The waiting was the worst part. Of all the virtues her father had tried to impart, of all the lessons her mother had impressed upon her, the value of patience wasn’t one that young Sabra had ever understood. Now, older and half the world away, Sabra knew that she understood it – and yet that did nothing to quell the tingling that danced across her scalp and flowed down her limbs to buzz around the tips of her fingers and toes.
She wanted to dance. She wanted to run. She wanted to fight. She wanted to do something.
But for now, everything was out of her hands. Pavel was talking to Gate (apparently), with Blueshift listening in. Ironheart and Incarnate had left without a word, and the urge to act had compelled Sabra back to the main terminal floor, because wandering aimlessly was something better than sitting. That was where she found Tiger, still dragging the zombie Jack in her wake.
At the very least, the pair – well, only one of them, Sabra reflected – would help her pass the time. But, for the most part, Sabra had just gazed out of the terminal, toward the Melbourne skyline, and reflected at how much, and how little, it looked anything like home.
“Hey, Sam,” Sabra said. “You got a phone?”
Sam grunted. “Yeah.”
“Mind if I borrow it?”
“In a second,” Sam murmured, her attention elsewhere.
That was curious. Sabra turned from the window. There was Sam, leaned over Jack with her brow furrowed, trying to wedge a cigarette between Jack’s unresponsive lips. Succeeding in that, she raised her lighter to the cigarette, catching Sabra’s eyes as she did.
Sam asked, “What?”
“Nothing,” Sabra replied. “You really think that’ll work?”
“Hah.” And Sam lit the cigarette. “Nope.”
Smoke drifted over Jack’s eyes, and he remained motionless. The fact that someone could just break like that – or break themselves like that, it seemed – sent a disquieting chill through Sabra.
Sam’s eyes returned to him. “I’m bringing him with us, boss,” she said, slipping her lighter away. “If we’re really going on some suicide mission to the heart of an insane robot graveyard, that is.”
“Sam, I’m not your boss. You don’t even need to come with us.”
“Who said anything about need?” Sam asked. “What, you think I have some need to blow things up like some weird psychopath?”
“Well, honestly, when we all first met, I wasn’t sure which one of you two was the craziest.”
“Not sure. Guess that depends. Is it better for me to remember everyone I kill or not?”
That was either a tough question or a joke, and with Sam, it was always hard to tell. So, Sabra frowned, unsure of that whole question – even her own answer to it. Which one made you more of a monster?
“Anyway,” Sabra said, “About that phone?”
Tiger reached into one of her pockets and found her phone, tossed it over to her. “Here. But don’t rack up too many minutes, there’re limits to my considerable charity. Ain’t that right, Jack?”
“Thanks,” Sabra replied, and as she dialed a number, getting distance, listening to it ring, she heard Sam reply to the silence. “You’re right, I am extremely magnanimous.”
Everything was moving fast now, the abyss churning and blinding her sight behind causal silt. Something dark was coming, and there was one call Sabra had to make.
She had made it out onto the asphalt and into the shadow of Ironheart’s aeroshuttle before the line connected. Her mother’s voice sang down the line. “Hello?”
Sabra had thought she wouldn’t cry, but the tears stung anyway. Sadness, relief, happiness – it was impossible to tell. “Hey, mama.”
“Sabra! Baby! I’m so sorry it took so long for me to answer, but it’s very late here! How are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay, just busy.” It was better not to share specifics, anyway. “I’ve only now been able to get the chance to call. How’s papa?”
“The same as he always is,” her mother replied, with tender, loving resignation. “He’s been spoiling that cat of Pavel’s.”
“Hey,” Sabra said. “You can’t blame papa for that; Octopus was fat before he had anything to do with it.”
Her mother chuckled. “True, I suppose. If your father were awake, I’d let you talk to him.”
“That’s okay. It’s just good to hear your voice.”
A moment’s silence down the line. “Is something wrong, Sabra?”
Again, better not to share specifics. “No,” Sabra said. “I’m okay. I’m not hurt.” But she ran her fingers over the cut Bushranger had left her with, brow and cheek – it would scar. The first of many. “I met a girl.”
