“For some weird reason,” Fisher said, reaching for a can of cat food, “I never took you for a cat person, Sabra.”
Fisher cracked the can open, turning to regard Sabra as she stood in the middle of his barebones apartment, talking nonsense to his cat. Octopus was bundled in her arms, getting gray and white cat fur all over her black turtleneck. Every so often, the cat looked to Fisher with something that he could only account for as feline gloating.
“He’s so pretty,” she said. “I mean, I love cats. I had a cat when I was a kid.”
“Had?” Fisher emptied the can into Octopus’ bowl.
“Ran away. Don’t know why. It sucked.”
“That’s life for you.”
Sabra crouched down, aiming to put Octopus on the floor. The cat slid out of her arms and landed on his side, before climbing to his feet and shambling over to lap at his food. She looked up at him. “Is he okay?”
“Trust me,” Fisher said, tossing the empty can into the recycling chute, “That’s normal.”
“So,” Sabra asked, “We going?”
Fisher slipped out of his suit jacket, hurled it over the back of his dining chair. The one not covered in clutter. “I’m not meeting your family in this horrible suit.”
“Why?” Sabra asked. “It’s been a big day; they won’t mind.” Somehow, she had Octopus in her arms again.
“Tact, Sabra,” Fisher said over his shoulder, heading for his bedroom and the ensuite beyond. “Tact. And let the damn cat eat his food.”
Fisher showered, head bowed, trying to process the chain of events that were about to lead him into the house of the family he had set Star Patrol on. The part he had played in the chain of events that had driven Sabra into such a rage.
They didn’t know. She couldn’t know. But he did.
He should refuse. For no other reason than it’d be wrong to take advantage of their generosity after what he had done. He should go out there and tell Sabra that, no, something had come up or he wasn’t feeling well or he should go back out there and help out at the Tower.
But in his mind’s eye, he could see Sabra and her big stupid smile. She’d see through it, might even wonder why he’d suddenly grown cold on the idea, might even start poking at his reasoning. His time to refuse without losing skin or face – perhaps literally – had passed.
He was trapped in another avalanche.
Fisher stepped out of the shower, toweled off, and made his way to his closet. He picked out a dark suit and a grey shirt. No tie.
Like every other time he opened his closet, he ignored the footlocker.
There was a footlocker in the back of his closet. Half-obscured, the shield and thunderbolt icon of the First Call Brigade peaked out from underneath shoes and clothes. He should’ve thrown it out years ago. Hell, he’d told Katherine he had.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“Fisher, yo!” Sabra shouted through the door. “Hurry up, or I’m going to start fighting Octopus for his food – and I bet he’d win!”
Fisher rolled his eyes, buttoned up his shirt, stepped into his suit pants. “Yeah, yeah, just give me a minute.”
Less than a minute later – hair done, teeth brushed, clothes on – Fisher stepped out into the living area.
Sabra had made herself at home on the couch, and Octopus had made himself at home on her lap. Evidently having grown bored, Sabra had flicked the television on. On the screen, robotic gladiators did battle.
“They fixed the network?” Fisher asked.
Sabra shook her head. “Nah. Local recording.”
“Oh, right.” He tried to place the reason he had the recording. “I think I put money on this fight. On the red one, I think.” He tried to remember if he saw any money from the fight, couldn’t. “Who’s winning?”
On the screen, a crimson-armored machine with an angular hoplite’s helmet and a blazing red mohawk drove a lance towards its four-armed cyclopean opponent, and then it had only three arms. Crimson circled, tip up.
Sabra just shrugged. “The red one, I think.” Then, without taking her eyes from the brawl, “Don’t you think it’s weird?”
“This, yo. Making robots fight for our entertainment.”
“Well, it’s not like they know, Sabra. They don’t feel pain.”
“So, having slaves is cool if they don’t feel pain?”
“That’s not what I mean. They’re not sentient.”
“So having slaves is cool if they don’t know they’re slaves?”
Seriously, was she raised on tech manuals and philosophical texts?
Fisher shrugged, sighed. “You’re combative, aren’t you? The UN banned all development of sentient AI following the SHIVA uprising. No more thinking machines. Just fancy calculators.”
“Kind of wrong to smash your calculator with a hammer though, right? It’s unkind.”
“It’s also just a calculator. Come on, let’s get moving.”
Sabra shrugged as she rose to her feet. “I’m just saying, whatever happened to basketball?”
When they arrived at the Kasembe residence, Fisher let Sabra handle the introductions.
