Sabra struck Bushranger mute with a single blow and dropped him to the dirt. The cold air whistled through the gash in her helmet, blowing away the last wisps of adrenaline that had clouded her awareness, like the smoke of some terrible fire.
She was trembling. Her arm, fist still outstretched, was shaking so hard that she was sure it would show through her armor. It wasn’t the adrenaline. It wasn’t the fact that blood was stinging in her left eye. She was used to the first and would grow used to the second (Sekhmet had so many scars, this she had seen.) But it was Bushranger’s words – it was him – that kindled that dreadful, furious fire in her belly.
There had been a time where Sabra had thought that anger made her powerful. But it wasn’t true at all. Anger did not make her powerful, it made her powerless. It took away her ability to think, therefore her ability to choose, and therefore her ability to be in control. Anger was only something that allowed other people to manipulate you. That anger was what Bushranger wanted, what he had predicated his entire ambush upon.
She would not be manipulated. She was hardened against such a crude tactic. Blueshift’s detached perspective was, in a sense, liberating.
And yet, she couldn’t ignore what Bushranger had said.
Slowly, Sabra turned and stared at Fisher through her broken visor, the display flickering. Despite the static, she could see the many red signals that indicated severe damage. Beyond Fisher, there were so many futures and so many possibilities. And behind them all lurked Sekhmet, her blade raised high.
Sabra blinked and focused on the now, on Fisher, shackled to an exposed root. He looked so tired, and so old. She didn’t even need to look at him to read the guilt across his face, the shame.
But she asked anyway.
“Is it true?”
He glanced away. “Sabra,” he protested, “I can explain.”
She asked again, louder, in the voice from her nightmares: “Is it true?”
Fisher took a breath in, closed his eyes, and let it out. “Yes.”
She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t anything. Something was beeping in her helmet. She held her position, just because she wasn’t sure what would happen if she started moving.
“It explains a lot,” she said, at last. “I wondered why you wanted to help my family, why you wanted to help me. It was guilt.”
“But feeling bad about something doesn’t make things better.”
“I know. God help me, I know.”
“Is a friendship built on guilt really worth anything? I don’t want you helping me because you feel you have to. But, at the same time…” Sabra shook her head. “Is there any explanation that can make things right, Pavel?”
“I didn’t know that would happen, Sab.”
“Obviously not. Does not knowing somehow absolve you of the consequences? You chose to tell them, Pavel.”
“I chose to try and protect you,” Fisher replied, pointedly.
“I don’t need to be protected.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m an old hero, and old habits die hard. Sue me.”
Sabra knew that challenging tone should’ve made her smile, but she didn’t. She just crossed her arms.
“Look,” Fisher said, “I didn’t want to see some young woman become another notch on Taurine’s horns. I thought you were registered in the IPSA database. If anything, I figured maybe Star Patrol would scare you straight. Maybe they’d get you on some kind of training program. I didn’t know they’d let one of their people slip his leash.”
“So, you made the decision without really thinking it through. And my father paid the price.”
“Sabra, he’s not dead.”
“And that makes it okay?” Sabra spat. The memories of the damage done, of Bushranger’s invasion into her home, were bright and vicious. “Where’s the line, Pavel? How much pain was it okay for Bushranger to inflict? Where can we find common ground on this?”
Fisher sighed. “No,” he said. “No, it’s not okay. Your father’s a good man, not someone who deserved any of that. But I barely knew you, and I didn’t know him.”
“So, what, that makes it okay? Christ and Allah, Pavel–”
“It’s not about whether it’s okay or not, Sabra. Secret identities don’t exist. In the Golden Age, sure, they existed – but everyone wanted them to exist. But that’s gone, Sab, and it will never come back. Look, I met you twice, and I pieced it together. It’s safe to say that someone else would’ve found out eventually.”
She couldn’t argue against that, but it wasn’t the point.
“But it wouldn’t have been you.”
“If it was me, at least I was on your side, phone call or not.”
A phone call. It seemed ludicrous that such a simple thing could send such a powerful ripple through the deep. With Blueshift’s words running through her head, she ran through the causal chains. Without that call, would she even be here?
