I can’t even think. I just stand there, frozen in place. I almost slip out of my body, but a surge of anger anchors me down, and keeps me from dissociating.
Epione looks at me, and then her mouth drops open. “What?”
Doc nods, snorts, and picks up his grocery bag.
Words dribble out of me with no guidance. “They… who… what?”
Doc puts the grocery bag on the counter.
My mouth is dry, hanging open. I’m sure I look like a stuttering moron. “Doc.”
Doc stands there, hiding behind the counter, his face blank.
My head flushes. My heart starts hammering. I draw in energy from the air, and the living room chills, but I am burning. Droplets of condensed water form on the TV and coffee table, and my veins are catching, my brain is smoking. My body is on fire, radiating the low-red glow of heat inside me.
“G-Gabe,” Epione says. “You’re-”
I cut her off. “Doc. Explain. Right fucking now.”
Doc grimaces and looks down. “You don’t want Epione here.”
“Yeah, I can go,” Epione says. She stands up, gathering her book from the table. “I’ll just go meet up with Drone.”
I hold a shining hand out to her. “You misunderstand why she’s here.”
Doc looks up, his eyes wide, and he pales when he sees that my skin is glowing from the energy inside me.
“Explain,” I demand. I’ve never felt this angry before. This man just confessed that he helped kill my dad.
“Okay, kid, god damn! Just, settle down, please!”
“I can calm you,” Epione says.
“Yeah,” I say. I think if I keep being this angry I’m actually going to kill him. I restrain the heat inside so I don’t burn her.
Epione touches my arm, and the anger seeps out of me. Surprisingly, she doesn’t take it all away, but leaves a bit inside. I look over my shoulder at her. She nods.
“Okay, Doc. Explain. Now.”
Doc stays in the kitchen. “I don’t even know where to start.”
I don’t have anything else to say to him. I cross my arms and I wait for him to explain.
He sees that I’m not budging. “Gabe. You have to know that… that I love you, like a son. That’s why… that’s why we’re here.”
He’s not getting a response from me.
Doc chokes, coughs, and continues. “I was lead of a small team tasked with figuring out major OPI hero weaknesses, just in case any of them ever turned against OPI and the United Western. The ones that OPI classified as a class above Heavyweight. Super Heavyweight threats. There are only a few in the UWC. One of them was Megajoule.” He looks away. “We found most weaknesses within a month or so. Megajoule took over seventeen years to figure something out besides ‘Catch him when he doesn’t have his power on.’ Something that could override his power while he was using it.”
Seventeen years. “That’s…”
“That’s how old you are, yes.” Doc frowns.
Epione shudders behind me. “The color. It’s overwhelming. Guilt.”
“Megajoule was the only one we cloned, thanks to a hero named Charleston, who had a DNA replicating power. We were trying to model Megajoule’s powers in a closed environment so we could figure out the weak spots. We started tests right away, but the final tests were performed on clones around fifteen or so years old. We didn’t allow them to get older than that.”
I have to sit now. My legs won’t support me. “Then why am I alive? That’s two years before you rescued me.”
“You were different,” Doc says. “They kept you alive-” He chokes and looks down, but continues on. “They kept you alive because you were a defect.”
The black hole pulls at my chest, my ribs, my stomach. All constricted behind the Schwarzschild radius. “What?”
“You never developed the full suite of powers like the other clones-”
“The other clones had power?” I feel chills. “You told me they never had powers, that’s why they killed them, and the girls-”
“Terminated as fetuses. That part was true.” Doc shakes his head. “I’m sorry. I lied to you, Gabe. To protect you from that.”
“To protect yourself!” The little bit of anger Epione left me is blooming into full rage again. “You lied to me because you’d knew I’d never live with you if I knew the truth!”
Doc groans. “I know! I knew that. I wanted to tell you when I was ready… but I never felt ready. I never felt it was the time.”
I’m shaking. “They kept me alive because I don’t have all the powers.” I never figured out electromagnetic energy. I never will.
“Yes. They wanted to study the degeneration of your Sword gene. Your gene was an almost direct copy from Megajoule’s, but some bits were missing. They kept you alive to learn why, and to see if they could replicate it.”
This just keeps getting worse and worse. “Why would they want to replicate it?”
“To control villains, to put down threats against OPI. If we could control the Sword gene, we could control powers themselves. If we knew why they didn’t work like regular genetics, why they were randomized amongst the population, we could manipulate it.”
“Did they learn?” I ask.
“No. I took you out of there before that.”
“What happened in that last video? Before Megajoule went berserk? Was that… was that the day he died?”
“Megajoule…” His eyes widen, he shakes his head as if dispelling some horrible thought. “There were three people in that room besides Megajoule and myself. Cynic, Nero, and Oracle. Cynic is the OPI International Director, the head honcho. Oracle was a powerful woman from Africa, and Nero is probably the only person who could fight Megajoule one on one for longer than a minute.”
