To Jack, the only bad thing about a fight was everything that came after it. And, at the top of that particular list, was the pain. Not the life-pain of exertion and triumph, but the dull, spreading throb that reminded you there was always wounds you didn’t feel, that you could get stuck with a knife and not realize it until you had bled all over the floor…
You couldn’t afford to get sloppy. But Jack had. They both had. It was one of their old rules, and they had both let it slip. Why else would he be sitting in this uncomfortable chair, face to mask with his boss?
It was hard to concentrate on his boss, even with the mask, uniform, and cape. Jack’s face had begun to throb — the first tremors that heralded a migraine earthquake. It could have been the fight, the effects of the brawl finally managing to get through, or it could have just been the glare from the glowpanels in the ceiling. Either way, Jack wasn’t sure, and he pressed an ice pack against his blackened eye.
“I didn’t know,” he said, biting off each syllable.
Across from him, in his blue and gold armorweave, Peacemaker dominated the meeting room. “Didn’t know that she killed them?” he asked, “Or that she had the gun?”
Peacemaker’s blonde hair stuck out in a wild mass from some gap in the top of his mask, reminding Jack of nothing other than a cockatoo. There was something ridiculous about that, the mask. Did Peacemaker think the world hadn’t thrown out the Golden Age and all of its consensual traditions in the aftermath of the Collapse? Did he think it would add gravitas? It felt empty and hollow; the world had just moved on. Took control of what it could, cast away what it couldn’t.
Funny, really, what a brush with cataclysm had done to the world.
Jack pulled the ice from his eye. “The gun.” Again, he ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth — first lower, then upper. Found them all still there. It was a good fight if you got out of it with all of your teeth.
Peacemaker nodded. “Where did she get it?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long has she had it?”
“I don’t know.”
“We do not carry firearms, we do not issue firearms, we do not use firearms.”
Jack nodded. “I know.”
“Finally,” Peacemaker snapped, spreading his arms, “something you do know!” He stalked around the room, shaking his head, cape twisting in his wake. He paused by the window, staring at the distant Chicago skyline. Great sections of it were still dark. “Do you have any idea what you’ve both done?”
The question bit deep, and Jack gripped at the armrests of his chair. Of course, he did. Christ, what did this cape take him for — a psychopath? He had stood by while Sam killed three people. It was not a new thing, barely a blip on her running total throughout the years. Really, the thing that galled Jack about it was that he had gotten sloppy. He had forgotten one of the first rules of situational awareness: just because you can’t see someone doesn’t mean they can’t see you.
And if you get sloppy, Elias said in his memories, you die.
“Hudson,” Peacemaker said. “Are you listening to me?”
“Absolutely. Three people are dead.”
“Three members of the Neo-American military, one of them an officer. If we can’t figure out some way to deal with this, it’s going to spiral out of control fast.”
“Huh,” Jack said, leaning back, as if he could find some comfortable spot in the chair. “That sucks.”
Peacemaker turned to fix him with a glare. “Excuse me?”
Jack stared at him like he was glaring at someone else. “What do you want me to say?”
The cape stalked over, bending down to look into his eyes. “Hudson, I want you to truly, seriously grasp the seeds of this brewing clusterfuck typhoon that you’ve gone and sown to the wind.”
“Okay. I do.”
Peacemaker pulled away and said, “Somehow, I don’t think that’s true.” Walked back to the window.
“I do. But three dead people are three dead people. Sam was provoked.” It wasn’t true, but Jack doubted that whoever had witnessed the fight knew any better.
“Just like New York and Seattle,” Peacemaker mused to the window. “Just like why you both got kicked out of the corporate sector.”
“No one died there.”
“That’s not relevant.”
It seemed pretty relevant to Jack, but he let it go. “Look, Sam’s a veteran. She has bad days.”
“You consider killing three people a bad day?”
“Yeah. She’d kill a lot more on a good day.”
Peacemaker stared at Jack, horror and rage and disbelief warring on his features. For a time, no one spoke at all. Then Peacemaker said slowly, carefully: “We’re the good guys, Hudson. We don’t kill people. I don’t know what kind of life you led before you ended up here or how much I can really blame you for this… perspective you have, but we need to fix this situation.”
Jack wasn’t sure who he could blame for his perspective, either. He thought for a moment.
“I don’t think there’s anything we really need to fix,” he replied. “Not yet, anyway.”
“What’s your angle?”
Jack shrugged. “It’s simple, really. The sooner they realize someone’s killed three of their people, the sooner they’re going to start dropping hammers. What’re you going to do? Hand over the bodies?”
