6.20.4

Lucky that not-Bedevil won’t be back until late. I get on some night-stalking clothes, my old leather jacket from Houston, and hit the pavement. Well, more like hit the sky above the pavement, but same difference.

Buenos Aires downtown is both familiar and strange. Superficially it shares many of the same details as Houston. Big skyscrapers, concrete hodge podge, neon lights, a lot of people. But even after being here for a year, I still find it hard to navigate. A building I think I recognize misguides me, leading me far astray from where I wanted to go. An intersection beckons me along the wrong path. A packed avenue, lit up like day, slices downtown in half.

I feel the urge to go down there and travel the old way, the Houston way. The Home Run way. Bounce on rooftops, dance above alleys.

Simpler to fly, and still exhilarating, but not quite in the same way.

Maybe I yearn for simpler days. Maybe I yearn for an actual place to exist, rather than feeling like I exist in too many places. I’m receding back to old thoughts, the feeling of being a ghost. But rather than feeling like I’m nowhere, now I am everywhere. Because the world needs me to be. They need Aethon like they needed Megajoule.

But what do I need? Beyond finding Ruby again. Beyond beating Doppel. I don’t know the answer. I thought saving the world is the answer but it turns out that task is too complex for one person. I know, fucking duh, but that naivety got me through Cynic and Rorschach.

It’s just not helping me here.

Saw Off made herself the queen of her dingy motel by blowing her entire month’s salary on renting the rooms for what I was led to believe was a “nonstop party.” But this little kingdom she built herself is withered and silent. One story of quiet rooms, bathed in shadows. The sign is dead. The office lights are on but no one’s manning the desk, it seems.

Now that feels a lot like Houston.

Epione appears out of the shadow in such sudden fashion that at first I wonder if she’s picked up a new power. No, this is an old ability, cultivated from gentle politeness, from sharing a home with parents that hated her, from trying to make herself seem as a little as possible. She is also wearing a bit of her old mask costume, the dark black outfit. Her disembodied head bobs toward me, wearing her polite smile. “Evening, stranger.”

I smile, mostly because I need to smile. “Is she alone?”

“She is. She’s in this room,” Epione says. “How do you want to approach this?”

“Oh, I dunno, just ask her point blank if she’s a clone, I think.” I grin at Epione. “I think that would work only on Saw Off.”

Epione titters.

“Maybe we just force our way in and you check her?” I ask.

“I think that will work best. If she fires off any shots, you can take them.”

“I’d feel better if it wasn’t point blank, but sure.” I knock on the door.

Saw Off groans inside.

I knock again.

“MINUTE,” she shouts. “Jus’ a minute. A minute.”

“You’re late on payment,” I growl, trying to sound like a pudgy motel owner. Not sure that I nail the impression but I hear movement inside the room. After a few seconds, the door opens, and Saw Off’s face wedges into the gap, blinking at Epione and me.

“Gabe? Ep?”

“Sorry about this,” I say, and shove the door open with a burst of kinetic energy. The girl yelps and falls back, while Epione dashes in behind me, muttering, “Dearest apologies.”

Saw Off starts to scream but I warp down and put my hand over her mouth, and tell her, “Listen, we have to make sure you’re you. I know that seems insane but just let Epione check you.”

Saw Off, instead of screaming or biting or shooting shotgun blasts from her nose, raises her eyebrows like that’s the most insane thing she’s ever heard. It probably is, not gonna lie.

She settles down and goes limp. While Epione checks her Affect, I check the room; dozens of beer cans, a couple of empty handles of liquor, ashtrays with pot in them, used condoms. Just about every vice someone could indulge in short of hard drugs, and I wouldn’t put it past her to have some hidden.

After a couple of minutes, Epione opens her eyes. “She’s the original. If we trust Tim Prince.”

I let my hand up from her mouth, and Saw Off begins a tirade as soon as she’s free. “What the fuck is wrong with you two?!”

I don’t have words to respond. I’m so overwhelmed to know she’s safe that I wrap her in a bear hug. The embrace stuns her. “Gabe? What’s wrong?” She hugs me back. “Gabe Babe, are you okay?”

Gabe Babe. Ah, the old familiar words. Saw Off started it but Bedevil used them to keep me separated from Megajoule in her head. The memory draws tears to my eyes, chokes me up. I release Saw Off from the hug.