“Sabra, that can’t be why you sound so morose.”
She laughed, but only quietly. “No. She’s… interesting. But I wanted to talk about something happier before…”
“Before? Before what, Sabra?”
“Mama, there’s so much I want to say.” And so much I’m too scared to say.
“Hmm,” her mother murmured. “Work-related?”
“Work-related. I can’t say much, not over an open line like this. There’s, ah, some big things about to happen. I don’t know when I’ll be able to call you both again. It might be–” A lump rose in her throat “–a long time.”
Her mother and father were, ultimately, simple people. How could she even begin to explain what lay ahead?
When her mother replied, her voice was serious in a way her father never was. “Sabra,” she said. “Sabra. I’m just a nurse. I cannot begin to comprehend what must be going through your head right now. But I know what superheroes do, so, I can make some estimated guesses, especially if you can’t talk about it. It must be heavy. But there’s another thing I know, Sabra – and that’s you are my daughter, and you will never do the wrong thing.”
Somehow she smiled, let out a long breath. “Sometimes, you make so much more sense than papa.”
“Your father, I feel, cares more about the process than the end result. Perhaps it’s the engineer in him. Listen, Sabra – it is my job to save patients, and it is your job to save the world.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Sabra, what is that mantra your father always says?”
“I am because you are.”
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, I think remembering that will keep you on the right track. God knows it worked for him.”
“He told me, by the way,” Sabra said. “Some of it, at least.”
“Ah. He was afraid of how you would react. That you would hate him.”
I almost did. “I could never hate him.”
“Remember that, too. But mostly the phrase.”
Sabra chuckled. “As if I could ever forget.”
Time passed, and Sabra wasn’t sure how long. Every second, every moment, she ached to commit every little sound in the background of the call to memory.
“Sabra,” her mother said. “You have always been meant for greater things than whatever you found on this island, but your love always trapped you here more than the ocean did, and it’s trapping you again right now. So, my daughter – my lovely, special, wonderful daughter – I’m going to hang up this call now, and I’m going to let you go do whatever it is you need to do.”
“I love you, mama. I love you both.”
“I love you, too, Sabra. Go with God.”
The line chimed the disconnection. There Sabra stood, phone pressed to her ear. She waited, took in a deep breath through her nose, until her lungs pressed against her rib cage, and let it out through her mouth. Just like her father had always said.
It wouldn’t do anyone good to see her cry.
There, Sabra waited, listening to the wind, until Pavel stepped onto the asphalt.
“Sabra,” he said, “It’s time.”
“Negotiations have stalled,” Blueshift said, once the group had gathered back in the conference room. “Therefore, we are enacting this final contingency, which is not condoned by anyone within SOLAR, the IPSA, or the wider United Nations.”
Pavel, leaned against the wall in a manner that made him look far too young, said, “Is that officially or unofficially?”
“Yes,” Blueshift replied.
Pavel was still in his orange-and-purple suit. Sam and Jack stood toward the back in their black gear, with Sam holding both of their chrome helmets. Ironheart dominated the room in her angular, silver suit of power armor, claymore across her back – if her own suit had made her a bulldozer, Sabra reflected, then Ironheart’s made her a tank.
Her eyes wandered, as they always did, to Incarnate. She stood at her mother’s side in armored gear that had to have been borrowed from her mother – silver plates, black undersuit. She caught Sabra’s eyes with her own – both of them the same, now – and smiled.
Of course, it occurred to Sabra then that she still didn’t have a suit of her own. Or anything, really, in the way of armor. But when she thought about armor, she became so dizzy with deja vu that she had to find something to ground herself, lest the present slip away from her. This time, it was the back of a chair.
“In one hour,” Blueshift began, “Gate will link this doorway to as close to the target as he can manage. Barring any unforeseen developments, we should be able to apprehend Elias Hawthorne as he touches down at the target location.”
“We’ll be cutting it very close,” Ironheart said, arms crossed. “And that’s assuming the Concordiat don’t chase him down themselves. This could spiral out of control fast, Blueshift.”
“It could, but I do not consider it likely.”
