6.20.2

Fate conspires to separate Epione, Flashfire, and I from convening in our waking hours: Flashfire is sent out on a small errand to Montevideo across the Rio de La Plata, to resolve an issue with a mask vigilante group the authorities want captured. Epione is never alone, constantly having Templar and Bedevil over her shoulders while she pretends — with the fake ring she gave Archimedes in the place of Cynic’s — to read the cloned security woman’s mind.

Of course, whoever snapped the ring knows we kept it. How, I don’t know. But that means they have an empath or deduced that we’d kept the ring.

I’ve no idea how we’re going to do this without Cynic’s power. I can’t even believe it’s gone; we’ve had the trump card for over a year now and to have it ripped out of our hands when we need it most, well, doesn’t that just feel like God spitting in your face?

Given that it’s Sunday, I visit Longinus’ church, hoping for answers. I find only platitudes. The man or his father. “Bad shit happens, Gabe, and not even God can tell you why. Sure makes him look good, doesn’t it, though!” That’s all I got for my trouble.

There’s no way for me to know if Doppelgänger replaced Longinus, no tick that betrays him. I don’t know him well enough to know whether he’s different, anyway.

It’s almost like I’m reading a book every time I approach someone, thinking that if I stare hard enough, if my eyes are like a hawk’s, then I’ll find the misspelled word that gives the game away. But if there is a wrong word or a sour phrase to find, my eyes are too dull.

Alone, or perhaps just lonely even when surrounded by people, I return to New Foundation in the hopes that maybe God or fate or whatever is guiding these events will drop some morsel of hope in my lap.

The staff and capes of New Foundation dance around, puppeteered by some purpose I’m unaware of as I enter the lobby. The mystery is revealed when I find the nearest TV: Argentina and a coalition of South American nations have declared war on the States. No mention of the proof about Doppelgänger’s influence, though. No mention of Paul or his slavery. In fact, the media is destitute of any mention of clones at all.

Of course, the horrific news — or, it should be to me, anyway, but I’m having a hard time feeling much of anything at this moment — spreads across the world, blazing it, and I can’t help but wonder if Megajoule would be ashamed of me. I resurrected the organization that launched his career to try and help the world, and I’ve only brought it more war and more pain. I’m a broken cafeteria worker slopping suffering onto plates with a dead smile.

A revelation: this must be Doppelgänger’s plan. Spur us into war. But why?

I thought Doppel would be worried about India, seeing as he had the most estates there and he’d helped engineer their power grid. When he stole his battery back, why didn’t he return Paul immediately? Why hide him in North America where we could get at him with a little grease on the wheels of bureaucracy?

Because Doppelgänger never intended to return him.

Shit, shit, shit. An entire continent at war, an eastern superpower tottering on the edge of falling as the Warlord comes over the Himalayan mountains — there’s a few stories about that on the news, sightings and raids into Indian towns, but no proper battle between Youxia and India’s capes yet.

How do I stop this? How do I pick up the pieces? I’m no longer afraid of questions, but still a bit afraid of the answers.

One more book to read today, one more attempt at finding a wrong word. Squirming away from the crowd in the lobby, away from the monitors walling me in with their stream of news, I creep my way to Archimedes’ offices.

Archimedes keeps an expansive lab on the second floor of New Foundation HQ, a collection of labyrinthine workshops filled to the brim with empty soda cans, some crushed and some not, some even still half full, and the ruin of a creative yet impatient mind. Litter of all species covers the floor. The furniture has no rhyme or reason; see here that this desk has no chair, see here that this chair doesn’t appear to be designed for a human but an ostrich.

I find Archimedes hiding behind a metal shielding panel, staring through a tinted window and black lensed goggles at a glove resting on a table, hooked up by way of cables to a car battery. That he shields his eyes means something bad, I’m sure. “Is it going to radiate any particles?” I can’t draw those in, so I need to make sure.

