The world resolved into darkness, then shadows, then thoughts.
Maybe, some part of Sabra thought, there was some truth to the mythology after all.
Then, a realization that her thought was adrift from whatever made it make sense. Why was she thinking that?
Those thoughts kicked the rest of her into gear. Brought awareness of things like pain and wet and cold.
Voices close by. The closest of them: “We’ve got a survivor!”
Survivor? Fuck that. Sabra forced her eyes to open and pushed herself to standing, despite the dull pain that seemed to subsume every waking part of her body. She coughed, again and again, and she stumbled, legs wobbly, but something was there to keep her upright.
“Whoa, hold on,” said the close-by voice. It belonged to a man, and when Sabra pushed her hair up and off her brow, curled and disheveled from the downpour (why shave it anymore given her lack of suit?), she blinked to try and focus on the man more properly.
It was difficult. Even with the rain, the air was thick with grit. No wonder she’d been coughing.
“I’m Ardent,” he said, “I’m with the Peacebringers.” Looked like a knight, with the steel helmet and sky blue tabard and everything. No sword though, and Sabra wondered about that. Why didn’t he have a sword?
“You need a sword,” she told him.
Her focus swam about in hazy motions as he replied, “You don’t need to stand. Take it easy, the fighting’s moved on.”
Oh, that. The fighting. Sabra turned on the spot, taking in a full three-sixty panorama. The street was shattered, great cracks in the asphalt. The intersection The Engineer had been standing in was flat out gone. Half of the building she had been standing on had collapsed, and she was standing in the ruins. She caught sight of something poking out from beneath a concrete slab, and she, with horror creeping through the haze, realized it was a leg.
Christ and Allah.
“Where’s Blueshift?” she asked, unsure whether she wanted to hit him for bringing down the building – or hug him for saving her.
Thunder boomed, crushing Ardent’s response into nonsense. The ground shook. Lightning flashed, set Ardent’s helmet gleaming. He repeated himself. “Who?”
Sabra pushed past him, her legs shaky. A few more paces, however, and she felt good to run. She looked around, peering through the downpour. It felt like evening (and maybe it was, how long had she been out?) and she needed to rely on the lights of emergency workers and lightning to get her bearings.
Her phone. Mom, dad. Hisae, Jamar. Everyone. Have to warn them. She fetched it from her pocket, but it was cracked, unresponsive, dead.
And so are we.
“Where are you going?” Ardent asked.
“Home,” Sabra replied.
“Ma’am, this city is an active combat zone. We have this area secure. I strongly advise against leaving it.”
She gestured towards the missing intersection. “Looks real secure to me.”
“Ma’am, I insist.”
“And? I don’t need your fucking chivalry, King Arthur. Go be a superhero to someone else and let me go home. My family’s out there!” She pushed onward, into the street and the rain intensified.
Ardent caught up to her, fell into step. “I’ll be more of a superhero escorting you,” he said.
Sabra wanted to refuse, but didn’t. He might’ve been a superhero, but Sabra doubted he was much older than her. She could hear it in his voice. This could even have been his first mission. If walking her home made the disaster more bearable for him, who was she to deny him that?
“Fine by me,” she said, and then, a few steps away, “I’m sorry about the King Arthur dig, yo.”
“Trust me, it’s not the worst I’ve heard.”
Sabra laughed, snorted grit and rainwater out of her nose. It wasn’t even that funny. She just needed to do something to burn out the worry in her gut.
Her family was out there, as was everyone she had ever known.
And any one of them could be dead, or dying.
She thought of her mother, her father. Of Hisae and Jamar. She tried to think of them without picturing them dead or dying, crying for her help, but wasn’t quite successful. She quickened her steps. She had to be there with them more than anywhere else.
Strangely, she thought of Fisher, too, and wondered if – hoped that – things were going better for the old man than they were for her.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Ardent asked, some minutes later.
“Like the back of my hand,” Sabra replied. But in the dark of the rain and the storm, the streets of Paradigm City had never been more alien.
“Okay, okay. That’s good. Great.” Ardent hummed. “I’ll keep an eye out for supervillains.”
“Hey, you do you.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. You know, they call us the Peacebringers, right? Pretty impressive, you think. But most of the time we just kind of dress up to do disaster relief. I helped a cat out of a tree on Wednesday, that was in North America – the real North America. Now I’m here.”
Sabra closed her eyes, blew air through her teeth. “Oh, Christ and Allah, you’re a talker.”
Had that come out as harsh as it sounded in her ears? She almost wanted to apologize, but only almost.
“I’m sorry,” Ardent said.
“It’s fine,” Sabra said, although she wasn’t sure if it was. “I’m just a little bit stressed, you get me? I’m cold and stressed and some weirdo fuck is fucking up my city.”
“That’s probably why we should be with the other heroes.”
Sabra looked at him. “What, they’ve suddenly stopped ignoring us now?”
“Us?” Ardent asked, slowly.
Sabra stopped, shook her head.
Ardent was as still as a statue. In her peripherals, Sabra couldn’t help but think that, for all his knight and shining armor gear, he was just kind of… pathetic. Maybe it was the rain. Maybe it was something else.
