In custody, Sabra Kasembe’s first twenty-four hours passed in a blur.
Southern Cross was true to his command. Once the paramedics had granted her a clean bill of health (to a certain degree of clean, of course), and the last remnants of her powered suit had been stripped away, Sabra was cuffed and collared and hauled into an armored hovertruck. Evidently, Southern Cross wasn’t going to take any chances. Another command from him put her under the supervision of Great Barrier, accompanied by a pair of heavily armed and armored police guards.
Not one of them said anything, which suited Sabra just fine.
By the time they reached Canberra, some three hours after she had lost the battle but won the war, the sun was rising, painting the city a welcoming golden hue. From what little of the city Sabra had seen when her wardens had marched her out of the shuttle and across the landing pad, into the Star Patrol complex, she had to admit there was a picturesque quality to it all.
It was important to remain optimistic, her father had always said, or you might lose yourself.
It helped make the bureaucratic elements of her captivity more bearable. Her softsuit was exchanged for a tracksuit combo of scratchy, baggy cotton. Felt almost like home. Then, they took her photo and her prints, compared her biometrics against her IPSA file, assessed her psyche (whatever that was) with a series of bizarre questions, and appeared satisfied that she was who she said she was.
But the optimism was more difficult to maintain inside her cell. All things considered, it was less picturesque and more cold than anything else in Canberra so far. Save for the outline of the door, the bare, institutional walls, floor and ceiling could’ve been identical to each other. The sink, toilet, and bed prevented her from getting too disorientated. It didn’t, however, prevent her from getting bored.
Over the first twenty-four hours, Sabra’s optimism clashed with her boredom.
There was barely enough space to move in. Sabra settled for shadow boxing and then, when she banged her shins against the bed frame one too many times, settled for calisthenics in the space between bed and sink. It tired her out enough to actually eat the unpalatable protein blend they passed through the door for three square meals.
She grew bored with that during the first meal.
There was one bright spot, however – the nullifier collar did precisely what it had been constructed to do. This is what Sabra had counted on, a way to banish the abyss into her memories.
It was liberating. No matter where she looked, there were no feelings of deja vu, of that sense of impossible knowledge. No matter how she focused, there was no ability to break moments into cause and effect. No matter when she slept, there was no visions of Sekhmet, stalking the deserts of some horrible future, an army at her back, skulls at her feet, and atrocities before her.
For the first time in her life, Sabra Kasembe felt free.
And yet, some part of her insisted, some thirty hours into her captivity, how funny it was that her freedom came from a loss of agency, of surrender.
She tried not to think about it.
Her room buzzed. Broken out of her thoughts, Sabra flinched. It was a new sound, which meant something was new or had changed. Perhaps, after all this time, the powers-that-be had figured out what to do with her. On Paradigm City, you got a lawyer. Did you get a lawyer here?
“Fulcrum,” a man said through the intercom, “Visitors. Two. Stand at the head of your bunk and remain still until they are inside.”
As instructed, Sabra took one step back, then another, and paused at the head of her bed. Two visitors, but who? Surely not Pavel and the others. Surely not her parents – Christ and Allah, what would she say to them? – but then who?
Had to be a lawyer. But who else?
The door slid open. The first person through was a man, hands shoved in the pockets of his deep blue uniform, his appearance swarthy, his demeanor affectedly listless. He had shaved though, although the greys were only more apparent through his black hair. She recognized him, but it still put her on the backfoot. Why was he here?
Blueshift glanced around the cramped cell, a languid smile on his face. But it collapsed into the storm front of a dark scowl as the door closed, taking Sabra back to Sentinel’s office and the pact she had made.
“Hello, Fulcrum,” Blueshift said. “We have much to discuss, you and I.”
The door stayed closed. No one had followed him in. The second visitor had to be Anima. Even so, this meeting was apparently only for herself and Blueshift.
“What’re you doing here?” Sabra asked.
“That’s my line: what are you doing here? But I’ll indulge you. Two reports crossed my desk this morning. One from Incarnate, and one from Star Patrol. When combined, they create something of an issue. Given our relationship, Aegis has granted me leave to resolve this.”
She still couldn’t place that strange accent of his. And she wondered if that was the point.
Sabra shrugged. “Ending up here was the only way to get Incarnate and the others after Monkey. He’s on his way east and now so are they.”
“No, I am aware of this – as I said, I have read Incarnate’s report. What I want to know is why you are here, and not in Melbourne.”
Sabra sat down on the bed and drew her legs to her chest, set her chin on her knees, and sighed. “I’m done, Blueshift.”
“You’re done.” His gaze, intense and penetrating, locked to the collar at her neck. “Ah. This is your gambit. Tell me, is this self-righteousness something you had to practice, or did it just come naturally?”
“I don’t know. Same way you ended up such a smug asshole, I guess. Pavel was right about you.”
He nodded politely, like it was some compliment. “Pavel Fisher has good instincts. You are free not to trust me, Fulcrum, but trust that we have the same goal. The destruction of a system that has brought only pain and ruin to the world.”
