Other than a name and the warning that he’s uniting the Youxia, Lady-General Sal can’t offer me much on Warlord himself. She doesn’t know what he looks like or his powers, just that he’s powerful enough to get the Youxia to come together. However, she knows that his band is moving west — toward India, now vulnerable in the wake of what we’ve done.
Sal gives us that information and returns us to the White Shark so we can visit Doppelganger’s hideout, but asks us to wait and then takes her leave to speak with Remise for a little.
I don’t want to know how that conversation goes but I can’t imagine it will be any different than previously. I trust Sal not to kill Remise, and now I wonder if she even can. Her power is potent, sure, but the commands are resistable. Still, Sal doesn’t need her power to be persuasive.
We need allies for the coming war. Not with Warlord or the U.S. but the Fear. Can’t lose sight of that goal. The European Kingdoms would be a powerful ally. There’s also practical matters. Argentina is losing friends fast, thanks to us extracting Paul. Everyone is fine when we show up and kill upstart Cloaks, but the minute we do something meaningful that changes the landscape, they freak out.
“I feel a bit like the bull in the china shop,” I tell Mr. Gold and Linear while we wait for Sal and Remise to return.
“That’s because you are.” Mr. Gold, matter of fact as always. If he’s joking, fuck me if I know. “You’ve been that way since Houston.”
“We are,” Linear corrects. “We all stand together, now.”
Thanks for the back up, Linear. Still, I whistle at the prospect of a war with the Youxia. “Honestly, I’ve never really believed the Youxia existed outside of scary stories.” I believed that Eastern Asia had an extremely high population that meant a lot of heavyweight humans thrust into a situation that forced them to get good at killing and surviving, but that doesn’t make them gods.
Memory haunts Linear as he stares into empty space. He’s always a subdued person, but whatever he’s imagining brings him down to a low whisper. “They exist. I’ve seen footage. Nero’s fought a few.”
“Sure—” I start, but Linear interrupts me.
“I’ve seen dead things, Gabe. The Youxia are boogeymen, ghosts, and monsters, and most people that talk about them like that are just trying to scare you.” He turns his frightening gaze on me. “I’m not. I’m telling you that they exist and they are as dreadful as you imagine. If you thought Carnality was bad, imagine a thousand of her. Ten thousand.”
The ensuing silence strangles any reply I might have.
Mr. Gold speaks, confident and level as always. “After Buenos Aires. I’m only afraid of one thing. We can paint them as monsters all we want, but everyone of us has seen a real monster. The Youxia, this Warlord, they’re people. People can be killed, they can be fought, they can be negotiated with.”
Linear doesn’t look as sure. “We’ll see. Once we get back I’ll tell Archimedes. We’ll get some teams to look into it. Not Saw Off, she’d get herself killed.”
“Wish we had Empyreal around still,” Mr. Gold says. “The angel on his shoulder would be very useful for that.”
No one knows what happened to Empyreal after his capture. Part of me thinks he is dead, but Mr. Gold insists that Empyreal was being held at the Galveston Rogue’s Gallery, but when he helped spring the Underground, he couldn’t find the man or the angel. If going there wasn’t tantamount to declaring war, I’d investigate with Remise. “All these borders are like chains. These restrictions and factions.”
“The imperative of the tribe,” Linear muses. “Everyone’s just trying to survive their way.”
I see a bit of Doppelganger’s reasoning, now. Everyone trying to do things their way is why we’re vulnerable to the Fear. But forcefully uniting them would make us tyrants. Diplomacy is impotent. There’s no good way forward that doesn’t rock the boat.
Reminds me of Megajoule. Doc told me his own legacy swallowed him alive, along with his quest to save everyone from the Fear. The world has too many webs to untangle for that.
I suppose if I want to unite them, I’ll have to find another way. I could just… do what I do and hope that inspires people to follow after. Oracle once said that people would see my mad quest for a better world and follow me, someday. Right now it feels like they’re trying to stop me.
Remise and Sal return together, the other three ORDERS capes at their heels. Defeat isn’t a good look on Remise, but victory is on Sal. She wears a proud smirk, her hands on her hips as Remise practically retreats behind me.
“Well?” I ask.
“A conversation for a later date,” Sal says. “Remise will have to make a decision later.”
There’s no sign of what that decision might be on Remise’s face. Her natural smile, the joyous glint in her eyes, all replaced with indecision. A conversation for a later date. “Okay, then are we free to investigate?” I ask.
“Free? No. I’m going with you, as is Sir Tischer.” She gestures to a fleet of black SUVs parked outside the hangar and strides over, expecting us to follow.
