Category Archives: Volume Five: Compulsion to Move

5.18.7

Doppelganger lifts me by my wrist, dangling me until my feet can’t touch the ground anymore. He grins, the only thing I can see, the last thing I see before the world turns gray and cold. His words — in Bedevil’s voice — hammer against my eardrums.

“You’re a vain and arrogant child! You don’t want to do things my way, but you refuse to see the damage you’re doing? Do you think brawling with other superhumans is the way to your better world? Do you think that acting like a bull in a china shop will bring peace?”

I can’t see, can barely hear and smell, but I can still feel. I feel it all as Doppelganger slams me into the ground, again and again, grinding the fight out of me with each blow. I fight back by kicking at his chitinous armor but the sensory disorder he saddled me with makes concentrating a herculean feat. Summoning my power through the fugue is near impossible. All I can do is stay alive.

“You need correction! You need discipline!” Doppelganger lifts me up so I am inches from his face. “You need me! You need your fath—”

A blinding light and clap of thunder cuts him off mid-sentence. I can’t see, but it must be Meltdown come back to save me.

Except that Doppelganger shouts: “Cog! You are powerless!”

 

And the beautiful answer, so clear and ringing even though the sound pinches the inside of my head: “My name isn’t Cog! It’s Paul! P for Powerful, A for Able, U for Unique, and L for Loved!” With his declaration there is another gong of thunder, another flash of lightning, and then a third volley. Paul turns the massive reservoir of power I felt in him on his father.

If I could say anything, if I could move at all, I would cheer. I feel Paul’s triumph, though I’ve no idea how he made it out of Doppelganger’s compulsion.

Tendrils pull me from the fight and hands wrap around my neck, one maimed and one whole. I know these hands and I sink into their owner, feeling her murmur, “I’m here, Gabe. I’m here.” I know it’s Ruby, this time.

Then someone else lays their hands on me. The pain of every sense screaming at me recedes, and my vision returns. Templar and Bedevil stare down at me. “You’re okay,” Templar says. “He laid something nasty on you.”

“You were right about him manipulating disorders.” I fight to my feet. Doppelganger bruised my body, but he did not break it. Lightning and fire explodes out from a deep trench carving through the house and the driveway. Doppelganger climbs up from the rift, but Paul isn’t the only one fighting him now. Maisa, Meltdown, and Epione rush in with their powers on full display. Mr. Gold is right behind them, swarmed by his golden daggers.

I glance at Bedevil. She glances back, and nods.

Time to go to work.

We jump together into the fray.

Now that I have my vision back, I see the full monstrosity of Doppelganger’s transformation. He stands taller than me by at least a foot and a half. Red chitin and gray hide covers his body like armor. Both his hands end in huge lobster claws.

He roars, swinging his arms wildly, and then he sings the same song as earlier. The one that activated that earthquake. This time, the soil doesn’t hear his song. The only ones who hear it are those of us climbing into the crevice with him, joining the fight led by my brother.

Paul is beautiful, strong, and free. He hammers Doppelganger with the energies he can control. Heat, kinetic, lightning, others that I can’t detect. Each blow craters chitin, blackens or burns the hide. I realize how much he was holding back while fighting me.

I join him, kneeing Doppelganger in the face with a burst of power. The blow nearly sprawls him, allowing Paul and I a chance to acknowledge each other.

We share a grin as brothers.

The man who made us both rebounds and charges, his arms scraping the sides of the crevice. Light and electric blasts bounce off the chitinous armor, but slowing Doppelganger down even more. Bedevil flies in over us; one of Doppelganger’s legs breaks, buckling in at the knee like an invisible club hit him. Remise tangles him in her claw cables.

Paul and I bounce into the action together. We rain fire on him and he replies in kind. My suit vibrates and glows, my skin starts to shine from the accumulated energy.

Doppelganger fights with ferocity. But he’s losing. He’s inhumanly tough from whatever genetics he’s used to modify himself, but he isn’t invincible.

Doppelganger smashes his claws into the walls of the rift, stirring clouds of dust. I cough and fall back, losing sight of Paul. Doppelganger’s shadow looms in the cloud.

I hear Paul cry out. Another blinding flash of light and thunder that shows Doppelganger hobbling toward me, fleeing from the other Inheritors behind him. I gather energy in my fist, hold my ground, waiting until he is almost upon me.

Until it’s too late for him to change his course.

I punch him so hard the chitin of his chest collapses inward with a loud pop. Doppelganger crumples, gasping for air, and his body shrinks. In ten seconds he is back to normal size, back to the diminutive, unremarkable man I met not two weeks ago.

He reaches up to grab at my cheek.

With a superheated hand, I slice through his wrist. Then the other, just to be safe. “I’m guessing you need your hands. Every time you used your powers, you had to touch them.”

“Astute,” Doppelganger replies, coughing from the dust. I wave it away so he can breathe, though it doesn’t help much. His ribs are broken, he wheezes. His cough is wet with blood.

“Not so stupid, am I?”

“Ah, but you’ve made an error,” he says. “You came looking for me with all your best. But you’ve left New Foundation unprotected. Who is there but Archimedes, Linear, and Oracle? You sent Saw Off away to rest, you’ve got no one there.”

I have no interest in showing my hand yet. “I’ve got you.”

Doppelganger laughs. He flails his arms as if he’s trying to grab the collar of my jacket. His stumps rub against my suit. “You don’t get it, do you? You’ve got me… but you don’t have father.”

And the truth is confirmed. I had a feeling that Doppelganger wasn’t here. When the second one came out from the basement, I knew the real Doppelganger, the original, was nowhere near this hideout. I’d hoped he was dumb enough to actually try to talk sense into me himself.

The clone’s grin fades. He makes a puzzled expression, and then says, “You know.”

“I do know,” I answer. “And I didn’t leave New Foundation unguarded.”


Saw Off found the dingiest, cheapest motel in Buenos Aires that she could find. The building was a sad excuse, more fit to house crackheads than anyone else. Which meant for her it was perfect. She’d built up some connections, could probably score a little crack herself. At least some molly or something. Something good. If not that, pot and whiskey.

She returned to the motel after making a food run with a greasy bag of fast food. She trudged up the stairs, each one taking more effort than the last, and found the room she was staying in.

