The flight back takes an eternity. I’m anxious to return. I worry for Paul. For Bedevil. We weren’t able to get a message back to New Foundation, which scared me a little, but Linear offered up quite a few reasonable explanations as to why the comms would be down.
Remise shuffles through the White Shark without aim, a lost child searching for her parent or some figure of authority to rely on. Seeing none, she sits down next to me. “We might be stuck with Sal.”
“I’m guessing you worked out something?” I’m not sure why that would be bad news, but then again, Remise probably hates her guts. It might be good for us but not for her.
“Yeah. She wants to start paperwork on dual citizenship again. She’s gonna pardon me for whistleblowing.” Remise shakes her head. “I don’t know, Gabe. I said yes because I didn’t want you to get arrested and held for months on end by her.”
I scoff. No one’s ever been able to hold me for very long. I’ve got a lot of experience breaking out of prisons, even if I had a little help a few times.
Remise doesn’t find it amusing, though. She tsks me. “They aren’t OPI, Gabe. She isn’t Cynic. She’s at the height of her power, not the downswing. She would have held you, Linear, and Gold up for months if she had to. I wish you’d told me we were going there so we coulda planned for it.”
“I assumed Linear had.” That’s no excuse, so I shake my head. “Sorry, Remise. You’re right. We’re on the same team and I—”
Linear interrupts, shouting from the cockpit. “New Foundation!”
A huge column of smoke rises above Buenos Aires, a black curtain closing out a show we apparently missed. My body is cold, my heart scarcely beats, and I need Bedevil to be okay. I need her to be okay.
ARC 18: SOMETHING BORROWED
Bedevil is okay, at least, she isn’t harmed. She’s waiting for our White Shark in the hangar, which we land in after determining the smoke is from the courtyard and front entrance. She rushes to me and we embrace. I want to cry out and hold her, but I maintain composure. I force us to part. “What happened?”
Bedevil is a wreck, out of breath, and in between deep heaving, she tells us, “Doppelganger… replaced… Mago… took Paul. Killed… Lugs.”
If ever there was a time where I had no words, where I had no idea what to say, or think, or feel, it does not come close to this moment. The Fear terrifies me because it is an enemy species trying to wipe out humanity and feed on our emotions.
But Doppelganger… Doppelganger could replace every single one of us. I see it now at last and I am afraid for an entirely different reason. This threat comes from within us, like a cancer. The Fear roars and screams and destroys. They are the knife thrusting at us on the battlefield.
Doppelganger is the surgeon’s scalpel, inserted into our ear in the middle of our sleep.
The next few hours are touch and go. A lot of talking. A lot of words that I don’t hear. Bedevil stroking my arm. Lugs’ body in the morgue. Mago next to him. Meltdown, Maisa, and Oracle returning from Africa. Our debriefing, the revelation. Some flag director from the US who is swearing up and down to Archimedes and Bedevil that he’ll let us do something.
I process a few images, but my mind is blank.
I’m not sure when it is, but I find myself standing on my balcony. The sun is burning up the horizon and sinking into the ocean, and I remember how only a few days ago I brought my brother up into the sky to watch it a little bit longer. I thought if he saw how free I was that maybe he could become free himself.
I was naive. I am naive. I feel like a bull in a china shop. Somewhere across that crimson slate of sea India is without power and weakened to a threat crawling over the Himalayan Mountains. Warlord, who wants to challenge me personally. Lady-General Sal, who rules her kingdoms with an iron fist, wants us for an ally. The outbreak of cloaks. The US flags. Nero, wherever he is, lurking and waiting.
Funny how I can only think of Paul. When really I should be worried about this tangled web of politics, of superhumans trying to balance with each other.
“Gabe?” Bedevil asks, stepping onto the balcony. “Are you okay?”
I can’t answer her. I don’t know if I am okay. I don’t think I am okay. Not until Paul is safe again. “I think I need to be alone.”
Bedevil’s voice fades away, out of my perception. Her fingers graze upon my shoulder and then she is gone, as if I dreamed her. The apartment is cold and empty, it is dark.
I fly out to the beach and stand in the sand. The sea is inviting and kind and so I step into the water, up to my knees, soaking my jeans. How can I stop this man? He’s smarter than I am, by a long shot. He played us for fools, waited until our strongest people were gone and struck. He could be anywhere, replacing anyone. He has so many under his sway.
Did Megajoule ever have enemies like this? Or is this man solely mine?
I sigh and shake my head. Old thoughts. They rear their ugly head sometimes.
Sand crunches behind me, sudden, as if they flew and landed. At first I think Bedevil has followed me, but when I glance over my shoulder, I find Maisa coming to sit down next to me. “Hey.”
“Hey. How was Africa?” I ask.
“We were only there for five minutes.” Maisa pats my shoulder and offers me a frown. “I’m sorry, if I was here… I almost stayed to help Epione.”
“No point thinking like that,” I tell her. “We didn’t know he’d already started working us over.”
“Are you trying to tell me to take this well when you clearly aren’t?” Maisa tries to make that sound sarcastic, but neither of us can muster any humor.
