5.18.5

Can’t say I’m surprised he knew we’d attack, though I’m a little off put he knew exactly when. This collision had gravity.

“We’re on our way, less than two minutes,” Bedevil says over the comms. The shrill cry of the White Shark’s engines sound over the valley. Her and Templar are the backup.

Doppelgänger stares at me, a shepherd smiling at his lost lamb. His grin wrinkles his face, his dark eyes, and even his brow. There’s something… off about his smile. Not just what I know about him now, but it doesn’t look quite human. I remember Templar’s remark that he could alter genetics.

“Gabe, would you like something to eat?” he calls. The windows are thin enough to hear through. “I bet you’re hungry. Paul, let our guests in.”

“Not another step,” I respond, pointing my bat at Paul through the window.

“Gabe, the world needs us to work together. It is in chaos and disarray and you and I could fix it.” Doppelgänger clasps his hands and bows his head as if in prayer, begging me. His voice breaks but it’s a mechanical, purposeful squeak, engineered to elicit pity. “We can save the world from the Fear, Gabe! The only way is we change people. If we don’t, then we’ll never be ready.”

Epione grabs my arm. “There’s someone else in the basement, I can sense their Affect.”

I heft my bat and fill it with kinetic energy from the heat around me. I can’t kill Doppelgänger — we need him alive — but damn I’m going to enjoy him resisting arrest. “No monologues.” I rush forward, smashing through the wall with my fist.

Debris and glass. Fire and lightning. “Stop him!” Doppelgänger shouts. Wood splinters arcing through the air. I stare Paul down as he rushes through the storm, his skin vibrating and his eyes glowing. Electricity arcs from his fingers toward me in a deadly lance. I only just stop it with a kinetically frozen shield of air.

Paul shoves through my shield, inside my reach as I try to swing my bat — only to wound, to disable, not to kill or injure — and lays his hands on me. A wave of kinetic energy flows into me. I contest with my power, wrestling it back. We are two tidal waves of force crashing into each other.

Except he’s got more power. He pushes me back, inching me toward the window again.

Lightning explodes overhead, not from Paul, but from Meltdown rushing in through the main door, Mr. Gold at her heels. Paul absorbs the electricity but caught between the two of us he relents enough for me to push him back.

“Heads up!” Epione says over the comms.

An actual tidal wave crashes through the windows, so I root myself in place and absorb the energy of the impact as the water smashes through the house. Epione waves her hands, guiding tendrils of water to grab at Doppelgänger, Paul, and Kassandra. Her hydrokinesis ring glows on her right hand.

I rush for Doppelgänger. If we apprehend him then this is over. The objective is to extract him, and while I want to save Paul, that’s secondary.

I’m not the only one going for Doppelgänger. Mr. Gold’s chain whips and ensnares the man, pulling him away from me before I can snatch him. I glance around to make sure Paul and Kassandra aren’t about to blindside me; Paul struggles in the water and Kassandra duels with Remise, who’s smashed through the living room window with Maisa.

We’ve got the upper hand!

Mr. Gold whips Doppelgänger out the front door with his chain, and I can just make out Doppelgänger shouting: “Gabe! Please stop this fighting and listen to me!” His cries are cut off as Mr. Gold flies upward. I warp through the hallway, over the flood surging through the house, and back out into the Californian evening.

I try to touch down but someone slams into my back before I can start flying upward, and we roll down the driveway. The steep angle of the driveway, which slopes down the mountainside, keeps us rolling until I gain my hand and drink in gravity’s pull with my power.

“I don’t want to hurt you!” my own voice comes from behind me. Paul. “Just let us go, Gabe!”

“Paul, we can help you!” I wrench myself free of him, scraping my fingers on the concrete as I stand up. We both hobble to our feet, both drawing in energy but hesitant to make the first move. “Run from this fight, run and we’ll find you, we’ll take you back to New Foundation.”

“So I can kill more of your friends when he comes and makes me?” Paul asks. “Please just go, Gabe, so you don’t get hurt!”

I want to tell him that I won’t be hurt, that it will be okay. I want to find the words that will somehow drive out Doppelgänger’s influence from his brain, like so many others did for me when I was possessed by the Fear. I can’t promise him either of those things, but I can promise him this: “I would suffer any wound if it meant I could free you.”

Paul’s face twists in agony. Tears spill down his cheeks. He reaches out as if to take my hand.

Behind him, up the driveway, Mr. Gold and Doppelgänger swing around each other in above the house. Doppelgänger shrieks out and clutches at his necklace, and his body crunches in on itself.

Doppelgänger’s flesh melts free of the chains and reforms as if he’s made of putty. Feathers, antlers, and claws explode out as he takes on an entirely new form. Wings unfold, a mouth full of jagged teeth opens, and Doppelgänger takes flight into the sky. “Cog! You are powerless!”

Paul’s eyes glaze over. He rushes me, swinging his fists in wild arcs, and no longer does he restrain himself to kinetic energy. Tendrils of plasma and lightning arc from his fists, crashing into my conjured air shield. I step back and give him ground before he incinerates me. I can’t approach him as normal, but if I go all out and try to kill him… I don’t want to do that yet. I promised Bedevil and the others I’d kill Paul if it came down to it but we’re not there yet.

Paul challenges me on that principle with bolts of lightning, with sprays of energy tightly bound into a thick plasma I can’t do anything about. I dance around him in a tight circle, trying to find the right angle to disable him. He’s not that skilled at fighting. If I maneuvered enough energy I could overload him, probably, but no single hit of mine would be strong enough to take him down.

For me, this is a battle of a thousand cuts, while all he needs is one good hit.

