Category Archives: Inheritors

6.20.1

The pulpit never hid Longinus well enough for his liking. The crowd of churchgoers — finally, a crowd of Episcopalians, would wonders never cease, and in Argentina for God’s sake! — seemed less a mass of humans than a lump of flesh with a thousand eyes watching him, their arms and legs knotted together in the manner of a rat king. Did it seem that there were too many eyes, too many mouths, too many of every limb for the head count?

He suppressed a shudder and instead launched into his sermon on the grace of God in difficult times. Always a lovely sermon and given the looming war with the States, he felt that the people might have needed it.

“Grace is undeserved,” Longinus said, “and yet it is so necessary for us to function. What is a human without the grace of Jesus? What are hard times without the touch of His presence?” From there he brought up again the parable of a man who builds his house on shifting sand. “Faith in God’s grace will preserve us when the flood comes.”

And then Longinus spotted him, hiding in the crowd. The other eyes and mouths were open and receptive, vacant for the coming of God’s word. Yet his eyes were red, full of tears, and his mouth pinched tight like a petulant child. But this wasn’t a petulant child, at least, not in the time Longinus had known him.

This was Gabe, sitting for the first time ever in one of Longinus’ pew. A broken man. Torn apart by wolves, it seemed to Longinus. Beset on all sides.

Already submerged in the flood, his house of sand dashed away.

The service ended in the usual way with a benediction, a long line of faithful asking for advice and prayer in their lives, or perhaps just sharing gossip that Longinus offered a smile over, but Gabe lingered in the pew.  Even after all the parishioners had left, Gabe remained alone.

Normally, Longinus would have felt fine approaching him. But something in Gabe’s expression terrified him, something in the man’s countenance that spoke of a fury on tight leash. How he reminded Longinus of Julian! That was the face a man wore while his legacy swallowed him alive. Longinus, who previously had done nothing but watch while his brother whirled further and further down, needed to intervene this time. This time he would not let it happen.

“Lovely sermon,” Gabe said as Longinus sat next to him. He choked the words out, but through anger or sorrow Longinus couldn’t tell. Likely both, likely the boy never felt sadness without some rage to accompany it. The emotion sounded familiar in Gabe’s voice.

“Yes, well, it’s one of my favorites.”

“Do you really believe it?”

Longinus, taken aback, scoffed at the mere suggestion. “I’ve done a lot in my life, questioned many of my choices, but I’ve never questioned that.”

“Never?” Gabe’s eyes, oh God his eyes! Behind the glasses they burned and burned, a fire that would not rest.

“I mean… I can’t say never,” Longinus said, truthfully. He recalled some nights where he stayed awake and stared at his closet, worrying the lurking darkness would manifest and eat him alive. He’d often wondered why a just God would allow the Fear to exist. That maybe this universe wasn’t divinely ordained.

Sometimes that doubt was better than the alternative: that God had created the Fear. That God did not make this universe for man, for the glory of Jesus Christ, but as the feeding ground of a predator that haunted Longinus’ waking and sleeping.

“Your sermon. Difficult times.” The act of speaking just a handful of words at a time exhausted Gabe. Each sentence left him shuddering at the end. “Does God… allow that? You say the flood comes. Isn’t he in charge?”

Theodicy, age old beast. Longinus knew this line of questioning, he’d asked them himself in seminary. He’d seen so many others struggle with the weight of evil in the world. He struggled now, even behind the pulpit. What Gabe was really asking was, “Why do bad things happen to me?”

So Longinus set about answering that. Or rather, he set about letting Jesus Christ answer it, because he was not so arrogant that he thought any platitude he wove would do the trick. “Once, Jesus was was walking along and came across a blind man with his followers. The man had apparently been blind from birth. Christ’s followers asked him, ‘Who sinned that he was born blind, this man or his father?’ But Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man or his father sinned. This happened to that God’s work might be revealed through him.’”

Longinus trailed off, remembering the rest of Jesus’ statement.

I must do the work of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is approaching, when no one can work.

“So God let that man be blinded so he could have glory?” Gabe asked.

“No. Sometimes, bad things happen in this life, and it is God’s call to fix them and restore them. The glory of God is the glory of man, too, Gabe. Don’t mistake it for ego or arrogance. His glory is our healing.” Longinus stood up, the words night is approaching still echoing in his head. Gabe looked up at him and again, reminded Longinus of Julian so keenly that he was drawn into the past. To both Gabe and Julian, he said: “You did not sin. Neither did your father.”

Gabe turned his face away from Longinus to look upon the cross. “I don’t think that’s true.” He stood, too, and left without saying goodbye.

Longinus watched the boy go, dwelling on the damned words from that verse. God’s voice spoke into his soul.

Night is coming. Soon, no one will work.

VOLUME SIX: THOUGH GUILTLESS

ARC 20: THE MAN OR HIS FATHER

I am surrounded by a tidal wave of humanity. I am standing atop a building, which they crash into, rising further until they reach the lip. They threaten to drown me in their number, to make me join the bloated mass. I climb higher, onto an AC unit, and try to take off into the sky. My power leaves me there on the rooftop, with only a baseball bat to defend myself.

The wave of people reach the unity. I see faces I know in the mass: Epione, Meltdown, Maisa, Archimedes, Longinus, Mr. Gold, more and more and more, and worst of all, Ruby. Ruby fills this horde, her face screams up at me no matter what I do. “You let him take me!” her clones scream in unison. The horde chants together, one maddening voice: “You let him take us!”

This is a dream. I am not here.

I’m NOT HERE!

A claw squeezes my ankle. I panic. Swing my bat. Swing swing batter batter, swing swing. Break a face, break an arm, hell, break two. I kill a Mr. Gold, I cave in Maisa’s face. Survival at all costs. They’re Doppelganger’s, they aren’t my friends!

The lines are blurred, aren’t they? Clone, original, friend, foe. Life was much easier when I was toppling governments and fighting ancient deities. Well, not easier, but it made more sense.

Crunched faces, broken bones, burning lungs. Doesn’t make much sense anymore.

I step down into a sea of the dying and dead. Those not quite gone fumble with twitching, busted hands, blood foaming in their mouths as they squawk for help. Flashfire clutches his severed leg like a baby. Maisa groans and cries, “Gabe, Gabe.”

“Gabe,” Ruby says.

Her voice snaps me out of my stupor. It’s the real Bedevil, it has to be, it has to be my wife. This all is a nightmare, from before I met Doppelganger to now, just a cruel dream. I dig through the corpses, desperate for her to be alive.

She is only just. Her eye popped free of her socket, dangling by her ear, and her nose is crunched in. She spits blood. Accusing finger raises, points at my heart.

A beam of light from the tip of her nail cuts through my heart and the dream dissolves away in a heap of busted-mirror images, showing my life like stained glass. I lift my bat up above my head, still dripping with blood.

A hand snatches me by the scruff of my neck and lifts me up into light.

The rooftop and corpses are replaced by a small living room, a perfect replica of Epione’s McMansion game room that the Underground used to watch movies in while planning our excursions. Epione and Flashfire sit on the couch, waiting patiently in their mask costumes.

I wear my old costume as well, goggles, black ski-mask, and leather jacket. The icons of Home Run, not me, not anymore. I’ve rejected that old self, put him behind me, but Epione has conjured him up again.

“I take it this is real,” I say.

Epione nods. “You were having a bad dream.”

Flashfire leans on his arms, staring at the TV’s black screen. He is haunted by wherever Epione pulled him from. “Me too.” He turns to face me but his eyes can’t meet mine. He offers me a meager smirk.

Epione rises and walks around the room, her hands caressing the furniture, from the couches to the TV, to her collection of video games. She holds up a make-up box and smiles at it, fonder than any of the smiles she gives to people. “Just as I remember. Welcome to our first meeting, Gabe. We’ve got to discuss our game plan for the next few weeks.”

“I don’t like feeling surrounded like this,” Flashfire says with a shiver. “Why don’t we just make an announcement and deal with whoever starts screaming about their father or whatever?”

“Because we don’t know where he took our friends yet,” I say, thinking of Ruby. I can’t lose her. If she’s still alive I’ve got to do everything I can to get her back. “Once we know that—”

“We still can’t just announce this.” Epione sets her make-up box down and rejoins us at the couches, though she looks like someone tore her from nirvana. “We can’t let a bunch of clones lose into the world, Gabe. No offense to you. These aren’t… what happens if two Bedevils wander around? What happens when two Meltdowns exist? We can’t let these copies just go into the world.”

“What about me?” I ask. “These are people, the same as you and I. They’re brainwashed but we proved we can break them free of that.”

Epione lays her hand on mine, a gentle touch, but for all the gentleness I feel like she’s breaking my hand. “Gabe, if you think like that, we’ll lose.”

“We can’t just kill them.”

“No. We can’t. Not because it’s immoral but because it would cause us more problems. We need to grab them all in one fell swoop, so they can’t scatter and tell Doppelganger we’re on to him.”

I hate this. It’s against everything I stand for. Clones are people, no matter who made them or what commands are in their head. I don’t want my first option to be killing them, especially since they have no control over it. I can kill people like Nero, Carnality, and others that are aware of what they’re doing. I don’t want to do the same to these clones, not if we can give them a chance to get free. I fought so hard for Paul, so hard for Kassandra… “We can trust Kassandra.”

Epione chews on her lip. “Yes, we can. But we can’t exactly talk to her, she’s under lock and key.”

“Can you bring her into this dream? Not now, but maybe tomorrow?”

Epione nods. “I can bring anyone into this place. They can leave whenever they want.”

“You’re sure Kassandra is good?” Flashfire asks. “We’ve got no idea if we can trust her beyond the fact that you pulled that weird thing out of her Affect. Maybe she still wants to serve Doppelganger?”

“She doesn’t,” Epione says. “I watched her mind for hours with Cynic’s ring.”

“Where is the ring?” I ask.

“In my pocket…” Epione fades away, her eyes widening. She bolts upright. “Wait.”

“Wait what?” From her expression, this can’t be good.

The dream collapses the same way as the others do, my last image being that of Epione bolting upright in panic. I snap awake in my bed. My first instinct is to lean over and see if Ruby is sleeping next to me.

She isn’t. Our bed is empty.

I get up slowly, so as not to alert her if she’s in the apartment. I don’t want her to think I’m freaking out.

Our bedroom door is open, and from here I can see she isn’t in the apartment. Maisa’s door is closed. Isabelle sleeps in her little bed underneath our coffee table, but I can’t see Pawpaw, who usually sleeps wrapped around her bed like a guardian dragon.

The door of our apartment opens and closes, and not-Bedevil walks into view, Pawpaw on a leash. From our clock, it is around 5 a.m. “You’re up early.”

“Pawpaw was whining for a walk,” not-Bedevil replies, grinning at me. She’s a little out of breath. “I figured I wouldn’t get back to sleep.” She unleashes the old dog, who takes his place by Isabelle’s bed. Two of the cats, Tim and Lyle, sneak out from behind our couch but retreat when they see not-Bedevil. I bet they can tell, too.

Don’t worry, animals. I’ll get your mom back.

Not-Bedevil enters our room, stripping her running clothes off. God damn it, I wish the sight of her didn’t thrill me, that the curves and her legs didn’t make me want to take her now. I’m a hot-blooded young man, okay! And she looks… she looks just like her, and it hurts.

Please, don’t be unkind to me. This hurts too much.

Not-Bedevil joins me on the bed, kissing me passionately. She breathes into my neck. “I want you.”

“Maisa might hear us,” I say, trying to gently push her off me. Her skin, her lips, her eyes, they repulse me.

“Mmmm, she won’t, she won’t.” Not-Bedevil strokes the inside of my thigh, working her way up. “Please, I’ve been thinking about it all morning. I want you to plunge inside me. I want you to cum in me.”

Fuck. I need an out, right now. I can’t ever have sex with this woman again. I say the first thing that comes to mind, the least sexiest phrase I can think of:

“I’ve got diarrhea.”

Not-Bedevil pulls back from me, a strange look in her eyes. It’s not… disgust. It’s not anger, either. It’s a guilt of a kind. “Oh.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, I feel awful. The whole works, runny and—”

“That’s—” Not-Bedevil interrupts me, cutting off what would have been as long a description I could manage. “…okay, baby.” She gets up, not breaking eye contact the whole way. “Do you want me to go to the store and get you something?”