“Did they kill him?”
“Not right there,” Doc says. “I don’t know all what happened, because… what he said… it was like someone rung a bell inside my head. He was right. I’d doubted for a long time, thought about saving all of you. The other Gabriels.”
“Oh…” I put my head in my hands. They were all named Gabe. “Oh my God.”
“They knew he’d been trying to figure out how to dismantle OPI from the inside. I don’t know how they knew, but they knew. I guess Oracle knew. Oracle was in charge of the memory lattice that kept him from remembering that he wanted to do that. It fell apart, and everything went to hell. They asked me to help, but I refused. They tried the back up plan of Oracle rewriting your memories, but that-”
Something in the back of my mind shatters, and I remember.
I remember sitting in a room full of other me’s, around thirteen or fourteen years old. All the same person. We waited together to be called into testing, and we shared glances of dread. I remember Oracle, she was a willowy African woman with eyes that shone like blue stars. She’d turn those eyes on us, and we’d fall asleep.
Oh, God, how much did they make me forget?
I hear his wife’s voice in my ear: Julian, I love you.
“She tried to overwrite my mind,” I say.
Doc breathes out like he’s barely holding back sobs. “I got you out of there.”
Epione hasn’t said a word this entire time. She just sits there and watches me with a neutral expression. Her hand twitches, and stretches toward me, but she restrains herself.
“What was his weakness?” I ask, the only question I have left right now.
“I don’t know,” Doc says. “We never found a way to override his power. Whoever ended up killing him figured it out, but I don’t know if that was Nero, a team, or someone else.”
I grab my laptop, and stand up. “I’m going to go out. I need air, alone.” I look at Epione.
She looks like she wants to say something, but settles on a simple nod. “Be safe.”
I start for the door.
Doc comes around the kitchen counter and stands in my way. “Gabe, wait, please, I’m sorry.”
With a growl, I shove my hand against his chest, and with a tiny burst of kinetic energy, I push him against the door. “You’re a lying piece of shit!”
“Gabe!” Epione cries.
I press into him with my power. “You killed all of my brothers and sisters!”
“I know!” Doc shouts. “But please, let me make it up. I’ve done everything I can, but I’ll do more, kid! I’ll do more, I promise. Gabe, please. I promise. I love you. I fucked it up, but I’m trying to unfuck it so I can help you live a normal life.”
I let go of him, and he slumps down to the floor. Have you ever cored an apple? They make those fancy kitchen gadgets nowadays that you press into the stem, and push down in one motion. It punches the core right out. That’s how I feel right now. Like someone cored me.
My eyes well with tears. I grit my teeth so my voice won’t break. “You can’t make it up.”
Doc grimaces and curls into himself. I forget how old he is. He’s frail, brittle with age, his skin marred by liver spots, wrinkles, and scars from old wounds that he didn’t give away.
Now, I understand why he insisted I give him every wound.
My voice wavers under the burden of grief. “I’m going out.”
Doc nods, and crawls away from the door. I open it and go out. Neither of them follow me.
Where do I go? What do I do? Everything I thought I knew was a lie. Memories are flooding into my head. Not just that, but they’re flooding out of my head, too. The dreams I’ve had of being Julian, the dreams where his wife tells me she loves me, they’re leaking from me. Doc called it a memory lattice.
I sit down on a bench near my apartment and try to breathe. I remember all of my brothers. I remember Megajoule looking in through the window, but now he’s pounding a fist on the window.
I was the only one left, then.
I remember Doc, now. Every day, he’d come in, ask me how I was doing. All the while, my family of Gabes dwindled down into nothing.
I let the tears flow freely. There’s no point to stopping them, and in fact, I think it would be worse if I didn’t cry over this. I grieve for the family I’ve only just now remembered, the family stolen from my mind for years. For six years.
What am I supposed to think, now that I know the truth? Not only have I borrowed everything from Megajoule, but I’m just a shittier version of him, too. My Sword gene isn’t even the same, it’s missing parts.
I gather my wits and open my laptop. I can’t really change any of that right now, so time to do a little reconnaissance. I open the OPI page and look up Nero.
He’s a lean, mean guy with scruff and dark hair. He’s got dozens of scars pocking his face. His power is listed as Regeneration and Energy Release. Whatever the hell that means. He’s Heavyweight, and his current stationing is in China, along the Hellpact. Hunting for those evasive Youxia, I bet. He worked with the Inheritors for a brief time, but he’s mostly a solo hero.
Wow. He took down the super villain named Carnality all by himself. I think I read that she ravaged the northwest for a long time, and her death toll was in the thousands. She had some sort of blood based power.
Next up, Oracle. I have to search for her outside the OPI site, on a wiki that gathers info about heroes of the world.