Only when she got there, Echo was waiting for her on the bed, having shuffled aside the cans of beer and ash trays that still reeked of weed so she could even sit down. “Christ, Saw Off, I can’t imagine what this place was like before you got it.”

“Mostly the same,” Saw Off said, closing the door behind her. “Had to clear out someone else’s trash so I could fill it with my own. Gabe didn’t send you here to fuck me, did he?” She admitted she thought Echo was cute, but Remise made it clear that if Saw Off put her paws on Echo, she’d draw back nubs.

“No, he sent me to recruit you, actually.”

Saw Off flipped Echo off. “I’m on sabbatical. A vacation. A god damn mental health day.”

“You can have that, but we’ve got a bit of work to do with your team first. You see, I’m joining you as of today.” Echo stood up with a prim little smirk, smoothing out her black skirt once she was on her feet. “Gabe gave us a mission. He thinks that Doppelganger’s been watching and is trying to lead them to California as a distraction.”

“Yeah, I bet that’s what he did.” Saw Off opened her bag and fished a few fries out, intent at least on getting one horrible meal in before she was whisked back to headquarters. She’d already laid her vacation to rest. “You think he’s gonna hit us again?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Echo said. “Wouldn’t you?”

“I mean, I ain’t Gabe’s clone daddy. But yeah, it’s what I’d do. Distract and hit them where it hurts.” Saw Off didn’t really like all this high level cape business. World ending plots and conspiracies were not her domain.

“So, you come with me, we protect New Foundation from what he sends our way with your team, and then you take your mental health day. Can you do that?” Echo asks.

Saw Off thought about it. She thought about it good and hard. She munched on her fries, staring at the empty cans of beer, the empty bottles of liquor, and thought that she hadn’t drank or smoked nearly enough yet. She wanted to say no, to tell Echo to leave her be. It was only right after Vaquero, Mil-dot, and Lugs. Only right after everything she gave. So much she wondered how she’d ever give anymore to Gabe and his vision.

But at night, sometimes, whether she was alone or some stranger slept next to her, the one thing that always guaranteed some sleep was that bright future Gabe inspired. She’d drift off with a little smile, thinking about a world that didn’t need capes, masks, or cloaks anymore. Where everyone was good and free from fear.

She found that she had a little more to give. “Yeah, alright.”


The cloned Doppelganger laughs again. “And here I thought you were stupid.” He shakes his head in disbelief, and the last thing on his lips is a little smirk. He dies, broken from the fight. It’s not the real Doppelganger but damn it feels good to watch him go.

“Gabe!” Bedevil calls. “Is it safe?”

“It’s done,” I reply. I make my way through the cloud of dust carefully. I search for Paul, worry mounting when I don’t hear him calling out for me. I hear Remise, Mr. Gold, Meltdown, Maisa, but no Paul. “Can someone clear the dust?”

Large swaths start to disappear as Bedevil’s tendrils sweep through them. I search for Paul. I pray.

I find my brother resting against the wall of the rift, sitting up like he’s just relaxing there from a long day of work.

A huge gash in his throat. Blood stains his shirt. He stares at nothing.

No, no, this is… this is not… he’s not dead. He’s not. I smile and laugh at him, trying to meet his eyes, trying not to break down right here.

An entire conversation with him plays out in my imagination. I ask him what he’ll do now that he’s free and he replies that he wants to join me but first he wants to see the world that he’s missed out on. He wants to see mountains and rivers, he wants to see everything. He wants to kiss someone. He wants to see Disney World.

I laugh as if we’re having that conversation, and I imagine his smile.

Except that I do not have to imagine.

He is dead, and he died smiling.

5.18.6

The man Epione stole the hydrokinesis from was named Lucas in life. He called himself Floodwater as a cloak and he was perhaps the most powerful hydrokinetic in South America. He died fighting the Inheritors early into their campaign to reunite South America under the banner of New Foundation, before countries starting dropping out of the tattered UWC left and right.

He screamed into Epione’s ear as she summoned his power from her ring. “You fucking bitch! Let me out of here!”

Epione ignored him and the sudden fury that flowed through her, concentrating it into Doppelganger’s pool. Gabe was losing his bout with Paul, while the other person she sensed in the basement with her empathy was on the way up. Whoever they were, their colors flowed dark, full of pain.

The pool responded to her fury — to Lucas’ fury. The water sighed, sloshing inside the pool and gathering power, until it ripped free and crashed into the house as a raging wave. The water smashed through windows and crushed walls, wrenched everyone in the house off their feet. Epione danced along the water, stepping on it as if it were a solid surface. She rode the currents into the house, using the power to make tendrils from the water to bind up their enemies.

Gabe pursued Doppelganger, bound by Mr. Gold’s chain, through the entry hall and out the door. Paul stumbled to his feet after them.

Kassandra was preoccupied with Remise and Maisa, but already she was winning that fight — she knocked Maisa from her board with a scythe of pure stone, while Remise she kept at bay with giant hand shaped statues that groped and crushed through the furniture with their limestone fingers. The hands chased Remise up the walls as she used her jets to evade them. Kassandra was half a beast, with leathery hide for skin, yellow cat eyes, and sharp claws instead of nails, and fighting nearly as fast as Remise.

Epione made her choice: let Gabe, Mr. Gold, and Meltdown fight with Doppelganger and Paul.

Epione switched out her rings, summoning Carnality’s power, and the Luca’s fury was replaced with the demoness’ lust. Epione wanted to rend, wanted to kill, wanted to consume. She used her own blood to form the crimson armor that overlaid her suit and a spear that could pierce through steel.

Kassandra, too, summoned her element: stone chunks ripped from the floor and encased her in armor. She stepped forward, whirling her hands, calling up solid columns of rock to block Epione from advancing. She showed her teeth in an expression somewhere between a grin and a grimace, and stepped forward, hungry for battle.

Epione, too, was hungry. She leapt up, letting Carnality’s voice fill her ears: “I want to see her, darling, I want to open her up and taste her! I want to know her!”

Kassandra disappeared, slipping into the floor like a rock into a pond.

Epione had no place to put the bloodlust, now. She fell to her knees, confused and disoriented by the outburst of Carnality’s emotions.

