Fisher had been a cape since he was sixteen years old. By the time Mark had died, and he’d given up that life (even if it was seeming more and more like a temporary hiatus), he’d fallen just short of two decades of service. There were four constants in the life of a cape: fighting, violence, braggadocio, and narcissism. All of them were old, comfortable friends to Fisher.
What friends hadn’t almost killed you once, anyway?
Pavel Fisher had swaggered his way through the hellish decade of the Golden Age Collapse. He’d been lucky enough to avoid the worst of it, and the rampant global instability provided no shortage of work and fame. He’d killed his first villain when he was eighteen, and, by now, Fisher didn’t remember anything but the color of their costume: blue and black.
But of the person themselves, Fisher didn’t remember anything. Not even their ability. In his memories, years of brawls bled together like violent watercolor.
Capework was familiar to him, Fisher reflected as Esmer Kasembe passed him an electric drill, but physical handiwork was less so.
The chair wobbled beneath Fisher’s feet as pressed the panel of thin sheet metal against the ceiling, began to drill screws to hold it in place. “You know,” Fisher said, “You’re going to need someone to come and fix this properly. This’ll keep the water out of your kitchen, but it’s just going to sit up there. Wouldn’t want water to rot the roof out or… whatever happens.”
Looking up at him, Esmer replied, “You were a carpenter? Or do you have a history of poor home improvements?”
Fisher blew air out of his nose, amused. “No,” he said, “But Mark always wanted to be an architect. That is, before he ended up in the business.” He eyed the patch job above, unsure of how suitable it was. Not the most elegant solution, but it’d hold. “Kind of related, I guess. Picked up a thing or two. Never quite thought I’d use it, though.”
Esmer extended a hand to help him down. Fisher caught a glimpse of the scars at his wrist. Burns, and bad ones at that.
“Can I get you anything?” Esmer asked.
“Sure, a drink, if you’ve got anything,” Fisher replied, brushing his hands on his jeans, and Esmer stepped over to the fridge.
It’d been three days since The Engineer had left Paradigm City — had been made to withdraw. He hadn’t been defeated, and Fisher wouldn’t allow himself even a moment’s delusion of that thought. For all of his nineteen years as a cape, there weren’t many things that shook Pavel Fisher – but seeing a Transcended in the flesh, that had left him unsteady.
It wasn’t that Katherine had died. She had died on her own terms, and now, days removed, Fisher knew that it was all anyone could hope for. Miss Millennium’s legend would end with her being remembered as who she had been, not who she had become. No one remembered the capes who died in their beds.
The city was not in a good state, even for Paradigm. Fisher had surveyed the metropolitan surrounds from his balcony and had seen damage and detritus in every direction. There was no word on the death toll yet, just that it was still rising with every corpse they pulled out of the wreckage. Many buildings had been hit in the attack, and some had come down entirely. No one was willing to take responsibility for the collateral damage, and it would be stupid to do so – it was all going to be pinned on The Engineer.
The Kasembe household, for its part, had seemingly only incurred water damage. Some of it under the door, but most of had come through the roof. Not from combat damage, but from simple economic hemorrhaging.
What a city of the future this place turned out to be…
Esmer returned with a pair of bottles. Beer. That threw Fisher for a loop.
Still, he accepted it, opened it, took a drink. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Esmer, but I figured you were a Muslim.”
Esmer shrugged, smiling amiably. “I have a complicated relationship with my faith.”
“Don’t we all,” Fisher said, settling his arms on the benchtop.
Esmer stood opposite. “Not that I don’t appreciate the help, Pavel, but why’re you here, of all places?”
“Mark always used to say that helping others is helping you. He was always more of an idealist. And I don’t see anyone else around here.”
Esmer nodded. “I do appreciate it, truly. With Farah at the hospital, and all these old wounds… I might never have gotten the house watertight again.”
“Of course. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to touch base with Sabra. I haven’t heard from her since the attack.”
Esmer raised his thick eyebrows. “Neither have we,” he replied. “Well, that’s not quite precise. We heard from her once, a few hours after the storm passed. She said she was fine, and that was it.”
Fisher frowned. “She hasn’t been home?”
“If she’s been home, she’s only been here when I’m asleep, and Farah is on shift. She left a note, but that was it.”
What the hell, Sabra?
Fisher puzzled over that for a few moments and a slug of beer. “Why? What was in the note?”
“Just that she’s fine and helping with the disaster relief.”
“I’m sure she’s doing that. She’s a good kid.”
“I’m not concerned that she’s lying, my friend. I’m worried about her health and well-being, about what has made her isolate herself. It’s not like her.”
Fisher made a sound that wasn’t quite a chuckle, a single note of sympathetic recognition. The answer was obvious. It was something he’d seen in so many capes over the years, in so many people. In himself, at the end. Survivor’s guilt, or something like it.
“Well, I’m happy to beat my feet for a while,” Fisher said, “Take a look through some of the volunteer facilities and see if I can track her down.”