She’s dead. She died six years ago, roughly around the same time as Megajoule. Her power is listed as Memory Control. Nothing new, except that I guess she died in the fight that killed Megajoule. Doc wouldn’t know, he doesn’t know how that fight went down. Unless he’s lying.
I don’t think he is, even though I shouldn’t trust him.
Next, I look up Cynic.
She doesn’t have an OPI entry, but through forums and research I find out that she’s Cynthia Myers, and she sports the worst case of May-I-Speak-To-Your-Manager haircut I’ve ever seen. You know, the kind of bob cut that has soccer mom highlights? Yikes.
There’s no info on her power, but she’s been the International Director for the last fifteen years. There’s a written interview with her. I save that, intent on checking it out later. Right now, I can’t really focus.
Houston sinks gently into evening, while the last purple hues of daylight lick the top of downtown skyscrapers. Sunset breezes dance around my bench, baked warm by Houston’s sweltering heat but with an undercurrent of fresh, cool air.
I’ve been out here for about an hour now, so I close the laptop. I’ve got to head back.
I check my phone.
There’s a text from Bedevil.
(8:28 PM) Just checking in. Wanted to make sure you’d get some sleep tonight. I better not see you out there while I’m on patrol. If you need me to get anything while I’m out, I will. Okay, that’s all.
(8:30 PM) Wait, no, tell Epione I can’t answer my phone right now, I think she’s texting me.
I hold my phone to my chest. How could I ever tell her this? She’d murder Doc. But, doesn’t she deserve to know? Doesn’t she need to know? Or would telling her the truth do more damage right now than good?
I suddenly understand Doc’s reasoning a little.
I text Bedevil back an emoji of a cat giving a thumbs up. (8:32 PM) I’ll sleep. Thanks for checking in. Stay safe.
I’m about to put my phone away when it buzzes again. Bedevil’s already replied.
She sent me a picture of a cat laughing. (8:32 PM) thank
I smile to myself.
Epione said I have a crush on her. I don’t think it’s because we fucked the other day, either. She’s smart and funny, and she’s headstrong.
I don’t think we could make it work, though. She’d see Megajoule every time she looks at me, and I can’t inflict that pain on her. After this is over, I’ll tell her it’s okay, she doesn’t owe me anything. I’ll let her have her life.
I pack it in and head back to my apartment.
Doc’s standing in the kitchen, staring down at a half-sliced avocado. He holds a knife in his hands, but he’s not cutting, he’s frozen in place instead.
“Went to meet up with Drone,” Doc says.
“Is that an avocado?” I ask.
I walk by him to the fridge, where I get some frozen corn to heat up in the microwave. “I’ll trade you some of this corn for some of the avocado.”
“Fuck you, kid.” His shoulders shake. “You can’t have this avocado.”
“Then you can’t have any of my corn,” I say, putting the corn in the microwave. I set it for three minutes.
Doc turns around. His eyes are red and glistening. “Gabe, I’m sorry. I wish I could take it all back, I wish I could undo what I’ve done.”
“I know,” I say.
“Just tell me what I can do to make this right,” Doc says.
I cross my arms, lean against the fridge. “Doc… I don’t know that. I’m not the one you should be apologizing to. You can’t undo…” I think about all of my fellow clones. “You can’t undo that.”
Doc looks at his hand. “I thought that maybe… I didn’t save you because I thought it would undo what I did. He asked me to.”
Doc nods. “Nero asked me if I told him, I said I didn’t.” He looks away. “That was a lie. I did tell him. I told him everything. He asked me to make sure the videos made it to you, and he was going to put an end to it. I… planned to show you that video when you were a bit more experienced, maybe when you’d put aside vigilantism. I synced it to a drive, and thought I’d deleted it off your laptop. When you didn’t ask me about it for six years, I forgot. Figured I’d tell you when I was ready.”
Doc trembles. I’ve never seen Doc cry, tremble, shudder, shake, or any variations of those things. He’s always been grim old Doc.
“I never was ready.”
“What about the Fear?” I ask.
Doc shakes his head. “I actually don’t remember. I believe I allowed Oracle to take that memory from me, but I’ve no way of knowing how to trigger her memory lattice breaking apart.”
I cover my mouth with my hand. It’s a bit of a relief to hear that Doc was telling the truth about that. For now, I think I need some space from all this so I can work on saving Maisa and Flashfire. “Doc, I think… I’m gonna stay somewhere else for a little. Saw Off’s in my bed anyway, and until she heals up, that means I’m on the couch.”
Doc nods. “Where you thinking? Bedevil?”
I open my mouth to tell him that’s the stupidest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but then I think about it. Where else would I realistically go? The 2nd Amendment safe house? One of the other vig groups in Houston? The only concern with her is someone from OPI coming by her apartment.
But why would they? She’s never slipped up in actual heroics work.
“Why don’t you go ask her?” Doc asks.
I look at my fridge, realizing that I’d be missing some good food. And with that, I realize the perfect way to smooth her over.
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