She pushed past it, turned to head down a side street, when something slammed into the road ahead of them. The ground shook, alarms blared, glass shattered, and two figures rose from the crater.
Blueshift, blazing with iridescent intensity, floating in his own personal storm. Rain, wind and light bent around his fists. He’d always struck Sabra as disinterested, like the world was something he engaged with by using only half of his mind, but, here and now, Blueshift was definitely using all of his brainpower.
Beyond Blueshift, his opponent – had to be The Engineer – was a shadow. A dark human-shaped hole in the storm.
Blueshift leaped forwards, struck the Engineer with enough force to send the street vibrating and then raised his right arm. The street broke and collapsed and fell away through The Engineer, dragging him with it, dragging him through the shopfront behind him, and the skyscraper behind that. The whole building shook, the windows glimmering in the light of the storm.
Blueshift held his arm out, clenching his fingers into a fist–
A Herald came sweeping in, swinging its staff, the tip arcing emerald, and Blueshift whirled. He swept with both of his arms towards the machine, ripping it to pieces.
And then the skyscraper was imploding, the top of it in freefall. Blueshift shouting, his arm outstretched.
There could’ve been people in there, Sabra thought. And then Blueshift and The Engineer and everything in front of her had vanished into the horrific plume of a building coming down.
Sabra had barely a second to grab Ardent by the shoulders and hurl him into an alley, before a second storm – this one somehow more physical than the first – blasted her awareness out from under her.
Sabra picked herself up, coughing. Her head was ringing. For some reason, she missed her helmet. Did she take it off? Where was it? No, she hadn’t taken it off. It was at home…
“Ardent?” she asked. “Ardent, talk to me, man. Tell me you’re alive.”
“I’m here.” He was seated against the alley wall. “What was that? Was that him or us? I thought they said the fighting was past us.”
Blueshift’s throwing him around the island, damn the consequences.
“I don’t know,” Sabra said. “Can you walk? Come on, we need to get up.”
Ardent staggered to his feet, followed her out into the street.
Sabra paused in the middle of the street, getting her bearings. The rain had turned the dust into a thin sludge. It was in her hair, on her face, stinging her eyes.
“Okay, so we just…” And Sabra paused at the sound of footfalls. Heavy footfalls.
Footfalls in the direction of the ruins where Blueshift and The Engineer had been.
Sabra turned, and saw a monster. Flanked by two of his obsidian automatons, Sabra caught sight of The Engineer.
He stalked forward with implacably intelligent intensity, as if each step was precisely planned and then exactingly placed. Menace preceded him like a harsh wind. The clothes he wore, if they could be considered clothes at all, were something like ragged robes made from fine, darkly gleaming mesh – or chainmail.
It was almost beautiful.
Those were The Engineer’s only concessions to humanity – everything else had been thrown away, even form. Even this far, Sabra could see the inhuman body under the metallic shawl-robes, the towering build that were skeletal without being a skeleton, the negative spaces, the limbs that seemed like they had been sculpted from obsidian more than grown by any natural process, and the arms… two on his right, one on his left.
But the eyes, three dead emerald suns, were what drew Sabra’s attention, even so far away. Nailed her to the ground.
Ardent pushed past her, broke the spell.
“Go,” he said.
The Engineer drew his weapon, that glaive, as if from the air itself. He whirled it around his body as he walked, a demonstration of prowess and a challenge.
“What the fuck are you doing, Ardent?” Sabra hissed, and he shoved her back.
“I said: go!” snapped Ardent, raising his right hand, and a silvery-white blade appeared there, matched by the shield in his left.
And Sabra, who just hours ago, had balked at the power of The Engineer screamed at him to run.
Ardent stepped forward, sword raised in challenge, and then pointed it towards his opponent.
The Engineer stalked forward, swinging his crackling glaive around himself, leaving a garish neon green haze in its arc. In one vicious move, he brought it down in an overhead motion, aim impossibly true.
Ardent detonated in a cloud of ash and particulate, a bright green flash fading amid the haze. Sabra choked on the fluttering bits and pieces of what had been a hero, even through the downpour. Clouded in cloying remnants – coughing, choking, eyes watering – she caught the dead-star tripartite gaze of The Engineer.
The gaze was blazing and terrible. The thought that came with it more so.
You are not prepared, Sabra Kasembe. Run home. Run home to your quaint little job and your quaint little friends. Run home to your mother and father who believe in you only because they don’t know the truth of things. Run home to when you thought this, any of this, could be fun.
The thought smote Sabra to her knees. The Engineer had killed Ardent without breaking stride, and seemingly only because he had gotten in the way – The Engineer had already turned away from her.
The Engineer strode away, his automatons with him, back on whatever path he had been walking before Blueshift had thrown him through a building, before Ardent had sought to challenge him.
Sabra was just gulping for air, shoulders heaving, her mind somewhere between relief and terror.
One of the obsidian automatons at the Engineer’s side slipped away from its master, glowing green gaze set on her.
Sabra pushed herself to her feet, and forced herself to run.