“We are gathered here today to remember the woman who saved us all, not just from the extraterrestrial menace, but from ourselves. She died as she lived: sacrificing herself for the future of humanity. As an agent of VANGUARD, she could have been expected to be fierce, brave, and clever, and she was all that and so much more. She was wise, willing to work with me against the larger threats, against the true villains. She was kind, holding her fire when facing down the mind-controlled people outside my old headquarters. And yes, she was magnificent, like a vision of a goddess of old, or a super-heroine. In a world that had become one of demigods and monsters, of superhero and supervillain, she faced down the worst of the latter without one speck of supernatural power and, more often than not, emerged victorious.”
I gazed out over the crowd. There were thousands of people here, and billions more watching over the net around the world. In a world that no longer needed heroes, people were captivated by tales of what had been.
“In the hours before our final battle against Arachnus, she escaped from where I had restrained her in the back of my spacecraft and came to me, not to defeat me, but to love me. It was in that moment that I realized I’d been a hero all along. I saw in her eyes what she saw in mine: empathy. That magnificent joy to be found in knowing you’ve made someone else’s life better.”
I could see the crowd knew exactly what I spoke of. Pride took my heart from sorrow for a moment: I had made them thus, and it was beautiful.
“When the time came, when she had been…killed and all seemed lost, I remembered her: her beauty, her grace, her wit, and her burning passion for defending what she believed in. And thus, I took control of Arachnus’s doomsday device. I destroyed him, and then, truly godlike power within my grasp, I hesitated.”
I paused for a long time. Beats went by, and some in the crowd began to shift in their seats, looking uncertain. Then, I told them the truth.
“I knew that I could have brought her back,” I said, using all my strength and will to keep my voice level. “I could have returned her to life, and we could have been together. We could have battled villains, cleaned up the chaos Arachnus had wreaked, and been magnificently happy and fulfilled for the rest of our lives, knowing that although the world might still be a horrendous mess, we were at least moving it in the right direction. But then…but then I knew…that down on the planet below, untold millions were suffering and dying. That, as glorious as the struggle to fix the world was, while it went on, the victims of it not being fixed increased, and increased, every hour of every day. I knew that saving Steelheart, that saving my love…would be to doom humanity, for God knows how long, to famine, to war, to pollution, to hate, to envy, to greed, and to misery. And so I did what I knew she’d want me to do, and I did it as she had inspired me to do.”
The idea had actually mainly come from H. G. Wells’ In the Day of the Comet, but that was beside the point.
“I treated some symptoms, of course, as I began to reshape the world. I pulled some carbon dioxide out of the air and put it back underground, refilled the Aral Sea, that sort of thing. But what it was really about was empathy: I strengthened it in every man, woman, nonbinary person, and child. I made it so that you couldn’t hurt another without feeling their pain. I made it so you couldn’t hate another without hating yourself. I made it so you couldn’t pollute another’s air without forever imagining yourself choking on that smoke. In short: I remade the world in Steelheart’s image, because despite the name she chose to intimidate the villains, she was the most loving person I ever knew.”
The crowd was utterly silent.
“Without her, I could never have optimized the world instead of conquering it,” I concluded. I had a few more lines, but I didn’t think I could keep it together much longer. I left the microphone, and I walked off the stage, and I sat.
The President of Earth rose next. She spoke about how one woman’s sacrifice of her life had saved all of ours, and perhaps given us far more than otherwise, depending on the outcome of the new biomedical research. She spoke about how although not every problem had been solved, and there were still battles to win, Steelheart had made it possible for us to win them, and what fun would it be to have no challenges and no conflicts?
“I want to conclude, with these words, said with all of my heart,” she said. “Thank you, Steelheart. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. And thank you for what you made possible. I don’t know whether there’s an afterlife; I know there are many opinions on that, and I can’t say any one of them is wrong. But if you can hear me, know this: you won. And we, all the people of Earth, are grateful.”
The service ended at last. We closed the casket, and I helped bear it away and lower it into the ground. I spoke with guest after guest: politicians, former VANGUARD agents, some of my less idiotic minions, and Steelheart’s parents (who were the only ones to use her real name). And, at last, I walked to the trolley station, then rode the trolley to the train station, a long ride alone in the evening creeping on.
I passed from car to car along the bullet train that would take me back to my lair, which I was in the process of converting into a museum about myself and Steelheart, remembering that first kiss, and then that final kiss, over and over again. Her lips had been surprisingly soft and warm both times: there had been no quiver, no shiver, nothing but the steel will that let her stare death in the face and laugh.
The different cars played different music over the speakers: there was a classical car, a jazz car, and a couple cars with no music at all. I was headed there, wanting to sit in silence with my thoughts, and I passed through a car playing modern popular music. Sia’s voice floated from the speakers.
“Stone heart, machine gun, firing at the ones who run…”
And it was only then that I cried.