Play the fucking game, Sabra, or get off the court.
It was an old saying, that one. It was not one that came from her father, or her mother, or her friends, or even from that cold place inside her brain. It was one that came from the courts, one that Sabra had etched into her marrow and carried in her heart. When the going got tough, when your muscles ached and you gasped for every breath, you played the fucking game.
Just play the fucking game. Play the game. That’s all Sabra had to keep doing. Just keep playing the game. Eyes on the ball, grab the ball. Keep moving up the court, dodge around the obstacles, sink the rock. If you’re sore, Kasembe, someone said in the back of her mind, that just means you’re winning.
And she had to win this one because she was playing for innocent lives.
She’s been playing the game for five days now. Her shoulders ached, and her back was stiff. Her arms and legs, even in the mechanisms of her powered suit, were heavy and sluggish. She alternated between wanting to sleep forever and wanting to never sleep again, depending on the time since she had last injected stims into her wrist.
But her head… her vision, that infinite sight… It spiraled down infinite paths, opened up a kaleidoscope of possibilities. And she walked with the certainty of knowing that if she was going to have her reckoning with Derrek, this was what she had to do.
But explaining it to others, others like Pavel Fisher, that was the difficult part. Somehow, she knew he wouldn’t understand. Somehow, she knew that the only person who could understand was Blueshift – but even he didn’t know the real reason she’d wanted access to adrenal stimulants.
There was one more thing she had to do with him, but not yet.
That was why she was halfway up a swaying, broken skyscraper. Blueshift, five stories above her, had given his assurances that it would not collapse while he was inside of it, and that quelled some of her anxiety. Sabra wandered the floor alone, suit sensors alert for any life signs. It had been five days now, and between hunger, thirst, and something Sabra had learned was called ‘crush syndrome’ it was quite unlikely that she would find any.
Her second sight didn’t help with finding survivors. She kicked down locked doors and turned apartments over, looking for anyone who was unable to call out to her. All she found were signs of habitation, places people had been living. But no signs of life, no survivors.
Survivors. Sabra mulled that word over in her mind. It would be a nice change from finding nothing but corpses for the first day and a half. And there had been some, some vague shapes under tons of concrete, steel and rebar, that were so twisted and snarled and crushed that Sabra wasn’t sure she could even call them corpses.
How many people lived in a building like this, anyway? She tried to run the numbers in her head, but it was all too slippery. Hundreds? More?
Blueshift, his hand outstretched– The building coming down– Ardent, squaring up to the monster– “Run!”
Sabra shook her head. This was a time for heroes, not for memories.
The damage she had seen, the wreckage she was picking through… It was her city, even the parts of it that she didn’t see as home. These people who, for so long, she had felt were some kind of other weren’t too different to her. Not different enough to deny them humanitarian aid, at least.
At the very least, in this case, empty apartments were better than the alternative.
“Fulcrum,” Blueshift’s voice crackled in her ear. “Status.”
“Floor’s empty,” she replied. “If anyone’s on this floor, they’re dead and cold.”
“Understood. I need you up here. We might have something.”
Sabra had to try and focus on the positives.
It felt good to be in a powered suit again. The sensation of leaping up the elevator shaft, going floor to floor on wings of flame, was invigorating. And this time, with a suit fresh out of the Tower armory, she didn’t have to worry about failing jets.
Blueshift floated in the hallway, lights dangling from their sockets above him like a line of hanged men. His fists were clenched, held near his chest, like he was keeping the building steady through sheer will.
“I heard something in 1402,” he said.
“Bad something or good something?”
“Unknown something. On the off chance it is someone who will not be pleased to see us, Fulcrum, I’ll need you to handle it. A lapse in my concentration could be… detrimental.”
“1402,” Sabra nodded, stepping further down the hall. “Got it.”
Sabra popped open the door, although it required her to put her armored shoulder into it. The door came free from the hinges, and the floor crumbled away. Sabra lurched back from the new hole, eyes seeking Blueshift.
“Shit! Blueshift, I thought you were holding this place up, man!”
“I am,” he replied, tone terse. “But even my abilities have their limits. I said the building won’t collapse, I can’t guarantee every square meter.”
“Suit’s too heavy,” Sabra replied. “If I go in there, I’m going to end up ten floors down.”
“Then you won’t go in.” Over the shared commlink, Blueshift said, “Incarnate, you’re up.”
Ah, Incarnate. That was a confusing topic, one Sabra had done her best to ignore since the incident in the warehouse. That had been easy enough, given that she she had been a few floors higher still, working from the top downwards.
