Doppelganger lifts me by my wrist, dangling me until my feet can’t touch the ground anymore. He grins, the only thing I can see, the last thing I see before the world turns gray and cold. His words — in Bedevil’s voice — hammer against my eardrums.
“You’re a vain and arrogant child! You don’t want to do things my way, but you refuse to see the damage you’re doing? Do you think brawling with other superhumans is the way to your better world? Do you think that acting like a bull in a china shop will bring peace?”
I can’t see, can barely hear and smell, but I can still feel. I feel it all as Doppelganger slams me into the ground, again and again, grinding the fight out of me with each blow. I fight back by kicking at his chitinous armor but the sensory disorder he saddled me with makes concentrating a herculean feat. Summoning my power through the fugue is near impossible. All I can do is stay alive.
“You need correction! You need discipline!” Doppelganger lifts me up so I am inches from his face. “You need me! You need your fath—”
A blinding light and clap of thunder cuts him off mid-sentence. I can’t see, but it must be Meltdown come back to save me.
Except that Doppelganger shouts: “Cog! You are powerless!”
And the beautiful answer, so clear and ringing even though the sound pinches the inside of my head: “My name isn’t Cog! It’s Paul! P for Powerful, A for Able, U for Unique, and L for Loved!” With his declaration there is another gong of thunder, another flash of lightning, and then a third volley. Paul turns the massive reservoir of power I felt in him on his father.
If I could say anything, if I could move at all, I would cheer. I feel Paul’s triumph, though I’ve no idea how he made it out of Doppelganger’s compulsion.
Tendrils pull me from the fight and hands wrap around my neck, one maimed and one whole. I know these hands and I sink into their owner, feeling her murmur, “I’m here, Gabe. I’m here.” I know it’s Ruby, this time.
Then someone else lays their hands on me. The pain of every sense screaming at me recedes, and my vision returns. Templar and Bedevil stare down at me. “You’re okay,” Templar says. “He laid something nasty on you.”
“You were right about him manipulating disorders.” I fight to my feet. Doppelganger bruised my body, but he did not break it. Lightning and fire explodes out from a deep trench carving through the house and the driveway. Doppelganger climbs up from the rift, but Paul isn’t the only one fighting him now. Maisa, Meltdown, and Epione rush in with their powers on full display. Mr. Gold is right behind them, swarmed by his golden daggers.
I glance at Bedevil. She glances back, and nods.
Time to go to work.
We jump together into the fray.
Now that I have my vision back, I see the full monstrosity of Doppelganger’s transformation. He stands taller than me by at least a foot and a half. Red chitin and gray hide covers his body like armor. Both his hands end in huge lobster claws.
He roars, swinging his arms wildly, and then he sings the same song as earlier. The one that activated that earthquake. This time, the soil doesn’t hear his song. The only ones who hear it are those of us climbing into the crevice with him, joining the fight led by my brother.
Paul is beautiful, strong, and free. He hammers Doppelganger with the energies he can control. Heat, kinetic, lightning, others that I can’t detect. Each blow craters chitin, blackens or burns the hide. I realize how much he was holding back while fighting me.
I join him, kneeing Doppelganger in the face with a burst of power. The blow nearly sprawls him, allowing Paul and I a chance to acknowledge each other.
We share a grin as brothers.
The man who made us both rebounds and charges, his arms scraping the sides of the crevice. Light and electric blasts bounce off the chitinous armor, but slowing Doppelganger down even more. Bedevil flies in over us; one of Doppelganger’s legs breaks, buckling in at the knee like an invisible club hit him. Remise tangles him in her claw cables.
Paul and I bounce into the action together. We rain fire on him and he replies in kind. My suit vibrates and glows, my skin starts to shine from the accumulated energy.
Doppelganger fights with ferocity. But he’s losing. He’s inhumanly tough from whatever genetics he’s used to modify himself, but he isn’t invincible.
Doppelganger smashes his claws into the walls of the rift, stirring clouds of dust. I cough and fall back, losing sight of Paul. Doppelganger’s shadow looms in the cloud.
I hear Paul cry out. Another blinding flash of light and thunder that shows Doppelganger hobbling toward me, fleeing from the other Inheritors behind him. I gather energy in my fist, hold my ground, waiting until he is almost upon me.
Until it’s too late for him to change his course.
I punch him so hard the chitin of his chest collapses inward with a loud pop. Doppelganger crumples, gasping for air, and his body shrinks. In ten seconds he is back to normal size, back to the diminutive, unremarkable man I met not two weeks ago.
He reaches up to grab at my cheek.
With a superheated hand, I slice through his wrist. Then the other, just to be safe. “I’m guessing you need your hands. Every time you used your powers, you had to touch them.”
“Astute,” Doppelganger replies, coughing from the dust. I wave it away so he can breathe, though it doesn’t help much. His ribs are broken, he wheezes. His cough is wet with blood.
“Not so stupid, am I?”
