“So, you lost the suit?” Hisae asked, her face lit blinkingly by dance light strobes. “Sabra, that sucks, I’m sorry.”
Sitting opposite Hisae and Jamar, Sabra shrugged. “I had a good run with it. I can’t complain.”
Well, she could, but that’d ruin the night out. The dancers and partiers of Zocalo Inn appeared to be unable to complain in general, and Sabra had no desire to ruin the aesthetic.
It had been two days since the attack on Paradigm Tower, and the wider city was rigid with tension. Whatever havoc those animal-headed mercenaries had been playing at, significant sections of the city infrastructure were still chaotic at best, or unusable at worst. But life had to go on, just as it had on the following day of any other momentous event, whether it was a celebration or catastrophe.
Since the Golden Age, very few events truly stopped any given place.
Still, it had felt weird going back to work the day after the attack. Donning her work polo felt wrong. She had to help, had to do something. But she had gone to work to collect her weekly stipend, even if now more than ever she realized how ridiculous her job was.
But taking care of her family came first. If the rigid tension paralyzing Paradigm City erupted, then Sabra had to be with her family.
She remembered Miss Massacre’s warning, her veiled threat.
“You gonna build another one?” Jamar asked, shouting to be heard over the din.
Sabra shrugged. “I don’t know! It kind of feels like Fulcrum died.”
“Looking good for a dead girl!”
“You know what I mean! There’s nothing I can do about it right now.”
There were things she could have done, of course. She could’ve found, bought or made herself a new costume. But going from a fully-functional combat-ready hardsuit to whatever she could pull together on short notice would deliver a hard blow to her reputation. The suit was what had made Fulcrum, what had been her identity.
While she still had the helmet, it would take her weeks to scrap together another suit. And that was assuming she could even find another chassis that could be rendered usable.
Sabra sighed. Maybe Fulcrum wasn’t dead. Maybe Fulcrum was just sleeping.
It was strange to discuss it all in a public place. But if anyone could hear what the three of them were saying over the blaringly loud electric guitars, Sabra would be impressed.
“You’re so quiet tonight, Sabra, are you sure you’re okay?” Hisae asked.
“I’m all good. Who’d you say these guys are again?”
Sabra took her eyes to the stage, to where the band that Hisae had told her that she totally had to come and see was ripping into another song.
“Sorcerous Chameleon,” Hisae said. “Neo-classic punk-pop,” she added, like it made any sense to Sabra.
“Never heard of ’em. Not really my thing!” But it wasn’t horrible.
They weren’t the only newcomers to Paradigm City, but that might’ve been the only ones Sabra was willing to call not horrible.
In the days since the attack on Paradigm Tower, Sabra had seen a variety of new capes around the city with her own eyes – and on the news feed, when that was functioning. Someone – that SOLAR Captain Aegis, Sabra presumed – had given the signal for additional peacekeepers. Capes from all around the world had flooded the city and Sabra had steered clear of all of them.
Star Patrol hadn’t exactly endeared her to foreign capes.
Still, the music wasn’t too bad. Sabra forced herself to focus on that. That was the whole point of the evening.
It had been Hisae’s idea to come out to see her favorite band. Sabra knew it was a cover. The main reason was to catch up and make sure that Sabra was okay.
And she was okay, and that was what made her not okay.
She’d been riding high on a hot tempest of violence for a good week. She had beaten people on both sides of the law, thrown them down the stairs or into the street. She had cut off someone’s arm. And the thing that Sabra could remember more than the angst and horror of it all in retrospect was how easy it had been to do it, how good it had felt to win.
Better you than me.
Hell, she’d seen someone die. She’d heard his last breath rattle past his lips. She’d had his blood all over her hands, one of which she had gone and broken trying to take on an actual supervillain – and somehow, impossibly, won.
Sabra would always bet on herself, but even she couldn’t help but wonder about the odds.
She knew something had changed.
She could feel it, at the edges of her awareness. It was a dull tuneless humming that she could hear even over the drums and wailing guitars, but also that she couldn’t hear at all. It was a song that resonated down her spine more than it did her ears. But when she focused on it, there were no words. Just glittering shards of information, fragments of meaning. She had tried to put it into words but there was a gulf between her brain and her tongue, and no mere words could conquer it.
She had to put it from her mind.
“Sit tight,” Sabra said, flashing the pair a bright smile, “Let me save the day with the next round.”
She had to put it from her mind, even though she had felt it before.
She just hadn’t felt it for years.
Something had changed, but Sabra didn’t know what.
Waiting by the bar for her order, Sabra let her eyes wander back towards the stage. She tried to see what Hisae could enjoy in the band, beyond their strange musical stylings. The lead singer’s slender arms were covered in tattoos and her blonde hair was the victim of a bad black dye job – Sabra couldn’t understand why.
Next to her was a riot of reflected glare. Whenever the lights dimmed away from that area of the stage, Sabra could see the lead guitarist. Fire-engine red hair and wearing something Sabra could only describe as a mirror dress. Something that Sabra knew she’d never have been able to pull off, but that guitarist certainly had the legs to–
Oof. Take it easy, Sab.
