Sabra Kasembe awakened to the taste of ash in her throat, and the screams of thousands in her ears. Consciousness returned to her, and her to the present, on the final wisps of a desert wind. Waking up and opening her eyes, Sabra was surprised not to find sand in her braids. Such was the curse of prescience.
Sabra slid out of her bed. The environmental systems of her quarters, detecting movement, triggered the lights at just the right warm intensity to illuminate her room without hurting her eyes. Sabra headed for the basin, shaking off the last remnants of sleep, the last dregs of the nightmare, and poured out a glass of water, drank it down.
Outside, through the window, the city of Geneva glimmered in the pre-dawn light like something out of a dream. Maybe literally, of course. Perhaps she had seen it in a dream once, years ago, and hadn’t recognized it until now. It would explain the sense of deja vu. It wasn’t the year she had spent in Geneva that she was recognizing, but something else. And that something else, that curse of perception, was what made her a superhero.
Sabra tapped at the smartglass in the window, and words and numbers appeared before her: Monday, 6/11/62 6:02 AM CET.
Christ and Allah. It’s too early.
Sabra set her glass down and rubbed at her left shoulder, frowning. Even a week on from the fight where she had lost it, it still ached. It hadn’t hurt then — the Surveyor had dismantled it that thoroughly, that intricately — but it did now. But the only remnant that she had lost it at all was the slight discoloration where her new skin joined the older, darker skin at her shoulder. And that, the medical team had insisted, would fade in time.
A small price to pay for stabbing one of the almighty Seven in the throat, Sabra figured. Not many empowered had driven one of the Seven from the field, and less still had survived the process. And yet it still felt like a loss, and that rankled Sabra: she wasn’t out to drive them from the field, she was out to kill them.
Taking a cleansing breath through her nose and exhaling her frustration out of her mouth, just like her father had always taught her, Sabra let it go. The anger might serve her later, but not now. Sabra stepped away from the basin and ran through her morning stretches, worked a few combinations against her boxing bag, and focused on everything but the taste of ash that still lingered in the back of her throat.
Sabra frowned, swiped at her brow. No, working up a sweat was not the right idea. It hardly distracted her from the apocalyptic desert. Sabra mopped off the sweat and gathered up her hand terminal, tapped the name at the top of her contact list.
The voice that greeted her was a woman’s voice: calm, clipped and Scottish. “Hello, Sabra,” Incarnate said. “It’s early. Is something wrong?”
Sabra turned, took a few steps across her living space, leaned up on the couch. “Can’t sleep. Wanted to hear your voice.”
“You’re hearing it. Is something wrong?”
Sabra smiled. “Yeah.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not over this line. I hate talking over the phone. Makes me all anxious. I know, me getting anxious, right?” She paused. “Are you busy?”
Sabra frowned, heart sinking, and thought for a moment. “Are we talking the kind of busy that Aegis will bust our butts over, or the kind of busy that you can put off for a bit?”
“Just paperwork relating to our battle in Chicago,” Incarnate replied. “I am able to take a break. What do you need, Sabra?”
“Just conversation. To see you. Either or. Do you remember our spot on Mont Salève?”
It was a stupid question. As far as Sabra could tell, for better or worse, Incarnate couldn’t forget.
“Of course,” she replied.
Sabra reached for her hoodie, black and emblazoned with the eagle-and-key flag of Geneva. It was appropriately touristy, no one would look twice at her, even if they saw her coming out of the SOLAR compound. “Great,” she said. “I’ll see you there ASAP.”
It was a short autocab ride to Mont Salève. As it turned out, one of the many perks of being employed by the United Nations’ International Powered Security Agency was the free transport. If you were saving the world on a weekly basis, the thought seemed to be, it should be easier for you to see the sights you were saving.
Sabra stepped out of the autocab and into a dusting of snow. It was still strange to her, snow. She had grown up in the island metropolis of Paradigm City in the south Pacific. Even though she had spent a year in Geneva, snow always astounded her, like it was still something that was supposed to happen to other people.
This year, however, was a late snow season — the hiking trails up Mont Salève were still open. Sabra set herself into an easy run, the motions of it welcome and familiar. Her father had once called it meditation, and that was one of the few things he had said that she had understood intuitively. She had been a runner since she was a girl, always pushing herself to go further, to go faster.
Sabra made good time up the trail. She pushed herself, ignoring the sweat and welcoming the burn, the sensations of her muscles engaging. If nothing else, it helped ground her in the here and now.
Their spot was a little lookout on the northern side of the mountain, just off the hiking trail, with a view both of the city of Geneva and of Lac Léman beyond. It was where they had sat and looked up at the stars and decided that, no matter who (or what) they were, they’d see the relationship through. It was where, in the shadow of a spruce tree, she had kissed Incarnate, their first kiss — even if it was, to be accurate, the second.
Incarnate was already there, looking out over Geneva, hands clasped behind her back. Her red hair was up in her customary professional bun, which suited her precise bearing and worked with the midnight blue SOLAR uniform she wore. It was a source of pride to her, that Sabra knew. Incarnate turned as she heard Sabra approach, and her azure eyes glimmered in the last dark hours of the morning.
Incarnate smiled. “There you are.”
Sabra spread her arms, smiling in return. “The one and only. How’s the view?”
Incarnate’s tilted her head, like a curious bird. “Romantic.”
