There was no funeral for Miss Millennium, and Fisher hadn’t counted on one. The Engineer’s killing strike had disintegrated her body into nothing but ashy particulate. It had been caught in the storm winds and, by now, had probably blown halfway around the world. As far as ceremonies went, it was perhaps the best a hero could hope for.
There was a monument within the sprawling IPSA complex in Geneva. A simple quadrilateral obelisk of flowing marble, some marvel of Golden Age techniques, emblazoned with the names of all superheroes who had lost their lives in defense of the world. Now, Fisher reflected, Miss Millennium’s name was just one of many.
He didn’t even mourn. In a way, Katherine had been right – she had practically died years ago, and allowing The Engineer to give her a blaze of glory was merely the full stop on a long, painful epilogue. There was a sadness, but it was distant. Academic.
On his balcony, in the crisp morning air, Fisher exhaled as Octopus pressed around his ankles. The hospital had been kind enough to provide him with what personal effects Katherine still had. A dog-eared book, her hand terminal, and a scattering of photos. Except for him, Katherine’s will had named only people who were dead or missing. It had been a reminder that, of the storied Millennium Brigade, there was no one left.
His phone chimed.
Years ago, there had been a time where, for every hour of every day, he had thought he’d get a call from Mark. By now, the thought wasn’t even painful. Sore, sure – but not painful.
His phone chimed, again, and Fisher answered it.
“Hey, Pavel,” Asadi’s voice was just as rich as Fisher remembered it. “I heard about what happened.”
“It could’ve been worse.”
“I don’t mean the attack. I mean Miss Millennium. I’m truly sorry for your loss.”
“She’s not suffering anymore,” Fisher said, with a shrug. “It’s the best anyone can hope for.”
Octopus rubbed at Fisher’s leg. Insistent, probably hungry for a third breakfast. Damn cat had been spoiled with two. Fisher scooped him up under his arm. “Surprised to hear you calling this number,” he said, at last.
“Me too, in a way.” Asadi was silent for a few moments, and Fisher had the impression that his old boss was working his way up to a difficult topic. “With everything that’s happened, and with me being back in the city, I had a word with my bosses. They’re prepared to take you back onboard, same pay package. Can even get you situated somewhere better than Paradigm City.”
Hah. Nothing like a city-scale disaster to bring people together.
Fisher let Asadi soak in the silence. He couldn’t mention the SOLAR ‘job’, of course. There was a siren’s song there, the comfortable prospect of being able to work and drink and continue to amount to nothing. But, for the first time in years, the metaphor felt surprisingly apt: that job would seduce him, and eat him alive.
“Actually,” Fisher replied, “I’m thinking about getting back on the ol’ heroic horse. So to speak.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Pavel, but… I’m surprised.”
“Me too. I guess you could say I found my calling again, even at my age. Turns out you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the old dog can maybe remember the ones it used to know. Maybe used to be damn good at it, too.”
“Huh. Well, congratulations, my friend. I hope it works out for you. I mean that.”
“Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting. Besides, you don’t really want to read another drunken report.”
Asadi chuckled. “I suppose. But I’m glad that our last conversation won’t be our final one.”
“Don’t cry on me, Iskandar. I couldn’t handle it.”
Laughter. “Look. The job’ll stay open for as long as I’m here to arrange it. Three weeks. But personally, as your friend, if there’s anything FireWatch can do to help you in the future, call me directly, okay?”
“You’ve got it.”
“Good luck, Pavel. I hope whatever calling you’ve found treats you right, new or otherwise.”
“Sure. Same to you. Give my regards to Yulia and the kids.”
“I’ll tell them we’ll see you on the news. Good hunting, Pavel.”
The line clicked dead. Fisher turned, carried Octopus back inside and set him within the last box he’d crawled onto. Good hunting? Sounded like something you’d say to the cat. Not stay safe or take care or even good luck. Good hunting. It made him sound like a soldier.
His phone chimed again. This time, he checked the number before answering. He didn’t recognize it, and in the aftermath of a disaster like an attack by one of the Seven, an unidentifiable number could be anything. But probably someone hoping to take advantage of the vulnerable.
He answered anyway. When he heard the familiar voice with its strangely unrecognizable accent, he wasn’t sure if they weren’t a scammer – their character was somewhat dubious, and they’d certainly have the legal legitimacy to get away with it.
“Paradigm Park,” said Blueshift. “Five minutes, at the scar. We need to talk.”
Then he was gone.
Fisher hesitated for a moment, content to pretend like he hadn’t heard. But the fact that someone like him was calling him, wanting to talk with him — it made Fisher curious, at least.
He set Octopus down, gathered up his jacket, and made for the door. There really was nothing like a city-scale disaster to bring people together.
Paradigm Park dominated a southern stretch of the metropolis: a big rectangle filled with trees, gentle hills, winding water features, and little gazebos in that peculiar Paradigm glass-and-Greek style. It reminded Fisher of nothing more than New York’s twice-rebuilt Central Park, where he and Mark had taken a romantic getaway.