That seemed to get through to Peacemaker. His frown twisted from frustrated to something more thoughtful. “Their superiors will realize they’re missing, if they haven’t already.”
“Not until they check in. Probably in person. I doubt their communications are any better than ours.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t change things, Hudson. It just puts us on a timer. Eventually, they’ll start searching. They’ll turn this city upside down. Someone will talk.”
Sam’s words returned to Jack then, of guns and blankets and food and conquest.
“I don’t think so,” Jack replied. “They want to be seen as the good guys, too. They live and die for the goals of the Empire, right? Ten dollars says they’ll let three soldiers die for the opportunity to keep the US government between a rock and a hard place.”
Peacemaker rubbed at his exposed chin, glanced at Jack like he was some alien lifeform or some scum on his boot. It was familiar enough to give Jack a degree of warmth. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, Hudson. But your friend Holley? She’s a murderer. By all rights, I should be handing her over to the authorities, let them find a way out of this clusterfuck hurricane.”
Jack considered that, turned the words this way and that. “They’re foreign soldiers on US soil in a time of war.”
“I’m not surprised you’re splitting the hair on killing. But regardless of whatever point you’re trying to make, they are here bringing humanitarian aid. This could cause a diplomatic crisis. This could cause the war to go hot.”
“With could being the operative word,” Jack pointed out. “And that’s if the information gets out. But Sam and I were thorough, we dug out the slugs, didn’t leave prints…”
“Except for the witness.”
“Yeah, and they went to you, not the Neo-Americans. That says enough.”
Peacemaker nodded. “Hmm,” he said, and left it at that. “And as for empowered methods? Telepathy, psychometry?”
Again, Jack shrugged. “There’s an empowered for everything.” He thought about that, laughed. “But, yeah, if they bring in the right kind, we might actually be fucked.”
Peacemaker exhaled. “But we are fucked if we hand over the bodies.”
“Then I guess we keep this quiet. But if they come knocking, I’m handing you over. The both of you. And for now, neither of you are going back out there.”
Peacemaker waved him towards the door. “Get outta here.”
Jack nodded, pushed himself out of his seat. Halfway to the door, Peacemaker spoke up.
“Who the hell were you two, Hudson?”
“Not good people.”
“Yeah,” his boss said, sighing. “That’s one hell of an understatement.”
Not good people. The thought clung to Jack’s mind like a chemical burn as he headed for the mess, partially because it had been true and partially because, for all of his effort, he knew it still was true.
Only two years ago, Jack and Sam and the rest of their group would’ve been prowling the streets of some broken place like Chicago, taking what they wanted, killing who they wanted. Reveling in the dozens of crises that were eating the world up from the outside in. Oh, Elias had said it was in the service of something greater, some inevitable world-changing inciting incident, and Jack had believed him. He had believed him up until Elias had left him for dead, cut him out because he had started having doubts.
Doubts don’t make you a good person, Sabra said, you have to actually go out there and do something about it.
So he had. Here he was, trying to build something different. Trying to be someone different. It was harder than he had always thought it to be. But that was the life he had led for years, and that history had a momentum of its own.
He found Sam in the mess. She sat on the far side, scattered cigarette stubs and a mug of coffee before her, back to the corner. Like him, she always sat so she could see the most entrances, always alert. She was throwing a tennis ball with simple repetitive motions, not even looking at it. Threw with the right, caught in her left. Threw with the left, caught with the right.
She looked to him as he made his way over. “So,” she said, grinning, “How’d it go?”
Jack pulled up a seat. “Let’s just say I think we’re going to need to find another job.”
“And I was just beginning to like this one. Shame.”
Jack rubbed at the dusting of stubble along his jaw, question rising like a lump in his throat. “Sam, why’d you do it?”
Sam caught the tennis ball. She twisted her lips left, then right. “You know me, Jack. You know the answer.”
“I know that you were a soldier,” he replied. “I know you fought against the Empire before it became, well, an empire.”
“The war never ended.”
“Sam, this is serious.”
“I am being serious.”
“I know. That’s the fucking problem!” He slammed his hands against the table top and then, sighing, rubbed at his eyes, regretted it immediately.
“Damnit, Sam,” he hissed. “We can’t keep bouncing around like this. There aren’t many jobs for people with no histories, whose only skills and knowledge revolve around blowing things up and hurting people.”
“There’s plenty, actually. But you went and developed scruples.”
“I’m done hurting people, Sam. I want a normal life.”
“I had a normal life, kid. Had the husband, the house, the big slobbery dog. None of it mattered. None of it made me happy.”