“Where the hell did she go?” Remise asked, free of the stone hands now that they were not animated. They remained frozen in place where they stepped, a strange statue of spiders climbing up the walls.

“Find her!” Carnality screeched.

Epione squeezed her ears shut, though it did nothing to block Carnality’s voice. She closed her eyes and searched the Affect for Kassandra.

Instead she found the fourth person reaching the top of the basement stairs. “Remise!” she cried, pointing at the door as it opened.

Another Doppelganger emerged and with each step his body shifted. His skin looked as if it were boiling as it transformed into red-black chitin, his hands — missing the same fingers the Doppelganger she met in Buenos Aires was missing — became giant claws, while his legs tore free of his pants, swelling to the size of tree trunks. A rhinoceros horn sprouted from his forehead, spilling blood across his face like war paint.

Epione could only stare in horror as he dropped to all fours and charged.

Maisa screamed, startling Epione from her stupor, while Remise shouted over the comms: “There’s another Doppelganger! And he’s a big old fucking monster!”

Maisa hurled a sphere of solid light that glanced off the Crabganger’s body. Remise whipped her claw cables but they only scratched the chitinous armor bounding him. Epione conjured a swarm of knives from her blood — but the Crabganger diverted his charge at the last second, avoiding that end. He lashed out with his claws at Remise, nearly cutting her head off.

A hand reached up from the floor and snared Epione’s ankle. Kassandra! Epione had lost track of her in Crabganger’s charge.

Kassandra reached up with her other hand but Epione kept that leg free. She grabbed one of the red knives hanging in the air and sliced at Kassandra’s fingers. Rage moved Epione’s limbs in charged bursts, as if an electric impulse fired off at random intervals and commanded her muscles. She kicked free of Kassandra’s snare.

Someone above them began to sing. “La donna è mobile! Qual piuma al vento!”

In response, the house swayed as if in dance with the rhythm of the song, scattering the paintings from the walls, throwing the Crabganger onto its belly as it dove at Remise. The earthquake shattered the statue hands into pieces. Windows screeched and cracked into pieces, the chandelier over the living room spun like a top. Drawers slammed, doors opened, the lights sputtered and died.

Epione fought for her footing with the well of strength from Carnality’s power. She stayed upright.

Until the ground opened its mouth and swallowed her alive.

She cried out and grabbed at the rock, tumbling into darkness. She smashed against hard rock, against unrelenting stone, against the domain of Kassandra, and was almost lost in the sea of undulating earth. The house chased her into this hole; wood, tiling, glass and more debris tried to bury her in the newly formed rift.

The only thing she had in the darkness was her question.

“Are you human?” Carnality asked.

“Of course I am,” Epione answered.

“Of course you are,” came the reply, spoken through a giggle. Carnality snickered in her ear. “Of course you are.”

Epione bit her tongue. She wanted to bite back, to snarl at Carnality, or at least to silence her by putting her mind back in the ring. But the power was the only thing keeping her alive right now.

Not much longer. She was only drawing strength from her own blood and she had no way to collect more.

Saw Off’s miserable face bubbled to her memory from the last time she’d been buried under rubble. Her weeping cry as she clung to Lugs’ corpse haunted Epione. Would likely haunt her until the day she died.

The colors changed near her. A silver fire approached through the ocean of Affect. The rubble shifted. Light pierced the darkness. A gloved hand reached into the rift and grabbed her arm, pulling her free.

Meltdown greeted her. Her colors spoke of relief, of pain, of fear, and of guilt. Relief that Epione was still alive, pain from the fight, fear from Doppelganger, and guilt… from Flashfire. Oh, if only Epione could relieve that guilt somehow, tell her that there was nothing to worry about. There was no way Epione would ever get back her love for him, because it was where it needed to be.

Words for a later time. If there ever was. “Are you okay?” Epione asked.

“I’m good. The White Shark is here. Let me take you to it.” Meltdown scooped Epione into her arms and took flight. They lifted up out of the huge rift, back to the house.

The pair ascended into a wasteland. Epione marveled at the house, broken down to its base parts, destroyed to the foundation. She couldn’t see Maisa, Remise, or the Crabganger, but she did see two flames fleeing from the house, west toward the coast — one silver, one gold. From their colors, she knew they were Kassandra and Paul.

“Not yet,” Epione said. “Paul and Kassandra are getting away.”

Meltdown’s colors revealed a flash of indecision. Epione made a face, meaning to say, “Take me there, now.” She wasn’t sure if that got across, as Meltdown’s colors didn’t change to resolve. But she nodded and changed course.

Paul and Kassandra dashed down the hill along the edge of the rift that Kassandra opened with her power. Epione summoned a bola from her blood. She threw the weapon at Paul, and the two red balls orbited his ankles and tangled him, knocking him to the ground. Epione willed the blood to transform into a harness, restraining him.

Meltdown called lightning down from the sky, but Kassandra swan-dived into the earth before any of the bolts could strike her. The fire of her Affect bobbed and weaved as she burrowed through the earth, more graceful than a fish in water, but she stayed close to the surface and the walls of the giant rift she’d created with her power.

“Take us in,” Epione said, switching the rings out. Carnality screeched in protest, but the scream was cut off by Epione shoving her into her prison.

Alec, the scared boy, took her place. The power to activate other powers. Epione pointed down to the rift. “Dive down there.”

Meltdown soared down. Arms made of stone grew from the earth like weeds, but Meltdown repelled them with blasts of electricity. She carved their path down into the rift and brought Epione within feet of Kassandra.

Alec sniffled as Epione bid his power force Kassandra’s hand — she compelled the woman to burrow upward and surface from the earth. “Hit her now!” Epione shouted.

Thunder roared in the sky and lightning brought its ax down upon Kassandra. Her Affect sputtered, but did not die out. Her colors were confusion and agony, and she was dazed out of her mind. Doppelganger’s changes to her genetics must have kept her alive.

Meltdown carried Epione from the rift and landed next to Kassandra. The lightning had scorched part of the clone’s hair away, leaving a black mark down the middle of her skull. Her cat eyes searched the sky while she babbled nonsense.

“She’ll survive,” Epione said. She reached down and bid Kassandra to sleep, offering a small mercy to the woman. Alec, too, she allowed to rest. “I think she’s tougher than she looks.”

