I breathe in. My eyes are closed. I exhale.
I breathe in. “Good. Calm. Recognize what you are feeling.” Epione’s words come from across the universe, echoing across the walls of eternity and into my core. I exhale.
I breathe in. Epione guides us in our meditation. “If you have any thoughts, simply acknowledge them, respect them, and release them, and then return to your center and focus on your breathing.” I exhale.
I breathe in. Epione’s come to believe every person on this planet, not just her, can sense the Affect, and I feel like I’m so close to being able to see it. Maybe not the same way she does, but it’s almost as if I can feel the emotions of everyone around me like I’m using my heat sense. I exhale.
I breathe in. Someone fidgets to my left. It is so quiet that I can hear the scraping of their pants on the cold tile. Vaguely I remember that Paul is sitting to my left, and Maisa to my right. I exhale.
“What is this?” Paul asks, breaking the spell of meditation. I open my eyes. Our little circle is comprised of Epione right across from me, Maisa and Paul at my sides, Bedevil, Saw Off, and Mr. Gold, all wearing yoga clothes. Saw Off is really the only one I’m surprised to see, to be honest.
Saw Off, I’m also surprised to say, is the most frustrated with Paul’s question. “I was in the fuckin’ groove, y’all. I was catching so many thoughts and lettin’ em back out.”
Epione titters and pats Saw Off on the shoulder. “It’s okay. He’s new to this. Paul, what we’re doing is trying to let go of the endless parade of thoughts in our heads so that we can see the world with eyes unclouded.”
“Ma’am, I have no idea what that means,” Paul replies.
I glance at Bedevil, who has covered her mouth so no one will see her laughing. She’s accepted Paul with no problems; I suppose that once you’ve done accepted the person in front of you is not Megajoule but someone entirely different once, a second time is far easier. We make eye contact and I mouth, “I love you,” at her. She mouths it back.
“Okay,” Epione says, her tone unchanged through all of this. “Imagine that instead of a brain, you have a highway. Close your eyes, Paul, this will make imagining easier.”
Paul does so, reluctantly.
“Okay, Paul. Imagine you are looking at a highway. Imagine that there are many cars traveling through it.”
“I don’t…” He wants to say that he doesn’t know what those are, and maybe he doesn’t really, but since yesterday I’ve taken him flying about five separate times and I showed him the highways leading out of the city. “I see it.”
“In each of those cars… instead of a person… there is a thought. Doesn’t matter what thought is in what car, just think about all those thoughts in those cars.”
I close my eyes, too. I breathe in. I see the highway. I exhale. I see the cars with my thoughts in them — an eighteen wheeler with all of the emotions of marrying Bedevil, a car carrying my worries about (I breathe in) New Foundation and the world, a mini-van with a bunch of (I exhale) dad jokes I’m saving up for when I become a dad — just as Epione commands.
I breathe in. “I want you to imagine the sun setting and those cars going home and the highway is empty, now. There is nothing but you, the cement, and the highway.” I imagine what Epione is saying and suddenly it is dark within my mind, but not an unpleasant darkness like when the Shadow possessed me. It is a warm night with stars dimly shining and transforming and melting and growing, and I am content to sit on the still-hot pavement and watch the celestial dance. I exhale.
“Look up at the stars, and see the colors. You aren’t making those up, Paul, those colors belong to you and to everyone around you.”
I breath in. I see the colors; bronze and gold and silver and ruby. Silver must be Bedevil and Mr. Gold (funny that he is a silversouled). Bronze would be Maisa, and gold would be Paul. I search the skies for Epione’s colors but I don’t have the slightest idea of what I should look for.
The sun dawns in my vision, almost without my permission, a pure white sphere rising over my imaginary highway. A morning star that shines over everything. I don’t know how I know, but that’s Epione. Her power makes her not like us. It makes her a unique human. I am sure she is not alone in this power, given that Tim Prince is also an empath, but I’ve never felt anything like this.
“What do you feel?” Epione asks. “What do you see?”
“I’m not alone,” Paul says.
I open my eyes and study Paul’s expression, and I’m not alone. Everyone else turns to look at him. At face value his words are good. His tone, however, is frantic and shuddering. Again, he says, “I am not alone.”