While the car ride is silent and tense, Scotland is gorgeous. I stare out the window and wish I could walk around, and fly over the country. Bedevil would love it, she loves greenery and she loves hills, but it might be a bit cold for her. She loves sand and water, the warmth of a sunny beach. Her Affect, her happy place, was exactly that.
“What’s the problem with Russia?” Mr. Gold asks Sal.
Sal blows a raspberry, an unusually crass gesture that puts crack in my regal mental image of her. “Constantly prodding against the EK borders, constantly remarking on everyone’s ability to patrol the Hellpact. They send their supers to the showboat at the Ukrainian and Belarus borders about every month now.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Doppelganger’s property is about a half hour drive north of Glasgow, nestled under green hills. Nothing that really stands out, just another two story house with an acre or so of property. I’d say that it reminds me of the one he rented out while in Buenos Aires, save that it’s not in a giant city.
There are already three ORDERS capes standing by the door, and another SUV parked outside the house.
“I hope they’ve not confiscated any evidence,” Linear says.
“None that I’d tell you about,” Sal replies with another smirk. I can’t tell if it’s a joke.
We get out of the car, and Sal and Sir Tischer stride ahead of us to the door. At the threshold of the cottage, the Sir Tischer stops. He glances inside and runs his hands along the doorframe. “There’s rage here. A lot of it.”
He’s the empath. Holy shit.
Suddenly his body swells up, like Trainwreck back in Houston after taking a few punches. His veins glow with crimson energy. When he speaks, his voice is guttural and hoarse, as if he’s screamed for hours. “Too much rage.”
“A red band empath,” Linear says. “Interesting.”
One of the ORDERS capes comes up to Sal. He looks more like a street clothes detective than a cape. “We’ve already been through the house, nothing so far.”
Sal leads us in. The house is normal, set up in a very similar matter to his other town home. He has a style, I suppose, but considering his power of duplication it causes the hair on my arms to stand up. I worry for a moment that every safe house will look exactly like this one, that Doppelganger is playing a mind game on a level I can’t even comprehend.
Both Remise and Tischer hone in on the fireplace. “There’s a draft,” Remise says.
“Most of the rage is concentrated behind a false door,” Tischer agrees. “Someone was very angry here for a long time.”
Remise reaches down under the fireplace and pulls at a hidden lever. A mechanism pops and groans, and the entire fireplace swings on a hinge inward. “Voila!” Remise says, rising to her feet.
I don’t want to go in that room. Yet I soldier forward, the first to step into Doppelganger’s secret sanctum. I panic for a brief second, my heart stopping as I can’t see anything in the dark, but my hand falls on a light switch, which I flick.
Stairs, leading down into a hidden basement. I lift up into the air and glide down them to avoid making any sound on the old, creaky steps.
Webs clutter the ceiling and the furniture. There is a desk which bears a powered down computer and a spartan chair. Both pieces are lopsided and malformed, as if Doppelganger built them himself. There is a large stone slab in the middle of the room, large enough for about four people to sleep on it if they wanted. There are straps and chains for holding someone down.
I check for any markings in the walls or the floor, which would’ve been left behind if Kassandra brought him here, but there’s no signs she did.
Linear sits at the computer. He turns it on, waits for it to start up again. The machine whines and sputters as if this is the first time someone turned it on in years. Remise wrinkles her nose, but I can’t smell anything.
“Bleach,” she says.
“Bleach and fury.” Tischer shakes his head. “If this is your Doppelganger’s haven, then he sat in this room for a long time thinking foul thoughts.”
Mr. Gold drinks in the room in silence. He shakes his head. “Looks like a torture chamber, only without anything to torture someone with.”
Linear taps the top of the computer monitor. “There’s a camera. I’ll check his videos.” He digs through the documents and clicks through a few empty folders. “Nothing.”
Remise squirms under the desk, causing Linear to scoot back with an annoyed huff. “Not nothin’,” she says, climbing back up with a small flash drive.
There is only one video on the drive. My heart plays pots and pans as Linear clicks on it. I don’t want to watch it, as if watching it will propel me forward in a way that I can’t reverse, as if it will compel me to move and I will never be able to stop. I will it that the computer crashes, though we need the evidence.
And still, the video plays.
Doppelganger, six years ago. He stands in the very room we stand in, grinning like a madman at the camera. He has all of his fingers in the video, he’s missing a beard, but his face is still pocked with scars. In fact, they are fresh wounds in the video, reminding me of the claw marks on my face from Sledge the first few weeks I had them.
