They backed away, the four of them. In the face of Sabra’s blazing fury, what else could they hope to do? Perseus had never thought he’d see it manifested as some literal force of nature, scourging and destroying. Hope, he figured, was all they had at this point.
And he’d never been much of an optimist.
Sabra’s firestorm expanded, intensified, incinerating everything in its path. The woman herself was nothing but a flickering shape at the center of the inferno, standing upon a vast stretch of scorched earth. Even where they were, some four or five hundred meters away, it was like staring into the sun.
The air was thick with ash, whipped into a choking shroud by the storm above. Sabra’s wings had unfurled, streaming above and behind her, and intertwined together, whirling towards the heavens as a pillar of fire, punching through the eye of the storm.
Perseus cranked his head back and up as they continued to retreat, staring through the vertigo. There, in the eye, there were no clouds, no cool colors of twilight—just the darkness of space and stars that weren’t twinkling. Like the atmosphere had been burned away.
Hell, Perseus thought. Maybe it has. Maybe this is the end of the world. And maybe we-
“You think we did the right thing, Pavel?” Perseus asked.
Fisher snorted. “At this point? Not really.”
At this point, however, there was nothing but words. Fisher had raised his hands and tried to separate Sabra from her blazing aura, and failed. Desperada had made to manifest her glowing handgun, and had drawn only air. There were no tactics, no strategies, and no ideas—nothing to do but retreat.
“At this point,” Desperada said, expression grim. “If we start running, I think we’re just going to die tired.”
“Seems that way, yeah,” Fisher said. “And the shuttles are on the other side of Sabra.”
“Wouldn’t get into the air with this storm anyway.”
Perseus nodded. Kallisto was holding his hand so tightly, and the only thought he had was that he should’ve done it sooner—not now, not here. Not as maybe the last thing he ever did.
“Sorry to drag you into this, Kal.”
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t suck, Perseus,” she replied. “But when do you ever get to see something like this? Hell of a spot to take a girl.”
Perseus turned his eyes back to the inferno.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that’s true. But if we had some marshmallows, maybe…”
Kallisto chuckled, shaking her head. “You’re such a-” She paused, peering into the fire. “Wait. Who the hell is that?”
Perseus followed her gaze, squinting against the ash and the light. Took him a moment to find whoever Kallisto had spotted, but then he had them: a uniformed figure, advancing on Sabra. Their red hair was in disarray, wild and loose in the wind.
“Is that Incarnate?” Fisher asked.
“Looks like it,” Perseus said. “Has to be. What the fuck is she doing?”
Incarnate’s uniform ignited, wreathing her in flame, but she didn’t slow. Another two steps and her hair ignited, then her skin—burning, melting, running like water off her chassis.
“Is that a…” Kallisto whispered.
“Yeah,” Jack replied. “It is.”
“She’s going after Sabra,” Fisher said.
Incarnate plunged into the fire.
“Well,” Desperada said, with something like acceptance, as Perseus lost sight of Incarnate within the firestorm. “Now I think I understand.”
Every note of the song was a white-hot knife in her mind. To stand within the eye of the storm, some part of her thought, is to be but a mote in the eye of an angry god.
The song was overpowering, so loud that she couldn’t think. The chord of her name couldn’t rise above the choir, and nothing made sense. Who was she? Where was she? There was a trick, wasn’t there? One she had used before, to draw herself out of this annihilation of the self, but she lost the thought in the cosmic chorus.
She had lost so much of herself.
Only one thought remained. To stand and fight. There was power in that thought, because she had never agreed to fight only one specific enemy. But even a cliff could only weather the waves for so long, and the connection was secure now, drowning her in energy, and the homunculus that clung to her body was not a necessary component for the work.
Soon, it would cut her away, and she would cease to be.
The work, the work. She focused on that, and thought into the choir: what do you want?
The world existed around her as a shadow of itself. In everything, she beheld the pattern of assembly. The interplay of forces and matter and laws and rules and the song that guided them all. The secret that it had all been the same, in the beginning.
With that secret and the power provided to her by the source of all, how easy it had been to twist those rules, to grant herself claws.
How easy it had all been, and how simple. The Engineer’s spear offended her, so she impaled him with it. His arm offended her, so she took it from him. His face, his eyes—they had offended her, too, and so she had stripped them from him.
She could do that to the whole world, the chorus sang, if only she would let go. Abandon this causality-bound identity, touch the face of God, and embrace the unified chorus.
But she couldn’t. She was because others were. But who was she?
S—-, I’m here.
What’s happened to me?
I’ve come a long way to find you, S—-.
Everything is falling apart. I’m not myself anymore. Stay away from me.
Yes, you are, and I am here. S—-, I need you to focus on my voice. I need you to remember me.
I’m trying. It doesn’t want me to. All this energy; I can’t control it. I don’t know-
Please remain calm, Fulcrum.
A flash of memory. She was in a bed, somewhere like a hospital. Her whole body hurt—she had broken her hand, hadn’t she? Her hand, not her claw. She didn’t have claws, she never had. And that voice, those words, somehow less real in her memories. The way the source of that voice tilted her head, the way she always found it cute before she could ever see it as condescending.
