Sabra picked at the cuffs of her black jacket and tried not to look as out of place as she felt. The elevator hummed around her and Fisher and, for some reason, that made her anxious. Everything was so bright. Fisher stood on the other side of the elevator, hands in his pockets. Her hands were twitching, fingers fidgeting. Nerves.
“You ever been to something like this before, man?” Sabra asked, adjusting her bright red bowtie. Felt like it wasn’t straight enough.
“Yeah,” Fisher said. “Assemblies are one of those really optimistic things that defined the Golden Age.” His eyes wandered to her hands. “You okay?”
“Just nerves,” Sabra replied, pulling her hands away. “Which is weird. It’s like I have to keep moving my fingers to know they’re there. You ever feel like that?”
Fisher eyed her. He shook his head, exhaling, eyebrows raised. Weird expression. Sabra wasn’t sure why he was making it. “That’s classic stim withdrawal,” he said.
That had to be it. She vaguely remembered something about stims and that they had been disappointing. She focused on her fingers. The urge to rub the bright red nail polish off her nails was like thunder in her ears, a cyclone in her brain. “Fuck,” she murmured.
“I’m not going to say I told you so.”
“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. Keep talking. Distract me from my stupid decision, please.”
“Okay,” Fisher replied, settling on his elbows, leaned on the elevator wall. “I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s like a formal ball, for capes. Preceptor came up with it. The idea is that you’d have these meetings, where capes can show up without their masks and talk about things.”
“I wasn’t finished. It’s for capes on both sides of the law.”
“Can I change my previous answer to nice but stupid?”
“The idea is that we could all just talk about things without having the pressure of the cape on our shoulders. You’d be surprised how stupid people can get when they put on a mask.”
“Did it ever work?”
Fisher’s eyes settled somewhere distant. “Sometimes.”
“Seems like a stupid idea, but what do I know about things,” Sabra replied, shrugging. “I’m sure I can just sit down with Bushranger and have a drink, and we’ll put it all behind us.”
“Hey, you might. Don’t count it out. Reconciliation and all that.”
Fisher exhaled. “Look, you don’t have a filter at the best of times. This isn’t a party, this is politics. Seriously, Sabra, you need to be careful here. This’s the sort of event where you might meet your nemesis on the dance floor, and you’d need to pretend you’ve never seen them before.”
“My nemesis is half the world away. Sounds like you’re talking from experience.”
“Yeah, but not who you’re thinking of.”
“I don’t know. Maybe she’ll be here. I heard Aegis let her go.” The elevator dinged and Sabra found herself by the doors, prodding at the button to open them. “I guess that’s politics for you, right?”
“Yeah,” Fisher said, pushing himself off the wall to follow her out, taking a second to adjust his bright orange tie. “I guess it is.”
The ballroom was towards the top of Paradigm Tower, a vast expanse of polished floorboards, immaculate pillars and dazzling lights. It was an entire floor that presented a ludicrous idea of wealth, something that Sabra had only seen in movies. Did it just sit here unused except for however many times Sentinel had decided to host some kind of cape meet-and-greet?
There weren’t words for it, and there weren’t words for that.
Sabra pushed out into the clusters of people in their suits and dresses, more than a few of them wearing formal shoulder capes. She had thought she looked pretty sharp in her black suit, until just that moment – that moment where she had the dawning realization that she hadn’t known what sharp truly was. She was lost. She’d pushed too far into the crowd, lost Fisher, and now the whole floor felt like she’d wandered into somewhere more dangerous than the worst parts of West End.
At least, in those parts of the city, you could tell who was dangerous if you knew what to look for.
Okay, Sabra thought, trying to focus on everything around her. I’m coming down off some serious stims, and a lack of sleep and I’m surrounded by people who might hate me.
Strangely, it wasn’t the worst situation she thought she could be in.
She slipped through the crowds, trying to get a measure of who was who – or who she thought was who. There, a tall brunette in a blue dress, Australian accent. Sabra pegged her as Great Barrier. Admittedly, that insight may have come from the fact that the blonde man standing to her right was missing his left arm from the bicep down.
That had to be Wedgetail. His terrified screaming echoed in her ears, and the red of her nails suddenly seemed a shockingly poor choice. She averted her gaze. A conversation she wanted to have, but not one she wanted to risk. Not yet. Not until she knew what to say.
Sabra altered course, turned right and took a straight bearing towards the bar. If Fisher was anywhere, he’d probably be there, getting a drink. But, as she drew closer, she realized that he wasn’t.
She settled at the bar anyway. The bartender, a short man with a clipped haircut, drifted in her direction. “What’re you having?”
Sabra squinted at the bottles and taps, then looked to the bartender. “You got Paradigm Red?”
The bartender gave her a look. “We do,” he said, “But there’s better, imported stuff here. You know the Tower’s picked up the tab.”
Sabra shrugged. “Okay. But maybe I like Paradigm Red.”
The bartender shrugged, filled a glass with her cheap beer of choice and handed it over. Sabra turned, drink in hand, and let her eyes wander the crowds again, tried to put faces to identities. There, Blueshift, with Anima at his side, both in dress uniforms. Beyond them, by the window, Fisher and Aegis and Desi – that last one led her wandering eyes to pause. She studied the three for a moment, but hadn’t spontaneously learned to lip-read.
