Sabra struck The Engineer like a thunderbolt, and rained her fury down upon him like a hurricane. She stuck to him, stayed with him, lashing him with her fists, again and again.
That voice, that Scottish brogue. It sounded just like her, but that was impossible—yet it amplified the energy of Sabra’s destructive whirlwind all the same. She crashed her fist into The Engineer’s chin, drove him back a step, and Sabra took a step to follow.
Like any other fight, it was all in the footwork, and in denying your opponent his advantages. A lesson that Sabra had hammered into her when she was fifteen years old.
As with so many other lessons, she had learned it in the ring. When she was fifteen, she had entered an amateur boxing tournament at her local gym. Through height and energy, she had powered through to the semi-final.
There, she had found a short brick of a girl named Afua Lucas.
Sabra had stepped into the ring, confident and cocksure. After all, she had height and reach, didn’t she? Her smarmy confidence had lasted for about fifteen seconds, until the moment where Lucas had swept inside of her guard, and given her a primer in inside fighting.
Sabra had lost the fight, had watched Lucas collect the cheap medal. But, like her father had said, dabbing at the cuts and grazes, there was always a lesson. In this case, it was the power of brawling and mauling, in the never-ending onslaught. Of denying advantages.
Sabra Kasembe had taken the lesson to heart. Had thought of it as she plummeted from the Imperial jump jet, towards the blasted ruins of Geneva. So, she stepped inside The Engineer’s guard, and stripped from him his advantage of reach.
She didn’t give him an inch, because he could widen that into a foot. It was the one advantage she knew how to counteract—his height, his affinity for polearms. That advantage was a gap she could exploit, a crack in his armor that she would beat until it spread and shattered.
The Engineer drew back, drawing himself up to his full eight feet, recovering. Sabra found herself reminded of the deceptive calm of waves receding before a tsunami.
Sabra booted him in the chest.
She hit him with all of her strength. The Engineer crashed to the ground of the meditation garden, lay there a moment. Got his hands under him and rose upward, shaking his head.
Behind Sekhmet’s mask, Sabra grinned. What kind of god could be stunned?
A false one.
Regardless of the truth of his divinity: not even an inch. Sabra leaped after him, drawing her fist back.
The Engineer, surging to his feet, reached into the lattice of his robes.
Sabra peered into her future, glimpsed the viridescent edge, and kicked in her jets, just as The Engineer slashed at her with his knife-
The blade found her left pauldron, ripped it free from her arm, and the tip of his knife just grazed her skin—enough to slice into her shoulder. Pain flared, adrenaline flared brighter, and Sabra howling, kicked The Engineer in the knee.
That was enough to drop him to her level. Sabra drew her head back and, screaming, beat him with the brow of her helmet. She grabbed him by his robes, ignored the heat that flashed through her gauntlet, her palms, and threw him aside.
Warmth ran down her left arm. Sabra kept her eyes on her opponent, reached behind her, and drew her khopesh from her back. Thumbing the ignition switch, golden light glimmering along the edge, Sabra leveled it at The Engineer.
A flash of lightning illuminated him in stark clarity, his expression as flatly grave as it had been when she had first seen him. In Paradigm City, her home, where he had killed Ardent and Miss Millennium and so many others.
That was when she had her first glimmer that this, all of it, was an artifice—a trick.
“Do you remember me?” Sabra asked.
The Engineer stood there in the gloom, waiting.
“I’ve wondered about you,” she said, licking her lips. “About what you are. See, I don’t think you’ve transcended anything.”
She needed to catch her breath. Sabra raised a finger, pointing to the sky. “This storm, it’s a neat trick. But why does a god need to hide beneath a storm? It’s because you’re not as powerful as you want us to think you are.”
At least, that was what Sabra hoped. She’d come along way to die if that wasn’t the case. But given everything that had happened, everything she had done, that was fine, too.
