“And she went right out the window?” Miss Millennium laughed and laughed loudly. Fisher could tell that the motion hurt, could tell that it’d only hasten her end, as each sucking breath caused more bone to fuse around her rib cage. Some part of him marveled at her ability to do so regardless.
Sitting by her bedside, Fisher smiled. “Just like that. The kid gave her one good kick.”
Warm sunlight streamed through the window, illuminating the harsh growths on Millenium’s cheeks and jaw. Even so, it didn’t dull Millennium’s smile, as slight and rigid as it was. Fisher could see his old team leader imagining Taurine’s fairly literal downfall. “I wish I could’ve seen it.”
“There’s always next time.”
“You’ll have to bring the fight to me,” Millennium rasped. “Getting out of this bed… it’s not as easy as it used to be.”
Sitting up in her hospital bed, Millennium ran her hand down Octopus’ sleek coat. Her hand, her arm, the whole limb was rigid from the elbow down, like one of those ancient prosthetics. Fisher tried not to stare, failed. How long would it be before she couldn’t move at all?
Octopus didn’t seem to mind, however. His purr practically reverberated throughout the whole room.
“That’s not true, Millie,” Fisher replied. “You’re going to let a little bed stop you?”
Miss Millennium snorted. “It’s not the bed; it’s the bone fusion. And when did you get so optimistic anyway?”
“Somehow I think I’ve got time to hear it.”
“You’re not going to believe me if I tell you.”
“Fuck, Impel. I’ve been in a constant state of disbelief when you showed up a year early with another bunch of flowers and this stupid cat under your arm. At this point, any further disbelief will kick me back around to belief.”
Fisher snorted out his amusement. “Right. Well, IPSA’s pulled me into something. With Fulcrum, the girl who beat Taurine. They’re going to put together a team to bring in the guys who hit Paradigm Tower.”
Millennium nodded. “Do you even fit into your costume anymore?”
“Yeah. Bit tight around the middle, though.”
“You’re right. I really don’t believe you.”
Fisher laughed and Millennium matched him. He forced himself to stop and found it harder than he had thought it would’ve been just days before. But he had to, because every happy syllable was driving another nail into Miss Millennium.
“Taurine’s in custody, you’re working with SOLAR…” Millennium mused, sucking in a breath as best she could. “Will modern wonders never cease.”
The room dimmed, a shadow falling over Miss Millennium. Fisher glanced towards the window, saw the pleasant morning changing, heralding a storm. The immaculately pruned trees outside the hospital were jerking back and forth, the clouds above them darkening.
“Huh,” said Fisher. “Here I was thinking the weather was going to be nice today.”
“Yeah. It’d be a shame to have bad weather when you’re foisting your cat off onto your bedridden team leader.”
Fisher turned away from the window, startled. “That’s not true.”
“Impel. Pavel.” Millennium said, her voice soft, “I know what’s happening here. Is this really your way of saying goodbye? By shoving your cat onto my lap and, hey, here’s some flowers?”
There was an unspoken question there, of course. The worry that it might be goodbye, that she could be dead by the time he came back to Paradigm City. If he ever did at all.
Fisher shook his head. “Not at all. Half of it, maybe. Knowing SOLAR, I’ll be shipping out tomorrow with no warning.”
“You didn’t answer both questions.”
“I was only bringing him so you can meet him. He’s not a therapy cat.”
“I’m sure he’d be a lovely therapy cat,” Millennium said, rubbing around Octopus’ ears. “I’d be happy to keep him.”
“I really didn’t bring him here to hand him over.”
The windows rattled. Outside, the clouds were as dark as midnight, flashing with lightning. Sleeting rain pounded the glass.
“What the hell?” Fisher wondered, drowned out by the rumble of thunder.
“I wasn’t serious when I said to bring the fight to me, Pavel,” Miss Millennium said.
“It’s just a storm.”
“No,” Millennium said, in the voice of the leader she used to be. “It’s not.”
Fisher knew what she was getting at. He shook his head. No. Not here, not now.
Outside, Fisher heard the distant rumbling of a facility in motion, the hurried footsteps of people pretending not to panic.
“Wait here,” Fisher said.
Fisher stepped around Miss Millennium’s bed and opened the door, stuck his head out into the corridor. Doctors and nurses were scurrying about, visitors too. Security guards among them. There was an air of affected casualness about it all, even as the energy was so obviously frantic. Patients, some of them barely mobile, were being herded out of their rooms by any of the uniformed groups.
Fisher knew what he was looking at. It was an evacuation.
He stopped the first nurse he could, grabbed him by his shirt sleeve. “What the hell’s going on?”
“It’s an evacuation.”
“No shit. Why?”
The nurse tugged away. “There’s no time to explain.”
You already know what’s happening, Pavel. You already know. You’re wasting time. You’re practically praying.
“I’m very stubborn,” Fisher said, and didn’t let go. His eyes wandered to the nurse’s name tag. “Look, uh, Alex. My friend’s in room 719, she can barely move.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we have very little choice here. The order came right from SOLAR.”
“I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job, but these patients? They can’t be moved.”
“They can’t stay, sir.” All things considered, Fisher thought, Alex was being remarkably civil.
