There was something strange about being this close to Ironheart, Sabra thought. For years, she had gazed up at the poster of Ironheart above her bed, had marveled at the contemptuous, roguish way that she held her massive claymore across her power-armored shoulders, and had thought that, one day, I will be a superhero.
Perhaps it was no surprise at all that her predictive power had found its first hooks in her through a suit of power armor of her own.
Now, Sabra watched Ironheart with less open admiration, and more the wariness of facing an opponent in the ring. The frown on Ironheart’s face was so similar to the one her mother had sometimes worn before launching into a scathing tirade. Cybernetic enhancements or not, that was all the reason Sabra needed to avoid letting things escalate – the wrath of an angry mother was something of a constant.
Even though she was half her age, Sabra had no illusions that if the discussion was to break into something more confrontational, there was little chance of being able to withstand her. Somehow, Sabra doubted that her eyes and her arm were the only enhancements Ironheart had accumulated over the years. But more importantly, it wouldn’t be the sort of thing she could explain to Incarnate.
Incarnate. As always, everything about that particular topic was twisted and snared into a tight, tangled knot. Sabra pulled at various mental threads, following them here and there, and they always led to the same conclusion: sooner or later, she would give Ironheart an answer she would not like.
She had to say something, had to pick out one answer. Perhaps it would be easiest just to say that she knew Incarnate’s true nature – but Sabra caught that thought. Revealing that particular card could be dangerous, and not only to herself. Everything had hooked around a particular intersection of problems. Sabra could not untangle what she knew and what she had done, what Ironheart believed she knew and had done, and what she actually knew Sabra knew and knew she had done.
Christ and Allah. Sabra fought down the urge to massage her temples. Just trying to figure that out made her head hurt.
“Before I say anything,” Sabra said, “is this room being monitored?”
“No,” Ironheart replied, as still as a statue. “After all, that is one of SOLAR’s many prerogatives.” When Incarnate was so still, it was more tranquil than unsettling – her mother, it seemed, preferred a reversal of that demeanor.
Sometimes, back on Paradigm City, cops had used similar statements as a threat: we’re not recording, so we’re going to hurt you. But this didn’t sound like a threat, and that was odd. Ironheart’s tone was cool, but not hostile. Somehow, that drained some of the tension out of Sabra. If no one was monitoring, then they could talk freely about a great many things.
Blueshift truly left little to chance.
“I know what she is,” Sabra said.
“I’m not surprised. But I know what you are, Kasembe – your IPSA file revealed a certain technological knack. So, answer my question.”
That was interesting, too. There is a standing order on precognitives, Blueshift had once said. Not only had he arranged this conversation, but he’d also arrayed the facts of it, armed Ironheart with incomplete intelligence. For what purpose, Sabra wasn’t sure. But she wasn’t naïve enough to assume it was out of the goodness of his heart. The man was a shark, but they had the same goals.
Did that mean Ironheart didn’t?
“I didn’t…” Sabra paused, searched for the right word for the horrible thing Ironheart was thinking – had assumed she had done.
“I didn’t abuse her, if that’s what you’re implying,” Sabra said, and even the implication of that made her angry. But she caught that, cooled it. “She came to us after SOLAR left and offered her help to chase down Elias Hawthorne. It was her choice to follow the spirit of her duties and not the letter of them. Without her, we never would’ve gotten out of Paradigm City.”
For a time, Ironheart said nothing.
“Then she’s further along than I had anticipated,” she said, finally. “Not entirely unforeseen, of course. You must have made quite the impression, Kasembe.”
Something about the tone of her response got under Sabra’s skin. “You know she sees you as her mother, right? I get that it’s just some cover story for you, but you’re talking about her like some kind of science experiment.”
“That’s because she is.” Ironheart’s voice betrayed nothing. “She is one of the most vital scientific experiments conducted since the end of the Golden Age, a continuation of my father’s vital work. But she is more than that too, because she is my daughter.”
“You make it sound so cold.”
It occurred to Sabra that Ironheart didn’t blink. Unerringly, her electric gaze never wavered. “Kasembe, I’ll warn you not to anthropomorphize her too much. She is made up of many aspects, and being my daughter is only one of them. But she is not human, nor does she wish to be, nor can she ever be.”
“But you don’t have to be human to be a person, right?”
“Look, whatever. I know all that, and it doesn’t matter.” And, funnily enough, that resonated true. “Please tell me you didn’t come all the way down from your space station just to grill me about this. I’m feeling awkward enough, y’know?” She was all too aware of the heat in her cheeks.
Ironheart gave her a conspiratorial smile. “I can tell. I’ve been assessing your autonomic responses since I stepped into your cell.” She tapped her temple, just left of her eye socket. “Had you lied, I would’ve known. There are certain things you can’t lie about.”
