“Things are about to get interesting,” Fisher said, standing on his balcony, eyes on the street below. Far below, a trio of capes in green and red, capes billowing in the ocean breeze, began dispersing a crowd of demonstrates. People unhappy that the networks were still down. Fisher felt like a hawk summing up the activities of mice.
Up here, he could barely hear the sounds of fighting.
Behind him, Gauntlet stood, drink in hand. “I hope the world gets tired of interesting. Give me boring any day.”
“Those are the Sherwood Skirmishers down there. I’ve also seen capes from Spartan Company and Hexagon Corporation. That makes six groups, not counting Star Patrol and SOLAR.”
Fisher nodded. “I’m counting.”
“I mean: why? I didn’t think this was your fight anymore, Impel.”
Fisher turned around. “It wasn’t. But with everything that happened at the Tower, it might be.”
That had been four days ago. It had taken three days for SOLAR to restore the Paradigm network and, in those three days, things had only worsened for the beleaguered city. Without his FireWatch credentials, Fisher could only rely on what he had seen personally, what he had heard from others.
Civil unrest. Gangs on the warpath. Taurine’s followers carrying on in her stead.
And so arrived just about every empowered group with an ax to grind, a blade to sharpen, or pockets to fill. An occupation force that could almost double as a carnival fun fair. Hell, FireWatch probably had people on the ground, too, casing for the right people with the right kind of money.
He couldn’t help but think about Sabra’s family.
Fisher asked, “Do you think the world needs heroes, Khalid?”
Gauntlet raised his thick eyebrows, surprised. “Need? I don’t know. What’s a hero except for someone with a disproportionate amount of power?”
“And people say I’m cynical. I mean, do you think the world needs people to protect it?”
“I think you’re asking the wrong question, truth be told. I think you should think about if the world wants heroes.”
“No, Pavel, no. I thought you enjoyed history. Just think about it. The world protects itself – that’s what we learned during the Collapse. The world didn’t want heroes then and it doesn’t want heroes now. Maybe it never did.”
“Maybe it had the wrong sort of heroes.”
“The world wants security. And the least secure thing in the world is a disparate group of individuals with disproportionate power. Our very existence jeopardizes the order that mankind has clung to for centuries.”
Fisher sighed. “And what order is that – rule of might, rule of democracy?”
“Both,” Gauntlet stated. “One of the Collapse precursors was that worry that Mister Right had affected the US Presidential election.”
“What,” Fisher began, snorting, “More than millions of dollars surely did? More than other endorsements? What’s the difference, really, between some telepathic pressure and Preceptor giving an endorsement? Had Preceptor ever endorsed a candidate, he’d have swung elections.”
“Maybe that’s why Preceptor maintained a degree of isolation.”
“You can’t just sit out of the world.” Oh, the irony.
“The difference is that Right could’ve done it with nothing. Preceptor had to earn that cult of personality. Personalities, money…” Gauntlet shrugged. “People can ignore that, it’s just social fabric. But the idea that one person could compel people to vote a certain way… Well, it’s more concrete. More frightening. Fear led to where we are, justified or not.”
“I remember. Whatever happened to Right, anyway? He had a nice smile.”
Gauntlet shrugged. “Split in half by one of The Engineer’s astoundingly effective spears.”
Fisher grimaced. “Ouch. Rest in peace.”
“Anyway,” Gauntlet continued, “The order I was thinking of. It’s the idea that our rulers, whoever they might be, are the same as the common man. That’s always been there. Who wants to live under someone they can’t understand?”
“If you believe that, you’re woefully naïve. You think the nobility ever understood what it was like to be a peasant?”
“Yeah, well, perhaps isn’t good enough.”
“This doesn’t sound like an academic discussion anymore, Pavel.”
“It’s not,” Fisher said, finishing his drink. “It shouldn’t be. Why are we looking to the past for answers? If you ask me, the world never had to deal with people as great as us before. The mountains we move might not be metaphorical.”
“Careful, you sound like you’re about to come out of retirement.”
“Look, okay. Historians have always wondered whether it’s the great person or the masses that influence the direction of history. What are we if not forty years of grappling with that problem? What if we’ve never had the right great man, or woman, before?”
Gauntlet shrugged, drained his glass. “So many people said they would be the ones to save the world. People thought that was what the Golden Age was, and it led to something that damn near wiped us off the planet.” Gauntlet held his gaze, as if looking at him from afar. “You’re really thinking of getting back on that horse, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Fisher admitted. “But I think I have a way to find out.”
But that was for later, tomorrow.
“Another drink?” Fisher asked.
Gauntlet nodded, holding out his glass. “You can’t hope to save the world, Fisher,” he said. “Just hope to change it for the better, and not lose everything you love in the process.”
