As the lights of the camera drones faded, and IPSA’s publicity agents filed out of the soundstage, Sabra worked the tension out of her jaw, dropped her plastered smile, and turned to her commanding officer and said, “I hate this.”
Aegis just met her simmering frustration with terse frost. Every syllable was like it was bitten off, some remnant of her soldier past. “You do? Well, suck it up, Fulcrum, because you’re going to be doing a lot more of this.” She adjusted the silver cuffs of her midnight-blue uniform jacket. “Welcome to the price of victory.”
Let no good deed go unpunished, that passed for Aegis’ motto. Now, whenever she got the opportunity, she beat Sabra—and the rest of her team—with it. It had been a personal, painful lesson for Aegis. During the Collapse, when the world had almost shaken itself to pieces, she had waded into a Tanzanian killing field, defying her standing orders so she could save as many lives as possible.
It had been the right thing to do, but politics had still reared back and kicked Lieutenant Lorna Ng-Mae in the teeth. Politics had kicked her all the way to SOLAR, whereupon Captain Ng-Mae had the temerity to cling to life—despite the ever-increasing grey streaks through her black hair, despite the fact that she had no empowered capability—if only to take joy in causing discomfort to those in power.
Growing up in Paradigm City, Sabra understood the bitterness, the spite. Really, it made her smile. Sometimes those little victories were all you got.
“Between you and me,” Sabra said. “I’d rather go for round two with The Surveyor.”
Aegis snorted. “You won’t believe me, but politics is the more dangerous battlefield. Besides, arms don’t grow on trees, Fulcrum.”
“But,” Blueshift said behind her, “They do grow in hospital wards.” Despite spending so much time with the man, Sabra still couldn’t place his accent.
“Don’t you start,” Aegis replied, leveling a finger. “I don’t need the two of you combining your egos.”
Blueshift ran a thumb against the dark stubble along his jawline. “Captain, what on Earth led you to believe that I have an ego? Everything I do, I do for the whole of humanity.”
It was all feigned, of course. Blueshift took some severe joy in affecting an air of laconic sarcasm. But behind his tired brown eyes and the carefully-maintained stubble lurked a mind that was far more dangerous than his ability to twist gravity into a knot. Even now, Sabra worked with him — but her trust extended only so far as their goals aligned.
Of her SOLAR teammates, he was the one she knew the least about.
Anima, Blueshift’s partner in both spheres of life, thumped him on the arm. “That,” she said, smiling. “That’s why.” The pair were one hell of a contrast. Everywhere Blueshift cultivated a careful laxity; Anima pursued a striking aerodyne severity: green eyes piercing, black hair shaved close. Could’ve been her long lost older sister. Sabra had never quite seen whatever it was Anima saw in Blueshift, but let it go. People surely thought the same thing about her and Incarnate.
Incarnate. She wasn’t here, of course. That was the thing about her: publicity was for people, not property. Sabra pressed her knuckles into her palm, massaged her fingers into the back of her hand and wrist. Old boxing habit. Incarnate wasn’t the only one missing — half of the team was hunting down Reiver’s Reavers in the ruins of the British Isles — but she was the only one who was being discriminated against.
Because she was a machine. Because IPSA had stringent standing orders about what to do with any artificial intelligences, and they were not kind. Incarnate’s presence was tolerated, seemingly only as a favor to her world-saving creator. But the chains were there, invisible as they were, and appearances had to be maintained.
“Sabra?” Anima asked. “What’re you doing tonight?”
“Nothing too exciting,” Sabra replied, smiling. “My parents just got back from Berlin, so I’m going to go to dinner with them. Then hit the gym, finish getting my new suit back to spec.”
“Ah, the wonders of being a technopath,” Blueshift lied. “Had the two of you met just a few years ago, you could’ve talked shop.”
“Yeah, no doubt.”
Aegis popped a tablet into her mouth, swallowed it. Painkillers. Clinging to a suicide posting didn’t mean you escaped the many close calls, the shrapnel buried in deep. “And how are they finding our wonderful city?”
Sabra shrugged. “Mom loves it, dad… isn’t so enthused.”
