Rubbing an artificial finger along his jawline, looking into the expectant eyes of twenty uniformed teenagers, each of them at a desk, all of them obedient and dutiful, Pavel Fisher found himself struck by the same thought he had when he had first stepped past the Academy’s walls: there’s something very wrong with this picture.
The thought orbited him like a comet, dimming to the back of his mind for a time, then flaring bright whenever it was time to return to the front of his thoughts. Even a year on from taking his position as an instructor within the walls of the United Nations Academy for Empowered Development and Education, he hadn’t settled in. In fact, the only thing he had settled into was the sense of disquiet.
At first, he had thought it was just lingering frustration at being stuck in the damn chair, but that wasn’t it. Hell, he’d been out of it for six months and yet, still, when he looked across the grounds or over the students, there was always that thought.
“Instructor Fisher,” Leah asked, hand raised in the front row. “Is it true?”
Fisher drew his hand from his chin, crossed his arms. “Is what true, Leah?” The stern, curmudgeon act still worked like a magic spell on the kids in their first year of the senior academy. On most kids, at least. Leah had a tendency to put her head down and power forward regardless.
Funny. Reminded him of someone.
“Were you really a superhero? A real one, I mean.”
Fisher glanced to the clock. Five minutes until the last class of the day ended and he’d already given the kids their homework. Shit. No wonder it was impertinent questions for the new teacher time.
“What makes you think I was?” Fisher asked.
Leah furrowed her brow, thinking it through. “A lot of the instructors here have superpowers.”
“Empowered abilities,” he corrected her. IPSA was big on their terminology and bigger on making sure the students followed it.
“I know. But you’re the only one I’ve seen who is missing his hands.”
A low, choral oo-ooh sounded through the classroom. Fisher silenced it with a look. For show, he raised his prosthetic hands before him and flexed them, mechanisms clicking. “That doesn’t mean I was a superhero. Maybe I put them under a lawnmower. Maybe I’m not a superhero at all, maybe I was just wasn’t very bright.”
Leah shook her head. “Instructor Fisher,” she insisted, “Instructor al-Fadil said we should ask you, since you’re our history teacher and all. Don’t you have any stories?”
Fisher turned to face the hardlight board, just so they couldn’t see his exasperated grin. You had to respect such naked, youthful insistence. When he turned back, the mask of pedagogical neutrality fixed again, the bell chimed.
The irony that I’m the one being saved by the bell.
“Well,” he said, “It’s time for you to get back to your dorms. We can discuss this next time, but only if you’ve all done your homework.”
The class groaned, but filed out, and began the short walk across the senior academy grounds to their dorms. He watched them go, perplexed by the dutiful obedience. But these kids had been part of the Academy since kindergarten, maybe even before that. Shaking his head, Fisher wandered the classroom, shutting everything off, making sure nothing had been left behind and glanced to the doorway as someone approached.
“For some strange reason,” Fisher said, not looking up, “I once again find myself cursing the name Naemah al-Fadil.”
Naemah bowed her head in silhouette. “Someone has to keep you on your toes. Besides, you’re their empowered history teacher. A living relic of the Golden Age for them to poke at.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to touch museum pieces,” he replied, looking up. “Brings the value down. And the insurance claims can be a hell of a problem.”
Naemah stood a few inches under the average, and yet always found a way to command attention. Like him, she wore the deep blue uniform of an Academy instructor, but she still had both of her hands. She’d been a hero, too, but one of the new breed that exemplified the world as it existed, not a relic of the world that had been swept away.
Not like him.
“Coffee?” Naemah asked, adjusting her hijab. “I could use a second pair of eyes on the most recent set of training results from the senior year. Need to start winnowing down who gets earmarked for SOLAR, and who doesn’t make the cut.”
Fisher tapped his fingers against the edge of his hand terminal. Tonight was one of the only nights where he actually had something planned. On the other hand, Naemah was one of the only people he felt some degree of connection within the Academy walls.
It wasn’t like his plans weren’t anything he couldn’t delay for a few hours, anyway.
“How about this one?” Naemah asked, passing a file over to his terminal. “Good test results—he’ll probably end up a high Beta. Academic results are strong, as are his fitness scores. But I think you can see where I have a bit an issue.”
Fisher set his coffee down, picked up his terminal, and considered the profile before him. He saw it, nodded, and slid back into his chair. “Yeah, I see it. The kid’s a haemokinetic.”
The sun was setting, and the twilight life of the Academy Square buzzed around them. Uniformed faculty passed by with respectful nods. A trio of older students spied him and Naemah, drew the wrong impression and called out to try and get his attention. One of them whistled. And through it all, wound a train of students from the junior academy, all of them wide-eyed and amazed at what lay before them in just ten years or thereabouts.
