The world returned to Pavel Fisher in a heady haze, pinned to his awareness through two painful points of reference. The first was a throbbing between his temples, like the mother of all hangovers, and the other ached across his left cheek. The ground was cold, hard and uncomfortable and Fisher wasn’t sure how he had ended up there.
Had he been drinking again? He grimaced at the thought, disgusted. He had kicked the bottle. The whole point of coming on this fool’s crusade was to kick the damn thing onto another continent, so far away that even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to chase it, and he’d relapsed so badly he didn’t even know he’d done it.
Pathetic. There was no other word for winding up on the floor like this.
But through the throbbing haze, a thought: he had kicked it. He hadn’t had a drink since they’d left Paradigm. But that just raised more questions. They. They. Who were they? When he focused his thoughts, he could summon up impressions of four faces, but recognition eluded him.
Get up. Don’t spend all night on the floor again.
Fisher groaned, and pushed himself to standing, only for something to yank him back to the ground, snarled by his wrist. He slipped back, banged the back of his head against something hard. Turning his head, blinking away the stars, Fisher caught sight of the culprit responsible: nullifier cuffs, leading from his wrist to the exposed curve of a gnarled root for a tree that must’ve stood for a thousand years.
That little spike of adrenaline was enough to get his brain working. He was outside, in the cold, cuffed to a tree. A park, maybe. Somewhere isolated. Looking about, the lights of a city glimmered in the distance. Fisher assumed Perth, but in a post-Golden Age world, he could’ve been anywhere. He wasn’t even sure how long he had been out.
Or who had put him here.
He patted his pocket with his free hand, searching for his phone. Missing, of course. Fisher mused to the night’s air, “Where the fuck am I?”
A response came in the sound of heavy footfalls.
A broad-shouldered shape loomed closer, long coat waving in the breeze. Even the bleary Wanzed moonlight was enough to illuminate the man’s stupid bucket of a helmet and make him recognizable, even if the skull etched into it was new.
“Howdy, mate,” Bushranger said, “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
Fisher felt his mouth drop open. “What the fuck have you done?”
“I could ask you the same question, mate.”
“You broke into my home. You knocked me out. And now you’ve got me cuffed to a tree. What the fuck is this?”
Bushranger stepped closer. It occurred to Fisher then that the Australian cape was a big man, and that he was cuffed to a tree. In another life, he could’ve slipped the cuff from his wrist.
In another life, you never would’ve ended up here. Tact.
Bushranger crouched down. “Justice.”
“This is abduction. Assault.”
“Yeah. But there’s that old saying about eyes for eyes, right? But here’s a bit nicer than a basement. You can get some fresh air, at least, hey?”
Fisher closed his eyes. He’d found Derrek. Bushranger had found that stupid kid, and now it’d come back to bite him in the ass. Some part of Fisher wanted to laugh. Of all the people in their little band, of course, karma would be visited upon him.
“You don’t know what’s going on.”
“I want to talk to someone in charge. I’m hunting a dangerous fugitive, and you’re in danger of fucking it all up.”
Bushranger chuckled. “Are you?” His helmet tilted ever so slightly. “See, I think I know what’s going on. When you and Fulcrum paired up, I thought I had it all figured out. But you’re not interested in women, are you?”
Bushranger leaned forward, his helmet just an inch from Fisher’s nose. “Is that why you kept him in your basement, Pavel? Is that why you beat him?”
Fisher grit his teeth until it felt like his molars would shatter, and held it. “You piece of shit. You fucking– you have no idea what’s going on. Where’s your boss? Where’s Southern Cross?”
“Do you know what happened to me after our little showdown in Paradigm City, Pavel?” Bushranger asked, like he hadn’t heard him.
“It never once crossed my mind.”
“After your SOLAR buddies left, Southern Cross came by. He had a lot of talks, wanted to get to the bottom of everything that happened. Everyone got a nice little pardon, maybe a slap on the wrist. But not me. I got stripped of my active duties, my combat pay, and assigned here, to push papers.” He talked like they were friends.
“How unfortunate that you got to keep your easy duties and your salary. You’re lucky they didn’t strip you of everything after what you pulled. Going after someone’s family? What is wrong with you?”
“What is wrong with me?” Bushranger asked. “Oh, right, those ‘unspoken rules.’ They’re fucking bullshit, mate. What, you think good, honest people go and hide behind them when things get rough?”
Fisher shook his head. “What do you want me to say? Or did you just drag me out here to hear you whine about the fact that your superiors did their goddamn jobs?”
Yeah, fuck tact.
Bushranger was still in a way that spoke of contained anger. “I’ve already got what I wanted from you. You’re bait, mate, and I’m the hook that’s going to drag Fulcrum in.”
“This is completely insane. You know that, right?”
“This is my country. This is my home. Do you know what insane is, mate? Insane is the little trail of destruction you’ve left across a place that’s so boring that they send capes here to die. Did you think no one would notice?”
“No one has.”
“Yeah. Because I’ve been intercepting the reports, fixing things so we can have this rematch. So I can get my fucking job back. When I bring Fulcrum in, I’ll finish what got started in Paradigm City.”