A reprieve. I know I should keep my eye on her at all times, but I need her out of this apartment ASAP. “Yeah, that would be nice.”

Not-Bedevil goes to get me some medicine, which I find to be a testament to Doppelganger’s ability to recreate someone. The real Ruby would be out the door the minute she thought I might be sick, and she’d come back with three boxes of crackers, tomato soup, and tums.

God, I miss her already. I know this isn’t her.

My phone pings. I’ve got a text from Epione.

A picture.

Cynic’s ring. Snapped in half.

HELL 1.2

The revelation that they were in China, buried in the middle of a ruined city filled with God knows what kinds of superhumans, should have dashed their hopes of rescue. It should have deflated them and made them resigned to their fate at the hands of Doppelgänger.

Instead, it lit a fire under the three women. Three days passed, which they could tell by watching through the safe-box. They determined no one was watching them through the cameras and they hid their discarded food underneath one of the cots. The propped up the cot frame they’d broken by simply slotting the leg back in place.

The Thin Man lurked outside the vault door, reading his book, but if his twin lurked, too, then they must have switched out while Bedevil slept or plotted an escape. She only ever saw the one clone beneath the window.

Echo was dead; there was no mistaking that. They dragged her off. They did not return her. Bedevil spent a night mourning but now she had to focus on saving Meltdown and Maisa.

After three days, Doppelgänger did not return. The only visitors they had were clones that came and replaced their bedpans. Bedevil had a theory: “He’s left the compound.”

“How do you figure?” Meltdown asked. She’d pepped up since Bedevil convinced her to get off her cot.

“He visited us every day, or at least more often. I’ve only seen one Thin Man. I think Doppelgänger is out. I think he’s left.” Bedevil couldn’t admit she was pinning hope of escape on a suspicion, but she had such little hope it would not survive if she didn’t find support for it. And it was likely Doppelgänger had to leave the compound at some point. Even more likely that his absence was their best chance for escape.

Her stomach rumbled; the price of their gambit to clear their minds and avoid being drugged. It had worked but now they were hungry, edging toward starving.

Meltdown didn’t agree right away, and Bedevil couldn’t blame her. She’d made an assumption based only on what she could observe: the singular, harshly bright hallway, the changing days, and the scarecrow man standing guard alone. Assumptions carried risk. Meltdown hesitated, visibly afraid at the prospect they’d make a wrong mistake. Yet she nodded in the end. “What’s our plan?”

“We need to deal with the Thin Man, first. If we kill him, we end his power cancellation.”

Meltdown left her cot, scooting closer to where Bedevil sat under the safe-box they opened. “You’re sure?”

Maisa slept in her cot, still recovering from the beating the Thin Man gave her after the clones took Echo. A flash of pity and guilt stopped Bedevil from speaking; pity that the girl was here, guilt that she couldn’t stop the Thin Man from hurting the girl. Guilt that Maisa was imprisoned yet again, locked away like she must have been when she was in Pandahead’s ring.

“I’m sure,” Bedevil said. “When he got angry, I felt my power return for a second. I think he needs to be in control and if he isn’t, we might get our powers back. And if we kill him, definitely.”

“How do we kill him?” Meltdown asked. “He’s armed.”

Bedevil pointed to the leg of the cot they’d ripped free. “A few more of those and we are, too. The door opens outward, which means he’s disadvantaged coming in. The operating table Doppelgänger uses isn’t bolted down and it’s made of metal, which means we could use it as cover and charge him out the door. We get him riled up — which he probably will be once we ambush him — or we kill him, and we can use our powers to escape this place.”

Meltdown thought about it. “But the other clones.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m working on. We need to get him to open the door on his own, without any of our clones involved. At least until we can get our powers back. We’d need to wait until we’re sure he’s alone.”

“What if we wait until they change out our bedpans, a couple or so minutes after that, and then you and I start another fight? D-man wants us alive and if we threaten to kill each other the weird guy has to intervene, doesn’t he?” Meltdown shrugged as if this was a pitiful offering, but to Bedevil it was a divine gift. Of course he wanted them alive! He wanted more and more powerful clones, and that was why he’d gotten rid of Echo. She was… well, Welterweight, maybe Cruiserweight.

That made Bedevil the worst sort of person. Turned her into someone like Doppelgänger, turned her into a creature whose only aim was survival.

Staring at Maisa, her breath whistling through her broken nose as she slept, Bedevil realized she’d do whatever it took to get them home. If that meant sacrificing some of her humanity… well, she’d given it up piece by piece for years, and only just now had she regained it. What was a little more to make sure these two held their loved ones again?

When she saw Gabe again, she’d know it was worth it.

But God! A spear in her heart. She thought it, mandated it: Echo is dead. You can’t change that.

“Let’s pick a fight, then.”

They woke Maisa and explained their plan. Meltdown put on another minor show of theatrics, as she had once or twice the last few days to throw off the suspicion of their earlier endeavor, and Maisa and Bedevil wrenched two more cot legs free. They replaced them, only unfastened, and waited.

Midday turned to afternoon outside and the vault door opened yet again. The clones and the Thin Man entered the room to replace the bed pans. The clones — two of Bedevil, one of Meltdown, one of Mr. Gold — did their duty while the Thin Man stared them down.

Her heart stopped when she realized he was studying her, eyes squinted in suspicion, which made his gaunt face look even more like some ghoulish mask you could buy in a Halloween store. Cast in the harsh light from behind him, his suspicion transcended into the full attention of some dread demon, its hell eyes burning through her scalp to mine out her thoughts. She almost wanted to scream: Yes! We are plotting our escape!

“Where is Echo?” Meltdown asked, full of hate. Her question pulled the demon’s eye away from Bedevil.

The Thin Man placed his long, spindly fingers on Meltdown’s jaw and clamped down, pulling her eyes up to meet him. Not that she needed the help, she was very willing to stare him down. “Shut your mouth, bitch. You’ve run it constantly these past few days, and father will not mind if I take your tongue.”

With that, he released her, the clones departed with the old bedpans, and he shut the vault door behind him.

The girls wordlessly grabbed their weapons, their plan already cemented in their mind. A simple plan, with only one moving part: the vault door. The simpler a plan was, the more likely to succeed, Bedevil hoped.

Or the more likely to be stomped on by a greater snare than they anticipated.

But it was either wait to die or force the issue now.

Thus armed with scraps of metal, they overturned the operating table. Bedevil sawed the restraints free and used them as dusters, in case she needed to punch someone. The other pair she gave to Maisa, who trained often in hand-to-hand.

They were exhausted, starving.

Desperate to win.

Meltdown started her horrendous shrieking, ranting and raving: “I can’t die here! I can’t! My baby! My Jamie! My Jason!”

“Shut up!” Bedevil screamed back at her.

“Both of you calm down!” Maisa shouted, adding to the pantomime fight. “Put that down, Bedevil!”

“You don’t have the guts!” Meltdown’s shrieking filled the space, pressed against the walls, and dug into Bedevil’s ears so deep she thought the sound would slice her brain.

“You don’t think I do?” Bedevil played at swinging the leg around, smacking it against the stone and table, hoping it would ring loud enough for the Thin Man to hear. Hoping that he was not summoning the clones but decided to investigate alone. She knew if he brought anyone else they were dead. “Just shut up! Shut up or I’ll make you shut up!”

“Come on!”

“I’ll fucking kill you, you psycho!”

The mechanism hissed. The moment of truth came. The vault door swung open.

The Thin Man stood there, blinking in surprise, alone.

The trio screamed in unison, a last ditch warcry to give their muscles as much energy as they could muster, and charged forward with the table. The Thin Man had no time at all to shout, only to aim his gun and fire once.

The bullet pinged and Bedevil felt a pinch in her hip somewhere, and then warmth even as they charged. Her legs threatened to give out but Maisa and Meltdown did not relent. They slammed into the Thin Man, throwing him to the ground. His gun clattered to Bedevil’s feet.

Meltdown smashed the Thin Man in the face with her makeshift pole while Bedevil fumbled at the gun with shaking hands. Her leg, her upper thigh, she’d been shot, she dropped the gun, the Thin Man kicked Meltdown—

Maisa soared by on her board of light. “My power!”

“Go!” Bedevil shouted. “Find out where we are!”

Electricity crackled around Meltdown’s head, feeding in tendrils from the lights and the outlets lining the walls. A wave of force emanated in a sphere around her, flinging the table, the gun, and their makeshift cudgels. Bedevil dove to the ground, unable to hear over the wall of sound accompanying the unleashed Meltdown.

Bedevil grabbed the gun and fired at the Thin Man, who’d been shoved against the wall by Meltdown’s gravity burst. He rushed to take cover behind the vault door, covering his head with his lanky arms.

The wall between her and her power vanished. She was right. She took no chances: with all of the tendrils at her command, she pressed the vault door in on the Thin Man. The mechanism and the hinges gave the shrill cry of their demise, and with them the Thin Man as he was pinched between the metal slab and the wall.

A bolt of lightning struck the vault door, and the Thin Man’s cry became monstrous. The smell of sizzling flesh hit Bedevil’s nose, a metallic, sulfurous, yet sweet smell, too many smells.

The inhuman scream shrank into a horrible squeaking and at last into nothing.

The Thin Man’s end did not coincide with the end of their escape. At the end of the hall, Meltdown already rushed to help Maisa, who trapped a Bedevil clone within a dome of hard light. Bedevil flung herself down the hall to join them.

Their battlefield was the basement lobby of a bank, their freedom tantalizingly close at twenty feet above, beyond a field of razor wire strung across the stairwell to keep intruders from entering. With their powers they’d easily slice through that, but only if they weren’t interrupted.

Two clones, one of Meltdown and one of Maisa, erupted from one of the side doors with lightning and colorful saws strobing with power. Bedevil aimed the gun but an invisible giant’s fist slammed her down, trying to grind her into bone meal. Not her telekinesis, but Meltdown’s gravity manipulation. She propped herself up with her tendrils, forming a cushion around herself to keep from being crushed.

The buzz of lightning, the whisper of Maisa’s constructs, the screams of battle. The gun burst under the enormous pressure, her ears popped, it was awful, awful, God almighty, awful. Gabe, she thought at the last miserable moment, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back to you. I’m sorry you’ll never know I died here.

Then she was free, as Maisa’s disk removed the clone Meltdown’s head. The clone Maisa responded in kind, trying to behead the original Maisa, but Bedevil flung the clone into the barbed wire and trussed her up with her telekinesis.

“We’ve got to go,” Bedevil said.

Maisa stared at her twin, bleeding out in a tangle of barbed wire, a wild and unnerving look in her eyes. Her own death mirrored there before her, robbing her of her will to fight on.

“Maisa! Come on!” Bedevil had no gentleness left; she seized Maisa by her arm, intent on dragging her out of the bank if she wouldn’t move.

But Maisa whispered a handful of words that would doom them. “We’ve got to find Echo.”

Bedevil couldn’t afford a rescue mission. She knew it was pointless: Echo was dead. She repeated the mantra. “Come on, Maisa, she’s been gone for three days. She’s not—”

“Gabe would never forgive us if we left her behind!” Maisa slipped free of Bedevil, sprinting through the doors before Bedevil could stop her.

Meltdown made to chase the girl, but whether to join or stop her, Bedevil couldn’t tell. She tried to give the woman direction: “We’ve got to retreat, Meltdown. Help me catch her. We can’t do this right now!”

“She’s right. Gabe would never forgive us if we didn’t rescue her.” Meltdown didn’t wait for a reply. She disappeared through the door.

Bedevil snarled. How dare they invoke her love? How dare they say his name like a god, as if everything he’d said was law. They didn’t know that he’d nearly killed himself three times over flinging himself into trouble, only surviving by the skin of his teeth or the help of his friends. They didn’t see him bloodied and broken after Sledge, after Nero, after every goddamn fight.

They only saw the ideal of him. Like Doppelgänger did when he claimed Gabe couldn’t save the world.

None of them knew the man himself, just what he presented. She shared his bed, she knew his heart.

And… and…

And they were right. Gabe would never forgive her if she gave up on Echo without making certain.

