Category Archives: Inheritors

5.17.7

Oracle hoped that stepping off the White Shark and onto Kenyan soil would not stir up her heart too much. Her hope proved unfounded. The heat wrapped its arms around her like an old friend, the sun shone in the sky in a way it did not anywhere else in the world. And Kenya reflected that light, oh, how she reflected it. The Sovereigns built the proverbial “city on a hill” and let it shine on the world.

They named it Holy, because it was.

Crystalline spires and beautiful buildings splashed with vibrant colors that made them look like flowers Oracle could reach out and pluck, and how she wanted to gather a bunch to bring back to Argentina with her. How she wanted to hold this in her memory forever.

Memory had become fleeting, as of late, and she had no power to control it. Oracle found that she would often wake up in the middle of the night with tears staining her cheeks, and a dream fleeing the edges of her conscious thought. A dream with a familiar, crystal face that she was beginning not to recognize.

Holy gave her back his name as she stared up at it. Simon Cheboi, the spires told her, Ethereal. Her love. Even though he was gone now, killed in the last fight with the Dominator that had nearly brought Africa to heel, the things he had built — this city — still stood.

Oracle fought not to weep right there on the landing strip outside the Sovereign’s HQ.

Maisa and Meltdown strode just ahead of her in their armor. How sleek the interlocking plates, how vibrant the colors and the hum of the machinery within the suit. Archimedes knew his craft and he knew how to make people look — and feel — like gods. Not that their powers weren’t impressive by themselves. Anyone who cracked the armor thinking the women inside easy pickings would learn a nasty lesson.

A man strode up to Oracle, shaking his head, a sign Oracle did not like. He had a wide, friendly face marred by frustration. She vaguely knew his name, something like Celestial or Lunar, implying something cosmic. “Oracle, it is good to see you, but I wish I had better news for you. We tried to radio your base to tell you but it seems that your comms are down.”

“Down?” Oracle asked, turning back to Meltdown. “Was there anything wrong with our radio? Did we get any messages from HQ?”

“No, not that I’m aware of.” The fact unnerved them all, and Meltdown furrowed her brow as she thought about what might cause a radio blackout at base.

“What was it that you wanted to tell us?” Oracle asked.

“The address you asked us to investigate and lock down for your arrival… it’s gone. Eaten into the earth.”

For a brief moment, the world darkened, and she forgot the name the city was telling her. She forgot her husband’s name in the grip of fear.


Epione looked over her shoulder into Paul’s room, where he pretended to sleep peacefully in his hospital bed. His colors gave him away — a furious storm of worry, of guilt, of fear. Worry that he will be found by Doppelganger. Guilt that he should worry at all, since Doppelganger is his father, his family. Fear. Fear at everything. So much fear Epione was surprised that an entity did not spawn itself right there.

She turned her attention back to the card game with Saw Off, who was in the middle of cheating by placing an extra power card on the field. The girl felt no guilt for her actions, but anger at being caught. “God damn it, I thought you’d look a little longer,” she grumbled, returning the card to her hand.

Epione couldn’t be mad, though. Saw Off wasn’t here just for games. The rest of her team — Torn, who could slice through any inert material with the tip of his finger, Chase, an acrobatic speedster, and Tremble, a young girl that shook the earth with each step, and of course, Lugs, who no longer had a power but a new, robotic arm from Archimedes — waited on standby in case of an emergency. Paul’s latest outburst and his last conversation with Gabe worried Epione so much that she’d maintained a constant vigilance near his room. Today they’d set up the card table.

“I’m worried,” Epione said.

The words caught Saw Off by surprise. “I mean, it was just one card, I promise.”

“No, no, I don’t care about the game.” Epione glanced again at Paul and found him staring back at her. She held his eyes for an eternal moment. His colors and hers, swirling into one mess of anxious sick yellow. In a whisper, she continued. “He’s scared.” She checked the rings on her finger, the ring carrying Carnality’s power and the ring carrying the ability to forcefully activate powers. She had another, one with hydrokinesis, but that seemed not as useful in dealing with Paul, since it couldn’t extract water from the body.

“Yeah, he’s scared, we kidnapped him and have him in a hospital room while we’re playing cards outside. I’d be scared, too.” Saw Off grimaced at the young man. “I’d be scared if that nasty old dude was in my head, too.”

Lugs pulled up a chair to sit next to them. His new arm, shiny metal and black, held compartments for various weaponry like small arms and rockets. He couldn’t use his magnetic pulses anymore, but he’d told Epione during one of the poker games that the new arm was in many ways better than his old one. “Hey kids. Tremble’s getting hungry.”

“Well, she’s like thirteen,” Saw Off said. “Feels like y’all stuck me with a babysitting gig instead of my own team.”

“It’s my team,” said Lugs. “I’m in charge.”

“Bullshit!”

The speaker above their heads crackled into life.


Bedevil straightened her dress and tried to look severe. Archimedes and Templar sat next to her at the New Foundation table as they greeted their guest — USCO Director Thomas Lancer, formerly the OPI Director for Los Angeles. A short but proud man, dressed in a strict military uniform. Bedevil remembered him as a happy-go-lucky dude that liked to get blitzed on weekends. They’d had a couple of heart to hearts back in Basics.

There was no trace of that man left. Here was a soldier. He sniffed and walked up to the table, reached out to shake Bedevil’s hand. “Ruby Dawson. It’s been some time. It’s still Dawson, yes?”

“Yes. We’ve not had the wedding yet.” Bedevil shook his hand and offered him a seat. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with us, Director.”

She hoped that he would smile and laugh like the scruffy boy she knew in Basics, that he would tell her to call him Tom and they could move forward on good terms. That did not happen. “You know I’m sticking my neck out on this. Things are tense right now in the States.”

“I know.” Bedevil didn’t like his tone already.

“So what am I doing here?” Director Lancer folded his hands on the table.

“We’re looking for a fugitive,” Bedevil said. “We are aware that he has a hideout in the States. Specifically, near Los Angeles.”

“Do you think that I can grant you leave to investigate? You think I wouldn’t be strung up immediately if you sent Aethon or any of the Inheritors into U.S. territory and I held the door open?” Director Lancer wasn’t just angry, he was offended.  “I came here out of respect for our friendship, Ms. Dawson, not for a ridiculous request. I came here to talk in person because you asked me to. Do you have a compelling reason as to why I should allow you to search that hideout?”

They’d worked it out. Where would he really go if he knew that New Foundation was searching through his hideouts? The one place they were forbidden — the United States. He had one hideout there. They could try and sneak in but the flags patrolled non stop, and the U.S. was turning the gigantic military machine to the task of keeping everyone out.

Bedevil steeled herself. Archimedes and Templar could talk and argue, but only Bedevil knew this man personally. He’d only agreed to meet because of their old ties. “Thomas. Tom. Do you think I brought you here to waste your time?”

Director Lancer paused. He frowned. He shook his head. “No, Ruby. But things are bad.”

“They are,” she agreed, glad that he’d relented a bit. “I’m deadly serious when I say this: the fugitive we are after poses a significant threat to every nation. To the entire world.” She began to lay the case for why Director Lancer should look the other way when they went to Doppelganger’s hideout. Why he should provide them the gap to slip through.

Of course, at that point, they hadn’t internalized the threat that Doppelganger really represented. They spoke in abstract. They spoke in ideas and theories about what Doppelganger was really capable of doing. Director Lancer would have never agreed if he hadn’t seen it firsthand.

Unfortunately and fortunately, Doppelganger was about to show them exactly how much danger they were all in.

Mago entered the room, which shocked everyone there. Bedevil stammered, choking on her speech to Director Lancer, who glanced back and forth between the two. Archimedes rose out of his seat, as did Templar, who began to ask, “What?”

Mago did not acknowledge them. The command was already implanted. Had been for the last few days, since he’d been replaced.

He strode to the command center and tapped the comm system, and bent down to speak:

“Cog, you are powerless.”

He drew a knife, cried out, and stabbed himself in his heart, in his eye, in his throat, whatever would kill him before Templar could mend his wounds.


 

 

Epione did not like the sound of those words. She did not like the accompanying storm of red color that bloomed out from Paul. Flashes of rage and hate sparked and forked from him in lightning paths and he rose to his feet. His skin crackled, his eyes shone. He drank in energy.

“What the fuck?” Saw Off had time to ask, just before the wall exploded.

Epione summoned Carnality’s power as the debris pelted her face, providing her with invulnerability. A strange emotion filled her heart, a bitter desire to see Paul and everyone else in this room dead. A coldness that would see the task complete. The taste of copper in her mouth and the giggle of a blood goddess in her ear.

“Do you think they’d let you use this ring if they knew my mind came with it?” Carnality asked.

Epione drew power from her blood, weaving a shield around Saw Off and Lugs before the blast could strike them. She was a hair too late on Lugs. A hair too late as a shard of glass entered his throat and exited out the back of his neck. His blood smelled so sweet as he toppled back.

Epione jumped up, pulling blood from Lugs’ fatal wound and from her own body, and leapt into the room with a fresh spear woven from the ichor. Saw Off screamed somewhere far behind her as she faced down Paul.

“God, I miss this!” Carnality squealed as she lunged at the boy. Epione knew enough not to want to kill him, but it didn’t make the desire go away. She had experience managing Carnality’s emotions by now, but she had to admit, since he’d just killed Lugs she wanted to murder him right here. The need to kill him, he killed Lugs, he killed Lugs!

“Kill him back!”

Paul was different from Gabe. When Gabe unleashed his power it was like staring at a sun in human form. A fire elemental, a god of molten lava. This boy crackled with electricity and his skin undulated, his eyes filled with a strange pale light. He looked more like a ghost than a god.

The power that answered her blood woven weapons was the power of a god, though. Light and thunder and Paul moved with kinetic flurries. Epione tried to get close, just to lay her hands on him and still his emotions, but magnetic energy repulsed her before she could touch him.

He dissolved through her shields and leapt at her with a vibrating, crackling hand aimed at her chest. Carnality screamed in delight and terror, Epione was not sure which it was. One last thought for how the world would survive without her.