The resemblance lasted in the mind about as long for it took someone to notice the great scar running down the center of it. A long trench of churned earth, perhaps the most visible remaining marker of the battle that had ensued between Sentinel and SOLAR. The media had called it a ‘true Golden Age brawl.’ A few tourists stood around it, taking photos, evidently buying into the narrative.
But it wasn’t, of course. Couldn’t be. Golden Age capes didn’t take political sides.
It had taken Fisher ten minutes to get to Paradigm Park, and another five to find Blueshift. The SOLAR cape had to have known he couldn’t get there in five. It had to be a power play of some sort. Blueshift stood at the middle of a bridge, in a black leather jacket and jeans, his hands on the railing, as if he was some kind of monarch brooding over all that he could survey.
“Impel,” Blueshift said, as he approached. Fisher stopped three paces away.
“Blueshift. I take it this isn’t a social call.”
“As perceptive as ever.”
“So, what do you want?”
Blueshift’s eyes remained on the far side of the scar, as if watching a pocket of tourists. “Oh, so many things. I lost a bet, you know? I told an associate that they would have cleaned up all the damage from the fight by now.”
“Sounds like someone doesn’t like to be wrong.”
“I just find it interesting, these little moments that remind me that even I can be wrong. It’s comforting. Enough about old history. I want to talk about Fulcrum.”
“Works for me. What’d you do, getting her on stims like that?”
“She asked, I obliged. She’s an adult. And more capable of taking care of herself than you realize. I found her a new suit, too, and she’s doing good work. Focus on the negatives if you wish.”
“If I leave right now, are you going to invoke that ‘insurance policy?’”
Blueshift smirked, but his gaze didn’t waver. “You have such a negative view of me.”
“I’ve met people like you before.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have. But this conversation isn’t about me. What do you know about Fulcrum’s ability?”
Fisher, aware that this was not a conversation he could back out from, stepped up towards the railing. “I’ve seen it in action. But all I really have is guesswork.”
“If I had to guess, it’s something to do with technology, maybe a psycho-conceptual type. It was during the attack on the tower. We were in the armory, and she went into this trance, got her suit working again. Handled her tools like she had to win a race. Had no idea she’d done it.”
Blueshift turned his eyes upward, toward the horizon. His thumb and forefinger played at his stubbled jaw, like a maudlin philosopher. “What else happened?”
“She defeated Taurine.”
“These two data points are related,” Blueshift stated, then shook his head. “You want to teach this woman how to be a true superhero, and yet you haven’t even considered what training she needs.”
“And you know?”
Blueshift turned his tired, arrogant gaze on Fisher. “I know enough,” he said, “to have significant concerns.”
Such a frank admission brought Fisher up short. “That… isn’t what I expected to hear from you.”
“The greatest threat to our existence, Impel, is that of someone with incredible power and a willingness to use it shortsightedly. The second is, of course, someone with that same power who uses it unknowingly. It is the reason why IPSA maintains facilities like the Academy in New York, to eliminate these possibilities.”
“You ask me, her parents have done a good job at raising her right.”
“Which still leaves the second possibility. We are allies in this, although our methods differ. If we’re going to work together to bring down the Animal group, we must know the extent – the true extent – of Fulcrum’s capabilities.”
“I don’t know how it relates to her victory over Taurine. What else have we got to work with? Who else has she fought?”
“We can confirm engagements Star Patrol and a member of Taurine’s group known as Quad Mantis. As well as Incarnate, of course – and standing up to her as well as she did should have been impossible.”
“Is that why you arranged that little bout?”
“There’s no need to phrase your deduction like a question.”
“So it was a test.”
“More of an experiment. I had to know it was more than the armor.”
Fisher let his mind slip to a different topic. “Incarnate. What you said. Is she a null too?”
“Even answering that would risk bringing me up against some severe injunctions, Impel. Think of another question.”
“I thought you came here to talk, not to engage in cryptic bullshit.”
That smirk again. “I hoped that your attempt at apprenticing Fulcrum was built on something more pragmatic than morals. That you had gleaned something I had not.”
“She built a suit,” Fisher replied, trying to drive down a verbal nail. “Look, I don’t have any information for you. I’d assumed that the kid had her share of luck.”
“That’s where we differ: there’s no such thing as luck. By believing in it, you’re blinding yourself to the truth.” Blueshift pushed himself off the balcony, took a second to adjust the collar of his jacket, then stepped away.
“Yeah? And what’s that truth, Blueshift?”
Blueshift turned back, his face blank. “The truth, Impel, is that Fulcrum’s power – whatever it may be – should be causing you far more concern than it evidently is.” He had already shoved his hands in his pockets, begun the long walk to the other side of the bridge. “Be seeing you, Impel.”
Fisher watched him go, let the words hang in the air as he looked out over the side of the bridge again. He caught sight of a new group of tourists taking photos in the trench that marked the fall of a god. Blueshift had taken part in that. Who knew what else he had done over the years. The man seemed to rejoice in holding information above people, so why had he come to talk?
A thought kindled in his brain then, sparking once. A sense of sympathetic recognition. But the more he turned his attention inward, the more obvious the realization was.
