What was this place, this Proving Ground? Sabra spent her first afternoon determining this problem from the outside in. Unsure of how else to figure it out, she resorted to the methodology she knew best: a running meditation.
In the unrelenting heat, however, she had to settle for walking. But her morning runs through Paradigm City and Geneva had given her a sense of distance, and the perimeter of the Proving Ground couldn’t be more than twelve kilometers total along all sides. Within that rough quadrilateral sat a mass of tents and brutalist structures, all stone, wood, and metal, with the tallest and most imposing being the Neo-American fortress which dominated the western side.
So many of the captives (what had the interrogator called her? Tyro?) clustered within the cool shadow of that fortress. Above them all, red banners fluttered in the dry wind, emblazoned with the Imperial symbol of a swooping, golden falcon. The marriage of symbolism and practicality was nakedly obvious to Sabra: when the heat was at its most oppressive, the fortress was there to provide shelter.
Sabra spat to the west, and forced herself to run the final stretch. While the fortress closed off one side, the rest of the perimeter was demarcated by humming pylons, spaced every hundred meters or so. In the gap between them, the air shimmered like a heat mirage. When she got close enough, she felt the vibration in her teeth.
No, she would not touch that field, whatever it was.
Besides, if she could get past the fence, where would she go? Beyond the perimeter of the camp, there was nothing but desert. It was almost like being home, in a way. Paradigm City had been surrounded by nothing but ocean. Here, Sabra was surrounded by nothing but desert.
Sabra sat down in the shadow of a shed. She reached to her left, scooped up a rock, and switched to her second clinical methodology.
Sabra hurled the rock into the hazy gap between two pylons.
The rock vanished on impact. Sabra frowned. Vaporized, disintegrated or teleported — Sabra didn’t know which. Either way, the message was clear: you are not getting out of here.
But she would. She didn’t need to see the future to know that. This was a game, a competition. And there was no game that Sabra Kasembe didn’t play to win.
She was still sitting there in the shadow of the shed, considering her options, when she heard the sound of approaching footfalls. Two men stood to her right, clad in clothing that was just as nondescript as her own.
“You’re the new prisoner?” one of them asked.
Sabra nodded. “One and only.”
“You’ll come with us.”
“Sergeant wants to see you.”
The two men led her into the middle of the camp. The whole place was so orderly, Sabra noted. In the light of the setting sun, there were men and women preparing meals. Someone was cooking something spicy, and the aroma awakened Sabra’s sense of hunger — how long had it been since she had eaten? Others talking, laughing. In the near distance, the arena was empty and quiet. No fighting, no shouting.
And through it all, Sabra didn’t spy a single guard.
So, whoever these two were, whoever their Sergeant was, Sabra figured they were not members of the Neo-American military. The Sergeant had to be a figure of importance within the camp, like a jail boss. Probably not the only one in a place of this size — Christ and Allah, there has to be over a thousand people in this place — but one towards the top of the hierarchy. One who, Sabra doubted, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Curious, Sabra looked to the future, sifting through the abyss, looking for any hint as to who this person was — and routes she could take in the imminent conversation.
Her vision skewed, like she had been caught in the wake of something traveling perpendicular to her. And when she found her casual bearings, she still had to peer through a mess of silt. Frowning, Sabra drew her awareness back to the present, and then, again, cast her vision into the deep.
Again, that sensation of things sliding past her, out of her control, of everything being churned up.
It was a rarity, this feeling. Sabra could count the occurrences of it on the one hand, and knew precisely what it meant: so, there’s another precognitive in this camp.
They weren’t powerful enough to override her, not like Promethea had been. But whoever they were, they had control enough to muddle the waters. Blueshift had once said that precognition only worked from a single perspective, that the predictive certainty eroded once there was a second precognitive piercing together the causal web.
Essentially, he had said, it is like relying on logic to tell you which of two poisoned goblets to drink from. How can you determine the right choice when your decision is based on their awareness of your choice?
It reminded her of that damn crystal they had found in Chicago, that endlessly recursive pattern.
Sabra shook it off. She had to keep her wits about her. Her mind had to remain here, in the present. Without her prescience, she lacked her edge. The only person she could rely on here was herself.
And, as she walked, there were many sets of eyes on her. Some wary and watching, but most only spared her a brief glance. Newcomers weren’t anything special here, apparently, and it appeared that everyone had better things to do than pay attention to the newest of the new.
But some did. One of them, a woman, stepped close as Sabra passed. She was tall and broad, with the powerful build of a soldier. She wore a black tank and fatigues, heavy boots. A thigh holster on her right leg, empty. Had her hands and arms wrapped up to mid-forearm. Bronze skin and black hair, shaved along the right side of her scalp, bangs falling to the left.
