Epione turned her meditation room into an examination room. The zen garden she trampled over for a gurney restraining a young woman wearing one of our security uniforms. The girl rants and raves, wriggles under the grasp of the leather restraints.
Archimedes and Linear stand at the doorway, barring me from entering. Archimedes glances over his shoulder at me and nods to look, but does not let me past him.
Epione approaches us, sweating and heaving like she just exercised. A horrendous scream tears from the woman’s lips. “FATHER!”
Bedevil was right. Fucked up family dynamic. But I’ve decided that doesn’t make Paul any less my brother. We’re brothers the same way all the clones of Megajoule were my brothers. Not because of who made us, but because of the blood we share from Megajoule.
This woman here — she isn’t my sister.
“Can you free her?” Archimedes asks.
“I don’t know,” Epione says. “I’m tired. I need something to drink and eat.”
Archimedes nods to Linear, and the two of them hustle off. “Don’t do anything stupid, Gabe.”
Stupid. There’s that word again. He’s not wrong, I do have a tendency to get stupid when I get emotional, to charge in and hope that I can handle whatever comes my way. For the most part that’s worked out for my personal safety, and I do have a tendency to fail upwards.
But Drone. But Lugs. But Mil-dot and Vaquero and the Bay Biters and Asperity and everyone that I’ve hurt. They pay the price when I get stupid. Eventually I’ll run out of people to pay that price, if I don’t first.
I sigh. Bedevil was right.
That doesn’t mean I can’t go after Paul, but it does mean I need to get smart.
Epione hasn’t said a word to me. She leans against the door, breathing heavy, and wipes her brow.
“You okay?” I ask.
Epione nods and breathes some more, exhausted in a way I’ve never seen her. I offer my arm and she takes it, clinging to me as I guide her to the bench outside the meditation room. She catches her breath while I study the second clone Doppelgänger left us.
The cloned woman is just a young security officer, perhaps a little severe but that might also be because she’s strapped into the gurney. Nothing remarkable about her compared to every other security officer Archimedes hired in from the Argentinian military. Nothing out of the ordinary, which is why Doppelgänger probably chose her.
“It’s… I don’t know how to free her,” Epione says, once she’s composed herself. “I don’t know if it’s because Doppelgänger changes the Affect in some way that I can’t undo, as in it’s just a part of their Affect, or…”
“But people can change their Affect.”
“They can, but think about what it took for you. Think about all the fighting and the effort just to understand you made yourself different from Megajoule.” Epione sighs again, still wiping at her brow.
There’s something strange about seeing her covered in sweat and unable to breathe. She’s an oddity, like seeing a celebrity using the bathroom, or a president taking a smoke break. So humble and so… well, maybe that answers Saw Off’s accusation.
I don’t know if that’s a conversation worth having, so I’d rather talk to her about something else. “Ruby and I got into a fight.”
That startles Epione out of her stupor. “What?”
“Over Paul. She was right, I’m being a dumbass. But I want to find a way to save him. To stop Doppelgänger once and for all, you know? Yet waiting… waiting grates on me. Every moment I wait it feels like Doppelgänger takes another person and Paul gets another lash. Every moment we wait…”
“Is another child Pandahead hurts. I remember.” Epione stares through the wall and beyond, to a time when we had no idea what the world was like. All our troubles were from us sticking our noses where they didn’t belong. “You were like this even back then.”
“I was, wasn’t I?” Even though times were tough, Houston’s memory warms me. I hope Krater is happy there, I hope the city is fine. “Still, we’ve… well, we had those tense times in Houston when we were still figuring each other out… but never a full fight.”
“Fights happen, Gabe. You should expect them and be ready for them.” Epione stands up. “Even Flashfire and I fought. Probably more than some couples because I am so particular.”
I never know what to expect from Epione, when she so casually talks about her past with Flashfire like that. Other times when I ask her, it nearly reduces her to tears. “Yeah, I know. Just rattled me is all.”
“Take your time, dear. Think it through. It’s you and her versus the problem, not each other.” Epione pats me on the shoulder, just as Archimedes and Linear return with her requested meal and a bottle of water. She tears into their offerings and drains the bottle in ten seconds.
Part of me wants to stay and watch. Part of me wants to know what it takes to save my fellow clones. But gawking at Epione while she fiddles with someone’s soul won’t make her do it any faster, and like she said…
It’s Ruby and me versus the problem.
She’s still in our apartment, playing guitar in a cuddle pile of all her cats and our two dogs. My entrance interrupts her song so she ends on a strangled, off tune chord before I can say a word. We stare at each other as her sour chord hangs in the air, and suddenly she starts banging away on the guitar and throws her head back and wails like she’s in a bad opera, and I’m laughing, I’m laughing, I can’t stop. I fall to my knees I’m laughing so hard.
She finds me a moment later, laughing herself and pecking my face with rapid fire kisses until I realize that couched within my laughter are tears.
We sit against the couch and hold each other for a while.
“I guess this means the wedding isn’t off?” Bedevil asks me.
“Oh, fuck off, we had one fight.”
“We’re having a fight,” she says, a bit glum.
“Well, you’re the one who brought work home.”
“We literally live in a superhero headquarters, Gabe. I don’t know what you want me to do about that.” Bedevil snickers and curls into me. “But, yeah, no, I don’t think we should fight about work in our apartment. If we do, we do it in the command room.”
