Two weeks on from the devastation of Geneva, and the beheading of the IPSA’s security apparatus, the world was beginning to realign. After twenty-five years, the global hegemony that had endeavored to maintain the status quo, had been fractured.
But it was not yet broken. CASSANDRA’s analysis indicated that the IPSA would continue to exist, even if only in terms of names and technicalities. To Throne, this was acceptable. Whatever function the IPSA would settle into over the coming weeks, it would not be with the capability to impede the Concordiat’s work.
It was unfortunate, really, but not unanticipated. Eventually, the Concordiat would have needed to confront the IPSA, to break the back of their global influence and cripple their reach. Such was the nature of any doctrinal conflict, especially one where the stakes concerned nothing less than humanity’s soul.
Throne allowed himself a moment’s feeling, a touch of reminiscence. Ironforge had been such a romantic.
But he had been correct. The conflict between the IPSA and the Concordiat was both simple and complex—an ideological dispute on an existential scale. Still, the degradation of the IPSA’s operational capabilities was unfortunate, if only because so many would suffer during the global process of realignment.
Regardless, it was done, and the results were within the predicted, acceptable parameters. Throne turned his mind to other matters, sifting through the output of CASSANDRA’s scientific divination.
The global state was fluid and mercurial, mutable and protean. Across the world, Throne had the impression of someone holding their breath, stuck at that moment of realization, just a brief pause before action. The death of one god, and the near genesis of another, had a way of making people hesitate.
CASSANDRA fed him several reports. Aid efforts were ongoing within Switzerland, but the IPSA was still transitioning back to their first facilities in New York. On the other side of that continent, the Sekhmetarii persisted despite the best efforts of Consul Durrant and his Praetor Kyrematen to bring them to heel.
Another brief moment of feeling. Ah, Isaac Durrant, the man who considered himself a philosopher-king. He could’ve been a vital piece of their great work, yet he had fallen prey to the same flaw that had resulted in the fall of the IPSA: the centralization of power and control.
The Concordiat, Throne knew, would not make that same mistake.
And, all across the world, the remaining Seven were still and silent. Even they, it seemed, could hesitate when faced with a reminder of their mortality.
This time, Throne allowed himself a moment of satisfaction. Yes, even gods could die. Throne beheld the state of the world, and saw that it was good.
A message chimed for his attention. Throne separated his awareness from CASSANDRA’s meditations, and took the call.
“Throne,” Harbinger reported. “She’s awake.”
The concern had been that she would not wake up. Even CASSANDRA, with all of its data and all of its insight, hadn’t been able to return a conclusive result. That had not been surprising—even a powerful system had limits. In Geneva, however, the Concordiat had needed to move quickly.
There was a risk there, in moving without due consideration, without divining futures possible and probable. There was too much at stake to gamble, to risk actions that had not been weighed and considered, the results of which plotted and analyzed in turn. The great work—the concord they had struck with the whole of humanity—allowed for nothing else.
But the Concordiat would not be bound to any singular plan. There were many means to reach their necessary end. It was a risk to move quickly, but folly to waste an opportunity.
With this particular asset, the Concordiat could advance their timetable. To reduce the work of decades to years—perhaps even months. Hence, the need to move quickly, to risk.
Throne had authorized it. Yet, it was still a risk. The line between success and failure would be determined by the one fact the Concordiat could not identify until now: whether Sabra Kasembe was who she appeared to be.
That was for Throne to determine.
For a time, Throne watched Sabra through an observation screen. She was in the middle of her isolation cell. A bare, blank room with nothing but a bed and the absolute necessities. Presently, she was on the floor, supine, running through a series of crunches.
Awake for ten minutes, Throne noted, and she had already worked up a sweat.
Soon, she switched to push-ups, the energetic sort where she launched herself upward and clapped on each ascent. Throne watched her run through her calisthenics routine, and knew this proved nothing.
Throne stepped into the cell. Sabra bolted upright, green eyes narrow and expression wary. That, too, proved nothing.
In his gauntleted hand, Throne held a mirror, and he showed it to her.
“Do you recognize this individual?”
Sabra glanced to the mirror, then back to him. “Yeah.”
“Tell me her name.”
“Are you serious?”
Throne concentrated on the woman before him. His facet was a mastery of energy, an understanding of electrical interplay and an awareness of the dance of electrons. With proximity and focus, he could lay bare the patterns of her neurons and glimpse the shadow of her thoughts.
“I am,” he said. “Tell me her name.”