“She looks pretty damn tough,” Meltdown said.

Paul struggled against his restraints only a few yards away. Part of the restraint gagged him so that he couldn’t speak, but he growled as they approached him.

Epione was unsure of what to do with him — she wanted to try and free him from Doppelganger’s compulsion, but the last clone she’d tried it on had failed. Then again, that woman was only a lightweight.

“Doppelganger has Gabe!” Bedevil shouted over the comms. “All Inheritors on my location!”

A flare popped and hissed, casting the entire estate in a low red light. Meltdown grabbed at Epione’s arm to guide her back. “Come on, put him to sleep. They need us!”

Epione had no choice. She had to free him from the monster somehow.

How on earth would she do that, though?

When she’d tried to save the other clone in New Foundation, the poor woman that Doppelganger had kidnapped and replaced, she’d tried to free the clone from his influence by a similar process in which Gabe beat the Fear possessing him. Epione tried to force the clone’s actualization, make her become more herself. That had the opposite result that Epione intended.

Now she looked to her own history as an example. When she no longer loved Flashfire, it was because something crucial had been taken from her. A piece of her Affect, a piece of her heart. But that piece put a wall between them. A wall that meant that nothing Flashfire ever said or did would compel her to act.

Epione laid her fingers upon Paul’s brow. She searched his Affect for the thing that bound him to Doppelganger. Something that, if she removed it, meant that Doppelganger would never compel Paul to act again.

She found it. Fear. It was always fear. A little black shard wedged into his colors that, if given the right command, could force Paul to act. Epione saw the true extent of Doppelganger’s powers, then. Not only did he change genetics, not only could he clone people, but he could shape the Affect of those he created, as well.

Epione plucked the shard of fear from Paul’s mind.

5.18.5

Can’t say I’m surprised he knew we’d attack, though I’m a little off put he knew exactly when. This collision had gravity.

“We’re on our way, less than two minutes,” Bedevil says over the comms. The shrill cry of the White Shark’s engines sound over the valley. Her and Templar are the backup.

Doppelgänger stares at me, a shepherd smiling at his lost lamb. His grin wrinkles his face, his dark eyes, and even his brow. There’s something… off about his smile. Not just what I know about him now, but it doesn’t look quite human. I remember Templar’s remark that he could alter genetics.

“Gabe, would you like something to eat?” he calls. The windows are thin enough to hear through. “I bet you’re hungry. Paul, let our guests in.”

“Not another step,” I respond, pointing my bat at Paul through the window.

“Gabe, the world needs us to work together. It is in chaos and disarray and you and I could fix it.” Doppelgänger clasps his hands and bows his head as if in prayer, begging me. His voice breaks but it’s a mechanical, purposeful squeak, engineered to elicit pity. “We can save the world from the Fear, Gabe! The only way is we change people. If we don’t, then we’ll never be ready.”

Epione grabs my arm. “There’s someone else in the basement, I can sense their Affect.”

I heft my bat and fill it with kinetic energy from the heat around me. I can’t kill Doppelgänger — we need him alive — but damn I’m going to enjoy him resisting arrest. “No monologues.” I rush forward, smashing through the wall with my fist.

Debris and glass. Fire and lightning. “Stop him!” Doppelgänger shouts. Wood splinters arcing through the air. I stare Paul down as he rushes through the storm, his skin vibrating and his eyes glowing. Electricity arcs from his fingers toward me in a deadly lance. I only just stop it with a kinetically frozen shield of air.

Paul shoves through my shield, inside my reach as I try to swing my bat — only to wound, to disable, not to kill or injure — and lays his hands on me. A wave of kinetic energy flows into me. I contest with my power, wrestling it back. We are two tidal waves of force crashing into each other.

Except he’s got more power. He pushes me back, inching me toward the window again.

Lightning explodes overhead, not from Paul, but from Meltdown rushing in through the main door, Mr. Gold at her heels. Paul absorbs the electricity but caught between the two of us he relents enough for me to push him back.

“Heads up!” Epione says over the comms.

An actual tidal wave crashes through the windows, so I root myself in place and absorb the energy of the impact as the water smashes through the house. Epione waves her hands, guiding tendrils of water to grab at Doppelgänger, Paul, and Kassandra. Her hydrokinesis ring glows on her right hand.

I rush for Doppelgänger. If we apprehend him then this is over. The objective is to extract him, and while I want to save Paul, that’s secondary.

I’m not the only one going for Doppelgänger. Mr. Gold’s chain whips and ensnares the man, pulling him away from me before I can snatch him. I glance around to make sure Paul and Kassandra aren’t about to blindside me; Paul struggles in the water and Kassandra duels with Remise, who’s smashed through the living room window with Maisa.

We’ve got the upper hand!

Mr. Gold whips Doppelgänger out the front door with his chain, and I can just make out Doppelgänger shouting: “Gabe! Please stop this fighting and listen to me!” His cries are cut off as Mr. Gold flies upward. I warp through the hallway, over the flood surging through the house, and back out into the Californian evening.

I try to touch down but someone slams into my back before I can start flying upward, and we roll down the driveway. The steep angle of the driveway, which slopes down the mountainside, keeps us rolling until I gain my hand and drink in gravity’s pull with my power.

“I don’t want to hurt you!” my own voice comes from behind me. Paul. “Just let us go, Gabe!”

“Paul, we can help you!” I wrench myself free of him, scraping my fingers on the concrete as I stand up. We both hobble to our feet, both drawing in energy but hesitant to make the first move. “Run from this fight, run and we’ll find you, we’ll take you back to New Foundation.”

“So I can kill more of your friends when he comes and makes me?” Paul asks. “Please just go, Gabe, so you don’t get hurt!”

I want to tell him that I won’t be hurt, that it will be okay. I want to find the words that will somehow drive out Doppelgänger’s influence from his brain, like so many others did for me when I was possessed by the Fear. I can’t promise him either of those things, but I can promise him this: “I would suffer any wound if it meant I could free you.”

Paul’s face twists in agony. Tears spill down his cheeks. He reaches out as if to take my hand.

Behind him, up the driveway, Mr. Gold and Doppelgänger swing around each other in above the house. Doppelgänger shrieks out and clutches at his necklace, and his body crunches in on itself.