Bedevil charged through the door after her friends, hoping that this wasn’t a suicide mission. Her hopes were dashed immediately: Maisa held a wall of light against a squadron of clones pushing down the hall. Bedevil, Mr. Gold, Meltdown, Maisa, Echo, more faces she recognized from New Foundation. They marched forward, their own powers smashing against Maisa’s shields, all dressed in the same black armor with the strange symbol: paper dolls, holding hands.

Bedevil glanced to her right and saw Meltdown gawking at a window, or really at what lay beyond it: rows upon rows upon rows of naked bodies stacked like books on top of each other. Packed like meat. So many people, all sitting there, quiet and still. Eyes open but seeing nothing. Mouth twisted into a vacant smile.

She reached out with her tendrils to crush it all. Her telekinesis ripped through cement, through glass, through flesh and bone. The worst thing was the naked clones made no sound as she brought the ceiling down on them.

Once that task was done, she turned to Maisa’s failing barrier. These imitations were not as strong as the originals, or else they would have busted through Maisa’s hard light long before this. Bedevil intended to show them how much stronger she was.

She collapsed the hallway, forcing a cave in and tons of rubble onto Doppelgänger’s clones. She didn’t know if that killed them or if they collectively had the power to survive, but it didn’t matter.

Bedevil grabbed Meltdown, whirling her away from the destroyed storage room. She tried to ignore a forearm sticking out of the ruin, groping around as nerve endings fired off. Easy enough: she was furious. They’d risked their escape and they had nothing to show for it. “We’re leaving. Now.”

Neither Meltdown nor Maisa could protest. They followed without a word.

She led the way out of the basement, ripping the barbed wire away as simple as a broom clears a cobweb from the corner of a room, and the trio escaped by punching through a glass door.

Over collapsed buildings and broken streets they soared, staring down at the end result of an unchecked superhuman war; a skyline of broken daggers, snaked through by a black river that bubbled and smoked like tar. No signs of human life, no lights, no fires, no safety. They’d made it free of Doppelgänger’s dungeon but they had no idea where they were. In some nameless Chinese graveyard, possibly crawling with bogeymen.

They alighted in a cube of a building, opened to the world by a charred hole in the top, and climbed down a flight of stairs and found a small room to hide away in. There was a singular window at an inconvenient height to look out, but that meant they wouldn’t have unwanted spies.

Bedevil could not find victory in this escape. She barely considered it one; they were still lost in an unknown land, a dangerous other world she’d scarcely believed existed. Meltdown and Maisa were in similar spaces, though Maisa found the energy to help Bedevil remove the bullet in her hip. With her tendrils and a strip of Maisa’s gown, they covered the wound. She hadn’t started to feel the pain yet but she knew it would come.

“Thank you,” Bedevil said, patting Maisa’s arm. “Are you okay?”

“I’m not injured.” The girl sat down next to Bedevil and scooted close, sharing her warmth. “I’m… We’re free. That’s it.”

“Yeah, that’s it.” Bedevil leaned into Maisa. The adrenaline began to wear off; pain started to take its place. They’d escaped, but she wondered if they’d even survive the night.

“That’s not it.” Meltdown looked hideous, an accusing judge staring down her nose at a murderer. “We left behind one of our own.”

“We didn’t leave behind anyone,” Bedevil said. “She’s gone, Meltdown. She’s dead.”

“You don’t know that. We didn’t get to see.” Meltdown stayed at her end of the room, and Maisa offered no statement one way or the other. She stammered, averted her eyes, and left Bedevil to the argument.

“We didn’t need to see. He took her because he didn’t need her anymore. What would you do if you were him?” Bedevil asked.

“I wouldn’t give up on her! Gabe wouldn’t!”

“Stop saying his name like it justifies being stupid.”

Meltdown started at that. “Stupid? Is it stupid to care about our friends?”

“No, it’s not.” Bedevil wanted to back track, wanted to forget all of this. She wanted to curl up and go to sleep. “But it is stupid to try and dig up a corpse because you refuse to see the truth. It’s stupid to get us killed because you can’t accept that!”

Meltdown sniffled, the accusation cutting deep. “She’s… we don’t know. That’s awful, Bedevil. That’s god damn awful and cruel and heartless—”

Bedevil rose to her feet, but her wounded leg betrayed her, bringing her to her knees. She gasped, pain running its blade through the bottom half of her body, and she couldn’t say another word.

I do care, she thought. I have to care about all of you.  

HELL 1.1

Bedevil was missing five of her teeth. Two of her bottom right molars, one of her bottom left, and one from her upper left. Mostly from the back of her mouth, but he’d taken one of her incisors from the top, too, marring her smile. The gaps in her mouth throbbed when she ran her tongue over them. Otherwise, they ached in a remote fashion, such that she was unbothered as long as she didn’t focus on it.

He took all of her hair. She tried not to dwell on it, but it made her feel ugly.

After sleeping for a bit the first night (though, she couldn’t really say if it was night), she measured out the dimensions of their prison as best she could and determined, by way of the deposit boxes lining the walls, that they were in a bank vault. There wouldn’t be money in the boxes, but valuables, or so she guessed. Bedevil found every box she tried to open locked.

Maisa was very helpful, helping Bedevil try out the boxes, but Meltdown slept a long while and Echo just watched them as they worked, not contributing.

Every so often, someone would come and change their bedpans, and bring them a pitiful meal of bread, scrambled eggs, and milk. Maisa and Bedevil put their heads together but they were tired and delirious, often so tired all they could do was sleep. Doppelgänger put sedatives in their food to keep them compliant, probably.

There was a single window above the vault door that always let in a harsh white light, and with Maisa’s help Bedevil was able to climb up and look through it. The window let her see a hallway that turned sharply to the right. There were two doors to the right and one to the left. Bedevil could just see the top of the Thin Man’s head in front of the vault door, where he sat with a book.

Time passed. Drugged and underfed, they couldn’t find flaws in their prison. They slept often. She felt her hair growing, which gave her a rough estimate of time. A week or so and she had gone from a clean scalp to a scratchy buzz cut.

The door to the vault hissed and swung outward — important, Bedevil thought, that’s very important if we try to escape — and in walked Doppelgänger flanked by two of the Thin Men and five more behind. The light blinded her for a moment, but as they entered and she adjusted to the light, she made them out.

Bedevil stiffened her body, her only resort against crying out in terror, as she came face to face with a clone of herself. Like looking in a mirror, only her expression was blank, her eyes were dead. Her hair long and beautiful. She fought against the instinct to grab a rock, a piece of metal, and bash her twin’s head in.

The other three were clones of Meltdown, Maisa, and Mr. Gold. The final person was an African man that Bedevil had never seen before.

Each of the clones, including the Thin Men, wore strange black bodysuits with a symbol on their chest that resembled a trio of white paper dolls holding hands.

Echo whimpered in the dark.

Doppelgänger extended his hand to Bedevil as if he were escorting her to a ball. “My dear, would you be so kind as to get onto the table?”

Bedevil complied, though she wanted to chew his head off. She lied down on the table, and her own clone strapped her by the wrists and ankles. One of the Thin Men swabbed her elbow with a cotton ball soaked with alcohol, while the other squeezed her arm with a tourniquet.

Doppelgänger pulled a needle from his tote, connected by way of a tube to a blood bag.

“I don’t get it,” Bedevil said. “Why not just take my toes, or my fingers?”

“You mean like I’ve done to myself? Harsh measures, when I was more unpracticed. The hair, the teeth, those are far more useful to me.” Doppelgänger tapped her elbow, gripped her forearm. He gave her a sorry look. “You can look away if you want.”

Needles did not scare her. She looked him in the eyes while he punctured her vein, watching in silence as the tube filled with blood.

“You’re strong. The others have broken down and wailed by now, but you don’t.” Doppelgänger seemed to want to fill the silence rather than make meaningful conversation, in that he didn’t immediately pursue the topic again when she refused to answer. “Are you waiting for him?”

Bedevil tried not to let that get her, but it elicited a tiny gasp that did not go unnoticed.

Doppelgänger smirked at her. “In time, I’ll return you to him.”

“I want to believe that,” she said.

“I know you do.”

“How much blood are you taking?” she asked.

“Enough,” he said. “We’ll feed you after. You need to stay strong. Grow your hair back for me. I work best with hair and teeth, and I don’t want to ruin your smile for when I give you back to Gabe.”

“He’ll come looking for me when he finds out I’m missing,” she said.

“He doesn’t know you’re missing.” Doppelgänger smirked again, an ungracious victor.

Bedevil realized what that meant. There was already a clone of her at New Foundation. One that was posing as Gabe’s fiancee. One that was living in their apartment, pretending to be in love with him, pretending to love their dogs, their cats, and their mission.

One that was sharing his bed.

One that was having sex with him.

Her stomach flipped. Her head felt like it would pop off her neck. “Why?”

“Why what, dear?” Doppelgänger asked, moving on from that news like it meant nothing.

“Why are you doing this?” Her heart trembled and her body shook with agony. Her face twisted out of her control, tears spilled down her cheeks. Everything inside her threatened to escape, her rage, her anguish.

“Ah.” Doppelgänger sat back from her, allowing her space to breathe. “When I was a young man, I was addicted to porn and masturbation.”

Of all the things in the world she expected him to say, that was not it.

Doppelgänger patted her arm, and strangely, she felt no lechery in his touch. “I know that makes me sound like some kind of pervert, or like a freak, but it’s the truth. When I was thirteen I discovered the internet and a very short amount of time later I was watching porn from when I got home from school to late into the night. My parents noticed something was wrong with me. I went through therapy. I came out the other side and of course, by then I had my power.”

Doppelgänger gave her a little smile that expected an accusation, but Bedevil was struck speechless by his admission and had no accusation for him.

“You must be thinking — he satisfied himself with his clones. Keep in mind that I didn’t learn how to flash clone people until after I’d left OPI and by then I’d committed to my path.”

“Your path?”

“To saving the world.”

“You can’t save the world.”

“But you think Gabe can? You said it yourself: the minute he finds out you are missing — which he will not — he would drop everything and come running for you. He would leave New Foundation behind. He would abandon his mission for those he loves, because they are more important than the mission. Tell me I am wrong.”

Bedevil could not.

“He loves. That is his weakness. I removed that from myself.”

“How?” Bedevil asked.

“My power is over genetics. Once I realized I could sway it, I cut out the one part of my life that was holding me back. With my power, I removed my penis and my sex drive. I have no need for them and they will not help the world. Sex only creates attachment and lack of it creates loneliness, Bedevil. Ripe breeding ground for the Fear. Gabe can’t defeat that. He can’t defeat our base natures, what is in our hearts. He can pummel ink all he wants but so long as humans exist, our own natures betray us. I can make us better. Perfect.”

Bedevil tried to come up with a counter, but on the face of it, she wondered if he wasn’t on to something. She’d spent most of her last six years drinking until she puked, and when she didn’t puke anymore, drinking until she blacked out. If someone could have shifted her genetics to make her not alcoholic, or replaced her with a version of her that never got on the sauce, maybe Gabe wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Maybe she’d have kept the team together after Julian’s death. Maybe all the mistakes she made wouldn’t have happened.

But what of Paul, who was nothing but a big ball of fear thanks to Doppelgänger’s influence? She thought of how Doppelgänger’s touch affected Gabe. Would a world full of Doppelgänger’s puppets really stand a chance against the Fear?

It sounded reasonable on its face but positive emotion was how they’d beaten the Fear, not lack of emotion.

Not that he wasn’t insane, based off his callous disregard for human life, but at least he attempted to justify himself. Maybe Bedevil could influence him. “Gabe’s already beaten the Fear.”

“He’s beaten one instance of it. There are two more in this world that we know of. Possibly more. And according to what we know, there are many more on the way. Tell me, do you think Gabe can defeat all of them himself? He didn’t even beat his alone. I’m going to save us, because I will surrender what is necessary to win. That is why I am doing this. There must be someone.”

With a flourish of his hand, he pointed at Echo, who squeaked on her cot as he singled her out. “Take her. We have use of her.”

“What?” Bedevil could do nothing but gawk and wrestle against her restraints while the four Inheritors clones obeyed his command. Maisa jumped in front of them and Echo, but the clone of Mr. Gold slapped her out of the way, while the other three clones seized Echo.