In that pattern, there was the truth. Whether she was genuinely thinking, or whether something else was feeding the answers to her. Triggering her neurons to fire through non-local processes. Whether she was Sabra Kasembe, or something that was pretending to be.
“It’s Sabra Kasembe,” she replied. “And she doesn’t like talking about herself in the third person.”
Throne shunted his assessment to CASSANDRA, and felt agreement.
“So you are,” he said.
“Don’t think I don’t know who you are,” she replied. “That’s Concordiat armor.”
“Correct. Miss Kasembe, allow me to introduce myself properly. I am called Throne.”
Sabra’s eyes narrowed further. She spread her arms. “Well, here I am. You wanted me dead? Take your best shot. But it better be a good one, Throne, because you’re only getting the one.”
The Golden Age had no shortage of people like her, and they had led the world to ruin. The urge to fight and win, the desire to do good, and then the inevitably natural downward slope from well-meaning narcissism to megalomania.
“We did,” Throne replied. “But understand that there is no singular path to our goal, Miss Kasembe. To achieve it, all possibilities were considered, all contingencies made.”
“And what’s that goal?”
“An existence for humanity free of the threat of self-determined extinction.”
Sabra thought a moment. “That doesn’t tell me much.”
“It was not supposed to. But an aspect of that objective is the elimination of all gods, human-made or otherwise.”
Sabra’s gaze relaxed slightly, left him.
“Did I…” she murmured, trying to remember, “transcend?”
“You came very close,” Throne said. “What do you remember?”
“You were unconscious when we found you. Since then, you have been asleep for two weeks.”
Sabra raised her arms before her, staring at them. “I lost my arms. I remember that.”
“You remember correctly,” Throne said. “It appears that you reconstituted your physical form based on your self-image, Miss Kasembe. The strength of your ego. To preserve your mind and body on the cusp of such transcendence is nothing short of remarkable.”
Sabra snorted. “Yeah, you can say that. Look, I know how this goes. This isn’t my first prison cell conversation. What do you want?”
“To have a conversation. After that? We shall see.”
“Fine,” Sabra said, and canted her chin upward. “Then the first thing we can talk about is what happened in Geneva, and what happened to my friends.”
Throne gestured to the far wall, and CASSANDRA painted it in satellite imagery for Sabra to study.
“Geneva was devastated by The Engineer and the IPSA’s response,” Throne said. “The destruction you unleashed was something of a side-effect. However, this is not how the rest of the world sees it. To them, this was birth cry of The Destroyer.”
Sabra just nodded.
“As for your friends,” Throne continued. “They resisted our retrieval effort, but our executors harmed none of them. We deployed a specific asset to ensure that they were kept alive and well.”
Sabra’s mind turned, energies flaring in staccato. Anxiety, concern, and something else.
“What about Incarnate?” she asked. “She came to me, didn’t she? Brought me back. What happened to her?”
Ah, the machine. The key to Sabra’s transcendence, and the latch. One of the more curious developments, and something that had exacerbated the IPSA’s present situation. Such things were not supposed to exist.
“Presently,” Throne said, “She is in the hands of her mother. The damage was extensive, but she is alive. All of your friends, Miss Kasembe, are alive and well. In the end, they understood that you would be safest with us.”
“Safe?” Sabra asked. “From what?”
Sabra frowned, still staring at the map. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
“Because, were you to leave this room and discover the truth, you would turn against us.”
“I still might.”
“You will not.”
“Yeah?” Sabra asked, glancing back to him. “Try me, Throne.”
“We know your past,” he replied. “This allows us to plot your future.”
“You’re saying I don’t have free will? Watch me.”
“I am saying it is more complex than that.”
Throne indicated the door, and CASSANDRA opened it. “But you are not here as our prisoner, Miss Kasembe. You may leave at any time.”
He saw the decision fire across her neurons before she moved, maybe before she was even aware of it. Sabra headed straight for the door.
Then, Throne said, “But you wish to understand, don’t you? To know the identity of whoever, or whatever, is responsible for the song. To answer all the great questions of our time. To know the truth, and how it has affected you since you were a young girl.”
Right at the threshold, Sabra paused.
“There is something out there, Miss Kasembe,” Throne continued. “As best we can determine, it is somewhere on our planet—bound to our magnetic field, the reason why no empowered can function outside our world. It has touched the minds of everyone on this planet, and found some of them suitable.”
“Suitable?” Sabra asked, turning to look over her shoulder. “Suitable for what?”
“We do not yet have enough data to determine that. Initially, we believed it to be an eighth Transcended, perhaps the first to reach that state. One who had hidden themselves away, or perhaps altogether shed their corporeal form.”