Esmer’s face was unreadable, that easy smile. “I’m not asking you to do that.”
“That’s fine. I’ll do it anyway.”
“As weird as this is going to sound,” Fisher replied, “You’re about the closest thing to a family I have left. Helping you is helping me.”
By the time Fisher had walked all the way to the most damaged parts of Paradigm City’s metropolitan district, he wasn’t quite sure how happy he was to beat his feet. There were all these old aches in his body that he forgot about until he was in extended motion.
But the aches in his feet were nothing compared to the destruction arrayed around him. It was everywhere, from the buildings that were nothing but ruins, skeletal rebar poking into the air, to the ones that had only suffered a ruined facade. It was in the debris and detritus he stepped over – shoes, always so many shoes – and in the wailing woman, on her knees on the sidewalk. Cestus was there in her red and gold finery, attending to her.
All around him, there were people doing what they could for the city. Some might have called it an optimistic accounting of the human communal spirit. But not Fisher. It just had to be done. If you didn’t get to fixing the problem, you just wallowed in it.
Funny. If only he’d thought that a few weeks ago.
An intersection had been turned into a clustered tent-town. People – some capes, but mostly civilian volunteers – were coming and going. A few men and women stood by the perimeter wearing PCPD body armor and toting rifles. Down, further along the street, a section of the road had been turned into an impromptu basketball court.
Seems like her kinda scene.
Fisher walked through the tent-lined avenues, scoping left and right. His gaze flitted to each small cluster of people, past the flaps of the tents. People eating, resting, talking, sleeping. No sign of Sabra, and no sign of someone who might’ve been her.
“Can I help you?” a woman asked, behind him.
Fisher turned. The woman was as tall as he was but several years younger, her clothing dusty and battered, blonde hair tied back off her face – exotic, here on Paradigm. A young man stood at her side, a handgun at his waist, and the question took on a particular subtext.
It took Fisher a moment to realize that the man was Achilles, the kid from the Tower. He shared a glance with him, a silent vow to not say anything.
“Hopefully,” Fisher said. “The name’s Pavel. I’m looking for someone.”
“Missing persons is two tents down. They’re working on a list of the dead there, too.”
“She’s not dead. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”
Skepticism flickered through her icy gaze. “You’re not here to cause any trouble, right?”
“Has that been a problem?”
“Didn’t you see the cops?”
“Sure. But they might just be a deterrent.”
The woman nodded. The man at her side – easier that way, to not think of him as Achilles – grew more relaxed. “Looters mainly,” she said. “Gang-related stuff. It pays to be wary when you’re a source of food, water, and meds. Pavel, was it? I’m Jocasta.” She extended her hand.
Fisher shook it. “Wish we met under better circumstances. I won’t keep you long. I’m looking for a woman. African, tall, short hair.”
“That describes a lot of people around here.”
“Loud, might’ve been on the basketball court.” Fisher gestured down the way.
“Still nothing,” Jocasta replied. “Who is she?”
“My friend’s daughter. She hasn’t been seen since before the attack. Word is, she’s been volunteering here.”
“She might’ve been. Given the circumstances, we don’t exactly keep a roster. What’s her name?”
Fisher frowned. He hadn’t counted on that, but it would’ve made things easier. He took a moment to wonder which name he should use, Sabra or Fulcrum. She could’ve used either.
“She might’ve been wearing an old power suit helmet,” Fisher said, “All beaten up. Painted green in places.”
That did it. Jocasta nodded, and recognition kindled in her eyes. “I’ve seen someone like that. You’re looking for Fulcrum. But she wasn’t here long, just a day or so.”
“Where’s she been since?”
“Well,” Jocasta began, “That’s the interesting thing. She’s been around the city since, but you’re not going to find her here.”
“And why’s that?”
Jocasta pointed past something that might’ve once been a parking garage, towards the monolithic shape of Paradigm Tower. “Because she’s been working with SOLAR.”
If Sabra was working out of Paradigm Tower, and with SOLAR, that entertained a detour to more visibly take on the mantle of Impel. Struggling into the costume, Fisher reminded himself to get back into a consistent fitness regimen. Armorweave did not help figures that were more portly than paragon.
The revelation that Sabra was working with SOLAR was something he should’ve kenned to earlier. After all, Aegis had practically said as much, had probably snared Sabra with a similar conscription that seemed to be argued for the person’s own good as well as the greater good. She hadn’t pulled on his leash yet, but maybe she had with Sabra. Or maybe, and this felt more true to form, Sabra had just rushed into it.
Paradigm Tower stood as a bulwark, unscathed by the attack. Unsurprisingly, really, given that it had been built as a fortress. The Engineer would’ve disassembled it with contemptuous ease, of course, but he had never gotten there. Apparently, the defense at the hospital had been Aegis’ plan to ensure he never reached the tower.
Of course, that just made Fisher wonder a variety of whys.
