Sabra dragged her feet across the sand, fists raised before her.
There was a reason that sand was the surface of choice. It was a tradition inherited from one of the first empowered, something about how sand forced you to use more muscles, more brain power. The strange relationship between physicality and brainpower was crucial for utilizing empowered abilities, and sand allowed you to train both to work in concert.
Not that Sabra had ever been concerned about that but, now, with everything that she had seen and felt, she figured she perhaps should be.
Of course, there was also another reason. Sand also hurt a lot less when you hit the ground.
But that was for something for Fisher to worry about, not her.
Sabra extended her gloved hand down to help Fisher up.
Fisher – or Impel, Sabra reminded herself – took the hand and clambered to his feet.
Fisher brushed his costume off. “Take it easy, Fulcrum. It’s still early morning. No need to sweep the leg like that.”
It was. Some might say it was too early to be having a workout, but not Sabra. She’d just returned from her morning run when she found Impel standing at her front door. The conversation was a simple one: he wanted to take her training.
She hadn’t commented on how the bright neon purple and orange wasn’t the most flattering color choice, especially when combined with that gut. Even if she really wanted to.
She’d just accepted.
“Sorry,” Sabra said. “It’s just been a crazy few days.”
“Yeah?” Fisher asked, settling back into a loose stance with his fists raised, “You want to talk about it?”
Did she ever. She just had no idea where to begin.
Dad would say ‘start with what is bothering you.’ The problem was, that several things were bothering her. As she fell into another round of safe-contact boxercise, she tried to figure out which one was the most pressing.
“I think I know who sold me out,” she said.
Fisher seemed to stiffen then, and Sabra tapped him twice with her gloves, slipped away from his slow, tight return. “Yeah?” His voice was strange. Maybe his costume was too tight. “Who?”
Tap, tap, duck. “You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
“Maybe,” Fisher said, oddly, “Maybe not.”
Tap, tap, duck. “That’s what makes it so hard, y’know? We’d do so much for each other, and then he’d go and endanger my whole family like that. Fucking asshole!”
Tap, tap, punch. Fisher stepped back, guard dropping. “Sabra, easy–”
“I can’t take it easy!” Sabra snapped, face hot. “He was one of my best friends! I tell him everything, and he goes and sells me out! I bet you can’t guess why.”
Fisher exhaled, catching his breath.“Why?”
“No, come on,” Sabra insisted, “You have to guess.”
“I don’t want to play this game, Sabra.”
“Fine. Because I wouldn’t help him kill people.”
Fisher relaxed back into the motions then. He had good reflexes, Sabra noted, but it wasn’t enough. She could’ve lashed him with blows, evaded any counter-attack. Impel might’ve been a terror back in the day. But he was obviously old and rusty and not used to moving his body in the way that Sabra was.
She was holding herself back.
“What do you mean?” Fisher asked.
“What I just said. One of my best friends was the Paradigm Shooter. He turns himself in then, for some fucked-up reason, goes and passes on my info to Star Patrol.”
“Because you wouldn’t join in his vigilante spree. Right. Fulcrum, I’m sorry.”
“Or I wouldn’t fuck him. Could that.”
“Yeah. You have no idea, man. No idea.”
They’d stopped sparring at some point, Sabra didn’t know when. Fisher asked, “What’re you going to do about it?”
Sabra shrugged. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure. “I feel like I have to go after him.”
“There’s a but in that sentence.”
“But I don’t know if I can, or if I should. My suit’s gone. Totaled. And I don’t know if I can… Well, I’ve never hit a friend.”
Fisher grinned. His stubbled jawline was the only thing she could see with that mask. “What about me?”
“Okay, okay,” Sabra replied, laughing. “Just you then.”
Feet on the sand, closing. A familiar voice with an unfamiliar accent. “Impel and Fulcrum, what a pleasant surprise.” Blueshift.
Sabra turned to look at him. Blueshift stood there, flanked by Anima and Incarnate. All three were wearing midnight-blue armorweave undersuits. Off-duty, perhaps – or otherwise not worried about being called out to battle.
“Blueshift,” Impel said.
“No offense, Impel, but perhaps Fulcrum could face a more competitive opponent?”
“You?” Fisher replied. “I have the feeling that your meaning of competitive involves a certain amount of extreme prejudice.”
“You know me so well in such a short time. But I was referring to our newest recruit.” He gestured to his left shoulder.
“Incarnate,” Sabra blurted out.