Echo kicked and tried to bite the clones, but they barely reacted to her outburst. They wore no expressions, they did not seem to notice pain. These clones were so different from Paul. More complacent. Doppelgänger’s control over his power had grown.

“Bedevil! Help! PLEASE!” Echo’s screams devolved into guttural cries as they marched her out of the vault.

The Thin Men pulled the needle from Bedevil’s vein, placed a bandage on the puncture, and offered her a small cookie while undoing her straps. Bedevil wanted to grab the needle and jam it into Doppelgänger’s eye, but that wouldn’t save Echo.

She realized that was the last time she’d see Echo alive. Whatever use he had for her, it was fatal. Otherwise he’d have kept her here, with the living.

Doppelgänger patted her arm again. “When this is all over, you’ll thank me. In the meantime, keep growing your hair unless you want me to take even more teeth than I have. I promise you, you’ll see Gabe again.”

He stood, nodded to one of the Thin Men. “Make sure they get some rest.” With that, he and the other clones departed.

The Thin Man revealed a pistol hidden in his waistband. He pointed the gun at Meltdown and Maisa while he shoved Bedevil back to the cots..

“You’re a fucking ugly monster!” Maisa rose with her voice, standing to face the Thin Man.

The Thin Man aimed the gun at Maisa and motioned for her to sit down.

Maisa verbally assaulted him with renewed fervor. “You know you’re fucking expendable! If you stop working, if you stop being useful, he’ll toss you out just like he did that girl!”

The Thin Man struck her for her defiance, the slap sounding like a gunshot in the vault. Bedevil stood up but the gun’s presence kept her from rushing in.

“Weak,” Maisa spat.

“What did you say?” he asked, the first words Bedevil heard him speak at all. His sonorous, musical voice caught her off guard, so imposing for someone so thin.

“I said it was weak!” Maisa shrieked. She lashed out with her nails and caught him on the cheek, leaving a bloody wound.

“Maisa!” Bedevil jumped to intervene, knowing that he’d shoot her down for that. But the Thin Man was quick, giving Bedevil the backside of his fist. He sent her tumbling, and all she could think was that she’d failed both Echo and Maisa in the span of five minutes.

The Thin Man yanked Maisa by the collar of her gown and became a savage, arm whirling in a vicious circle, again and again, beating Maisa with the gun so badly Bedevil thought he would smash her nose in and crush her skull. He snarled as he let her go, his chest heaving, and just for a moment, a single second, Bedevil felt her power.

The Thin Man straightened up and the wall slammed down between her and her telekinesis, but she knew that somehow they’d triggered a weakness in his ability. Blood? Anger? Something.

The Thin Man dropped Maisa like a sack and then exited the room, closing the vault door behind him without even a backward glance. A moment later, clones brought them food and left.

Bedevil stared at her food, clarity striking. They were going to die here.

She couldn’t allow that to happen. She refused to give up. “Don’t eat the food,” she said to Maisa and Meltdown.

Despondence claimed Meltdown, kept her in her cot with her back turned toward Bedevil and Maisa. “I’m not hungry, anyway.”

“Why not?” Maisa asked.

“We’re being drugged.”

Maisa jolted upright at that, hurling the tray of food from her. They were lucky there was no glass, otherwise the sound of breaking would have summoned the Thin Man or Doppelganger.

Meltdown rolled over in her cot to face Maisa and Bedevil. “There’s no way out of this.”

“Don’t say that,” Bedevil said. “There’s always a way out.”

“He’s thought of everything. He keeps us drugged. Whatever we try to do, he’ll just stop us. We’re nothing better than slaves now.” Meltdown shrugged, which pissed Bedevil off. “He’s probably listening to us right now. He’ll send someone to make sure we eat our food.”

“I’ve looked for microphones.” Bedevil wrestled her anger at Meltdown, calming herself. She had to remember that Meltdown likely felt more lost than she did. Her child in another woman’s arms, not just her lover. That and the drugs were potent. Even now that she’d decided not to eat her food, she still felt sluggish.

“Could be tiny. They could be listening from somewhere, who knows? The microphones could be inside a safe-box.” Meltdown shifted onto her back and reached her hand up toward the ceiling. “At this point I just want him to end it. I don’t want to grow hair for him. I’d rather he just kill me and use the rest of me.”

Bedevil did not need Meltdown giving up. She needed a fire under all of their asses. “Listen. We already agreed we weren’t giving up. We’re down one which means we need all hands on deck. Otherwise, you’re killing us just as much as you’re killing yourself.”

“We’re already dead.” Meltdown rolled back over.

“You’re gonna let Jamie get raised by another woman?” Bedevil asked.

Meltdown grunted, not taking the bait.

“There aren’t any microphones, anyway. No cameras, either.” Bedevil didn’t really know why she was still talking, since it seemed like she lost the argument. “Just so you know.”

“Not even a vent they could spy through,” Maisa said. “We’ve looked all over. There’s nothing.”

But Bedevil’s mind was already racing. There were no vents. Yet all this time they hadn’t run out of oxygen, which meant air had to be coming from somewhere. The only thing she could think of was the safe-boxes lining the wall.  “Maisa. Help me look for an air current.”

“An air… current?”

“There has to be some ventilation, otherwise we’d have already run out of air.”

Maisa gasped and bounced up off the cot. She scurried across the room, searching the safe-boxes on one side while Bedevil searched the other side. Bedevil climbed over cots, running her fingers in front of each safe-box, searching for a whisper, a breath, anything. If they found it, they found salvation.

Maisa squealed from one corner of the room. “A breeze!”

Bedevil joined Maisa at the safe-box she pointed out. As Maisa said, a current of air kissed Bedevil’s cheeks. The safe-boxes were tiny, too small to crawl through, but maybe they had hollowed out a few to make a ventilation shaft. Something they could crawl through. At least Maisa.

“How are we going to open it?” Maisa asked.

“We need something to pry it. We’re strong enough.” One thing they’d learned about the Affect and metallic-souled people: they often had higher levels of strength than ordinary humans. Even people with mental powers had roughly three times the strength as a normal human. That was true whether or not they had access to their power. Which meant between Bedevil, Maisa, and Meltdown, they had enough strength to pull open a safe-box.

But Meltdown still waited in her cot for their oncoming death, rather than try and avoid it. Bedevil went to her and knelt down to meet her face to face. “Listen. I want to get out of here. I don’t care if you’re throwing a pity party, because I’m going to crash it. You’ve got a man and a baby to get back to. I’ve got a fiancé. Maisa has her friends.” Bedevil put her hand on Meltdown’s cheek, neither trying to slap her or caress her, but to remind her of the strength Bedevil had. “You’re an Inheritor. Get up.”

Meltdown glared at Bedevil, frowning and refusing to move. Tears welled in her eyes, spilling onto her nose and down to the cot. She placed her hand on top of Bedevil’s, shaking her head and whining, clearly trying to guilt Bedevil into leaving her alone.

That wasn’t going to happen. “Get up, Meltdown. I need you. Maisa needs you. No one’s listening. If they were, they would have already come to make us eat the food.”

Meltdown exhaled a shaky breath, gripping Bedevil’s hand. She shifted — and sat up. “Okay.”

“Okay. I need you to make a distraction,” Bedevil said. “I need you to do some wailing.”

“Okay,” Meltdown agreed, rising with Bedevil.

“We’re going to pry one of these cots apart.” Bedevil pointed at a vacant one. The frames of the cot were ramshackle metal skeletons, screwed at each joint. They could rip it apart but not without making a lot of noise. “Then, we’re going to open a safe-box and hopefully find out where our air is coming from. If there’s a way to crawl out, we’ll do it.”

Meltdown wiped her eyes, nodding along with Bedevil’s plan. “Okay. Argue with me so it’s not like I’m just screaming. That sounds too much like a distraction.”

“Can do. Topic?” Bedevil asked, snapping her fingers at Maisa to go ahead and start working on the cot’s frame.

“You already raised an excellent one,” Meltdown said. “My baby.”

Bedevil didn’t wait. She launched into their fake argument. “Meltdown, think of Jamie!”

“I am thinking of Jamie!” Meltdown raised her voice, making a show of anger. “If I make them angry they’re going to hurt my baby and I can’t do anything to stop it! You want to rock the boat when he said he’ll give us back to New Foundation once they’re all settled!”

Bedevil yelled back at Meltdown: “I don’t care what he said!” Even while she yelled, she joined Maisa at the cot.

Meltdown continued, pacing around the room and slamming cots around. “You can’t just think of us for one second, all you can think about is getting back to Gabe! You’re a selfish cunt!”

Bedevil tried not to think too hard about what Meltdown was screaming and just let her have her tirade. She gripped one of the legs and put her heel into the frame for leverage, with Maisa’s help.

They wrenched, the frame digging painfully into Bedevil’s bare heel, and the metal shrieked.

But not as loud as Meltdown shrieked: “You don’t know what you’re fucking doing!”

The leg popped free. They had a makeshift crowbar. Bedevil and Maisa hurried over to the safe-box they felt the air current through and jammed one end of the leg in. While Meltdown barked and yelled about how she’d failed as a mother and she just wanted Jamie to be safe, that was really all it was, Bedevil and Maisa pried the safe-box open.

A sharp pounding on the other side of the vault door told them to shut up. The three girls waited in tense silence, knowing that if the door opened they were lost. The Thin Man would shoot them down for trying to escape, no questions.

The vault door did not open.

Bedevil peered into the open safe-box. She cursed; they hadn’t excavated out a larger shaft, but only enough to stick her arm into.

She could see daylight, the outside world. A tiny square of the outside world, but nonetheless, it lifted her spirits. Until she saw what she was staring at.

A ruined square, buildings collapsed in as if by an earthquake, concrete scorched black and bearing the scars of a superhuman war. A sign with Mandarin letters and a smiling Chinese woman applying blush to her cheeks.

“Holy God,” Bedevil whispered, gaping at the apocalypse. “We’re in the Hellpact.”

5.19.B

Remise stepped off the White Shark and into the night, waving to Linear. Her suit made her look somewhat like a red spider disappearing into the shadows and trees. She spoke through her mask’s comms. “See you in a bit.”

Linear used his power to examine the variables of their mission: a simple observation of a deal between U.S. flags and a supposed cloak group called the Setting Suns, which they’d gotten a tip off for from an anonymous source. With Remise’s stealth capabilities and her ridiculous senses, they had a 91% chance of observing the meeting with no issue, even though they were spitting distance from U.S. Mexico border.

Idly, Linear plugged a new variable into his mind: someone with a sensory power like Remise’s, only on the side of the flags or the Setting Suns. He watched the scenarios play out, a million all at once. It wasn’t something he could describe to anyone. He closed his eyes and his mind ran away with him. Other people’s imaginations would have been so dull. One thing at a time, a single track?

A single track to Boring Town, population of Linear.

Linear saw in his mind’s eye the scenarios he wanted, saw how many Remise succeeded in and failed in them, and determined the odds of her sneaking away were 78% if someone had a sensory power. Not as low as Linear expected.

Still, he couldn’t quiet his nerves. His power could model things but it couldn’t predict the future. If there were variables he didn’t know about then his models counted for nothing. His power was wonderful for when he knew all the players involved in a situation or battle. He could effortlessly determine the chance of his desired outcome.

But when the players were unknown, the scope too large, or the Fear was involved? Harder for Linear to get a read. Much harder. The only number he’d ever gotten while trying to model scenarios regarding the Fear were whether Cynic or Gabe went to face them, and the chances were roughly zero with Cynic — not that it mattered anymore — and nonzero with Gabe. Linear had tried to model with other leaders, like Archimedes and himself, even Bedevil and Templar.

Something went wrong in the models. Linear attributed it to a lack of personal gravity to those he ran the models with. Of course Archimedes, Bedevil, and Templar wouldn’t lead humanity against the Fear. They couldn’t unite people like that.

That was Linear’s theory, anyway, and he stuck with it. He had yet to meet a leader that he thought might have the personal gravity that Gabe had in uniting people.

Idly, Linear tried Doppelganger.

He got a percentage. 4.2%.

More than zero, less than Gabe’s 5.7%.

Interesting.

Linear tried Sal Tomas against the Fear. Again, nothing, not even a percentage. Was that because Linear himself couldn’t conceive of a scenario where Sal Tomas would lead all of humanity? Linear could conceive of one where Doppelganger did: when he’d replaced every single person on earth with one of his clones.