Incarnate emerged from the stairwell with that serene sense of precision. She slipped right past Sabra and Blueshift and stepped into suite 1402. Without Sabra’s heavy powered suit, the floor seemed safe.
Sabra turned away from the doorway and gazed out over the damaged skyline.
“You see that shit out there, all the pain. All the suffering. The death,” Sabra said, mostly to herself, but wanting Blueshift to hear, “And you wonder how the world hasn’t ended yet.”
“Mm,” Blueshift said. “The world hasn’t ended yet. It’s just walking a tightrope.”
“And The Engineer’s some asshole trying to swing the rope about.”
“One of the assholes, sure.”
“You make it sound like there’s worse than him out there.”
“Maybe there is. Don’t confuse immediacy with true responsibility.”
“Sounds almost like you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Trust me, it’s no lack of want. But for some of it I can not and some of it I should not. Take your pick.”
Sabra listened for Incarnate and whoever, or whatever, was in the apartment. She heard nothing, took it as a good sign.
The Engineer was gone. He’d left, been sent packing with his tail between his legs. The Concordiat, Ironheart, and a host of capes had seen to that. But he was still there in her memories, with that dead tripartite gaze.
Sabra turned to face Blueshift. “He’s not a cape, is he, Blueshift?”
“The Engineer?” Blueshift raised his head to look at her. “No. Maybe he was, once. But not anymore.”
“You make it sound like something happened to them.”
“I hope so because something obviously did. I’m not at liberty to discuss much of it – Anima and I, we’re on thin ice as it is. But something – these transcendence events – either transformed the Seven or flat out created them. We just need time. Thing is, I think we’re running out of it.”
Sabra sighed. “Playing the classified game? C’mon, man, I thought we were all on the same side here.”
“There’s no such thing as sides, not when it comes to this,” Blueshift replied. “Knowledge has always been considered inert, unable to cause direct harm. In this case, thinking that knowledge can’t hurt you is an extraordinary act of hubris.”
Sabra turned back, looked downward. Liked to think she could see people down there. “You really think we’ve got a chance of stopping them?”
“I know so. I’ve not always been what you would call a good person, but I’ve always been looking for answers. Answers to the Transcended, to how our powers work, even to how and why we got them in the first place. Because with answers comes understanding. And, with understanding, we might just be able to kill them.”
Sabra mulled over those words as she looked out the broken panorama. “Kill what, exactly?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? Can we put the genie back in the bottle…”
Incarnate’s voice interrupted them before Sabra could ask more. “I’ve found someone.”
Sabra turned to face the door, and Incarnate stepped out of the doorway, trailed by someone half her size. A child, a little girl. No more than five or six years old, maybe even less.
Incarnate led her by the hand. The girl was clutching a cat to her chest, the animal limp and only moving in the sense that its legs swayed in time with the girl’s shuffling movements. Under the dust and dirt and blood, Sabra could see shades of pink and purple, pleasant pastel pajama colors.
“Parents?” Blueshift asked, and Sabra was sure that he knew the answer, just as she did.
Incarnate shook her head.
Blueshift exhaled more than he said, “Fuck.”
“The ceiling above the kitchenette collapsed. The mother was killed instantly. There was no sign of the father, although photos indicated–”
“Incarnate,” Blueshift intoned, voice sharp. “I do not need the full report.”
Incarnate nodded. “I will take her to safety.”
Sabra watched them go and wasn’t sure how pleased she was that they had found a survivor.
By the time they returned to Paradigm Tower, the sun had slipped below the horizon. Streetlights cast the broken streets into something more nightmarish. It was time to go off-shift. As much as one had to play the game, you eventually had to take a seat on the bench.
In her case, it was surprisingly literal. She cracked open her suit in the armory, climbed out, and collapsed onto the first bench she bumped into. Sabra eschewed the mess hall – filled with volunteers, smelled of cheap coffee and cheaper carb-heavy food – and everything in it.
Here, at least, she could be alone.
She leaned back, reaching for the locker that had been provided to her. Felt around for the biometric lock, palmed at it until it opened. Sabra had stowed a handful of protein bars in there, and that was all she needed to eat. Anything else would just slow her down.
She set into them. She liked food at the best of times, and stims worked up an appetite.
How could anyone fight that three-armed thing? More importantly, what made people think they could and win? Surely people had to know his capabilities, had to have been trained and taught about them as part of going into that line of work. But, Sabra reflected, even she had balked at it.
Until she’d seen it first-hand.
Had Ardent known? Would it change anything if he had sacrificed himself out of stupidity or not?
If everything about The Seven was true, fighting them had to be the right thing to do. But believing that didn’t make the prospect of going back out there any easier, knowing that she’d only find what had resulted from it: the buried and the dead.