Sabra moved her gaze onward. Everyone else, however, she only identified in the vague sense from having seen them on the news. Political types.
Sabra frowned around the lip of her glass. The whole thing was a stupid pantomime, and in more ways than one. Blueshift had told her about this for a reason. She had to figure out the reason.
To her right, a distraction. A familiar Scottish brogue. “Hey.”
The simple casualness of the greeting caused Sabra shock enough that she, just barely, controlled the urge to drop her drink. She turned on her heel, as if to study the source and make sure that she wasn’t hallucinating. Red hair, electric-blue eyes, midnight blue dress uniform trimmed in silver.
“I’m sorry,” Incarnate continued. “I wasn’t aware that it would be such a shock.”
Thoughts became words and they fell out of Sabra before she could catch them. “I wasn’t aware you could speak in contractions.” She blanched, aware of what she blurted out and how she must look, of her breathing.
“Duty has its obligations.”
“Yeah, I guess it does.” Sabra continued, gestured vaguely in the direction of the bar. “Are you drinking? Bartender says they’ve got good, imported stuff.”
Incarnate raised up a hand in a polite negative.
There were more people clustering around the bar now, none of them familiar. Sabra’s nerves, already lit and sparking, flashed quicker. She glanced for an escape route, found one. She caught Incarnate’s gaze, pointed her chin to one of the tables at the edge of the floor, and set out.
She pulled up at the table, Incarnate opposite, but her breathing wasn’t any easier.
“I don’t understand what any of this is,” Sabra said, at last. “For the longest time, I thought the world made sense. I stand here, looking at all this, and the only thing I know is that it doesn’t.”
Incarnate was silent, but not in an inattentive way.
“Look at this,” Sabra said, pointing. “All these people, all this money. And things just get worse. Not that I can speak. I didn’t even achieve what I set out to do when I first put my helmet on, y’know?” She rubbed at her face, suddenly tired, exhausted. “I’m sorry. It’s the sleep deprivation. I didn’t mean to start complaining.”
It’s not. But Sabra raised her glass to her lips, took a drink.
“Look,” she said, setting her glass down. “There’s something I wanted to say. Well, two things I wanted to say. I want to say thanks for saving my life, because I didn’t do that until now.”
Incarnate nodded. “It’s my job.”
“The second thing is… Sorry for throwing up all over your boots.”
“The damage was minimal,” Incarnate replied, with a hint of a smile.
Sabra turned her eyes back toward the diverse crowds, kept Incarnate in her peripherals. She scoped about but caught no sight of Jack-Leopard, and that gave her some meager reassurance. Last she’d seen of him, he’d been in the mess hall, days ago.
Just before the whole city had gone straight to hell.
“You know what gets to me?” Sabra said, mind filling with the dust and ruins of the past week. “It’s the shoes.”
“The shoes, Sabra? What do you mean?”
“In all the ruins. On the roads. You see shoes, right? But you don’t see the bodies the shoes come from.”
“That’s due to the force of whatever struck that particular person. The force can set the body spinning, causing shoes and other loose items of clothing to come off.”
“Not just the shoes.” Sabra waved her hand about in a vague motion. “It’s the hats, the toys, and little things. Things that used to belong to people and now they don’t. Now the people don’t exist anymore. I don’t know why.”
“You don’t know why those people no longer exist?”
Sabra shook her head. “No. I don’t know why it bothers me.”
“Death is traumatic, Sabra.”
“It’s not that,” Sabra replied. “Like, I saw my first body when I was six years old. You grow up here and you kind of get used to it, stop seeing the shell casings, the red marks on the concrete. We’d be going through high school and the boys and some of the girls, they’d put their money into the game, take their chances. Some of them would die, yeah. But I guess I’d know why. It was just the game.”
Sabra turned, looking at Incarnate. “I don’t know why any of these people died. Like, I know it was because of The Engineer’s attack, right? But why did he come here and why now? Why do I have this feeling in my brain?” She tapped at her temple. “Like this is all a part of something?”
“This is outside my area of expertise. I’m sorry.”
“I know. I’m sorry, too. You’ve got better things to do than worry about me.”
“That’s not true. Tonight is one of the few nights where I’ve had nothing to worry about.”
Sabra smiled, looked away. Her gaze settled on the dance floor, on the far side of the ballroom. “Then I guess there’s one more thing I can ask.” But she caught sight of Blueshift, heading for the elevator, and felt an awareness blossom behind her eyes.
There was one more thing she needed to do.
Sabra shut her eyes, hung there for a few moments more. “I have to go,” she said.
“Where?” Incarnate asked.
Sabra let her vision spread out from her, into the abyss. The imago of her reckoning with Derrek grew brighter. Violence, screaming and her name amid both. She pulled back before it could subsume her senses entirely. Blueshift, and the one thing she had to do.
Sabra opened her eyes and set them on the elevator. “To the top of the tower.”
“Because I need answers,” Sabra said, “And that’s where I’m going to find them.”