Sabra shook her head. “I’ve seen what that will cost, Blueshift. I’m not going to have anything to do with it.”
Blueshift quirked an eyebrow. “What happened to the woman who said she would change the world? Destroy the Seven?”
“I’ve seen that woman,” Sabra growled, uncurling, her voice rising. “Do you understand me? I’ve seen her. She’s a monster, the same as you! How many people have to die before you admit it’s not worth it? What’s the point of saving the world if you just burn half of it down in the process?!”
Blueshift’s expression didn’t change. “How many people have to die,” he began, voice cool, “Before you admit that it is?”
“This act of rebellion achieves nothing, Sabra. You haven’t averted anything, merely blinded yourself to the future. These walls aren’t your prison – your fear is. And how much will your fear cost you? How much will your inaction cost the world?”
“I’ve seen what my action will cost. It’s better to cost me than a thousand others.”
“And is the cost of thousands now not better than the cost of millions in perpetua?” Blueshift asked. “What if the cost of inaction isn’t paid by you, but by four others?”
“Then they pay it,” Sabra said, and felt something collapse within her. Better you than me. “I can’t do anything from inside here anyway.”
“That’s cowardice, Fulcrum. I expected better from you.”
“What, you expected me to think the ends justify the means? They can’t. They can’t ever.”
“This isn’t about justification,” Blueshift said. “In truth, the need for justification is just another excuse for inaction. If you want to change the world, then the necessity of an action is the only justification to consider. If you insist on anything else, then you are seeking absolution.”
“That’s amoral. You can’t logic me into being a monster.”
“I am not attempting to,” he replied. “My perspective is no more inhuman than your precognition.”
“Maybe you should join me in this cell then. The food’s great.”
“Sabra, being a hero isn’t about doing the correct thing – it’s about doing the right thing. You understood this, once, but now you shy away from it. You seek the path of humanism in a whirlwind of inhuman violence, and the contradictions therein are ripping you apart. You consider yourself a hero – and yet your life doesn’t feel heroic, does it?”
Sabra took in a breath and blew it out against her lips. “You really did read her reports, huh?”
“I did. She is very thorough, and it would be remiss of me not to come armed.” He moved closer and settled at the end of her bed. “But there is only so much I can do. If you cannot find some way to reconcile these contradictions of yours, Sabra, then here is where you will remain.”
Sabra looked to each wall in turn. This wasn’t where she wanted to be, trapped, eating three horrible meals a day. Like Blueshift had once said, she had handed her responsibilities to something greater than her self – so she could say it was out of her hands.
Wasn’t that preferable, if the alternative was that they would be covered in blood?
“I don’t want to be here,” she said. “Not really. But I also don’t want to be out there.”
“So, here you are, afraid to look back and afraid to look forwards. Stuck in a present without meaning or purpose.”
“It’s better than hurting people.”
“Is it? Sabra, here’s a bit of SOLAR occupational humor. What do you call a hero who doesn’t hurt anyone? Ineffectual.” He smiled at his own joke.
“Very funny,” Sabra drawled. “But you’ve read the reports. You know what I’ve done. I had no other choice, but that doesn’t make it right.”
“That’s precisely what I am telling you, Sabra. You understand this, although you refuse to truly internalize it.” He turned to look at her now. “Listen to me – no one has ever effected real change by acting morally.”
“That’s not true.”
“Of course,” Blueshift replied, shrugging. “Sometimes the system elects to sacrifice pieces it can afford to lose. The system that you wish to tear down imposed its morals on your from an early age. Because of this, it becomes easier for many to imagine that the end of the world is inescapable before they can imagine altering the system that is killing it. The first part of effecting real change is acknowledging that morality is just a construct, the same as any other.”
She met his gaze with her own and held it, daring him to back down. “You’re arguing for nihilism. That nothing matters.”
“No.” His gaze didn’t waver. “I’m not. Nor am I arguing that atrocities become righteous when performed by someone who thinks of themselves a hero. But enacting significant change requires you to do things that many may consider abhorrent, even yourself. What makes one a hero is understanding this, accepting it, and effecting change with no expectation or desire for absolution.”
What was the end goal of this, Sabra wondered. Was it violent revolution? Her mind turned to Paradigm City, her home. A glorious city of the future, shining beacon of the Golden Age – and yet that light only fell on a certain few. What would it have taken to fix it, to restore it? There had been morality, there had been law, the city had functioned – but it had never improved, never changed. Contradictions had rotted it from within.
The whole kingdom was broken, that was what she had told Derrek.
“The Paradigm Shooter thought the world should change, too,” she said. “He’d agree with you. That’s why I can’t.”
Blueshift shook his head. “No. He didn’t wish to change the world, Sabra – at least, he did not wish to change it more than putting himself in a position of power. His problem was not with the injustice of the world, but that such injustice was visited upon him. Eventually, he would have been killed, or given up, and nothing would change. He didn’t desire change, but revenge.”