Was it even worth thinking about?
“That doesn’t make it better, man,” Sabra replied. “You can’t just absolve yourself of something because you think it’d be worse if you didn’t do it.”
Oh, the irony.
“Sabra, God…” Fisher strangled a chuckle. “I respect your idealism, I really do. But it’s not practical, and if you swing your ideals about like a cudgel… Well, they’ll break before the world does. I understand that you’re upset, but with everything you’ve told me, I don’t understand how you, of all people, can be surprised by this.”
“I knew something would happen here, but I didn’t know what.”
He nodded. “Ah.”
Sabra looked away, deep into the trees, and sighed. She walked over to Fisher, and he watched her, eyes somewhere between weary and wary and worried. There were futures here where she hurt him, but it was the same as Fisher’s explanation – it wouldn’t make the past right.
She didn’t need to win this.
Sabra crouched down and took hold of the cuffs binding Fisher to the tree, snapped them with a flick of her wrist. She drew herself up and stepped away, leaving Fisher to remain there, rubbing where his prosthetic hands met his wrist. She walked three paces and turned back.
“Would you ever have told me?”
For a time, Fisher was silent. And then he said, “I don’t know.”
Sabra nodded, again and again. “You don’t know.”
With exacting care, he continued, “It would have depended on the kind of person you had turned out to be, Sabra.”
“How can you say that, Pavel, and ever expect me to trust you again?”
Fisher rose to his feet, dusting himself off. “Trust is worth nothing when it’s easy, Sabra. You trust Jack and Sam, and I think we can agree they’re more unpredictable than me.”
“I trust them like I trust a dog. I trusted you differently.”
“You trust too easily.”
“Yeah,” Sabra said. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
The wind gusted for a moment. Above them, the leaves rustled.
“So,” Fisher said, “Where do we go from here?”
Fisher squinted at her. “We don’t?”
Sabra bent down and went through Bushranger’s pockets, found his phone, and tossed it to Fisher. “You will meet back up with the others, and you’ll go after Monkey.”
He caught it with ease, but then glanced back to her. “And you, Sabra?” he asked, confused. “We need you. Without you, he’ll take us to pieces.”
“The closer I am to the confrontation with him, the closer Sekhmet is to existing. Pavel, have you ever seen one of those cubes, the optical illusions? Look at it one way, you can see it that way, but if you focus you can see it inside out?”
“A Necker cube?”
“Yeah. When I look toward the future, it’s like that. I can see causes like rocks I can throw to make certain ripples. Or, I can behold the effects, and work backward to know which rocks I need to throw.”
Fisher just nodded. “I think I follow.”
“I need to walk away. And, besides…” She forced a smile he couldn’t see. “Someone needs to distract Star Patrol so they can’t pursue you when you break the blockade.”
Fisher nodded again. “Listen, Sabra, I’m not going to pretend to understand what you’re dealing with. But I’m just going to say this: whatever future you decide upon, it’s up to you to seize it. If this is what you have to do then, okay, this is what you have to do.”
Sabra bent down and picked Bushranger up, following the precise motions of her hands that she glimpsed in the abyss to avoid harming him any further. “I know,” she said. “But to do that, I need to be alone. There aren’t many moves left to me.”
“And it would be easier if you made them alone?”
“Yeah. Too many variables to keep track of. Too many concerns.”
“I think I understand.”
“You don’t. But thank you.” Sabra turned her head upward and gazed at the blurred stars. “One more thing, Blueshift ordered Incarnate to keep an eye on me. I cannot predict her. You must ensure that she remains with you.”
“I’ll do what I can, Sabra.”
“Thank you.” She swallowed and said, “I lied. There is one final thing, Pavel.”
“The next time we meet, Leopard will be faced with a choice. You must ensure he makes the right one.”
“Sab, that’s not much to go on.”
“It’s all I can see right now. If everything else fails, that’s the one thing that’ll prevent Sekhmet’s march.” And if I told you anything further, you would ensure he makes the wrong one.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
They hung there for a moment, young cape and old cape, like objects passing each other at some distant apex, headed in different directions. For a moment, they stared at each other, and then Fisher extended his right hand in her direction, the other stuffed in a pocket.