“What do you mean?” Epione’s face changes, now. She’s concerned.
“I mean that there is someone on the highway with me… and he is coming toward me… and… and…” Paul starts to hyperventilate. He opens his eyes. “He’s coming for me! He’s coming! Please!” His voice rises to a shriek as he repeats his mantra: “Father is coming for me! He’s coming for me!”
I warp to my feet and grab his shoulder. “It’s okay!”
Energy flows into Paul, heat and vibration and so many things that I can’t stop. His eyes glow. The ground quivers. The well within him is so gigantic. I wouldn’t say that I can’t hold a huge amount of energy myself, but he dwarfs me.
Epione reaches through my legs and grabs Paul’s ankle. His shining eyes flutter and close, and he slumps into me. The energy flows away as sudden as it appeared.
I help him to the floor. He looks so helpless, so shaken. He twitches in Epione’s induced slumber.
“What the fuck?” Saw Off asks.
A little while later and Paul’s back in his hospice room, Epione posted outside his door. His outburst ended the meditation session a little early. I sit down next to her. “Did you see anything in his Affect before it all went sideways? Is he… possessed?”
“No, not like you were. I didn’t sense the Fear inside him and I think we’d know. He’s scared and lost, Gabe. He has no idea what is going on or what he’s doing. All he’s known is that man and the engine room, so we shouldn’t be surprised if he takes a while to shake that off.”
I can’t help but fret over him. I’m already acting like he’s my younger brother. “We’ve got to stop that man. Do have anywhere I can start looking?”
“He’s got a dozen or more safe houses scattered throughout the world.” Epione leans her head against the wall and sighs. She looks so tired, so unlike how she was in the meditation. Very few see her like this; I wonder if Flashfire ever did. “I handed the list over to Archimedes. Do you want it, too?”
I sit down next to her, commiserating in our exhaustion. “Yes. I do.”
“Stopping him is going to be difficult.”
“We need the full list of names of the people he’s cloned. And we need proof beyond Paul. We need a video or some admission from him.” I wonder how we can get that. Unless he made one himself, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll freely confess. The only hope I have is that he has a record to keep track of somewhere, a log book with all the names. If there are hundreds of names that Epione saw in his mind then it has to be written down somewhere. I glance back over and see that she is drumming the chair with her fingers, her eyes closed as if she is in great pain.
“How are you?”
Epione opens her eyes and turns to me. “Always lost, Gabe. You know?”
“I don’t, but I’d be happy to listen and try to understand,” I tell her.
Epione thinks on that for a moment. “Do you know what it feels like to lose control? I am sure that you do. To feel like your body is out of your command, that your thoughts run this way and that? It is like that but for my entire being, I think. Since I died. Since Nero’s power brought me back. It feels as though…” She struggles for the right words.
“You lost a piece of yourself?” I ask, unsure.
“No, that I lost something holding me back from living,” Epione says. “That living means being lost, all the time. That to be found… to be found is to be categorized is to be bound and restricted. I am no longer restricted but there’s so much of me that is out there.”
Actually, I somewhat do know this feeling. “Like… there are questions in you, and you’re afraid of answering them.”
“Afraid?” Epione asks. She dwells on that. She nods, which clashes with her disagreement: “No. Not afraid. I am, in fact, afraid that they have no answer. I would much rather they did.”
If it’s anything like what I went through, she’s got one particular thought in mind. “What’s the question you’re wanting the answer for?”
Epione hesitates, but then steels herself and goes on. “Am I a human, Gabe?”
I start. “A… what?”
“A person. A human being.”
“I… believe so?”
Epione closes her eyes. “My Affect… it does not look like yours. It never has. It looks much closer to the angel on Empyreal’s shoulder, like a white fire made diamond. But even mine is different from that, mine flows like water, too, and it feels like I can never hold onto it.”
The sun dawning in my meditation.
“I think, Epione, that whatever you are, human or not, you are special.” I reach a hand out for her to take, if she wants, and she does so with a ginger smile. “Don’t tell Bedevil I’m holding your hand.”
“Yes, she is the jealous type,” Epione replies. “I’ve often wondered if my autism had anything to do with… well, this feeling that I am not a person.”
“Do you think so?” I ask.