It made it quite clear that her right eye was missing, covered with an eyepatch. A long, ragged scar trailed from her cheek, over her sharp cheekbone, and under the patch, and up along her shaved scalp.
The woman from the arena.
“Keep up, newbie,” called one of her handlers.
Sabra glanced to them, quickened her pace to catch up. But by the time she looked back, the woman had vanished back into the crowds.
Disquiet crept over Sabra then. She was a member of SOLAR, a genuine superhero, but that was a whole other world away. Here and now, Sabra figured that counted for very little. Within this camp, she was just the newest woman among the population.
Here, she was a pup among wolves, with the falcons circling above.
The Sergeant’s tent was larger than the others. Strange. Sabra figured that anyone of prominence would’ve been found in the larger structures, not the tents. Perhaps a show of solidarity? Or perhaps it was easier to maintain control by staying among the people.
Regardless, her two handlers left her by the flap and ushered her inside. Sabra stepped past the threshold and came face to face with the Sergeant.
She was shorter than Sabra, but her domineering bearing made even Sabra feel small. The woman set her eyes on Sabra and smirked, stepping closer. Her skin was a warm olive shade, her black hair yanked back into a tight braid. Not beautiful, but maybe handsome.
“Well,” the Sergeant said. “Well, well, well…”
Funny, Sabra thought, eyes taking in every detail. She looks almost like-
Her breath hitched.
Sabra’s eyes snagged on the edge of a ragged scar that ran out from under the Sergeant’s olive tank top, marring her from sternum to left shoulder, like someone had fused the wound closed with molten obsidian. And her left arm was missing from the elbow down, the wound glimmering like it had been capped in the same crystalline material.
Sabra recognized her immediately and thought: this is impossible.
“Well, hello again, Fulcrum,” Taurine said, smirking. “Isn’t this a wonderful surprise?”
Adrenaline surged through Sabra, her hands clenching into fists. Taurine glanced downward, spotted the motion. Smirked as she thrust her fist at Sabra’s belly.
Sabra ducked away, fists up. Taurine held her ground and scoffed, shaking her head. “Are you afraid of me?” she growled, fist still extended. “Look down.”
Sabra did so. There, Taurine was holding a cup of water.
“Here,” she said. “Drink.”
Now, Sabra held her ground.
“Do you think I’ve poisoned it?” Taurine asked, rumbling one low note of a chuckle. “I have nothing to gain from killing you. But I saw you running in this desert heat, and even superheroes require hydration. So, drink.”
Slowly, Sabra reached for the cup. In her mind, she remembered Taurine smashing her, suit and all, through a sedan. Her ears rang with the memories of Taurine’s strikes, ruining her armor with her bare hands. She felt her crush her through half a dozen floors in Paradigm Tower. In her memories, Taurine was no mere woman but a bestial military minotaur, an elemental creature of immense rage and horrifying strength.
But Taurine let her take the cup. Sabra drew it back to her lips, her eyes not wavering from her old enemy for even a second, and took a drink. Thirst made her guzzle it down without thinking, safe in the knowledge that if Taurine wanted her dead, she wouldn’t settle for anything as indirect as poison.
She had a twisted sense of honor. Sabra could respect that.
Sabra exhaled. What on Earth did you say in a situation like this? She settled for, “Thanks.”
“Just doing my job,” Taurine said. “Keep the cup. Water’s in the cooler.”
“Is water policed around here?”
Taurine shook her head. “No. In fact, it’s quite plentiful. Our wardens do not want us dying from a lack of food and water.” She gestured to one side of the tent, where a table and chairs had been set up. “Sit.”
Sabra crossed the floor of the tent and took a seat. Taurine, watching her all the while, sat down only after she did, across from her. All the while, tension built in Sabra’s hands.
Very deliberately, she kept them open.
Taurine said, “Been a while, Fulcrum.”
“Yeah,” Sabra replied. “It has.”
“Heard you joined SOLAR. Can’t say I’m surprised.”
“Heard they let you go.”
“Mm. Something like that.”
Fate had conspired to turn Taurine, one of Paradigm City’s true supervillains, into a savior when The Engineer had come knocking. Those glimmering scars were the result of his weapons, her regenerative ability permanently stunted. She had fought him on the condition that she would be freed from custody, and SOLAR had obliged her.
And now she was here.
Sabra shrugged. “What is this place? I know it’s not a prison, not really. You don’t call a prison a proving ground.”
“That’s because it’s exactly what it is — a proving ground.”
“Who else? Us.”
“And you lead it?”
Taurine snorted. “Only in the sense that I brought order to chaos, as I always have. You see, the Imperials would like it if we refrained from killing each other — but they also don’t do a thing to stop anything short of an active insurrection. Neither of us are fitted with nullifier collars, are we?”
