It had been six months since the devastation of Geneva. Six months since the fall of one godlike being and the ascension of another. Six months since The Destroyer had spread her fiery wings and roared her fury to the heavens and set them alight. There, on the edge of ground zero, Perseus Bell had stood, transfixed and awed, as the landscape came apart, the air consumed in a firestorm, and the sky seethed with an insane aurora. Sometimes, it felt like a dream—or a nightmare.
Either way he looked at it, it was the sort of thing you had to wake up from.
Still, some part of him felt it was ridiculous that he had. That he was, here and now, sitting in a Parisian dive bar and pretending to be blue-collar normal. But there was something to be said for waking up—for a life of gainful employment, of leaving that mad world behind. Of getting paid from using his hands for honest work.
It felt good. After all, Perseus had spent far too much of his life using his hands for other things.
“Earth to Perseus,” Christoph said. “Hey.”
Perseus blinked, attention yanked back to the present. “Yeah?”
“I was asking if you wanted another drink.”
Perseus glanced downward, found his hand holding an empty glass.
Christoph shook his head. “The boss gives you a single glowing report and it goes right to your head.” He slapped Perseus on the shoulder and rose up from his seat. “My round, anyway.”
Christoph pushed his way through the crowds, towards the bar. The Blue Mark was a hole in the wall type of establishment, and the number of people within the establishment was surely more than the official capacity. It was not the type of place where a smart person bumped into anyone else. But Christoph was a tall man with shoulders that strained his shirt, and looked very much like the kind of person one wouldn’t fuck with were he to bump into you.
And he bumped into a lot of people.
Perseus didn’t have that luxury and, in the Blue Mark, that luxury could save your life. The dive bar was located on the seedier side of Paris, and the clientele reflected that. On his first night here, someone had been stabbed. On his third, a game of pool had broken into a four-way melee. But, really, the powderkeg atmosphere just added a certain charm to the place, and somehow felt more like home than his actual house did. And it was at the perfect halfway point between work and home—what more could a man want?
Christoph returned, slammed the full glasses down on the table, beer splashing out. “Don’t waste it.”
Perseus quirked an eyebrow. “I would have put them down gently.”
“I bet the wife loves that.”
“Har har,” Perseus said, and raised his glass. “Cheers, asshole.”
Christoph grinned, toasted that, and drank deep. His eyes settled on the holopanel next to their table. On the news, talking heads discussed a rumor that’d returned to the news cycle time and time again over the past six months: the hypocrisy of the IPSA.
Bit more than a rumor, Perseus reflected.
“One day those robots’ll put people like us out of a job,” Christoph said. “There’ll be robots doing everything, and the only people who’ll have jobs will be the guys who fix the robots. That’s why they got rid of Proletarion, y’ know. Because he was sticking up for the little guy.”
“Never took you for such a political scientist,” Perseus replied.
“I know a thing or two. I’m just saying, it’s obvious. Especially if they’ve got robots in SOLAR.”
Perseus shrugged. “Well,” he said, and raised his glass again. “Thank God for the anti-auto movement.”
Another thing that Geneva had done: reignited the automation debate. Rumors and accounts of a robot in a SOLAR uniform, IPSA contravening their own ban on AI. France had weathered one of the worse robotic uprisings during the Collapse and, as such, had long resisted the idea of work being done by anyone but humans for humans. Perseus only cared about so much that it had made it that much easier to find a job here, even with the history he had.
Christoph shrugged. “Can’t turn back time.”
“I might be able to,” Perseus said. “I could be empowered. You’d never know.”
“You?” Christoph snorted. “Yeah, good joke.”
It was funny, really. He wasn’t empowered, but he had saved the world twice—well, perhaps one and a half. More than you could say for most actual superheroes. Even so, when Perseus took a mental calculus, he wasn’t sure if that made up for everything else he had done. But here he was, doing his best to create a new life. That had to count for something.
Christoph Boyce wasn’t much different. On his third day at SRL Logistics, Perseus had caught a glimpse of a skull-snake-shield tattoo on Christoph’s upper arm—a Syndicate operator, former or current. Since then, they’d had drinks after every shift. Perseus suspected that Christoph knew them to be in the same boat, but he never asked questions. Perseus figured it meant he didn’t want to answer any, either.
That worked for him. Mutual understanding and respect. Both of them understood the kind of people who worked like they did. People who needed help staying grounded. Maybe, Perseus thought, this made them friends.