“Well, if we’re being honest, why’re you really here?”
“If I told you it is because we have a mutual objective, would you believe me?”
“Not really,” Sabra said, adding, “No offense.”
“Smart girl. But in this case, it is accurate enough for our purposes. I’ve been hunting Hawthorne and his mercenaries since an IPSA operation in the ruins of Guatemala.”
Sabra nodded. “They got away from you.”
“My first failure in ten years,” Ironheart replied. “It earned me an audience with the Director-General himself. Of all the places I’ve ever been, Kasembe, that is the one I wish to never return to.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I am not one to leave a job unfinished. Especially not when the Director-General of the most powerful agency in the world is holding the fate of my daughter over my head.”
It was like Ironheart didn’t hear her. “So it is imperative that we do not fail, Kasembe. Blueshift is here to put you back on track, but I am here to grant you an opportunity. Consider this an audition and an interview both.”
“This sounds like one hell of a job offer.”
“It is. For the most important job of all.”
“Yeah? And what’s that?”
Ironheart smiled, and the motion barely shifted her lips. “What else?” she said. “Saving the world.”
The cell door sighed open. Blueshift leaned through the doorway, his expression determined. “Word from Melbourne,” he said. “The strategic situation has realigned. We need to move.”
There was something going on here, Sabra thought, as Blueshift led the way down the corridor. “Star Patrol just requested SOLAR support,” he said. “I’ve already been in contact with Aegis. The rest of my team is proceeding supersonic from Geneva, but, even so, we will get there before they do.”
“Let me guess,” Sabra said. “Monkey.”
“Then Impel and the others are going to be right on his tail.”
“Then let’s hope they can delay him long enough.”
They met Great Barrier at Processing. She was frowning under her blue-and-green mask, and it only intensified as she locked eyes with Sabra. She waved a device at Sabra’s neck, and the nullifier collar fell away, clattered on the floor.
“No offense, Fulcrum,” Great Barrier said, “But I hope we never meet again.”
Nothing changed, and yet everything did. For a moment, Sabra let her focus drift to that strange in-between, and the abyss rushed to meet her. Everything was different. The causal currents and destructive eddies had settled into strange, new patterns.
“I hope we do,” Sabra replied, smiling, “But on better terms. Now, my clothes?”
Barrier shook her head. “Your friend didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
Barrier snorted, amused. “He didn’t clear those. Enjoy the holding cell fashions.”
Sabra turned, looking for Blueshift, but he and Ironheart were already gone, halfway toward the open-air landing bay. Sabra jogged to catch them, tugging at her collar. “Hey! Blueshift! What about my clothes? You think I’m going to fight Monkey in this?”
“No,” Blueshift replied. “But you won’t need them, Fulcrum. He stepped out onto the bay proper, immediately turning on a new bearing, beelining for one particular aeroshuttle among the various craft parked around the bay. The one in Ironheart’s black, silver and cobalt colors.
Not SOLAR. Something about that struck Sabra as strange. But wondering about that could come later. She followed the pair of capes into the shuttle proper. Blueshift was already settling into the pilot’s seat. “I’ll get clearance and program the AI for Melbourne,” he said. “Brace for supersonic maneuvering.”
Compared to the luxury of Asadi’s corporate aeroshuttle, Ironheart’s was all business – Sabra doubted she’d be getting any refreshments. She settled into one of the seats, strapped herself in. Ironheart reached over, double-checked the straps, then sat down opposite her and buckled up.
“I don’t suppose I’m going to get any answers?” Sabra asked, across the cabin.
Ironheart seemed to consider her answer for a second, then shook her head. “Not yet, Sabra,” she said, and glanced toward Blueshift. “Not yet.”
It took them thirty minutes to reach Melbourne, and Sabra spent just about all of them counting up the seconds. There wasn’t much else to do – neither Ironheart nor Blueshift made for particularly good conversation. And as much as she appreciated the fact that they had sprung her out of her self-imposed imprisonment, the distinct feeling that she was little more than a component in some plan orchestrated by one or both of them was, it seemed, percolating into more of a fact.
The aeroshuttle kicked in its landing thrusters at such a force that Sabra’s gut ended up in her ribs and slammed her into the seat straps. She could already feel the bruises developing along her shoulders. “You’ll get used to it,” Ironheart said.
The moment the shuttle settled on the ground, Blueshift was already dropping the ramp. He was the first one down, followed by Ironheart, while Sabra flailed her way out of her seat straps. Clambering her way out, she double-timed it down the ramp and into the open air. There, at the base of the ramp, were Blueshift and Ironheart, talking with a lab-coated Australian cape she didn’t recognize.