Sabra set her forehead in the palms of her hands, leaned back to bang her head against the wall. “Where does this end, Blueshift? Where does any of this end?”
“Nothing ends, Sabra. You might as well wish for an end to history. Again, you wish for a final moment that will absolve you of your responsibility of the choices you make moment by moment, day by day.”
“Normal people can’t live like this.”
“We’re not normal. But we have the capability to change the world for the better, and therefore we must. Perhaps, then, we may create a future where we are no longer necessary.”
Sabra clenched her right hand, unclenched. “I never asked for this.”
A beat. Then, Blueshift said, “Neither did I.” His voice was barely above a whisper.
For a time, no one said anything. Then Blueshift said, “Let’s make this simple, Sabra. What do you want?”
“My father always said that was a dangerous question.”
“Oh, it is. If you tell someone what you want, they can take it away from you.”
Sabra ran a hand through her hair. It was getting long and unruly, and she had a thought, a stupid one. “I want Incarnate to braid my fucking hair,” she said and laughed. “How stupid, right? But I’ll teach her if I have to.”
There was so much else she wanted, too.
Blueshift nodded. “You won’t find that here.”
“No. I won’t. How could I have been so stupid?”
“The curse of prescience. Devoting your attention to a future that hasn’t happened yet and might not happen.” Blueshift turned, and he reached toward her, one hand extended. “I am here, Sabra, and I am offering you a lifeline. The future is not set.”
“My prediction isn’t perfect, Blueshift.”
“I know. If it were, you would never have left Paradigm City. I am relying on that uncertainty. In the space between possible and certain, we will find a future to free us all. But we must do it together.”
Sabra glanced at Blueshift’s hand. Even without her prescience, she could feel the power in such a simple motion. This was it, the final rite of a pact signed between a weary arbiter and her, a young woman who could bridge the gap between wrath and benevolence and call herself hero.
Are you committed, Sabra?
It would be an arduous struggle. Across the futures, Sekhmet still stalked. But she was a goddess of healing, too. The struggle would be long and, perhaps, it would never end, because it wasn’t just against the world, the unjust order that was preserving where it should be saving, but against her own nature.
And there was a word for that: jihad.
After one more moment, Sabra took Blueshift by the fingers and pushed his hand back toward his body. Not refusal, but not acceptance, either.
“I won’t take your hand,” Sabra said. “But I will work with you. Not for you, not even for me. But for the others. For her.”
Something flickered across Blueshift’s face. Surprise, perhaps. “That,” he said, “Is acceptable.”
Blueshift rose up from the bed, heading for the door. “Admittedly, this was not a conversation I expected to have – not yet, anyway. By now, I imagine your other visitor will be quite agitated.”
The second visitor. Sabra still had no idea who it was. Not Aegis, not Anima. Certainly not either of her parents. “Who?”
He paused at the door and turned back to look over his shoulder, smirking. “Perhaps the most frightening person you’ll ever face.”
The door sighed open. Someone pushed past Blueshift, forcing their way inside. It wasn’t Anima – this woman was taller, paler, and older. Her grey-red hair was pulled back into a fierce warrior’s braid. Harsh lighting caught the silver icon across the chest of her black softsuit – a visored knight’s helm splashed with blue streaks.
Sabra gaped. It can’t be.
The woman spared Blueshift a withering glance. It endeared her to Sabra already. “This is her?” Her voice was familiar – lower, older, hardened by age and experience, but unmistakably similar to Incarnate’s. Just for a moment, Sabra was hit by a pang of longing, and that kicked the woman’s identity into place.
Christ and Allah, even in profile…
Blueshift nodded. “The one and only.”
Ironheart turned back to face her, the striking inlays of her cybernetic eyes gleaming – bright cobalt on gunmetal. It was the most intimidating stare Sabra had ever found herself in, and not just because she was staring into metal orbs.
“I’ll see to the paperwork,” Blueshift said, and stepped through the door. Then it closed, and it was just her and Ironheart. The room was so quiet she could hear the mechanisms in Ironheart’s eyes click and whirr as she scrutinized her.
The first drops of sweat beaded on Sabra’s forehead.
“Pretty face,” Ironheart said, at last.
“Don’t thank me for anything just yet. I have questions, and you will answer them. If you give me an answer I don’t like, well…” Ironheart clenched her left hand, the whole limb artificial from the shoulder down, into a fist. The simple motion was curse, threat and promise all in one.
Christ and Allah, Sabra thought, not quite able to steel herself. Talk about meeting her mother…
The cold anger there… This wasn’t Ironheart-as-hero, here to intimidate a suspect, or even Ironheart-as-inventor, trying to recover her property. This was the mother in Ironheart, the one whose daughter had given up a respectable, vital job to go gallivanting around the world with some scrappy girl from Paradigm City.
Sabra swallowed. She opened her mouth to reply but her throat was still dry, and no words came. Across the silence, Ironheart thrust her artificial forefinger at her. “What the fuck have you done with my daughter, Kasembe?”