We sit together in quiet for a bit, watching the day molt into night. After the sky turns purple and blue and dark, mixing with the smoke from New Foundation HQ like an ugly bruise, Maisa sets little balls of light on the surface of the water. The balls drift out with the tide like paper boats carrying candles, illuminating waves with their ghostly color.
“Do you want to train?” Maisa asks.
As she asks it, I realize hitting something really hard would make me feel better.
New Foundation HQ is quiet, too quiet. Nobody walks the halls outside of security — a small skeleton crew of soldiers and capes on loan from Argentina — and their numbers are dwindled from before. Someone told me Paul killed about five people on his way out, including Lugs. And Mago, poor Mago.
Bedevil told me they found his body, the original Mago, in a dumpster somewhere, with one of his fingers missing and his throat torn out. Mago, who called Bedevil and I lovebirds every day we helped with the restoration work a year ago. He helped run New Foundation, he was the cape Lucio Genz hand picked to be on the table with us.
I don’t know what his death means for us, now.
Paul’s exit left a hall completely caved in, a couple of fissures in the central lobby, and a broken pillar by the entrance. The cloned Mago sabotaged the energy field barrier and the radio array while we were out, from what I heard.
My hopes of hitting something really hard are dashed when we make it to the training facility under HQ. Saw Off sits in the middle of the room. Shotgun scatter patterns scar the walls. She cries and swallows more shells, but doesn’t seem interested in firing more off.
I motion for Maisa to stay as I enter the training room. “Saw Off?”
Saw Off snaps her head at me, surprised by my entrance. She is a ghoul, utterly destroyed and lifeless, her eyes red and her cheeks splotchy. She crawls to her hands and knees, starts to shamble toward me, and then stands. “It’s not right, it’s not right.”
The sight of her breaks my heart. “What do you mean?”
“Lugs… Mil-dot… Vaquero…” Saw Off barks and holds her hands out like a bad magician. “I’m all that’s left of my stupid little shitty mask group. I lost them all following you around.”
God damn, what do I say to that?
“I lost everything, every friend I’ve ever had.” Saw Off wipes at her eyes. She walks up to me and, to my shock, presses her forehead against my chest. “I gave y’all everything, Gabe, I gave y’all all I had and what did I get back?”
I hug her.
Saw Off squeaks. She wraps her arms around my back and starts sobbing, and goes limp. She clings to me, desperate. She weeps. “My Lugs, my Lugs, my Lugs.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper back.
“I did so much for y’all,” Saw Off cries.
“I know, I know.”
She mumbles something that I can’t quite make out, but she pulls away from our embrace. I’ve never seen Saw Off weep. Cry maybe, shed a few tears, but I’ve always thought of her as unflappable. At the very least, she’d have a joke ready, or some remark, or an innuendo. There’s nothing on her lips now but spittle and snot, and a mumbled refrain of her friends’ names.
“I can’t every pay you back,” I tell her.
Saw Off sinks to her knees. I worry that she’ll retch onto the floor, but she just bows, a woman in prayer. “I can’t… I need to go. I need to go somewhere, Gabe, somewhere not here.”
“We can find you a way back into the States, if you want to move back to Houston.”
Saw Off laughs and wipes her eyes. She climbs back to her feet, looking a bit of her self. “Nah. Just a few days. A dingy hotel is fine. Somewhere I can drink and fuck.”
I nod. That’s a reasonable request… I think.
“Your… Your girl. Epione.” Saw Off grabs my chin and makes sure I’m staring her in the eyes. She’s not smiling or laughing or anything, she is deadly serious.
“Aren’t you her friend?”
“Not… not anymore,” Saw Off replies. “Y’all don’t understand what you’ve got with her.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t… Lugs hadn’t even started to bleed before she used that ring to drain him for power, she didn’t know he was dead, she didn’t even wait for his back to hit the floor.” Saw Off’s expression is twisted by the memory. She scowls and lets me go. “It was inhuman.”
Inhuman. And not two days ago Epione was asking me if she was a human.
“She was trying to protect you,” I tell her.
Saw Off hisses and swats at me like I’m a third grader and she’s my teacher. “Bull shit! Bull shit. She used us. She forced Tremble to use her power and she drained Lugs of blood. It ain’t no better than your clone daddy. He’s going around using people, and if that’s what you’re scared of, you need to sit down and have a good long talk with your Epione.”
There’s terror in Saw Off’s eyes, something I’ve never seen in her before. Genuine hate.
She blames Epione for Lugs’ death. And who knows? I wasn’t there. I don’t know if what she’s saying is true or if it was colored by the awful memory.
“My dingy hotel,” Saw Off repeats. “You’re gonna hand pick me some beautiful people, too.”
“I’m not gonna hire you any prostitutes,” I tell her.
“Nah, just tell him free sex and…” Saw Off winces. “Maybe a touch a drugs. Are we allowed to have drugs?”
“I’ll remind Archimedes to not test you when you come back,” I say. “Provided… that you are coming back.”
Saw Off doesn’t immediately answer me. I think she really doesn’t know if she’s going to come back or not. After a couple of seconds, she nods. “Yeah. I’ll be back. Just a few days. Drinking and fucking. And forgetting. Forgetting’s most important.”