Sabra redirected her brain with reluctance. Towards the back, the drummer was a lanky white guy with what looked like a pair of revolvers tattooed on his chest, one on each lean pectoral. Sabra could only shake her head and look away, her mind spinning out in random directions.
He reminded her of Derrek.
Drinks in hand, she slipped her way through the crowds and back towards the booth.
“I was just thinking about Derrek,” Sabra said, taking her seat. “When did you guys last see him?”
“See him?” Hisae replied. “It’s gotta be that night we were last here. When you walked him home.”
“I spoke to him online just a few nights ago,” Jamar said. “But, yeah, haven’t seen him. I kinda thought you’d know, Sab. You think he’s okay?”
Sabra thought for a moment, remembered that last message. “I hope so.” But it felt like a lie. Not a dishonest lie, but a lie of saying something she thought was wrong. How could he be okay if he had been silent and absent for over a week?
“I’ll pay him a visit tomorrow,” Sabra said.
“He’ll like that,” Hisae said. She smiled drunkenly, leaning in. “He has the biggest crush on you, y’know.”
“Trust me, I know.”
Hisae pulled away. “No need to bite my head off, Sab.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just been a long…”
Day? Week? Fortnight?
“It’s fine, it’s cool.” Hisae’s eyes went past Sabra, to the dance floor, just as the band ripped into another song. “I love this song! Let’s dance.”
“To this?” Sabra asked. “It’s not my style.”
But Hisae had already pulled Jamar out of his seat, and he gave Sabra an apologetic grin as Hisae continued, “So you can’t blow your ears out with techno bass or whatever. I need your good moves to hide behind.”
That made Sabra smile. She turned in her seat to look at the dance floor, at all the people there in the throes of the music and each other. On any other night, that would have been her place – her territory.
But tonight it seemed far away and foreign. Her smile began to fade.
She wasn’t okay. She really wasn’t okay.
Hisae set her hand on Sabra’s shoulder. “Something’s really bugging you isn’t it?”
“Something’s different. Something’s changed.”
“What do you mean, Sab? Hey, you want to get some fresh air?”
“No, I’m fine, I’m fine. I think I’m– it’s nothing.” Nothing she could explain, at least. She’d just ruin the evening.
She felt as if she was watching it across a vast gulf, and even though she knew she was only meters away, the vertigo was real in her gut and up her spine, finding a home behind her eyes. The dancing crowd was right there before her and simultaneously minuscule, components of something beyond.
She was just one more piece.
She closed her eyes against it, to try and shut the double-sight out. Against the blackness of her eyelids, the dancers were rainbow outlines, and then faded into the dark.
When she opened her eyes, the dancers were just that. People and nothing more.
“Come on,” Sabra said, rising, feeling her smile return. “You said you needed my good moves?”
She led the way into the maelstrom. It rolled through her, haunting in its familiarity, and she lost herself in it.
I’ve felt this before.
The next morning, Sabra squinted against the frustratingly bright glare of a hangover dawn. Her forehead ached from where she had banged it against the showerhead (Mom must’ve been the last to use it), and she hoped that neither the mark on her forehead or the hangover would alert people that she was up to no good.
Otherwise, she might as well have worn her torn jeans and old basketball jersey. Make it easier for them.
She lingered outside Derrek’s apartment building in that picturesque section of the city, her eyes on her phone but her focus on the people passing up and down the street, but never quite coming and going from the building proper.
She needed someone to be coming or going. Given the forty floors of the place, she had assumed that there’d be more people coming and going.
There’d been more waiting than Sabra had counted on. She hated it.
No, no hate. She remembered hate from three days prior, when she had beaten down Bushranger. This feeling was just mild impatience, exaggerated frustration.
Someone approached the door, swiped their security pass. Sabra slipped in with them like she was borne on the ocean breeze.
The woman, clad in clothes that Sabra could only imagine wearing in her dreams, gave her a suspicious look.
“Forgot my keycard,” Sabra said, giving her a slight smile, “You know how it is.”
She seemed to buy it. “You could’ve asked me to let you in.”
What, and risk you saying no?
“I’m shy,” Sabra said, and shuffled her way to the individual mailboxes – another one of Paradigm’s holdovers. She found Derrek’s allocated slot, plucked the spare key from within it.
The woman had ducked into one of the elevators. Sabra couldn’t follow – the keycard would unlock them. The key she held against her palm was merely for the physical lock in the door.
She glanced to the stairwell.
“Well,” Sabra murmured to herself. “It’s only seventeen floors.”
Nothing she couldn’t handle. If there were answers, she was sure she’d find them there.
Sabra didn’t find them there.
Derrek might’ve lived in an apartment building that put her little home to shame, but Sabra had still expected to find a bachelor pad. She hadn’t expected something so neat and tidy. A kitchen with everything washed and away, a bedroom with the bed neatly made and nothing out of place, a lounging area with nothing hidden under the cushions.
