed it, well, it was useless anyway, as much as it pained Sabra to admit it. And, if they threw it out, then she’d just find it in the bones again.
Sabra made for the lobby. There, on the threshold between the official areas and what was open to the public, she took in the devastation.
The bodies had been cleared away but the bloodstains and shell casings remained, as did the two trucks that had been used to deliver those gunmen into the heart of Paradigm’s power. Outside, past the trucks and broken panoramas, Sabra could see PCPD officers holding back a throng of men and women. Many of them had camera drones.
Right, the media. Can’t let them see me.
At one of the pillars that dominated the lobby, keeping it between him and the leering lenses of the outside world, Sabra could sight of Pavel Fisher.
She stepped over to him.
“Didn’t expect you to be up so soon,” he said.
Sabra held her arms wide, smiling. “Turns out I’m a horrible patient.”
“Horrible at patience, more like.”
Sabra laughed. “Anyway, I’ve got SOLAR authority to bounce out of here. How about you?”
Fisher didn’t say anything. He shook his head, exhaled. “I had– Well, today didn’t go the way I thought it would.”
Sabra watched him, not sure of what to say. She knew that Fisher had nowhere to go, no one who would miss him. Well, she thought, except that cat he bought food for. And she could see it printed in the lines of his face, just as obviously as she could see the loosened tie around his neck.
“Fisher,” she said, “I’m fucking starving. You wanna join me for dinner?”
Fisher opened his mouth and, suddenly, Fisher wasn’t Fisher.
He was a multitude. Like she could see the pieces of him and the way they all fit together, complex but knowable. Just like her suit was. She could see the way she could press on any individual piece to send shockwaves through the others, the way she could twist and turn and provoke them–
And that awareness brought with it a nascent headache, blossoming and unfurling somewhere behind her eyes.
A subtle pain in her gut, more real than the headache. Not the pain of injury, but a more primal one: hunger.
Her awareness snapped back from the beyond, as if coming out of a trance. Fisher was just Fisher again. It couldn’t have taken more than the blink of an eye.
He said, “I’ve had worse invitations. But you’re not my type, Sabra. Even if I was twenty years younger.”
“Same, but if I was twenty years older. Look, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t have anywhere else to go, right?”
Fisher gave her a look, unimpressed. “Way to dig the knife in, Sabra.”
“You’ve, like, saved my life twice now. Come and have a hot dinner, meet my parents. You and dad can talk about history or whatever.”
Fisher’s facial expression didn’t improve. He sighed, shaking his head.
“Sure. Why not, the day’s been crazy enough as it is. Just tell me why, though.”
Sabra shrugged. “I am because you are, yo. We all do better when we look out for each other. Even if I’m the only one around here who gets it.”
And somewhere, in the back of her mind: better me than you.
Fisher nodded, seeming to accept it. Then he said, “First things first, though.”
“I need to go home and feed my cat.”