“Just a shit ton of heat and light,” Archimedes says. “I’m trying to get that glove of yours working again. Without Nero to study, it’s slow going.”

“Can’t you just copy his power?” I ask.

“No, no, I need to see it in action. It’s strange, it’s like when I study someone’s power I get this charge, and I spend it when I make something. Close your eyes.”

Brightness and heat won’t bother me. I figured out a while ago I could stare right at bright lights and absorb the energy of the photons hitting my retinas. The world looks a bit dimmer for a second as I do so, but I’m not blinded when the glove shoots a bolt of energy into the ceiling. Unfortunately, the blast reduces the glove to a puddle of steaming goo.

“Nice.” Archimedes kicks his metal panel, a toddler having a tantrum, but his voice is calm. “How are you doing about Remise?”

Right, Remise. God, it’s shitty, but with not-Bedevil I’ve barely had time to think about her. We’ve got a few minutes of audio from after Nero and the Setting Suns captured her, and it seems like they didn’t want to kill her — but how can I even trust that those people are real, not plants from Doppelgänger?

God, how do I know that Nero hasn’t been replaced?

No, I’m falling into despair. I need to cut this shit out and refocus. “Why are we going to war with the States, Remise aside?”

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” Archimedes says. “I tried to argue with Genz about it. But Remise complicates things. Nero being a flag complicates things even more. And finally the trifecta of fuckery is complete with the fact that the States have been hiring mercenary cloaks to destabilize the nations still in the UWC.”

“What a fucking mess,” I say. “How did we get tangled in all this?”

“The world’s a spider’s web, Gabe. Why are you here?” Archimedes takes off his goggles, lumbering up off his seat like the gruff giant he is. The beard still unkempt, the hair still untamed, the bags in his eyes as deep as the day I met him. What a haggard man running our organization.

But I see in his eyes a sympathy. He wonders, too.

I want to open my mouth and bring him into our conspiracy, to invite him to the dream, but without Epione I can’t confirm if he’s a clone or not. Maybe he isn’t, given he’s not for war with the States, or maybe he’s a voice of reason planted by Doppelgänger.

“I don’t want to be a part of this war,” I tell him.

“Then don’t. Stay here. Argentina has an army, so do the other countries. They’ve got government capes that can fight the flags.” Archimedes places his hand on the table, hisses when he touches the metal, apparently having forgotten it was blazing hot from the glove. I could have told him, but… I don’t know, I just didn’t. “Damn this thing. This stupid glove. I thought I was supposed to die before my gear started breaking down.”

That does make me wonder: “Are you ever surprised you’re still alive? Don’t people try to assassinate people with tech powers?”

“I just love talking about my death, don’t you?”

“I’m serious.”

Archimedes snaps his fingers. “I actually almost got a knife back in my OPI days, during the Syrian thing. I was still churning out those bullets.” The man speaks of his near-death as if it were a day in a park. “Not sure who or how, but someone got a cape within a room of me, a guy that could do wonders with a knife, apparently. Cynic determined he’d been sent by Kassandra, meant to finish me off before my bullets could tear her army apart. If she had… I wonder what that would have changed, you know?”

“I’d be on a leash.” Though, saying that, I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t end up on one anyway. “Bedevil mentioned you’d… well, you kinda had took it hard.”

A close cousin to a frown appears beneath his beard, a twist of his lips and nose that betray his regret. I know regret and I know how to carry it, but something in Archimedes’ stance tells me that he doesn’t bring his sorry out of the closet often enough to wear it well. “Maybe that’s why the glove isn’t working.”

“Do our suits not count?” I ask.

“Those are for protection, even if you sometimes happen to use them to kill someone,” Archimedes answers. “The more and more I try to turn my mind on a weapon, a thing made only for death, I just find a void in my Affect.” He pauses for a long beat, shallowly breathing as he composes his thoughts. “And I have to say, it’s a relief, really. If it costs me a little power, well, I’ll pay it.”

