My fury turns sand to glass.
The sea hisses and retreats as vapor from me. The sky shimmers, the great firmament of the heavens wavering around me. A scream breaks through the roaring wind. It is my own, born of my rage and my sorrow.
Her name joins the melting rock and the steaming water.
A wave rises up and powers through the heat I’m putting off. The ocean marches forward, unnaturally, and quenches my rage. I seep the heat I’ve gathered out into the water on a boiling path deep into the ocean. The water cracks the glass foundation I have built, sweeping shards that still glow away toward the rising sun.
Epione stands at the edge of my ruined scrap of beach, her hand outstretched, a ring glowing with copper fire on her finger. Beside her, Flashfire watches me with a frown.
If she brought him, it means he isn’t a clone.
I float over my destruction to meet them. I’m sure I look a wreck, because as I get closer, Flashfire opens his mouth to say something but then clenches his jaw.
I must know he is real. I grab his shoulders, his neck, his face. “You’re not one of his?”
“No,” he answers, clasping my arm with both of his hands. “I’m the O.G. A simple look and anyone with two cents would know I’m a hardcore player from the streets.”
No energy to laugh, just enough for a half-hearted smirk. I glance at Epione, waiting for her to agree with him.
“He’s real,” Epione says. “I can vouch for that.”
Doubt fills me, though. How can I even trust Epione? How can I trust anyone else at all? My own marriage, my own bed, the body I shared with Ruby — violated. The thought threatens to drag me back to Home Run, to the days of Houston.
Epione reads me well. “I’m real, too.”
“How do I know that?” I ask her. “How can you prove this isn’t just an elaborate trap from Doppelgänger?”
Epione alights her fingers on my shoulder. “Close your eyes.”
“So you can stab me?” I ask.
Epione gives me a polite smile.
I do as she asks.
“Breathe,” she tells me.
I breathe in.
I breathe in.
“Good. Calm. Recognize what you are feeling.” Epione’s words do not come from across the universe. They seem to well up from within me, from within my skull to my ears. “If you have any thoughts—”
“Too many.” I exhale.
I try, I swear I try. I breathe in.
Then I feel it. Light on the edge of my darkness. A sun shining through closed curtains I don’t have the strength to open.
It’s Epione. Doppelgänger could not replicate that light. At least, I hope not. If he could we are all fucked.
I open my eyes.
“Okay. You’re real. You’re both real.” I’m much calmer thanks to Epione’s forced meditation. “And you didn’t stab me, so there’s that.”
“There he is.” Flashfire grins and claps me on the back. “My bulletproof bro.”
Epione glances at him. Her smile falters for a moment like a light flickering, but stays alight.
“I know this is… not ideal for any of us,” I say. “But we’re all we can trust right now. Epione, is there anyway you can find out if Bedevil is alive? Take me to her like you brought her to my mind?”
Epione shakes her head.
My heart falls, I know what that means—
“It’s not that, Gabe. It’s that… the only people I’ve ever had that kind of connection with… is you two.” Epione points at both Flashfire and myself.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Flashfire asks, looking a bit betrayed.
“Nothing like that.” Epione frowns, though she doesn’t aim it at him. “You’re the only two I’ve ever really trusted. You’re the only two that know what I really am. Not just the empath, but that I’m autistic, too. You know me in a way no one else does… and you trust me when no one else does.”
“What about Remise?” I ask.
“Remise doesn’t trust me. Not after the Second Ward.” The memory hurts her, clearly. Not only because of Remise, but it’s the night she lost her love, too. “You two are it. You’re the only people I can find in all the world, the only people I can trust. The only people who trust me.”
I’m not sure how to take this revelation. Neither is Flashfire — stunned speechless aside from a whispered, “Ep…”
Epione’s expression flattens again. She soldiers on. “But that means the only way I can find out if someone is a clone is by exploring their Affect or reading their mind. The first requires I touch them and requires they know I am searching their soul. The second does not.” She holds her hand out and displays all four of her rings. “As long as I have Cynic’s power, we should be able to determine who’s been replaced.”
“Do you know about anyone else?” Flashfire asks.
Epione hesitates, just enough for me to know who she’ll say. “I’m… really sorry, Flash.”
She doesn’t have to say it. Flashfire almost crumples right there. I keep him up by putting his arm around my shoulders and let him sink into me.
“So Meltdown, too?” I ask. “Who else?”
“I don’t know. I’m… I missed this, Gabe. This is on me.”
“No, it’s on all of us.” I’m in so much pain. But if I keep moving forward, if I keep my hands full and busy, then I won’t notice. “I was too busy chasing after Paul and forcing everyone else to fight my battle. I got led by the nose. You missed it because of me.”
Epione doesn’t want to agree with me, that much is clear from her frown. But she nods.
“He’s right about me. I’m a bull in a china shop. My friends paid the price for my crusade. Even Bedevil.” I thought that fighting Doppelgänger head on and toppling his reign would make a better world. I saw him in the way and I decided to shove through him.