“Your dad’s a smart man. It’s a shame none of it rubbed off on you.”
Sabra raised her hand to her heart, laughing. “Ouch, Captain. I didn’t know cameras got you this cranky.”
“This is nothing,” Anima said. “You should’ve seen her when we got the news to go back to Paradigm, just before we met you.”
“Ada,” Aegis replied, “You are the worst quasi-adopted daughter I’ve ever had.”
Once you got away from the politics and into the moonlight, Sabra reflected, Geneva really was quite beautiful. Electric cars hummed down picturesque streets that bordered on utopian, not one street light broken or dim. Men and women walked through immaculate, snow-dusted parks without fear of being caught in the middle of an empowered gang brawl. Out of uniform, Sabra was just one face among many.
But still, Sabra noticed the lack of salt in the air. The air was fresh and crisp, but there was never any trace of salt in her nostrils. It was a silly thing, such a small thing to notice, but it prevented Geneva from truly feeling like home. There were many things from Paradigm City that Sabra didn’t miss, but the sea salt was not one of them.
On the other hand, the Alps were no longer so intimidating. When Sabra had arrived in Geneva, the looming mountains had seemed like the hand of some cthonic god, just seconds away from closing into a fist and wiping the city from the face of the planet. Unnatural to someone who had grown up seeing an endless blue expanse in every direction.
But she had conquered them, the same way she conquered everything else. The same way she always won: persistence, stubbornness, and grit.
Her parents had made a reservation at an Italian restaurant. It was the kind of place that never would have survived in Paradigm City, and that her family could never have afforded to attend had it done so. Still, her parents had settled in well enough: her father had shaved away his black beard at some point on his trip, and her mother was wearing a new dress. All things considered, the move to Geneva had been good to them. Better than Paradigm City had treated them, at least.
As Sabra approached, her father rose from the table and swept her up into his arms. She had inherited his six feet of height and his build, but he could still lift her from the ground like she was still nothing but a child. “Sabra! It’s so good to see you!”
Sabra lingered in his arms, savoring the warmth. Her father was always so full of life. It was something Sabra had always loved about him, and all the more when she had realized it was a decision he had made among the ashes of atrocity. A conscious choice to do his best, to be better. Like Aegis, he wore the scars of the troubles in Africa — blotchy ones that ran all up and down his arms, scars he never talked about — but somehow he had emerged from that strife with a humanistic sense of faith.
That, too, was something else Sabra had inherited, expressed in a saying: I am because you are.
“I’m good, papa,” she replied. “Real good. I got back from the US three days ago.” Better not to mention the specifics. Even better not to mention the arm.
Her father pulled her chair out, and Sabra sat down into it. Her mother smiled at her across the table — it was warm, of course, but not as warm as her father. “You weren’t caught in that business in Chicago, I trust?”
Sabra smiled. “You know I wouldn’t be able to talk about it if I was.”
Her father gathered up menus, passed them out. “To see my daughter become a component of the IPSA machine…”
“Not tonight, Esmer,” her mother cut in.
“Yes. Sorry, Sabra.”
“It’s okay,” Sabra said, laughing. “Trust me, I’m not in this for anything but the opportunity to do good. And besides, the IPSA machine’s paying you a family stipend, right? Has to count for something.” And yet, there was a flash of irritation.
“It does,” her father replied. “And it’s quite generous. But still, the fact that this money comes because you go out there and risk…” He raised his hand, cutting himself off. “No, not tonight. We can talk about this another night.”
“How was Berlin?”
“Wonderful,” her mother said. “Of course, your father couldn’t stop talking about the history of the place. We must have visited a dozen museums and just as many galleries over the fortnight.”
“What can I say?” Her father spread his arms, smiling. “There’s nothing more human than art. It’s one of those things that binds us. No matter what, every person on this planet can appreciate art. Whether it’s painting or sculpting or-” And he glanced to Sabra, sharing a conspiratorial grin “-even boxing and dancing.”
“No finer arts,” Sabra replied, matching the grin. “And you, mama? How did you like it?”