“No, not anymore. My autism is my neurology, but my Affect is my Affect. Though they are entwined, they are… different threads in the tapestry, if that makes sense.”
“It surprisingly does.”
A voice sounds over a speaker above us. Archimedes’ speaks over the New Foundation comms system. “Will the Inheritors please report to command?”
I glance at Epione, who shrugs.
Chaos waits for us in the command room. President Lucio Genz is in a fury, flanked by several bodyguards, two of his generals, and Mago. He aims his wrath at Archimedes and Oracle. “You were forbidden! Forbidden from interfering with delicate politics. I want to know why India is accusing us of a black ops attack on their power grid!”
Bedevil is here, too, and all the other Inheritors. Saw Off and Lugs approach us, and Saw Off leans into whisper into Epione’s ear. The two of them drift away from me, so I take up a stance behind Bedevil.
“We ordered the extraction of a clone of Megajoule,” Archimedes says. He sounds annoyed, but he’s holding himself back. We can’t spurn our host. “India was using him to power their grid, a fact which we think was hidden even from their government.”
“It was Doppelganger,” I tell him. “And I’m the one who went to India. I asked to go.”
President Genz restrains himself, though he glares at me and continues his lecture in a more calm manner. “I expected better from you, Aethon. You were the one who promised me you would play by my rules.”
Better to ask for forgiveness than permission. “Sir, they had one of my brothers working day and night to power their country in a prison. We’ve stumbled onto a political conspiracy that could upend the world order.”
“I don’t care what you upend, so long as it isn’t my economy. And right now, India is putting tariffs on us! I worked so hard to avoid it with the States.”
“When did they announce this?” I ask.
“Just today.” President Genz manages to compose himself. “They addressed you personally, Gabe.”
That makes my heart just about stop. “Huh?”
Archimedes reaches down and turns on one of the screens, and clicks on a link from the list that pops up. A video of a press conference in India starts to play. The Indian President, Shakti Nambisan, address the dozen reporters from behind a podium. I find it interesting that instead of the dry style of western politicians she wears a colorful dress.
“Based on video evidence, we believe that the Inheritors performed a black ops strike against our power grid. While we are on backup power, our eastern border patrols are working overtime to make up for the gaps in our defense against the Yuxia.”
One of the reporters asks in Hindi: “Madame President, is there any indication as to why?”
“We suspect that Argentina is unhappy with our recent alliance with the States, and wishes to weaken our position. I’ve urged the U.S. President to consider sanctions against Argentina, and we will be applying our own to their country. To President Genz, I say this. You must fix the damage your hounds have done to our nation, not only for us but for the other countries that we protect from the Yuxia. You must deliver the Inheritors, Aethon in particular, to be prosecuted for their crimes. Only then will we lift the sanctions.”
A softball question: “Are you worried about the popularity of the Inheritors?”
“Not at all. Justice is justice, regardless of celebrity.” President Nambisan stares right at the camera. “If you are watching, Gabe…”
Her face changes. Her expression darkens and her eyes narrow, and her voice is almost an octave lower when she speaks: “I’m so very disappointed in you, Gabe.”
Those words are not her own. The way she spoke, the inflection. It was Doppelganger who compelled her to speak.
The conference ends.
“Is that name on the list?” I ask Epione.
“It is now,” she answers, meaning that it wasn’t one of the names she saw before.
“She wants your head on a platter,” President Genz says. “Why shouldn’t I give it?”
“Because that’s a clone, sir,” I tell him. “Because the man that made me has compromised the Indian Government and possible every other government in the world, and he’s willing to show his hand to tell us the President of India is under his control. If we don’t stop him, you might get replaced. Archimedes, Oracle. Anyone. He’ll replace you with a version of you that will do as he says.”
President Genz balks at my speech, but then he looks at everyone else in the room and sees we are deadly serious. “Why don’t we announce this to the world?”
“We need proof,” Archimedes answers. He winces, and adds, “We used Cynic’s power to find out in the first place.”
President Genz leans on the stone table in the middle of command, as if a heavy burden rests on his shoulders. He is silent for a good moment and no one dares to interrupt his thought. Finally, he says, “Find the evidence. Absolve Argentina. Or I’m going to give them your head, Aethon, you understand.”
It’s better than nothing.