A shotgun blast interrupted the fight, catching Paul on the shoulder. Blood sprayed and Epione reached out with Carnality’s power, throwing Paul backwards. The boy was deft in his use of gravitational energy, fighting back and wriggling free to flee out the door. Saw Off tried again to sneeze on him but he got by her. Epione switched out her power for the other ring.

Another voice filled her head, this one confused and alone. A young boy named Alec, whimpering and afraid. “Where am I?” he asked, but Epione did not answer. “Everything is too bright!”

Epione reached out with his power and used Tremble’s power to shake the floor in a last ditch effort to capture Paul. Better to kill him than let him run back to Doppelganger’s arms! Better to shake the walls down.

Tremble’s power contested with the conjured material of New Foundation’s headquarters and won out, a unique quirk of her power that ruptured molecular bonds regardless of how hard they were.

They were submerged in darkness and rubble. Epione switched to Carnality again at the last moment and wove domes of blood around the survivors, around Chase, Torn, Tremble, and Saw Off. She trapped herself with Saw Off and half of Lugs’ body.

She could not see in the darkness, but the colors.

Colors of pain. Of agony. Of grief.

She didn’t need to see the colors to know that. Saw Off shrieked next to her, shrieked and wept. Tremble’s shrill cries pierced through the rubble, and Chase called out in Spanish, asking if everyone was okay.

The only thing the colors showed her was that Paul had managed to slip away and continue his rampage.

And Carnality in her ear: “That was delightful, darling. D-e-l-i-g-h-t-f-u-l.”

END // ARC 17: SOMETHING NEW

5.17.6

Other than a name and the warning that he’s uniting the Youxia, Lady-General Sal can’t offer me much on Warlord himself. She doesn’t know what he looks like or his powers, just that he’s powerful enough to get the Youxia to come together. However, she knows that his band is moving west — toward India, now vulnerable in the wake of what we’ve done.

Sal gives us that information and returns us to the White Shark so we can visit Doppelganger’s hideout, but asks us to wait and then takes her leave to speak with Remise for a little.

I don’t want to know how that conversation goes but I can’t imagine it will be any different than previously. I trust Sal not to kill Remise, and now I wonder if she even can. Her power is potent, sure, but the commands are resistable. Still, Sal doesn’t need her power to be persuasive.

We need allies for the coming war. Not with Warlord or the U.S. but the Fear. Can’t lose sight of that goal. The European Kingdoms would be a powerful ally. There’s also practical matters. Argentina is losing friends fast, thanks to us extracting Paul. Everyone is fine when we show up and kill upstart Cloaks, but the minute we do something meaningful that changes the landscape, they freak out.

“I feel a bit like the bull in the china shop,” I tell Mr. Gold and Linear while we wait for Sal and Remise to return.

“That’s because you are.” Mr. Gold, matter of fact as always. If he’s joking, fuck me if I know. “You’ve been that way since Houston.”

We are,” Linear corrects. “We all stand together, now.”

Thanks for the back up, Linear. Still, I whistle at the prospect of a war with the Youxia. “Honestly, I’ve never really believed the Youxia existed outside of scary stories.” I believed that Eastern Asia had an extremely high population that meant a lot of heavyweight humans thrust into a situation that forced them to get good at killing and surviving, but that doesn’t make them gods.

Memory haunts Linear as he stares into empty space. He’s always a subdued person, but whatever he’s imagining brings him down to a low whisper. “They exist. I’ve seen footage. Nero’s fought a few.”

“Sure—” I start, but Linear interrupts me.

“I’ve seen dead things, Gabe. The Youxia are boogeymen, ghosts, and monsters, and most people that talk about them like that are just trying to scare you.” He turns his frightening gaze on me. “I’m not. I’m telling you that they exist and they are as dreadful as you imagine. If you thought Carnality was bad, imagine a thousand of her. Ten thousand.”

The ensuing silence strangles any reply I might have.

Mr. Gold speaks, confident and level as always. “After Buenos Aires. I’m only afraid of one thing. We can paint them as monsters all we want, but everyone of us has seen a real monster. The Youxia, this Warlord, they’re people. People can be killed, they can be fought, they can be negotiated with.”

Linear doesn’t look as sure. “We’ll see. Once we get back I’ll tell Archimedes. We’ll get some teams to look into it. Not Saw Off, she’d get herself killed.”

“Wish we had Empyreal around still,” Mr. Gold says. “The angel on his shoulder would be very useful for that.”

No one knows what happened to Empyreal after his capture. Part of me thinks he is dead, but Mr. Gold insists that Empyreal was being held at the Galveston Rogue’s Gallery, but when he helped spring the Underground, he couldn’t find the man or the angel. If going there wasn’t tantamount to declaring war, I’d investigate with Remise. “All these borders are like chains. These restrictions and factions.”

“The imperative of the tribe,” Linear muses. “Everyone’s just trying to survive their way.”

I see a bit of Doppelganger’s reasoning, now. Everyone trying to do things their way is why we’re vulnerable to the Fear. But forcefully uniting them would make us tyrants. Diplomacy is impotent. There’s no good way forward that doesn’t rock the boat.

Reminds me of Megajoule. Doc told me his own legacy swallowed him alive, along with his quest to save everyone from the Fear. The world has too many webs to untangle for that.

I suppose if I want to unite them, I’ll have to find another way. I could just… do what I do and hope that inspires people to follow after. Oracle once said that people would see my mad quest for a better world and follow me, someday. Right now it feels like they’re trying to stop me.

Remise and Sal return together, the other three ORDERS capes at their heels. Defeat isn’t a good look on Remise, but victory is on Sal. She wears a proud smirk, her hands on her hips as Remise practically retreats behind me.

“Well?” I ask.

“A conversation for a later date,” Sal says. “Remise will have to make a decision later.”

There’s no sign of what that decision might be on Remise’s face. Her natural smile, the joyous glint in her eyes, all replaced with indecision. A conversation for a later date. “Okay, then are we free to investigate?” I ask.

“Free? No. I’m going with you, as is Sir Tischer.” She gestures to a fleet of black SUVs parked outside the hangar and strides over, expecting us to follow.

While the car ride is silent and tense, Scotland is gorgeous. I stare out the window and wish I could walk around, and fly over the country. Bedevil would love it, she loves greenery and she loves hills, but it might be a bit cold for her. She loves sand and water, the warmth of a sunny beach. Her Affect, her happy place, was exactly that.

“What’s the problem with Russia?” Mr. Gold asks Sal.

Sal blows a raspberry, an unusually crass gesture that puts crack in my regal mental image of her. “Constantly prodding against the EK borders, constantly remarking on everyone’s ability to patrol the Hellpact. They send their supers to the showboat at the Ukrainian and Belarus borders about every month now.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Doppelganger’s property is about a half hour drive north of Glasgow, nestled under green hills. Nothing that really stands out, just another two story house with an acre or so of property. I’d say that it reminds me of the one he rented out while in Buenos Aires, save that it’s not in a giant city.

There are already three ORDERS capes standing by the door, and another SUV parked outside the house.

“I hope they’ve not confiscated any evidence,” Linear says.

“None that I’d tell you about,” Sal replies with another smirk. I can’t tell if it’s a joke.

We get out of the car, and Sal and Sir Tischer stride ahead of us to the door. At the threshold of the cottage, the Sir Tischer stops. He glances inside and runs his hands along the doorframe. “There’s rage here. A lot of it.”

He’s the empath. Holy shit.

Suddenly his body swells up, like Trainwreck back in Houston after taking a few punches. His veins glow with crimson energy. When he speaks, his voice is guttural and hoarse, as if he’s screamed for hours.  “Too much rage.”

“A red band empath,” Linear says. “Interesting.”

One of the ORDERS capes comes up to Sal. He looks more like a street clothes detective than a cape. “We’ve already been through the house, nothing so far.”

Sal leads us in. The house is normal, set up in a very similar matter to his other town home. He has a style, I suppose, but considering his power of duplication it causes the hair on my arms to stand up. I worry for a moment that every safe house will look exactly like this one, that Doppelganger is playing a mind game on a level I can’t even comprehend.

Both Remise and Tischer hone in on the fireplace. “There’s a draft,” Remise says.

“Most of the rage is concentrated behind a false door,” Tischer agrees. “Someone was very angry here for a long time.”

Remise reaches down under the fireplace and pulls at a hidden lever. A mechanism pops and groans, and the entire fireplace swings on a hinge inward. “Voila!” Remise says, rising to her feet.

I don’t want to go in that room. Yet I soldier forward, the first to step into Doppelganger’s secret sanctum. I panic for a brief second, my heart stopping as I can’t see anything in the dark, but my hand falls on a light switch, which I flick.

Stairs, leading down into a hidden basement. I lift up into the air and glide down them to avoid making any sound on the old, creaky steps.

Webs clutter the ceiling and the furniture. There is a desk which bears a powered down computer and a spartan chair. Both pieces are lopsided and malformed, as if Doppelganger built them himself. There is a large stone slab in the middle of the room, large enough for about four people to sleep on it if they wanted. There are straps and chains for holding someone down.

I check for any markings in the walls or the floor, which would’ve been left behind if Kassandra brought him here, but there’s no signs she did.

Linear sits at the computer. He turns it on, waits for it to start up again. The machine whines and sputters as if this is the first time someone turned it on in years. Remise wrinkles her nose, but I can’t smell anything.

“Bleach,” she says.

“Bleach and fury.” Tischer shakes his head. “If this is your Doppelganger’s haven, then he sat in this room for a long time thinking foul thoughts.”

Mr. Gold drinks in the room in silence. He shakes his head. “Looks like a torture chamber, only without anything to torture someone with.”

Linear taps the top of the computer monitor. “There’s a camera. I’ll check his videos.” He digs through the documents and clicks through a few empty folders. “Nothing.”

Remise squirms under the desk, causing Linear to scoot back with an annoyed huff. “Not nothin’,” she says, climbing back up with a small flash drive.

There is only one video on the drive. My heart plays pots and pans as Linear clicks on it. I don’t want to watch it, as if watching it will propel me forward in a way that I can’t reverse, as if it will compel me to move and I will never be able to stop. I will it that the computer crashes, though we need the evidence.