Fisher shook his head. “I’m not going to lure her here.”
“You don’t have to. See, I just made the phone call, as a matter of fact. Your pal Fulcrum will be here shortly, I reckon.”
“Then what? Because last time I saw it, she kicked your ass and I’m guessing you don’t have any backup to bail you out this time.”
Bushranger stood up. “Then I try to arrest her, she resists, and I’m forced to kill her. No matter the way this goes, I win. I’ll let you chew on that for a while,” he added, stepping away.
This time, Fisher laughed. He lulled his head back against the smooth, hard bark of the eucalypt and laughed until he had to gasp for breath. “You really do think you’re a good person, Bushranger, don’t you? Not because of anything you do, but because you’ve got the fancy uniform. You think that because you have this institutional backing, it’s proof that you’re moral.”
He could’ve been talking to himself twenty years ago.
Bushranger turned back. “You’re one to talk, mate. Tell me, how’d the Golden Age end again?”
“I’ve never seen such a bizarre combination of naked pathology and moral cowardice in my life!” Fisher crowed. “You know what, you’re right. I’m an old, scared man who has lost everything and doesn’t know how to get it back. But here’s the thing. You think you’re good, but goodness has never saved the world.”
Fisher slumped, looking up at Bushranger through his eyebrows. “You think you’re a hero?” He scoffed. “The word hero never meant good. It never had anything to do with morality. The old Greeks, they knew that heroes weren’t good, they knew that they were great, and that only idiots confused the two. Greatness shakes the world and, my friend, Fulcrum is tectonic.”
Bushranger weathered the storm of words, silent behind his helmet.
“We’ll see,” he said, and turned away. “We’ll see.”
Fisher heard Sabra before he saw her. He heard the heaviness of her suited steps, the near-silent sigh and whine from the mechanisms of her armored suit. Bushranger held his ground as Sabra first appeared as a dark shape, and then came more properly into view. The moonlight gleamed off her green helmet.
“Pavel,” Sabra said. “Are you alive?”
“I’m okay. He says he’s going to kill you, Fulcrum.”
“That’s enough,” Bushranger barked and slipped back to that strange, overly-conversational tone. “Hey there, Fulcrum. It’s been a while. Did you think no one would find you here? That no one would figure out what you’re up to?”
“I’m just here for Pavel,” Sabra replied. “Just give him to me.”
“He speaks pretty highly of you.”
Fisher glanced about but saw no sign of the others through the trees. No moonlight glinting off chrome helmets, no branches snapping underfoot. Had she come alone?
“I have my moments,” Sabra said. “And I’m done talking. You’re lucky I’ve spent this many words on you after what you did to my father. But,” And even through the filter of her helmet, Fisher could hear the anger in her voice. “With all of the goodwill in my heart, I’m able to let you walk away.”
“Only over your dead body.”
“I know,” Sabra said. “I’m so sorry.”
Sabra leaped to attack, jets burning so bright that, for a split second, the sparse bushland experienced a sunrise. Bushranger met her blow for blow. Whatever empowered strength he had, it was enough not to get crushed by Sabra’s mechanically-assisted blows. Still, she caught his helmet with an elbow, and then lashed him with a powerful cross, sending him to the dirt.
Bushranger lay there for a second, groaning as he rolled over. Around him, Sabra paced a circle like a lioness.
And then Bushranger caught her with a rising kick, and sent her airborne. Sabra, armor and all, crashed into the thick trunk of a eucalypt. She was struggling to stand, rattled, as Bushranger hauled her up, and hurled her over his shoulder like a ragdoll.
What the fuck?
Sabra got up to her hands and knees, just in time for Bushranger to kick her in the abdomen and send her sprawling. But how? Fisher couldn’t figure it out. Bushranger had never been this strong on Paradigm. The only cape there who had exhibited this level of naked strength was Taurine.
Sabra rose to her feet. In the dim moonlight, the dents in her armor, courtesy of his fists and feet were obvious.
“Not so smug now, are you, bitch?” Bushranger growled.
“I’m just getting warmed up.”
Sabra caught his next punch, wrenched his arm to the side and slammed her helmet against Bushranger’s own. She pistoned her fist into Bushranger’s belly, where his armor was soft, and then put her armored heel into his knee.
Something popped. Bushranger fell, shouting, and Sabra was on him, raising her right foot and stomping down.
Bushranger caught her boot in one hand, grabbed with his second, and ripped Sabra to the ground. He straddled her, lashing Sabra’s helmet with his fist. Fisher tugged at the cuff, straining his arm and elbow and shoulder and wrist, willing the cuff, root or even his own mechanical hand to give way.
Sabra threw Bushranger clear, staggered to her feet. She was hurting. Sparks flew from somewhere on her back, lighting up the little clearing with staccato flares. Again, Bushranger bent down, and set his palms on the–
“Sabra!” Fisher shouted, “He’s drawing power from the ground! From the earth! Don’t let him touch it!”