One little girl and five others. It had to be enough. She told herself that everyone else had to have escaped under their own power, but the scales of life and death still felt unbalanced.
Sabra sighed, a little act of attempted meditation. The stress was still there, in her back and shoulders. She rotated about, lied down on her back, crossed her arms over her belly and set her head down. She’d just rest her eyes for–
Something pressed against her shoulder. Sabra lurched upward, hands clenching around the wrappers of her bars, seeking the source of it.
It was Incarnate. She stood at Sabra’s side, silver trim of her armor gleaming in the dull light.
“Are you okay?” Incarnate asked.
What a question. Of course, she was okay. Sabra wanted to scream that at Incarnate’s serene face, to try and find a crack in her quiet intensity. She wanted to laugh and make a joke about how she should be asking her that, given the blast she took. Maybe apologize about the boots, too.
No, never say anything about the boots.
A quick glance downward anyway. Boots looked fine.
“I was just going to rest my eyes,” Sabra replied. “What’re you doing here?”
Incarnate set a bottle of water on the bench. “Stowing my armor,” she explained.
Sabra sat up, rubbed at a new kink in her neck. “You’re off-duty? Do you guys ever go off-duty? I mean, really.”
“No. When on assignment, all SOLAR operatives are on-call twenty-four hours a day.”
“It is duty. And part of my duties entails keeping Aegis informed as to the status of our operative assets.”
“I’m not a part of SOLAR. Your Captain told me that herself.”
“But you are still working with us. If your capabilities are impaired, that will compromise our effectiveness.”
Sabra held Incarnate’s gaze. Tried to figure her out, to think. She had to be around the same age as her, certainly not more than a year or two older, if she was even older at all. There were rumors of some walled town in the United States of America, where kids with powers were raised and trained to be superheroes.
Perhaps more than rumors, really. Her dad believed in it, after all. Perhaps Incarnate was the end result.
“Especially,” Incarnate continued, “if I informed her that you were unconscious.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Then you deliberately ignored my verbal attempt to get your attention?” The question was so pointed it might as well have been a knife. “There are bunks in the secure zone. You may sleep there.”
Sabra crushed her sudden urge to yawn. “I don’t need to sleep,” she lied. “Seriously. I’m ready to get back out there.”
Incarnate tilted her head ever so slightly to the left. “Blueshift also says he does not require sleep.”
“He says a lot of things,” Sabra replied. “Anyway, you’re looking–” good “–well. That shot you took seemed like it hurt.”
“It did not. The breastplate absorbed most of the energy and the armorweave softsuit took care of the rest.”
Sabra glanced to Incarnate’s shining armor. “Looks fine to me.”
“Paradigm Tower is equipped with fabricators. The armor was easily enough replaced.”
“Yeah, I’d say it’s absolutely equipped with fabricators,” Sabra said, grinning.
Bad joke, Sabra thought. Some part of her had hoped it would’ve been stupid enough (yet insightful, Sabra thought) to make Incarnate smile.
And that, Sabra frowned, was an even stupider thought, borne of an idea she shouldn’t have been entertaining – even if just remotely.
A mixture of shame and embarrassment, unbearably potent, circled like vultures in her head, only to alight upon on her cheeks. Sabra pushed herself to rising, snatched up the bottle of water, and muttered something about needing to get back to work.
She was back into the halls of the Tower in moments, where the air felt so much cooler. Incarnate wasn’t following, and that brought another cooling surge of relief.
What was she doing, flirting with her in the middle of the worst crisis Paradigm City had ever seen, like it was some kind of house party? And that was bad enough, but it was worse that she was trying it with someone whose stay on the island would surely only be temporary.
How stupid was she going to be?
SOLAR came in, did the job, and left. Sentinel’s fall had proven that. Whatever they were doing here on Paradigm, it would fall under the same method of operating. Come in, do it, leave. It was merely dark happenstance that events had aligned to keep them here for as long as they had been.
Soon, the SOLAR team would leave, off to save the world somewhere else (always somewhere else, as the ruins attested), and Incarnate would be gone.
All Sabra would have would be memories. Of her grace, of her face, of the way that errant lock of red hair had framed it so perfectly.
Incarnate had saved her life, and Sabra had repaid her by vomiting all over her boots.
Even now, days later, her cheeks burned with embarrassment. The horror of it was a great fount of energy, however, a ready source for a second and third wind. Sabra called on it and jogged down the hall and into the night air, looking for the next set of ruins that needed people to pick through them.
People needed help, and she didn’t need a suit or a codename to do it. She could worry about her own stupid self later.