And still, the video plays.

Doppelganger, six years ago. He stands in the very room we stand in, grinning like a madman at the camera. He has all of his fingers in the video, he’s missing a beard, but his face is still pocked with scars. In fact, they are fresh wounds in the video, reminding me of the claw marks on my face from Sledge the first few weeks I had them.

“This video…” His breathing comes in sputters, in erratic waves, and his voice wobbles through the tinny speakers. “This is for posterity. In case I die in the next few days… Cynic will find me. She’ll find this safehouse. It’s only a matter of time. If I do die, this will be evidence that she did it. If I am successful, I’ll end the video. If not, it will still be running when someone finds this.” That doesn’t sound like a solid plan but he’s clearly not sane at this moment.

Doppelganger turns from the camera and fumbles at the stone slab. The six of us in the room now shuffle from the slab, as if his ghost is passing through us and we are parting for him.

His words are slurred, tossed like a salad. “Her… her new intelligence group will find me soon, the boy Archimedes, barely a man, barely a man, but too smart for his own good. He’ll see it, someday, he’ll see it like I do. They all will. Archimedes, and that young girl Linear, they’ll find me.”

Linear starts. “Oh.”

No one comments on that for now.

Doppelganger holds up a pair of garden clippers. “They’ll find me. Whether or not it’s me, well, I’ll find out right now.” He puts his left pinky into the clippers. I want to look away. He grimaces, breathes in and out in panic, and then—

Doppelganger lets out an unholy shriek. The first cut does not remove his pinky.  He screams and weeps, blood pours from his hand and onto the shears. His grip fails from the slickness and his trembling, but he picks them up and still I do not look away, I can’t look away! He cuts again, this time slicing his pinky off.

Like a proud craftsman, he holds the pinky up. “Ah… ah… harder than I thought. Harder than I thought. But I need more material than I’ve used before.”

He needs genetic samples for his cloning.

My god, he’s going to.

Doppelganger turns back to the table. Flesh explodes out from behind him like a fire, crawling over the table and shaping into a solid form. Bone juts, skin crawls, and a perfect replica of Doppelganger, naked, rests on the table. Doppelganger cackles. He turns around and grins for the camera. “Guess this me isn’t dying after all.”

The video ends.

“There’s some proof, then,” Sal says. “You’re right, he can flash clone people. Is there anything else on the drive?”

“It’s just one piece of the puzzle,” Linear says. He looks awkward and upset, given what Doppelganger said on the video. Linear a girl. I could chalk it up to insanity, but Linear’s reaction… was too deliberate. Too genuine.

“But you’re right. It’s proof enough to me that you’re telling the truth.” Sal nods to me. “Aethon, you’re welcome to keep searching in the EK for other safehouses. I assume you have a list. I want locations so I can put eyes on them.”

“We’ll get them to you,” I tell her. I bow slightly, enough to show her respect. “Thank you.”

“This is a danger to us all. If this man can do this to anyone…” Sal loses some of her regal bearing to fear. “Then we’re in trouble. The world is in trouble.”

I take the flash drive from the computer before anyone can object. “I need to talk to my people about this. We may want it for the case we’re building against Doppelganger.”

Sal considers that. After a moment, she nods. “Very well. Remise, I look forward to hearing your answer. The other car will return you to the hangar.” She leaves us. Sir Tischer nods to us and follows.

I sit down on the slab and stare at Linear. “Is this… true?”

Linear frowns. He doesn’t show any emotion beside that. “Yes. I’m trans.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “That’s no way for that to come out.” I understand the need to find an identity that fits you well, the need for people to see you as what you are.

Linear chews on his cheeks and leans against the chair so deep I worry he’ll tumble out of it. “Only Archimedes really knows about it. I don’t know how Doppelganger knew, because I was already presenting as male by the time Cynic hired me. Maybe Cynic told him, I don’t know.”

“The only problem is that video is pretty conclusive evidence about Doppelganger’s ability to flash clone people,” Mr. Gold says. “He said something about not having enough material beforehand to do something like this.”

Jesus, I don’t want to think about this. But, we’ve got to to talk about it. “Maybe he meant… Megajoule. We grew up like normal children. Maybe that was all he was capable of with strands of someone’s hair. That’s not as useful as instant duplication.”

Linear nods. “I don’t know a lot about the lab but that does sound right. I know that he had a reserve of Megajoule’s DNA in the form of hair and nail trimmings, but that was confiscated before his arrest.”

“Nero killed him?” I ask. “I mean, the clone we saw.”

“He killed someone, that’s for sure. He came back with Doppelganger’s head as proof, I believe.”

“Yikes,” Remise says.

There’s an unspoken question in the air. Do we use this video as proof?

I shake my head as if answering that question. “This only proves he has the power we already suspected him of having. There’s better proof waiting out there, I know it. We need a list of names, proof he’s controlling them. This video isn’t that. This video could damage Linear’s reputation, so I’d rather not use it if we don’t have to. We’ll find another way.”

Linear still frowns, but he nods and whispers, “Thank you, Gabe.”

5.17.5

Lady-General Sal Tomas herself greets us at the Scotland ORDERS hangar as we step off the White Shark. Though I’ve met a lot of powerful people in my life, there are few I would define as “regal.” Sal is one of the few. Her bearing, her raiment, they add feet to her height until she is head and shoulders above the rest of us. Her gaze is discerning, not unlike a tiger’s, but her face is difficult to read. She treats herself luxuriously — hair as smooth as silk and flowing down to the small of her back, skin rosy and made up — but her jet-black, bulky armor she’s left to wear and tear, nicked from years of use.

Three ORDERS knights accompany her. A wolf man with eyes that glint yellow in the light, wearing only a red vest and pants. A red-headed woman with a silver chassis around her chest and huge mechanical arms that end in gleaming claws. A blonde man in a simple spandex uniform and a red cape over his shoulders. Each one has a different flower symbol somewhere on their body — the wolf man has a tattoo of a rose on his bare chest, the silver robot woman has a lily, the blonde dude has a cornflower over his heart, and Sal Tomas has a bright iris flower on her pauldron.

She opens her mouth and says, “Halt.”

The command hits my ears. My scalp prickles. A strange sensation washes over me, like someone massaging my temples, and amazingly, it feels like I’m walking through sludge. Remise gasps audibly and stops where she stands, and Mr. Gold halts as well, but I manage to take a few more steps with Linear. Robocop flexes her claws and we stop at the more implicit threat of violence.

“So you two are the heavyweights,” Sal remarks, in English but with a thick French accent. Her voice is just as regal as her countenance. She could have been an opera singer.

Remise only scowls in reply, but Linear speaks for our group. “Lady-General Tomas. Thank you for allowing us into your borders.”

“You figured this time you would ask before sneaking around where you don’t belong.” Sal smirks just a touch. “You’ve my gratitude for knocking before kicking my door in, like you did with India.”

I’m not here to get lectured by another Cynic. “India’s been comp—”

Sal snaps at me. “Silence.”

The rest of the word “compromised” spills out of my mouth in a tangle. I clutch at my chest. I can’t breathe deep, the air squeezes out of my lungs, and my throat locks up.

“You trespassed in their country and brought down their entire power grid. I’ve allowed you into my borders so I can question you as to your motivations,” Sal says. “Linear, tell me. Why did you cripple India?”

“Aethon is correct.” Linear, though a very tiny man in comparison to Sal, squares his shoulders and brings up his height. A little bit like a Hobbit squaring up for a ringwraith but it impresses me, anyway. Well, it would, if I weren’t gasping for air. “We’ve reached out to you because of a political conspiracy orchestrated by a former OPI operative named Doppelganger. He is replacing top level officials in India, and possibly other governments, with clones that he controls.”

Sal’s eyes widen. She glances back at her companions, and then beckons. “Come with me.”

I want to raise a protest, but Remise and Mr. Gold groan again and immediately start walking, and despite not wanting to follow her anywhere, I do want to follow her. The command wriggles into my brain by her power. It almost feels worse than when Doppelganger used his music to paralyze me.

Another strange sensation and I can walk normally again, and breathe at last. My legs are heavy and sore like after a workout. Remise sigh, Mr. Gold shakes his head, but Linear continues on as if nothing changed at all.

On the way, Sal tells us the names of her three companions: The wolf man is Sir Teddy Palmer of England, leader of the Roses. Robocop lady is Dame Melania Martina of Italy, leader of the Lilies, and the blonde guy is Sir Oskar Tischer of Germany, leader of the Cornflowers. She does not tell us their powers, but the only one I’m guessing on is Sir Oskar.

Sal’s keeps a tiny office, a room more befitting a forgotten professor at a failing university. Bare and badly lit. Then I remember this isn’t her hometown and she likely has a better office in France, the heart of ORDERS. Suddenly, Remise knowing French makes a lot of sense.

Her companions stay outside while she interrogates us.

“So this man Doppelganger. Former OPI cape. How do you know his plans?”

“He visited New Foundation and told them to Aethon,” Linear answers. He leaves out the part about Cynic’s mind reading power. “He actually hoped we’d work with him. We did not see eye to eye, unfortunately.”

“You know he has control of India? Do you have any evidence?” Sal asked.

“That’s why we’re here. Doppelganger has property in Scotland. We’re investigating all of his holdings before he has a chance to destroy any evidence. We’ve already sent other teams to known safe houses of his.”

For her part, she takes this seriously. I can see her weighing it in her mind, studying each of us in turn. She settles on me. “Did he make you?” There’s a shimmer around her head as if her skin is giving off a lot of heat. Much like I do when I hold heat just shy of glowing. “Answer truthfully.”

The words bubble up to my mouth. But I don’t want to speak, I don’t want to say anything at all.

The shimmer around Sal’s head sparks. Copper fire blooms around her head. Neither Linear nor Remise react to the flames, so either they’ve seen it before, or they can’t see it at all. I divert my thoughts from the answer she wants, even though it should be obvious. “You’re coppersouled.”