Another important question, did the Affect somehow know all of this? Linear thought it was much like Laplace’s Demon. The Affect overlaid the entire universe. In doing so, it would know the precise location and momentum of every particle and would be able to model on the larger scale all foreseeable outcomes.

At least in theory.

On the other hand, Linear didn’t actually have a precognition power. Just a data processing one. It was very close but sometimes no cigar. He’d met actually precogs. They didn’t have to run models like him, their powers just told them when something was up.

“I’m in position,” Remise said, drawing Linear from the abyss of his mind.

“Gotcha. Do you have eyes on the targets?”

“I do.”

Linear opened the projection display from the White Shark’s console. The screen showed the view through Remise’s helmet while she looked down on a small encampment of tents nestled under a hill, hidden among the trees. A U.S. black VTOL craft hummed in a clearing, its sole pilot disembarked and marching toward the camp.

The flag wore a helmet shaped like a bird, which clashed with his olive green military fatigues.

Six people emerged from the camp, crowded together as tightly as a closed fist, save for a young woman that stood a few feet in front of the group. Linear did not recognize her; but this was the first they’d seen of any of this supposed cloak alliance. If they even were cloaks. This could be completely unrelated to the uptick in South American cloak activity.

“Take off the mask,” the woman called to the flag. Her words stopped the man in his track, though she spoke in a soft, gentle voice.

“The Setting Suns. Why have I never heard of you guys before this?” The helmet distorted the flag’s voice and Linear could not tell if she knew the man’s voice already or not. “Why should I take my helmet off for you?”

“Because otherwise we’ll kill you. The flags sent one man, which was stupid.”

“If they only sent one, shouldn’t you be worried about what that one is capable of?” Even with the layer of distortion no one would miss the glee in the flag’s voice.

Remise especially. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy. Seems like the type that’ll kill with a smile,” she whispered over the comms.

“Then you kill us. What then?” the woman asked. “No. You came out here for a reason so you’re gonna show us your face.”

The flag shrugged, and amazingly, took off his mask to reveal himself: He was Nero.

Remise hissed over the comms. “What the fuck? Nero is a flag?”

“Stay put and stay quiet,” Linear ordered. They couldn’t turn tail and run now. He ran the variables again, this time with Nero. “We need to know what this is.”

The number came back from his models: 88% with Nero added. 32% if they had someone with a sensory power. Linear gripped the White Shark’s yoke by the handles, daring not to power up the engines for fear of someone hearing. Not until they had to.

Nero grinned as the six studied his face. Only the woman who had spoken recognized him, and she did so with great alarm. “What do you want with us?”

“I have a job offer for you,” Nero said. “A very lucrative one.”

The woman growled. “We know you’ve been snapping up cloaks and masks. We’re not interested.”

“Five hundred thousand.” Nero threw the number out like a grenade.

The Setting Suns’ leader did not reply to that right away.

“Each.”

If the number was the grenade, the declaration that they would each be paid that ludicrous amount was the explosion. The fist of people loosened and approached him, each asking a flurry of questions.

“When do we get the money?” one asked.

“Half now, half later,” another person demanded.

“Will we have back up?”

“Where are the other cloaks?”

The woman called out to Nero: “Five hundred thousand isn’t much of a shield against the Inheritors.”

The other members of the Setting Suns halted their litany of questions. One or two glanced back and forth between Nero and their leader before retreating back to her.

“Money won’t save us if Aethon drops on us from the sky. It won’t save us if he brings New Foundation with him. If we catch their ire like our brother Gigantamech,or like Floodwater?”

Nero smirked, a sight that made Linear grip the yoke harder still. “We picked you because if the Inheritors came after you, you’d do pretty well against them, Hecate. You alone could make Gabe your personal whipping boy.”

“Jaysus,” Remise whispered.

Hecate crossed her arms, glaring at the other members of her group until they all slunk back to her side. Linear took note of each of them as they walked back. A large Nordic man, not as large as Krater but still impressively big; A young Hispanic woman carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows; a very short man wearing a robe with a cowl, whose features Linear couldn’t make out; a young Hispanic man, lithe and handsome with a sharp jaw; and the last a man named Appolon that Linear was already aware of, a revolutionary that regularly called for Central American independence from the UWC.

A falcon cried out in the night, a strange sound that made the Setting Suns and Nero perk up. Hecate ignored that and continued on. “You’ve worked with the Sanctified Remnant. You’re working with them now, aren’t you?”

Nero did not deny this.

“I know you. I know what your power is.” Hecate snapped her fingers. “Orion.”

The large man, presumably Orion, lunged for Nero, grabbing him by his wrist. He wrenched Nero around and whirled him up into a bear hug, his massive arms constricting Nero. From here, it seemed Nero didn’t have any power stockpiled.

Nero took this in stride. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll die eventually and I’ll come back and kill you all. Unless you take my offer. The money can go a long way.”

“It can,” Hecate agreed. “But you want us to oppose New Foundation and destabilize the region. You tempted our brothers and sisters away from our path and you work with my enemy. Now, you seek to do the same thing with us.”

For someone so small and with such a tiny voice, her words hit like bullets.

“If you die, we’ll make it painful. If you come back and kill us, we’ll make you fight for every death. You’ll die a dozen times for each one of us.” Hecate marched up to where Orion held him. Nero tried to kick her. Silver incandescent light filled her eyes. His knee cracked, his leg swung out of joint to the right.

Nero howled, which fell into broken laughter. “God… god damn it… they told me you were good.”

“I’d suggest staying still,” Hecate said. We won’t be bought out, Nero. We’re not here to do your dirty work. We’re here to protect the world and make it as good a place as possible. You work with our enemies.” Linear had to admit, he respected her candor and her zeal.

“You really are a radical.” Nero sucked air in between each breath. “Sledge worked with us. He worked with the UWC.”

Hecate slapped Nero on the cheek so loud that Linear heard it through Remise’s comms. There was poison in her gentle voice now. “You don’t get to speak their name.”

“You hate New Foundation.” Nero sounded more desperate, close to begging, even. “We have a common enemy.”

“But I won’t dirty my hands to fight them,” Hecate said. “They fucked the Americas. We’re here to unfuck it, not make it worse.”

The man in the robe spoke now. “Hecate, we should take his offer seriously. Is it more than just money?”

“You broke my fucking leg!” Nero cackled. Or maybe it was a sob. “Why would there still be a deal?”

“Is there not still a deal?” The robed man stared into Nero’s eyes. A stupor fell on Nero, making him go slack in Orion’s arms as if he’d passed out, but through Remise’s camera Linear could see his eyes were still open and his mouth moved. He said not a word, only gasping like a fish out of water.

“Is there?” the man asked again.

“Yes! Yes!” Nero cried, suddenly moving again. “God damn it!”

“Hecate, what could we do to make this work for all of us?” The robed man did not take his eyes away from Nero as he asked this, which Linear found strange. He wondered about the man’s power. Some sort of compulsion to answer his questions?

A falcon flew into the clearing, landing on the archer’s shoulders. The archer tilted her head toward the falcon and Linear remembered his prediction if they had someone with sensory powers and Nero was present.

32%.

“We’re being watched,” Hecate said. “Nero, help us and we’ll think about helping you.”

“Pull out,” Linear said. “Right now.”

The Setting Suns exploded into action. The archer woman pulled an arrow and sank it into Nero’s skull through his eye. Orion dropped him and charged up the hill toward Remise’s position.

Remise’s camera shifted as she turned and fled back. Her jets sounded and she flew up over the tree line.

A giant bird, easily the size of a helicopter, rose to meet her in the night sky. A explosion went off somewhere below. Silver light cast the trees in pale, eerie light, and the picture on the screen spun out of control. “My jets just popped!” Remise shouted. “Linear! Leave me! Leave m—”

The feed cut off, the comms went out.

Linear hissed, unsure of what to do for a second. He modeled the probability for him rescuing Remise. 7.8% if Nero didn’t destroy the White Shark immediately.

Not a chance Linear could afford. Not after what he’d just seen. He made a note of the powers he’d witnessed. Hecate seemed to have some telekinetic power. Orion seemed to be just an exceptionally large and strong man. The robed man could compel people to answer questions. The archer woman had the falcon that could apparently grow in size.

Linear powered the White Shark’s engines up. He heeded Remise’s advise and took to the night sky. The rear cameras caught sight of the huge falcon making chase, but it could not match the flight speed of the White Shark.

He made a call in to New Foundation through the White Shark, trying to stay dispassionate. His power ran the models over and over, coming up with percentage chances on potential rescue missions.

Bedevil’s face appeared on screen. “Linear! How did—”

“Remise just became a prisoner of war.”

VOLUME SIX: THOUGH GUILTLESS

JUNE 7th

VirtueArt by Harry Rowland

5.19.4

My fury turns sand to glass.

The sea hisses and retreats as vapor from me. The sky shimmers, the great firmament of the heavens wavering around me. A scream breaks through the roaring wind. It is my own, born of my rage and my sorrow.

Her name joins the melting rock and the steaming water.

A wave rises up and powers through the heat I’m putting off. The ocean marches forward, unnaturally, and quenches my rage. I seep the heat I’ve gathered out into the water on a boiling path deep into the ocean. The water cracks the glass foundation I have built, sweeping shards that still glow away toward the rising sun.

Epione stands at the edge of my ruined scrap of beach, her hand outstretched, a ring glowing with copper fire on her finger. Beside her, Flashfire watches me with a frown.

If she brought him, it means he isn’t a clone.

I float over my destruction to meet them. I’m sure I look a wreck, because as I get closer, Flashfire opens his mouth to say something but then clenches his jaw.

I must know he is real. I grab his shoulders, his neck, his face. “You’re not one of his?”

“No,” he answers, clasping my arm with both of his hands. “I’m the O.G. A simple look and anyone with two cents would know I’m a hardcore player from the streets.”

No energy to laugh, just enough for a half-hearted smirk. I glance at Epione, waiting for her to agree with him.

“He’s real,” Epione says. “I can vouch for that.”

Doubt fills me, though. How can I even trust Epione? How can I trust anyone else at all? My own marriage, my own bed, the body I shared with Ruby — violated. The thought threatens to drag me back to Home Run, to the days of Houston.

Epione reads me well. “I’m real, too.”

“How do I know that?” I ask her. “How can you prove this isn’t just an elaborate trap from Doppelgänger?”

Epione alights her fingers on my shoulder. “Close your eyes.”

“So you can stab me?” I ask.

Epione gives me a polite smile.

I do as she asks.

“Breathe,” she tells me.

I breathe in.

I exhale.

I breathe in.

“Good. Calm. Recognize what you are feeling.” Epione’s words do not come from across the universe. They seem to well up from within me, from within my skull to my ears. “If you have any thoughts—”

“Too many.” I exhale.

“Release them.”

I try, I swear I try. I breathe in.

Then I feel it. Light on the edge of my darkness. A sun shining through closed curtains I don’t have the strength to open.

It’s Epione. Doppelgänger could not replicate that light. At least, I hope not. If he could we are all fucked.

I open my eyes.

“Okay. You’re real. You’re both real.” I’m much calmer thanks to Epione’s forced meditation. “And you didn’t stab me, so there’s that.”

“There he is.” Flashfire grins and claps me on the back. “My bulletproof bro.”

Epione glances at him. Her smile falters for a moment like a light flickering, but stays alight.

“I know this is… not ideal for any of us,” I say. “But we’re all we can trust right now. Epione, is there anyway you can find out if Bedevil is alive? Take me to her like you brought her to my mind?”

Epione shakes her head.

My heart falls, I know what that means—

“It’s not that, Gabe. It’s that… the only people I’ve ever had that kind of connection with… is you two.” Epione points at both Flashfire and myself.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Flashfire asks, looking a bit betrayed.

“Nothing like that.” Epione frowns, though she doesn’t aim it at him. “You’re the only two I’ve ever really trusted. You’re the only two that know what I really am. Not just the empath, but that I’m autistic, too. You know me in a way no one else does… and you trust me when no one else does.”

“What about Remise?” I ask.

“Remise doesn’t trust me. Not after the Second Ward.” The memory hurts her, clearly. Not only because of Remise, but it’s the night she lost her love, too. “You two are it. You’re the only people I can find in all the world, the only people I can trust. The only people who trust me.”

