Monkey staggered back, stricken and dying, one hand clutching at the cleaved ruin of his left shoulder, and Jack was there to catch him, dropping her khopesh. The inlays in the wall flared and strobed in strange, halting patterns, casting victory into crimson nightmare. It reminded Sabra of someone struggling for breath. Perhaps SHIVA was dying just as much as Monkey was.
She saw it all from the temple floor.
Jack guided Monkey to the ground, holding him in his arms. Monkey’s blood was smeared all over the front of his armorweave. Jack reached up, removed his Leopard helmet, and dropped it to the floor. He said, “It’s okay, I’ve got you.”
And Monkey said, “Hey, buddy.”
Slowly, Sabra climbed to her feet, knees of her suit scraping against the metal floor. Her suit spasmed along her left leg as she rose up, almost broke her kneecap, and she reminded herself to concentrate on the present, on the objective. Monkey was dealt with, but he wasn’t the threat – The Engineer’s device in his hand, that had become his hand and arm, was there on the floor, still glittering, still connected.
She walked over to it.
“I just wanted to make the world a better place,” Monkey murmured.
Jack sighed, and he sighed with every breath. “I know you did, man. I know you did.”
“I don’t hate you. I just wanted things to be different.”
“I wish they could’ve been different, too.”
Sabra stood over Monkey’s arm and raised her armored foot. She stomped down, once, twice, and again and again until it was nothing but fragments and shards, the emerald light fading. And then, the broken pieces crumbled away into dust. The abyss settled into familiar causal patterns, and they were not comforting.
“Still,” Jack said, “You got to see the world. Just like you always wanted.”
“Yeah,” Monkey said. “Yeah… What did we always say?”
Sabra turned. Jack’s face was pressed against Monkey’s neck and shoulder, sobbing without giving voice to it. He straightened up, grimacing. Even in the gloom, Sabra’s helmet cast him bright and distinct. “To the ends of the Earth and back again. Me and you.”
“I guess we got there, huh?” His breathing was slowing, hitching. “You’re not going to leave me?”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?” Jack’s smile was fake, plastered and yet sincere in a way Sabra hadn’t seen from him before.
“This friend of mine, she’s got this saying: I am because you are. It took me a while to figure it out, but it just means we’re all human, I think. And no one deserves to die alone.”
Monkey nodded but said nothing, his expression slackening, his body relaxing. “Jack,” he whispered, eyes widening. “I–”
And then something final gave way inside him, and Sabra listened to him die.
For a time, nothing happened. And then Jack curled over his middle, over Monkey’s corpse, grimacing, his back and shoulders heaving.
That, Sabra thought, was not something she had to see.
She left the aftermath of Monkey’s passing behind and made for SHIVA’s altar. She pretended not to see Jack press his lips to Monkey’s brow and murmur something. She didn’t hear it, but she knew the words.
The abyss was that much stiller with his death, one current dissipating back into the background, lost forever. Monkey hadn’t been anything special but, even now, even after everything, Sabra knew there to be no bad people. Monkey hadn’t been anything special, and yet he was as special as anyone else.
What could he have been if things had been different?
Monkey was no different to Jack. Flawed, but in a different way. For a time, their flaws had been complementary but contradictory, and that made them destructive. In the end, that was it, the cycle of humanity – death and love, love and death. And she had taken no joy in his death, and certainly no satisfaction.
Monkey hadn’t been anything special, and that meant he wasn’t evil. It was true, as her father always said: this one death left her with nothing but ash in her mouth, a sense of diminishment. But to have resolved it without violence would’ve necessitated undoing the entire chain of events that had set him and Jack on this path.
And, perhaps, even her. Perhaps it wasn’t a series of chains, but a web.
But then, what was at the center?
Christ and Allah, one person dies, and you get all philosophical. Focus on the mission, Kasembe. Play the game. Win.
Incarnate was still connected to the hacked open altar, cables snaking into ports at the nape of her neck. The cables stuttered the pulses from the altar’s heart, in time with the inlays all over the room. Sabra fought down the urge to sit atop the altar – who knew what would happen if it couldn’t take her armor – and stood by, waiting.
Curiously, she reached out and waved her hand in front of Incarnate’s eyes. No response.
“She hates it when you do that,” Jack said.
Sabra turned. There was Jack, walking closer, her khopesh in his hand. Monkey’s body lay behind him, remaining arm crossed over his chest. Jack’s helmet sat atop his hand.
Maybe this is what I saw.
But Jack passed the sword to her. “It’s impolite, apparently.”
Sabra set the blade across her back. “So she’s aware of us.”
“Somewhat. Don’t know how much.”
The pair stood there in silence.
“I’m sorry you had to kill him,” Sabra said. “I know he was your friend.”
Jack shrugged. “Yeah. But it had to be done, and it had to be me. Seemed like I saved your ass, too, superhero.”
Sabra shrugged right back and gestured across the floor. “We’re not bringing the body out?”
“We can’t carry him, and who knows if we can transport him. Anyway, he’s been touched by the Transcended. They’d cut the corpse up and study it until there was nothing left. No, it’s better this way.”
“You did good, Jack.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
“Gotta start somewhere, right?”