“Ah, but you’ve made an error,” he says. “You came looking for me with all your best. But you’ve left New Foundation unprotected. Who is there but Archimedes, Linear, and Oracle? You sent Saw Off away to rest, you’ve got no one there.”
I have no interest in showing my hand yet. “I’ve got you.”
Doppelganger laughs. He flails his arms as if he’s trying to grab the collar of my jacket. His stumps rub against my suit. “You don’t get it, do you? You’ve got me… but you don’t have father.”
And the truth is confirmed. I had a feeling that Doppelganger wasn’t here. When the second one came out from the basement, I knew the real Doppelganger, the original, was nowhere near this hideout. I’d hoped he was dumb enough to actually try to talk sense into me himself.
The clone’s grin fades. He makes a puzzled expression, and then says, “You know.”
“I do know,” I answer. “And I didn’t leave New Foundation unguarded.”
Saw Off found the dingiest, cheapest motel in Buenos Aires that she could find. The building was a sad excuse, more fit to house crackheads than anyone else. Which meant for her it was perfect. She’d built up some connections, could probably score a little crack herself. At least some molly or something. Something good. If not that, pot and whiskey.
She returned to the motel after making a food run with a greasy bag of fast food. She trudged up the stairs, each one taking more effort than the last, and found the room she was staying in.
Only when she got there, Echo was waiting for her on the bed, having shuffled aside the cans of beer and ash trays that still reeked of weed so she could even sit down. “Christ, Saw Off, I can’t imagine what this place was like before you got it.”
“Mostly the same,” Saw Off said, closing the door behind her. “Had to clear out someone else’s trash so I could fill it with my own. Gabe didn’t send you here to fuck me, did he?” She admitted she thought Echo was cute, but Remise made it clear that if Saw Off put her paws on Echo, she’d draw back nubs.
“No, he sent me to recruit you, actually.”
Saw Off flipped Echo off. “I’m on sabbatical. A vacation. A god damn mental health day.”
“You can have that, but we’ve got a bit of work to do with your team first. You see, I’m joining you as of today.” Echo stood up with a prim little smirk, smoothing out her black skirt once she was on her feet. “Gabe gave us a mission. He thinks that Doppelganger’s been watching and is trying to lead them to California as a distraction.”
“Yeah, I bet that’s what he did.” Saw Off opened her bag and fished a few fries out, intent at least on getting one horrible meal in before she was whisked back to headquarters. She’d already laid her vacation to rest. “You think he’s gonna hit us again?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Echo said. “Wouldn’t you?”
“I mean, I ain’t Gabe’s clone daddy. But yeah, it’s what I’d do. Distract and hit them where it hurts.” Saw Off didn’t really like all this high level cape business. World ending plots and conspiracies were not her domain.
“So, you come with me, we protect New Foundation from what he sends our way with your team, and then you take your mental health day. Can you do that?” Echo asks.
Saw Off thought about it. She thought about it good and hard. She munched on her fries, staring at the empty cans of beer, the empty bottles of liquor, and thought that she hadn’t drank or smoked nearly enough yet. She wanted to say no, to tell Echo to leave her be. It was only right after Vaquero, Mil-dot, and Lugs. Only right after everything she gave. So much she wondered how she’d ever give anymore to Gabe and his vision.
But at night, sometimes, whether she was alone or some stranger slept next to her, the one thing that always guaranteed some sleep was that bright future Gabe inspired. She’d drift off with a little smile, thinking about a world that didn’t need capes, masks, or cloaks anymore. Where everyone was good and free from fear.
She found that she had a little more to give. “Yeah, alright.”
The cloned Doppelganger laughs again. “And here I thought you were stupid.” He shakes his head in disbelief, and the last thing on his lips is a little smirk. He dies, broken from the fight. It’s not the real Doppelganger but damn it feels good to watch him go.
“Gabe!” Bedevil calls. “Is it safe?”
“It’s done,” I reply. I make my way through the cloud of dust carefully. I search for Paul, worry mounting when I don’t hear him calling out for me. I hear Remise, Mr. Gold, Meltdown, Maisa, but no Paul. “Can someone clear the dust?”
Large swaths start to disappear as Bedevil’s tendrils sweep through them. I search for Paul. I pray.
I find my brother resting against the wall of the rift, sitting up like he’s just relaxing there from a long day of work.
A huge gash in his throat. Blood stains his shirt. He stares at nothing.
No, no, this is… this is not… he’s not dead. He’s not. I smile and laugh at him, trying to meet his eyes, trying not to break down right here.
An entire conversation with him plays out in my imagination. I ask him what he’ll do now that he’s free and he replies that he wants to join me but first he wants to see the world that he’s missed out on. He wants to see mountains and rivers, he wants to see everything. He wants to kiss someone. He wants to see Disney World.
I laugh as if we’re having that conversation, and I imagine his smile.
Except that I do not have to imagine.
He is dead, and he died smiling.