I totter again on the edge of telling him about the clones. I come so close to inviting him to our dream room, to bring his brilliance to plan with us. A goldsouled tech genius on our side.

But again, I say nothing.

I can’t bring myself to trust him.

“Oh, one more thing,” Archimedes says. He gets up from his table and rummages through one pile among his many, and brings me back a laptop. I recognize the relic — my old laptop, the one I thought I’d lost after Cynic raided the Bay Biter’s hideout but that Archimedes had recovered. The one with Megajoule’s videos on it. “I decoded some of those files you mentioned this weekend. The videos from Megajoule. I swear I only watched four of them, scout’s honor.”

I try to manage the tremor of excitement in my hands as I take the laptop. I clutch it to my chest, and though it isn’t on, the computer spreads warmth throughout my chest. It isn’t that I’m overly sentimental about the laptop or the videos, but Doc gave me this laptop.

“What took you so long?”

Archimedes shrugs, though I can hardly find his attitude annoying. Not after he gave me this gift. “I’ve been busy. You know, masterminding a cape org, navigating delicate politics. Trying to pick up the pieces of china shop that you bulldoze through. You know, the works. I had some free time this weekend and I remembered it, so be grateful.”

I grin, though I don’t know if I can trust it. “I am grateful. Really.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Archimedes shrugs again and turns back to his pile of goo. “You know how you could repay me? Tell Genz to get off my back about the Archimedes Bullets.”

“He wants more? I ask.

“Of course he does. Everyone wants more. The bullet that beats super resistance. Of course, useless against telekinesis and kinetic absorption, and against Carnality, and Nero, and against anyone that matters. But damn does it kill people good. Primum, masks, regular Joe Soldier. Those are the people it kills best.” Archimedes sits up, scratches his beard, and adds, “I want you to go tell Genz he can fuck himself if he wants to use them.”

I imagine that would go over as well if I just smashed him in the face with a brick, but I nod. “I’ll try and word it more diplomatically.”

“Don’t bother.”

I take the laptop back to my apartment, the highway of my mind jammed with traffic. I thought that I’d want to pop the laptop open immediately, rush it out, watch every last video for wisdom… but what would Megajoule say to me that could help me with this? What could he say? Nothing, nothing, empty platitudes like Longinus. I hide the laptop in my closet, somewhere I think not-Bedevil won’t look — wedged underneath a suitcase we’ve never used.

I get a text from not-Bedevil. Templar, Oracle, and I are meeting with Genz soon. I’ll be in later tonight. Love you, baby, to the stars.

I shouldn’t leave her on read. I swallow my disgust:

I love you, too. Can’t wait for you to come home. I’ll walk the dogs.

Nausea, but I manage to send the text.

After I handle the chores, Maisa returns from her training, tells me that she’s started patrolling with Echo and the rest of Saw Off’s team. She says they’re looking for Remise. So much is happening, so many different plots, and I can’t keep up with it. I’m exhausted just talking with Archimedes and trying to text not-Bedevil.

Still, I thank her for telling me. Before I retreat to my room, she asks me, “Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” I manage. “Just… still a little shaken about Paul, you know?”

Maisa frowns in her way, and a chilling thought comes with that frown: what if this isn’t Maisa? What if I’m the only original in this apartment? What if my fucking dogs and cats were taken out from under my nose?

“You sure you’re okay?” Maisa asks.

I mumble “yes,” too many times and shut my bedroom door.

I am asleep within seconds of lying down. Thankfully, I do not dream but instead drift through an endless sea of black, but not ink like the Fear. It is an incandescent darkness. I want to stay, sheltered in the warmth, but a hand rips through the dream-cloth and pulls me out.

I arrive in Epione’s dream-room, the perfect replica of her living room in Houston. She and Flashfire sit on the couch together, and Kassandra sits on the loveseat.

But there is another, slouching in the remaining chair, his head leaned over the back of his seat, He throws me a grin like scraps at a dog. “Hey, Gabe.”

Tim Prince, Pandahead.

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