Sabra had been arrested four times in six years, and across three different continents at that. The first was at the age of fifteen, where she had been apprehended by the Paradigm City police for breaking into cars and looting anything of value. A visit from her parents had scared her straight, although the fear had come more from the efforts of her mother than her father. Even then, it had only persisted for a year or two.
The adrenaline always overpowered the fear.
The second and third had come at the hands of Star Patrol, the national empowered unit of Australia. She had clashed with them in Paradigm City and then on their home soil, and it was SOLAR, with the institutional superpower to lay or sever as much bureaucratic red tape as they ever required, who had bailed her out of both. She had needed to be bailed out of both, but for very different reasons.
Here, in Chicago, no one would bail her out.
The two checkpoint guards hauled her back to the Neo-American camp, hands tied behind her. There, they took her to structure of metal sheeting and sat her down on a crate, held her under their guns. Neither of them said a word.
Sabra had never met someone from the Neo-American Empire. All she had encountered were stories and rumors. Stories that painted them as the architects of a new utopia, welcoming and accepting, true inheritors of the Golden Age. The rumors, of course, were less kind.
Licking her lips, Sabra had the distinct feeling she would be able to determine the truth soon enough.
Eventually, Crusader arrived. The giant had to duck under the doorway, maneuver one shoulder through at a time. His armor was marred in places, scars left by Incarnate’s strikes. Sabra craned her head to look past him, to see some sign of her — and saw nothing.
She has to have escaped.
The two guards saluted. “Sir,” the woman said, “We’ve searched the prisoner thoroughly. She had no identification on her. No documents, no money, no personal effects. And she hasn’t spoken a word.”
“I see.” Crusader’s helmet turned in Sabra’s direction. “Do you wish to identify yourself?”
Sabra peered into the future. Her choices rippled outward and, while some details changed, the futures did not. She drew herself up, set her eyes on Crusader’s glowing red visor, and held her silence.
“Have you questioned her?” Crusader asked, visor unwavering.
“And no sign of the others?”
Crusader nodded. “Just the armor,” he mused. “We’ll send someone to inquire with the local police department, to see if they have any officers matching this one’s description.”
“Yes, sir. And what do we do with her now?”
Crusader stared at her for a time.
“When one kills loyal members of the Empire, it makes little difference if they are a police officer or not,” Crusader intoned. “Process her.”
Processing was a calm affair, all things considered. All in all, Sabra thought, the Empire was not the worst group to be at the mercy of.
They had her strip and shower. One awkward minute in lukewarm water as she ‘bathed’ like a statue under a pair of rifles. Spite and pride burned away any hint of shame. From there, her captors let her towel off and provided her with a set of clothes — a tee-shirt, pants, and underwear. None of it fit correctly.
Then, a man with a red cross on the sleeve of his uniform examined her, took her bloodwork. Checking for the telltale genetic marker that’d reveal that she was empowered. But Sabra was one of the few where the marker was ambiguous, for better or worse.
Sabra had never been sure which side of that line she fell behind. But the Empire was thorough and cautious, and her captors slapped a nullifier collar around her neck. The skein of the future receded past the horizon.
After that, she spent her time in a bare cell with nothing but a simple bunk. The sun rose and set and rose again, glimpsed only through the gaps in the door. Each day, the guards provided her with water and a set of ration bars that tasted like nothing in particular. They responded to her only when she needed to be escorted to the bathroom and back again. Otherwise, they might as well have been automatons.
It gave Sabra time to think, to take stock of the situation and plan her next move. Jack and Sam had escaped, presumably with the object. She had to count on them to do the right thing. And with no sign of Incarnate, she must have slipped the Imperial net as well.
Only she had been snared in it. Escape was not possible, not yet, but the steps she had taken before the collar had nullified that sense, were enough to put her on the right path. The Empire stood apart from the world as orchestrated by the IPSA. To reveal herself as an agent of SOLAR, Sabra figured, would not help her cause.