She didn’t need to be told twice. Sabra put her head and shoulder down, and charged, catching Bushranger just as he got to his feet. The two collided with a tree and went right through it, chunks and fragments raining down around Fisher. In his periphery, he caught sight of Bushranger reaching under his coat.
Bushranger swung with whatever it is he had pulled from under his coat, whirling in a wide arc – and the bright blue edge left a bright afterimage.
The blow caught Sabra on the shoulder and she cried out, ducking back. Her left pauldron came away, trailing shards of armor and spilling sparks. Bushranger advanced on her, turning the electron ax in a lazy arc.
This is where she tells Leopard or Tiger to take the shot.
No shot came.
This is where Incarnate comes leaping out of the trees.
But there was no golden light, and still Bushranger stalked forward.
Fisher grew frantic. Against that strength, against that weapon, what could Sabra do? If she threw a punch, he’d take her arm. If she kicked, a leg. Sabra, you can see the future, and you have to have seen this coming, you have to have a plan.
But if she did, Fisher couldn’t see it. All he saw was Sabra giving up ground, dodging each swing of that ax. But even with all of her experience in her suit, it limited her agility. And Bushranger grew closer and closer and then, on his third in the combination, caught Sabra on the helmet.
Sabra’s head whipped back, pieces of her visor catching on the moonlight, some of them red and glistening, and Fisher shouted, “No!”
Sabra staggered, her suit struggling to keep up with the motions of its stricken user. Fisher, cold and distraught, wrenching at his cuffs, could do nothing but watch. Bushranger turned back toward him as, behind him, Sabra crashed to the ground.
“Some greatness,” Bushranger remarked, hefting his ax. “Unfortunate thing about this, mate, is that I can’t have any witnesses. But the fortunate thing for you is, well, you’ll get to meet her soon.”
Fisher cried out, pulling with all of his strength and still unable to break free, and slumped back against the tree trunk. He didn’t cry. He had cried out all his tears years ago. The sadness was ephemeral next to the guilt. If he hadn’t told Star Patrol, if he hadn’t made the phone call, if he hadn’t stopped to get fucking cat food.
This, Fisher heard, in Mark’s voice, is all your fault.
Fisher stared up at Bushranger. “Do it,” he said, unsure if the Australian had heard. “Do it, please. I’m begging you. Just do it, please. Please.”
Bushranger raised his ax, and Fisher closed his eyes, the blue line of the electron edge hanging behind his eyelids.
Someone screamed, something snapped, and it took Fisher two moments to realize it wasn’t him.
He opened his eyes, and there was Sabra, armor smoking, pauldron missing, green eye wild through the gash in her helmet, holding Bushranger up. “You,” Sabra said, voice dark and grim like Fisher had never heard it, “Offend me.”
She broke Bushranger upon her knee, catching him on the spine where helmet met armor, and threw him down into the dirt.
Bushranger lay there, on his back, unmoving. His breathing was strange and shallow. With a blow like that, Sabra had surely paralyzed him. She took a knee, wrenched Bushranger’s helmet from his head, and grabbed the Australian cape by the collars of his coat with her left hand. She drew her right back, ready to finish him.
“Don’t, Sabra,” Fisher said.
Sabra was still. Her fist was like a meteor held in stasis.
“This has to end,” she growled. “All of it. I hate it. I hate him. I hate this. I hate what it’s doing to me.”
This was a new, terrifying intensity to Sabra, but Fisher didn’t have a clue whether he could blame Blueshift for it – or if it had always been there, and this was the first time seeing it.
Death, war, and destruction. Thousands of victims, if not more. When Sabra had brought it up to him, Fisher hadn’t believed it. But here and now, this was the Sabra that she had glimpsed in the future that terrified her so.
“I know,” Fisher said, softly. “But I’m telling you, he’s worth more to us alive than dead. We’ll drag him down to the local Star Patrol facility and expose him. Don’t do it.”
“They won’t care,” Sabra bit off the words, and Fisher didn’t know if he was talking to the superhero who had seen the end result, or the young woman who had lived a life of being let down by every institution she had ever known.
“No more death, Sab,” Fisher said. “No more war, no more destruction. But it has to start here. We don’t always make the right choices, but we can always choose the next one.”
For a time, silence. And then, Bushranger laughed – a slow chuckle of sucking gasps. “No matter the way this goes,” he breathed. “I win.”
“I’m sure. You’re going to have a hell of a time explaining this to your bosses.”
But Bushranger’s attention was on Sabra. “Fulcrum, did you ever wonder how we found your family?”
A chill wind ripped through Fisher, and through the gash in Sabra’s helmet, he could see her facial expression twist, something like dreadful understanding.
“Did you ever wonder,” Bushranger continued, as Fisher yanked at his cuffs again, “Just who tipped us off?”
“Sabra!” Fisher roared, “Shut him up!”
But Sabra’s fist faltered, all that stored strength, all of that tension draining away.
“It was him,” Bushranger said, his face splitting in a sick grin. “It was your ol’ mate, Pavel Fisher. He told us. It was him.”