HELL 2.1

When she woke, Bedevil thought that her dream had been her real life and the cramped, dusty office she woke to was the nightmare. Sadly, the dream she remembered was not a dream about me but a dream about school. High school, specifically.

The dream was about her final high school thesis essay, the one that caused Megajoule to single her out and hire her. An Analysis of Erikson’s ‘Moral Imperative of the Tribe.’  What a stupid thing to dream about, she thought. Worse, she struggled to finish the essay due to a comical series of contrivances like Pawpaw eating her copy of the book, her pencils all running out of lead at the same time, and not having any paper to write on.

Never mind that in real life her copy of Erikson’s book was electronic and she’d written the paper on her computer. The dream demanded paper to frustrate her. Her subconscious created obstacles.

Her stomach burned. Right. She’d been shot. She checked the wound to see if it had festered but realized that kind of change wouldn’t happen overnight.

Maisa and Meltdown slept still. Judging by the tiny window it was still late into the night. Pain had woken her, rather than the sun, but that made her want to get up and moving. Against that judgment she decided to let the two sleep longer. They were exhausted.

So was she. But she knew there’d be no rest until she got them home safe and she could look into my eyes again. That warm thought — the future where she found herself in my arms — lulled her back toward sleep.

The memories of the previous night jarred her fully awake. The escape, the dozens of clones she crushed, and the horrible argument over Echo. Echo’s fate still hung in the air. The chances that she was still alive were bad, though.

Even with that in mind, guilt spurred Bedevil to sit up. Maisa and Meltdown could sleep a while longer; Bedevil needed to make sure of her decision. Going back was a bad idea but she’d also know if her instinct was trustworthy.

Really, she was going back because she wanted to make sure her judgment had not dulled in the year since New Foundation.

Bedevil crept quietly out of the room, shifting the furniture with her telekinesis. Her returned power was a relief. She was no longer so vulnerable. She debated searching for something to leave a note with but the papers had either been looted or disintegrated long ago.

She’d return before they woke.

Bedevil took flight with her invisible wings, flying back in the direction they’d come from just hours ago.

She appreciated her surroundings with clear eyes. She’d had no chance to study them while they fled, no moment to get a handle on the terrain.

Years ago, when powers first developed in humans, almost every nation in the world suffered from an extended period of anarchy. Some nations fared better than others, but everyone Bedevil knew from that time had lost someone important to them. Her mother lost a cousin in a Cloak’s attack on San Diego. Her father lost his parents when their airplane was knocked out of the sky by a massive EMP wave released over Wisconsin.

Since then, OPI managed to return the west to a status quo. Europe was saved by ORDERS, African by Sovereign, India by the Devas. Russia by an authoritarian regime. Japan, Australia, and Indonesia by their isolation.

Southeast Asia, unfortunately, was not saved by anyone.

This city, its name forgotten, proved that without a doubt. It was not scarred like the rest of the world was. It was a dessicated corpse. Broken teeth buildings. The roads the face’s wrinkles, torn open into scars. Nothing about the corpse had changed since their escape. No fires, no lights, no signs of life.

Bedevil was not keen on scouring a dead city for the bacteria that might cling to it, anyway. The sky interested her.

An aurora borealis, or something rather like it, blanketed the night sky, and obscured the stars and at a certain distance even the horizon. A smog of rainbows that swallowed up China. Some of the documents she’d read from OPI called the light the Jammer, because no signals of any kind got through it.

Bedevil wondered if the Jammer was the Fear’s work or humanity’s. Easy to believe that some powerful superheavyweight Youxia weaved this barrier. Perhaps it was also a manifestation of someone’s Affect. Hell, maybe even an entire population of Affects. The end result was the same no matter the Jammer’s nature. There was scant accurate intel on the happenings inside China. No satellite images, no radio communications, nothing.

Could she fly up to the Jammer and dip her fingers in it like the sea? Would it kill her instantly or absorb her in some way? An idle fancy Bedevil could not indulge. Also a theory that was easily disproved: clearly the Jammer extended all the way to the ground. The smog kissed the horizon. She was already inside it.

A flashlight beam on the roof of a nearby building (a kind that Bedevil could not determine because she couldn’t recognize the signs and because of its utilitarian design) pulled her attention back to the city. Bedevil landed on an open air garage to hide among the rusted cars. She wedged herself between a small truck and a sedan.

Hard to see in the dark but she recognized the voices. Hers, Meltdown, and Mr. Gold. The Thin Man. No one she could tangle with right now. The Thin Man would just take away her power and the others would tear her apart. No way Doppelgänger let her live now that she’d escaped once. That was a mistake he wouldn’t repeat.

Bedevil used her tendrils to sneak through the garage and get a better look at the bank. The lights were on, and dozens of clones crowded inside the guarded doors.

A hole ripped open in space, right in front of the bank doors, and Doppelgänger stepped out with several clones accompanying him. Bedevil recognized the African man, who seemed to control the portal by way of an electric lace that wove through his fingers, as one of the clones that visited the cell with Doppelgänger.

A stable teleporter that could move others. That explained many things to Bedevil. The last warper she had encountered was Warspeed, one of Sledge’s crew, and she could only teleport herself and one other. That and her power split in her half, and when the two halves reunited they did so in violence.

No way she’d find out about Echo now. Bedevil crept away, using her tendrils to crawl along the roof like a spider until she could take flight away from this place. She was glad that none of her clones seemed to have figured out flight like she had.