Either way, they finished their next drinks in comfortable silence.
“Last round for the road on me?” Perseus asked and, with a nod from Christoph, rose from the table and made his way towards the bar.
The crowds had thinned out some. That made Perseus feel a little bit better—not because he was afraid of violence, but because he wasn’t. The last thing he wanted was to end up sliding down the path of least resistance again.
He was halfway to the bar when one of the patrons there pulled a gun.
Bedlam in a flash: the bartender screaming, raising her hands. The other patrons at the bar ducking and darting away, creating an instant no man’s zone. The bar froze, stuck between that inch of motion, that split second eternity that was the difference between touching a trigger and pulling it.
Someone had to do something and, Perseus noted, it had to be him.
“Shit,” Perseus muttered, and stepped closer. Cleared his throat.
The man whirled on him, eyes wide and frantic. His weapon was in his right hand—a compact, matte black handgun. Not a railgun or an energy weapon, just a simple slugthrower. The kind of weapon that said, no matter the passage of time, no matter the advancements, the most efficient way to kill a man was with a chunk of metal accelerated to sufficient speed.
It was something Perseus knew from experience.
He knew many things from experience: whoever this man was, he wasn’t a professional. Probably wasn’t even prepared to shoot. So, Perseus figured he could step in, grab his arm, twist and break it without much trouble. Already, Perseus felt his stance shifting, felt himself lower his body ever so slightly. To return to old habits.
He forced himself to stand up tall. He wasn’t going to do that. Not here, not now. If the man wasn’t prepared to shoot, then this wasn’t a standoff. If it wasn’t a standoff, then Perseus didn’t need to follow the old rule and shoot first. There’d be another way to fix it.
Perseus raised his hands, held them before him. “Easy,” he said. “There’s no need for this.”
“What the fuck do you know?”
“More than you might think,” Perseus replied. “What’s your name?”
“Andre,” Perseus repeated. “What makes you bring a gun to the bar, Andre?”
Andre’s eyes flitted left then right. In that split second, Perseus could’ve broken his knee.
“Have to pay off my tab,” he said.
That thought stumped Perseus more than any notion of getting shot in the chest.
Perseus glanced towards the bartender. “Miss,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Celeste,” he replied. People liked it when you used their names. Said you were listening. “How much is Andre’s tab?”
Celeste took a moment to check the system. “Five hundred and twenty-two euros.”
“Andre,” Perseus said. “Were you going to shoot Celeste over that much money?”
“No,” he replied. “But I can’t afford it, and I don’t want them to come and collect. I know this bar is run by Spite’s people.”
Perseus didn’t know if that was true, didn’t know who Spite was but could infer enough. Knew Celeste wouldn’t give him the truth even if she knew, or even if Andre was of sound mind. God, it would be so much easier just to leap forward, put a fist into his jaw, and slam him against the bar-
Perseus kept his breathing slow and steady. “Okay,” he said. “Then, Andre, how about you give me the gun, and I’ll settle your tab.”
Andre’s aim wavered. “You will?”
“This isn’t a trick?”
“Not a trick,” Perseus said. “Promise.”
Andre held the gun out to him, Perseus snatched it up. He hadn’t even flicked the safety off. Made Perseus feel a bit better about not doing it in the way he usually would, the way that felt comfortable.
Perseus held his credit card out to Celeste. “Settle it,” he said. “And I hope he’s not telling the truth about that racket. Someone doesn’t rack up that much of a tab because they can afford it.”
Celeste was pale, still shaking, as she ran it through the system. “I don’t know. I just tend the bar.”
She was telling the truth. Perseus had always had a bit of a knack for reading people. And, even when he couldn’t, there was logic: if this was a criminal front, you kept information compartmentalized. Especially since the end of the Golden Age.
“Sure,” Perseus said and slipped his card back into his wallet. He wanted to add something else. A threat, maybe. Tell Spite that if he keeps this shit up then the Animals will pay him a visit. But the Animals didn’t exist anymore, if the name even mattered in the French underworld. And it did, they probably knew that Monkey’s Animals would’ve never given a shit.
To Andre, he said, “Get out of here.”
Andre made for the exit. Perseus watched him go. In a moment, Christoph’s shadow had fallen over him. “Jesus, kid. Didn’t figure you had such brass balls.”
“I’m full of surprises.”
“I’m thinking you enjoyed that.”
Perseus shrugged. “It was a good way to end the night. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Christoph rumbled. “Take care, Bell.”