I’m not sure how to take this revelation. Neither is Flashfire — stunned speechless aside from a whispered, “Ep…”

Epione’s expression flattens again. She soldiers on. “But that means the only way I can find out if someone is a clone is by exploring their Affect or reading their mind. The first requires I touch them and requires they know I am searching their soul. The second does not.” She holds her hand out and displays all four of her rings. “As long as I have Cynic’s power, we should be able to determine who’s been replaced.”

“Do you know about anyone else?” Flashfire asks.

Epione hesitates, just enough for me to know who she’ll say. “I’m… really sorry, Flash.”

She doesn’t have to say it. Flashfire almost crumples right there. I keep him up by putting his arm around my shoulders and let him sink into me.

“So Meltdown, too?” I ask. “Who else?”

“I don’t know. I’m… I missed this, Gabe. This is on me.”

“No, it’s on all of us.” I’m in so much pain. But if I keep moving forward, if I keep my hands full and busy, then I won’t notice. “I was too busy chasing after Paul and forcing everyone else to fight my battle. I got led by the nose. You missed it because of me.”

Epione doesn’t want to agree with me, that much is clear from her frown. But she nods.

“He’s right about me. I’m a bull in a china shop. My friends paid the price for my crusade. Even Bedevil.” I thought that fighting Doppelgänger head on and toppling his reign would make a better world. I saw him in the way and I decided to shove through him.

The unstoppable force met the immovable object. And the problem with that scenario is there is no such thing as an unstoppable force. Just a force that hasn’t met the object it couldn’t move.

Or the force hasn’t found the right angle to move the object.

“I can’t stop trying to fight him. I promise you that when I find the rock he hides under I will turn that rock into atoms. I will not draw it out or make him suffer or any of that. I will make sure that he dies not even knowing what hit him. So what we’re going to do is wait.”

“Wait?” Flashfire snarls. “Wait for what?!” He shakes against me, trembling from the overwhelming emotions. “There is some other woman holding Jamie, she… she… she even… last night we…”

I catch his eye and stare him down. He needs someone to be strong and I need to be strong right now. “Do you want her back?”

He nods, unable to meet my gaze. He doesn’t stop trembling, but it is lessened.

“Then we need to find out where they went.”

“How do we know they’re even still alive?” he asks.

“We don’t.” There’s no sugarcoating that one. “But if they are, how will we find them if we show our hand now?”

“You want to watch them?” Epione ponders the idea, her face falling so flat I can’t tell if she’s on board.

“We can’t just jump up and say we know there are clones. They’ll deny, they’ll scatter. We wait until we know everyone he’s taken. No exceptions.” I look down at Epione’s ring and notice they are all identical. The only time they look different is when she calls on the powers within. The rings glow with the same color fire as the Affects of those stored within. “Can Archimedes sense different Affects without any devices?”

Epione shakes her head.

“Good. He’s going to ask for Cynic’s ring back, so he can put it under lock and key. Probably sooner rather than later. We don’t know if we can trust him until you read his mind. And in the hand off that might not be enough time to dig through his memories, am I right?”

“You’re right.” Epione realizes what I’m getting at. “You want me to give him one of the other rings?”

I nod.

Her polite smile returns, looking a little more devilish than usual. “Good plan.”

“And once we know, we round them up and we find out where Doppelgänger keeps his bed, where he took Bedevil and Meltdown and the others, and then I will wipe him from the face of the earth.”

That declaration rekindles Flashfire’s spirits. It stokes a fire in Epione’s eyes, and it reignites my will.

“We need a method for communicating,” Flashfire says. “Something we know we can trust. A code phrase.”

“You can visit our Affects, right?” I ask Epione. “Our dreams? You’ll always be able to relay messages that way.”

“I can. Each night I will bring us to one dream and we can discuss everything freely. We don’t speak a word out loud. If we have to…” She struggles, trying to come up with some signal.

Flashfire nods in agreement. He holds out his right hand. “If we need to communicate, we use hand signals, something subtle.” He taps his left arm while with his right hand, but tucks his pinky in. “It means ‘cell leader’ in the UWC tactical infantry signals.”

“We can use those to communicate. They have a ton of different ones, don’t they?” I ask.

Flashfire spends the next thirty minutes going over the basics. We learn the subtle hand signals for enemy, retreat, rally, and disperse. Enemy for if we think we’re being observed. Retreat if we’re being followed and are in immediate danger. Rally if we need to gather.

Disperse if all this is a lost cause and we need to bug out for good.

That’s our last resort.

I’m completely out of my depth. I don’t know how to play cloak and dagger.

At least it’s a plan.

We return to New Foundation with the flimsy protection of our hand signals and our resolve to act the part. I hate this, I hate all of it. I know when I walk into that building, when I go back to my apartment, this impostor will be waiting for me. Pretending she is my wife while undermining everything I’ve worked for.

She’ll want to spend time together. She’ll want to kiss.

She’ll want sex. At least she’ll pretend she does, for Doppelgänger’s mission.

This woman, she is not Bedevil. If I’m consistent about what I believe about clones, she’s her own person. Another woman. I shove the thought away that I’ve slept with another woman, that I had been—

Not a word I wanted to use, even if it was true.

But she’s as much a victim in this. She’s a slave, she can’t resist his commands. Not unless Epione can change her mind. She did it with Paul but she failed with the security woman, so there’s no guarantee she can repeat her success. We can’t do it without tipping our hand, anyway, so it has to wait.

Waiting. It’s the hardest thing I will ever have to do. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.

If I want Ruby back, the real Ruby, then I’ll have to find the strength. Or else I blow up my only lead.

The three of us skulk underneath the golden statue in the grand pavilion of New Foundation. The words engraved above the entrance — BUSCAR A LOS ALTRUISTAS — no longer comfort me. They seem written by alien, malevolent hands, meant to mock rather than to uplift.

Too many people fill the New Foundation lobby and the burden of their attention rests on my shoulders. For a second it feels like all of them glare at us, as if we are the replaced.

 

Archimedes emerges from the crowd of people, who continue about their business after marking our arrival. “Gabe, Epione, good. We’ve got a meeting.” He beckons us to follow him.

I nod to Flashfire and show him the signal for enemy. He nods back and heads toward the apartments. God, into her apartment, I bet. He gave up his space to move in with her.

The command room is full of people, most of whom I recognize.

Oracle converses quietly with President Genz at the head of the table, who is accompanied by an Argentinian woman roughly my age in a UWC officer’s uniform. I’m surprised that the uniform still exists at all. Templar, Maisa, and Mr. Gold are here.

Not-Meltdown and Not-Bedevil, too. She grins at me as I enter.

The one good thing about my life: I’ve learned to act the part. I mouth, I love you.

She mouths it back.

There’s a man I don’t recognize sitting next to her. He’s a tall, strange looking man, a scarecrow of a human really. I mouth at Not-Bedevil, Who is that?

ORDERS, she mouths back.

“Ah, good,” President Genz says, motioning for Epione and I to take our seats. I look back and find that Epione is returning one of her rings to Archimedes, who places it in a safebox. He raises an eyebrow at her having all four together but doesn’t press her.

He closes the lid on our swap.

I take my seat next to Not-Bedevil, struggling not to yell, to cry out that I know the truth. I thought that wouldn’t be difficult, but when I am so close to her, when the skin of my arm is inches from the skin of hers, revulsion overwhelms me. This is not my wife.

“Very well done, Gabe,” President Genz says, staring at me. I can’t help but feel like he’s stared too long. “The evidence we’ve confirmed through Kassandra’s testimony is good enough to get us off the chopping block, but it’s not enough for us to claim definitive proof. We can’t persuade India to drop sanctions.”

“With the Warlord breaking through the mountains, they have bigger concerns anyway,” Templar says.

“So do the flags.” Not-Bedevil stands up and taps on the table, bringing up a series of photographs of people I don’t know. “We’ve gathered that they’re behind the outbreak of cloaks in South America, and we’ve put Remise on observing a meet up between a mercenary group called the Setting Suns and flags. If we gather the right evidence, it’ll be grounds for war.”

“And Argentina is more than happy to answer that,” President Genz says. “Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru are all with us. The flags are split between assisting India and quelling some internal issues. The nations of the UWC demand vengeance and justice. The States have bullied us, and it’s time to stand our ground.”

I glance at Epione. She can’t use the ring here without attracting attention. We have to plan our moments just right. But God I wish she could tell me if President Genz is lying straight to our faces. If this is even President Genz.

The tall thin man from ORDERS says, “Director-General Tomas offers her support of New Foundation, as well, based off the good faith that Aethon showed her in Scotland.” His voice is sonorous, musical, so mismatched with his gaunt appearance.

“I don’t think we met while I was there, though,” I tell him.

“No, we didn’t. I’m from Italy,” he replies.

His English accent is very good. Too good. But I don’t say anything. I nod and smile. “Pleasure to meet you, Sir…”

“Sir Bellamy,” he finishes for me.

“Sir Bellamy,” I agree, though I know it is a lie now. He’s not from ORDERS.

Or maybe I’m just mind-fucked from Doppelganger.

The meeting goes on, random bits of business from around the world. The woman in the UWC uniform is from Genz’ office, his replacement for Mago on New Foundation command. She goes by Dana Romero, but we’re only to call her Romero.

The most disheartening thing is that they aren’t releasing the names yet. The reasoning makes sense — it’s nothing concrete yet — but at the same time I can’t help but think it’s a ploy to keep us from getting the information out.

The meeting breaks. I want to run away immediately.

Not-Bedevil grabs my hand, stopping me from escaping. She smiles at me and I’ve never wanted to knock someone’s teeth out more. It’s all so wrong because that smile would fool me any other time. “I want to go walk on the beach.”

“Okay.”

We make our getaway. All the while my stomach turns, my head swims, and my heart pounds. I can’t help but think she’s drawing me away so that the others like her can take over and kill everyone inside.

Or she’s just so good at playing the part she really does want to go on a walk to the beach.

We take Pawpaw and Isabelle with us and let them roam free on the sand. Not-Bedevil holds my hand as we stroll with our bare feet kicking through the water. I kick into the sand a little with each step, tossing up little mounds with my heel, because I need to hit something.

“Why are you stomping so hard?” Not-Bedevil asks. She catches my eyes, puts her hand on my cheek. A play at intimacy.

Isabelle comes up and plays around my feet, yipping and barking for me to pick her up. I smile at Not-Bedevil and at my dog, and I pick her up to let her lick my face. The distraction is welcome. “No reason, just felt like making a mess.”

And then I notice Pawpaw.

He is a few hundred feet down the beach. As still as a statue, he watches Not-Bedevil, his eyes cold.

I try to ignore it so as not to give the game away.

Not-Bedevil squeezes my hand. “Have you thought anymore about what I asked? About… you know?”

Then it hits me.

What would I do if I’d replaced his wife? If I had the same capabilities.

I’d ensure he was good and attached to her. Erode his agency. Compromise him emotionally with her existence.

A baby.

Volume 6 will begin on June 7th.

5.19.3

Bedevil crept out of oblivion, through the sludge of a sedative, and into a searing pain in her jaw. Cold metal pressed against her cheek, gripped at one of her teeth. A powerful light shone through her eyelids, and she knew that opening them would blind her. Someone’s fingers wedged her lips apart and wrenched the tool up.

Blazing fire and warm blood filled her mouth. She screamed, unable to stop herself. She opened her eyes on reflex. A brilliant lamp shoved a spear of light into her eyes. She wanted to rub her eyes, to grab her mouth, but her wrists were bound.

She tried her telekinesis.

Nothing.

Bedevil panicked, writhing in her binds. She rubbed her back against cold metal, felt the shift of fabric on her chest. A medical gown?  She wanted to rip it off of her, tried with her telekinesis. Nothing, nothing, nothing. She had no telekinesis.

Rough hands with missing fingers grabbed her arm, stroked her cheeks. “Shhhh. It’ll be alright. The sedative wore off a little soon.”

Doppelganger.

The light turned off and Bedevil blinked against the after image, trying to get her bearings. She was in danger, true, but not immediate. She calmed her breathing, steadied herself. She spat the blood from her mouth and searched for other missing teeth with her tongue.