Sal’s eyebrows lift, ever so slightly. I’ve surprised her. Actually, I’ve surprised myself. Maybe Epione’s empath training is working, or maybe it’s some leftover symptom of my bond with the Fear.

“You’re very strong,” Sal says. “Yes. I’m coppersouled. I’ve known this for longer than you’ve known about the Affect. A truth for a truth, Gabe. Did he make you?”

A truth for a truth I find fair. “He did. How long have you know about the Affect?”

“For some time. Less than five years. We’ve an empath, as I understand you have one, too,” Sal says. “Though I’d be very interested to meet yours.”

I don’t let on that I’m developing some minor empathic sensing myself. “That might be possible, but I’ve no idea where we stand with you. We want to work together.”

“And you didn’t with India?” Sal asks. The question stings and it’s clear she meant it to hurt from her glare. “I’m the one who should be wondering about allegiances. India has denounced you. The U.S. is hostile to you. I’ve got too many concerns to be dragged into that mess.”

“But you agree Doppelganger’s a threat?” Linear asks.

“I do,” Sal concedes, slowly, carefully. “Which is why I’ll allow you to investigate his property. You get one shot and you’ll be accompanied by myself and Sir Tischer.”

“Where’s the leader of the Thistles?” Remise asks.

“There isn’t one as of this moment. The position is vacant. I wasn’t kidding when I said I have larger concerns. You’re familiar with the the Justicar group?”

Remise snorts. “Still a thorn in your ass, huh?”

“To this day,” Sal says. “If you’d not abandoned us—”

Remise scowls but does not interrupt.

“—maybe they’d be dealt with.”

The Justicars are some kind of freedom group, angry over the surveillance. I know bits and details but they’re known to attack ORDERS capes and officials.

“And there’s still Russia to deal with,” Sal says. “And since you’ve been kind enough to tell me about Doppelganger, I’ll give you another truth, if we can come to an agreement. If you want more than what I’m giving you now.”

“What kind of agreement?” Linear asks.

“The kind that benefits us both. Remise returns to Scotland as the head of the Order of Thistles, knighted as Dame Jamie Hunter. You grant one of my representatives a seat on the table of New Foundation, and enjoy an alliance with the EK.” Sal leans back into her chair with a smirk and a glance at me. She knows I’m the spirit behind the Inheritors, even if Linear is one of the top leaders, and Linear won’t make that call if I don’t like it. She’s observant.

“Fuck you,” Remise says.

That lands about as well as a brick through a window. Sal sits up in her chair, a dark storm brewing behind her eyes. “If that doesn’t work for you, Jamie, then I’d be happy to arrest you for your treason in revealing sensitive documents to the public and endangering our nation.”

“You were looking over everyone’s shoulder! People couldn’t shit without you knowing! And they certainly couldn’t be themselves or love who they wanted!” Remise slams her fist on the desk.

“Silence,” Sal says.

Remise chokes on her next words but stares in defiance at Sal.

“Seat yourself.”

She struggles, her legs shaking, and manages to stay upright.

Sal’s jaw flexes, her eyes widen just a little. Her shock is subtle. “I said—”

Remise leans forward, her veins bulging, her face nearly purple from the strain of it. She looks like a ghoul trembling as it climbs from the grave. “And I said, fuck you.” She slowly straightens and hobbles out of the room as proudly as one hobbling can.

Mr. Gold says the first word I’ve heard from him all day. “Wow.”

Even fury is regal for Sal. It is not red-faced or loud. It is quiet and dark, accompanied by a gaze that bores through me. She speaks in a tense staccato. “You understand that puts a damper on things.”

I thought that bringing Remise would be the right move but it seems it was a mistake. I’m not even sure what there is to say.

Linear, in a flat, level voice, answers Sal’s anger with calm. “I’d hope that you wouldn’t let a personal matter determine the governance of nations. Am I to expect that our relationship in the future is determined by the romantic woes between two women? I understand that sort of thing is frowned upon in your nation.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sal changes out her fury for a quick dismissal. I think Linear is on to something.

“She told us about your story,” I say. “About what happened between you two. I’m guessing that extremely few people know about it, even in your upper command. I wonder if Sir Tischer or Dame Martina know.” I really don’t want to be making threats but Linear can determine the probability of a particular outcome, and if he decided that going on the offensive means a likelier victory, I’ll go along. “We don’t care about that in Argentina. In fact, I find that outdated. Instead of being hostile to each other over something that happened years ago, why don’t we set that aside and work together, and not prod at each other’s pressure points?”

Sal’s expression softens. She leans back into her chair again, but this time it is a relaxed movement, not calculated, but defeated. “We are both disadvantaged.”

“I’ll talk to Remise. She may come around,” I tell her. “I’d be happy to float the idea of an alliance between New Foundation and the Kingdoms.” I’m still trying to unite everyone I can. The world needs to be in harmony to face the Fear. It’s still out there, even if it changed its form. Even if I broke the one mask named Rorschach, I’m sure it has others. “What do you know?”

Sal speaks. There is no shimmer around her head but the words hit me like bullets regardless.

“The Youxia are uniting. They follow a man they call the Warlord, and from what I’ve heard, Gabe, he wants to face you down.”

5.17.4

I enjoy my last cup of coffee with Bedevil the morning before I’m supposed to head out and start tracking down clues about Doppelganger’s whereabouts. We’re hitting up his various properties that Epione dug from his mind.

Bedevil is just returning from a walk with the dogs while I stir the cream and sugar into my mug. “Hey, we’ve got something really important to talk about.” There’s no joy in her tone, her expression is flat. This is deadly serious.

“What is it?” I am admittedly a touch concerned at this point.

“Our colors.”

Is she talking about Paul’s Affect? Hers? Mine? “What about them? Epione can look at your Affect if you want—”

“No, no, I mean, our wedding colors!” Bedevil cries.

“Wedding… colors…” I stare at her, unsure of what she means. The theme of the wedding? “Uh… pink? White?”

“Do either of us look like pink or white wedding people, Gabe?” Bedevil marches into the kitchen, her telekinesis pulls the cup from my hands.

“Hey, that’s—” I reach for the cup but Bedevil takes my hand in hers. She jumps up into a passionate kiss. Even after all this time, her lips… man, they just short circuit me. A current sparks between our bodies, a heat so delicious and powerful I can’t even think about drawing it in. I’ve given up alcohol for over a year but I still remember being intoxicated and lightheaded, and my heart hammering in my ears, and it’s like I’ve downed an entire bottle of whiskey when I’m done kissing Bedevil.

She shudders as we pull apart, her breath hot on my neck. “I love you.”

“I love you.” I rub her arms with my hands — she feels cold, so I give her a little heat — and retrieve my cup of coffee from the air once we’ve separated fully. “And why not ask Epione about the wedding colors? She’s pretty good at that, too.”

“We’ve already asked her to do so much.” Bedevil shakes her head, nibbles at her fingernails, and acts like she’s being a bother. “But she is really good at it.”

I wonder if Epione is good at it because she planned out her own wedding with Jason. I wonder how she feels watching him and Meltdown start a new thing since she can no longer love him. Maybe that’s what prompted her question yesterday. “I didn’t even realize colors was a big issue.” Then it hits me. We’re doing a beach wedding and that makes me think: “Blue and gold?”

Bedevil ponders that for a moment as she peels an orange with her telekinesis. “Yeah… Yeah.” Her eyes light up. There’s the goofy girl I love. “Yeah!”

“What was the kiss all about, anyway?” I ask.

Bedevil chomps on her orange. Through pulpy teeth she says, “Oh, it’s just in case you die.”

I visit one more person before its time for me to suit up. Paul, in his hospice room. I’d wanted him to stay with me, since Maisa spends a lot of her nights out and didn’t need her room for at least the next couple of days, but given his outburst Archimedes ordered him to be kept in the hospice center.

He’s awake, watching TV. Actually, not really watching it. He stares through the commercials, beyond the paid actors and bright colors to something dim on his horizon.

“Hey.” My word strikes the air and fails to pierce his malaise, sinking into the room as if it were a stone dropped into the sea. Paul glances at me and it’s like I have a time traveling mirror, one that takes me back to Colorado.

“Hey,” he answers, the sea spitting back the stone I offered. What a strange thing.

“I’m going to be gone for a couple of days, I think.”

“Hunting down our father.” He returns to his stare like its his holy duty. His jaw clenches and I know we’ve struck a sore topic. There must be a million confusing feelings inside him, just like there are inside me.

I’m not gonna bullshit him. I nod. “He’s gotta pay.”

Paul shrugs and says nothing.

“Listen…”

Paul interrupts me. “You said… L for Loved.”

I start.

“But you don’t know me.”

The statement reminds me of that horrible night I found out Bedevil was Kitsune, though I’d suspected and ignored it for two months beforehand.  It reminds me of what I said to Bedevil as she proclaimed her love for me on that rooftop, before I ran from her. “How could I love you if I don’t know you?”

Paul is taken aback by my honesty.

“I don’t know you fully yet, but you’re family. You’re my brother.” I sit down next to his bed. “Besides, I love everybody.”

Paul snorts, a tiny noise that sounds a lot like Doc, a little piece of that man that somehow made its way to this boy. “Everybody.”

“I mean it. Until somebody gives me a reason to think otherwise, I love them. They’re a human! We all need love and we all need to love. Far easier to love everybody than not, in my opinion.”

“But you don’t love anybody as much as your fiancee, do you?” Paul asks. “You don’t love me more than her?”

That’s one hell of a question, kid. “I love her more than you, yeah, but she’s gonna be my wife. I also love her in a different way than I love you. You’re… someday you’re gonna meet someone. You’re gonna love them more than anyone else, you might want to marry them, maybe not.”

“What about me? Because I’m your brother…. You say… You love me more than some of your friends?”

I can’t answer that. I don’t know how to answer that.

Paul looks me dead in the eyes. He takes a moment before speaking, and when he does his voice breaks with grief and his eyes glisten. “I love father. I can’t not love him. Do you understand?” He claws at my arm, digging his fingernails into my skin. I absorb the impact but he still scrapes at the top of my arm. “Do you understand, Gabe?”