Sabra ignored them. She ignored the crowds gathered at the edge of a police cordon, craning for any view of what had happened. She ignored the smoke, the last remnant of some fire in one of the terminals. She scoped around for what was important – Jack, Sam, Pavel or Incarnate. They had to be here. They had to be alive.
It had been easy to think that they could pay for her irresponsibility, that by relinquishing her power she had no more control over what transpired in her wake. Now that thought made her sick.
A hand on her shoulder. Sabra whirled on an adrenaline wind, and came face to mask with Pavel Fisher. She wrapped him in a hug, squeezing him like he was her father. His horrific orange-and-purple costume had never looked more fashionable. “Pavel! You’re alive!”
“This is the first day I’ve ever received a hug for clearing that low bar,” he replied, grinning crookedly, awkwardly. “But thanks. Because this is the day I think I need it.”
Sabra frowned. “Is everyone okay?”
Fisher sighed, closing his eyes. He reached up and worked his mechanical fingers into the bridge of his nose. “That,” he said, “is a complex question.”
“Pavel,” Sabra said, “What happened?”
“It’s hard to put into words, Sab. I think it’s better if I show you.”
Sabra followed Pavel through the airport to a series of tents clustered in one of the terminals. She spied paramedics and other emergency workers hurrying between them, tending to casualties. She peeked at a series of body bags as she passed, and felt a strange combination of shame and relief when she didn’t recognize any of the faces.
And yet, that just confused her further.
Pavel led her to the tent furthest from the door, where there were no emergency workers. Wisps of cigarette smoke curled into her nose as Pavel pushed past the flap and Sabra followed. The source was Tiger, still in her black armorweave but a cigarette in her hand, frizzy hair falling around her shoulders.
“Hey, Sam,” Sabra said.
Sam’s eyes wandered in her direction, then away. “Hey.”
“How’s he doing?” Pavel asked.
“How’s who doing?” Sabra asked, “Where’s Jack?”
Sam tapped out her cigarette and gestured to the back of the tent, where a vague shape had hunkered down in the shadows. “See for yourself.”
That took Sabra a moment to process. She had thought the vague shape was a backpack or a duffle, but it occurred to her, in a strangely distant way, that the lines and shapes had to be a person. In black clothing, they had faded into the dim at the back of the tent. There, Sabra realized, folded in on himself and staring ahead at nothing in particular, was Jack.
“What happened to him?” Sabra gasped. She raised a hand, waved to Jack, but he remained still and unresponsive.
“That’s a good question,” Pavel said. “We split up to find Monkey. Jack had to have found him – we heard shouting, gunshots. We ran there and, well, this is basically how we found him. Sam had to drag him here. Fucking idiot,” Pavel added, clenching his fists. “If he had just listened.”
“Don’t bring this up again,” Sam said, around her cigarette. It sounded uncomfortably close to a final warning. “Look,” she continued, “He emptied the clip. He tried.”
“Into the door,” Fisher pointed out.
“A dog won’t easily bite its master.” Tiger shrugged. “Anyway, he doesn’t respond to anything.”
“What’ve you tried?” Sabra asked.
“Everything,” Fisher said, “Trust me.”
Tiger exhaled smoke. “I tried hitting him,” she said and, by her tone, Sabra knew it wasn’t a joke. Tiger shrugged, shaking her head. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she admitted. “Pavel’s right – he is a fucking idiot, but he’s our fucking idiot.”
“He’ll be okay,” Sabra said, but she had no intention of looking forward to know either way. She turned to Pavel. “Did Monkey do this? With his weapon? The brain’s just a system like any other, did it… devour him?”
“No,” Pavel replied. “At least, Incarnate doesn’t think so. There’s no sign of injury, no sign of any brain damage. He’s still breathing, he blinks – but anything else?” He shook his head. “Nothing.”
“You seen anything like this before?”
“Back in my day, you mean?” Pavel nodded, face grim. “All the time.”
“Let me take a look at him,” Sabra said, because she had to do something. She stepped closer to Jack, exhaling, and set her eyes on him. Shadowed and still, she focused on him, and peered through the causal abyss for any traces of his pattern. She sifted the complexities, seeking effects, but saw nothing. She twisted the currents back upon themselves, plumbing the depths for causes.
And still… nothing.
Puzzled, she looked to Fisher, focused on him, and saw him explode through the abyss. When she looked to Tiger, the same. And then, when her gaze returned to Jack, where there was only that strange, terrifying, catatonic nothing.
“What do we do, Sabra?” Pavel asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “He’s not here. He’s… gone. He’s just… gone away.”