Her probing shocked her jaw with pain as she found each hole — she counted three, unable to search for more missing teeth after that. The throbbing across her gums told her there were more.

A whimper echoed on stone. Bedevil turned her head toward the source of the sound.

Her vision returned gradually, gave her vague shapes that morphed into distinct figures. Doppelganger sat next to her on a rolling chair, his hands drenched in blood and a tray of tools next to him. Behind him was a tall, thin man with black hair down to his back. The thin man stared at her with such little expression she wondered if he was dead, until a flare of his nostrils gave him away.

Beyond the thin man was a long bunk-room, full of cots. Shadowed forms huddled on the cots, some moving, some still. The whimper came from there, she knew that for certain.

“Do you need some water?” Doppelganger asked.

Bedevil didn’t want to reply to him, so she stared at him, hoping that her eyes would drill a hole through his skull and hit the thin man behind him. Alas, no eye beam powers developed for her in this moment of need.

“You need some water.” Doppelganger snapped his fingers at the thin man. The thin man moved like a scarecrow trying to come down off his pole. He exited through a metal door, which clanked loudly as it closed. A gear churned and the door hissed.

Bedevil strained to see into the darkness at the huddled forms, but Doppelganger scooted in front of them.

“I’m sure you’re surprised, but I hope in time you will see how necessary this is.” Doppelganger grinned, showing off his golden teeth. He held up his hands and wiggled the fingers he still had. “Everything you’re going through now, I’ve been through before. I would not do anything to you I wouldn’t do to myself.”

Bedevil checked her hands to make sure her fingers were still there. Of course the right hand was missing the fingers Hasuji sliced off back in Houston, but she still had her left hand fingers. And no ring. “Where is my engagement ring?”

Doppelganger clicked his tongue. “Apologies. It was necessary.”

“Necessary,” Bedevil repeated, trying to keep control of her temper. “What does that mean?”

“I’m trying to defeat the Fear. To defeat the world. Every action I take is for that purpose, for the greater good.” Doppelganger leaned into the chair, away from Bedevil, and glanced back at the cots. “The world is broken. If you’d listened to me, this all could have been avoided. Now India will suffer because of Gabe.”

Bedevil did not let him get a rise out of her. She played it cool. She listened. She had no other option, and she knew flying off the handle without her power was far more likely to get her killed than save her.

“He’s not right, you know. Not right for the world. Tell me, Ruby — can I call you that?”

Bedevil nodded, but she thought: Go fuck yourself.

“I get it, you’re afraid. I understand. But if both of us play our cards right, maybe we can get you back home. Maybe if Gabe sees the error of his ways, you’ll get him back.”

“Error?” she asked.

“What is his policy on firearms? On property taxes, on the the relation of churches and states? How does he police superhuman crime? Does he force everyone to register?” Doppelganger asked.

Bedevil wasn’t quite sure how to answer to that. “That’s not… what New Foundation does.”

“Yes, I’m aware. New Foundation is a humanitarian aid organization sponsored by the Argentinian government, authorized to combat superhuman rogues, vigilantes, and enemies of Argentina.”

“And the UWC,” Bedevil added.

“The UWC is a scrap of burnt paper that hasn’t disintegrated into ash yet. Gabe burnt through them in his pursuit of a better world, but does he have any idea of what that better world looks like? What the credit policies are? What the government is supposed to do?” Doppelganger shakes his head. “And yet he charges around, acting like the savior of the world. Much like his progenitor. Megajoule had the same delusions, you know. Beat the world into submission. Defeat the killers, depose the tyrants.”

“The world’s different,” Bedevil retorted.

Doppelganger’s eyebrows rose in interest.

“We don’t play politics the same way.”

“You’ve got to answer my questions, though,” Doppelganger said. “And Gabe can’t.”

“No, but he knows who can and he puts them in the right places. He knows he’s not the right person for that. He knows he’s only good at fighting and putting on a brave face, and inspiring people.” Bedevil glanced down at the straps on her arms. She didn’t feel like she was in the right place. She hadn’t anticipated Doppelganger would take her and leave New Foundation even more vulnerable. “You can’t do that. Your way… you’re just building a back door for the Fear.”

“No, I’m repairing the broken machinery.” Doppelganger glowered and shook his head.

“Is that what I am?”

He didn’t answer Bedevil right away, so her attention turned elsewhere. To her own body.

To her head. To the lack of hair on her neck and her shoulders. Her eyes widened. “Did you… shave my head?”

Doppelganger nodded. “It’s the easiest batch of DNA to harvest, though it’s not as bountiful as teeth or fingers. Still, you can regrow hair, which is why I’m loathe to kill you right away. I’m loathe to kill you at all for his sake, so that when he sees the error of his ways I can reward him.”

Jesus, he was planning on making an army of Bedevils. “If he does, I can go back to him?”

“You’d need to see, as well.”

Bedevil knew he wouldn’t buy it if she groveled now. She chewed her lip and tried to look conflicted. It wasn’t difficult. She’d spent six years pretending, putting on a face.

The door opened and the thin man returned with a gallon jug of water. He left this by the door and nodded to Doppelganger. Bedevil tilted her head to see out into the hallway, hoping to get some bearings, but she couldn’t get the angle right.

Doppelganger stood up. “You’re their leader, right? Gabe is the face, yes, but you’re the one who tells the Inheritors what to do, am I right?”

Bedevil clenched her jaw.

“You don’t have your power, but I am sure you’re trained in hand to hand given your long career in heroics. Rest assured, if you try to harm me, my companion will do far worse to you and your friends.”

“My friends?” Bedevil asked. A thrill of hope and horror all in one. She wasn’t alone, but at the same time she was not alone.

Doppelganger loosened her straps. “You’ll receive meals and water as you need them. If you need to use the bathroom, please knock on the door and call for my assistant. He will be nearby.”

The Thin Man bowed so deep it looked like a mock gesture, but he did not smile and Doppelganger did not laugh. If Bedevil was watching it on TV she would have laughed, but not here in this prison, wherever they were.

The two men left the room.

Bedevil rubbed her wrists, though they didn’t pain her. She hadn’t been on the table very long.

Her hair, though. She ran her fingers along her head, felt bumps and scabs and a badly done buzz cut.

That hurt, and it hurt worse than she thought it would. It was not vanity or pride in her looks that upset her, but Gabe loved her hair so and if she made it back to him she’d be sheared to her scalp.

Not if. She couldn’t think like that. When.

When she made it back.

Bedevil rose to her feet, trying to shake her limbs free of the sedative’s grasp. Her legs gave out. She sprawled on the cold stone.

Someone helped her to her knees. Bedevil feared for what face she would see when she looked up, so she delayed as long as possible from meeting their eyes. Which friend, which loved one had he taken. Hopefully no one she knew.

Maisa.

Bedevil wanted to wail. Half the girl’s hair was gone, shaved in random paths, and her eyes were red from crying. She had a split upper lip and stained blood under her nose. Someone had punched her in the face, hard. She, too, only had a patient’s gown.

“Are you okay?” Bedevil asked.

Maisa nodded.

“Is there anyone else we know here?”

Maisa nodded again. She tugged Bedevil up and together they hobbled to the cots, to the two shadows clinging to each other.

Meltdown and Echo.

“Oh my god.” Meltdown stood up, but Echo did not. They held hands so tightly.

Bedevil wished she could say something inspiring. Something about them making it home and getting out of here. Gabe would.

But he was Gabe, and she was Bedevil. She started building her plan to leave, instead. “Do you have your powers?”

“None of us do,” Meltdown said.

Bedevil cursed, but it was workable information. “Do you know why?”

“I think it’s the tall one,” Maisa said. “He’s always with Doppelganger.”

“Always?” Bedevil asked. “How long have you been here?”

“Five days. Meltdown showed up a day after me. Echo was already here.”

Bedevil wanted to scream. These three had been taken under her nose, while she was so worried about Paul and Gabe’s crusade to capture Doppelganger. She’d never stopped to consider whether or not they were getting guided by the nose.

Nothing to be done now. “The Thin Man might be the reason, but we don’t know for sure.” She’d seen one or two nulls before. Epione was one, technically, but the others she’d met didn’t borrow powers. “It might also be technology.”

“We’re not going to get out of here.” Echo’s voice felt like a pin poking a hole in her hope. “Why are you bothering? We’re going to die, no matter what he says.”

Bedevil shook her head. “I think he’s sincere. He doesn’t want to kill us.”

“No, he doesn’t care to kill us,” Echo said. “That’s entirely different and you know it.”

Bedevil grimaced in the dark, hoping that the others couldn’t see it. She felt responsible for them being here, for not realizing how much of a threat Doppelganger was.

Christ, last thing she knew she’d opened the door for the Inheritors to go to California. They could be walking into a trap Doppelganger set.

Bedevil sat next to Echo, trying to adjust her medical gown. That ended up not being worth the effort. They were all in gowns, all exposed. Modicum and decorum were out the door. Only survival mattered. “Echo, we can sit here and mope. We can. Because you’re probably right. He’s not killing us right this second because he doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t matter why he isn’t killing us, though. He isn’t, and that’s enough wiggle room for us, isn’t it?”

Echo stared Bedevil down, just barely visible in the dark. She frowned, but relented.

“We’re going to get home. I promise.” Bedevil reached out for Maisa and Meltdown, grabbed them by the hand and brought them into a huddle. She wrapped the three of them in a big hug.

Maisa sniffled, Meltdown cried openly, but their grip was strong, their faces set.

Doppelganger had given them an inch, and they’d take every bloody mile they could.

5.19.2

On the New Foundation grounds there is a black slab of marble as tall as a house with its back against the ocean and its foundation buried deep in the sand. We engraved the stone with golden names of our fallen companions that gave their lives in defense of New Foundation and against the Fear. I run my hand down that list of names, stopping at the ones I am familiar with: Vaquero, Mil-dot, Asperity, and Drone, and many more. They’ve added Lugs and Mago to the bottom.

With a blazing fingertip, I write:

P.A.U.L.

Footsteps crunch in the sand behind me. I half suspect Bedevil’s followed me, given that later this afternoon we plan to fly over to the mountain and marry.

Instead of her, Saw Off joins me at the memorial to our friends. She’s traded her baggy cargo pants and camo jacket for a fuzzy sweater and pajamas, and her hair is loose and free to her shoulders. “Howdy. You’re all dressed up.” She gestures to my dress suit, which I’ve worn for the rushed wedding this afternoon.

“Hey.” I don’t have the words necessary to thank her or apologize to her. This woman that stands just barely up to my chest has bled for me more than her fair share. More than the fair share of all her teammates combined. I owe her an apology so large I could never finish speaking it. Yet my stupid mouth only manages: “Good job with the assassin.”

Saw Off scoffs and brushes her shoulders, but clearly she is hurt. Her eyes are empty. The bright young girl is dead. “It was mostly my team, and Echo. Girl practically knew where he was coming from. Ain’t nothing I did but blow his head off. He woulda got Archimedes if not for Tremble.”

“Still, I owe you.” I hold out my hand. “I can’t pay you back, ever.”

Saw Off stares at my hand for a long time, so long I worry she’ll try to blow it off. When she finally takes my hand and shakes it, I sigh in relief. “All this time and I thought I was making up for leaving you behind to fight Krater. And the time I almost put a bullet in you and your girl.”

“Water under the bridge.”

Saw Off doesn’t look convinced. “I thought maybe… your world sounded so beautiful, thought maybe I’d get a piece of it. All I got is suffering, Gabe.”

“I know.” I will never stop feeling shame for her losses.

“I need that mental health day. Mental health month.”

“It’s cool. We’ll let you go. Wherever you need to be, you let me know, and I’ll make it happen.”

Saw Off manages a small smile. That smile fades out as fast as it appeared, and she takes a knee to touch Lugs’ name. “He was the closest thing I ever had to a big brother. Closest thing I ever had to a dad, really. I’m gonna miss him fierce.”

“Me too.” The words seem weak, my sympathy not enough to fill the gulf I’ve created. “I’m sorry.”

Saw Off stands up. She shields her eyes from the sun and looks me in the eyes. The little smile returns when she pats my shoulder. “You’re a pretty piss poor replacement but I guess I’m stuck with you, aren’t I?”  She glances down at Paul’s name, still smoking. “And it ain’t like you don’t know how to be a big brother.”