“And killing does?”
“Nope.” She fixed him with a hard brown stare. “But if the choice is between letting the guilt roll off me like I’m a badass duck, or letting it eat me up because I don’t feel like a real boy…”
Fire roared down Jack’s spine. “Fuck you.”
“You’re not my type.” Sam, smirking, tossed the ball to him and, despite himself, Jack caught it. “Do you really want to know why I did it, Jack?”
“It wasn’t like you, that’s all.”
Sam took a deep breath. “Chicago’s my home, Jack. I grew up here, went to school here. Hell, I’d go and watch the Bulls down at United because I had a schoolgirl crush on the point guard. This is the first time I’ve been home since I joined the military.”
“I didn’t know.”
“You never asked. And that’s fine, because I don’t really care about your past either. That’s how we work. But please shut up, because I’m talking here.”
He did. Besides, it was always easier to be silent, to watch.
“So,” Sam said, “Here I am, back home — and here are the fucking stormtroopers, softening up everything with their brand of smiling ‘all for one’ imperialism. Because that’s what they do.”
“You can’t kill all of them, Sam,” Jack said. And I don’t want to lose you, to a prison or a bullet or this wild bloodlust.
“I could get a lot of them before they noticed,” she replied, grinning so broadly it revealed the gap in her teeth. “But here’s the thing, Jack. There’s so many horrible things happening all over the world, so, why are they here?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Do you remember Paradigm City?”
Of course, he did.
“Which part?” Jack replied. “The part where I almost died, or where you almost died?”
Sam snorted out something of a laugh and said, “The Engineer.”
So the first one then, even though Jack hadn’t seen him in the flesh. The Engineer — the triclopean, three-armed skeletal artificer of the Seven — had struck the island metropolis of Paradigm City, bringing with him his armory of bizarre weapons and host of robotic servitors, turning the city upside down in his quest to recover something that Jack and his gang had taken from him.
Only they hadn’t. The Engineer had left it for them to take. The Engineer hadn’t been chasing them as much as he had been the hot wind at their back, directing them, driving them. Elias had been his catspaw, some pawn in gambit he nor Jack had ever understood. And then Sabra had cut him down before the altar of SHIVA, and Jack had held him in his arms and listened to him die in the dark, and The Engineer’s transcendental rage had come within inches of collapsing a mountain upon them all.
Sometimes Jack thought it was a mistake to make it out. Elias had been his best friend.
“Yeah,” Jack whispered. “I remember. Some cape missed with one of their shots and almost killed me. I’ve still got the huge scar down my back.”
Sam waved it off. “Yeah, okay, so you got another scar, here’s my point: why didn’t the Neo-Americans help anyone then? The damage was just as bad, and Paradigm’s a much poorer place. Not even a single dropship full of smiling stormtroopers. But here? Shit, there must be a dozen.”
“Huh,” Jack said. “Okay, I think I see what you’re getting at. There’s something they want here.”
Sam smiled. “There’s that brain you have. Why are they here? Chicago’s nowhere near the front, they can’t flip the city and hold it. They’ve come all this way just to make the States look bad? I don’t buy it. And back in the day, my superiors wouldn’t either.”
“So, what would you do, Sam, back in the day?”
Her smile shifted to a shark’s grin. “Oh, easy. Find what the Neos want, and make damn sure they can’t get their hands on it.”
Jack thought of Peacekeeper’s words. “We can’t go out.”
“No one has to know, Jack. What, you never sneaked out with a girl before?”
“You know I haven’t.”
“Then I’m flattered to be the first.”
He glanced downward. “But this uniform— I’m not risking a fight in civilian clothes, either.”
“Fine. Then we break into our storage locker.”
Jack frowned. “Sam.”
She held up a hand, a shield against his disapproval. “Don’t try it. You kept your uniform and your weapons. You never really wanted this life, Jack. I saw it on your face after the fight. You want to stay here, being some pet dog of a cape, or do you want to go out there and kick the bad guys where it hurts?”
“No matter what I say, you’re going, right?”
“Sure. Wouldn’t be the first time I was disappointed by a man.”
Jack sat there, not sure of what to say, less sure of what to choose. Shortly after everything had gone off the rails in Paradigm City, he had finally grasped that he wasn’t good at making the right choices. But he had met Sabra then, and she had always seemed to know the right decision to make, how to be a good person. At times, all he had to do was ask himself a certain question.
This was another one of those times, Jack knew.
What would Sabra do?
After a moment, he had his answer.
“Fine,” Jack said. “Let’s go murder a mystery.”