“The Engineer has slipped past Blueshift and has resumed his course towards Paradigm Tower,” Aegis reported, voice coming loud and clear in Fisher’s ear. “That’s right! He’s coming here!”
Well, Blueshift, Fisher thought, knowing the implicit meaning there. Rest in peace.
“As of this moment, you are to sever any and all communication links via physical interrupt,” Aegis continued, shouting on loudspeaker, voice carrying over the downpour. “If you have cybernetic prostheses, remove them so he doesn’t end up strangling you with your own arms.”
For once, Fisher felt lucky that he’d lost his hands, and only his hands.
“Well,” he said, to Miss Millennium, “This is it.”
“You ready for this?”
She smiled sadly. “No.”
“Me either.” Fisher exhaled. When he had hands, flexing them sometimes was good for relieving tension. Artificial hands didn’t quite have the same effect. The lack of blood vessels, maybe. “Why’d we even take this job, Katherine?”
“Had the right genetics for it, I guess. That, or you have a weakness for men in tight clothing.” Her smile brightened, but only slightly. “And trust me, I understand. Mark always had a great butt.”
Fisher forced a laugh. “Maybe. But me? They told me I could travel the world, see the sights–”
“–And beat the hell out of bad guys?”
“You know it.”
Millennium shook her head. “Hard to believe how much you’ve changed sometimes.”
Next to them, Incarnate spoke from behind her helmet. “Humor is good. It alleviates tension in stressful situations, such as in the face of death.”
“Yeah,” Fisher replied. “No wonder Sabra said you needed to work on your bedside manner.”
“Easy, Pavel,” Katherine said. “I bet even SOLAR capes get nervous.”
Sabra. Fisher wondered where she was now. Hopefully not out to punch The Engineer in the face. His gaze wandered to four familiar silhouettes – blue PCPD armored suits, the general form much like Sabra’s jury-rigged armor. For a moment, Fisher felt a pang of anxiety. It’d be like her to steal a suit.
No, they were all too familiar with each other. Just regular cops trying to be superheroes.
Katherine shouted to be heard over the rain, “Aegis! How long do we have until contact?”
Aegis’ shout came back. “A flier from Hexagon reported sighting him two blocks south! He’ll be coming right up that boulevard!”
Fisher looked. Straight run, gardens and trees on either side. Would’ve looked quite picturesque in the sunshine but the storm had twisted it into a nightmarish facade. If it wasn’t for the rain, he could probably have seen The Engineer already. He’d never seen any member of The Seven in the flesh. He’d never wanted to.
Great Barrier stepped forward, raising her hands. Rays of light streamed from the tips of the fingers, connected to the corners of two great planes of glassy force. Her forcefields, putting a shield between the people who were going to fight The Engineer, and those who had to watch.
The forcefields vanished. There, across the road and the parks, maybe six inches deep, was a line cut into the island itself.
“That’s us,” Aegis was shouting. “That’s our thin fucking line of admittance. Limited places, very exclusive! You go past it, you do not come back in!”
It was a symbolic gesture. The Engineer would surely sunder Great Barrier’s esoteric forcefields just as quickly as he would any conventional plate of glass.
But everything about capes came down to symbols.
Even this fight was symbolic. Even with Taurine and all the other capes, the chances of any true victory against The Engineer were beyond microscopic.
Resplendent in their bronze armor and bright red capes, Spartan Company – the photogenic battle-couple of Gladius and Cestus, their plumed leader Invictus, and the brute Makhaira – took a step past the line Barrier had drawn up, and then another, as one. Soon, they were joined by a host of other capes. Following in their wake, came the power-armored PCPD volunteers, the technological warriors of Hexagon Corporation, and a cluster of people in hospital clothes.
Other capes who’d made the decision Miss Millennium had.
Fisher cast his eyes over the assembled capes. Some he recognized, like Defenda Eureka in her winged power armor, but many he didn’t.
He supposed that made what was coming a bit easier.
“Well,” Katherine said. “I’m up.”
Fisher nodded, slapped his free hand against her shoulder. “Give the bastard hell, Katherine.”
A familiar growl of a voice from behind. “It’ll be a competition.” Taurine said, pulling up beside them both.
Under his arm, Octopus hissed at her bestial, horned form. “Nice cat, Impel,” Taurine said, face twisting in something that might’ve been a smirk – or a smile. “Has good instincts.”
An awkward moment passed. Fisher said, “Thanks.”
“It’s been a long time, Alex,” Katherine said.