“It sucks. Just one moment and I lost him.”

“Yessir. That’ll happen. You’re not looking and bam. Gone.” Saw Off frowns, an unusual look for her, but then turns away from me. “I’ll be at that motel if you need me again. But don’t come knocking unless it’s real important, otherwise I’ll fucking kill you.”

I’ve got no plans to bother her for a long time. I’ll let her grieve her own way.

I do have plans to bother a certain best friend of mine. Flashfire. Funny how I’ve got family on the mind today. I suppose it’s because I’m about to make my new one official, in a way.

He no longer keeps his own apartment, but instead dropped the pretenses with Meltdown and moved in with her. I’m not surprised, though I wonder how Epione is taking that. Honestly, I can’t blame him, with Doppelganger’s wake washing over us.

Meltdown’s the one who answers the door. She’s holding her baby Jamie in her arms, though he protests and cries, pushing against her. Her face lights up when she realizes it’s me. “Gabe! How are you doing?”

“Oh, you know, peachy. Given everything that’s happened.” I shrug, unsure of what else to add to that. “Is Flashfire around?”

Flashfire pokes his head out of a doorway in the apartment. His friendly grin is a sight for my sore eyes. “What’s up, Gabe?” I beckon him over to the door and whisper my plans into his ears. He gives me a big thumbs up. He rushes back into the bedroom and a few minutes later comes out in a suit, and tells Meltdown he’ll be back later.

Meltdown smiles, almost knowingly. She nods to me every so slightly, just enough that I could be mistaking it, but it definitely felt like she was aware of my plans. Guess I’m not very subtle. I am wearing a suit after all.

Flashfire and I make our way to the hangar. We mostly stay silent. My stomach is full of butterflies, my heart is pounding. I’ve been sleeping in the same bed as Ruby for over a year but I’m still nervous to marry her. Nervous that she’ll say no or that she’ll decide at long last that I really am not enough. I know that’s childish and stupid but those are my worries.

Maisa waves at me from the cockpit of a White Shark. She pulls her lips into a wide smile with her fingers, gesturing for me to smile, too. The pantomime does make me smile. Though not for long. I’m still very nervous.

Bedevil’s golden hair betrays her crouching in the cockpit. I guess she’s really doing all the traditions — you’re not supposed to see each other on your wedding day before the ceremony.

Flashfire and I board. I sit down close to the cockpit door and knock. “Hey there.”

After a moment, Bedevil’s whole hand slips through a crack in the door, showing off her engagement ring, the one I carved from the mountain. I’d hoped to get her an actual wedding ring but I suppose making another one feels more meaningful.

“Love,” she says. “I’ve looked forward to this for a long time.”

“So have I,” I tell her. Flashfire rolls his eyes and smiles at me, but doesn’t say anything.

“Are you nervous?” she asks. “I am. A little.”

“I feel like we shouldn’t be… but I am.” I squeeze her hand and she returns the gesture.

“It’s okay. We’re nervous together.” She pauses, her grip loosening for a heartbeat, and then she tightens it again. “We’re together.”

We don’t talk much, just holding each other’s hand while Maisa takes control of the White Shark. Admittedly, I’m a little surprised that she learned how to fly one of these behind my back.

After an hour of flying and a couple of anxious exchanges between me and Bedevil, Maisa asks, “So which mountain is it?”

“I don’t think it matters.” I glance over my shoulder and immediately recognize the peak I originally made Bedevil’s engagement ring from. “That one!”

Maisa giggles in the cockpit and we lurch downward. A few minutes later and we’ve landed on the mountain. Bedevil makes me and Flashfire go out first. We walk across the snow to the scar left from where I dug through the rock with my burning fingers. While I walk I melt the snow with my power, providing a walkway for Bedevil and Maisa to follow after. I heat the air around us enough that this will be comfortable, if not downright toasty.

“You happy?” he whispers. “You look really out of sorts.”

“Yeah, I just… I floated this idea a while back. Before the raid. She didn’t seem keen but after the raid she told me she wanted to. Last night, in fact.” I don’t know why I should be doubting this. I should be over the moon.

“Might be that seeing Paul die made her want to have you that much faster,” Flahsfire replies. “I don’t know. You’re just the anxious type, too.”

I will grant him that one. “Yeah. I might just be rattled.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea then?”

“I want to marry her.”

“I know you do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea right this second, you know?”

I consider that. He’s my best friend, always has been, and he knows me. He was right back in Houston when I clung to Home Run… and maybe he’s right now? Maybe the timing is off.

Except that when Bedevil steps off the White Shark, every doubt is struck from my mind.

I do not believe in gods, but she shakes my belief. Her hair shines bright gold in the sun, brighter than any gold I’ve ever seen. Her dress is woven from the same stark white snow of the mountain. Her veil dances with the frigid wind, but her red lipped smile does not waver in the face of the chill. Still, she sighs in relief when she enters the warmth of my influence. And then I see the tears in her eyes, staining her mascara. There is no music for us except the whispering of the sky as it kisses the earth.

That is all the music we need.

“Do you have your something old, new, borrowed, and blue?” I ask her.

Ruby laughs and nods, showing me the blue earrings she’s wearing. “The shoes I bought at a thrift store, and my necklace is borrowed from Echo.”

“And the something new?”

She grins and leans in to whisper, “I bought a new harness. I’m wearing it right now under the dress.”

My face flushes but I smile through it. “So that’s it, then, we’re up to snuff?”

Before Maisa and Jason we swear to love each other for the rest of our lives. We swear to cherish, to uplift, to hold close, until death do us part. We laugh as we fumble through the words without the guidance of a priest, because the words are not the important part.

Though we don’t speak as one as we mess up the vows and the parts we’re supposed to speak together, our hearts beat together, and we declare ourselves a family. We swear our vows before the sky and the earth.

I carve her a ring with my burning fingers, a new one that I polish with my fingers by vibrating them with kinetic energy, and she pulls its mate from the rock and forms it with her telekinesis. I cool them, we put them on.

Flashfire asks: “Gabriel Wayland, do you take this woman to be your bride?”

I search Ruby’s hazel eyes beneath her veil, I see they shimmer from tears. They are a well of color I want to dive into for the rest of our lives. “I do.”

Maisa asks: “Ruby Dawson, do you take this man to be your husband?”

Ruby can barely manage the words, her voice is choked with emotion. But she speaks them. “I do. I do.”

“Then kiss!” she cries. She laughs as we honor her request, and I take Ruby into my arms as my wife.

We flee the freezing mountaintop and fly all the way back to New Foundation. It’s not much of a honeymoon, but Maisa gives us the apartment and says she’ll find somewhere else to stay for a few days.

Bedevil and I make love until late into the night, until we are nearly passed out from exhaustion.

In the sleepy haze, as I wait to drift off and hold her to my chest, I feel her kiss my jaw. She leans up and whispers, “I love you, husband.”

“I love you, wife,” I answer. I can hardly believe it. “We’re married.” I grin down at her like a dolt. Whatever doubts I had earlier, they have been wiped away. Perhaps it is just the giddiness of marriage, the vows and the dress and the powerful emotions, but I can’t believe I ever doubted this.

Bedevil grins back at me. She presses her hand against my cheek and kisses me so deeply I worry she’ll steal my breath for good, but after a moment she relents and draws back with a shudder. “God. This is all I’ve ever wanted.”

I laugh and pull her back close. “I know it’s a bit cliche, but what now?”

“Well, you’re the one who said after marriage comes a baby carriage.” Bedevil strokes my chest and hums, and asks, “Do you want to? It doesn’t have to be now, but I do… I want that with you. I want to have a baby.”

“I do, too.” I kiss her forehead and stroke her hair. Her bare chest against mine moves with life-energy, heat I shift around to make sure she stays warm. “When this thing with Doppelganger is settled.”

Bedevil sours at the mention of his name. “What if… what if we never catch him? What if he disappears?”

“We’ll catch him.” Of that I am absolutely certain.

“What if it takes years?” Bedevil asks.

I don’t know what to say to that.

“We can’t let our future be dictated by him, Gabe. If we postpone for every villain, every enemy, then we’ll never have children.” Bedevil sits up in bed, draws herself into a pose like she’s languishing, and once again makes me question my atheism. Makes me believe that we are gods. Perhaps that’s shallow, but to see her leaning against our pillows naked, the outline of her body just visible in the dim light, I really think she is something divine. Something perfect.

Yet I still don’t think it’s wise to jump into having children. Not with that man looming over us like a specter. “Give me a few months. If it takes longer than that… then let’s talk about a baby, then. Is that okay?”

Bedevil doesn’t look entirely pleased with that, but she nods. “It’s reasonable.” She puts her weight against me, draws her knee up between my legs and starts to rub me with her thigh, causing a thrill of pleasure. She grins at my gasp. “If we have a boy, what should we name him?”

“Uh…” I can’t think. My blood is on a southbound path.

Bedevil moans into my ear. “Something for later, then.”

I’d say we went to bed before the sun went up, but we did not.

And so the next morning I found myself stumbling around New Foundation, bleary eyed and exhausted from the physical exertion. Bedevil goes with the rest of the New Foundation command to deliver the good news to President Genz, and I search for coffee to wake me up.

The Inheritors have a specific break room near our personal training rooms and our armory. I find Remise geared up for a mission, headed out of the armory and toward the hangar. “Something up?” I ask her.

“Oh, don’t trouble yerself,” Remise says. She grins at me. “Heard you and Bedevil eloped yesterday. Nice.” She offers me a fist bump, but I’m a little too slow on the uptake. She grabs my fist and forcefully bumps it. “Geez, when did you go to bed?”

I chuckle. “I mean, I went to bed pretty early. I didn’t sleep until—”

“Alright, alright, keep it to yerself.” Remise makes a gagging face. She pats my shoulder and says, “I’m happy for ye. Really am.”

“So where are you headed?” I ask.

“A little bit of recon on that cloak alliance we might be dealing with. I’m working with Linear on this one, just some observation stuff. Like I said, stuff you don’t need to worry over.” Remise salutes me and heads on to the hangar. “I’ll see you when I get back, my little newlywed. Have a good honeymoon.”

I don’t have the heart to tell her we’re putting that off for now, so I just go in search of coffee.

I’m surprised to find Epione in the break room, sitting with a bunch of embroidered cards, writing quickly with a fancy ink pen. She perks up when I enter. “Hey, Gabe! I’ve been working on your wedding invitations. Can you come take a look?”

Ah, shit. I kind of forgot to tell Epione we were planning the private thing. “Hey… uh… we kinda… did that… yesterday.”

Epione doesn’t look surprised by that fact. She settles into her neutral smile and turns back to her work. “Ah. Well. Do you think you’ll plan on a public ceremony, maybe a reception?”

“It’s a possibility.” I don’t want to get her hopes up, but I do think we’ll have a dinner at least. Something to celebrate over. “Can you change it?”

“Well, come take a look and tell me what you think, then.” Epione offers me one of the cards.

I eye the coffee machine where a freshly brewed pot steams, calling me over with its rich aroma.

“The coffee can wait, Gabe.” Epione’s voice becomes sharp as a tack.

I glance back at her, stunned she’d speak like that. I’ve never heard her take on that tone. But she doesn’t look angry, she just looks the same as always: demure smile, empty eyes, no facial tics. Too much like the old Epione, from when she maintained her armor religiously.

I take the card and open it up.

Gabe, do not speak or react to this like it is out of the ordinary. I don’t know who might be listening in. New Foundation is compromised. Doppelganger has replaced far more of us than I imagined.

Gabe, I am so sorry. I truly am.

You did not marry Bedevil. You married a replacement.

I am a ghost. My body looks up from the card to find Epione’s polite smile. Her eyes scream at me. They are not empty. They are full of horror.

I pick up the pen and write: How do you know? I pass the card to her.

She reads it and then shows me Cynic’s ring in the palm of her hand. She writes a new message: It’s how I found that one woman he replaced, the one that opened the gates for Paul to escape. I was looking over her mind to find obvious signs of Doppelganger’s influence when Bedevil strolled by the room. I saw her mind. I saw her memories.

She was replaced the day you came back from Scotland, when you were out on the beach.

A scream threatens to burst through my teeth.