“I was happy just to see another part of the world. Especially one so old. It made me think it would be nice to return to Cairo one of these days.” Her mother studied the menu and continued, “How’s the girlfriend?”
That was a tough topic. Incarnate was fine, of course, but such talks required a certain degree of circumspection. After all, she didn’t even have a name beyond her SOLAR codename. And when Sabra had raised the idea, Incarnate had just tilted her head in that particular way she had, a little tell that said either that she didn’t quite understand — or that she did, and thought you were an idiot.
“She’s great,” Sabra said. “Bit of a workaholic but, hey, then she makes up for me, right?” Someone stepped up to her side then, and it occurred to Sabra she hadn’t even examined the menu. “One second, we’re still deciding.”
The person didn’t move. Sabra glanced up and to them, and met the eyes of a man in an IPSA uniform. “Sabra Kasembe?” he asked.
“The one and only. Is there something I can help you with?”
“My apologies, but your presence is required at the IPSA building immediately.”
Sabra frowned. Why? Her night was clear, and if there had been an emergency that required Aegis to mobilize the team, she would have received a call, not an envoy. “If this isn’t urgent, I’d really rather not.”
“It’s fine, Sabra,” her mother said. “There will be other dinners.” Her father’s expression was less understanding.
“Again, my apologies,” the IPSA man said, “But my orders are quite clear.”
Still, Sabra hesitated. There’s that Kasembe stubbornness. “I’m sure. Do I get to know why?”
The man nodded.
“The Director-General wants to see you.”
Sabra had only spent a year with SOLAR, but even before she had joined up, she knew two things about Emilio Anderton, the head of the International Powered Security Agency: he was regarded as one of the most powerful men in the world, and perhaps because of that, he was someone you did not refuse.
The Director-General’s envoy drove her to the IPSA building, located just east of the SOLAR HQ complex that she spent so much time in. It was a forty story edifice of glass and steel, and not somewhere Sabra had ever been before. She followed just behind the envoy as they entered the lobby, the marble floor emblazoned with the logo of the IPSA, and noted, with some small amusement, that she was taller than him.
She needed what levity she could get. As far as Sabra knew, the only member of her team who had ever met with the Director-General was Aegis, and that had only been in the wake of her team toppling Sentinel, one of the ‘last, great’ capes of the world. From what Sabra had been able to pick up, it had been an icy conversation.
But Aegis had kept her job.
The envoy led her to an elevator, and they rode it up thirty-five stories in silence. A pair of armed guards met them as they stepped out of the elevator and subjected Sabra to the usual battery of identity tests: genetic, retinal, mental, and others more esoteric. One could never be too sure in the post-Golden Age world. Then the envoy opened the great hardwood doors at the end of the corridor and ushered Sabra inside.
The Director-General’s office was larger than her family’s old home in Paradigm City. The sheer scale of it was enough to give Sabra pause. An opulent red rug led from the door to a desk that, despite the fact that Sabra knew it to be large, seemed small. Beyond that, the room was free of furniture. The opulence, the waste. What was even the point?
The Director-General himself stood with his back to her, studying the wall behind his desk — on it, was a flattened map of the globe, the continents outlined in bright blue, and alive with a mass of colors: red, blue, purple, green.
Sabra stopped before his desk and settled into the pose that Incarnate always held so precisely: shoulders back, chin up, hands behind her back. “You wanted to see me, sir?”
Director-General Anderton turned. “Ah, Miss Kasembe.” Trace of an accent — Swedish, maybe. He made his way around the desk and extended his hand to her. “A pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Likewise, sir,” she said, shaking his hand. “But this is something of a surprise.” He had to be about her father’s age, but time had treated him with much more kindness. His brown hair and his black suit were both immaculate.
“It is something I wished to do earlier. However, the job doesn’t allow me as much freedom as I would like. May I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?”
Sabra raised her hand in polite refusal. “I’m okay, but thanks.” Her gaze wandered back to the projection of the globe — a section of orange in Ireland had vanished. Anderton noticed.