Mark would’ve said it was cute.
“I don’t quite see how that’s a problem,” Fisher said, focusing on a less painful topic. The wound was more of a scar these days, but it could still ache all the same, were he to poke at it too roughly. “Heaps of useful things you can do with that power. Triage, for example. What’s the issue?”
Naemah gave him an unimpressed look. “PR. Technically, it is a criterion we need to take under consideration. Especially with the Empire launching another propaganda campaign in the wake of Chicago.”
Fisher snorted. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s a valid criterion. I’m sure good PR saves lives. I’m sure it did wonderful things for Chicago when the responders were picked because they had abilities that didn’t make people upset. I’m sure if we had’ve had the right kind of PR we would’ve kept the Golden Age alive.”
“Hey, I agree with you. The politics is why I got out of SOLAR. He’s a good kid, though. It’s a shame he’ll be shuffled into some behind the scenes job.”
Ah, politics. There was a belief that politics killed more capes than combat did. Fisher was the sort to think that was accurate.
“Still,” he said, watching a pair of students wander past. “Sometimes I don’t think this is the way to train the next generation of heroes. The classes, the focus on protocol and terminology, the rules, the criteria…”
“What’s the alternative? Without a gentle, guiding hand, the only alternative might be another Collapse.”
“Good question,” Fisher said, and dropped the topic. As much as she chafed under the regs, Naemah was a believer in the IPSA. “Anyway, it’s still worth putting him forward as a candidate. Leave it to someone else to reject him.”
“Is that so?”
“We’re teachers, not image consultants. Our job isn’t to give a shit about the IPSA’s public perception, it’s to give these kids the best opportunities possible. If he’s a good candidate, he’s a good candidate. If that means we have to put our fingers on the scale,” Fisher shrugged, “then we put our fingers on the scale.”
Naemah grinned. “Nice speech. And for how long did you rehearse this one?”
“Oh, a while. I had some practice. See, back when I joined the Brigade, Katherine made speech rehearsals a whole group event.”
“It’s hard to believe that started up forty years ago. I was nine when the Golden Age ended.”
“You didn’t miss much, trust me. The world’s really not that different. Less columns and amphitheaters, maybe. The world doesn’t change, but people do. And that’s the thing, you miss the people.”
“Speaking of missing people,” Naemah said, glancing at her watch. “I have some lessons I need to finish planning. Thanks for the coffee, Pavel. I’ll buy next time.”
Fisher waved her off. “You’ll try. Don’t mention it, Naemah. Besides, I should get back to my apartment. Got some plans of my own.”
Academy faculty lived in a set of apartment buildings on the northern side of the complex. Fisher’s flat was on the tenth floor of Rho Building—the Greek alphabet was one of the many aspects of that culture that had resurfaced during the Golden Age. Letters, fashion, names. All of those had, for a time, settled into vogue.
Fisher’s place was nice enough. Better than the hole he’d had in Paradigm City, anyway. The moment he stepped through the door, Octopus yowled at him from the couch. The fat cat drew himself upward and stretched, like his day had been so difficult.
“Yeah, yeah,” Fisher said. “Quit cracking the whip. I’ll have you fed in a moment.”
Octopus came first—that was the one rule of the Fisher household. He took up a can of something that insisted it was fish and poured it into Octopus’ bowl, and only then did he take off his shoes and uniform jacket, walk over to the small cabinet by his bed and take out a bottle of scotch. Poured himself out a glass.
Then, he looked to the bedside table and poked at his scar.
Mark Fisher was there in holographic portrait, with Fisher—younger, thinner, happier— beside him, arms around each other, both of them smiling forever. Mark, with his raven black hair and his piercing blue eyes. The image had to be twenty years old, but it was the best one Fisher had. It was how he wanted to remember him.
Fisher raised his glass towards the smiling couple. “Here’s to you, my love.” He drank it down, then poured himself out another and drank that, too.
You miss the people, that was what he had said. The Millennium Brigade had stood within the upper echelons of the Golden Age. Fisher had seen almost the entire world, had fought to protect all of what he saw. But the job had picked off each storied member one by one, or just worn them down until they hung up the capes and armorweave and settled into civilian life again.
Back when you actually could.
There was the third category, of course—neither dead nor retired. That was the one that Mark fit into, that Fisher knew. He wasn’t dead, but it was so much easier to think that he was.
The truth was too much to bear.
The scotch kindled a fire in his belly. Fisher wandered his way to the kitchen, heated up a bowl of cheap noodles (with ‘real’ vat-grown beef!) from one of the many places inside the Academy’s little model town, and sat down on the couch to eat. He turned on the monitor, set it to the evening news, and listened only in passing as he ate.