Perseus headed out of the bar and into the night air. A light drizzle was coming down, the Moon obscured. Perseus glanced up at it, then brought his hood up. A bit of rain never killed anyone, but still. Kal would kill him if he came home soaking wet.
Andre was waiting outside.
“Hey,” he said.
Perseus glanced at him. “Hey.”
“I just wanted to say thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I’m sorry about all this.”
“I know,” Perseus replied. “But I also don’t really care. You’re just lucky that a place like this probably doesn’t want the cops and capes coming through.”
They stood there in silence for a time, watching the cars go past, headlights illuminating the rain.
Finally, Andre said, “I just wanted someone to feel like they were hearing me, y’ know?”
“Yeah,” Perseus replied. “I do know.”
On the way home, Perseus made a quick detour to hurl Andre’s handgun into the Seine. If he were stupid enough to try such a thing again, at least he wouldn’t have the handgun thinking it made him brave. And, if the police were to pick him up for tonight’s incident, they wouldn’t have the gun. Might let him go. Might bring in a cape to go through his thoughts.
Perseus ran his tongue over his teeth. Shouldn’t have gotten involved.
Home was a townhouse on the outskirts of Paris’ metropolitan center. A building with history—maybe nineteenth or twentieth century, not that Perseus knew his architecture. The sort of house that Perseus would never have been able to afford. But, ever since Geneva, money hadn’t been much of a problem.
With everything that had happened there, with what it could mean for the world order of the United Nations, they had paid, and were still paying, good money for him to keep his mouth shut. Using money to salve the misgivings of his conscience was an arrangement that Perseus had found simple enough for a decade, and it was easier when his morals—as caricatured as they sometimes felt—were in agreement.
All it had taken was two weeks of solid interrogation. A bargain, really. Hadn’t been the first time Perseus had been interrogated by SOLAR, but he figured it would be the last.
Perseus unlocked the front door and stepped inside. He removed his jacket, hung it by the door, and took a deep breath in through his nose—ah, Kallisto had been baking. A caramel cake?
First, though, Perseus had to pay his respects.
Just inside the front door, there was a table—a shrine, whenever Perseus allowed himself the self-indulgence. On that table, there was a collection of items: dog tags, a scope, a knife, a pack of cigarettes, and a lighter. All of it surrounded a photo of Samantha Holley.
There she was, scowling at the camera, cigarette clamped between her teeth as she forever flipped the bird at the world. Perseus figured that was how she would’ve wanted to be remembered.
“Hey, Sam,” Perseus said. “Good to see you, too.”
Kallisto met him in the kitchen. When she saw him, her face lit up in a bright smile, and Jack felt himself match the expression. Like most days, he wasn’t sure what she saw in him. But, like every single day, he was grateful for it.
He reached up, brushed some flour from her temple and black bangs. “Thought flour was supposed to go in the cake.”
“It did, but the cat…” She sighed, still smiling. “How was work?”
“Fine,” he said. “Good and honest, just the way I like it. How about you?”
“The same. It’s been a month, but it still feels weird to be baking without the pretext of a cover story.”
“Any mail or messages?”
“Not a one.”
Perseus grinned. “Just the way I like it.”
As far as Perseus was concerned, there was an agreement he had made with the whole world, much like the one he had made with the IPSA. A simple arrangement of mutually-beneficial reciprocity: you don’t bother me, and I don’t bother you. So, here they were, mercenary and revolutionary, playing house in a country he had never visited before.
It was everything he had ever wanted.
“Cake?” Kallisto asked. “I nabbed the recipe from work.”
“Cake before dinner?” Perseus grinned. “Can we do that?”
“Perseus, we can do whatever the fuck we want.”
His smile brightened. “Then sure.”
The sound of metal on metal summoned the third occupant of their home. Pavel Fisher’s fat cat, Octopus, poked his head out of the laundry. Stared at them in a vaguely imperious manner.
Kallisto glanced over, staring back at the cat. “Perseus,” she said. “Have you heard from Pavel recently?”
He shook his head. “Not since Geneva. Why?”
Kallisto liked Octopus but, for whatever reason, the cat didn’t like her. Still, a cat was a cat, and a favor was a favor. Taking care of a cat was the least Perseus could do for one his only surviving friends.
Still, it was supposed to be a temporary arrangement.
“Well,” Perseus said, scooping up his plate of cake. “Wherever Pavel is, I hope he’s doing okay.”