“What do you mean they can’t stay? It’s just a little storm. You’re gonna throw them out into the wind and the rain?”
“It’s one of The Seven. The Engineer. They say he’s heading for the Tower, and this hospital is right in his path. SOLAR’s already engaged.”
“Well,” Fisher said. “Fuck me.”
He let Alex go. Behind him, movement. Feet shuffling, the door opening.
“Fuck us all,” Miss Millennium agreed.
“Katherine,” Fisher said, again. “Don’t do this.” Using his throat to speak prevented him from using it to retch.
It was the sound of it. Miss Millennium stood opposite him in her hospital room, beating her fists against her joints, against the more prominent protrusions of bone under her skin. Making herself ready for war. Making herself ready for a battle she couldn’t possibly win. Making her condition so much worse when her superhuman physiology inevitably reknit the broken bone clusters with more of it.
He glanced out the window. Seven stories below, emergency lighting illuminated a host of colorful figures. Green and red of the Sherwood Skirmishers, orange and black of Hexagon’s corporate warriors, bronze and red of Spartan Company’s belligerents, deep blue of SOLAR and the brighter blue and green of Star Patrol. And more besides.
Among them, police officers, medical workers and a host of patients who’d never recover. Moving some of them was only slightly less dangerous than leaving them in their beds. Medical equipment trailed in their wake, reminding Fisher of nothing more than flotsam.
Millennium’s rhythmic breaking continued. Maybe she hadn’t heard him. He said, “Katherine, listen to me.”
“I heard you the first time, Pavel.”
Thunder rumbled. The ground shook. And Fisher told himself that it was only the thunder. Under his arm, Octopus yowled. Fisher scratched around his scruff. “Hey, that’s a good kitty.” And then, to Millennium, “Then why are you doing this?”
“You know why. Someone has to save the world.”
“Bullshit,” Fisher snapped, the word slipping past him before he’d even considered it. “Bullshit. Katherine, even at our prime taking on one of the Transcended was suicide. You’re killing yourself. And after how you lectured me about it being a frame of mind.”
Millennium stopped and, just like that, Fisher thought he had won. Then she raised her arms high, linked her fingers above her head, and luxuriated in a movement that had perhaps ten minutes ago been impossible.
She took a long deep breath. “What else am I supposed to do, Pavel?” Long deep exhale. “Do you think I enjoy lying in that bed, knowing that every movement – every deep breath – brings me closer to my body becoming some bone-prison?”
Fisher shook his head.
“Eventually I won’t be able to move,” she continued, “I won’t be able to breathe. Will that even kill me, or will I be trapped inside my own head? I don’t know. The doctors sure don’t know. Do you, Impel?”
He shook his head, again. Like Millennium had picked up some superpower to strike him dumb since climbing out of that hospital bed.
Eventually, he managed to say: “You always told me you made your peace with it.”
“I did,” she replied, and her smile was bright and sincere. “I didn’t let it turn me into a moping mess, that’s all. If I was going to be in a bed, I wasn’t going to be a pity case, too. But now I don’t have to be in a bed at all. Now I have an opportunity to do something with meaning.”
“To sacrifice yourself, you mean. Because if you go out there, that’s what’s going to happen. And that’s best case.”
“If I slow him for even just a minute, that’s enough time to get more people out of his way.”
“There are so many other capes here!”
Miss Millennium shrugged. “I’m only half-alive. Better me than anyone else. Better me than someone like that girl you were talking about.”
Fisher felt tears sting his eyes. He sucked them back. He was too old, too tired, too late to cry. But Katherine was his last link to the past, a chain he hadn’t ever quite been able – or willing – to cut.
“I’ll be the only one left,” he said.
Katherine stepped closer, grabbing at the sheets of her bed and effortlessly stripping them clean. Pillows and blankets fell around her ankles, left in her wake.
“You, me, Mark,” she said, reaching over to brush her fingers under Octopus’ chin. “We’ve all been tied together, even now. Go here, save that runaway train, go there, bring down some terrorists. But we don’t often get to make choices in our lives. But here I have one, and I’ve made it.”
“Okay,” he nodded. “Okay.”
He couldn’t follow her, of course. Not with Octopus. There’d be enough death today without adding a housecat to the mix. He was going to be on the sidelines. Again.
“Give ’em hell, Katherine,” he said. “Show everyone out there that the Golden Age isn’t dead and buried.”
“The Golden Age never died, Pavel,” she replied. “Oh, we got beaten down, we got injured, we got the worst of everything the world could throw at us. But all it takes is one person to stand against that thing out there and people will believe again.”
“You know,” Fisher said, forcing a smile, “maybe it’s for the best that you don’t meet Fulcrum. I don’t know if I could handle it.”
Millennium smiled slightly, dangerously. The smile that had made her a household name all those years ago. “Besides. I owe The Engineer for his part in wiping out my home. Whatever tricks he has are just that: tricks.”
Miss Millennium tied her bedsheet around her hospital clothes like some kind of caped toga. Hands on her hips, she looked like she hadn’t aged a day. As if the time in critical care was just a brief holiday.
“Well, Pavel,” Miss Millennium said, “This is it. Time to save the whole fucking world.”