Pavel Fisher was not doing okay.
In a Manhattan bar, he swirled the scotch in his glass and, once again, tried to make sense of the world. His mind always came back to the same place, riding the same train of thought he’d ended up aboard for every night—every single night—since the madness in Geneva: nothing’s the same anymore.
Some part of him, the more sober part of him, told him he was a bit late to that realization. After all, when had the world had any fucking consistency? He had been six years old when Preceptor had revealed himself the world and changed everything. Fisher had lived through the Golden Age and the Collapse both, had rubbed elbows with the world’s best and taken the fight to the world’s worst. Sometimes, he’d even won. And then, over the years, he had gone from superhero to drunk to school teacher, to…
Glancing around him, Fisher placed his present situation by his surroundings. To a drunk again, it seemed.
Well, Fisher thought, maybe there’s some consistency to the world after all.
Fisher raised his glass to the air. “To consistency,” he said, and took down the last of his scotch. Then, he caught the eyes of one of the prettier waiters, and gestured for another. If the world was going to finally finish sliding into hell, then he wasn’t going to let the good scotch linger in the ruins.
With the destruction of Geneva, the IPSA had been broken. The power that had once been so absolute was now tenuous. The world-preserving institution left to limp along like it didn’t know it was already dead, and the wolves and vultures were circling. Pavel Fisher, history teacher at the United Nations Academy for Empowered Development and Education, had found himself an interesting seat from which he could watch the world order crumble.
A waiter set a new glass down. Fisher grunted, as if to say thanks.
Tact, Pavel, Mark said, in his memories. Tact.
“Fuck you,” Fisher muttered, and found his train of thought crashing into the same place: an apocalyptic pile-up of anger, frustration, regret, and sadness. And the realization that the thought should’ve made him happy.
Mark Fisher was alive.
It’d taken Fisher ten years just to accept that Mark was gone. To finally get over the little things, the momentary lapses in his memory. The thought that, when he heard something funny, he had to remember it so that he could tell Mark later on. To stop expecting to see him at home. To finally, if not move on, then make some peace with it.
Ten years—a decade. That was how long the thought that Mark was alive had been something between a prayer and a nightmare. The reunion six months ago, however fleeting and brief it was, had hewed closer to the latter. It’d been the capstone to the Geneva cataclysm. A final note, a concluding movement that’d been aimed squarely at Fisher’s heart.
For so long, Fisher had dreamed of that moment—of seeing Mark again, of holding him in his arms, of smiling and laughing and crying. It was, he knew, something of a fantasy. The actual probability of it was so remote that Fisher had long accepted, intellectually, that it was impossible. Taurine hadn’t wanted Ravenstorm to be found, and his old nemesis was smart and ruthless in all the worst ways.
And then it had happened and some part of Fisher, some selfish part, wished it had stayed impossible. Because there hadn’t been laughter, or tears, and Fisher certainly hadn’t been able to see any hint of a smile behind Mark’s gleaming helmet.
Is that Sabra Kasembe? Mark had said. We have come for her.
And that, as they said, was that.
Someone settled into the seat across from him. Fisher swiped his artificial fingers at his eyes, glanced at the figure. Tan skin, black hair, half her scalp shaved. A ragged scar split a fissure down the right-hand side of her face. Between that, and the heavy leather coat she wore, Fisher figured it wasn’t long before someone asked her to leave.
Fisher set his glass down. “What do you want, Sian?”
Sian Au Yong fixed him with a flat, withering stare. Her eyes were mismatched in artificial heterochromia—her left, natural brown; her right, prosthetic gold.
“I’ve been trying to call you all night,” she replied.
“Left the phone in the apartment. Not a problem.”
Sian frowned. “Great,” she said. “You’re drunk.”
“It’s a free country. What’re you going to do, shoot me?”
“No,” she said, and reached over, snatched up his glass. “But I’m going to finish this before you can get any worse.” She downed the contents in one long slug. “Come on, get up.”
“I can just order another.”
“And I can just knock you down and drag you out of here,” Sian replied. “But I’d rather not create a scene. We have a job to do. So, let’s do it.” She reached into the inner pocket of her jacket, slapped a sheet of pills down on the table. Fisher glanced at them—sobriety meds.