Sabra felt a dumb smile cross her face and she fought it down. Play it cool.
“Well, I mean, I’m down if she’s down.”
“You sure about this, Fulcrum?” Fisher asked. “SOLAR always plays to win.”
Sabra waved away his concern. “She’s not going to hurt me too hard. Besides, I could use a good workout. No offense, Impel.”
“None taken,” he said, nodding.
Blueshift raised one arm, turned his hand at the wrist in a languid motion. Around Sabra, a furrow carved its way through the sand. A circle, about ten meters in diameter.
“I’m sure I don’t need to explain the rules,” Blueshift said. “Best of three. If you hit the ground, that’s a point. If you go out of the ring, that’s a point. Don’t break any bones, no eye-gouging, ear-biting, etcetera, etcetera.”
“But other than that?” Sabra asked, “Anything goes?”
“Oh yes,” Blueshift replied, a ghost of a grin on his lips. “Anything goes.”
Fisher patted Sabra on the upper arm. “Do your best, Fulcrum.”
As Fisher stepped out of the circle, following Blueshift and Anima to the observation stands, Incarnate strode forwards. Sabra watched her movements, tried to get a feel for how she’d match her eerie precision.
Maybe two meters away from her, Incarnate raised her hands, pressed right fist into left palm. A salute.
Sabra tapped her gloves together in reply. “No hard feelings,” Sabra said. “Win or lose.”
Incarnate settled before her, lowered herself into a stance, weight spread evenly – ready to spring or resist. She held her arms towards Sabra, palms open. Every motion so calm and collected.
“No hard feelings,” Incarnate replied. Her strikingly cobalt eyes didn’t waver from Sabra’s own. Beneath the softsuit, behind those eyes, Sabra could tell there was nothing but iron control.
Win now, stare later, Sab.
Sabra circled Incarnate, tried to get some measure of her opponent. But all Incarnate did was adjust her footing, shift which of her palms was leading towards Sabra. She matched her, rotating with her without giving up any territory.
Sabra threw a quick jab, intended to do nothing more than see if Incarnate would flinch, and the little ring vanished into her whirlwind of a response.
Sabra raised her gloves, weathered Incarnate’s whirlwind of fists, elbows, and forearms against the padding, realized she was giving ground.
What is this? Kung Fu?
She had no idea how to fight that. Incarnate wasn’t stepping, she was surging. Every strike was building momentum, and that momentum was about to carry Sabra out of the ring. It was dizzying, trying to focus on any particular strike only led Sabra’s attention to the next.
She’d been able to meet Taurine strength for strength. They’d traded in the same language – overpowering force, direct blows.
Incarnate traded in speed and precision, and that was not a language Sabra had ever spoken in.
Sabra threw her shoulder down, launched herself forwards, towards the center of the ring. Incarnate slipped around like a cobra on the sand, and that gave Sabra just enough space to still her storm. Throwing jabs, Sabra advanced.
Incarnate flowed around her quick punches, deflected others, shifted them to the left and the right.
And then Incarnate hopped forward and kicked Sabra in the chest.
Pain flared through Sabra’s sternum, her ribs, her chest, and she crashed to the sand. Some of it slipped between her lips, and she spat it out, rising.
“One to SOLAR,” Blueshift called.
As she stepped back into the ring, Sabra caught a glimpse of Blueshift and Anima in the stands, laughing and exchanging something.
They’re betting on this.
Incarnate held her position in the center, with that same sense of ice-cold control. Not a hint of gloating in her victory or even any satisfaction. Winning was the expected thing.
We’ll see about that.
Sabra tried to focus on her opponent the way she had seen Fisher a week before and just five minutes ago, to see the pieces that made up the whole. Some of Incarnate’s red hair had come free in the fight, and it hung loosely by her face, just down past her cheek. It drew her attention.
She saw nothing else.
Why? What’s different?
If she had her suit, she could’ve won this. If she had her suit, she would’ve had no trouble. Sabra caught the thoughts, examined them. Found them wanting. No, she didn’t need her suit. She loved her suit but it held her back. She’d become reliant on it, and she’d forgotten how to fight without it.
Was this some kind of lesson?
Sabra charged, leaping into the fray. Incarnate slipped past her jabs, ducked around and under her haymaker, reached for that outstretched arm, found it.
Sabra let her have it. She wrenched her back and shoulder around, dragging Incarnate with the motion. The SOLAR cape resisted but not enough and Sabra rained her free fist down on her head and shoulder.