Doppelgänger’s flesh melts free of the chains and reforms as if he’s made of putty. Feathers, antlers, and claws explode out as he takes on an entirely new form. Wings unfold, a mouth full of jagged teeth opens, and Doppelgänger takes flight into the sky. “Cog! You are powerless!”

Paul’s eyes glaze over. He rushes me, swinging his fists in wild arcs, and no longer does he restrain himself to kinetic energy. Tendrils of plasma and lightning arc from his fists, crashing into my conjured air shield. I step back and give him ground before he incinerates me. I can’t approach him as normal, but if I go all out and try to kill him… I don’t want to do that yet. I promised Bedevil and the others I’d kill Paul if it came down to it but we’re not there yet.

Paul challenges me on that principle with bolts of lightning, with sprays of energy tightly bound into a thick plasma I can’t do anything about. I dance around him in a tight circle, trying to find the right angle to disable him. He’s not that skilled at fighting. If I maneuvered enough energy I could overload him, probably, but no single hit of mine would be strong enough to take him down.

For me, this is a battle of a thousand cuts, while all he needs is one good hit.

I get to work.

I launch into the air, vaulting above a barrage of electricity, and glide down behind him, clipping him hard with my bat in his shoulder. Gunfire and a shriek that sounds like it came from a nightmare somewhere behind us, at the house. Can’t worry about that now. Hold until Bedevil and Templar get here for the extraction.

Paul swings a wild haymaker, his fist crackling with enough power to light up a building. He almost catches me with the punch, but glances off another of my air shields. I slip into his reach and smash him with my bat, hoping he’ll drink the energy and avoid a fatal injury. He does — but not perfectly. He spits up blood.

Electricity arcs along my bat but stops short of the handle. He stares at it for a second, blinking in confusion. “Insulating rubber,” I tell him.

He snarls. Paul isn’t at the steering wheel right now, only Cog.

I retreat away as he unleashes a torrent that would fry me alive. Javelins that would make Zeus envious rip through the air, dissolving against the driveway pavement, and I realize it at last: he’s missing. He’s missing on purpose.

Paul is in there.

A golden knife soars past me and clatters to the ground, cast off from Mr. Gold’s battle with Doppelgänger. I grab it, intent on finding a way to put Paul out of commission. I come up with a plan — bury the knife in his foot and nail him to the driveway.

More gunfire and another scream — this one from Remise. Over the comms, she says, “There’s another Doppelgänger! And he’s a big old fucking monster!”

I take a dive of faith and charge right at Paul, praying that I am right about him missing me on purpose, but conjuring a shield of air if I’m not.

He lobs another lance of plasma at me.

Too high.

Thanks, Paul.

I warp into his personal space, dive to my knees, and jam the knife through his shoe with a burst of power. I fill the tip of the knife with energy so it punctures through the pavement. I jump up and shove Paul. He’s in too much pain to stop me, and falls onto his back.

“Stay down,” I tell him. “I’ll stop Doppelgänger once and for all.”

I take flight, aiming for Mr. Gold and Doppelgänger dueling above the house. Can’t worry about the duplicate in the house, right now. The rest of the team is competent, they can handle it, but Mr. Gold is alone and he’s already not looking good. His armor has multiple lacerations, but he doesn’t seem to be bleeding. He pants over the comms. “Could use some help!” He waves his hands and a half a dozen golden knives revolve around his body in a protective barrier.

“Here it is.” I smash into the Doppelbird, bat first. I clip his wings, sending him sprawling to the roof of the house below us. Mr. Gold follows up with a hail of his golden daggers. They pierce through the Doppelbird’s feathers. The beast screeches. All too human eyes tear up and it opens the wolf’s maw to speak.

“Gabe! Please, we don’t have to fight! We can stop this, we can sit down and talk, and we can save the world!”

The White Shark’s engines roar over the nearby mountain. I don’t want to negotiate with him, but stalling him so Templar can arrive is something I can do. Maybe she can shift him back to a human. I glance at Mr. Gold, who glances back at me. He pulls his gun but doesn’t shoot, deferring to me.

I bite on Doppelbird’s ceasefire. “We can talk. But you know I can’t agree to the way you want to do things. I can’t agree to clones and slaves.”

“You want to save the world but you don’t want to change people.” The Doppelbird folds its wings in and hops around the roof, shaking the knives from its skin. “Your way only ends in misery, Gabe. Please, come see reason.”

“Your way… you don’t even see them as human!” I shout. “People aren’t people to you, they’re just bits of machinery!”

“Isn’t the world a machine? It is meant to fight the Fear, Gabe, but it is malfunctioning.” The Doppelbird spreads its wings, drops to leap into the air. Looks like the talking is over. “Must I show you the way, you insolent child?”

“You’ve already shown me!” I launch down to meet him.

The Doppelbird opens its mouth and begins to sing in a loud, operatic voice: “Kassandra! La donna è mobile! Qual piuma al vento!”

The earth rumbles and shakes.

Before I make it to him, the roof caves in. The house is breaking apart. No, not just the house, the entire world is falling to pieces. Huge rifts open in the driveway and the mountain. I try to find Mr. Gold or Paul, but before I can I fall into the collapsing house with the Doppelbird. We hang in the air for a brief moment while I gain my bearings, and the Doppelbird takes advantage, tackling me upward.

Feathers and fur surround me, stifling me, crushing me. A claw grazes my exposed cheek, the only part of my body that is exposed, and a shock wave runs from the tip of my skin to my spine. My vision blurs, sounds pierce my ears like blades, the texture of my suit scrapes at my skin.

I smash my bat into the Doppelbird, sending him flying into the night. Meltdown launches from the rubble to greet him. She conjures a huge, booming pillar of electricity from her armor, so bright that it blinds me momentarily. When I can see again, all that is left of the Doppelbird is a charred corpse.

Except I can’t see very well at all. Each second the world grows more milky, more opaque. Doppelgänger altered something in my senses. Templar’s warning leaps back to mind: he can alter the genetics of his clones.

I pray that Templar can undo it while I stumble free of the rubble.

The whine of the White Shark flying overhead drives a pick into my ears, so loud that I adjust my ear piece to block out sound over a certain decibel rating.