She’s staring at me, wide-eyed and flabbergasted. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Doppelgänger,” I manage, swallowing the knot in my throat. “He took a lot of people. He took more than we thought.” And I explain the entire story to her, from how Doppelgänger fooled us into focusing on Paul while he had his way with New Foundation, to his plan to cause massive instability. We tell her who we know has been cloned (Meltdown and Bedevil, at which Saw Off gasps and grabs my arm, and says, “Sorry, sorry, holy shit.”) and who we suspect (Archimedes and Genz being our top suspects, but everyone is fair game), and who we know is safe (Kassandra, Flashfire, and Tim Prince).

“Damn.”

We’ve devolved into a pseudo-cuddle pile, my head on Saw Off’s lap, Epione’s hand on my shoulder. I don’t know if Ruby would be mad at me about that, but I really need genuine human touch right this second, from people I know I’ve known.

“And you’ve got no idea where he took Bedevil?” Saw Off asks. “Or how he ghosted them or anything?”

“No,” I tell her. “We’ve got Kassandra spying on people. But I’m worried I’ll be ordered to go fight the flags soon. Or not-Bedevil will want…” I shudder. “She’s pressed me for a kid. Like, a baby. Right now. The worst thing is that Ruby wanted… wants… kids. So I would never have suspected if Epione hadn’t told me. I’d be having a child with this impostor.”

Epione starts as if to say something, but then closes her mouth. Her hesitance surprises me. She usually speaks her mind, or at least finds some polite way to say what she wants.

“Man, if I were you, I’d get fuckin’ hammered.” Saw Off doesn’t laugh or grin or perform any of her usual crass expressions. She strokes my hair. “This is some shit we’re in.”

We’re interrupted by a buzzing sound that resembles a transformer going bad outside. The cutting drone hurts my teeth for two heartbeats and then fades away to humming.

“What the—” Saw Off starts, but Epione hushes her.

“Three Affects outside. They just appeared out of nowhere. Silver.”

I peek out the blinds. A portal stands, wrapped by electricity like someone laced blue thread around the hole in the world, and through it walk two men — Mr. Gold and the one I recognize as Sir Bellamy from ORDERS. A short, African man holds the portal open with his hands woven into the electricity. He nods to his two companions, and the portal folds in on itself. As it closes I try to find some clue as to the location, but all I make out is a cement wall.

“A portal,” I tell Saw Off and Epione. Now his seeming omnipresence makes sense. That’s how Doppelgänger ghosted people from under our nose. He has a teleporter capable of moving others around. One of the rarest power types on earth.

Mr. Gold and Sir Bellamy (that strange, thin scarecrow of a man) approach the door. That confirms two more people as clones, which is good. Except that they’re going to raise some kind of alarm.

Mr. Gold knocks.

I look back at Epione and Saw Off and make a fist. I’m going to hit them hard, right off the bat.

Epione nods and takes out one of the rings from her pocket, and puts it on. A tendril of water sprouts out of the sink, splitting into a dozen tentacles. Saw Off hides behind the bed. I’m guessing she doesn’t have any shotgun shells loaded.

“Who is it?” Saw Off calls.

“Hey, kitten,” Mr. Gold replies. “It’s me. Javier.”

Saw Off pulls a pistol from under the bed. “Hey, daddy. Let me just get the door.”

I turn the knob.

I actually don’t play much of a part in the following fight. I hear Mr. Gold shout, Sir Bellamy curse, and two gunshots. By the time I’ve processed and gotten ready for the fight, it’s done. Mr. Gold and Sir Bellamy are down, the former dead from a bullet wound through his head, the other on the way with the bullet in his heart. Saw Off’s aim was true.

She is calm at first, holding the pistol with casual grace, but that fades when she sees exactly who she’s shot. Her face scrunches, she kneels next to him, while Epione and I check on Sir Bellamy. Epione places her hand on his temple and closes her eyes, going into a trance, while I check his vitals: fading, fading, fading. I sense the heat of the bullet lodged in his heart, the muscle spasming, shutting down. Blood failing to flow.

“He’s a clone. He can cancel powers,” Epione says. With her declaration, he’s gone. Not dead but without medical help he will be, and we aren’t in a position to call for it. Can’t bring him back to New Foundation, not without a shit ton of questions.

Nothing we can do about this, really.

Saw Off caresses Mr. Gold’s cheek, and asks, “This ain’t my Gold, is it?”

“No,” Epione says. “I don’t think so. I think he got taken.”