“Is everyone here empowered?”
“Hardly. But all of the factions are headed by someone like us.” Taurine grinned. “And all of them learned very quickly that I could handle any of them with one arm behind my back.”
Sabra felt herself smile before she could stop it. It was so strange, to be trapped in a tent with someone who could crush her skull under her boot, and yet feel nothing but security.
Taurine was the most familiar thing she had seen since arriving. Whatever shared history they had was a grounding point, ripping away the violent energy that had simmered in her hands.
“I saw the arena when I arrived,” Sabra said. “Is that what it’s for?”
Taurine wavered her one hand. “It’s a way to control the many, many tensions in this place. You’ll see how it works eventually. Everyone does. Everyone fights.”
Sabra’s mind wandered back to the one-eyed woman. “You said there were factions here. How many?”
“Six of any significant note.”
“So,” Sabra began, wondering. “Why did you bring me here? I thought it was revenge but, well, here we are. Drinking.” She raised her empty cup.
Taurine shook her head. “Just the reality of maintaining control in a hostile environment. After all, you’ve beaten me once before. Perhaps you might even do it again. It would be stupid of me to allow that to happen.”
“I still might,” Sabra bluffed.
“A possibility. But then where would you go?” She smiled thinly. “Do you think you could survive without me, perhaps even escape?”
“Honestly? Probably not. Besides, your people walked me through the middle of the camp. Everyone’s going to talk, assume I’m with you. One friend among five enemies.”
Taurine’s smile widened. “Very clever, Fulcrum. Very perceptive.”
“So this is revenge.”
“More of an opportunity, really. One that will benefit us both.”
“An opportunity,” Sabra repeated. “How so?”
“Ah,” Taurine breathed. “That would be telling. I’m no stupid brute, Fulcrum. I’m not going to reveal my hand without knowing that you’re not going to turn it against me. All you need to know for now is that I do not plan to spend the rest of my days under the yoke of the Empire.”
Sabra nodded. Taurine had revealed something there, though, as slight as it was: the fact that she had a hand to reveal at all. Taurine had a plan, although Sabra couldn’t even begin to assemble it. Even in all of their history, as short as it was, she had never asked Taurine what she had wanted.
“You and me both,” Sabra replied. “So, the enemy of my enemy and all that — fine. Works for me.”
Taurine leaned back, nodded. “Not everyone sees it that way.”
“Right. Where do we go from here?”
Taurine pointed behind Sabra, to the flap of the tent. “There’s a communal eating space — you will have passed it. Visit it. Eat, drink. One of the first things I implemented, actually, good for morale. Then, the fortress holds a commissary. The quartermaster will give you anything you need, but start with a bedroll.”
“Why? I don’t even know where I’m sleeping. Which tent?”
Sabra frowned. “Christ and Allah, you can’t be serious.”
“I am. I don’t snore, if that is what you’re worried about. And I’m quite straight, if that is something else you’re worried about.”
Sabra exhaled, nodding, drunk on the double dose of relief. “You just want to keep me under your thumb.”
“For now. As I said, I think we can help each other. But I remember you well enough, how headstrong you were, how zealous, how idealistic. There will be many people out there telling you they can bring me down.”
“If you won’t tell me why that’s a problem, I might just agree with them.”
Taurine considered that a moment. She leaned over the table. “Fulcrum, if you can’t see the effort I’m putting in to strike a deal with you, as imperfect as it is, then you are stupider than I could ever imagine.”
“I need you because you need me.” But still that question: why?
Realization struck her like Taurine’s fist. She knows I beat her, but she still doesn’t know how.
Ah, there it was. Taurine thought she was strong, powerful enough to defeat her in hand-to-hand combat, but with no idea of the mechanism she had employed. Hell, it was a mystery to Sabra. She only understood it in retrospect, that her prescience had revealed to her how and when to strike.
In the climax of their violent reckoning, Sabra had kicked her out a window, sent her crashing to the ground from twenty-six stories up — and even that hadn’t killed her.
And here Sabra was blind but, in a way, so was her opponent.
“Something like that,” Taurine said.
Sabra rose from her seat, nodded to Taurine. “Then I guess I’ll go get everything sorted. And Taurine, thanks.”
She shrugged. “Don’t mention it. Keep your wits about you, keep your instincts sharp. Someone might want to take a shot at you.”
Sabra had just reached the tent flap when Taurine spoke up again. “One more thing, Fulcrum. Here’s my next bit of advice: be sure to get some sleep.”
Sabra glanced back. “Why?”
“Because tomorrow morning, they’ll be putting you to work.”