I wrench my arm free and stand up, hissing as his nails scratch into my forearm. Not the right move, apparently, because Paul grunts and retreats from me, and clamps up.

I have to free him from this. I have to save him. Doppelganger has free rent inside his head, free rent inside his heart. There must be a way to snap that cord, like there was a way to free me from the Fear.

Droplets of blood well on my arm. “I understand.”

Paul does not reply.

“I’ll be back in a few days. Epione want to visit you. Is that okay?” I ask.

Paul shrugs.

I don’t really know what else to say. I linger at the door, studying his profile as he keeps his gaze locked on the television. I don’t know what he’s feeling. I don’t recognize the emotions on his face. “I’ll be back.”

Remise is waiting for me in the New Foundation hangar, which is a mess of metal, voices, and chaos. White Sharks sit mostly silent except for the one Remise and I are about to use. Mr. Gold and Linear sit in the cockpit, waving at us as we approach. I don my red jacket, completing the Aethon costume. Remise, for her part, is not wearing her armor. She’s wearing a simple mesh armor with a motorcycle jacket over it. Reminds me a lot of her old mask costume.

“Oi, Gabe. You ready to break some eggs?”

“Only if you are,” I tell her. “Did Bedevil tell you where we’re going?”

“Nah.” Remise is filled with childlike glee as she guesses our destination. “Are we sneaking into the States?”

“Better. We’re going to Europe.”

This stuns Remise. She stalks after me as I board the White Shark and the bay doors close behind us. “Gabe… I can’t go back to Europe!”

“Oh, sure we can! You’re with me.”

Remise checks for a fever, holds her arm out to make sure she’s not having a stroke. “Oh, God. God. Echo’s gonna kill me.”

Now, that is interesting. She’s not worried about being arrested. She’s worried about Echo finding out we’re headed to Scotland. I’ve always wanted to know but Remise would never elaborate. This seems like the time for some elaboration. “I thought you left over a scandal.”

“I did, I did.” Remise frowns and takes deep breaths. Once she gets control over herself, she goes on. “I’m… I’m not wanted over there. But I could never have had a career. I made me a powerful enemy in ORDERS, Gabe. She hasn’t forgotten, I know she hasn’t.”

ORDERS. The European cape organization, the equivalent to OPI over there. And Remise pissed off someone high up in their ranks, apparently. “Who is she?”

It’s like pulling teeth with her, but eventually she offers up the name. “Lady-General Sal Tomas.”

The name is vaguely familiar to me. An iron woman much like Cynic, before she started to crack from all the pressure of running OPI. One could even think of her as a kindred spirit, a rival, and sometimes an ally to Cynic. She’s known for her socially progressive policies in the face of a far more conservative society and her bureaucratic authoritarian (read: fascist) approach to governing the European Kingdoms through her ORDERS capes. She’s the de facto ruler. “What happened between you two?”

Remise scowls and struggles with the answer, wrestling with that inside her head. “She… and I… had a bad date.”

“A bad date? You’re afraid of the leader of the ORDERS because your night out didn’t go as planned?” I don’t really believe that’s it. Remise is beating around a huge bush.

“No, no. It’s part of it, it explains some things later about why I left. Here’s a terrible fact about the EK, Gabe. They’re not kind to LGBT folk. Something changed after the anarchy, something made them regress, and now they don’t take too kindly to it.”

I’m not really sure what to say to that. I know that the States used to be awful about that, but likewise, something changed after the anarchy. They stopped caring about it more than anything. Started caring more about outside threats like the Youxia and Africa and the Sanctified.

Remise hangs her head. She messes her hair up in a flurry and groans some more. “We were a thing. I thought it was casual…. She didn’t. We kept it under wraps because the climate wouldn’t have accepted us. I was barely an adult, really, and I wanted to have fun. I should have talked to her about it but apparently I went around behind her back when I thought I was just having fun, you know?”

I nod. Easy mistake to make when you’re a kid.

“But Sal and I, well, you know. I was a cape in ORDERS. Specifically the Thistles, which watch over Scotland. I found out there was a massive wire tapping thing going on and I reported it to Sal. She wasn’t Lady-General at that point but she was on her way up.”

“She was the one ordering it done, wasn’t she?”

I’ve never seen Remisel like this. Slumped up against the walls of the White Shark, staring off at nothing. Like Paul. “Turns out Sal was way different than I thought. She took pictures of me hooking up with other girls when I wanted to go over her head. Said she’d bury me if I didn’t go along with what she wanted. So I left. I left and I dropped the bomb and…” She clicks her tongue in disappointment. “Didn’t change a god damn thing, Gabe. EK is under more surveillance than ever. They’ve got cameras in people’s sphincters.”

I struggle not to chuckle, since Remise is taking this so seriously.

“I wish I could do something about it, Gabe. I think about my home all the time. I know I don’t…” Now she seems disappointed in herself. “I try not to talk about it. Not even Echo knows how much I miss home.”

“Maybe we can get you back there, someday.” I sit down next to her, trying to show her that I’m here for her. “You don’t always have to be the stoic big sister, you know?”

Remise chuckles. “Some things just come naturally to us, I guess. That’s my default state, Gabe.”

“Yeah, and mine is to dive into my friends’ problems until I can beat them into submission,” I reply.

That kicks up her humor like the wasps of a nest. “What was it Bedevs said? She don’t need your corpse hurtling at her.” Remise cackles in delight. “For real, though, if I could just beat this lady with your limp body, I think that would solve my problems just fine.”

“What’s her power?”

Remise hisses. “Oh, that. It’s… it’s not easy to deal with, so let’s stay on her good side. She can speak things into existence.”

I frown in reply.

“I’m gonna guess it’s Affect related, too, because I’ve seen it have different interactions on different people. She’s told two people to die in my life. One was a heavyweight cape. He didn’t die but god did he have a bad stomach ache for a while. The other was a common drunk that had accidentally killed a lady while mugging her.” Remise’s lips thin as she recalls that unpleasant memory. “He just… unraveled in front of me.”

“Why is she not in charge of the world?” I ask.

“Well, one, I don’t think her power is as useful on people with more powers, and two, she’s already in charge of Europe. She also can’t influence someone’s thoughts, just their body, I think. She can also create stuff out of the air with it. She usually conjures bullets mid flight, or something nasty.”

Well, now I’m worried about Lady-General Sal. She’s one of the powers of this world. I need to know them all. How else will I be able to fight the Fear? If we don’t unite somehow, the Fear will destroy us, no matter how many times I’m able to personally triumph over it.

We’re about to walk into her stronghold. Granted, not unannounced. Linear’s coming with us because he has direct communication with some of their higher ups. It’s not like India, where we just kinda… did that.

But now I’m wondering: removing Paul is probably causing a lot of suffering in India right now.

I entertain the dangerous thought, study it to see if I can unravel it. There are millions without power in India, right now. Removing Paul removes their power source for the foreseeable future, and they will have to adjust. People will probably die. People will probably hurt over this.

Even with that, there is not a single part of me that would change it. Paul is a human being. He did not deserve to be stuck inside a giant engine for the rest of his life.

There is always another way. I’ll ask Bedevil what we can do to help relieve the suffering, but I won’t give Paul back.

If they want him back, they’ll have my corpse hurtling at them, first.

5.17.3

I breathe in. My eyes are closed. I exhale.

I breathe in. “Good. Calm. Recognize what you are feeling.” Epione’s words come from across the universe, echoing across the walls of eternity and into my core. I exhale.

I breathe in. Epione guides us in our meditation. “If you have any thoughts, simply acknowledge them, respect them, and release them, and then return to your center and focus on your breathing.” I exhale.

I breathe in. Epione’s come to believe every person on this planet, not just her, can sense the Affect, and I feel like I’m so close to being able to see it. Maybe not the same way she does, but it’s almost as if I can feel the emotions of everyone around me like I’m using my heat sense. I exhale.

I breathe in. Someone fidgets to my left. It is so quiet that I can hear the scraping of their pants on the cold tile. Vaguely I remember that Paul is sitting to my left, and Maisa to my right. I exhale.

“What is this?” Paul asks, breaking the spell of meditation. I open my eyes. Our little circle is comprised of Epione right across from me, Maisa and Paul at my sides, Bedevil, Saw Off, and Mr. Gold, all wearing yoga clothes. Saw Off is really the only one I’m surprised to see, to be honest.

Saw Off, I’m also surprised to say, is the most frustrated with Paul’s question. “I was in the fuckin’ groove, y’all. I was catching so many thoughts and lettin’ em back out.”

Epione titters and pats Saw Off on the shoulder. “It’s okay. He’s new to this. Paul, what we’re doing is trying to let go of the endless parade of thoughts in our heads so that we can see the world with eyes unclouded.”

“Ma’am, I have no idea what that means,” Paul replies.

I glance at Bedevil, who has covered her mouth so no one will see her laughing. She’s accepted Paul with no problems; I suppose that once you’ve done accepted the person in front of you is not Megajoule but someone entirely different once, a second time is far easier. We make eye contact and I mouth, “I love you,” at her. She mouths it back.

“Okay,” Epione says, her tone unchanged through all of this. “Imagine that instead of a brain, you have a highway. Close your eyes, Paul, this will make imagining easier.”

Paul does so, reluctantly.

“Okay, Paul. Imagine you are looking at a highway. Imagine that there are many cars traveling through it.”

“I don’t…” He wants to say that he doesn’t know what those are, and maybe he doesn’t really, but since yesterday I’ve taken him flying about five separate times and I showed him the highways leading out of the city. “I see it.”

“In each of those cars… instead of a person… there is a thought. Doesn’t matter what thought is in what car, just think about all those thoughts in those cars.”

“Okay.”

I close my eyes, too. I breathe in. I see the highway. I exhale. I see the cars with my thoughts in them — an eighteen wheeler with all of the emotions of marrying Bedevil, a car carrying my worries about (I breathe in) New Foundation and the world, a mini-van with a bunch of (I exhale) dad jokes I’m saving up for when I become a dad — just as Epione commands.