“Are you a betting man?”
“Betting implies an element of chance, of unpredictability,” Blueshift replied. “The Concordiat is very predictable.”
“How do we extract?” Sam asked.
“We walk out. SHIVA is located, after all, near the edge of their claimed territory. The moment we are outside, we’ll be recovered by a SOLAR aeroshuttle.”
“And expected opposition? Way I remember it, this computer had a legion of killer robots.”
“That’s correct,” Ironheart said. “But when we faced SHIVA the first time, much of its legion had been spread across the continent, leaving only a minor garrison to defend itself. All of which were accounted for and destroyed.”
Sam mulled the point over. “Sounds too easy.”
Blueshift nodded. “We can’t discount–” His phone chimed, and Blueshift answered it. “Captain.”
No one said a word. Blueshift was listening to Aegis, and everyone was listening to his silence. All around Sabra, the world existed in that single moment between inhaling and exhaling.
“I see,” Blueshift said, at last, and cut the call. His attention returned to the group and the briefing. “Geneva just received word from New Atlantis. The Challenger Array has detected abnormal seismic disturbances within the trench.”
“He’s early,” Ironheart muttered.
“Yes,” Blueshift continued. “The Engineer is active once more.”
In her mind, Sabra could see him: the three-armed, three-eyed obsidian giant, the dread gaze of his dead star eyes, the harsh sense of menace that swept before him…
Sabra put the thoughts aside. “He’s coming here, isn’t he?”
“Here, or Perth. Available assets are already being rerouted. The supercarrier Belisarius will attempt to intercept and delay him for as long as possible.”
“Then we need to go now.”
“That’s not possible until Gate gives you your portal.”
Sabra caught that. “What do you mean you?” And, by the look on Ironheart’s face, so had she.
“Aegis has ordered Ironheart and I to remain here and assist with the defense.”
Ironheart narrowed her eyes. “What?”
Blueshift waved a dismissive hand. “This is acceptable enough for our purposes, Hannah. However, it does mean that we must advance our schedule.”
Sabra didn’t think Ironheart’s glowing eyes could narrow further, but they did, and her expression hardened. “That is not what we discussed.”
“The strategic situation has realigned. The Engineer is already moving. It is our responsibility to ensure that this mission succeeds. If we cannot be there, then we must grant Fulcrum and her team an equivalent power.”
“It’s too early,” Ironheart fired back.
“Is it? We have all the pieces of our design. We lose nothing by assembling it early.”
Sabra glanced across the room, caught Fisher’s puzzled gaze.
“I disagree,” Ironheart said, vehement. “We risk losing everything. It’s too dangerous! There are tests, calibrations, an entire training regimen–”
“I can handle it,” Sabra said. “Whatever it is, I can handle it.”
Ironheart glanced to her, but kept her attention on Blueshift and whatever duel was taking place there. “Kasembe,” she said, “It will rip you apart.”
The sheer finality of her tone shut Sabra up. It had less effect, it seemed, on Blueshift.
“I disagree,” he said, tapping away at his wrist computer. “I’ve passed you Fulcrum’s actual file, Hannah. I think you’ll find that I am correct to have every confidence in her abilities.”
Ironheart’s eyes lit up and, after a moment, dimmed back to their usual glow. “You’re playing a very dangerous game here, Idarraga,” she said. “At this rate, if The Engineer or the Concordiat don’t get us, then the Director-General will.”
“Then it is all the more imperative that we do this now, before he understands what we are doing here.” Blueshift smirked, lips barely turning upward. “Besides, you share no love for his short-sighted ambitions.”
“And what’re your ambitions, Blueshift?” Sabra asked. “What do you want?”
“The same as you, Fulcrum,” he replied. “You should see to this immediately, Hannah. We are on a timer, and I think The Engineer knows it, too.”
“Shit,” Pavel said, as Ironheart led the way and Sabra moved to follow. “I think Jack was right.”
Alone, Ironheart led Sabra to her aeroshuttle. In her armor, she moved at such a pace that Sabra had to jog to keep up. All around her, in her peripheries, the abyss churned with vast events and entities, so much so that Sabra had to remember to breathe.
