6.20.5

Turmoil has seized New Foundation. As I return — alone — I find myself ensnared in an upheaval, the source of which is not apparent. I should know why my home base is in disarray. I should have gotten a call, but I left my phone at home so no one could track the GPS. This initial, confusing sea of information is parted by a single word that passes from person to person.

Warlord.

His name washes over me. Why he strikes dread in me, I don’t know. I’ve fought his like before and triumphed. There may be some small sliver of me that fears the Youxia, that thinks they are a different class of being beyond the Superheavyweight threats like Carnality.

The speakers carry Templar’s voice in chorus. “All core personnel report to command.”

Ruby is waiting for me at the entrance to the command room. Over her shoulder I can see that all the Inheritors have gathered, even Epione. Mr. Gold is there, too, but now we know he’s a clone. Sir Bellamy, the tall, thin man from ORDERS, confers with President Genz away from the others, eying me as I stop at the door. Close behind them is Dana Romero, Genz’ woman in our midst, who’s been quiet up until now.

Archimedes, Linear, and Oracle stand together, a trio of frail reeds staring at the main screen.

“Where have you been all night?” Not-Bedevil is worked up, taking on a tone of worry, grabbing my wrist. How her hand feels like a manacle! Her other hand caresses my cheek and I fight to keep my composure. “I called you over and over.”

“Sorry, I went on a walk and left my phone plugged in.” At least that is the truth. Even if only partially. I’m glad I’m good at lying. “You know me. Can’t sit still sometimes. What’s going on?”

Not-Bedevil gives me a little smile, and a wave of weakness hits me. I want to lean in and kiss her. She gazes at my lips. Hers part so exquisitely, the little creases at the corners so like my Ruby’s. They are not, and they are. The contradiction is painful to the point of tears.

“Warlord hit New Delhi,” Not-Bedevil says. “He made it over the mountains with his band.”

The horror unfolds on the main screen in the command room. I’ve come late to the party. We’re following the camera feed from an Indian news crew. Hurricane force winds batter their car. Heavy sheets of rain obscure the city. Lightning whips from the sky a dozen times in as many seconds, lighting up the black sky. Figures move in that darkness, aircraft, helicopters, capes that can fly.

The camera crew freaks out, their shot goes wild as the car makes a rapid turn. From behind, a figure stands in the road, his hands held up above his head. Lightning comes from the heavens to strike him, but the electricity makes him grow rather than immolating him. Tendrils of plasma weave around his body like armor, sprouting four additional arms and a lance of light. He hefts this weapon to throw at the retreating crew, but one of the Indian capes flies into him, carrying the Youxia up into the storm.

It would take me hours to fly there. “How old is this footage?”

“One hour or so,” Linear says. “New Delhi has already fallen.”

He switches the channel of the main screen to some shaky phone footage of a golden-armored woman that looks more robot than human. Both her gauntlets and the eyes of her mask are lit up with azure light. A halo made of razors spins above her head. A storm of swords, gleaming with each lightning strike, joins the dance of her halo before descending on the person holding the phone. They cry out and drop the phone, but before the phone stops, suspended in the air.

The camera moves up until we are eye level with the Youxia, her mask a blank slate aside from the sapphires alive with fire. She clenches her fist and the video ends with a crunch, and a chill runs down my spine.

“We have footage of the one we believe to be the Warlord,” Linear says.

Unlike the previous two videos, this one takes place in the middle of a sunny day. New Delhi is yet to be destroyed. This is also phone footage, and it starts with the camera aimed at a dead little boy, half his face missing from what looks like small arms fire. Not-Bedevil grabs my hand, and despite my better judgment, I give her a reassuring squeeze.

The screen falls on a man and a woman walking through the streets together.

The man, I assume the Warlord, stands at what I’d guess is seven feet tall, almost as tall as Krater. His skin glints like pure diamond under the sun. He wears no clothes, as if he has no need of them. His jaw, his nose, and his eyes all have the sharpness of a blade. Even his black hair looks like razor wire, dangling down to his shoulders.

Then he splits into four people. One moment he is a single, diamond human, and then he is four; one azure, one crimson, one ebony, and one ivory. In concert they lift their hands up to the sky, as if in worship, and clouds gather to blot out the sun.

Linear pauses the footage, rewinds it, and zooms in on the companion to the Warlord.

She appears to be an East Asian woman, I think Chinese, but the features are very familiar to me somehow.