I breathe in. “I want you to imagine the sun setting and those cars going home and the highway is empty, now. There is nothing but you, the cement, and the highway.” I imagine what Epione is saying and suddenly it is dark within my mind, but not an unpleasant darkness like when the Shadow possessed me. It is a warm night with stars dimly shining and transforming and melting and growing, and I am content to sit on the still-hot pavement and watch the celestial dance. I exhale.

“Look up at the stars, and see the colors. You aren’t making those up, Paul, those colors belong to you and to everyone around you.”

I breath in. I see the colors; bronze and gold and silver and ruby. Silver must be Bedevil and Mr. Gold (funny that he is a silversouled). Bronze would be Maisa, and gold would be Paul. I search the skies for Epione’s colors but I don’t have the slightest idea of what I should look for.

The sun dawns in my vision, almost without my permission, a pure white sphere rising over my imaginary highway. A morning star that shines over everything. I don’t know how I know, but that’s Epione. Her power makes her not like us. It makes her a unique human. I am sure she is not alone in this power, given that Tim Prince is also an empath, but I’ve never felt anything like this.

“What do you feel?” Epione asks. “What do you see?”

“I’m not alone,” Paul says.

I open my eyes and study Paul’s expression, and I’m not alone. Everyone else turns to look at him. At face value his words are good. His tone, however, is frantic and shuddering. Again, he says, “I am not alone.”

“What do you mean?” Epione’s face changes, now. She’s concerned.

“I mean that there is someone on the highway with me… and he is coming toward me… and… and…” Paul starts to hyperventilate. He opens his eyes. “He’s coming for me! He’s coming! Please!” His voice rises to a shriek as he repeats his mantra: “Father is coming for me! He’s coming for me!”

I warp to my feet and grab his shoulder. “It’s okay!”

Energy flows into Paul, heat and vibration and so many things that I can’t stop. His eyes glow. The ground quivers. The well within him is so gigantic. I wouldn’t say that I can’t hold a huge amount of energy myself, but he dwarfs me.

Epione reaches through my legs and grabs Paul’s ankle. His shining eyes flutter and close, and he slumps into me. The energy flows away as sudden as it appeared.

I help him to the floor. He looks so helpless, so shaken. He twitches in Epione’s induced slumber.

“What the fuck?” Saw Off asks.

A little while later and Paul’s back in his hospice room, Epione posted outside his door. His outburst ended the meditation session a little early. I sit down next to her. “Did you see anything in his Affect before it all went sideways? Is he… possessed?”

“No, not like you were. I didn’t sense the Fear inside him and I think we’d know. He’s scared and lost, Gabe. He has no idea what is going on or what he’s doing. All he’s known is that man and the engine room, so we shouldn’t be surprised if he takes a while to shake that off.”

I can’t help but fret over him. I’m already acting like he’s my younger brother. “We’ve got to stop that man. Do have anywhere I can start looking?”

“He’s got a dozen or more safe houses scattered throughout the world.” Epione leans her head against the wall and sighs. She looks so tired, so unlike how she was in the meditation. Very few see her like this; I wonder if Flashfire ever did. “I handed the list over to Archimedes. Do you want it, too?”

I sit down next to her, commiserating in our exhaustion. “Yes. I do.”

“Stopping him is going to be difficult.”

“We need the full list of names of the people he’s cloned. And we need proof beyond Paul. We need a video or some admission from him.” I wonder how we can get that. Unless he made one himself, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll freely confess. The only hope I have is that he has a record to keep track of somewhere, a log book with all the names. If there are hundreds of names that Epione saw in his mind then it has to be written down somewhere. I glance back over and see that she is drumming the chair with her fingers, her eyes closed as if she is in great pain.

“How are you?”

Epione opens her eyes and turns to me. “Always lost, Gabe. You know?”

“I don’t, but I’d be happy to listen and try to understand,” I tell her.

Epione thinks on that for a moment. “Do you know what it feels like to lose control? I am sure that you do. To feel like your body is out of your command, that your thoughts run this way and that? It is like that but for my entire being, I think. Since I died. Since Nero’s power brought me back. It feels as though…” She struggles for the right words.

“You lost a piece of yourself?” I ask, unsure.

“No, that I lost something holding me back from living,” Epione says. “That living means being lost, all the time. That to be found… to be found is to be categorized is to be bound and restricted. I am no longer restricted but there’s so much of me that is out there.”

Actually, I somewhat do know this feeling. “Like… there are questions in you, and you’re afraid of answering them.”

“Afraid?” Epione asks. She dwells on that. She nods, which clashes with her disagreement: “No. Not afraid. I am, in fact, afraid that they have no answer. I would much rather they did.”

If it’s anything like what I went through, she’s got one particular thought in mind. “What’s the question you’re wanting the answer for?”

Epione hesitates, but then steels herself and goes on. “Am I a human, Gabe?”

I start. “A… what?”

“A person. A human being.”

“I… believe so?”

Epione closes her eyes. “My Affect… it does not look like yours. It never has. It looks much closer to the angel on Empyreal’s shoulder, like a white fire made diamond. But even mine is different from that, mine flows like water, too, and it feels like I can never hold onto it.”

The sun dawning in my meditation.

“I think, Epione, that whatever you are, human or not, you are special.” I reach a hand out for her to take, if she wants, and she does so with a ginger smile. “Don’t tell Bedevil I’m holding your hand.”

“Yes, she is the jealous type,” Epione replies. “I’ve often wondered if my autism had anything to do with… well, this feeling that I am not a person.”

“Do you think so?” I ask.

“No, not anymore. My autism is my neurology, but my Affect is my Affect. Though they are entwined, they are… different threads in the tapestry, if that makes sense.”

“It surprisingly does.”

A voice sounds over a speaker above us. Archimedes’ speaks over the New Foundation comms system. “Will the Inheritors please report to command?”

I glance at Epione, who shrugs.

Chaos waits for us in the command room. President Lucio Genz is in a fury, flanked by several bodyguards, two of his generals, and Mago. He aims his wrath at Archimedes and Oracle. “You were forbidden! Forbidden from interfering with delicate politics. I want to know why India is accusing us of a black ops attack on their power grid!”

Bedevil is here, too, and all the other Inheritors. Saw Off and Lugs approach us, and Saw Off leans into whisper into Epione’s ear. The two of them drift away from me, so I take up a stance behind Bedevil.

“We ordered the extraction of a clone of Megajoule,” Archimedes says. He sounds annoyed, but he’s holding himself back. We can’t spurn our host. “India was using him to power their grid, a fact which we think was hidden even from their government.”

“It was Doppelganger,” I tell him. “And I’m the one who went to India. I asked to go.”

President Genz restrains himself, though he glares at me and continues his lecture in a more calm manner. “I expected better from you, Aethon. You were the one who promised me you would play by my rules.”

Better to ask for forgiveness than permission. “Sir, they had one of my brothers working day and night to power their country in a prison. We’ve stumbled onto a political conspiracy that could upend the world order.”

“I don’t care what you upend, so long as it isn’t my economy. And right now, India is putting tariffs on us! I worked so hard to avoid it with the States.”

“When did they announce this?” I ask.

“Just today.” President Genz manages to compose himself. “They addressed you personally, Gabe.”

That makes my heart just about stop. “Huh?”

Archimedes reaches down and turns on one of the screens, and clicks on a link from the list that pops up. A video of a press conference in India starts to play. The Indian President, Shakti Nambisan, address the dozen reporters from behind a podium. I find it interesting that instead of the dry style of western politicians she wears a colorful dress.

“Based on video evidence, we believe that the Inheritors performed a black ops strike against our power grid. While we are on backup power, our eastern border patrols are working overtime to make up for the gaps in our defense against the Yuxia.”

One of the reporters asks in Hindi: “Madame President, is there any indication as to why?”

“We suspect that Argentina is unhappy with our recent alliance with the States, and wishes to weaken our position. I’ve urged the U.S. President to consider sanctions against Argentina, and we will be applying our own to their country. To President Genz, I say this. You must fix the damage your hounds have done to our nation, not only for us but for the other countries that we protect from the Yuxia. You must deliver the Inheritors, Aethon in particular, to be prosecuted for their crimes. Only then will we lift the sanctions.”

A softball question: “Are you worried about the popularity of the Inheritors?”

“Not at all. Justice is justice, regardless of celebrity.” President Nambisan stares right at the camera. “If you are watching, Gabe…”

Her face changes. Her expression darkens and her eyes narrow, and her voice is almost an octave lower when she speaks: “I’m so very disappointed in you, Gabe.”

Those words are not her own. The way she spoke, the inflection. It was Doppelganger who compelled her to speak.

The conference ends.

“Is that name on the list?” I ask Epione.

“It is now,” she answers, meaning that it wasn’t one of the names she saw before.

“She wants your head on a platter,” President Genz says. “Why shouldn’t I give it?”

“Because that’s a clone, sir,” I tell him. “Because the man that made me has compromised the Indian Government and possible every other government in the world, and he’s willing to show his hand to tell us the President of India is under his control. If we don’t stop him, you might get replaced. Archimedes, Oracle. Anyone. He’ll replace you with a version of you that will do as he says.”

President Genz balks at my speech, but then he looks at everyone else in the room and sees we are deadly serious. “Why don’t we announce this to the world?”

“We need proof,” Archimedes answers. He winces, and adds, “We used Cynic’s power to find out in the first place.”

President Genz leans on the stone table in the middle of command, as if a heavy burden rests on his shoulders. He is silent for a good moment and no one dares to interrupt his thought. Finally, he says, “Find the evidence. Absolve Argentina. Or I’m going to give them your head, Aethon, you understand.”

It’s better than nothing.

“I understand.”

5.17.2

A small crowd gathers outside the hospice room we’ve set up for my brother. Bedevil stands next to me, her hand in mine, as I watch him sleep in tense silence. We’re joined by Remise, Epione, Meltdown, Maisa, Flashfire, Saw Off, and Archimedes. Nobody wants to say anything, but I can tell everyone wants to. Everyone wants to ask me about him. Maisa already wanted to know if I knew anything about his life.