Actually, when she’d come up against her own clones, they felt like they were much weaker than her. Unlike Paul and Kassandra, they didn’t seem to need music to keep under control. Perhaps Doppelgänger traded power for control.

Maybe Paul was a test to see how much power he could add without the subject being unruly.

Bedevil didn’t want to run away, not with Echo still lying in ambiguity, but those defenses, that sheer number of clones under his control, meant that she’d have to accept not knowing what happened to Echo. When I asked her if she did all she could, I’d have to accept “I don’t know” as an answer.

Time to go back. Bedevil took flight, headed back toward the office building.

As she flew over the city, she found her eyes wandering upward, back toward the Jammer. She decided that would get her killed — an enemy might see her from below, one of the clones, or worse, a Youxia — and looked down.

There was a woman impaled on a massive pole jutting from the middle of a market square. Bedevil nearly screamed at the sight, plummeted as her tendrils flailed in panic. She caught herself by latching onto the side of one of the buildings, bringing up her telekinesis in case someone leapt out at her.

The woman did not look like a human, but a statue made of pure obsidian. Molten liquid, bright orange and hissing, seeped from the wound. Bedevil gasped when the woman grappled with the pole, trying to shimmy her way up to the top. As soon as her hands touched the pole, the woman shrieked in agony. Did the pole carry a current? Who would do this?

Did this woman deserve it?

The woman shrieked again, flailing on the pole. Each motion tore her flesh apart around the wound, which then mended itself at an incredible rate. The woman wouldn’t die; she’d be stuck in eternal torment, instead.

Bedevil closed her eyes, and then reached out with her power.

A thrum of energy tried to touch her through her tendrils, but the nature of her power meant that whatever was running through the poles could not conduct through her telekinesis. Grateful for that advantage, Bedevil snapped the pole right above the woman and then lifted her free.

The obsidian woman dropped to her knees, gasping as the hole through her chest knit closed. She studied her savior with eyes the color of a molten rock.

A sword materialized in the woman’s hand, siphoned from her own flesh. The woman pointed this sword at Bedevil, and said something in Chinese.

“Uhhh,” Bedevil replied, holding her hands up. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

The woman did not lower her sword. She said more words, this time in a language that sounded like… Icelandic? Swedish? Bedevil didn’t know anything besides English and a bit of Spanish, to her embarrassment.

“I don’t speak whatever you’re speaking. Do you speak English? Spanish?” Bedevil asked. She glanced at the sword, its tip dripping some of the woman’s blood. “Please don’t stab me.”

The woman dropped the sword and said, “Breakfast?”

That was a word Bedevil knew. “Breakfast. Is… that your name?”

“Name?” the woman asked. She pointed at herself. “Rongrong.”

“Rongrong.” Bedevil had no idea what that meant, if it was like a cape name or if it was her real name, but she rolled with it. “I’m Ruby.”

“Ruby,” Rongrong said. She smiled and her lips released a wisp of smoke from her mouth. “Breakfast?”

Bedevil weighed her options. On the one hand, she had no idea who this woman was, no idea if she could trust her. On the other hand, she was starving and exhausted. Any meal that wasn’t cardboard bread and powdered eggs sounded like heaven. “I have friends with me.”

“Friends?” Rongrong pointed at Bedevil and then at herself.

Bedevil stammered. Rongrong’s vocabulary contained a handful of English words at best. They probably wouldn’t get anywhere by talking. The woman — Youxia? — likely wouldn’t understand the alternate version of friends, but she gave it a try. “Friends,” she repeated, and then gestured to two invisible people with her, as if they were standing right next to her.

Rongrong tilted her head, closed her eyes in confusion, and mouthed the word again.

“Ah,” Bedevil said. She pointed at her self with one of her right hand fingers (worried the stumps on her left might confuse Rongrong), and held her pinky and ring finger up (her ring! Gone!) to imply two others with her.

Rongrong snapped her fingers and smiled. She pointed at Bedevil and then beyond, arching her eyebrow in question.

Bedevil nodded, smiling in return. This woman couldn’t be trusted, not really, but Bedevil had no other lifeline. She had to get out of China. They couldn’t fly up into that smog, couldn’t fly too high up before not being able to breathe, and flying low to the ground might catch the attention of other Youxia. So the sky was off limits. A guide was necessary.

“Friends… breakfast?” Rongrong asked, pointing at Bedevil and then beyond her, meaning the friends.

Bedevil hesitated, unsure of the offer. This woman could kill her easily, and now she cursed herself (stupid!) for helping her without checking for traps. She could want to find Bedevil’s friends so she could eat them all together.

Rongrong seemed to understand Bedevil’s pause. She gestured to the pole, said, “Friends,” again while lifting an invisible baby up into the air, and then pointed at Bedevil. She pointed at herself, pantomimed eating food, and at Bedevil. “Breakfast.”

Because you saved me, I want to help you.

At least, that’s what Bedevil thought that meant. She stopped doubting. “Friends breakfast.” Bedevil gestured to follow her, Rongrong agreed, and the two set off to Maisa and Meltdown.

As they walked, Bedevil glanced at Rongrong a few times, to study the woman’s skin and look for scars where the pole impaled her. Her skin was smooth, and what Bedevil first thought was like obsidian, she actually found to be a warmer tone, like rich soil, black velvet that crumbled apart in the hand. Everything about Rongrong glowed with inner heat, from her skin to her hair, even her friendly smile.

That smile faltered when she noticed Bedevil staring at her. Rongrong blinked, pointed at herself, and asked, “Monster?”

Bedevil’s cheeks flushed. She looked away and mumbled, “I sure fucking hope not.”

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