“Yes,” Throne replied. “Now, we believe it to be something else entirely, but lack the data to make any precise judgments. But whatever it is, we understand it to be the source of our unique abilities, and that it is the catalyst for empowered transcendence.”
Sabra nodded. “Earlier, you said human-made gods.”
Throne nodded in reply. “Your transcendence was induced, the circumstances carefully arranged like dominoes upon a table. It is not the first known case, but the only one that has been truly successful.”
“Blueshift,” Sabra said, frowning. “That son of a bitch.” Memories kindled within her. “Promethea is the other case, wasn’t she?”
“Correct. She was the result of IPSA’s first set of experiments and the only survivor thereof. Our analysis indicates that she was directly exposed to a fragment of the outside-context anomaly. Still, this is only a hypothesis.”
“But that means-“
Throne permitted himself a smile. Yes, she was quite perceptive, and more receptive than had been calculated.
“Yes,” he said. “It means that the source of our powers is the centerpiece of IPSA’s AEON project.”
A variety of patterns flowed across Sabra’s mind then. Throne watched them while Sabra processed his words.
Finally, she said, “And what do you want with it, Throne?”
“To take possession of it. To use it as it should be used, to create a true utopia.”
“That’s it?” Sabra asked. “That’s your secret plan?”
“One part of it, Miss Kasembe. A marker along the route. Some information cannot be divulged just yet.”
“And yet you expect me to trust you.”
“If only because you have no other choice,” Throne said. “Through AEON, the Director-General identified what we knew about you over a year ago—that you were an incipient, that you risked transcendence.”
Sabra nodded. “So, he threw me to the wolves.”
“Correct. And he still lives. Outside of this sanctuary, the name Sabra Kasembe is that of a wanted woman. The world fears the reappearance of The Destroyer.”
Sabra frowned. Her eyes took on a strange stare, and Throne glimpsed the patterns in her neural architecture, saw them flicker and waver.
“I can’t see anything,” she said. “I can’t hear anything.”
“The anomaly shunted too much energy through your connection, Miss Kasembe. It is best considered analogous to burn out.”
“Will it come back?”
“We do not know.”
Sabra tilted her head back and laughed.
“Then I’m free,” she said. “Christ and Allah, I’m free! If I’m powerless, then what the hell do you need me for?”
“In truth, we need each other.”
“Consider this, Miss Kasembe,” Throne said. “Like everything else in life, we determine our future path by the narrative we tell ourselves. These stories justify not only how we see ourselves but also our future actions. In the Empire, you were a bloody avenger, and you were set to exact justice at the point of your sword.”
“And I was wrong to do so.”
“So, now you wish to retreat. To abandon responsibility, mistaking it for enlightenment. But, Miss Kasembe, you grew up on the shores of Paradigm City. You have seen that the present order is not sustainable. With the centerpiece of AEON in our grasp, we can create a just future.”
“And yet here you are, Throne,” Sabra said, spreading her arms. “Intervening here, abandoning things there. I don’t see much justice in that. I don’t see a utopia in that. I might have been a bloody avenger, but you put that armor there.”
How perceptive, indeed.
Throne nodded. “Many paths, Miss Kasembe. All of them turned towards the utopic end. Your death would have eliminated an incipient, but so does your assistance.”
Sabra turned back now, watching him. “My assistance.”
“You have proven that the Transcended can be destroyed,” Throne said. “We need that hope; we need your sword. But I have need of something else—an ally, someone whom I can trust absolutely.”
“I won’t be a sword anymore, Throne. I won’t hurt anyone else.”
“You are not afraid of hurting anyone, Miss Kasembe, you are merely afraid of being directed at the wrong target,” he said. “CASSANDRA will allay you of that, and chart you a course to navigate your intrinsic contradictions.”
“For what purpose?”
“For something you have always wanted,” Throne said. “A future free from the very idea of tyranny. A future where you are because everyone else is.”
What an intriguing pattern that statement made across Sabra’s neural architecture. Throne allowed himself a moment to marvel at it, and at his success.
“And what do you get out of it, Throne?” Sabra asked, staring at him. “No riddles, no metaphors. In return for this purpose, what do you get out of it?”
The concord had been struck. Sabra just didn’t know it yet.
“We get the one thing that you can do, Miss Kasembe, that perhaps only you can do,” Throne said, “Because the anomaly will reach out to you again.”
To Sabra Kasembe, it would be a challenge. Behind his helmet, Throne allowed himself to smile.
And when it does,” he said, “When your connection to the voice in the dark returns, Miss Kasembe—you will lead us there.”
END OF ARC 2