Incarnate countered, palm on Sabra’s shoulder, then the back of her neck, pressing her down, trying to force her to bend. Grunting, Sabra countered into an awkward grapple, found Incarnate countered that with her elbow leveled against her middle.
Fine. Sabra tore herself free, lashed her fists against Incarnate’s midsection, working up an intense rhythm to try and shock Incarnate into exhaustion or a misstep. Wasn’t enough – but the uppercut as Incarnate aimed to deflect the high blows, that was more effective.
Incarnate staggered back and Sabra didn’t let up, throwing a quick combo of power blows. Incarnate twisted around them, deflected some of them with her palms and forearms, and Sabra had the impression of the ocean receding in the deceptive prelude to a tsunami.
But receding all the same.
Sabra had no intention of letting Incarnate gather her composure, to let her turn the retreat into a feint. She drew her arms in and back and lashed out with both hands, a quick double-strike aimed at Incarnate’s middle. All of her strength, just to throw her down.
Incarnate stumbled. She didn’t go down, but she did need to regain her footing – three steps, and two was all it took to send her out of the ring.
“One to Fulcrum!” Sabra called, looking to the stands.
Now, the two SOLAR capes were suddenly more serious. Blueshift’s hands were steepled in front of his lips, eyes intent, all trace of his usual disparaging nature gone.
Incarnate stepped back into the ring. In defeat, she was just as maddeningly calm as she had been in victory.
Of course, this isn’t over yet. Has she even worked up a sweat?
Sabra peered at her opponent. She was aware of her own deep breathing, but Incarnate betrayed no sign that this bout of sparring was anything but a brisk walk. Sabra wondered if she was even trying, or if SOLAR training made this whole thing a bit of a sideshow.
Either way, now it was all or nothing.
Sabra bumped her fists together again, and advanced on Incarnate. All or nothing.
Incarnate slipped past her opening left, elbow high. Sabra darted aside, ducked away from a snap of a palm strike, caught Incarnate’s foot between her side and under her arm when she tried for a kick–
Overbalanced. They hit the sand together, rolled free, climbed to their feet at the same time.
Sabra circled Incarnate once more, finding space, sucking air, trying to glimpse some gap in her stance. Incarnate crossed the sand, pressed Sabra before she could catch her breath, and Sabra smirked and slipped into the rhythm.
Because it was a rhythm. It was a dance. Every step in the routine was a punch or a kick, and every strike was the opening for the step of her partner. The impromptu sand-ring was their dance floor, and Sabra pushed Incarnate to the far edge of it, before she pushed her across to the opposite side, to the brink, to the verge of falling backward.
It might have only been a furrowed line and a short drop into sand, but Sabra felt like it was a deep chasm.
She reached out, grabbed hold of Incarnate’s right arm, finger clenched into her glove, glove like a vice around her bicep. Sabra smiled wickedly, even as she knew she was holding on for dear life. “If I go out, you’ll be coming with me,” she hissed. “No clean win for you.”
Incarnate didn’t get a chance to reply. Great Barrier’s voice cut through the training arena.
“Just what is happening here?” She barked. She stood in the doorway, flanked by Bushranger and Anne Zach – and a good dozen of ELE officers in full armor, armed for bear.
Incarnate hauled Sabra to standing, turning to face the Australian capes in the process.
“Sparring,” Blueshift said from the stands. “Training.” He rose to his feet, and Sabra elected to let him handle it. “Is there a problem?”
“Only if you interfere, SOLAR.”
Blueshift chuckled. Sabra could hear the hollow, empty sound even where she was.
“You can’t stop me from arresting someone who assaulted my people, who mutilated one of them.”
“Really. I must beg to differ.”
“Remain where you are, SOLAR. If you so much as think to move a muscle, I will have my people bring you down.”
Anima set her hand on Blueshift’s shoulder, whispered into his ear, as Great Barrier and her unit swept into the room.
“Fulcrum,” she said, pointing to her. “You are under arrest. Come quietly, and you shall not be harmed.”
Incarnate stepped forward, to leave Sabra alone in the circle. And then she stopped, snapped her feet into place, settled into her stance, and raised her palms.
“Sure, if you can drag me out of this circle,” Sabra replied, bringing her fists up.
Even with her bravado, however, something felt wrong. She could account for Blueshift, Anima and Incarnate…
She looked around for Fisher, but his garish orange and purple was nowhere to be seen.