Later, once Gauntlet had left, Fisher found himself staring into his closet, at the footlocker there.
Hope to change it for the better, and not lose everything I love in the process…
He hesitated. He went to get a drink, downed it, then continued to hesitate. Eventually, he dragged the footlocker from the back of his wardrobe and set it before his bed. And then he walked away, suddenly tense, and tried to convince himself to not go through with this.
But, for what felt like the first time in a decade, he wasn’t able to talk himself out of something.
Fisher kneeled down by the footlocker, taking a deep breath. He pressed his knuckles to his brow, cold metal thumbs against the bridge of his nose, and braced himself.
As he reached for the locks, he felt as if his hands should’ve been shaking. His whole body had that buzz to it. But whatever buzz he was feeling, whether it was alcohol or anxiety or both, it didn’t transfer to his metal and plastic hands.
He pulled the lid up and pushed it back, and gazed upon the mantle of Impel.
It was there, in its glaringly neon tones of orange and purple, folded and pressed. Set atop it were the various awards and commendations he had received in his time – he’d forgotten what half of them were for.
Tucked into the side, barely visible, were a set of photos. He knew what they would show him. But as far as he was going into his past, he couldn’t bring himself to look at them.
Fisher considered the armorweave suit. He had hoped that putting it away neatly would’ve given it an aura of finality, like a memorial. But here he was, about to get it out again.
It felt almost like he was raiding his own crypt.
If he was serious about this (and Fisher couldn’t believe that he might have been) then there was one thing he had to do.
“Impel?” The PCPD officer raised her eyebrows, looked to him, then to her device. “It’s been a while.”
“It has,” Fisher said. His voice felt rusty; he hadn’t practiced his ‘hero cadence’ in years, much less used it. “I have a particular history with a woman in one of your holding cells. I would like to speak with her.”
The officer glanced at her device. Fisher knew what she was checking: biometrics, voice recognition, fingerprints, and other things besides. All of them were correct, of course. He might’ve been old, and out of practice, he might’ve had a gut that wasn’t present in the file photos within the IPSA database, but he was who he said he was.
As hard as that was to believe.
“Absolutely,” the officer replied. “This way, please.”
She led the way into the holding area, to the very same cells that Fisher had seen during his brief time in Paradigm Tower. Beyond a few recesses for doors, the holding area was bare and barren. No one could see out, and no one could see in.
“Cell 12,” the officer said, indicating the way.
Fisher nodded, stood by the section of the wall that could fade away to reveal the occupant of the cell. He took in a breath, let it out. He couldn’t believe he was doing this, but belief wasn’t required – he just had to do it.
“Show me,” he said.
The section of wall faded away. There, in the small metal room, with cuffs around her wrists and ankles, a blinking collar on her neck, Taurine loomed on the cot. A full nullifier setup.
“Not taking any chances with this one, are you?” Fisher said, glancing to the officer.
“She’s extremely dangerous, sir. Both SOLAR and Star Patrol insisted on all available measures.”
“I know. I just… don’t quite believe it, seeing her in custody after all this time.” Fisher nodded to the officer. “If you wouldn’t mind, I need some privacy for this conversation.”
“Of course.” The officer departed down the corridor. It wasn’t like Fisher could let Taurine out, even if he had wanted to.
He pressed his hand against the intercom, toggling it on. “Taurine.”
She looked up, glared at him through the black tendrils of her hair.
Taurine rose from her cot, shuffled her way towards the viewing panel. She stood there, separated only by inches of armorglass, and Fisher had to fight down the feeling that she’d punch her way through it, and then through him.
She looked him up and down, lips twisted into a fleeting sneer.
“You’ve put on weight,” she said. “How long has it been, I wonder? Ten years, by my count.”
Taurine nodded, slowly. “Have you come here to gloat?” she drawled.
Fisher shook his head. He still wasn’t sure why he had taken the long walk here, what made him want to come down here and stare the killer of his partner in the eye. It wouldn’t bring Mark back.
Maybe he was only testing his own fear of her.
It was still there, of course, but different, too. It was a slight chill on the back of his neck, a slight hitch in his breath. But she wasn’t strangling him, wasn’t forcing the reason from his mind.
“No,” he replied. “Just to talk.” It was as good an answer as any.
“I’m sure,” Taurine grunted.
She crossed her arms, looming on the other side of the glass. This was the closest they had ever stood to each other, excepting when they had been trying to kill each other.
And he wasn’t afraid.
“Hard to believe Fulcrum beat you,” he said. “I didn’t believe it when I heard about it.”
Taurine grunted again. “I only believe it because I wake up in this cell. Strong kid, sharp technique, nice hydraulics. It’s a powerful combination.”
“How’d she do it?”