Templar recognizes this woman immediately. “That’s a clone of Kassandra.” Perhaps that’s because she’s already seen through this trick once. The original Kassandra was Syrian, at least as far as we know, but the one we’ve captured appears to be Irish.

Somehow, Doppelganger has influenced the Warlord. Whether they have a deal or the Warlord is unaware of the Kassandra’s true nature, there’s another pot that Doppel has his maimed fingers inside.

With everyone important gathered in one room, I want to ask about the recording from my glasses, the day that Doppelganger revealed his plans to me. That should be enough to stop his plans, to prove the list of names we put out. But I need to pick the hill I die on very carefully.

Most people in New Foundation think I am stupid. And in certain ways, I certainly am. I’m not the brightest when it comes to people threatening my friends, or when I’m faced with injustice. I rush in. I deal in collateral damage and apologies, not in prudence.

But I am observant, and I know how to play a role. I play the role of the idiot and ignore the footage. I ignore the connection to Doppelganger because I can’t afford to rouse the suspicion of his clones. “We’ve got to help those people.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Genz says. “They’ve already taken New Delhi.”

“ORDERS is expected to ally with the Sovereigns, Russia, and Australia to halt their advance,” Sir Bellamy says. “Lady-General Tomas already plans a counterattack at India’s borders.”

I keep playing my game. It’s easier when I actually believe what I’m saying. “We should be there with them.”

Genz is not having my bullshit. I’ve grown so familiar with the vaguely patriarchal figure disappointed in me, but Genz is an artist at the practice. He is disaffected, he is stern. “We can’t be. By the time we get there, the Warlord is entrenched, and we’ve got priorities.”

“What priorities?” I ask. “This nonsense war with the States?”

“The States have an Inheritor, Gabe, in case you’ve forgotten!” Genz roars.

Using Remise as a weapon stings. And what fucking sucks is I’ve barely had time to think about her. I don’t have the courage to ask if she’s a clone, too, and because of that I’ve no way of knowing if going after her is smart. “We know she wasn’t taken by flags. You want a war with the States, you send your armies. You don’t send New Foundation.”

“I’m going to send my armies. Paraguay is going to send its armies. Chile, Bolivia. Peru. When they all go to war with the States, they’re going to wonder why Aethon sat it out. They’re going to wonder why their heroes did nothing.” Genz turns his paternal fury toward Archimedes. “You’re the leader here, Archimedes. Act like it.”

Archimedes raises his eyebrows, points at his chest and then at me. “I’m sorry, I thought you were talking to Gabe. Seeing as you haven’t said a word to me since you got here, Genz.”

“Don’t you start this,” Genz says. “I gave you quarter. I turned on Cynic when you asked me. If not for me—”

“We wouldn’t be here. Understood, understood,” Archimedes says. “But you also set us up as a neutral humanitarian aid organization, chartered by the UWC to stop cloaks and save lives, with the ultimate goal of fighting the Fear. Now, I’m not some sort of super-genius engineer with over two decades of experience serving as a high level official at OPI who helped mastermind the overthrow of one government and could very well mastermind a second one, but fighting the States seems to be outside of that charter, president.”

Maybe I can trust Archimedes.

Genz clenches and releases his jaw, settling into a malevolent smile. “You’re very lucky that I do not have you arrested for treason.”

“I am,” Archimedes replies. “We’re not going to war for you, Genz. Fight the flags on your own.”

“And what of Nero and the flags? You’re not interested in bringing him to justice?” Genz asks. He looks to me. “He killed Megajoule, he killed your friend, he’s a monster.”

“Lucky he isn’t here right now, then,” I say.

Genz shakes his head and snaps his fingers at Romero. “I swear, Archimedes, that this will have consequences.” With that final word of threat, he’s gone, and so is Romero with him. I suspect she’ll be back in the morning.

“This really the hill you have to die on?” Not-Bedevil asks Archimedes.

“You hush, apprentice mine,” Archimedes says, waving his hand in her face. “Gabe’s right for once in his life. We’re not going to war, ever. We’re not going to fight for men hiding behind desks that want blood because someone spat in their direction.”

“The States are trying to destabilize South America, though,” Linear asks. “We’re really not going to do anything about that?”

“We’re going to stop it.” Archimedes turns his attention back to the screens. “We’ve got intel on where they’re holding Remise. North Mexico, close to the border. We’ve had eyes in the area and some of the people from that merc group the Setting Suns have been seen in the Coahuila province.”