Sabra took it in her gauntlet and shook once. Despite everything, she smiled. Not from happiness, but just quiet respect.
“You do what you’ve got to do, Sabra,” Fisher said, voice firm. “I don’t know what you’ve seen, but I believe in you. You go out there, and you give future-you hell.”
They released each other and stepped away. “I will. Good luck, Pavel. We’ll meet again. Thank you for being honest.”
Sabra headed off into the trees, eyes set on the distant lights of civilization.
From behind, Fisher called out, “For what it’s worth, Sab… Seeing everything I’ve just seen now? I would’ve told you,” he said. “I would’ve told you.”
“I know,” Sabra replied, unsure if Fisher heard, as she held Bushranger across her shoulders and set off into the night.
She would seize her future and wrestle it into submission. But that required strength and that strength required power. And there was a word her father had taught her for those who seized power for selfish reasons: tyrant.
But there was no other way.
Sabra made it into the suburbs before she was spotted. She heard it first in the whine of jet engines and saw it first in the spotlight that the police aircraft shone down upon her.
Someone had noticed her. Whether it was a drone hovering in the skies above, or from a concerned citizen who spotted an ominous figure in power armor stomping through the night, a known hero across her shoulders, didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the response.
Before her, in the middle of the road and bracketed by a pair of police hovercars, were two statuesque figures in blue and green armorweave, their green capes twisting in the breeze. Southern Cross and Great Barrier. Sabra stopped one hundred meters away and, with care, set Bushranger down on the pavement.
On some level, that was more than he deserved. On another, he was human, too.
Then she stepped away and took her position in the middle of the street.
“In the name of public law and order,” Southern Cross’ voice boomed, “You will remove your helmet and step out of your armored suit! You have thirty seconds! Failure to comply will result in the use of necessary force!”
“Your man thought he could stop me,” Sabra said, gesturing to Bushranger. The filter on her damaged helmet rasped and crackled. “I introduced him to the error of his ways. In time, he may even walk again. But that’s up to you.”
Great Barrier’s masked face twisted in open disbelief. “That’s impossible,” she said. “Fulcrum.”
Southern Cross lifted into the air, arms crossed and followed a casual arc before he set down, landing just inside Sabra’s reach. His trimmed brown beard framed a stern frown. “You’ve come a long way just to make trouble,” he murmured. “I am aware of the history you have with my team, especially that one. We can discuss this.”
It was the smart decision. Fisher had filled her in on Cross’ powerset: super strength, flight, and energy projection. Alpha-class. Equal to Sentinel but not as battle-tested. Even so, discussion was the only way she could win. And that victory would ameliorate Sekhmet, driving her into the deep.
That was, of course, unless she broadened her perspective. To prevail in that way would lose Monkey. For once, Sabra was not looking to win the fight, but to win the battle. The board was set, the pieces were moving, and this battle was a delaying action.
“We could’ve discussed this before he invaded my home,” Sabra replied.
“Your suit has been damaged,” Southern Cross countered. “I can see that you are injured. Fulcrum, you cannot win. I am offering you a compromise in recognition of the harm that my subordinate did to you and your family. Perhaps even compensation.”
“Your words are as meaningless and hollow as your record of service.”
Southern Cross’ face twisted, but he swallowed his slighted pride. “Don’t do anything stupid, Ful–”
Sabra shoved him with all of her strength, hard enough that Southern Cross went airborne. He flew backward, crashing into a parked car. He lay there against the vehicle, paneling crumpled around him, as the alarm began to wail. Shocked, perhaps – or stunned.
Either way, it’s only low-class invulnerability.
Sabra held her arms out wide, smirking behind her helmet. “I’m a real slow learner.”
Great Barrier stepped forward as Southern Cross rose, shaking his head. “No,” he intoned, waving her back. “Leave Fulcrum to me. Stop her only if she attempts to flee.”
That was all there was to say. Southern Cross charged forward, and Sabra surged to meet him.