“Another wonder of the Golden Age,” Fisher muttered.
Sian pointed to the nearest waitress. “You,” she said, voice like iron. “A glass of water.”
Fisher asked, “The hell’s gotten into you?”
Sian’s eyes snapped to him. “Like I said: our mission. I have a lead.”
“You cannot be serious. That was just…” God, what was he going to say? Another nightmare, another false hope? He hadn’t been kidding but he hadn’t been serious.
“I am not one to joke.”
“You’ve got that right,” Fisher said.
The waitress returned, set the glass down. Fisher watched her make her way over to talk with the maitre’d, noted the concerned glances in the direction of his table. He sighed—so much for his evening of drunken melancholy.
“You know,” Fisher said, popping a pair of pills out of the sheet, “you have a wonderful way with people, you know that?”
Sian shrugged. “Talk more at home.”
Fisher downed the pills. Stood up, settled his tab. Noted the look of relief on the maitre’d’s face as he did. Yes, there were very few people out there who would’ve been brave enough to try and command Sian Au Yong. Somehow, Sabra had managed it. Sian had been her right hand, her executor.
Maybe more than that.
Either way, Sian didn’t speak about it. But as Fisher scooped up his jacket and followed her out of the bar, he figured it was that note of sympathy that had bound them together. After all, why else would anyone take the fight to the Concordiat if not for love?
Even if they were jilted lovers, the both of them.
It was not a long journey back to Fisher’s apartment. The main reason he had chosen to drink in such a high-class establishment wasn’t because of the atmosphere or the drinks, and it certainly wasn’t the pricing. It was just that Fisher knew he could stumble his way home without issue. Like all of the other staff, Fisher lived on campus.
In the wake of Geneva, so did Sian.
The Academy was a miniature city within the city. Some said that Capetown, as it was more commonly known, was intended to be a refuge for the empowered people of the world, back before people had realized the extent of their numbers. Now, it was a school, raising the next generation of superheroes. Some part of Fisher had always seen it as more of a boot camp.
This late in the evening, the only things moving through the manicured gardens and between the glass and marble buildings were the service robots. In the glow of a streetlight, Fisher spied a pair of amorous students. A first kiss, maybe. As an instructor, he was supposed to enforce a curfew. But, as far as Fisher was concerned, all good instructors knew when to look the other way.
Besides, the IPSA was falling apart—peacekeeping in name only. Outside New York, the authority of the United Nations grew considerably more tenuous. Who cared for the regulations? His superiors had argued that it was important to maintain the illusion of the IPSA’s control, that the IPSA would always exist in some form.
Fisher had bit his tongue and not pointed out the usage of the word illusion.
Fisher’s home was on the tenth floor of the Rho Building. One of the standard-issue domiciles for indentured instructors. It wasn’t even a cramped shoebox of a place, like some of the other apartments he had lived in over the years. Still, it felt less like home now that Octopus was living with the Bells.
Christ above, Fisher thought. The fact that that kid would end up settling down in Paris of all places. Nothing really was the same anymore. Nothing made sense.
“Things fall apart,” Fisher said, stepping through the door. He glanced behind his shoulder, saw no trace of recognition on Sian’s sharp features.
Not one for poetry, then. Not too surprising.
The lights turned on as Fisher stepped past the threshold. The living room was still in disarray. Sian had conquered the couch and, like all good warriors, had seemed to leave the task of administrating to someone else. Past it, in the bedroom, Fisher’s eyes settled on a holographic portrait. Him and Mark, back when they had been superheroes.
Fisher frowned at it. Reminded himself to find a new picture in the same thought that he knew he wouldn’t.
“Getting a drink,” Fisher said. “Water, I mean.”
“Before you do that-” Sian said, but Fisher had already stepped onto the tiles, and paused.
There was a man in his kitchen, slumped in one of the dining chairs. It took Fisher a moment to properly grasp that the man’s arms and legs had been bound to the chair. His chin was resting against his collarbone, blood from his nose soaking into his shirt.
“Sian,” Fisher said, “What the fuck did you do?”