From the doorway, feeling awkward and uncomfortable, as if he was intruding on something private, he watched mother, father and daughter reunite. They laughed and hugged and cried before Sabra launched into a breathless explanation of the events that had taken place after she, in her own words, had taken out the trash.
Has to be Bushranger she’s talking about.
In the meantime, he busied himself with looking about the Kasembe household.
It was small. That was what struck him first. He’d known that from seeing it from the outside, with how squat the building was, the lack of any real yard, with how the tall fences demarcated the boundaries. In an alcove by the door, facing east, was something that he took to be a small shrine. Looked Christian. Kitchen and dining area further down the hall, with perhaps bedrooms beyond. No garage, which meant that Sabra had to have kept her armor somewhere else. A basement, perhaps.
It was small but it was homely. A world apart from the apartment he had left behind.
Sabra indicated him. “Mama? Papa? This is Pavel Fisher.”
Fisher raised a hand in greeting.
“This is the man who saved your life twice?” Sabra’s mother said. Farah, Sabra had said her name was.
“Hopefully won’t have to a third time,” Fisher replied.
Esmer Kasembe laughed and stepped forward, arms spread wide.
Her father was a tall man, lanky. Even as openly as the man moved, with the hint of belly under his flowing robe, Fisher could see the thin bands of well-honed muscle. Fisher knew immediately where Sabra had gotten her height from, her skin tone, her sheer physicality.
And he knew why Sabra’s father’s face was a blotchy, bruised mess on one side.
Given his part in it, he couldn’t avoid opening his mouth. “Sabra told me what happened. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not the worst I’ve been through, my friend,” Esmer Kasembe said, reading the expression on his face but coming to the wrong conclusion. Esmer crossed the gap between them with three long strides and – before Fisher could protest – wrapped him in a hug. “Welcome.”
Of course, you’d react differently if you knew what I was sorry for…
“Thanks,” Fisher said. Behind Esmer, he could see Sabra’s mother, Farah. Shorter, fairer, and seemingly less welcoming by the slight frown on her features. Of course, Fisher thought, if his daughter had brought an old man home, he’d probably be skeptical too.
“Our home is your home,” Esmer said, smiling.
Fisher nodded. “I’ll refrain from putting my feet on the good cushions,” he remarked to Esmer. There was something there, behind the smile. There were the claws of a very cold wolf under the warm bear’s hug.
Or, Fisher remembered, maybe wolf was wrong. Bears had claws, too.
Sabra, just where have you brought me?
Dinner was roast chicken and steamed vegetables. Fisher knew the chicken was vat-grown and that the vegetables were hydroponic, just like most of the meals he had eaten since arriving on the island. Paradigm City didn’t have the land for actual picturesque farms. What Paradigm had was horizontal farms, somewhere in downtown, which granted the island a certain degree of self-sufficiency.
Fisher couldn’t help but wonder how those technological farms were faring, what with the network outage. He wondered how many people hadn’t eaten. He remembered that all societies were two missed meals away from anarchy.
That was one of the axioms the Paroxysm had proven.
“The chicken’s good,” Fisher said, finishing his meal.
At the head of the plastic fold-out table, Esmer smiled. “Farah says I make a better cook than engineer.”
Fisher had wondered if plastic tables were normal in the Kasembe household. Then he’d spotted the remnants of a wooden dining table, split in half and smashed to the ground on the far side of the kitchen. He was sure he could see a vaguely man-sized imprint on it.
He was sure that was his fault, too, just as much as the bruises on Esmer’s face.
“You’re both awfully generous,” he said.
“We grow together or we don’t grow at all,” Esmer replied. “We are all the links in one chain. Weakness in one link affects the whole.”
“Don’t get him started,” Farah said, at Esmer’s left, obviously acting the part of the long-suffering wife. Still, she smiled.
“He’ll go on for hours,” Sabra moaned.
Fisher recognized the sentiment. It’d grown out of an African empowered community, heroes all of them, in the 2020s. Ubuntu humanism. Something about how humans could only be humans together, not alone and isolated. Something about communities. Fisher had never quite believed in it as anything more than an idealistic dream.
Still, it was a strain of humanism that a lot of heroic capes had believed in. Proletarion, the people’s crusader, had believed in it. That was until a worker’s strike had gone bad. As it turned out, one of the central messages of the Collapse was that saving the world was fine and good and beautiful and just – providing you didn’t upset the status quo in the process.
Proletarion had, and he had paid the price.
“I’ll try to avoid it,” Fisher said, with a smile that, to his surprise, was shockingly genuine.
“What brought you to Paradigm City, Pavel?” Farah asked.
“He was a superhero,” Sabra blurted out.
