Aegis led the way through Paradigm Tower’s corridors at a good clip, headed for the holding cells. At her side, Incarnate matched her pace. Leopard followed a few steps behind, forcing himself to not comment on the irony of being on the outside looking in.
After all, if The Engineer was coming here, there was no way in hell he wanted to be stuck in a cell.
“Keep Taurine in her cell,” Aegis barked to someone in a PCPD uniform, “Let the rest out. We’ve made the announcement, so they know the shitstorm that’s about to hit us. Let them run; we can pick them up again later. But I don’t want that woman to do anything except agree to our terms.”
Leopard canted his head in Incarnate’s direction, said to her, “Security here’s pretty lousy, huh? Jailbreak one day, letting them all out the next…”
Incarnate stared at him, like he was nothing more than dirt on her armored boots.
Right. Don’t know what I expected.
One section of the wall went opaque. Taurine stood on the other side, much less fierce than Leopard remembered — she just looked old, normal. Aegis jabbed a finger against the intercom.
Taurine was already speaking. “Let me out of here, SOLAR!” She pulled at her bindings, accomplished nothing. “If you think you can leave me here to die, you’re going to be very surprised.”
“I don’t fucking think so,” Aegis snapped. “Shut the fuck up and listen, Missotaur. Yes, The Engineer is coming. Yes, we need help. Here’s the deal: you send the three-armed prick packing, and we let you go free.”
Taurine grunted. “If I beat him, you wouldn’t be able to restrain me anyway.”
“One of my people could restrain you and most of a city block.”
“If he’s not dead.”
Aegis raised her left arm, eyes on her wrist. “Oh, well, look at the time. Half-past done listening to your shit. There are my terms. Do you think I’d come down here to lie to you?”
“If I win,” Taurine began, like a beast edging into the light. “You’ll seriously let me go?”
“If you kill the motherfucker I’ll seriously throw you a full-on parade. Look, you know I can’t put it in writing right now. But I bet you know my history.”
Taurine nodded. “Absolutely, Butcher. You’ll seriously do it.”
“Yeah, say that again and I’ll leave you here. If you win, you’ll go free. Soldier’s honor. But if you come out, you’ll direct your aggression at The Engineer.”
“Death row sentence.”
Aegis pressed a button, opened Taurine’s cell. “So’s here.”
Taurine stepped out. Next to Leopard, Incarnate tensed. For a moment, the supervillain stood there, and then raised her shackled arms to Aegis. The SOLAR leader began unlocking them, one by one. Each shackle fell away, crashing to the floor.
Leopard thought of the broken landscape of Guatemala, the stories and rumors of The Seven and their prowess. Mulled over what Taurine had said about a death row sentence. Even for someone as powerful as her…
“Hey,” he said to Incarnate. “Is it really that bad out there?”
“We would have evacuated the city, had it been possible.”
“No,” Leopard said, as Taurine stretched her arms and rolled her neck. “The stats. The percentages of fighting the Engineer and winning.”
Incarnate wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes remained on Taurine, a pair of attention-charged lasers. “You do not want to hear the exact rate of survival.”
“Oh,” Leopard said. “That bad, huh?”
Incarnate nodded. “That bad,” she said. “It is low.”
Then, as if adding for clarity: “Very low.”
The wind and rain whipped at his eyes in a relentless fusillade. Without his familiar helmet, Leopard felt that he’d drown standing. The PCPD tactical vest, however, was just about familiar enough to be comforting even if wasn’t as strictly comfortable as his old gear.
Incarnate had gifted it to him shortly after they’d released Taurine. Similar enough to what he had worn over his old armorweave (old? Was it really that long ago?) but he doubted it was nearly as effective. Of course, even armorweave would be nothing but tissue paper if he ended up in the path of The Engineer. It provided peace of mind more than protection.
In the shadow of Paradigm Tower, lit by streetlights and flickering blue and red, Aegis set her plan into action. Flashes of golden light broke the darkness as Incarnate danced around Taurine like a matador, cutting and slicing with her energy blades. Taurine was already growing, becoming monstrous, a rain-slicked beast of legend.
The perfect thing to use against another legend.
“Is this going to work?” Leopard asked, keeping one eye on the fight. Nearby, a set of PCPD officers were doing the same.