“Yeah.” Jack worked his jaw left and right. “I know this doesn’t make up for anything I’ve done. I just keep thinking about everyone else I left to die somewhere. That was always different, but…”
“You did what you had to do.”
“Sure. But I shouldn’t have put myself into those situations in the first place.”
Sabra smiled slightly. “Sounds like you’re thinking of a career change.”
“Guess so, but I don’t have many marketable skills that don’t involve breaking locks or people.”
Sabra tilted her head, glanced at him. “How about ronin?”
A ghost of a smile passed over Jack’s face. “I don’t know. Maybe. But I still don’t think I’m good at making the right decisions.”
“Well, you just made one that seemed pretty okay to me. Besides, you’ve always got Sam. And no matter where things go from here, you can always give me a call.”
“Providing I don’t get arrested on the return trip. But if that happens, it happens.”
“Look,” Sabra said, “if you want to talk about any of this…”
“No,” Jack replied. “I don’t. No offense, Sabra.”
But after a few seconds, he spoke up. “Maybe later. But not now. Maybe never.”
That, Sabra figured, was better than anything he’d said previously. The silence was not uncomfortable, here in the heart of the mountain. Felt almost appropriate for a place like this. But never came earlier than she expected.
When Jack spoke again, his voice was slow and halting, like he was trying to grope his way through the dark. “I thought,” he began.
“I thought that if I came down here… I thought that if I faced him, it’d all go away. That, or I’d die. That would be okay, too. But it didn’t go away. It just left me with this hole here.” He tapped a fist against his sternum.
She thought of her father, of Fisher, of Aegis, of Blueshift, of everyone. Of Sekhmet.
“It never goes away,” Sabra said. “I think we all just find ways of living with it, accepting it, of moving beyond it. Wounds become scars, then scars fade away – but they’re always part of you from the moment you get them.”
“If you ignore ’em, you’ll just forget how you got them.”
“Guess so,” Sabra replied. “And, look, you can trust me on scars, I’ve got this really obvious one on my cheek and eyebrow.”
Jack opened his mouth, and a deep tremor ran through the floor, a rumble that cascaded up through Sabra’s armored boots and made her teeth vibrate. Then, it was gone. Whatever Jack was about to say changed into something else.
“Tell me you felt that.”
“I did. Tell me you know what it is.
“Well,” Jack said. “There was this one time–”
The floor moved again, more of a lurching shift and less of a spasmodic tremor. This time, Sabra had to adjust her footing to stay standing.
“Yeah,” Jack growled. “Definitely reminds me of a demolition charge. Someone’s not happy about losing his cards. Bet he’s got something to bring the whole mountain down on us. Sabra, we have to go.”
Sabra whirled, looking at Incarnate. She was still and quiet, and the inlays around the temple still pulsed with sputtering malevolence.
“We can’t,” Sabra hissed. “SHIVA’s not dead. This is to kill us, not it!” She pointed toward the exit. “I’m not going anywhere until this is done, but you can!”
Jack hesitated, mouth falling open. The mountain shuddered again, and Sabra reached out, holding herself up on the altar. “Jack,” she barked, “Go!”
That did it. He broke into a backward stumble, then turned and got himself into a loping run. He vanished into the dark as the mountain trembled and shook as if in the hands of an angry god – or perhaps, Sabra thought, a god who had left the mountain stumbling, and was winding up for the knock-out punch.
Sabra forced herself to smile. It was important to stay optimistic. After all, how many people got to say one of the Seven took such a personal interest in their death?
Sabra staggered her way to Incarnate, stood before her, glanced to the cables. Could she yank them out? Should she? She didn’t know enough to make the call. This was a race now, between Incarnate and The Engineer, and it was entirely out of Sabra’s hands. So, she took Incarnate’s left hand in her own. Maybe that’d help.
“Come on, baby,” Sabra whispered. “Don’t leave a girl hanging.”
The crimson pulses blinked and flashed and flared, faster and more erratic. Every spluttering pulse illuminated the catastrophe unfolding around Sabra, the rock and debris falling from the ceiling, crashing all across the temple floor.
She hadn’t seen this. But when did she ever see Incarnate? In a way, she was almost thankful – how many people got two last chances to escape fate?
There’s that Kasembe optimism.
The temple crashed into darkness. Incarnate lurched upright, azure eyes alight. “Sabra. You’re still–”
Sabra pulled her in close, wrapped her in the protection of her armored form – as much as she could, anyway. That way, at least one of them might make it out. “Whatever happens here, happens to the both of us. I meant it.”
Something bounced off Sabra’s helmet. No, that was a stupid idea. If the mountain didn’t kill her, starvation or dehydration would – and there was more at stake here than her selfish desire to escape her future.
“Run for it,” Sabra said, reaching up to cup Incarnate’s cheek. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Incarnate ran. Sabra stepped back, turned to face the exit, and lowered herself into a starting position. It was as natural as breathing, as easy as a dance, even as a mountain collapsed around her. In her mind, she heard the starting gun.
Sabra broke into a sprint, just as the mountain staggered one final time, broken from the inside out, and the crushing darkness became so much more physical.