Sabra sucked the crisp morning air through her nose, bathed in the hazy light of a Wanzed morning, and exhaled fog from her mouth as she ran. Her strides were long, her technique precise, and her time was good. Like her father had always said, running was meditation, and now, more than ever, Sabra needed it.
It’d been two days since she had burst out of the basement, taking the stairs two at a time, and laid claim to leadership of their peculiar family unit. And just as Sabra thought – just as she knew – no one had raised a challenge.
After all, no one else was suitable.
Jack and Sam were not leaders, of course, and had no particular designs on leadership beyond that they didn’t want it. They were soldiers, killers, troubleshooters, and they eschewed anything greater than that for different reasons. Sam, because she preferred being guided so as to eliminate her own responsibility and Jack, because he was terrified of what might happen if he called the shots.
Fisher, of course, hadn’t challenged her because he knew that she could see the future. What hope did he have of leading better than that? And that was, again, suitable enough for Sabra. Pavel Fisher was moral, with a cool head, and that was what she needed. If she was to be Fulcrum, then she would need a point to tether herself to, to prevent her pragmatism from becoming atrocity.
Sabra turned the corner and broke into a sprint, relishing in the exertion. Around her, the suburban streets were waking up. A dog barked at her through the gaps of a white picket fence, and the dog’s owner waved to her. Sabra broke her stride and waved back.
Leadership. It was not something Sabra had truly wanted, but it had been necessary to seize it. The pursuit of Monkey was tied so closely to the dark future she wished to avoid that there was only one way forward. As she pushed through the abyss of the future toward Monkey, it brought her one step closer to Sekhmet and her furious death march.
It was a careful balancing act, of slipping closer to that future without empowering it beyond her ability to stop. But slipping closer would bring with it a greater degree of control, to allow her to expose the fulcrum points where she could grasp her future self’s momentum and destroy it. If she was to stall that momentum, she needed that control.
On the final home stretch, she thought of her father, of the bridge of As-Sirat. She thought of her mother, and her wish that she wouldn’t end up as anything at all.
The future was not set, yet it was growing darker with every passing day. Shapes moved in the abyss, threatening to swamp her in their wake.
She couldn’t fight that future as Sabra, but perhaps she could manage it as Fulcrum. No one else was suitable.
Sabra returned to the safehouse to the welcoming aroma of bacon and eggs. Voices, too, but indistinct. A mid-breakfast planning session. Sabra shucked off her hoodie and slipped off her running shoes, calling, “Something smells good!”
It would smell better than it tasted. Fisher, bless him, was not a particularly good cook. But not even Sam was brave enough to tell him so.
“I hope so,” Fisher called back. “It’s real eggs and real bacon. I take it the run went well?”
“You know it.”
Sabra made her way into the kitchen. The others were clustered around the table, and Sabra scooped up a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs on the way over. Beyond the table, a talking head on the monitor was relaying the morning news. “Team,” Sabra said, “What’ve we got?”
That was the secret. Fisher – Christ and Allah bless him – had wanted to run the group like a family, but that wasn’t possible. They were all just too different, and that familiarity couldn’t be forced. They couldn’t be a family, but they could be a team.
For two days, she had been guiding them like she was setting plays on a basketball court. For two days, Sabra had plunged her mind into the abyss, seeking glimpses of Monkey, and setting the course, adjusting it here and there to ensure they remained on target.
It was strange, Sabra thought, to know that she was heading toward whatever reckoning awaited between them and Monkey, and yet have no idea what was coming.
Jack gestured with his fork. “Incarnate broke the encryption on the drive we recovered. There was no golden bullet on it, no smoking gun. But buried under Monkey’s journal, his notes on his Transcended weapons, there’s a heap of boring logistical stuff. License plates, for example.”
Sabra forked a mouthful of bacon and eggs into her mouth, chewed, swallowed. Definitely smelled better than it tasted. How much pepper had Fisher used?
“Plates, huh?” Sabra said. “We can track those. Do we know he’s using them?”
Sam nodded. “As you said, Jack and I went back to the mine last night. We found tire tracks in the bushland, probably where he stashed an escape vehicle. The problem is that there are six plates there, and Star Patrol’s already been through the mine. The other vehicles are gone.”
Of the three, Sam had been the most skeptical of Sabra’s leadership. But prescient insight had done wonders to bring her on-side. “So, he’s driving one of six.”
Not the best odds at a table, but not the worst either – especially if you knew which cards you could pull.
“Unless he dumped it,” Jack pointed out. “It’s what I’d argue for.”
“You would,” Sam said, “But you’re not there. He wouldn’t have the time now. We caught him with his pants down, and I bet he’s worried that we’re right on his heels. Problem is, we don’t know where he’s gone.”
By the stove, cleaning up, Fisher rolled that thought around, lips twisting left and right. “I don’t think that’s much of a problem,” he said. “We don’t need to know where he’s gone, just where he’s going to go. But that presents another problem. Given what Jack said about Monkey’s plan, that could be anywhere on the planet if he’s really intent on sticking it to the IPSA.”
Incarnate stood by the table, hands clasped behind her back. “If his goal is to reduce the IPSA’s effectiveness, then it is likely that he would attempt to reach the principal facilities in New York or Geneva in order to destroy or subvert them.”
Sabra, devouring another mouthful of bacon and eggs, allowed herself a moment to marvel at Incarnate. Those peculiar canisters in her belongings had been filled with a substance that had patched together her skin. Incarnate had explained what it was, but it had gone through one ear and out the other. Either way, beyond some discoloration, Incarnate could pass as human again – excepting her left eye, which remained obviously inhuman.
She still wasn’t sure what they were, but that was fine enough. For now, she reflected, maybe she’d have to invest in sunglasses.