The unstoppable force met the immovable object. And the problem with that scenario is there is no such thing as an unstoppable force. Just a force that hasn’t met the object it couldn’t move.
Or the force hasn’t found the right angle to move the object.
“I can’t stop trying to fight him. I promise you that when I find the rock he hides under I will turn that rock into atoms. I will not draw it out or make him suffer or any of that. I will make sure that he dies not even knowing what hit him. So what we’re going to do is wait.”
“Wait?” Flashfire snarls. “Wait for what?!” He shakes against me, trembling from the overwhelming emotions. “There is some other woman holding Jamie, she… she… she even… last night we…”
I catch his eye and stare him down. He needs someone to be strong and I need to be strong right now. “Do you want her back?”
He nods, unable to meet my gaze. He doesn’t stop trembling, but it is lessened.
“Then we need to find out where they went.”
“How do we know they’re even still alive?” he asks.
“We don’t.” There’s no sugarcoating that one. “But if they are, how will we find them if we show our hand now?”
“You want to watch them?” Epione ponders the idea, her face falling so flat I can’t tell if she’s on board.
“We can’t just jump up and say we know there are clones. They’ll deny, they’ll scatter. We wait until we know everyone he’s taken. No exceptions.” I look down at Epione’s ring and notice they are all identical. The only time they look different is when she calls on the powers within. The rings glow with the same color fire as the Affects of those stored within. “Can Archimedes sense different Affects without any devices?”
Epione shakes her head.
“Good. He’s going to ask for Cynic’s ring back, so he can put it under lock and key. Probably sooner rather than later. We don’t know if we can trust him until you read his mind. And in the hand off that might not be enough time to dig through his memories, am I right?”
“You’re right.” Epione realizes what I’m getting at. “You want me to give him one of the other rings?”
Her polite smile returns, looking a little more devilish than usual. “Good plan.”
“And once we know, we round them up and we find out where Doppelgänger keeps his bed, where he took Bedevil and Meltdown and the others, and then I will wipe him from the face of the earth.”
That declaration rekindles Flashfire’s spirits. It stokes a fire in Epione’s eyes, and it reignites my will.
“We need a method for communicating,” Flashfire says. “Something we know we can trust. A code phrase.”
“You can visit our Affects, right?” I ask Epione. “Our dreams? You’ll always be able to relay messages that way.”
“I can. Each night I will bring us to one dream and we can discuss everything freely. We don’t speak a word out loud. If we have to…” She struggles, trying to come up with some signal.
Flashfire nods in agreement. He holds out his right hand. “If we need to communicate, we use hand signals, something subtle.” He taps his left arm while with his right hand, but tucks his pinky in. “It means ‘cell leader’ in the UWC tactical infantry signals.”
“We can use those to communicate. They have a ton of different ones, don’t they?” I ask.
Flashfire spends the next thirty minutes going over the basics. We learn the subtle hand signals for enemy, retreat, rally, and disperse. Enemy for if we think we’re being observed. Retreat if we’re being followed and are in immediate danger. Rally if we need to gather.
Disperse if all this is a lost cause and we need to bug out for good.
That’s our last resort.
I’m completely out of my depth. I don’t know how to play cloak and dagger.
At least it’s a plan.
We return to New Foundation with the flimsy protection of our hand signals and our resolve to act the part. I hate this, I hate all of it. I know when I walk into that building, when I go back to my apartment, this impostor will be waiting for me. Pretending she is my wife while undermining everything I’ve worked for.
She’ll want to spend time together. She’ll want to kiss.
She’ll want sex. At least she’ll pretend she does, for Doppelgänger’s mission.
This woman, she is not Bedevil. If I’m consistent about what I believe about clones, she’s her own person. Another woman. I shove the thought away that I’ve slept with another woman, that I had been—
Not a word I wanted to use, even if it was true.
But she’s as much a victim in this. She’s a slave, she can’t resist his commands. Not unless Epione can change her mind. She did it with Paul but she failed with the security woman, so there’s no guarantee she can repeat her success. We can’t do it without tipping our hand, anyway, so it has to wait.
Waiting. It’s the hardest thing I will ever have to do. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.
If I want Ruby back, the real Ruby, then I’ll have to find the strength. Or else I blow up my only lead.
The three of us skulk underneath the golden statue in the grand pavilion of New Foundation. The words engraved above the entrance — BUSCAR A LOS ALTRUISTAS — no longer comfort me. They seem written by alien, malevolent hands, meant to mock rather than to uplift.
Too many people fill the New Foundation lobby and the burden of their attention rests on my shoulders. For a second it feels like all of them glare at us, as if we are the replaced.
Archimedes emerges from the crowd of people, who continue about their business after marking our arrival. “Gabe, Epione, good. We’ve got a meeting.” He beckons us to follow him.