She leaned up against the doorway. For some reason, Fisher found himself reminded of how Octopus had looked, the one time he’d caught a mouse. “You don’t want to know the specifics.”
Fisher ran his hands along his scalp, tried to think. Even without the sobriety meds, he would’ve sobered up at the sight of the man. “Who even is this guy?”
“Like I said,” Sian replied, voice cool. “A lead.”
“And you brought him here?” Fisher felt his jaw clench. “This is a school, Sian! Not a fucking black site. How did you even get him-”
“I have my methods. You’re right, though, Pavel. This isn’t a black site—it’s actually far more secure.”
“You can’t just- Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
Sian picked his phone up from the coffee table. “I tried. Had I not, I might’ve lost my opportunity.”
Fisher sighed into his hand. “I need you to go back about half a dozen steps here, Sian.”
“I’ve been observing many people for the past four months,” she said. “You said that the Concordiat liked to act through proxies. Your friend Cherenkov pointed me in the right direction.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t explain who this guy is.”
Sian glanced at him. “Alistair Bey. He is unimportant, a cog in the machine. The machine is what’s important, the weapons and people he has been amassing.”
“Please tell me you didn’t attack and abduct someone just because he’s been stockpiling weapons. Heaps of people are doing that these days.”
“True,” Sian said. “But Bey is the only one I know of who has a subordinate who was stupid enough to mention to me that their boss had struck a concord.”
Ah, there it was. It was like the room got colder.
Fisher shook his head. “There’s nothing that drops someone’s IQ quite like testosterone,” he said. “I’d say you’ve got to be kidding me, Sian, but a cup of coffee and a freak detour ignited the First World War. But we can’t keep him here. If the Concordiat finds out…”
Sian rolled her shoulders. “Pavel, I’d say that the Concordiat are already preparing to knock over New York.”
Fisher squinted at her. “Explain.”
“The Concordiat didn’t intervene in Geneva as it allowed them to knock out two birds with one stone, and then collect an eagle in the aftermath. The IPSA is punch drunk, but not out. Whatever the Concordiat is planning, the IPSA may still manage to foil it. New York will be the final haymaker.”
Ah, boxing metaphors, Fisher thought. Maybe something she picked up from Sabra.
“Pavel, think,” Sian continued. “This man is a proxy, but a proxy for what? The Concordiat let Geneva burn. They’re going to knock New York over, too.”
“They have contingencies. They always have contingencies.”
“Perhaps,” Sian replied. “Don’t worry about that. Worry about what we can learn from him.”
Fisher glanced back at Bey. “Looks like you beat the shit out of him.”
“He wasn’t talking,” Sian said, without concern. “Still didn’t. Going after the Concordiat was never going to be simple, Pavel. You knew this was going to be a shadow war, and that is my battleground.”
“Yeah, well, keep it out of my apartment—my school.”
“Then let’s hope the Concordiat don’t want to finish the job, or that war will come here regardless.”
Fisher sighed again. He looked back to Bey. “You’re sure of this?”
“It’s what I’d do.”
“We’re not torturing him, or beating him.”
Sian snorted. “Fine. Then we’ll need some other way to break the conditioning.”
“They don’t condition all of their patsies,” Fisher replied. Still, the thought gnawed away at his certainty. Magnetar, the man who had set him on his mad quest across the Americas, had messed with his mind. Fisher had spent weeks wondering if his actions were his own. Even at the end, on the edge of Sabra’s apotheosis, he hadn’t been sure if anything he had done had truly been of his own volition.
“Perhaps,” Sian replied. “But I am not taking the risk. Our reckonings may depend on what this man can tell us, Pavel. As might this whole school.”
Fisher closed his eyes and murmured, “Shit.” Finally, he remembered why he had stepped into the kitchen. Made his way over to the sink and poured himself a glass of water. He sipped at it, kept his eyes on Bey. The man still hadn’t moved. Not for the first time, Fisher reminded himself to not get into a fight with Sian Au Yong.
Then, he had a plan. Or, at least, the start of one.
“I think I know someone who can help,” Fisher said. He raised his right hand, focused on his phone, and twisted the distance between it and his palm so he could grab it from the coffee table in defiance of time and space.
“Just let me make a call.”