5.17.2

A small crowd gathers outside the hospice room we’ve set up for my brother. Bedevil stands next to me, her hand in mine, as I watch him sleep in tense silence. We’re joined by Remise, Epione, Meltdown, Maisa, Flashfire, Saw Off, and Archimedes. Nobody wants to say anything, but I can tell everyone wants to. Everyone wants to ask me about him. Maisa already wanted to know if I knew anything about his life.

Flashfire, glancing back and forth between me and the clone through the window in the door, breaks the silent gawking. “So what are we going to call him?”

Saw Off, who is looking at my clone like a cat at a mouse, says, “Daddy.”

“Gabe 2,” Archimedes adds helpfully. I say helpfully but I do not mean helpfully. I mean “like an asshole.”

“Gabe 2: Electric Boogaloo,” says Remise.

Maisa adds her voice to the chorus. “Gabe With a Vengeance.”

Bedevil guffaws until she sees me half-upset and half-tickled by all their suggestions. I’m upset because… well… he’s not me. He’s not Gabe Two or whatever they want to jokingly call him—

— Saw Off adds, “Gay B,” to the pile—

And well, I frankly don’t know what to call him either, so I growl, “Cool it.”

“Sorry, sorry.” Flashfire, for his part, does look a bit guilty at all the teasing. He knows all the hell I went through trying to sort my identity out, and while I try to be lighthearted, it’s still a sensitive topic sometimes. “Okay, so, what are we going to call him?”

Those that offered all the variations of my name come up stumped. Not a single one of them can offer up a good suggestion until Bedevil blurts out: “Paul!”

“Paul?” Archimedes asks. “Really?”

“What’s wrong with Paul?” Bedevil shoots back. “I had a turtle named Paul.”

“How many animals have you owned?” Maisa asks.

Bedevil clicks her tongue and waves her hand at Maisa as if that will shoo her off, and looks a bit miffed. “Twenty seven. But Paul. He looks like a Paul, doesn’t he?”

“Anymore than he looks like Julian or Gabe?” Remise asks. “I dunno.”

“Paul…” I murmur. I squeeze Bedevil’s hand. “We’ll try it out.”

Paul, my brother, stirs in his bed. I hiss at everyone to get lost except for Bedevil, since duh, Epione, because she can sedate him if need be, Meltdown, in case he uses his power, and Archimedes, who I really can’t make leave since he’s my boss. My friends and teammates scatter, and I open the door.

If I had to guess his age, Paul is probably around nineteen years old. His hair is blond, his face unshaven and haggard, but his eyes, his nose, his mouth, I’ve seen them all in the mirror before. That effect is even more unnerving as he stares right at me. “Where am I?” He has no gravel in his voice.

“You’re in New Foundation, a safe place.” I wait for him to ask more questions. I don’t want to overwhelm him.

Paul shifts in the bed. He has his power. I didn’t want to open up our talk with him panicking when he realized he was depowered. That’s the whole reason Epione and Meltdown are waiting just outside. I worry for a second that he’s going to make a run for it by the look in his eyes, but he settles into the bed instead of fleeing. “Who are you?”

“My name is Gabe. This is my team leader and fiancee Ruby, and the head of New Foundation, Archimedes.” I let go of Bedevil’s hand — which feels a bit like letting go of a life raft while drifting in the ocean — and cautiously approach him with me palms facing forward. I sit in the chair next to him. “We extracted you from that facility.”

Paul appears to be processing this. He chews on his cheek, an interesting habit already setting him apart from me, and fiddles with the blanket. “Why?”

“Because you were being forced to provide power to a nation by Dop… our father.” I realize now that maybe he was there of his own free will, even if Doppelgänger used music to coerce him. A brief anxiety that I’m just as bad by forcing him away from that life.

Paul nods. “I… never left that place before.”

Jesus Christ. I sit back into the chair and sigh, and count to ten to avoid storming out of here and flying to every single safe-house Epione can identify until I find Doppelgänger and bash his head on each individual brick in the vicinity. “Well, you have now. Do you have a name?” We’ve already dubbed him Paul but if he’s got a name already I don’t want to override him.

“Cog,” he says.

Seeing red. I hear Bedevil gasp behind me. What a fucking awful name, even worse than Thirty-One. I manage a tight lipped smile. “That’s not a great name.”

“It’s the only one I’ve got,” Paul says. “Besides son.”

“Would you mind if I called you something else?” I ask.

Paul shrugs and makes a show of indifference, but he glances anxiously at me after, clearly waiting on the name.

“How does ‘Paul’ sound to you?” I ask.

Paul considers his new name. He says it out loud, as if he’s tasting it, and chews his cheeks again. After a brief silence, he asks, “Does that mean something? Where does it come from?”

“Paul was an apostle,” Archimedes says, helpfully.

“Actually he was a tur—” Bedevil starts, but I break in.

“It means… it’s an acronym.” Once, long ago, Doc gave me this wonderful gift that turned Gabe into more than just a label people put on me. It made my name mean something and even if I didn’t appreciate that gift for a long time, I do now, and I hope that it will mean something to Paul. “Paul… you know. P for…” I hesitate, having to come up with this on the spot, “P for Powerful. A for Able. U for Unique. L for… Loved.”

Paul registers my words with a little tilt of his head, almost a nod but just a touch too subtle. He’s not trying to directly confirm or deny what I’ve told him. “Paul,” he says again, and this time the name comes easier. “And you’re Gabe.” He gestures to my two friends. “And you’re Ruby, and you’re Archimedes.”

Bedevil waves to him and takes a seat next to me. “Hey, yeah, I’m Ruby. I’m Gabe’s direct superior, and yes, his fiancee, too.”