“Unless he’s still here,” Jack pointed out. “We kicked him in the teeth, basically broke his back, and fucked up whatever he was planning. Now, our normal MO was always to bug out when it got too hot, but we always had Gate or a backup plan we’d worked out in advance. Without either of those, the Wanzed is probably the best place to hide.”
“Unless it’s not safe,” Fisher replied. “We’re not the only ones looking for him, remember.”
“It’s eight hundred kilometers across.” Jack shrugged. “He could be hiding anywhere.”
Sabra shook her head. “No. Not anywhere. He has to be somewhere close enough to live. That means, like, infrastructure.”
“If he’s here.”
“Right. If he’s here. So, let’s knock one possibility off our list. Back home, the police could track vehicles through the traffic lights. We have the plates.” Sabra glanced around to the others. “Do they have a similar system here?”
Incarnate nodded. “Yes.”
“Great. Then all we need is access to the system.”
“Sabra,” Fisher said, “That information is restricted, and invoking Incarnate’s authority might draw too much attention.”
“I know. So, we’ll just sort of borrow access.”
Jack and Sam glanced to each other, obviously picking up on her meaning. “If you can tell us where to go,” Jack said, “we’ll take care of it tonight.”
“Of course,” Sam added, grinning, “Breaking into some traffic control center is a bit below our usual fare. But I think we can handle it.”
“Just remember our one rule,” Sabra said, voice firm. “It’s the only one I’m holding you to.”
“Yeah, we know. No killing unless everything gets all fucked up, you’ve got it. But there’s a bigger snag. Even if we have the plates, that’s a lot of information to go over and cross-reference. We’re going to need someone, or something, to handle that.”
The meaning was obvious. Sabra glanced over to Incarnate. “You up for a bit of data crunching?”
Again, Incarnate nodded. “Of course, Sabra.”
Then Fisher said, frowning, “Well, here’s a problem.”
He’d been silent for a time, Sabra realized. She turned, finding him staring at the monitor and a breaking bulletin. Sabra peered at the screen. There was Southern Cross, standing at a podium, flanked by Great Barrier and two capes she didn’t recognize. “What? What’s the problem?”
Fisher’s frown deepened. “Star Patrol has just closed off all roads leading out of the Wanzed. Unless someone wants to try crossing the continent on foot, no one’s going anywhere.”
“It’s basically a state of emergency,” Fisher said, later, once Jack and Sam had returned from the reconnaissance of their target. “Star Patrol has figured out something’s not right in this little model town.” On the monitor, Southern Cross was holding another press conference.
“Took ’em long enough,” Sam muttered from her chair, cleaning her rifle.
“Yeah. Turns out a bunch of dead people in an old mine, plus that little suburban raid, will spook the capes in charge. If Southern Cross is here, then they’re really wanting to get to the bottom of this.”
Southern Cross was tall and broad-shouldered, an immaculate beard along his jawline. His blue and green costume, mask and all, was dominated by five white stars in a kite-like pattern. When people said superhero, Sabra knew, they imagined something like him.
She turned from the monitor and asked, “Do you know him?”
Fisher shook his head. “No,” he said. “Cross was after my time. He’s one of the new generations of capes, equipped to handle the political battlefield just as much as the empowered one. But that doesn’t mean he has a glass jaw. Political beast or not, it’s good PR to be able to go toe-to-toe with the bad guys.”
“Which,” Sam pointed out with a wry smirk, “In this case, is us.”
Sabra nodded. She had seen him, and his immaculate beard, his blue uniform and mask, in some of the possible futures and violence popped off him like static charge.
“Right,” she said. “So, if they’re bringing in their boss and shutting down all the routes out, what’re we dealing with here?”
“A blockade,” Jack replied. “I went over the map of this place. There are four highways out of the Wanzed, and all arterial roads lead to them. If you’re not looking to cross the country on foot, that’s the only way out.”
“So,” Sabra said, “If we leave, they’re going to intercept us.”
“Yeah. And while you and Pavel might be fine, they’ll almost certainly be able to get past our cover identities.”
He was using their given names more often, Sabra noted. Good. That was important. But that was about something yet to happen, and Sabra wrenched her awareness back to the Jack in the now.
Jack continued, “With the blockade hemming everyone in, they can just drag a net through the Wanzed.”
“And there generally aren’t many people trying to leave this place,” Fisher said.
“You can count on drones in the air, too. If anyone tries to escape on foot, they’re going to get picked up, and capes or cops will be vectored in. This whole place is going to be on high alert.”
“We’ll cross this bridge when we have to,” Sabra said. “For now, the only thing that matters is getting more information on Monkey’s whereabouts.”
“We might need to cross that bridge tonight, Sab,” Fisher said. “If Jack and Sam trigger any alarms, they might end up with Southern Cross in the response team. We may need to wait for this storm to pass.”
Sabra shook her head. She had already inspected the possibilities of hesitation and patience. There, Monkey was so far away.
“We can’t wait,” she replied. “Tonight, I’ll suit up and go with the others, just in case.”
Fisher frowned. “Sabra,” he said, more serious than usual, “Do not get into a scrap with the leader of Star Patrol.”
“I’ll just be insurance.” She could make better decisions from a distance, after all.
Fisher was not convinced, so, Sabra gave him her most winning smile. “Come on, Pavel,” she said. “Who do you think I am? If Jack and Sam do precisely as I say, we’ll be just fine.”
Fisher just nodded, and they moved on then, to the specifics of planning the night’s mission. And despite her smile, despite her bravado, something gnawed at Sabra.
There was something dark on the horizon, churning the abyss with violence. Sabra had already glimpsed the oncoming night, and knew it to be related to that. But it was not the apocalyptic death march of Sekhmet and her legions, but something else.
Something more familiar, something closer, and something far more personal.