“Jesus,” Fisher mused to the horizon. “What the hell scares someone like Blueshift?”
Later, on an uncomfortable couch in the Kasembe living room, Fisher stirred his tea. “This is going to seem like a pretty forward question,” he began, “But when was the first time that Sabra started displaying evidence of any empowered capability?”
Across from him, Esmer and Farah looked to each other. His asking that wasn’t a surprise – hell, Esmer made it quite clear they both knew and had known for some time. But it said quite loudly that they knew exactly when.
“She was fifteen,” Farah said. “It started as sleepwalking and nightmares.”
“Started?” Fisher hadn’t had either. But that wasn’t unusual: the later you developed your powers, the more prominent – and punishing – were the side-effects. IPSA had a wealth of knowledge about the topic, but it was nothing Fisher had bothered to read. Most of it was hypotheses, anyway.
“She hotwired our car,” Esmer said, with something like pride. “I thought someone was trying to steal it. But there she was, half-conscious in the driver’s seat, reciting the parts of an ignition circuit over and over again.”
“Sleepjacking. That’s new.”
Farah sipped from her mug. “It was a rough two years. It got worse, the episodes more frequent. Sabra closed up, refused to talk about it. We took her to an expert, a psychologist named Wu. And then, as best as we could tell, the episodes stopped. We thought it was just stress. School, boxing, dating.”
Fisher nodded. “Intense stress is said to be one one of the triggers behind adolescent or post-adolescent empowerment. Boxing…” In his mind’s eye, Fisher saw Sabra kick Taurine out the window, and fight Incarnate to something like a stalemate. “I’ve seen her fight. I wouldn’t want to be on the end of her fists, gloves or not. How’d she do?”
“A few medals, but she lost as many times as she won,” Esmer said with just as much pride as before.
“Sounds like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Esmer’s expression snap-froze. “You could say that.” Once again, Fisher had the thought that the amiable father was nothing more than a bear – and that he’d come very close to seeing the claws.
“Let’s go back to the sleepwalking,” Fisher said, and Esmer’s expression wandered back to that ever-friendly smile. “I’ve seen her working on that suit. Same thing. She zones out, starts stripping wires and welding plates like she’s a natural. Whatever it is she’s picked up, she can direct it, but she can’t control it.”
“I’ll admit,” Farah began, “I do not understand the concern. It doesn’t seem like the ability can hurt anyone, and Sabra herself hasn’t been experiencing any side effects.”
“Me either. But SOLAR’s interested in her, and whatever it is she can do.”
“SOLAR,” Esmer said the word with something like contempt.
“Yeah. And I don’t think her power is to make a suit. That’s just… forcing a square into a circle.”
The front door opened, closed. Esmer turned in his seat, and Fisher turned his chin up as if that’d help him see around the corner.
Sabra lurched into view, and set herself against the opening to the room, trying to look casual despite the haggard cast to her features, the slump to her shoulders. Even from where he was sitting, Fisher could see the redness in her eyes.
“Oh, shit,” she sighed, eyes on Fisher. “You’re here.”
“Sabra,” Farah chided, rising from her seat, followed by her husband.
“Don’t stress on my behalf,” Fisher said. “She’s been busy.”
“So goddamn busy,” Sabra replied. “You don’t even know.”
Then there was hugging and crying and why didn’t you say anything earlier and we’re not mad but with everything that happened… Fisher sat there, feeling more awkward than usual, and finished off his tea.
“I can’t stay up long,” Sabra said, extricating herself from her parents’ arms. “I need to get my beauty sleep. There’s this whole thing happening at eight.”
That drew Fisher’s attention back. “A thing? What do you mean?”
“You don’t know? Blueshift said all the capes would be there. Important people, too. I’m so out of it, y’know? Kind of hard to remember the details.”
“You know, he forgot to mention it,” Fisher replied. “Is this a formal event, Sabra?”
Her brow furrowed. “Yeah. Shift called it an Assembly.”
“Haven’t heard that word being used like this for a very long time.” Fisher tapped his fingers against the side of his cup, listened to the sound of them on the ceramic. “You’re sure that’s what he said?”
Sabra just blinked in reply, and it took her long enough that Fisher had the briefest thought that she had fallen asleep on her feet. Then, “I’m tired, Ironhands, not deaf.”
“Okay. Noted. Then I’m coming too.”
Sabra shrugged, shuffling off in the direction of her bedroom. “You do that.”
“I’m just saying, Sabra, I hope you know how big an event this is.”
“Uh, yeah,” Sabra replied, poking her head out of her bedroom doorway. “I have a suit.”
The door closed. Esmer said, “An Assembly. I wasn’t aware they were still held.”
“Me either,” Fisher replied. “I haven’t heard of one being hosted in years. SOLAR might want to see who’s willing to play ball after what just happened. Assemblies can be… intense.”
Esmer just nodded.
Farah raised the pot of tea. “Another?”
Fisher nodded, held his cup out towards her. “Sure.”
He had time to kill, anyway.