Bedevil cries out somewhere to my left: “Gabe! Over here!”

I fly to her. I need someone to fix my sight, I can barely see. I can’t even make her out at all, anymore, but I hear her voice calling to me. I chase her.

I slam face first into a wall.

No, not a wall. A chest.

A claw pinches down on my wrist and wrenches me off my feet. I can make out Doppelgänger’s face cowled by a red-black shell of chitin, his eyes gleaming in the dark like cat eyes. In Bedevil’s voice, he says, “I can help you, Gabe.”

 

5.18.4

A day in the life of Kassandra:

Kassandra rose at 5:30 in the morning everyday, and enjoyed the few moments of silence before father woke up. She took those moments as she found them — moments to enjoy coffee and a piece of fruit, moments of contemplation.

Moments for a flash of dread and fear.

As if someone deep inside her head screamed and raged at hidden chains, at the edges of her memory and her thought.

The silent kitchen waited for her and she brewed a bit of coffee, hoping it would soothe the tattered, painful thoughts. And it did, it did at that. Just the smell of it was enough. She wondered if father made her so coffee made her more compliant, if caffeine kick-started a mechanism just as the music did.

Then she found herself not caring very much about what father did at all, or rather, she found herself agreeing with it, somehow. What he was doing to her was necessary. Purging the inner thoughts and demons so that she could focus on the mission. They were saving the world.

Kassandra saw her shoes by the couch — fuzzy slippers that she’d stolen from the man that previously owned this house — and resisted the temptation to put them on. Father asked that she be barefoot at all times so that if they were surrounded, her tremor sense would alert her.

Paul shuffled into the kitchen from his room as if he had shackles around his ankles. He rubbed at his eyes and followed the smell of coffee. “Kass.”

“Paul,” Kassandra said.

Wait… why did she call him that? That wasn’t his name. He said they gave him that name when they kidnapped him, but that didn’t mean it was really his name.

But even now, she was thinking of him as Paul, wasn’t she?

And how she wanted to be named. Kassandra was stolen from some Syrian women, twice over by another clone that fought a war for Doppelganger and was labeled a cloak for it.

She sipped her coffee. Paul became Cog with each passing sip. “Drink,” she said, offering him a cup.

Cog did drink.

“They’re going to come, you know. Aethon and the Inheritors.”

“What will happen?” Cog asked.

“Father will take them by surprise. He’ll kill Aethon, insubordinate child that he is, and that will be that. Better, he’ll kill the Inheritors, he’ll kill Bedevil, he’ll kill them all. Replace them with proper versions. We can get back to the business.”

Cog nodded.

Kassandra went about making breakfast, waiting for father to wake up. In the meantime, she watched the news. More garbage about Aethon and Bedevil’s upcoming wedding, like they were some sort of celebrity couple. Gossips talking about Bedevil having a relationship with a clone of Megajoule.

Meh. Kassandra could dare less about her brother.

Brother.

Kassandra bolted upright, as if she heard a noise. No, definitely not. Just her imagination. Paul working on making breakfast in the kitchen. Nothing was wrong. Nothing at all. Coffee. Sip.

All better.

Speakers whirred out of their hiding spots all across the house, and jazz music filled the living room and the kitchen, silencing what her coffee could not. Doppelganger emerged from the basement with a large grin on his face. He buttoned up his shirt. “Hello, my lovely children! How’s the morning treating us so far?”

“G-good,” Cog said, timid and nervous.

Doppelganger clapped him on the back and scooched him aside. “Coffee, huh! Let’s make egg tacos. Does that sound good, kids?”

“It does,” Kassandra agreed. “Anything you need my help with?”

“No, you just take it easy for now. We’re expecting guests at some point, aren’t we? You need to be in tip-top shape if we’re going to greet them right.”

“When do you think they’ll be here?” she asked.

Doppelganger whistled and shrugged. “Any day now. Maybe today. Tomorrow. Not more than a week.”

“How would they get into the states?” Kassandra asked.

“Who knows! It’s your brother. It’s Gabe! He’ll find a way, he always has, hasn’t he? He found a way to beat the Fear, found a way to overcome Cynic and OPI and Carnality, didn’t he?”

“Seems that Oracle and Archimedes beat Cynic and OPI,” Kassandra said.

“Then at the very least, he’s good at lashing himself to the right boat, isn’t he?” Doppelganger asked.

Kassandra had to suppose so. “Why not just kill him, father? He’s insolent.”

“No, no, he’s brash and bold, but not insolent. He’ll see the light. He’ll see it.” Doppelganger began to heat up a pan. Butter crackled and bubbled on the metal and filled the house with a pleasant smell to go with the jazz music. “He wants to save the world, Kassie, and that makes him just aaaaallllrrrriiiiight in my books. Just alright, alright?”

“Alright,” Kassandra agreed, but still she felt uncertain. Gabe, Aethon, her brother. Whatever he was, he couldn’t be controlled by father now. And that made him dangerous. Neither could he be replaced at this point. Doppelganger couldn’t make a clone from a clone, and he was out of Megajoule’s DNA. If they killed Gabe… that would be the last anyone ever saw of him. Same with Cog.

“What about India?” Kassandra asked. “Shouldn’t we take Cog back?”

“No, we’ve… we’ve lost ground in India, my darling. The Warlord has already begun his invasion. Paul was fine there when the grid was up and the walls worked, and their borders were secure, but now that the hordes are beyond the gates… no… no…” Doppelganger trailed off. “Besides, Paul is useful here. He compromises Gabe, clouds his judgment! Oh, I do hope Bedevil comes, too. She also clouds his judgment. Clouds it something bad, Kassandra. The more clouded he is, the easier he will be to convince. If I can’t convince him with reason, I’ll do it with violence.”

“And if you can’t with violence?”

“Well, then he’s insolent, isn’t he?” Doppelganger asked. He started to hum and kept working on his eggs.

The day passed with Kassandra watching TV. It passed with Paul meandering around the house and doing odd tasks for Doppelganger, while their father worked in the basement and occasionally returned for more food or something to drink. The day passed in boredom for her as she wondered at what Doppelganger was really planning. Did he really think he could convince Gabe?