Flashfire, glancing back and forth between me and the clone through the window in the door, breaks the silent gawking. “So what are we going to call him?”

Saw Off, who is looking at my clone like a cat at a mouse, says, “Daddy.”

“Gabe 2,” Archimedes adds helpfully. I say helpfully but I do not mean helpfully. I mean “like an asshole.”

“Gabe 2: Electric Boogaloo,” says Remise.

Maisa adds her voice to the chorus. “Gabe With a Vengeance.”

Bedevil guffaws until she sees me half-upset and half-tickled by all their suggestions. I’m upset because… well… he’s not me. He’s not Gabe Two or whatever they want to jokingly call him—

— Saw Off adds, “Gay B,” to the pile—

And well, I frankly don’t know what to call him either, so I growl, “Cool it.”

“Sorry, sorry.” Flashfire, for his part, does look a bit guilty at all the teasing. He knows all the hell I went through trying to sort my identity out, and while I try to be lighthearted, it’s still a sensitive topic sometimes. “Okay, so, what are we going to call him?”

Those that offered all the variations of my name come up stumped. Not a single one of them can offer up a good suggestion until Bedevil blurts out: “Paul!”

“Paul?” Archimedes asks. “Really?”

“What’s wrong with Paul?” Bedevil shoots back. “I had a turtle named Paul.”

“How many animals have you owned?” Maisa asks.

Bedevil clicks her tongue and waves her hand at Maisa as if that will shoo her off, and looks a bit miffed. “Twenty seven. But Paul. He looks like a Paul, doesn’t he?”

“Anymore than he looks like Julian or Gabe?” Remise asks. “I dunno.”

“Paul…” I murmur. I squeeze Bedevil’s hand. “We’ll try it out.”

Paul, my brother, stirs in his bed. I hiss at everyone to get lost except for Bedevil, since duh, Epione, because she can sedate him if need be, Meltdown, in case he uses his power, and Archimedes, who I really can’t make leave since he’s my boss. My friends and teammates scatter, and I open the door.

If I had to guess his age, Paul is probably around nineteen years old. His hair is blond, his face unshaven and haggard, but his eyes, his nose, his mouth, I’ve seen them all in the mirror before. That effect is even more unnerving as he stares right at me. “Where am I?” He has no gravel in his voice.

“You’re in New Foundation, a safe place.” I wait for him to ask more questions. I don’t want to overwhelm him.

Paul shifts in the bed. He has his power. I didn’t want to open up our talk with him panicking when he realized he was depowered. That’s the whole reason Epione and Meltdown are waiting just outside. I worry for a second that he’s going to make a run for it by the look in his eyes, but he settles into the bed instead of fleeing. “Who are you?”

“My name is Gabe. This is my team leader and fiancee Ruby, and the head of New Foundation, Archimedes.” I let go of Bedevil’s hand — which feels a bit like letting go of a life raft while drifting in the ocean — and cautiously approach him with me palms facing forward. I sit in the chair next to him. “We extracted you from that facility.”

Paul appears to be processing this. He chews on his cheek, an interesting habit already setting him apart from me, and fiddles with the blanket. “Why?”

“Because you were being forced to provide power to a nation by Dop… our father.” I realize now that maybe he was there of his own free will, even if Doppelgänger used music to coerce him. A brief anxiety that I’m just as bad by forcing him away from that life.

Paul nods. “I… never left that place before.”

Jesus Christ. I sit back into the chair and sigh, and count to ten to avoid storming out of here and flying to every single safe-house Epione can identify until I find Doppelgänger and bash his head on each individual brick in the vicinity. “Well, you have now. Do you have a name?” We’ve already dubbed him Paul but if he’s got a name already I don’t want to override him.

“Cog,” he says.

Seeing red. I hear Bedevil gasp behind me. What a fucking awful name, even worse than Thirty-One. I manage a tight lipped smile. “That’s not a great name.”

“It’s the only one I’ve got,” Paul says. “Besides son.”

“Would you mind if I called you something else?” I ask.

Paul shrugs and makes a show of indifference, but he glances anxiously at me after, clearly waiting on the name.

“How does ‘Paul’ sound to you?” I ask.

Paul considers his new name. He says it out loud, as if he’s tasting it, and chews his cheeks again. After a brief silence, he asks, “Does that mean something? Where does it come from?”

“Paul was an apostle,” Archimedes says, helpfully.

“Actually he was a tur—” Bedevil starts, but I break in.

“It means… it’s an acronym.” Once, long ago, Doc gave me this wonderful gift that turned Gabe into more than just a label people put on me. It made my name mean something and even if I didn’t appreciate that gift for a long time, I do now, and I hope that it will mean something to Paul. “Paul… you know. P for…” I hesitate, having to come up with this on the spot, “P for Powerful. A for Able. U for Unique. L for… Loved.”

Paul registers my words with a little tilt of his head, almost a nod but just a touch too subtle. He’s not trying to directly confirm or deny what I’ve told him. “Paul,” he says again, and this time the name comes easier. “And you’re Gabe.” He gestures to my two friends. “And you’re Ruby, and you’re Archimedes.”

Bedevil waves to him and takes a seat next to me. “Hey, yeah, I’m Ruby. I’m Gabe’s direct superior, and yes, his fiancee, too.”

“You’re correct,” Archimedes says, remaining standing. “Could you tell us a bit more about what Doppelgänger had you doing in India?”

“Where… is India?” Paul asks, genuinely out of the loop from his tone.

That question speaks volumes to me. Apparently it speaks to Archimedes, too, because he clamps up tight, unable to prod for further information. Bedevil, though, has a few questions for him. “How old are you?”

Paul shrugs.

“Did you ever meet any of your brothers or sisters?”

Paul shrugs. Still he doesn’t reply.

“How often did they give you food?”

Paul shrugs. This time, he actually says something: “Enough, I guess. A few times a day.”

Well, at least there was that. Basic human need fulfilled. “Do you feel like we saved you, or do you want to go back?”

Paul snaps his head up in surprise. “You’re going to take me back? To Father?”

“No, not if you don’t want. What do you want?” I ask.

Paul doesn’t seem to know the answer to that. He averts his gaze back downward.

“We’ll take you anywhere you want to go, do anything you want to do.” I know I’m over promising but god damn it, I can’t look this kid in the eyes and not see myself seven years ago.

“I want… to understand what is going on.” Paul’s face shrivels up and tears spill down his cheeks. “I’ve been in that big contraption for so long, as long as I can remember. And now you’re here and you’re telling me there’s India and New Foundation, and I don’t know what that’s all about.”

“Do you want me to start with India or New Foundation?” I ask.

“I want you to start making sense to me,” Paul replies.

“Yikes,” Archimedes says. “Kid got a sharper tongue than you did, Gabe.”

Paul doesn’t indulge Archimedes. He swings his legs over the side of his hospice bed. “I want you to show me what you’re talking about.”

The best way I could show him would be to sit him in front of a map and a computer with Wikipedia open. From his lack of knowledge I’d guess he’s not had a lot of exposure to the outside world. How did he learn to speak, then? How did he know what a vanguard was? Either Doppelgänger can grow someone with information already in their brain, or he took on the task of educating Paul just enough so that he knew how to talk. I’m going to guess the former.

So I ask, “Can you fly?”

“No.” Paul’s eyes light up. “Can you?”

“I can. I’d love to show you the world you’ve missed out on, if you want.” I hold my hand out for him to take.

Paul glances at Bedevil and Archimedes and then back at me. Again, I feel like I’m looking in a mirror. The weight of family falls on my shoulders. This boy is my brother. A twin in body and in mind, I feel that so keenly it makes me want to cry right here.

And, mercifully, he takes my hand.

“Where would you like to go first?” I ask.

A half hour later, Paul and I are flying above Buenos Aires. The ocean air is warm and salty, the sun kisses us as we rise above the city. Paul does not speak or make a sound that I can hear over the whipping wind, but he stares at the world shrinking as we soar up with wide eyed wonder. He gapes like a baby, alternating between surprise and elation, and still he says nothing.

I bring him back down to New Foundation after letting him drink his fill of the horizon, back to my apartment balcony. Pawpaw and Isabelle bark as we enter in through the back door, and Paul gasps as the two dogs rush up to him. He kneels down and runs his hands through their fur and smiles. “This is… What are these?”

“They’re dogs,” I tell him. We’ve got the apartment to ourselves — I asked Bedevil and Maisa for some space today to let him acclimate, something I feel the more people are present for the worse it will go for him. “The little one is Isabelle and the older one is Pawpaw.” Right after that, Bedevil’s cats come out to see our guest.

Paul coos in delight. Most of his mannerisms are like an infant’s, which bothers me quite a bit. He’s not reacting like an adult would. In her horrified rant, Epione said Doppelgänger could flash clone people to be any age he wants. If my hunch is right about him being able to implant information in someone’s brain, then I’m guessing that Paul here got flash cloned to be about fifteen or sixteen years old, given the time frame of India’s fancy power grid, but that his brain is still a bit underdeveloped in some ways. He may mentally be closer to a ten year old than a young adult.

“Do you like Captain Crunch?” I ask, before realizing that’s a stupid question. Of course he does. I pour him a bowl of cereal and milk, and then offer it to him at the table.

Paul leaves the dogs reluctantly, and joins me at the table. He studies the cereal and takes a slow bite. He chokes and spits it out, and makes a sour face at the cereal cud on the table. “That’s awful. It’s so… too much!”

I chuckle and wipe up his mess with a paper towel. “Sweet is the word you’re looking for. It’s too sweet.”

“Do you like to eat that?” Paul asks.

“Like? I wouldn’t say so. I’ve been working through that box for a few days and I’ll never forgive myself if I let it go to waste. This is the last box I’m buying.” I return the Captain Crunch to the pantry and look back at him. He’s watching me, studying me, and I recognize his expression. He’s searching for danger. The other thing I notice is how dirty his clothes are. “We’ll need to go out and buy you some clothes. Actually, I might have something that fits you. Hang on.”

I go to my closet and dig out some of my clothes that Archimedes rescued, like my vigilante outfit. The jeans and the jacket may be a bit large on him, considering he’s about thirty pounds lighter than I am judging by how he skinny he is, but they’ll do the trick.