“Would’ve come visit,” Taurine replied, “but you know how hospitals are with people like me.”
“When Impel told me you were here, I’ll admit I hoped for it.” She reached up, slowly, and set her hand on Taurine’s massive tricep. “Come on, let’s catch up.” Just like that, the two of them were walking to join with the other defenders.
The storm snatched away his ability to hear them before they’d even crossed the line. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but Taurine’s massive shoulders shook. Something like thunder rumbled from her. Laughter.
Like they were friends.
Fisher smiled. It was a stupid thing to do. A stupid thing to hope for. But maybe… Hell, in another life…
He turned, just to see who was with him, the watchers. Aegis, Incarnate, and Anima. The first and third didn’t surprise him, but the second one did. Bushranger stood beyond them, armed and armored, which was not surprising either. Given that Sabra had laid him out, he’d just get himself murdered in what was coming – and Fisher was sure he knew it, too.
There was still a thin line of people coming out of the hospital. How long had it been since the order to evacuate had gone out?
Fisher fetched his phone from his pocket, just about had it slip from between his fingers. He felt the smile, what little was left of it, drain from his face and into his shoes.
The screen was nothing but gibberish.
Fisher’s eyes snapped to the boulevard, where the shadows had begun to move. Something flickered in the dark, again and again, and Fisher could just make out the sound of shattering streetlights over the howl of the storm.
The Engineer came marching up the boulevard, strides long and determined, the storm breaking before him. He stopped where the boulevard swept into a circle before the front of the hospital, as if the point was predetermined – as if rehearsed. There he stood, lit faintly by the emergency lighting of the hospital and its defenders. His head turning left and right as if taking in the capes arrayed before him.
And everything Fisher just thought might’ve been base anthropomorphization.
“Tell me the hospital’s been completely evacuated,” Fisher said.
Aegis shook her head. “Not completely. Get out of here, Impel. There’s nothing you can do here.”
“I can’t,” he replied, turning his eyes back towards Katherine.
I have to see this.
Great Barrier’s forcefields went up, and the battle began.
The Engineer remained motionless as the defenders spread out around him. Fisher tried to keep his eyes on Miss Millennium and Taurine at the same time, but they were circling to opposite sides of the street. Taurine’s lips worked but any words were drawn into the storm.
He could imagine what Taurine was saying. The gloats, the threats. He could see that, if she was, The Engineer wasn’t replying. It wasn’t unexpected. They never spoke. And the question was always if they could at all, or if they simply chose not to.
The Engineer reached up for the sky with his right arm and his weapon, an angular glaive, was in his hands. He spun the polearm in a long, lazy arc, leaving an emerald haze in its wake. The blade parted the asphalt and sidewalk as effortlessly as it did the air, turning it all to ash.
What had Gauntlet called it? Astoundingly effective?
He was about to find out.
Taurine led the charge and the boulevard exploded into action. Spartan Company moved as one, red capes billowing in the storm. Defenda Eureka, riding wings of fire, came down on the far side of the Engineer as Taurine pressed him from the front.
The Engineer slipped away from Taurine, whirling his glaive to cleave Defenda Eureka in half, armor and all, ash billowing despite the downpour. The motion was so easy, so simple – like he’d known she was there, and yet had done so without noticing her at all. Taurine stayed on him, raining fury, driving him to one knee.
Fisher got a gleam of something – a knife? – in one of The Engineer’s left arms, intersecting the path of Taurine’s next strike.
Taurine’s arm came off at the elbow.
She fell back clutching the stump, roaring, the wound black and smoldering, not healing. The Engineer stalked towards her, just in time for Millennium to crash into him like a flying freight train, crushing him to the pavement, glaive flying from his grip. Millennium leaped away, The Engineer on his hands and knees, as Makhaira of Spartan Company brought his halberd down in an overhead blow.
The Engineer crashed to the asphalt, just in time for Gladius to run him through with his blazing sword – but not enough time to pull it free, because the Engineer was already rising, extending his right arm.
His killing glaive returned like a thunderbolt, right to his hands. Missed Makhaira but shattered his halberd, and obliterated one of the green and red Sherwood capes in the follow-through, blasted into fragments of ash.
And then The Engineer was amongst them, swinging his glaive in sweeping, reaping arcs. Every strike was a killing blow, throwing ash into the air. It buffeted up against Great Barrier’s shields. Emerald flares popped off like morbid strobe lighting.