“Was Transcended our term, or yours? You’re close, I’m sure, but you haven’t surpassed your limits have you? Not yet. There’s still some part of you that’s still human, that’s still bound by our stupid rules—even if it’s just your mind.”
The Engineer’s three eyes fixed on her. With an emerald flash, his glaive appeared in his hands. In his third, he held his knife—low and dangerous. Both edges glinted with that sundering viridescence.
In the gesture, Sabra recognized the old challenge.
Are you sure about that?
Maybe, maybe not. But there was one advantage she had, one that The Engineer hadn’t yet ripped away from her, not even on Paradigm City, and so Sabra figured he couldn’t. Something that even Blueshift had assessed incorrectly.
The Engineer didn’t cloud her prescience.
Sabra stared deep into The Engineer’s eyes, and smirked. Then, basking in her adrenaline, she took a deep breath in through her nose, and subsumed herself into the currents of her prescience.
And drank deep.
The Engineer was ready. He spun his glaive, trailing viridescence, and thrust to meet her charge. But Sabra had seen it there, in the currents, the pattern that had bound even his movements, and twisted past it.
This was it, the place to which everything had led—the cataclysmic showdown where one of them would die, or perhaps both of them. She had come to find justice, to pick the right target. To hold the Director-General to account, to absolve some of her herself.
The Engineer was just in her way.
Her khopesh found his side, but drew nothing but sparks. Sabra ducked away from the gutting thrust of his knife, brought her blade down on his shoulder.
Nothing. It was like trying to hack away at a statue with a goddamn kitchen knife.
The Engineer slammed her with the haft of his glaive, going for space, and Sabra only narrowly caught the blow in the curve of her khopesh. For a moment, they stood there locked, and-
The Engineer hurls his glaive away, stabbing with his knife-
Sabra weaved to the left, dodged the shadow of his thrust, and The Engineer caught her through the elbow and, then, between the ribs.
The pain ripped through her, like her nerves had been set alight. Sabra howled, twisting away from him, and forced him to give up the second of his weapons. She kicked him in the torso, drove him back, and rode the most substantial current.
That was where, as he stepped back, she put all of her strength into demolishing the side of his knee.
It didn’t bend, didn’t break. But it gave Sabra room to throw all of her strength into The Engineer’s form, stumbling him, and then crash into him with her shoulder and all of her weight.
The Engineer went down.
Sabra dropped with him, crushing his chest under her knee, and clenched her right hand into a fist.
Her next punch, she drove straight down The Engineer’s throat.
His teeth shattered, his jaw forced open. Sabra grabbed him by the upper mandible, dug her armored fingers into his death mask of a face. She turned, twisting with all of her suited strength, teeth grit.
Curling upward with her arm, dragging The Engineer with her.
Sabra rose up, stomped down on The Engineer’s sternum, pressing his body down so she had that much more leverage. That much more of an advantage. That much more of a chance.
So she could rip his goddamn head off.
Something deep in The Engineer’s jaw shifted. Something in him broke, and she had her inch of leverage.
This was it. This was the place where she was meant to be. The currents were, all around her, calm. Sabra shouted out her exertion and her rage, pulling and drawing, calling upon all of her muscles—her back, her shoulders, her arms.
For Ardent, for Miss Millennium, for her parents, for Incarnate, and for everyone else The Engineer had ever hurt.
Now, the only thing left to do was finish it.
The Engineer’s face twisted in agony, green eyes blazing as something came loose in his neck and gave way.
And then, Sabra’s suit froze, strange green runes dancing on her HUD. A moment as The Engineer’s gaze met her own, and the chilling realization that he had thrown her into the air, drawing the knife from between her ribs.
Then, her armor came apart around her, and there was nothing in Sabra’s world but pain.
She hit the ground some distance away in the ruins of her armor. On her back, Sabra forced herself to open her eyes, gasping for breath, and then to rise.
She couldn’t. She couldn’t get herself upright. She could only barely move, and she couldn’t control her breathing—short and sharp. But there was no pain, and she could shake off the shock.