“This video…” His breathing comes in sputters, in erratic waves, and his voice wobbles through the tinny speakers. “This is for posterity. In case I die in the next few days… Cynic will find me. She’ll find this safehouse. It’s only a matter of time. If I do die, this will be evidence that she did it. If I am successful, I’ll end the video. If not, it will still be running when someone finds this.” That doesn’t sound like a solid plan but he’s clearly not sane at this moment.
Doppelganger turns from the camera and fumbles at the stone slab. The six of us in the room now shuffle from the slab, as if his ghost is passing through us and we are parting for him.
His words are slurred, tossed like a salad. “Her… her new intelligence group will find me soon, the boy Archimedes, barely a man, barely a man, but too smart for his own good. He’ll see it, someday, he’ll see it like I do. They all will. Archimedes, and that young girl Linear, they’ll find me.”
Linear starts. “Oh.”
No one comments on that for now.
Doppelganger holds up a pair of garden clippers. “They’ll find me. Whether or not it’s me, well, I’ll find out right now.” He puts his left pinky into the clippers. I want to look away. He grimaces, breathes in and out in panic, and then—
Doppelganger lets out an unholy shriek. The first cut does not remove his pinky. He screams and weeps, blood pours from his hand and onto the shears. His grip fails from the slickness and his trembling, but he picks them up and still I do not look away, I can’t look away! He cuts again, this time slicing his pinky off.
Like a proud craftsman, he holds the pinky up. “Ah… ah… harder than I thought. Harder than I thought. But I need more material than I’ve used before.”
He needs genetic samples for his cloning.
My god, he’s going to.
Doppelganger turns back to the table. Flesh explodes out from behind him like a fire, crawling over the table and shaping into a solid form. Bone juts, skin crawls, and a perfect replica of Doppelganger, naked, rests on the table. Doppelganger cackles. He turns around and grins for the camera. “Guess this me isn’t dying after all.”
The video ends.
“There’s some proof, then,” Sal says. “You’re right, he can flash clone people. Is there anything else on the drive?”
“It’s just one piece of the puzzle,” Linear says. He looks awkward and upset, given what Doppelganger said on the video. Linear a girl. I could chalk it up to insanity, but Linear’s reaction… was too deliberate. Too genuine.
“But you’re right. It’s proof enough to me that you’re telling the truth.” Sal nods to me. “Aethon, you’re welcome to keep searching in the EK for other safehouses. I assume you have a list. I want locations so I can put eyes on them.”
“We’ll get them to you,” I tell her. I bow slightly, enough to show her respect. “Thank you.”
“This is a danger to us all. If this man can do this to anyone…” Sal loses some of her regal bearing to fear. “Then we’re in trouble. The world is in trouble.”
I take the flash drive from the computer before anyone can object. “I need to talk to my people about this. We may want it for the case we’re building against Doppelganger.”
Sal considers that. After a moment, she nods. “Very well. Remise, I look forward to hearing your answer. The other car will return you to the hangar.” She leaves us. Sir Tischer nods to us and follows.
I sit down on the slab and stare at Linear. “Is this… true?”
Linear frowns. He doesn’t show any emotion beside that. “Yes. I’m trans.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “That’s no way for that to come out.” I understand the need to find an identity that fits you well, the need for people to see you as what you are.
Linear chews on his cheeks and leans against the chair so deep I worry he’ll tumble out of it. “Only Archimedes really knows about it. I don’t know how Doppelganger knew, because I was already presenting as male by the time Cynic hired me. Maybe Cynic told him, I don’t know.”
“The only problem is that video is pretty conclusive evidence about Doppelganger’s ability to flash clone people,” Mr. Gold says. “He said something about not having enough material beforehand to do something like this.”
Jesus, I don’t want to think about this. But, we’ve got to to talk about it. “Maybe he meant… Megajoule. We grew up like normal children. Maybe that was all he was capable of with strands of someone’s hair. That’s not as useful as instant duplication.”
Linear nods. “I don’t know a lot about the lab but that does sound right. I know that he had a reserve of Megajoule’s DNA in the form of hair and nail trimmings, but that was confiscated before his arrest.”
“Nero killed him?” I ask. “I mean, the clone we saw.”
“He killed someone, that’s for sure. He came back with Doppelganger’s head as proof, I believe.”
“Yikes,” Remise says.
There’s an unspoken question in the air. Do we use this video as proof?
I shake my head as if answering that question. “This only proves he has the power we already suspected him of having. There’s better proof waiting out there, I know it. We need a list of names, proof he’s controlling them. This video isn’t that. This video could damage Linear’s reputation, so I’d rather not use it if we don’t have to. We’ll find another way.”
Linear still frowns, but he nods and whispers, “Thank you, Gabe.”