Millennium caught herself on the asphalt, shattered it, turning to charge again. The Engineer buried his knife in Taurine’s chest, yanked upward and split her from sternum to shoulder. Practically bifurcated, and still not healing, Taurine was left to stagger in the rain as the Engineer, turned to intercept Miss Millennium, knife in hand.
The Engineer’s form was damn near inhuman, but even in his semi-metal musculature, Fisher could see that the Transcended’s aim would be true.
Miss Millennium – Katherine – would die.
“No!” Someone shouted, their arm raised, hand splayed – and it took Fisher a moment to realize it was him. He felt something igniting inside his skull and leaping outward, like an electric caress that was haunting in its familiarity, that blazed out from the blazing light that ran from behind his eyes to ignite the stumps of his wrists.
The Engineer’s knife went wide, as if something had shoved an abrupt distance between Millennium and him. The three-armed demigod seemed surprised, if such a thing were possible. Millennium, too. She whirled on her heel to find him, caught Fisher’s eyes through the haze of sleet. Through it all, he could barely make out her smile.
It was still there as The Engineer recovered, whirling his glaive, and struck her head from her shoulders.
Fisher’s stomach lurched, and the rest of him collapsed into the pit that formed. He kept his feet, but only barely. She’d been hoping to delay him for a minute.
It hadn’t even been ten seconds.
Spartan Company was falling back, and The Engineer let them go. Taurine was on her knees, somehow alive, and The Engineer ignored her. Beyond them, there were no survivors.
Leaving the dead and the distraught in his wake, The Engineer strode towards Great Barrier, her shields, Fisher, and everyone else who hadn’t already cleared out.
Beside him, Aegis racked the slide on her shotgun. Incarnate struck a pose like he’d seen from her in the fighting ring, but this time there were golden blades from her forearms. Anima was still seemingly catatonic – maybe she knew Blueshift was dead. Maybe.
The Engineer stopped at the line, tilted his head as if considering the forcefields. He set his three hands on the first of them, pushed slightly. The barrier shattered, driving Great Barrier to her knees. One hand on her temple, she waved her hand, placing the second where the first had been.
The Engineer swung his glaive in an upward arc, broke that forcefield into fragments – the sound of it — no, something else, behind his eyes, beyond his ears — set Fisher’s ears and teeth ringing.
Great Barrier rose to her feet, roaring, blood streaming from her nose, and cast another one of her forcefields like a discus, cutting-edge seeking The Engineer.
Without breaking stride, his glaive parted it in two. Barrier staggered, as if in the grip of a seizure, and dropped into in a heap.
Everyone started running, the defense having transformed into a rout. Fisher pushed against it, Octopus under his arm, and made for Great Barrier. Around him, people slipped and fell. Around him, everyone was shouting and screaming.
Taurine was screaming, too. Out of the corner of Fisher’s eye, a glimpse of her clutching The Engineer’s neck in her one good hand – and he was stabbing her with his knife again and again and again–
“Barrier!” Fisher shouted, extending his free hand. “Come on, get up!”
Her breathing was heavy, arrhythmic. She groped for his hand, found it, and tried to stand. Fisher hauled her the rest of the way up.
“Thanks,” Great Barrier slurred.
“Don’t mention it. Not out of the woods yet,” Fisher replied, helping her out of The Engineer’s path. A glance back as he staggered away. Taurine on the ground, cut to ribbons, chest rising and falling, somehow alive. SOLAR falling back, Aegis’ shotgun booming out a challenge.
The Engineer ignoring everyone who didn’t come within his reach. He extended his right hand and the hospital began to break apart, from the outside in.
Run, Pavel, damnit. Just run!
He couldn’t. He had to stagger through the rain with Great Barrier, floodwaters soaking through his shoes. Had to fight down the urge to drop her and run. Something bright flashed behind him. He closed his eyes. The Engineer had to be hitting the last few defenders.
Barrier had become dead weight. Fisher turned. She was there, staring behind him, at the source of the flash. “Who the hell are those guys?”
There, between Aegis and the capes who had elected to stay, stood five figures in gleaming silver armor, their purple cloaks twisting in the wind.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Fisher said.
“You know them?”
Only in the sense that he knew of them. Great Barrier should’ve recognized them immediately, but Fisher wasn’t sure if she could recall her own name, much less a secretive organization that few people saw in the flesh.
“Not exactly. That,” Pavel Fisher said, not quite believing his eyes, “Is Throne and his Concordiat.”
And they are the last thing we need.