For now, she was no one — and it would have to be enough.
That evening, Crusader stepped through the door of her cell. He brought with him a metal table and chair, setting them in the middle of the cell. “Sit,” he told her.
Sabra did so. Crusader took a knee across from her. Then he reached up and, with a twist to break the seal, removed his helmet. Underneath was the face of a man, maybe forty years old — buzzed brown hair and warm brown eyes.
“I would like to talk with you,” he said, setting his helmet on the floor. “Person to person.”
“I’m familiar with the good cop, bad cop routine.”
“I am not here to threaten you. I want to resolve this situation to the benefit of every single person involved, including my superiors and you. But with that being said, I do not know who you are.”
It was one of the first rules of Paradigm City’s streets: never give the cops a single word. And so, Sabra held her tongue.
Crusader continued, “All I do know at this time, is that you are not a member of the Chicago police department. Therefore, I must assume that your powered armor was an attempt at deniability. And you fought well, as brief as it was. Whether you believe it or not, I am not your enemy.”
“What happened to the others?”
“Your associates have managed to escape with an object of terrible power, something which we were going to contain and destroy. Wherever they are now, their lives, and the lives of those around them, are in danger. We must cooperate.”
“Funny,” Sabra said. “Only one of us is sitting in a cell.”
Crusader rolled his shoulders upward and down again. It was like watching Mount Saleve shift. “Given that we cannot ascertain your identity, we are forced to assume that you are working to undermine the strategic goals of the Empire on the behalf of the American government or their allies. This makes you a prisoner of war. So, I would like to ask you again: who are you, and what are you doing here?”
As far as the world was concerned, she was Julia Franklin, representative of the Thousand Hearts aid agency. But even that response was a lie that even she wouldn’t have believed. What would Crusader do to a known SOLAR operative? And from there, how would the Empire react?
Sabra had no idea. So, she kept to the lie. It was better than nothing.
“My name is Julia Franklin,” Sabra said. “I work with Thousand Hearts. It’s an aid agency.”
Crusader stared at her. “I see. May I call you Julia?”
Sabra shrugged. “Call me whatever you like. Not like I get much say in it at this point.”
Crusader raised a hand, pointed to her forehead. “I’ve read through the report from the soldier who examined you. Between the pictures and my own experience on the battlefield, that scar looks like it came from an electron edge. How does a relief worker suffer such a wound?”
Again, Sabra shrugged, playing casual. “If it came from an electron weapon, then it’d be news to me.”
Crusader nodded. “And your nose is broken, hastily reset. A war wound, a soldier’s mark. Very curious.”
“Broke it when I was young. Bad pass in basketball.”
His eyes flitted downward, and he nodded, considering her words.
“I think you are lying to me, Julia. You are not a police officer, and you are not an aid worker.” He rose from his kneeling stance and headed for the door. “But you and your associates took the lives of ten servants of the Empire. Justice will be done, and the specifics of your identity are not required.”
Crusader stepped out of the cell and, to the guards outside, said, “Prepare the prisoner for transport.”
Sabra had just enough time to comprehend what he had said, when the guards swept into the room and threw a bag over her head, plunging her into darkness.
One soldier took her left arm, and another took her right. To Sabra, the world existed only in sounds and sensations as the soldiers hauled her out of her cell. They dragged her up a ramp and shoved her into a bucket seat, buckled her in. Had to be a dropship.
The various voices were technical nonsense to her; all barked orders and dutiful checklists. All they did was distract Sabra’s attempt at counting, her effort to combat the disorientation within the sack.
Her stomach lurched down into her belly — so, they had taken off. The subtle changes in the hum of the engines told her when they were accelerating or decelerating, but any indication as to the length of the journey eluded her. She knew she slept, but wasn’t sure for how long. Her only constant was the overwhelming disorientation. And that, Sabra figured, was the point.
The dropship settled somewhere, the engines going silent. The soldiers unbuckled her from the seat, hauled her up, and dragged her down the ramp. There, boots crunching on something, they tore the sack from her head, and Sabra squeezed her eyes shut against the blinding glare.