“Fucked if I know,” Aegis said. Anima, still unresponsive but seemingly content to follow, loomed at her Captain’s shoulder. In their helmets and armor, the two SOLAR capes were virtually identical.
“But she defeated The Champion back in San Diego,” Aegis continued, “Which I’d say is a damn sight better than anyone else here. When you don’t have any bright ideas, sometimes you’ve gotta go with the stupid ones.”
Leopard glanced up at the nightmare sky. “You can beat these things?”
“No such thing as an invulnerable cape. Not even The Seven.”
Leopard wasn’t sure if that was a rule or a prayer.
“Can I get a gun at least?”
Aegis tilted her head slightly. Through the helmet, he imagined he could see the disdainful, astonished look. “Wow. You’re actually fucking serious.”
“If I’m going to be anywhere near that thing, I’d like to have something that isn’t my bare hands.”
“Then throw rocks.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I never joke,” Aegis replied. “If you think I’m going to give you a gun so you can, I don’t know, shoot me in the back, you’re astoundingly optimistic.”
Leopard frowned. “That wasn’t my plan.”
“Great. I don’t believe you.”
That conversation was a dead-end. Attention back on the fight. Incarnate rolled past Taurine, blades out as she came up to sever her hamstrings. Taurine fell face down, but came up all the stronger. She kicked out, and this one caught Incarnate and sent her sprawling.
Leopard said to Aegis, “How about dewguns? A place like Paradigm’s got to have energy weapons in the armory.”
Aegis scoffed. “In this storm? Beams’ll lose all coherence, might even blow your own hand off.” To someone else, she said, “Alright, people, light her up.”
Gunfire from the PCPD officers milling about split the stormy atmosphere. The officers riddled Taurine with bullets from handguns and rifles, driving her to her knees. She staggered, jerked about, rocked under a hundred impacts — then Taurine rose, spread her arms wide, and laughed until the miniature thunderstorm stopped.
Her wounds had reknit in seconds.
“Got anything else we can throw at her?” Leopard asked.
“Excepting foul language?” Aegis asked. “Not much. Time to get our secret weapon into position, I think.”
Aegis gave the order. Leopard, standing so close to her, was unable to do anything but follow in her wake. But where else could he go?
The various capes and PCPD officers crammed into a series of police trucks. Leopard wiped the rain from his eyes and moved to follow Aegis.
She turned at the threshold and slapped a hand on his shoulder. “Stay.”
“You come to the firing line, you’re just going to get in the way.”
Leopard wasn’t sure whether to cheer or to start insisting that he should come anyway.
But maybe there was an opportunity here. Why was he trying to waste time being heroic? The first duty of any soldier was to escape. That’s what Monkey had always said. On some level, Leopard knew that’s what he should’ve been doing.
Only they weren’t ever really soldiers, were they? And he wasn’t really a prisoner. And Monkey had said a lot of things, and Leopard wasn’t sure whether his words were worth even the air he had used to say them.
And, given the circumstances, the safest place to be was with the capes – even if that took him to the ragged edge.
Aegis shoved him back and into the rain, called for the driver to get moving. The door slammed shut, and the van set off, tires spraying Leopard with stormwater.
“Well,” Leopard mused to the howling winds, “Talk about a lucky break.”
He had to get out of the rain. Whatever else would happen, it’d happen after that. He used the path of the trucks and his memory of the glowing map in the tower to get a vague idea of his bearings. Now, alone, he was thinking clearly.
No way in hell was he going to go anywhere near The Engineer. No way in hell was he going to spend another minute under the thumb of SOLAR.
He set off on a bearing, keeping out of the storm as best as he could – which quickly proved fruitless. He settled for not walking on the road and endured the wind and the cold.
The storm just about obscured the screaming.
Leopard paused. Started walking again, took him a moment to realize he was pacing.
It wasn’t his problem. Should turn and pick any of the other directions on the island.
But, some part of him insisted, people might need help.
Who cares. Not my problem. Another part of him. The angrier part. The part Monkey had always told him to listen to.
The feelings that realization brought up in him were confusing, to say the least.
Leopard closed his eyes, cursed himself, and ran towards the screaming voices.
Besides, if his mental compass was right, it took him well away from where the main battle was going to go down.
That’s why he was running, he told himself. Simple self-interest and nothing more.