She hoped he could. Gabe would be a powerful ally. They could truly save the world then.

Kassandra decided to take a jog. She went out through the back door, past the pool and out the gate onto the trails that covered the mountain. She stared down at Los Angeles while she jogged, at the warm Pacific Ocean. She’d seen many oceans, many coasts, many cities. This one was certainly a city on the coast looking at an ocean.

A curious thing she found while jogging, using her tremor sense. Every step mapped out the geography for hundreds of feet, so that she could sense every crack in the ground, every tree’s root system, every different type of soil. Her power led her to a scar in the middle of the mountain, which turned out to be the first mark of a greater fight further down the slope. Dozens of jagged marks pocked the face of the mountain, reminded Kassandra of father’s face.

She followed the scars, wondering at the gods that left them, and realized it must have been from the Anarchy. The trees had the chance to grow over them and recover a bit, so the battle was not recent. It wasn’t necessarily the Anarchy, but she hoped it was. The thought excited her.

A battle with Aethon, with her brother, excited her, she realized.

A tremor in the ground, coming from the trail. Footsteps. She used her power to map out their path, a random hiker coming from somewhere further down the slope. She considered killing them, uncomfortable with someone she didn’t know being so close to father’s house. She could use her power to open up a mouth in the earth and swallow them alive, if she wished.

Killing them could kick up a storm. Father didn’t need the extra attention right now.

Kassandra let the hiker pass and then returned to the trail. She jogged back to father’s house a different way, arriving at the back porch just as the sun kissed the horizon and set the Pacific on fire with color. She took one last look at the sunset, and something in the edge of her mind begged her to stay and look a little longer. Stand by the pool and just watch the sun sink below the sea.

But she could hear the jazz music from inside and that quelled whatever voice was telling her to watch. She marched back inside.

Father and Cog were sitting on the couch, watching a movie. Father beckoned her to sit next to him and paused the movie. She sat.

“Anything interesting out there today?” Doppelganger asked, patting her thigh.

“No,” she said. “Just a random hiker. Well, there was also some markings in the side of the mountain. I think from a battle long ago. Maybe from the Anarchy.”

Doppelganger grinned at her, showing off his metal teeth. “And does that excite you?”

“It does,” she admitted. His smile unnerved her. But why should it? Why should father’s smile make her afraid. “What are you planning, father?”

Doppelganger’s grin widened. He looked so jolly and so pleased, and Kassandra thought he’d make a good rent-a-Santa if he gained more weight. Also, if there was not some undercurrent to his smile that creeped her out. “A grand test, my darling, to see if Gabe really is the man he claims to be. To see if he will join us or if this is all folly.”

“What kind of test?” she asked.

“Ah, well that would spoil the surprise, wouldn’t it? When he arrives, well, I want you to do your best to defend me, in case he doesn’t see eye to eye. But… if things look bad… I want you to use your power and dig, dig, dig, alright? Find a way out of this mess. And take Paul with you, too!”

Kassandra didn’t understand. She didn’t reply, because she knew better than to question father, but it didn’t stop the questions from sprouting in her mind. Was he expecting to lose? Was he expecting a fight?

Doppelganger snapped his fingers at Cog. “Come, Paul. Let’s make dinner! What are you two up for tonight? Burgers? Omelettes? Tacos? We could make pasta! The world is our oyster!”

“Oysters?” Cog asked, hopefully.

“No oysters. I hate oysters,” Doppelganger said. His entire demeanor changed in a flash. His jovial persona slipped, a mask dropping to show something darker beneath the surface. Something wrong. Something off.

The voice in Kassandra’s head screamed so loudly it almost became distinct, but the music started up again, and she could no longer hear anything over the swing band.

Doppelganger busied himself with cooking while Cog helped, a master and his sous chef working in tandem. Smells of olive oil and charring meat escaped the kitchen. Kassandra smiled at the thought of a delicious meal. She knew people hated father but she never would, she never would, oh she never would.

Her tremor sense picked up a pair of footsteps just outside the house, in front of the garage. Then she sensed two people at the door, and two more on their back porch, by the pool.

“Father,” she said. “We have guests.”

Doppelganger did not miss a beat. He continued to chop vegetables and called out to the house’s command system. “Outside lights on, please!”

From where Kassandra sat, she could see the back porch and the pool light up through a window.

Gabe stood at the back door, his eyes wide behind his goggles. The empath Epione was beside him.

“Gabe, so good of you to come!” Doppelganger called. “We’re just starting dinner, if you and your friends would like to join us.”

 

5.18.3

Epione turned her meditation room into an examination room. The zen garden she trampled over for a gurney restraining a young woman wearing one of our security uniforms. The girl rants and raves, wriggles under the grasp of the leather restraints.

Archimedes and Linear stand at the doorway, barring me from entering. Archimedes glances over his shoulder at me and nods to look, but does not let me past him.

Epione approaches us, sweating and heaving like she just exercised. A horrendous scream tears from the woman’s lips. “FATHER!”

Bedevil was right. Fucked up family dynamic. But I’ve decided that doesn’t make Paul any less my brother. We’re brothers the same way all the clones of Megajoule were my brothers. Not because of who made us, but because of the blood we share from Megajoule.

This woman here — she isn’t my sister.

“Can you free her?” Archimedes asks.

“I don’t know,” Epione says. “I’m tired. I need something to drink and eat.”

Archimedes nods to Linear, and the two of them hustle off. “Don’t do anything stupid, Gabe.”

Stupid. There’s that word again. He’s not wrong, I do have a tendency to get stupid when I get emotional, to charge in and hope that I can handle whatever comes my way. For the most part that’s worked out for my personal safety, and I do have a tendency to fail upwards.

But Drone. But Lugs. But Mil-dot and Vaquero and the Bay Biters and Asperity and everyone that I’ve hurt. They pay the price when I get stupid. Eventually I’ll run out of people to pay that price, if I don’t first.

I sigh. Bedevil was right.

That doesn’t mean I can’t go after Paul, but it does mean I need to get smart.

Epione hasn’t said a word to me. She leans against the door, breathing heavy, and wipes her brow.

“You okay?” I ask.

Epione nods and breathes some more, exhausted in a way I’ve never seen her. I offer my arm and she takes it, clinging to me as I guide her to the bench outside the meditation room. She catches her breath while I study the second clone Doppelgänger left us.