The sun, Sabra realized. Just how long had they been in the air?
The soldiers dragged her along. The pain in Sabra’s eyes subsided, and she opened her eyes, blinking and grimacing. She was inside a building, with all the spartan accouterments of a military installation. The guards walked her into a bare concrete room. One of her guards removed her cuffs, and Sabra rubbed at her wrists, looking around, seeking any clue as to her location.
She managed to get a look behind her. There, past the doorway, and gates, and the glowing, humming fences was a desert that stretched to the horizon. Christ and Allah, where was she?
One of the guards stepped past her, handing their data terminal to a young man in a slick, simple suit. Then the guards left, and she was alone with him. He hummed to himself, tapping at the screen.
“Who are you?” Sabra asked. “Where am I?”
The man continued humming.
She took a step forward. “I asked you a question.”
The man whirled, quick as a viper, and tagged her in the abdomen with a stun baton. Pain flared through Sabra’s body, and she went down to her hands and knees, grimacing. She wouldn’t cry out. Wouldn’t give whoever this was the satisfaction of thinking they could hurt her, defeat her.
“Good afternoon,” the man said. “Let us begin. Your file here is quite thin, Tyro 724. This is unacceptable. Do you have any medical conditions or lingering, persistent issues? Are you on any medications?” His voice was warm and friendly. “Do you have any allergies? Is there anything that may impact upon your health and wellbeing that has not been disclosed in this file?”
Sabra stared defiance from the floor. He tapped her with the baton again, lightning flaring through her limbs. Her breaths came to her in ragged gasps.
“Defiance will not serve you here, and neither will silence,” the man said, finally looking at her, his green eyes meeting her own. “Replying honestly is the best thing you can do. I am not here to hurt you needlessly. In fact, the only pain that will be inflicted upon you is that which is necessary to ensure your compliance and continued wellbeing. How much you suffer is entirely on you, 724. So, 724, will you respond to my questions promptly and accurately?”
Sabra nodded. If only to make the pain stop. “Yes.”
“Excellent. Now, is there anything that may impact upon your health and wellbeing that has not been disclosed in this file?”
Sabra exhaled. “No.”
“Very good,” her interrogator said. “Stand, if you want. It must be more comfortable than the concrete slab.”
Sabra rose to her feet, fought down the lingering spasms from the stun-shock.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he said. “Whoever you were before you came here, whatever you did to the Empire — it’s all irrelevant to me. You are just a number and an objective. Walk with me.”
Sabra fell into step behind him. He led the way out of the concrete room and down a long corridor, as featureless as every other part of the complex. What was this place? A prison?
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Let me advise you, 724, that you do not ask questions. You provide only answers. Who I am, is of no concern to you. I am not your friend, but I am not your enemy.”
“Then where am I?”
The man’s only response was to press his palm against the biometric look in the door at the end of the corridor. He ushered her through, and the featureless installation gave way to something that wasn’t quite a town square but was nicer than any prison yard Sabra had ever seen. Tents and prefab structures clustered within the glowing fences.
And there were people everywhere. Men and women, young and old. So many sets of eyes fell on Sabra, but she held herself tall and proud. To her right, an arena had been etched into the dirt, and a pair were throwing blows. One of them, a tall woman with her head half-shaved, hurled someone over her back, dropped her elbow onto his chest.
The crowd roared approval.
Sabra glanced about, distracting herself from the violence. No guards. No matter where she looked, she saw no guards.
The man reached up and removed the nullifier collar from her neck. The futures possible and probable and certain rushed into Sabra then, riding a desert wind that brought with it the smell of blood and fire and snow. There was a storm on the horizon, vast and terrible, and she stood at its head, sword raised high.
Here, Sabra thought. Here is where it begins.
“Welcome,” her interrogator said, “to the Proving Ground.”
Here, Sabra knew, is where she could stop it.