She had to get up. She had to win.
Sabra pushed herself to roll over, braced herself for round two. Still not able to move, aware that she was scrabbling at the marble beneath her, Sabra raised her hands before her—and found herself staring at the stumps of her forearms.
There was still no pain. It took Sabra a moment to realize what she was even looking at, and another to grasp that The Engineer had cut them away, but there was still no pain.
That was bad. That was very bad.
Sabra turned her head to the left, and the right-hand side of the world vanished away from her. A strange awareness of the storm winds grazing only the left-hand side of her face. Her helmet had been sliced open, right over her right eye, and she had no feeling in that side of her face.
Under her, everything was red. Blood. By Christ and Allah, there was so much blood.
Don’t look at that. Look at anything else.
She managed to get her head up. The Engineer stood at the end of the boulevard, watching her. His jaw hung half-dislocated, his head canted at an unnatural angle.
She had come so close.
But this can’t- I can’t-
Sabra collapsed downward. Her vision began to grey, and she was suddenly cold.
“Yes,” her father said. “You are.”
He was sitting on the bench closest to her, hands clasped in his lap.
“Papa,” she whispered.
He bowed his head. “Hello, Sabra,” he said. “Once again, your mind is quiet enough to hear me.”
At the edge of her awareness, something vast and deep and musical. Like a choir a million strong, half the world away.
“I’m sorry.” Sabra whimpered. “I tried to stop him. I’m so sorry.”
Her father rose from his bench, and was next to her. “Quiet, Sabra,” he said. “Sssh. You are running out of time. There are forty-four seconds until your body ceases to function.”
She felt it creep through her. A slow loss of everything, starting with the few extremities she had left.
“I don’t want to die,” she said.
“I know,” he replied, sad and distant. “And yet, even now, your mind is still restricting you. You said you wanted to stop him. Is that still what you want?”
His gaze was piercing.
Sabra thought for a moment. But, her thoughts slipped around her. It was so hard to think…
“Thirty seconds,” her father said.
“Yes,” she said, and the ruin of her body smoldered with the embers of her fury. “I want to stop him. To destroy him. The only thing I have left, all that I want.”
She coughed, spat blood into the air. It went straight through her father, and he held his hand out to her.
“Then take my hand.”
Some atavistic part of her recoiled from it, knowing the price. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. Sabra Kasembe, you have twenty seconds before the connection collapses. You must choose, and you must choose now.”
Sabra opened herself to the abyss, and found only the fathomless, infinite darkness. It was everywhere, all around her, pressing down upon her. It spread out of her father’s shadow, reaching for her, whispering to her.
It was here now, and it was vast beyond imagining. It had almost found her once, and that brief attention had come so very close to-
“You have fifteen seconds,” her father said. “Sabra, choose.”
And Sabra said, eyeing his hand, “No.”
“You must—to preserve is to destroy, and to destroy is to preserve.”
“The only thing I’ve done is hurt people,” she said, closing her eye. “So, I’ll do nothing. I’m done being jerked around. Ten, nine, eight, seven-”
“Incarnate,” her father said, “is alive.”
Sabra’s eye snapped open. “What?”
“Refuse this,” her father insisted, “and you will never see her again. Refuse this, and the end of all things, the final unraveling, is assured. Refuse this, and she and everyone else dies.”
And, Sabra thought, unable to speak. If I accept-
“Then you may. Three, Sabra. Two.”
Sabra reached for her father with her hand—her glowing, incandescent hand—and clutched his fingers tight. Saw them for what they were. Iridic light danced within his crystalline projections, and she had felt this before.
“Stand up, Sabra,” it sang. “Stand up and fight.”
She opened her mouth to say something, to reveal that she knew he was never her father, but the cosmic overture resounded through her, the resonance blinding and all-consuming, as it built to one final crescendo, and her thoughts were no longer her own.
All except one.