“Here, I think this will look good on you,” I tell him, offering two thirds of the outfit that Home Run used to wear on the streets. He takes the clothes and starts to undress right in front of me, pulling his shirt over his head.

“Woah, woah!” I stop him and guide him to the bathroom. “You don’t have to change here.”

And it’s then that I notice his back is striped with a dozen scars from lashing.

5.17.1

ARC 17: SOMETHING NEW

Let’s talk India.

The Hellpact benefited their country more than Russia, Japan, or the UWC. They took on the lion’s share of defending some of the lesser countries to their west from the Youxia, and they became a new world power in the process. They have some of the most well known capes in the world, though they aren’t called that in India. The translated word for their powered heroes is “vanguard.”

Flying over India in orbit as part of my reconnaissance, I see that it looks like a shining jewel compared to some of the geography around it. Veins of light crowd all the way to border so that I have a solid impression of the shape of their country even on the dark side of the planet. It reminds me a bit of Houston in how bright it is, and the fact that I’m not supposed to be here.

“How are the new earphones working out for you?” Bedevil asks over the comms.

“Great! I can’t hear anything outside of them at all.” A necessary precaution for Doppelgänger’s music. With different settings it will actually filter out entire songs, which we’ve already set to filter the swing band tune we heard. I’ve been playing around with it and right now I have it set to completely block everything. “Hm, I wonder what the command is to filter you out.”

“There isn’t one,” Bedevil says. “You’re stuck with me.”

“Worse things have happened.”

Bedevil giggles on the other end, but trails off into a sad tone. “Hey, you’re not unhappy with me, are you?”

“No. Why would I be?” I ask.

“You just keep making jokes about… you know… filtering me out, I guess.” Bedevil makes a noise like wants to say more, but she falls silent instead. Geez, that does make me sound like a jerk.

“Babe, I love you. I’m ecstatic to marry you. I just thought it was playful banter, but I’ll lay off it if it’s bothering you.” I’ve got to figure out someway to make it up to her.

Bedevil doesn’t respond right away. After a minute, she sniffles. “Thanks, love.” She composes herself. Time to attend to the matter at hand. “Epione said the power facility he’s at is just to the west of the center of the country, putting him between all their major cities. I’m marking the White Shark on your HUD. It’s just you, Meltdown, and Epione.”

We’re keeping it to us three, because between Meltdown and me we can handle any of this clone’s potential power. The plan is to try and talk to him first but if he panics, to get close and let Epione sedate him.

A small white dot appears in my goggles and I follow it to rendezvous with the White Shark, about thirty thousand feet above the western coast. Epione and Meltdown are waiting in the opened bay doors. None of us are in our standard Inheritors costumes, but in high powered stealth suits Archimedes made based off one of the cloaks we captured. The suits are made of a special membrane with a chameleon effect that blends us into the environ.

As I get close, the earphones buzz, and Meltdown’s voice comes through. “Hey, there, Aethon!”

I float toward them. Such an odd feeling sometimes, even though I’ve gotten very good at flying. Odd to just hover at someone, so high in the sky. I reach my hand out and take Epione up into the orbital dance, while Meltdown floats herself to join us.

“We need to be out in an hour,” Bedevil says.

“What happens when the lights go out?” I ask. I know I was gung ho to save this clone ASAP, but now that I’m staring down the barrel, I have to wonder about the consequences.

Then again, he’s a literal slave. He needs rescue. Just because there are consequences doesn’t mean it’s not right to save him.

“There’s a back up grid, but it only powers their essentials. They’re going to be a bit pissed but they’ll have all the basics. We’re not destroying their country,” Bedevil says. “Archimedes and Oracle have reached out to a few contacts they know they can trust in the Sovereigns and in India’s vanguards. We’re not expecting retaliation. Plus, Archimedes is already working on some alternatives for them. They have a lot of brilliant people, though.”

“You know, the more you talk, the less sure I get.”

Bedevil sighs. Meltdown holds her hand up for a five count, and at the end, we drop in a synchronized fall toward India, letting the rotation of the Earth take us to the power plant Epione marked on our maps.

“This is a really gray area, Gabe. Yeah, we’re saving one of your brothers, but this is a mire politically. India is a potential ally for both us and the U.S. and if we take their battery, human or not, then that’s going to drive them one way.”

“Do they have to know?” We are in disguise after all. We could just take him and not say anything.

“If they haven’t tagged our White Shark,” Bedevil says. “We’ll see. But if Doppelgänger has a choke hold on their politicians and vanguards… they’ll probably know the minute we leave with him.”

That was why I wanted to do this as fast as possible. He doesn’t know we have Cynic’s power and he wouldn’t know we’re already working to save this clone. But he will know after we strike. I know that means forfeiting different options, but I can’t let my brother waste another day slaving in this power plant.

The power plant looks much like any other power plant I’ve seen. Large concrete buildings clustered together, huge cooling towers give off great pillars of steam, and thousands of cables running out into India to power their world. A city surrounds the plant, bright and shining, hundreds of skyscrapers and blazing towers that really remind me of Houston.

I reach out to Meltdown. “Stick near me, and we can enter through one of the cooling towers.”

She floats closer and grabs a hold of my hand. Our suits shimmer as we disappear into the steam clouds, turning us into vague blobs. I use my heat sense to guide us down into the tower. I envelop us in a bubble of cool air and kinetic energy that pierces the steam as we fall.

We land amid a metal grate walkway. Water cascades around us in a great torrent while we sneak our way to the exit door and into the facility proper. I follow Epione’s lead here, as she guides us by her Affect sensing.

“There’s some personnel in the facility,” she says. “But not many. We should be okay if we avoid them.”

“Where is the clone?” I ask.

“There’s a central building. Fairly certain he’s there. The facility is mostly normal except for that building, which is built to work with his power. At least, that’s what I gleaned from Doppelgänger.”

We sneak through the power plant, leaving the cooling towers and heading for the central facility, relying on Epione’s power to avoid any guards and workers. It makes it feel a bit surreal, not seeing anyone, though I know they exist because of Epione. The facility feels abandoned since we’re able to maneuver around the living so well, and the few close calls we have are almost like nightmares in that I feel this ominous dread as footsteps clank on metal down empty hallways.

Like I’m walking around ghosts.

Epione guides us into the central building through a lower hallway. There’s one guard, but thanks to our suits we’re able to slip past him as he stares at a computer monitor, and I notice afterward he’s playing some game. Once we make it inside the central plant, I find she was right in her assessment.

It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Huge steel cables and engines piece together in ways I don’t recognize, like the intestines of some god machine feeding off steam and electricity. Entire sections churn and groan, undulate and squirm, and I get the feeling I’m staring at something alive, not mechanical.

“This way,” Epione says, grabbing my hand and leading me down a cramped walkway.

“God, it’s flowing with energy,” Meltdown says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“One of the Indian vanguards designed it,” Epione says. “Or,  Doppelgänger’s clone of that vanguard did, anyway. That’s one of the names I can confirm. In Hindi his name is ‘Designer.’”

My heat sense tells me there’s a massive temperature flow as well. Whatever this thing is, it could power… good lord, I can’t even say how much this thing could power. I don’t think India is the limit.

“He’s just ahead,” Epione says. “He’s goldsouled. I think his power is remarkably similar to Megajoule’s.”

Good thing we brought Meltdown along, then. I’m hoping there won’t be a fight at all.

We creep into the inner belly of this industrial beast, and there he is.

He is immersed in a blazing gazebo, a forge pouring out heat and from the read out of my goggles, a myriad of radiation energy as well. He grips at two strange bars just outside his forge, which are connected to cables that feed into the guts of the engine he powers. He shines like I do when I absorb too much energy.

“There’s music,” Epione whispers. I can’t hear that, though, my earphone filters are working perfectly.

“How do we approach this?” Meltdown asks.

“We try to talk to him first.” I step forward toward his furnace bath and whisper the command that drops my suit’s stealth field. “Hello.”

The clone gasps and lets go of the bars. He wobbles back and forth in shock, his hands held toward us in fear, before he realizes that we’re not whoever he thought we were. He steps out of the furnace, no longer glowing, and good God it’s like I’m staring into a mirror. Actually, he looks slightly younger than I do, maybe around twenty years old. “Who… what are you doing in here? Are you from the vanguards? Did I do something wrong? Father’s not upset, is he?”

Instead of trying to unpack that horrible set of questions, I take off my mask. “My name is Gabe. I’m here to help you.”

He gapes, calling to mind that painting, The Scream. He gawks at me and reaches a hand out. “Why… are you from father?”

“No. He made me but I’m not with him,” I tell the clone. Honestly, I’ve got no clue what to think or feel right now. I’m not sure if it’s a massive relief, an aching for family, or anxiety that he’s not taking this well.

“Not. With. Him?” He speaks in a halting stammer, as if the mere suggestion that I’m not working for Doppelgänger is impossible. “Who are you? Why do you look like me if you’re not with father? How did you know how to find me? Who are you? Who are you?!”

He panics. He steps backward and throws a jab at me, one laced with kinetic energy. His skin starts to glow and spark and he turns into a solar being in the blink of an eye. I suck up all the heat radiating from him while Meltdown pulls lighting away from his skin. One thing is clear within a few seconds. He has a larger reserve of energy than I do naturally. I’m not even sure both Meltdown and I can handle him.

He’s not nearly as experienced a fighter as I am, though. He telegraphs every punch, doesn’t keep a guard up, and chases me with a frenzy only the terrified know. Which gives Epione plenty of time to slip up behind him while we siphon his deadly energy away, and slap him on the back. Against her power he has no defense. He falls into a deep sleep, thumping on the metal plating beneath us.

The engine continues on as if he hasn’t let go of the bars. Might take a little bit to wind down. Which means we have a head start.

“Okay, what’s our escape plan?” I ask.

“Come on. I’ll have to put that guard to sleep,” Epione says. “From there we just soar back up to the White Shark.”

I put my mask back on and pick up my brother, and we flee the scene of the rescue.