Octopus settled at his feet, looking up at him expectantly.
“Fat cat,” Fisher told him, but forked out some noodles for him regardless. Then he sat back into the couch and blinked.
When he opened his eyes, night had fallen. The single blink had lasted for a few hours and Octopus had decided to help himself to what was left of the noodles. Somewhere, Fisher’s phone was chiming. He fumbled about, realized it was in his pocket, and put it to his ear.
“Yes?” Fisher snapped. “What?”
“Pavel, you have visitors.”
It took Fisher a moment to place the voice. It wasn’t one he heard often.
“Sharif,” Fisher groaned. “What time is it?”
“Three-thirteen AM. Did I wake you?”
Sharif Hassan worked in public-facing administration. If you worked Academy admin, then you were either not empowered—or empowered in name only. One of the unlucky sorts whose spin in the game of empowered genetic roulette ended with the pill bouncing out of the wheel and vanishing into the ether.
Sharif had never volunteered which group he belonged to.
It was one of the greatest mysteries of the empowered population. Why did some people gain absolute, world-shattering power, and why did some find their own abilities to be merely circumstantial? And why did some, even with the telltale genetic marker, gain nothing at all?
That was part of the reason Fisher had come to the Academy in the first place. He’d spent a year on those questions and hadn’t made much headway. Countless theories but little concrete. He shoved Octopus from his lap, and the cat languished on the carpet like he’d been betrayed and shot.
Fisher said, “That doesn’t matter. No one would be brave enough to visit me at this hour.”
“Be that as it may, it’s true.”
“Well, fine. What do they want?”
“They say they need your help.”
Fisher sighed. That was not a phrase he had heard for a long time. But, hell, of all the nights to hear it… He rubbed at his temples with the tips of his artificial fingers. Liked to think that the cold metal there did something to relax him. Tact, Pavel, Mark said, as he always did, somewhere in his memories, always tact.
He’d needed that reminder a lot, back in the day. Still did.
“Doesn’t that phrase take me back,” Fisher said, mostly to himself. “Okay, what else can you give me?”
“Well, there is one thing,” Sharif began, with the tone of someone who wasn’t sure if they were they were the target of a prank or not. “But it was so strange that I had to double check that these people weren’t looking for the wrong Pavel Fisher.”
Fisher hopped up and gathered up his jacket. Not because he had to be in uniform when he wasn’t teaching, but because it was the closest thing on hand. “Sharif, Pavel Fisher is not a common name. In fact, there’s no one else with it on staff. So, if they’re asking for me, then they’ve probably come to the right place. What’d they tell you?”
“Well, Pavel,” Sharif said, still unsure. “The woman says she’s your wife.”
Realization struck Pavel Fisher mute and set his grumpy state into a tailspin. There were only two people Fisher knew who might say such a thing, and one of them was dead. Which meant that it had to be…
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’m afraid not.”
Fisher shook his head. “I wasn’t talking- Okay. Tell Ms. Holley that I’ll be right there.”
Sharif’s silence stretched out for a full three seconds. “You actually know this woman?”
“Yeah. And it’s a hell of a story.”
He cut the call. He had no interest in explaining it. It was a story that was supposed to be wrapped up and finished.
Fisher hurried his way to the administrative quarter, hands in his pockets, braced against the cold night air and a dusting of snow. The admin quarter was the part of the Academy that the public saw. It was the most pleasant part of New York’s city within a city that he had heard referred to as anything from a picturesque model town, to an empowered ghetto, to a boot camp for toddlers.
His two visitors were waiting for him in the lobby. One of them was lounging like she owned the place, her mane of ashy blonde hair in casual disarray. The other stood nearby, his boyish looks not quite concealed by his dark, patchy stubble. Both of them wore dark colors, looking like extras in some paramilitary advertisement.
Sharif was busy with some task at his desk, but he kept looking up at them. Fisher cast his eyes over the pair. No guns, he noted. Which, for them, was something of a positive.
He made his way over to them without breaking stride. Samantha Holley glanced up and smiled, blew him a kiss.
“What the hell are you two doing here?” Fisher hissed.
Sam raised her eyebrows. “That’s the greeting we get? Well, shit. But it’s warmer than my first husband, I guess.”
“It’s 3AM, Sam. I’m not in the mood for jokes.”
Jack stepped forward. “Then listen, Pavel, because I’m not joking. I’m sorry for dropping in like this, we both are. But I didn’t know where else we could go.”
Now, that was curious—and worrying. “I’m listening,” Fisher said, as Jack looked past him, to Sharif, and lowered his voice.
“Pavel,” he said, and nothing that followed made any sense. “We’ve got a big fucking problem. The Imperials got Sabra. They took her.”