“She hit me really, really hard and let gravity do the rest. Long drop, sudden stop. By the time I could move half my body again, I was already in these.” She indicated the cuffs. “They’ll have to write off one last squad car, though.”
“You’re telling me you couldn’t thrash one inexperienced superhero, Taurine?” Fisher goaded her. “You’re getting soft.”
“Talk about soft? You’re carrying a pillow under that suit. She fought well, and I couldn’t lay a hand on her – that’s all it is. Luck, skill, fate, whatever you want to call it. But it was not for lack of trying.”
So, it wasn’t some kind of mentalist power. But then what was it?
“And so ends the legend of Taurine,” Fisher said. “If only my team could have been here to see it.”
“We’ve lived longer than most in this line of work,” Taurine replied. “Quit while you’re ahead, that’s my advice. I mean it.”
It was that kernel of recognition that allowed them to talk with some manner of decorum. They were both relics, both had that degree of sympathy for each other. Members of the old guard. On opposite sides of the lawful divide, to be sure, but members of the old guard all the same.
“I tried,” Fisher said, and found a hard edge under his words. “It didn’t take. You killed the man I had hoped to retire with.”
Taurine fixed him with a sardonic look. “One.”
“One. You’re so wounded by that one loss. I had always thought you were made of sterner stuff.”
“He was my partner. I loved him.”
Taurine barked. “Hah! Your partner. One person, Impel! One! I lost a dozen brothers and sisters, saw them wiped out by a force that no training, no equipment could have ever hoped to stop! You think you know pain? You think you know loss?”
“I’m sure you’ve got some wonderful advice for me, Sergeant.”
“Move on. Stop moping. You don’t need to remember the pain when you remember the man.”
“Shut your goddamn mouth! You took him from me, and now you’re giving me platitudes?”
Remarkably, Taurine did. After three breaths, she spoke again. “I’m sorry.”
Fisher looked away, shaking his head. When his eyes set on Taurine again, he was glaring. “For what? No, tell me. For what? What could you possibly be sorry for, Taurine? For ending up in this cell? Do you think I’m going to help you?”
“No. I know you won’t. But I want to say it now, before I can’t.”
“Tell me where he is, Taurine. Tell me where you entombed him in that concrete sarcophagus. Tell me where you dumped him. Tell me something actually fucking helpful!”
He hadn’t wanted to raise his voice, to lose his cool. But he had.
Taurine didn’t seem to notice it. In the past, she would have gloated, taunted. Now, she just stood there. She shrugged her broad shoulders. “The ocean is a big place. The currents could have carried him anywhere over the past decade.”
“And that’s why I can’t accept your apology, because he’s still alive down there.”
Taurine said nothing. Her face was unreadable.
He continued, “When they lock you away, Taurine, I’m going to toast it. I’m going to laugh. I’m not concerned about what you won’t be able to do.”
“Then you haven’t heard it. You haven’t seen it. Oh, Impel. I almost envy you.”
Fisher frowned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And if you think I’m going to forgive you because of some kind of insanity routine, it won’t work.”
“I’m not insane. I see things far more clearly than you.”
“Just about every madman has said that. Madwomen, too, I suppose.”
“I thought you didn’t come here to gloat.”
“Look, if you think I’m going to forgive you because of some insane rambling…”
“No. Do you think you’re in control, Impel? These decisions you made to come here today, did you make them?”
“Never took you for a determinist.”
“Never took you for an idiot,” Taurine fired back. “I was never in control, Impel. Not as much as you and your people always thought. I was weak, and I hated it. And when the choir sang, it made me strong. When it sang…”
Fisher’s attention turned inward. He had little interest in her ramblings.
What had he hoped to find here? Fisher was not sure. An apology wasn’t it. And everything Taurine had said about the currents, that was true. Everyone had known that years ago, even him. But he had hoped that he, and everyone else, had been wrong.
He couldn’t forget, and he wasn’t sure if he could forgive.
But he wasn’t afraid, and he didn’t hate.
Maybe that was the revelation he had secretly wanted to find: the fact that there was nothing, no secret truth, no vendetta, no grim reminder.
The past was the past, and that was all it was.
That would have to be enough. It would have to be enough to let him at least try to serve as an example to Sabra. A better example, an example of the way heroes used to be. And while Impel couldn’t exist in the same form he had years ago, maybe he could exist again. In a better form.
It was time to put the past to rest, and focus on the future.
Fisher realized that Taurine had trailed off, gone silent. No, she hadn’t trailed off. She had broken down. Taurine was crying openly, her head turned downwards. The act of doing so had splashed tears on the armorglass. Her palm was pressed against the surface.
She looked up at him, sucked in a breath.
“Look at what it’s done to us, Impel,” Taurine said, raising trembling fingers to her face.
“Look at what it’s done to us all.”