He made for the front desk. “Here to see Fulcrum,” he told the officer there. “Is she in?”
The officer glanced at his display. “As of five minutes ago, actually. I’ll notify her.” A slight pause. “She’ll be up here momentarily.”
“Thanks,” Fisher said, and made for the pillar closest to the elevators at the back of the spacious lobby. After a minute, the doors opened. There stood Sabra, in a full suit of PCPD powered armor – deep municipal blue, with the white and gold iconography – with her battered old helmet under her arm.
She stomped her way out of the elevator, several inches taller than usual. “Hey, Impel.”
“You got a new suit?” Fisher asked.
Sabra nodded. “Yeah, but I think it’s more of a loaner than a keeper. I need to mess with some of the systems, y’know?”
Not really, but Fisher nodded all the same. “Surprised the PCPD even loaned you one, given the circumstances.”
“Blueshift’s got sway, yo.”
Fisher frowned. “Guy doesn’t seem the gifting type.”
“I think it’s his way of apologizing.”
“Apologizing?” Fisher replied. “For what?”
“Nothing,” Sabra replied, shaking her head. “Anyways, what’s up?”
“’What’s up?’ I feel I should be the one asking you that.”
Sabra’s suit hitched slightly at the shoulders. It couldn’t quite match the motion of her shrug.
“Been working hard,” she said.
“I’ll bet,” Fisher said, eyeing Sabra.
There were haggard lines under her eyes, a redness to her sclera. Something Fisher had seen many times, especially in his own mirror.
“Christ, Sabra, when did you last sleep?”
Sabra smiled, but there was a wan edge to it. “I can sleep when I’m dead, right?”
“You’re pushing yourself too hard. You need to go home and rest. Sleep, eat a real meal, relax.”
“Okay, sure. When I’m done. There’s so much more I can help with.”
“There’s a point where the more you do, the less you achieve. Sabra, you haven’t been home. Your mom and dad are worried about you.” Hell, I think I am, too.
Another hitch of a shrug. “I’ve been home, I’ve checked on people. The house is fine, yo. My parents are fine. My friends are fine. Why the fuck do you care, anyway?”
Fisher fought down the urge to lurch back. The sudden fire was unexpected, even from Sabra. She was impetuous at the best of times, and that was without however many hours of sleep deprivation and hard work that had brought her to her present state.
He couldn’t quite, however, quell the urge to shoot back.
“Did you even see what The Engineer did out there?” Fisher retorted. “I think you can forgive people a bit of concern.”
Sabra laughed. “Did I see? Yeah, I fucking saw. I tasted it in the back of my throat. I’ve been seeing it for three days. I’ve pulled twenty-one corpses out of the rubble, and that was just on my first day.”
“And there’s no level of respect that’s enough for that,” Fisher said, voice soft, pleasant. Tact. “Trust me, I know. But I know how hard that can be on a person. How much it can eat at you. Just take a day to decompress.”
Sabra waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve got stims.”
“You’ve been taking stims?!”
“Yep. Keeps me alert, keeps me awake, keeps that rush going.”
“Christ, Sabra. I won’t pass that on to your father.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“Yeah, actually. Your dad’s that worried that he sent me. Look, okay, you keep doing whatever it is you’re doing here – but drop the stimulants. If they’re like the ones I used to take, they’re for combat only.”
“Blueshift cleared it,” Sabra replied, which was all the evidence Fisher needed to know she was on the strong stuff. And that name was a key piece of the puzzle.
“Blueshift,” he repeated the name. “Yeah, we’ve met. He’s smart, okay, but… Look, did your dad ever say something like that intelligence without humanity is the ruination of the soul?”
“Yeah,” Sabra said, “And?”
“Look into his eyes and tell me there’s anything more than raw intelligence there. Something burnt out part of his brain. You can’t trust him.”
“And I can trust you?”
Fisher froze. She doesn’t know. She can’t know.
“More than him,” he replied. “When’ve I led you wrong?” The words were like bile in his throat.
Sabra canted her chin at him, like a challenge. Practically a Paradigm expression. “Sounds like you’re telling me to give up. I’m working with Blueshift because he’s SOLAR and because SOLAR’s where I have to be. I don’t need you or anyone else looking out for me.”
Fisher spread his hands, shaking his head, exhaling. There was no winning with Sabra, not when she had it all framed as a competition. “Okay, fine. You win this round, Sabra.”
She took a step back, towards the elevators. “Always do. Now, you can tell mom and dad I’m fine and go back to doing whatever it is you do. Me? I’m going to put my city back together, piece by piece if I have to.”
It was almost admirable. That drive, that honor, that sense of duty. But the only thing it brought to Fisher’s mind was a sense of concern.
“You’ve got it, Fulcrum,” he said.
“Yeah,” Sabra replied, setting her helmet over her head. “Thanks for the talk, Impel. You know where to find me if you want to do more than that.”