Was this The Engineer’s doing? What was it that Blueshift had said once, that it was possible to throw chaff into any predictive capabilities? Or was that merely happenstance? Where was everything converging?
Somehow, it felt as if everything was converging here and now.
The questions were endless, and would drive her mad. All Sabra could do now was put her shoulder down and power forward.
Ironheart stomped up the ramp and didn’t break stride as she made for a sizable storage locker on the right-hand side of the cabin. “Kasembe,” she said, sounding apologetic. “Sabra. We have much to discuss, but not enough time to do it in. Forgive me for my part in this.”
“It’s fine, Ironheart,” she replied, and then, “Can I call you Hannah?”
“There’s no harm in it,” Ironheart replied, and she set her hand, her organic one, against the biometric lock. “Disengage security protocol. Hannah Tess MacIntyre. Codename: Ironheart. Password: abraxas-one-one-seven-upsilon.”
The lock chimed and the door hissed open. Ironheart began pulling items from the locker, setting them on the deck of the aeroshuttle in a pile that was only somewhat orderly. At first, Sabra wasn’t sure what she was looking at – even though she knew – until she familiar shapes: greaves, gauntlets, pauldrons.
Armor. Her armor.
“This is for you, Sabra,” Ironheart said. “My final work. One of the most advanced, and lethal, powered suits ever constructed.”
All of the sleek pieces were an intimidating gunmetal silver, darker than Ironheart’s own. Though it sat presently in pieces, just by running her fingers over it, Sabra knew that it had been designed for her, made for her. That, in the future, she would wrap this armor in cloak and hood and–
But how? But why? The abyss provided no answers there.
“Lethal?” Sabra whispered. “To the user? What you said–”
Ironheart nodded. “The powered suits you have encountered have only amplified your strength: you can hit harder, run faster. This won’t just enhance that, but your agility, as well. This suit is lighter and more responsive compared to the ones you are used to, but no less protective.”
Ironheart set the final piece of the suit on the deck with the clang of metal on metal. The helmet, and Sabra couldn’t help but stare at it. It was a deep, dark emerald green.
“Responsive?” Sabra asked, shunting her mind to a different topic, distracting the future with the present. “How?”
“Your suit read your motions. When you raised your arm, it moved. This is why you would always dial down your response mechanisms. This suit is more advanced and far more dangerous. It will read the gap between the will to move, and acting to move.”
“Which is why Blueshift thinks I can use it.”
“Yes,” Ironheart nodded. “But this is the most important thing, Sabra. This suit is composed of the work of many of the best empowered minds since the beginning of the Golden Age: Warlord, Legion, Captain Catalyst, my father. It cannot be modified, and if your precognition can’t account for it, then you are going to rip yourself apart.”
Sabra swallowed. Ironheart set the last item down, a folded black bundle – a softsuit. “Suit up, Fulcrum,” she said, turning away. “When you’re dressed, I’ll help you with the armor itself. Quickly, we don’t have nearly enough time.”
Fingers trembling, Sabra reached for the helmet. She held it before her like a warrior’s trophy, or like a decapitated head of someone she almost recognized. She couldn’t determine what the revelation was, only that it was. Sabra held the helmet before her and stared into the dim eyes of it, studied the shape of it. It was nothing like the pragmatic visor of her old suit – this was an intimidating fusion of style and function.
But… the shape, the hard angles, the sloping aspects, the stubby snout.
A chill swept down Sabra’s spine, and she felt herself shudder.
The design evoked nothing more than a lioness.
This was it. After everything, to still end up here. She stood on the edge of a terrible threshold, a step that led along the path of no return, toward the final confrontation between herself and the woman from her nightmares.
If she was blind to the future, then, perhaps she could find just enough space to move in. The Mistress of Dread, the Lady of Slaughter, was a being of duality. For she was also a goddess of healing, and it was evil that trembled before her wrath and fury.
Welcome home, Sekhmet.
Sabra set the helmet down. And then, she took her shirt by the hem, and pulled it over her head. Never had undressing felt more portentous, or more terrifying.