I nod to Flashfire and show him the signal for enemy. He nods back and heads toward the apartments. God, into her apartment, I bet. He gave up his space to move in with her.
The command room is full of people, most of whom I recognize.
Oracle converses quietly with President Genz at the head of the table, who is accompanied by an Argentinian woman roughly my age in a UWC officer’s uniform. I’m surprised that the uniform still exists at all. Templar, Maisa, and Mr. Gold are here.
Not-Meltdown and Not-Bedevil, too. She grins at me as I enter.
The one good thing about my life: I’ve learned to act the part. I mouth, I love you.
She mouths it back.
There’s a man I don’t recognize sitting next to her. He’s a tall, strange looking man, a scarecrow of a human really. I mouth at Not-Bedevil, Who is that?
ORDERS, she mouths back.
“Ah, good,” President Genz says, motioning for Epione and I to take our seats. I look back and find that Epione is returning one of her rings to Archimedes, who places it in a safebox. He raises an eyebrow at her having all four together but doesn’t press her.
He closes the lid on our swap.
I take my seat next to Not-Bedevil, struggling not to yell, to cry out that I know the truth. I thought that wouldn’t be difficult, but when I am so close to her, when the skin of my arm is inches from the skin of hers, revulsion overwhelms me. This is not my wife.
“Very well done, Gabe,” President Genz says, staring at me. I can’t help but feel like he’s stared too long. “The evidence we’ve confirmed through Kassandra’s testimony is good enough to get us off the chopping block, but it’s not enough for us to claim definitive proof. We can’t persuade India to drop sanctions.”
“With the Warlord breaking through the mountains, they have bigger concerns anyway,” Templar says.
“So do the flags.” Not-Bedevil stands up and taps on the table, bringing up a series of photographs of people I don’t know. “We’ve gathered that they’re behind the outbreak of cloaks in South America, and we’ve put Remise on observing a meet up between a mercenary group called the Setting Suns and flags. If we gather the right evidence, it’ll be grounds for war.”
“And Argentina is more than happy to answer that,” President Genz says. “Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru are all with us. The flags are split between assisting India and quelling some internal issues. The nations of the UWC demand vengeance and justice. The States have bullied us, and it’s time to stand our ground.”
I glance at Epione. She can’t use the ring here without attracting attention. We have to plan our moments just right. But God I wish she could tell me if President Genz is lying straight to our faces. If this is even President Genz.
The tall thin man from ORDERS says, “Director-General Tomas offers her support of New Foundation, as well, based off the good faith that Aethon showed her in Scotland.” His voice is sonorous, musical, so mismatched with his gaunt appearance.
“I don’t think we met while I was there, though,” I tell him.
“No, we didn’t. I’m from Italy,” he replies.
His English accent is very good. Too good. But I don’t say anything. I nod and smile. “Pleasure to meet you, Sir…”
“Sir Bellamy,” he finishes for me.
“Sir Bellamy,” I agree, though I know it is a lie now. He’s not from ORDERS.
Or maybe I’m just mind-fucked from Doppelganger.
The meeting goes on, random bits of business from around the world. The woman in the UWC uniform is from Genz’ office, his replacement for Mago on New Foundation command. She goes by Dana Romero, but we’re only to call her Romero.
The most disheartening thing is that they aren’t releasing the names yet. The reasoning makes sense — it’s nothing concrete yet — but at the same time I can’t help but think it’s a ploy to keep us from getting the information out.
The meeting breaks. I want to run away immediately.
Not-Bedevil grabs my hand, stopping me from escaping. She smiles at me and I’ve never wanted to knock someone’s teeth out more. It’s all so wrong because that smile would fool me any other time. “I want to go walk on the beach.”
We make our getaway. All the while my stomach turns, my head swims, and my heart pounds. I can’t help but think she’s drawing me away so that the others like her can take over and kill everyone inside.
Or she’s just so good at playing the part she really does want to go on a walk to the beach.
We take Pawpaw and Isabelle with us and let them roam free on the sand. Not-Bedevil holds my hand as we stroll with our bare feet kicking through the water. I kick into the sand a little with each step, tossing up little mounds with my heel, because I need to hit something.
“Why are you stomping so hard?” Not-Bedevil asks. She catches my eyes, puts her hand on my cheek. A play at intimacy.
Isabelle comes up and plays around my feet, yipping and barking for me to pick her up. I smile at Not-Bedevil and at my dog, and I pick her up to let her lick my face. The distraction is welcome. “No reason, just felt like making a mess.”
And then I notice Pawpaw.
He is a few hundred feet down the beach. As still as a statue, he watches Not-Bedevil, his eyes cold.
I try to ignore it so as not to give the game away.
Not-Bedevil squeezes my hand. “Have you thought anymore about what I asked? About… you know?”
Then it hits me.
What would I do if I’d replaced his wife? If I had the same capabilities.
I’d ensure he was good and attached to her. Erode his agency. Compromise him emotionally with her existence.
Volume 6 will begin on June 7th.