“Is there a chance he’s alive?” Saw Off asks, not taking her hand from his face. She stares down at his corpse, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“I—”

“Gabe.” Saw Off grabs my chin, stares me in the eyes. I’ve seen a lot of expressions on this girl, but I’ve never seen anything as frightening as this. Never seen her cold-blooded, not even when she lost Lugs. “Don’t you lie to me. You tell me if there’s a fightin’ chance he’s alive.”

“There is,” I tell her. “As much a chance that Ruby is.” And I hope it’s true, God, I do. I’ve no idea what those chances are.

The gargoyle look. Her face, her eyes, like Flashfire’s. Fury. Anguish. Powerful emotions, so powerful I swear I can feel them burning through her fingers squeezing my jaw.

And then she relents, letting me go.

“They’re going to send more,” Epione says.

Each of the dead men has a commpiece in their ears. Probably to call the teleporter. A part of me wants to call for the portal, wants to charge through it and see what’s on the other side, but that would be stupid without any backup or intel.

“What’s the story?” Epione asks me. “What do we do?”

“Saw Off defended herself and took off. No one knows where. You and I were never here.” I gently pull Saw Off up from not-Mr. Gold’s body. “Saw Off, grab your gun, grab what you need to survive for the next few days. I have an idea.”

A few minutes of Epione and Saw Off clinging to me while I let the Earth turn underneath us, and we’re hanging over the church that Longinus pastors. He lives on the grounds, I believe, in a small clergy house. He’s alone, he’s out of the way, and I doubt he’s on Doppelgänger’s radar. He’s not active with New Foundation, he’s barely stepped foot inside HQ since we took over.

He’s also alone, judging by my heat sense and Epione’s empathy. Which means we can check him without worry of intrusion.

We touch down on the grass, I knock, he answers, confusedly glancing between me and the girls. “Gabe? You know it’s late.”

“I know you were up,” I say. “I can sense you moving around. Epione?”

Epione reaches out to take his hand. Longinus looks back and forth, taken aback, but he places his hand in hers. “What is this about? Oh, that doesn’t feel…” He shivers. “What is she doing?”

“She’s making sure of something. Though I think that you haven’t drawn your hand back means you’re okay,” I say. “You don’t know anything about Doppelgänger, do you?”

“Who?” Longinus ask.

“He hasn’t been on the news after everything?” Saw Off asks. “The dude ransacked New Foundation, we got the names of all the people he’s cloned, and he’s like… body snatching world leaders. You not tuned in, preacher?”

“I watch the news every morning so I know what my flock is worried about,” Longinus says. “I’ve seen nothing about anyone named Doppelgänger.”

Of course. Someone’s controlling the flow of info out of New Foundation. But there is footage, data, evidence somewhere in New Foundation’s computers. Like the video we got on my glasses of Doppelgänger confessing to everything.  “Coffee?” I ask. “And not the special kind, please.”

Half and hour later, all is told, and the lost child Longinus stares into his mug as if the answers to this dilemma are in there.

“So, Saw Off needs to hide away for a bit,” I tell him. “More of Doppelgänger’s clones are going to come looking for her. I don’t think you’re a target, since you’re not… politically important, or active with New Foundation. I don’t even know if he remembers you’re alive.”

“I’ve tried to keep a low profile.” Longinus shakes his head, but then gestures to Saw Off. “Of course, you’re welcome to stay as long as you need. I just hope you’ve got a way out of this, Gabe.”

I hope so, too.

Saw Off, poor Saw Off, trudges her way up the stairs to the room Longinus uses for guests. I’m not fully convinced this place is safe, but better than nothing. Epione and I wait downstairs while he helps her get settled and shows her around the space.

“Gabe, I need to tell you something,” Epione says. “We must get Mr. Gold and Bedevil back.”

A weird way to start this conversation. “I know that.”

“And Ashley. We can’t let Doppelgänger ruin those relationships.” Epione fixes me with her stare, so brilliant and piercing. Reminds me of Oracle’s shining gaze and how they changed my perception even as we spoke.

Those are all very specific names. We don’t know who all was taken, but to name a few in particular over the others that might have been… seems odd. “What are you getting at, Ep?”

“When the Fear comes, Gabe, I need those positive bonds.”

“I still don’t understand.”