“But what if we fuck in the command room?” I ask.
Bedevil gasps and slaps my face playfully, and pretends to look scandalized. “There’s cameras!”
“Doesn’t that make it hotter?”
“I knew you were an exhibitionist.”
“Well, the harness I ordered seemed to work wonders the other night…”
Bedevil giggles and blushes, and hugs me. “When you left… I thought… you seemed mad. Really mad.”
“I was. Am. Not gonna lie. But… Epione gave me some good advice. It’s you and me versus the problem.”
Bedevil leans away from me, staring into my eyes with a little half smirk at my newfound wisdom.
“Do you ever worry… I don’t know, how this looks?” I point at her and me, meaning the both of us. “Given, you know, you were in love with your boss?”
“It was a celebrity crush,” Bedevil says, a bit softer. The memory is painful. “And yeah, I worry about it all the time. I don’t even need to imagine it, people talk about it in the news. You know we’re a newsworthy couple, right?”
“Well, that’s because you’re beautiful.” I boop her on the nose.
Bedevil snatches my finger with her telekinesis and waggles it around. “But really, we are. I worry about how we look. What image we’re presenting. People are judgey, Gabe, they form up into tribes and get mad at each other. The grinding of those groups… the friction of their politics and their different needs… That’s why we’re ripe breeding ground for the Fear.”
“You really went on a rabbit trail.”
“I know, it’s just been on my mind. What Doppelgänger said about the world. If… if what he was doing wasn’t evil, Gabe, if it wasn’t so obviously unethical and wrong, I really couldn’t blame him for wanting to save the world and doing it to the best of his ability.”
Bedevil climbs to her knees, thoughtful. I simply watch her while she collects her thoughts, because I want to see where this tangent will lead her.
“Taking out the top people and replacing them with more agreeable, friendly versions of themselves. It’s inspired. Replace a cog within someone, a bolt that’s screwed loose or something like that.”
I see what she’s getting at. “Oracle said that the world would follow me in my pursuit of a better world. I don’t know if I can inspire people like she thinks I can. But Doppelgänger for sure could save the world, couldn’t he? If his plan worked. He could make humanity immune to the Fear, a collected and united humanity.”
“Would they still be humanity, though? Or just some biological machine designed to defeat the Fear?” Bedevil asks.
I don’t know the answer to that. “Since we’re not going to talk shop in the apartment, let’s go to the command room. Let’s figure out how we’re going to tackle this and let’s do it smart.”
A moment later and we’re in the command room, just the two of us. Bedevil brings me to one of the monitors and begins cycling through images of a gorgeous two story house on a mountainside, overlooking a coast. “That’s where Doppelgänger went. We’ve used a couple of Drone’s old designs on silent flying cameras and, with Director Lancer’s permission, have scouted out the property we know belongs to Doppelgänger.”
The images remind me of Parlor, how wrong that went. We’ve got to be more careful. No underestimating, no false starts. We had a great plan the first time around but Pandahead turned out far more ruthless than we expected.
Then again, he’s imprisoned in our basement.
“As far as we can tell, Doppelgänger hasn’t left the house since he fled Argentina. He went straight there with Kassandra. He does seem to have a basement, so we don’t know if he’s using some method of underground travel. Kassandra also extracted Paul and returned with him just this morning.” She clicks through images of the house from the outside, showing pictures of Doppelgänger, Kassandra, and Paul walking around the house.
“No defenses? No guards?”
“None besides Kassandra and now Paul, but he may feel confident in us not coming to the States. I don’t know if he knows about Director Lancer but if he’s smart, he’s expecting us,” Bedevil says.
“He’s expecting us. Templar says he might have the power to inflict degenerative conditions on people.” I point at the image of Kassandra. “We need to remove her, first. Her and Paul. Epione’s trying to figure out a way to change the clones’ Affect so they won’t be brainwashed.”
“Gabe,” Bedevil asks, slowly, “What if they can’t be changed? Or what if, Epione removes the brainwashing… and Paul genuinely wants to serve his father?”
That’s a tough one to chew on. I grimace, thinking about the possibility, but it’s true. You can’t always save someone the way you want to save them. “Then he’s our enemy.”
“I’m sorry,” Bedevil says.
“Don’t be.” I’m not going to be dumb about this. I’m not going to lose to Doppelgänger by being too emotional. He wants me to see the clones as brothers and sisters, and since he views them as machinery, he has the advantage in that scenario. But he’s wrong about that. They aren’t my family, but they are people.
People can surprise you.
“One thing,” I tell Bedevil. “Paul is my brother. I know what you said, but that doesn’t change that. We share a real father.”
Bedevil nods after a moment. Little compromises, I suppose. I know she’d want me to be dispassionate but I’m not going to compromise that. Because he’s not just a clone, not just a piece of machinery. He’s his own person, and trying to deny that he’s my brother… that’s playing into Doppelgänger’s hands, too.
“If we can’t save him by getting him away from Doppelgänger or changing his Affect, we save him the only way left. We give him the mercy of death.” I turn to Bedevil. “Gather the Inheritors, Templar, Archimedes, and Linear. We don’t have to go today, but let’s start planning our attack.”