Fisher nodded. “No, it’s true. The whole secret identity thing… it’s more tradition than anything else at this point. Good ol’ surveillance states. Back in the day, if you wanted legal support, you had to register up. IPSA knows all.”
“Y’know,” Sabra began. “I was wondering about that. When I met with the SOLAR team leader–”
“When I met with the SOLAR team leader, I was wondering why none of them wear helmets or masks.”
“When you’re at the top of the pyramid, it doesn’t matter if people know who you are,” Fisher replied.
“The Collapse put IPSA in an excellent position,” Esmer said. “There is no oversight. Director-General Anderton is the most powerful man on Earth.”
“I think they’re here to clean up Star Patrol’s mess,” Sabra said. “They just can’t say that. Everyone’s gotta save face.”
Fisher shook his head. “They don’t send SOLAR capes for that. This’s the team that took down Sentinel. I figure it’s a cover for something else.”
“But what?” Farah asked, beginning to gather up plates as she moved around the table. “There’s nothing here for them to find.”
“That we know of,” said Esmer.
“As I said, don’t get him started.” Something beeped in Farah’s pocket. “I’m needed at the hospital,” she said, without needing to look at it.
“I thought you had the night off?” Sabra asked, rising from her seat, gathering up plates. “No, here, let me.”
“That was before today,” Farah replied. Fisher thought of the wounded, the casualties, as Sabra cleared the table and her mother went off to change into her work clothes.
That was before today. It felt like an apt summary for many things.
Later, once Sabra had retired for the evening, Fisher stood on the concrete porch at the front of the Kasembe residence and turned his head upward, to look at the stars without really seeing them. He didn’t know enough about them to be able to name them.
Mark had known all the constellations.
He should’ve listened more.
Behind him, the front door opened and closed.
“What do you see?” Esmer asked.
“Stars,” Fisher said, turning towards him. Then continued, “When I was younger, I thought for sure that we’d end up all over the Solar system by now. I’d travel to Mars for my work or something.”
“A good dream.”
“But then Doctor Infinity flies out past the atmosphere… hits the magnetosphere and promptly drops like a rock. Who knew that getting on the other side of the magnetosphere cuts our abilities, right?”
“Daedalus and his son, perhaps.”
Fisher snorted. “I guess he did at that.”
Esmer gestured towards Fisher’s waist, at his hands. “I never took you for a thief, Pavel Fisher.”
“The hands. I’m sorry, it was a bad joke.”
“It’s fine. Besides, I noticed the scars on your arms,” Fisher said. He raised his hands, as if to make some kind of sympathetic link between mauled and mutilated. “Did you see action during the Paroxysm?”
“Whatever you wish to call it,” Esmer shrugged. “Is there anyone our age who didn’t?”
“Guess not. But it’s the little things. Your movements, where your eyes go, like you’re always looking for where the next threat might come from. A lot of capes do it. Soldiers, too.”
“I’m no cape, my friend. And if I was a soldier, I left that life behind a long time ago.”
Fisher nodded, and said something he’d been wanting to poke at since he learned Esmer’s name. “Esmer’s not exactly a common name in Sudan.”
Esmer was wearing that easy, friendly smile. “If a man wishes to make himself anew, shouldn’t he be able to?”
The smile was as much a lie as his name was.
Fisher wanted to push against that smile, but he felt the hypocrisy in it. If Esmer wanted to run away from whatever it was he had done – with that too-easy smile being the most obvious indicator of something lurking beneath the placid surface – who was Fisher to stop him? Hell, Fisher had tried that himself, hadn’t he?
Only he hadn’t quite moved on.
“I’m not passing judgment either way,” Fisher said. “Lord knows I wish I could do that myself.”
“Sabra said you were a hero.”
“She got that right. Were, was. If Farah works at the empowered hospital here, she’ll have met my old team leader.”
“She does not. But I’m sorry all the same.”
“Nothing can be done about it. Anyway, whatever it is in your past, Sabra’s a good kid. You should be proud.”
“Absolutely. More than anything.”
“She thinks the world of you. Whatever you did, you raised a good kid.”
Esmer nodded. “We all believe in something.”
“But where’s the truth in it?”
Esmer chuckled. “Truth? What is truth, Pavel Fisher? During the Golden Age, it was true that we should love the empowered. During the Collapse, it was true that we should hate and fear them. And that was so easy because we had loved them and found them imperfect. Now it’s true that we should forget.”
“People don’t forget. Those who forget the past–”
“–are condemned to repeat it,” Esmer finished. “I know the words. You and I, we’ve lived through it. Learning through history can be a poor substitute for living with experience. And my daughter, well… her experiences have been limited.”