“That’s Sledge’s old stomping ground,” Mr. Gold says, almost absentminded.

“And the Setting Suns are his disciples, as it turns out,” Archimedes says. “Locals have all talked about the mercs being more interested in fighting the Sanctified Remnant, who still plague the area. You’re not going to war with the States, Gabe, because I’m sending the Inheritors up to save Remise.”

I try not to grimace. That’s not an order I can easily defy. “I’ll need a few days to prepare.”

“Prepare what?” Archimedes asks.

How to say this, how to word this so I cast off suspicion? I shake my head, trying to come up with some excuse, when Not-Bedevil steps in for me.

“Paul, Arch. He’s still… the entire team is still recovering from the raid on Doppelganger’s property. Meltdown was even supposed to have her leave for three days.”

Archimedes nods. “Alright, then. Once Meltdown has her vacation, you and the Inheritors go rescue Remise.”

With that the meeting is disbanded. I can’t help but wonder why Not-Bedevil would speak up for me. Seems she should want me to go after Remise, to get me away from New Foundation. Makes me wonder if Meltdown’s vacation is an important event for the clones.

I spare a passing glance at Epione as we depart. I sign her Flashfire’s hand signal for rally and she signs it back. Guess I’ll be seeing her in my dreams tonight.

Back at the apartment, Not-Bedevil makes us tea. She does this exactly the same way that Ruby did (does, you fool, does!) and I watch her with Isabelle slumbering in my lap. Maisa idles about in her room with the door open, and I catch her eye.

Is she a clone?

She smiles at me.

I smile back.

Is she?

God, help me. I know I don’t believe in you but if you’re out there, please. If anyone is out there that can help me, please.

Not-Bedevil sits down next to me. Pawpaw stares at her. He knows. She offers me the tea but I can’t take my eyes off Pawpaw, I’m so scared he’s going to give us away. I take the tea. I blink at Pawpaw, hoping that he might understand, but he’s a dog. He keeps staring at her.

“Are you okay?” Not-Bedevil asks.

“Thanks. For getting Archimedes to hold off.”

“You need the break.”

I do.

She smiles, strokes my hand.

“Do you think Megajoule ever struggled like this? Had people pulling him in so many different directions?” An absurd question because I know that he did. I have proof.

Not-Bedevil starts to speak, but then falls silent. I need her so badly that I need a distraction from her, because another second of her stroking my hand and I will kiss her because it is her, all the while hating myself because it isn’t her. The only reason I would do such a thing is because I am weak and unworthy of Ruby.

I stand up with all the willpower in the world, focusing my attention on that last realization: that I have proof of Megajoule’s struggles. The videos that Archimedes decoded for me. “I’m gonna… go clear my head. Genz got under my skin, I think.”

Not-Bedevil nods. “Take all the time you need, babe.”

Another weakness, a different kind; that demands I whirl around and scream in her face: do not call me that. You don’t get to do that, you who raped me and lied to me.

I restrain that urge, too. Instead, I get the laptop from my closet and I take off to the beach, my go to spot for alone time.

For a while, I just sit there in the sand, studying a storm that’s brewing out over the ocean. I wish to throw the laptop into the sea, hurl it into that storm. I’m not sure why that’s my first desire. Perhaps I’m afraid of what’s on the rest of the videos. There was a reason I didn’t continue watching them after the black hole one.

I need to see them, though. I need to know what else he wanted me to know.

I boot up the laptop, smile at the old wallpaper (a cutesy picture of a basket full of puppies) and click on the file containing Megajoule’s vlogs. A thrill of nostalgia overcomes me, putting a lump in my throat and bringing tears to my eyes. This clunky old computer belonged to Doc. Still has some of the signs of his influence. Stains, scratch marks, and a NASA sticker.

Archimedes was good on his word. The videos are there and they all have proper thumbnails now. But unlike the ones I’ve already seen, they aren’t thumbnails of Megajoule sitting at a table in front of that sterile, blue background I’d grown so familiar with. The thumbnails look like they were taken from some kind of bodycam footage.

Except for the one after Megajoule’s last vlog.

That video’s thumbnail is just a picture of Doc’s face.

Is this a trap from Doppelganger? Could be. Could be that Archimedes was meant to lull me into false security, that Not-Bedevil was meant to encourage me toward watching these videos so I’d fall under subliminal control.

I inhale, exhale, and take a leap of faith. I open the video from Doc.

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