Then, an awareness. Of a gleaming shape crafted from metal with an electric heart and electric eyes. Her—the shape had a name, didn’t she? The pattern that was her lips shifted, changed, gave voice to it.
She held to it, clung to the name and the feelings, and the sense of connection like it would ground her against the hurricane.
Incarnate pushed through her radiance, drawing her arms back, as The Destroyer raised her mauling claws. So, she thought distantly, this is what she looks like.
Incarnate leaped forward and embraced her, binding her in her metal arms, so tightly that it crushed her awareness back into her body.
“Sabra,” Incarnate whispered, and kissed her fiercely.
And, in that moment, Sabra Kasembe-
In that moment, everything hitched.
Upon a Tusa peak, Ironheart gazed down at the apotheotic pyre. Blinded by The Engineer’s trickery, she saw it in the approximate insights of her implanted sensors, beheld the nascent divinity in terms of tempestuous data and unworkable mathematics.
Somehow, seeing the Eighth in quantitative terms was more terrifying than Blueshift’s metaphors of divinity. But this was what they had been working for, hadn’t it?
How stupid she had been.
Her input scrambled, numerical expression of the scene before her rendering in impossible variables. For a moment, Ironheart thought that her sensors had been beguiled, some delayed, final trick of the deceased Engineer—but then she felt it like a whisper at the edge of her hearing, a finger along her nerves.
Like the world was holding its breath.
“I don’t believe it,” Ironheart said.
The firestorm had paused, stilled. Flames held in that one perfect moment. And then it was, all of it, undone.
The apotheosis unmade, causality itself reverted. The pillar of fire unknit itself, split into two vast wings, and plunged back into Sabra’s body. Her mane winked out, her claws vanishing, her aura fading to nothing but a vague sense of falling embers.
There, at ground zero, upon the blackened earth, was only her daughter, her frame melted and scorched.
“You were right,” Ironheart breathed. “I’ll be damned, Santiago, but you were right.”
“Yes,” Blueshift said.
“It worked. To trigger and extinguish. Just as you said it would. How did you-”
“Her connections were the key,” he replied. “A lifeline to reel her back in. Miss Kasembe has always had such strong connections to the people around her. Albeit this was earlier than I anticipated.”
Above them, the clouds began to part, to drift back towards normality.
Ironheart said, “Everyone’s going to have seen this, Santiago.”
“I know. This is not ideal, Hannah, but it will do—for now.”
Ironheart just nodded, and sifted through the data to analyze the architect of it all.
He was where he had been since they had climbed to the overlook. Sitting on the ground next to her, wounded but bandaged, his eyes set on the scorched landscape far below. His fingers brushing back and forth over Anima’s scalp, clasping her heart in his other.
“Soon, Hannah,” he said, as if to himself. “Soon we can rest.”
All around Pavel Fisher, the ash fluttered to the ground. All things considered, it was strangely tranquil, the most pleasant rain of ash he had ever seen. He let out a long breath, and turned his eyes upward. The storm was dissipating, breaking up.
Stillness settled over what was left of Geneva. The north leveled by the Alexander’s fusion barrage, the south devastated by Sabra’s near-transcendence. In that smoldering epicenter, where the SOLAR HQ had been, there was only Sabra and Incarnate. The smoke rose around them, obscuring them in the haze.
Whatever Incarnate had walked into the fire to do, it’d worked. Fisher didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified.
The four of them stood there, still and silent. The ash settled on them and around them. Even as the ash was joined by snowfall, still no one spoke. It was as if everyone thought that speaking would destroy the illusion, plunge them back into the cataclysm.
Might as well find out.
“Well,” Fisher said. “I’ll be damned.”
“Tact, Pavel,” a familiar, impossible voice said behind him, smiling. “Tact.”
Fisher whirled, eyes wide, not believing.
A quintet of angels alighted before him, the setting sun burnishing their gleaming silver armor to a pleasant warm shade. Each set of armor was similar, sleek and majestic, and each one of the capes wore a helmet that concealed any hint of their features.
Fisher glanced to each of them in turn. Noting the armor, the purple robes and cloaks, looking for a hint he wasn’t sure he truly wanted to find.
There. It was the cape at the head of the formation which had spoken, and his immaculate cloak bore a feathered motif.
It can’t be.
Fisher felt his mouth drop open. “Mark?”
The Concordiat cape nodded to him. “Hello, Pavel.”
“Is that… Is that really you?”
“It is. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“What’re you-” Fisher swallowed, trying to find the right words. “What’re you doing here?”
He should’ve been happy. Hadn’t this always been what he had wanted? But, in all of his imaginings and hopes and fantasies, hearing Mark’s voice again had never been so ominous.
Mark’s helmeted visage tilted slightly, looking past Pavel, his eyes on the smoldering epicenter and the two figures there.
“Is that Sabra Kasembe?” he asked.
“Yes,” Fisher said. “Why?”
“Because, Pavel, as you can see, I’m with the Concordiat.”
There was a saying Fisher remembered then, something he should’ve recalled weeks earlier.
The word for a fantasy realized is nightmare.
“And,” Mark said. “We have come for her.”