I get to work.

I launch into the air, vaulting above a barrage of electricity, and glide down behind him, clipping him hard with my bat in his shoulder. Gunfire and a shriek that sounds like it came from a nightmare somewhere behind us, at the house. Can’t worry about that now. Hold until Bedevil and Templar get here for the extraction.

Paul swings a wild haymaker, his fist crackling with enough power to light up a building. He almost catches me with the punch, but glances off another of my air shields. I slip into his reach and smash him with my bat, hoping he’ll drink the energy and avoid a fatal injury. He does — but not perfectly. He spits up blood.

Electricity arcs along my bat but stops short of the handle. He stares at it for a second, blinking in confusion. “Insulating rubber,” I tell him.

He snarls. Paul isn’t at the steering wheel right now, only Cog.

I retreat away as he unleashes a torrent that would fry me alive. Javelins that would make Zeus envious rip through the air, dissolving against the driveway pavement, and I realize it at last: he’s missing. He’s missing on purpose.

Paul is in there.

A golden knife soars past me and clatters to the ground, cast off from Mr. Gold’s battle with Doppelgänger. I grab it, intent on finding a way to put Paul out of commission. I come up with a plan — bury the knife in his foot and nail him to the driveway.

More gunfire and another scream — this one from Remise. Over the comms, she says, “There’s another Doppelgänger! And he’s a big old fucking monster!”

I take a dive of faith and charge right at Paul, praying that I am right about him missing me on purpose, but conjuring a shield of air if I’m not.

He lobs another lance of plasma at me.

Too high.

Thanks, Paul.

I warp into his personal space, dive to my knees, and jam the knife through his shoe with a burst of power. I fill the tip of the knife with energy so it punctures through the pavement. I jump up and shove Paul. He’s in too much pain to stop me, and falls onto his back.

“Stay down,” I tell him. “I’ll stop Doppelgänger once and for all.”

I take flight, aiming for Mr. Gold and Doppelgänger dueling above the house. Can’t worry about the duplicate in the house, right now. The rest of the team is competent, they can handle it, but Mr. Gold is alone and he’s already not looking good. His armor has multiple lacerations, but he doesn’t seem to be bleeding. He pants over the comms. “Could use some help!” He waves his hands and a half a dozen golden knives revolve around his body in a protective barrier.

“Here it is.” I smash into the Doppelbird, bat first. I clip his wings, sending him sprawling to the roof of the house below us. Mr. Gold follows up with a hail of his golden daggers. They pierce through the Doppelbird’s feathers. The beast screeches. All too human eyes tear up and it opens the wolf’s maw to speak.

“Gabe! Please, we don’t have to fight! We can stop this, we can sit down and talk, and we can save the world!”

The White Shark’s engines roar over the nearby mountain. I don’t want to negotiate with him, but stalling him so Templar can arrive is something I can do. Maybe she can shift him back to a human. I glance at Mr. Gold, who glances back at me. He pulls his gun but doesn’t shoot, deferring to me.

I bite on Doppelbird’s ceasefire. “We can talk. But you know I can’t agree to the way you want to do things. I can’t agree to clones and slaves.”

“You want to save the world but you don’t want to change people.” The Doppelbird folds its wings in and hops around the roof, shaking the knives from its skin. “Your way only ends in misery, Gabe. Please, come see reason.”

“Your way… you don’t even see them as human!” I shout. “People aren’t people to you, they’re just bits of machinery!”

“Isn’t the world a machine? It is meant to fight the Fear, Gabe, but it is malfunctioning.” The Doppelbird spreads its wings, drops to leap into the air. Looks like the talking is over. “Must I show you the way, you insolent child?”

“You’ve already shown me!” I launch down to meet him.

The Doppelbird opens its mouth and begins to sing in a loud, operatic voice: “Kassandra! La donna è mobile! Qual piuma al vento!”

The earth rumbles and shakes.

Before I make it to him, the roof caves in. The house is breaking apart. No, not just the house, the entire world is falling to pieces. Huge rifts open in the driveway and the mountain. I try to find Mr. Gold or Paul, but before I can I fall into the collapsing house with the Doppelbird. We hang in the air for a brief moment while I gain my bearings, and the Doppelbird takes advantage, tackling me upward.

Feathers and fur surround me, stifling me, crushing me. A claw grazes my exposed cheek, the only part of my body that is exposed, and a shock wave runs from the tip of my skin to my spine. My vision blurs, sounds pierce my ears like blades, the texture of my suit scrapes at my skin.

I smash my bat into the Doppelbird, sending him flying into the night. Meltdown launches from the rubble to greet him. She conjures a huge, booming pillar of electricity from her armor, so bright that it blinds me momentarily. When I can see again, all that is left of the Doppelbird is a charred corpse.

Except I can’t see very well at all. Each second the world grows more milky, more opaque. Doppelgänger altered something in my senses. Templar’s warning leaps back to mind: he can alter the genetics of his clones.

I pray that Templar can undo it while I stumble free of the rubble.

The whine of the White Shark flying overhead drives a pick into my ears, so loud that I adjust my ear piece to block out sound over a certain decibel rating.

Bedevil cries out somewhere to my left: “Gabe! Over here!”

I fly to her. I need someone to fix my sight, I can barely see. I can’t even make her out at all, anymore, but I hear her voice calling to me. I chase her.

I slam face first into a wall.

No, not a wall. A chest.

A claw pinches down on my wrist and wrenches me off my feet. I can make out Doppelgänger’s face cowled by a red-black shell of chitin, his eyes gleaming in the dark like cat eyes. In Bedevil’s voice, he says, “I can help you, Gabe.”

 

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