“You’re correct,” Archimedes says, remaining standing. “Could you tell us a bit more about what Doppelgänger had you doing in India?”

“Where… is India?” Paul asks, genuinely out of the loop from his tone.

That question speaks volumes to me. Apparently it speaks to Archimedes, too, because he clamps up tight, unable to prod for further information. Bedevil, though, has a few questions for him. “How old are you?”

Paul shrugs.

“Did you ever meet any of your brothers or sisters?”

Paul shrugs. Still he doesn’t reply.

“How often did they give you food?”

Paul shrugs. This time, he actually says something: “Enough, I guess. A few times a day.”

Well, at least there was that. Basic human need fulfilled. “Do you feel like we saved you, or do you want to go back?”

Paul snaps his head up in surprise. “You’re going to take me back? To Father?”

“No, not if you don’t want. What do you want?” I ask.

Paul doesn’t seem to know the answer to that. He averts his gaze back downward.

“We’ll take you anywhere you want to go, do anything you want to do.” I know I’m over promising but god damn it, I can’t look this kid in the eyes and not see myself seven years ago.

“I want… to understand what is going on.” Paul’s face shrivels up and tears spill down his cheeks. “I’ve been in that big contraption for so long, as long as I can remember. And now you’re here and you’re telling me there’s India and New Foundation, and I don’t know what that’s all about.”

“Do you want me to start with India or New Foundation?” I ask.

“I want you to start making sense to me,” Paul replies.

“Yikes,” Archimedes says. “Kid got a sharper tongue than you did, Gabe.”

Paul doesn’t indulge Archimedes. He swings his legs over the side of his hospice bed. “I want you to show me what you’re talking about.”

The best way I could show him would be to sit him in front of a map and a computer with Wikipedia open. From his lack of knowledge I’d guess he’s not had a lot of exposure to the outside world. How did he learn to speak, then? How did he know what a vanguard was? Either Doppelgänger can grow someone with information already in their brain, or he took on the task of educating Paul just enough so that he knew how to talk. I’m going to guess the former.

So I ask, “Can you fly?”

“No.” Paul’s eyes light up. “Can you?”

“I can. I’d love to show you the world you’ve missed out on, if you want.” I hold my hand out for him to take.

Paul glances at Bedevil and Archimedes and then back at me. Again, I feel like I’m looking in a mirror. The weight of family falls on my shoulders. This boy is my brother. A twin in body and in mind, I feel that so keenly it makes me want to cry right here.

And, mercifully, he takes my hand.

“Where would you like to go first?” I ask.

A half hour later, Paul and I are flying above Buenos Aires. The ocean air is warm and salty, the sun kisses us as we rise above the city. Paul does not speak or make a sound that I can hear over the whipping wind, but he stares at the world shrinking as we soar up with wide eyed wonder. He gapes like a baby, alternating between surprise and elation, and still he says nothing.

I bring him back down to New Foundation after letting him drink his fill of the horizon, back to my apartment balcony. Pawpaw and Isabelle bark as we enter in through the back door, and Paul gasps as the two dogs rush up to him. He kneels down and runs his hands through their fur and smiles. “This is… What are these?”

“They’re dogs,” I tell him. We’ve got the apartment to ourselves — I asked Bedevil and Maisa for some space today to let him acclimate, something I feel the more people are present for the worse it will go for him. “The little one is Isabelle and the older one is Pawpaw.” Right after that, Bedevil’s cats come out to see our guest.

Paul coos in delight. Most of his mannerisms are like an infant’s, which bothers me quite a bit. He’s not reacting like an adult would. In her horrified rant, Epione said Doppelgänger could flash clone people to be any age he wants. If my hunch is right about him being able to implant information in someone’s brain, then I’m guessing that Paul here got flash cloned to be about fifteen or sixteen years old, given the time frame of India’s fancy power grid, but that his brain is still a bit underdeveloped in some ways. He may mentally be closer to a ten year old than a young adult.

“Do you like Captain Crunch?” I ask, before realizing that’s a stupid question. Of course he does. I pour him a bowl of cereal and milk, and then offer it to him at the table.

Paul leaves the dogs reluctantly, and joins me at the table. He studies the cereal and takes a slow bite. He chokes and spits it out, and makes a sour face at the cereal cud on the table. “That’s awful. It’s so… too much!”

I chuckle and wipe up his mess with a paper towel. “Sweet is the word you’re looking for. It’s too sweet.”

“Do you like to eat that?” Paul asks.

“Like? I wouldn’t say so. I’ve been working through that box for a few days and I’ll never forgive myself if I let it go to waste. This is the last box I’m buying.” I return the Captain Crunch to the pantry and look back at him. He’s watching me, studying me, and I recognize his expression. He’s searching for danger. The other thing I notice is how dirty his clothes are. “We’ll need to go out and buy you some clothes. Actually, I might have something that fits you. Hang on.”

I go to my closet and dig out some of my clothes that Archimedes rescued, like my vigilante outfit. The jeans and the jacket may be a bit large on him, considering he’s about thirty pounds lighter than I am judging by how he skinny he is, but they’ll do the trick.

“Here, I think this will look good on you,” I tell him, offering two thirds of the outfit that Home Run used to wear on the streets. He takes the clothes and starts to undress right in front of me, pulling his shirt over his head.

“Woah, woah!” I stop him and guide him to the bathroom. “You don’t have to change here.”

And it’s then that I notice his back is striped with a dozen scars from lashing.

3 thoughts on “5.17.2”

  1. So, what do you think the odds are that Gabe ultimately decides to spare Doppelgänger’s life due to his devotion to justice and instead hands him over to the authorities?

    … Yeah, I really don’t see that happening either.

    Liked by 1 person

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