Epione sighs, frustrated with me. “I’ve… I’ve got to tell someone this, Gabe. Someone who understands what the Fear is capable of. Who understands what it can do and how to fight it. You can’t tell a single soul what I’m about to tell you, not until we finish this fight for good. Do you understand?”

My stomach sinks at her tone. She’s too intense, too fixated on me. Too fixated on what she’s telling me. But I agree, because I know I need to hear what she’s about to say. “Okay.”

“Not even Ruby.” Epione grabs my hand, her lips tight. “Swear it.”

Reluctantly, I nod.

“I’ve…” She halts, her head rolling as she searches for more words. “I’ve been nurturing the bonds around me. You and Bedevil. Flashfire and Meltdown. Saw Off and Mr. Gold. A few others, but those are the main three.”

“What do you mean, nurturing?” It can’t mean that she’s forced our emotions. It can’t be. “You didn’t make me fall in love, did you?”

“No! No, it’s still you. All I did… think of it like a farmer, making sure pests and things don’t kill the crop. Or like a smith, making sure there aren’t any impurities in a weapon she’s forged. That’s what I’m doing. I’m making sure your bonds, the love you feel, is going to be strong enough to fight the Fear.”

She’s weaponized our love. Our relationships. I turn to face her fully, my back to the stairs, and I lean in to whisper. “What are you doing to us?”

Epione retreats back from me a bit, her brow furrowed, her mouth twisted into that petulant frown she wears when she’s disappointed or angry. “When you… when I brought Bedevil to your Affect while you were a host to the Fear… I created an intense bond between you two. More so than the others, at this point. The Affect gives us strength. You two are stronger the closer you are to each other. Smarter, faster, and better. You know… you can feel each other. I don’t know if you could visit her mind but you knew something was wrong with the Bedevil you married, didn’t you?”

Holy. God. She’s right. I did know. I thought I had cold feet or I was scared. But I knew, deep in my heart, that something was wrong. “You’ve linked us?”

“Yes. Like I was linked to Flashfire, and like I am linked to you. But… your bond with her is based on the love you felt for her. I didn’t create it wholesale.”

“You just made it… more,” I mutter.

“Yes,” she admits.

I curl my hand into a fist. My mind, my heart, my emotions. Is anything I feel for Ruby real? Just because Epione influenced it, does that make it false? I don’t know. I can’t answer that right now. “Why did you do this?”

“It’s how we beat the Fear, Gabe. You got lucky when you fought it. I’d already wounded it with my love for Flashfire, but I broke it in the process.” Epione frowns. “You used all of your bonds to form a weapon, but it would have broken, too, if not for the Fear already being weakened. I’m making as many weapons as I can.”

“We killed it. I killed it. We can do that again.” I want to say a thousand things. I want to call her a monster. She’s mucking with us so she has an arsenal to fight this thing.

“We can. But Gabe, you didn’t kill anything. You cut off one head. Like a hydra, more come back.” Epione shakes her head. “I’m going to find the heart of this thing, Gabe, and I’m going to run it through with everything we’ve got.”

“And what happens to my bond? What happens to the love between Flashfire and Meltdown, or Saw Off and Gold?” I’m struggling to keep my voice down. I’m whisper-screaming, and I know I’m scaring her. She can’t hide her fear behind her empty mask anymore.

“I wouldn’t ask you to give this if I hadn’t already spent my own love,” Epione says, her words frantic.

“I don’t want to give that. There has to be another way.”

Epione’s returns to her polite smile. “There isn’t.”

“Am I even your friend?” Like Cynic, like Oracle, like everyone that wanted to use me. Epione’s acting just like the tyrants, like she can just… “Or… front toward enemy.”

Epione doesn’t answer right away. The question catches her off guard so badly her mask slips and I can see that she is tearing apart inside. “Friend toward enemy,” she answers.

“I can’t give my love up.”

“Not even to save the world?”

I don’t have an answer for her. Part of me — my conscience, I believe — is already screaming in my head. Of course I’d give it up to save the world! But there’s an objector in my head, too, and it sounds an awful lot like Ruby. Who should have to sell their soul to save everyone else? 

I carry the argument: Greater love has no man than this— 

The imaginary Ruby interrupts. This isn’t your life. It’s your love. You have no love at the end of this plan. 

But she knows the most about the Fear. 

More than you? 

In shame, I turn my attention from the conjured Ruby voicing my doubts. The placid Epione waits for my verdict, wilting each second I can’t find the strength to speak. I take too long, and she leaves me there in the clergy house.

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