And Sabra knew, because she had checked.
She slipped the soft cushions back onto the couch. Everything was so neat. Too neat.
She wasn’t sure what she had expected to find. A letter maybe, or a note. Something, anything. But she’d found nothing, and the way Derrek had left his apartment, it was like he had just gone on vacation.
He hadn’t though, because Sabra had found his suitcase in his wardrobe. She palmed and pawed through everything else in there, knowing on some level that it was wrong to root through his privacy, but pushing past her guilt regardless. Vanishing during one of the biggest crises to rock Paradigm City gave her friendship a certain amount of intrusive leeway. She needed an answer.
Either way, Sabra found nothing of consequence in the closet, under the bed, or in the display shelves. Nothing that gave her anything approaching the answer she wanted, the reason for Derrek’s sudden disappearance. It just made her feeling of trespass all the more bitter.
The only thing she hadn’t tried was his computer.
She advanced on the computer in the corner of his bedroom, booted it up.
A password prompt flashed.
Sabra frowned, chewed at her lip, tried to guess Derrek’s thought process. She set her hands on the keyboard and tried his middle name, the name of his first girlfriend, the name of his mother, the name of his father, her name (ugh).
Nothing. The prompt was flashing at her, mocking her.
Sabra sighed and stretched upward, fingers extended. In her house, she could reach up and touch the ceiling. Here she felt she could reach the sun, with the space between her fingertips and the ceiling.
Derrek, where have you gone? What did you do? What did you have to tell me?
That was it. Sabra was already pulling her phone from her pocket. Somehow, the anticipatory nausea that rose in her belly was worse than the hangover. She unlocked the phone, flicked through the various messages, and wondered if reading some horrible declaration of adoration was worth it.
She’d just been through his whole apartment. Surely she should let him maintain some last sliver of pride.
No. It could be important, and she should have read it earlier.
She opened it, and began to read.
Sabra, there’s something I need to tell you.
Past that, she began to tremble.
It was a declaration, and parts of it concerned love – but not of any kind of love that Sabra understood.
This is going to be hard to read.
She ran through the hangover.
If I was braver, I’d tell you this in person.
She ran through the shock, she ran through the anger, she ran through the tears.
I can’t do this anymore. I have to tell you, but I know it’ll cost us our friendship.
She ran blindly, without a heading, without sense. She let her feet guide her down the roads she knew so well. She ran until her side stitched up, her breaths too quick and too shallow, and simple physical limitations forced her to stop.
Whenever I’m with you, I’m living a lie. And I care about you too much for that.
Forced her to process.
I’m Goggles, Fulcrum.
And I’m so sorry.
Everything else passed by in a blur. She was a shadow and the world moved around her. Insensate, she – or was it really her? Was it just the shade of her? – talked with her mother and father over dinner, and didn’t mention a word that one of her best friends had murdered twenty people.
Had threatened her.
Had shot at her.
Had murdered twenty fucking people and thought she’d understand.
If he had started just a few years earlier, would he have put a bullet in her, or would he have seen her through that scope and withheld the bullet? All because he cared about her, and only her. What empathy he had extended no further than his groin.
Curled on her bed, having pulled Dubb-dubb from his sentry post to station him in her arms, she wasn’t sure if she was grieving for Derrek, or for her perception of him.
She wanted so desperately for it not to be true. For Derrek to burst into her room and say it was all a stupid prank. She’d still hate him, but it’d pass with time, with the first bit of laughter. She valued truth but she wanted a lie – for Derrek to not be a monster. For him not to be someone who had thought she would join him in clearing out the ‘bad people.’
But it was true. She could feel it in her heart, and she knew it in her mind. It all added up.
Her thoughts swam. Derrek’s commentary when she had walked him home. Goggles’ shock at her refusing his offer of an alliance (there’s no difference, Sabra, it’s just a nickname). Great Barrier’s surprise at seeing a friend of his being brought in, only hours after Derrek had handed himself in; her belief that it was all some sort of plot.
Sabra could’ve been within meters of Derrek, and she never even knew.
There’d been no sign of him since the attack on the Tower. Had he been in on that, too? Were those yet more deaths on his head, more blood on his hands?
Was he dead? She didn’t want him to be, and yet–
Sabra twisted about, wiping mucus against her pillow.
Was the blood on her hands, too, even if just through simple proximity?
What had she missed? If she’d paid more attention, could she have stopped all of it before it begun? Her mission had been to bring in the Paradigm Shooter. The one thing she had set out to do, she hadn’t done.
Her questions spilled out of her in a thousand different directions, rapidly losing coherence and becoming endless noise. She couldn’t think about any of them in particular, or maybe she just didn’t want to.
Sabra turned about, onto her back. The ceiling didn’t help her organize her thoughts any more than the wall had.
She’d have to tell Hisae and Jamar. She’d have to tell them something, if not the truth. The final blow of Goggles, to put that horrific responsibility upon her shoulders.
Sabra lay awake in her bed, sure that she was the only solid thing as everything outside her bedroom fell apart.