“She’s a good kid. Hell, Esmer, she could be a hero. A good one. Take it from me. Back in the day, my team could’ve used someone like her.”
“That’s what I was hoping for.”
“It’s how they used to do it, yes? Apprenticeships.”
“Before IPSA came rolling in. Before they instituted the tests. Before they built that weird toddler boot camp in New York,” Fisher replied. Some manner of logic gate closed in Fisher’s mind, connected something. “She hasn’t been tested, has she? She slipped through the cracks.”
Fisher whistled. There only thing more dangerous than an untrained empowered was an unknowing one. Fisher had come into his abilities early, at the start of the Golden Age, before puberty, which was typically regarded as the best case scenario. The older one acquired their abilities, the less they’d be able to recognize them as such. Something to do with neural pathways in the brain. But there was another problem: the older one got, the more likely the powers would come with some form of neural instability.
Or some form of wild devastation. Blind luck had given Sabra the ability to experiment with technology. If she’d been experimenting with sub-atomic forces…
She’s had however many years of using her power blindly, perhaps thinking it’s only some form of inspiration…
Or could it be more than that? Fisher thought about what he’d seen through the drone cameras, that unerringly precise onslaught of Sabra’s. She’d brought down Taurine, with no idea how she had done it. Hell, he had no idea how she had done it.
It was not a good sign.
“If she doesn’t control it, it’ll control her,” Fisher said. “You’re lucky she only picked up a builder power to build that suit.” Fisher’s mind turned back to Sabra’s father, wondering. He asked, “Do you…?”
“Neither Farah or I possess such a gift. Yourself?”
“Used to. When I lost my hands… Well, you know how it is, right? Somatic as much as mental.”
“Don’t be. You had nothing to do with it. Look, I can’t do what you’re asking. Okay, I was a cape. But if I’d been a good one, would I have ended up here?”
“If you were a bad person, would you have done what you did for Sabra?”
Fisher fought down the urge to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Again, his eyes skimmed the bruise that blotted over Esmer’s face. You don’t know what I did, and that’s probably for the best.
If Esmer read anything in his expression, he didn’t show it. He said, “For the longest time, I wished for her to live free. But such breadth of freedom is just another cage.” He gestured towards the street in front of them. “She can’t stay here. But there’s something better for her out there.”
“I’ll think about it,” Fisher lied.
“Whatever truth it is you were hoping to find here, you won’t. Whatever purpose Sabra is hoping to find, she won’t. But together…”
“Like I said, I’ll think about it.” It was less of a lie this time.
“That’s all I wanted to say.”
Fisher nodded. “Thanks for the dinner and your hospitality, Esmer. Farah, too. But I should be getting home. It’s a fair walk from here.”
Esmer shook his head. “Come inside, please. We have a couch. It’s dangerous to walk alone in these parts, especially given what happened today. My house is your house.”
Accept their hospitality, eat their food, and now sleep under their roof. Christ, if they knew…
“Whatever you say,” Fisher said, and relented.
Someone – probably Sabra – had turned the couch in the living area into a fold-out bed. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, Fisher reflected, hands behind his head as he looked up towards the ceiling, but he’d slept in worse places.
He was thinking about it. Leading, and the life he had left behind.
Could he lead? He’d never been a leader. That’d been Katherine’s job. She’d had the personality for it, the bombastic devil-may-care attitude that you needed to make people feel like you had any chance of saving them from someone who could sling atomic fireballs or shatter mountains.
It was a personality that Sabra had in abundance.
Impel and Fulcrum. It could be. He’d probably still fit into the old orange and purple armorweave bodysuit, even with the belly he had – armorweave was interesting stuff. And it was rare and expensive. He’d kept the suit, always saying to himself that it would have been difficult to get so much armorweave again. Simply more pragmatic to keep it.
Of course, that might’ve been half a lie.
He’d never deregistered himself from the IPSA ledger, after all. Somewhere, in some database, the name Impel was still listed as active.
All he had to do was put the suit back on.
But without his powers, all he had was advice and knowledge.
Some part of him laughed at that, at the attempt of weaseling his way out of offering what assistance he could. After everything he had done, after the damage he had caused, surely advice and knowledge was the bare minimum he could offer as penance.
But when that advice and knowledge had resulted in a shaken family, if his presence near Sabra would result in an increasing likelihood that she’d find out that he was responsible…
Fisher rolled over, his brain buzzing.
I’ll make it up to you, Sabra. Somehow.