“Incredible, isn’t it? This is a real-time indication of every hotspot in the world, straight from SOLARIA. I find myself watching it, reminding myself that there is always so much work to be done.”
Sabra had met many people with thoughts on the Director-General — Blueshift, Ironheart, her father, others — and not one of them painted a positive picture of the man. In her mind, one of the others spoke up: old Pavel Fisher. Careful, Sab, he said. This guy’s a shark. Don’t trust anyone who makes you walk so far to their desk.
“That’s the best part of being in SOLAR, sir. No shortage of work.”
Anderton smiled. “And what work you do, Miss Kasembe. You drove The Surveyor out of Chicago. Do you know how many capes are able to do such a thing and survive?”
“It puts you on a very short list.”
“Of course, but I didn’t do it alone.”
“Yes. The report indicated that it was something of a team effort. But you were the one holding the spear, although the loss of a quantum edged weapon is unfortunate. How is your arm, by the way?”
She gave the limb a gentle roll. “Good as new.”
“Excellent. But you must know I didn’t draw you all this way at this hour for a social visit. I have a mission for you.”
“A mission, sir?”
Anderton raised his eyebrows. “You’re surprised.”
“I get my orders from Aegis, and she hasn’t mentioned anything about a new mission.”
Anderton walked about to the other side of his desk. “Captain Ng-Mae is a fine, capable leader, but this task does not require a whole team of capes. In fact, a whole team of capes might make the mission impossible.”
“What do you need, sir?”
“I need you to return to Chicago.”
Sabra frowned. “Is there a problem?”
“Not yet, but perhaps soon,” Anderton replied. “I trust you are familiar with the Neo-American Empire?”
“The basics. I’ve heard they’ve been pushing the humanitarian angle hard over in Chicago.”
“That’s correct. We’ve been monitoring the situation. SOLARIA analysis indicates that it is a cover for something else. We need to confirm this analysis.”
Sabra glanced to the map. Chicago was a deep, glowing red. “Then why send me? Sir, I can see where this is going, but I’m a brawler. I’m not the kind of person who is good at gathering information. Someone like Blueshift would be better.”
Anderton shook his head. “Blueshift is understood to be a strategic-level threat. Deploying him to a situation that is already, shall we say, fluid, could result in it destabilizing further. A technopath is less conspicuous.”
“A technopath who wounded one of the Seven.”
“With their exact identity still uncertain,” Anderton replied. “If you are concerned, we can establish a cover identity for the duration of the mission.”
Something about this felt wrong. Sabra resisted the urge to slip into the causal abyss, to begin twisting cause and effect to determine what exactly was transpiring here before her. If the Director-General believed her to be a mere technopath, then she had to stick to that lie. For all she knew, SOLARIA could have been crunching her data right now, and that the whole talk of a mission was pretext.
“Sir, with all due respect, I don’t think I’m right for this task.”
Anderton narrowed his eyes, and let the silence speak for him. Then, he said, “Understand, Miss Kasembe, that this is not a request. This is a direct order, and you will obey it. We must ascertain what the Neo-American Empire is doing in Chicago and whether it constitutes a threat to global security. Orders from this office are not optional.”
His words were like a bear trap snapping shut on her ankle.
“Yes, sir,” Sabra replied. “But if I may make one request?”
Anderton’s demeanor melted from glacial to warm, like it had never happened. “Of course.”
“I’m not going into a situation like that without backup. I want someone to come with me. I want Incarnate.”
Anderton nodded, glanced down at his desk and tapped away at the touchscreen there. “Consider it done.”
That felt too easy.
There were dangerous games being played in the halls of power, that much Sabra knew. Blueshift had once made that quite clear to her, when he had made his first play a year ago. Here, Sabra suspected, was the Director-General’s answer. But the shape of it, the strategy, the goals — hell, the source of the conflict itself — all still remained unclear.
Let the Director-General send her to Chicago. She would find out whatever the Empire was doing there, and she would determine Emilio Anderton’s motives, too. Because there was no game Sabra Kasembe didn’t play to win.
Sabra forced a smile to her face.
“Then,” she said, “I guess I’m going to Chicago.”