Sabra’s smile intensified, and she draped her arms around Incarnate’s shoulders. “Come on, that’s not fair. You know I love it when you say that word. But we’re supposed to be here on business.”
They broke out of the embrace at the same time, settled on the rock in the shadow of the spruce. “Tell me about your dream,” Incarnate said, and, just like that, Sabra’s cheer evaporated. She ran her tongue around her teeth, brushed her fingers along the slight scar over her left eyebrow and cheek.
In her time, Sabra had dreamed of many things — some had even come true. But there was only one that was so recurring, so vivid. It was close, now, and growing closer. The future was like an underwater abyss with great things moving through it. The closer you were to one of those things, the more of it you could determine — and the less time you had to escape from it.
Sabra let out a breath, watched it frost before her. “I was in the desert again.”
—bears down on her like an unceasing furnace, and the scourging wind is picking up once more—
“It’s getting clearer,” Sabra continued. “That means it’s getting closer.”
“Did you recognize anyone?”
“Just me. The me I always see. Sekhmet.”
—pulls her wrap up and over her mouth and nose, keeping the grit and sound out, with her leonine helmet under her arm—
Sekhmet, the lioness-headed paradox of healing and wrath. Of the many that her mother had used to tell her, it was the duality of Sekhmet that Sabra had always appreciated. When she had first put on a suit of power armor and struggled for a name, Sekhmet had been her first thought. But Sabra had decided it was sacrilegious.
The version of herself she glimpsed again and again in the future, in her battle-scarred armor, her khopesh across her back, evidently disagreed.
“I think she was giving orders,” Sabra said. “Preparing for a battle. A final one.”
—breaks away from her brooding on futures past and futures present and futures possible, and turns—
Incarnate nodded. She set her hand on Sabra’s shoulder.
“There was someone else, though,” Sabra said. “Someone new. A tall woman, missing one eye. A soldier, I think. Didn’t recognize the uniform.”
—a cape thrown over one shoulder, her right hand hanging above an empty holster at her thigh—
Incarnate stared into the distance, consulting something only she could see. “Not Samantha Holley?”
“No. Sam’s not Asian. You still think about her?”
“Occasionally. She did want to destroy me.”
It had been a while since Sabra had thought of Sam, Jack, and Pavel. She hadn’t known them as well as she would have liked, but absolutely enough to recognize them through the abyss of the future. For a time they had worked together to stop Jack and Sam’s old leader from awakening a torpid Golden Age supercomputer and letting it finish its murderous work of putting humanity to the torch.
Somehow, they had been successful. But they had broken up soon after, all gone their separate ways, the truth of it classified. Pavel to New York to become an instructor at the IPSA academy, Jack, and Sam… to wherever they had gone to do whatever it is they did. And Sabra to Geneva, where she had become a real superhero with a room in the SOLAR HQ complex. It had been her dream to be a superhero, and there it was.
The problem was that their victory over Jack and Sam’s leader, a man who went by the disarming moniker of Monkey, had required Sabra to embrace the visions of Sekhmet, of the future where the only people screaming her name were her victims. Where there was no heroism in her wake, but only horror and blood and ash.
Sekhmet was coming, and soon.
Sabra shook her head. “Let’s not talk about it.” Talking about it made it feel real. Hell, maybe talking about it was what made it real.
Incarnate squeezed her shoulder. “As you wish.”
“Let’s not waste this morning. Want to stay here and watch the sunrise?”
Sabra listened to the early morning breeze whistle through the trees, watched Geneva wake up in the distance below as the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon. She reached up and plucked some errant snowflakes out of Incarnate’s hair. In moments like this, it was like she could slip free of her prescient curse, even if just for a moment.
“How’s everything in Chicago, anyway?” Sabra asked.
“Less than optimal,” Incarnate replied. “The recovery process is slow. Much of the city is still lacking in working infrastructure due to damage inflicted by The Surveyor or the empowered response. Neo-American forces have been rendering humanitarian aid, alleviating some of the pressure, much to the chagrin of the United States government.”
“Yes, and us.”
Sabra sighed. “I hate this — the politics of it all. When you’re a kid, you don’t see how much politics is involved. It’s just cool people in capes.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
After all, Incarnate had never been a kid. She had been built by Ironheart, one of the world’s greatest superheroes, a true veteran of the Golden Age. She trusted Sabra with her secret, and Sabra trusted her with her own. Here they were, what some might argue as a pairing of existential threats, plucking the snow from each other’s hair. It made Sabra smile.
“I could stay up here forever,” Sabra said.
“Unfortunately, you can’t. Now that you have healed, you have a press conference later today.”
“Oh, Christ and Allah. With the photos and everything?”
“With the photos and everything.”
“I’ll skip it. Say my arm started coming off again.”
“That would not be advisable. Aegis will be attending.”
Sabra groaned. “You know just how to break the mood.”
“Then I guess we should get down there and face the day,” Sabra said, pushing herself up from the rock they had been sitting on, stretching her arms above her head. “Help me train tonight?”
As Sabra made her way back down the path, hand in hand with Incarnate, there was a thought that came to her. A message that had echoed in the last moments of the dream, in the wrath of Sekhmet’s death march, that had clung to her even this far from waking, like it had been etched into her marrow as she slept.
Drown in your pride, Sabra Kasembe.
Drown in the blood of it.