The cloned woman is just a young security officer, perhaps a little severe but that might also be because she’s strapped into the gurney. Nothing remarkable about her compared to every other security officer Archimedes hired in from the Argentinian military. Nothing out of the ordinary, which is why Doppelgänger probably chose her.

“It’s… I don’t know how to free her,” Epione says, once she’s composed herself. “I don’t know if it’s because Doppelgänger changes the Affect in some way that I can’t undo, as in it’s just a part of their Affect, or…”

“But people can change their Affect.”

“They can, but think about what it took for you. Think about all the fighting and the effort just to understand you made yourself different from Megajoule.” Epione sighs again, still wiping at her brow.

There’s something strange about seeing her covered in sweat and unable to breathe. She’s an oddity, like seeing a celebrity using the bathroom, or a president taking a smoke break. So humble and so… well, maybe that answers Saw Off’s accusation.

I don’t know if that’s a conversation worth having, so I’d rather talk to her about something else. “Ruby and I got into a fight.”

That startles Epione out of her stupor. “What?”

“Over Paul. She was right, I’m being a dumbass. But I want to find a way to save him. To stop Doppelgänger once and for all, you know? Yet waiting… waiting grates on me. Every moment I wait it feels like Doppelgänger takes another person and Paul gets another lash. Every moment we wait…”

“Is another child Pandahead hurts. I remember.” Epione stares through the wall and beyond, to a time when we had no idea what the world was like. All our troubles were from us sticking our noses where they didn’t belong. “You were like this even back then.”

“I was, wasn’t I?” Even though times were tough, Houston’s memory warms me. I hope Krater is happy there, I hope the city is fine. “Still, we’ve… well, we had those tense times in Houston when we were still figuring each other out… but never a full fight.”

“Fights happen, Gabe. You should expect them and be ready for them.” Epione stands up. “Even Flashfire and I fought. Probably more than some couples because I am so particular.”

I never know what to expect from Epione, when she so casually talks about her past with Flashfire like that. Other times when I ask her, it nearly reduces her to tears. “Yeah, I know. Just rattled me is all.”

“Take your time, dear. Think it through. It’s you and her versus the problem, not each other.” Epione pats me on the shoulder, just as Archimedes and Linear return with her requested meal and a bottle of water. She tears into their offerings and drains the bottle in ten seconds.

Part of me wants to stay and watch. Part of me wants to know what it takes to save my fellow clones. But gawking at Epione while she fiddles with someone’s soul won’t make her do it any faster, and like she said…

It’s Ruby and me versus the problem.

She’s still in our apartment, playing guitar in a cuddle pile of all her cats and our two dogs. My entrance interrupts her song so she ends on a strangled, off tune chord before I can say a word. We stare at each other as her sour chord hangs in the air, and suddenly she starts banging away on the guitar and throws her head back and wails like she’s in a bad opera, and I’m laughing, I’m laughing, I can’t stop. I fall to my knees I’m laughing so hard.

She finds me a moment later, laughing herself and pecking my face with rapid fire kisses until I realize that couched within my laughter are tears.

We sit against the couch and hold each other for a while.

“I guess this means the wedding isn’t off?” Bedevil asks me.

“Oh, fuck off, we had one fight.”

“We’re having a fight,” she says, a bit glum.

“Well, you’re the one who brought work home.”

“We literally live in a superhero headquarters, Gabe. I don’t know what you want me to do about that.” Bedevil snickers and curls into me. “But, yeah, no, I don’t think we should fight about work in our apartment. If we do, we do it in the command room.”

“But what if we fuck in the command room?” I ask.

Bedevil gasps and slaps my face playfully, and pretends to look scandalized. “There’s cameras!”

“Doesn’t that make it hotter?”

“I knew you were an exhibitionist.”

“Well, the harness I ordered seemed to work wonders the other night…”

Bedevil giggles and blushes, and hugs me. “When you left… I thought… you seemed mad. Really mad.”

“I was. Am. Not gonna lie. But… Epione gave me some good advice. It’s you and me versus the problem.”

Bedevil leans away from me, staring into my eyes with a little half smirk at my newfound wisdom.

“Do you ever worry… I don’t know, how this looks?” I point at her and me, meaning the both of us. “Given, you know, you were in love with your boss?”

“It was a celebrity crush,” Bedevil says, a bit softer. The memory is painful. “And yeah, I worry about it all the time. I don’t even need to imagine it, people talk about it in the news. You know we’re a newsworthy couple, right?”

“Well, that’s because you’re beautiful.” I boop her on the nose.

Bedevil snatches my finger with her telekinesis and waggles it around. “But really, we are. I worry about how we look. What image we’re presenting. People are judgey, Gabe, they form up into tribes and get mad at each other. The grinding of those groups… the friction of their politics and their different needs… That’s why we’re ripe breeding ground for the Fear.”

“You really went on a rabbit trail.”

“I know, it’s just been on my mind. What Doppelgänger said about the world. If… if what he was doing wasn’t evil, Gabe, if it wasn’t so obviously unethical and wrong, I really couldn’t blame him for wanting to save the world and doing it to the best of his ability.”

Bedevil climbs to her knees, thoughtful. I simply watch her while she collects her thoughts, because I want to see where this tangent will lead her.

“Taking out the top people and replacing them with more agreeable, friendly versions of themselves. It’s inspired. Replace a cog within someone, a bolt that’s screwed loose or something like that.”

I see what she’s getting at. “Oracle said that the world would follow me in my pursuit of a better world. I don’t know if I can inspire people like she thinks I can. But Doppelgänger for sure could save the world, couldn’t he? If his plan worked. He could make humanity immune to the Fear, a collected and united humanity.”

“Would they still be humanity, though? Or just some biological machine designed to defeat the Fear?” Bedevil asks.

I don’t know the answer to that. “Since we’re not going to talk shop in the apartment, let’s go to the command room. Let’s figure out how we’re going to tackle this and let’s do it smart.”

A moment later and we’re in the command room, just the two of us. Bedevil brings me to one of the monitors and begins cycling through images of a gorgeous two story house on a mountainside, overlooking a coast. “That’s where Doppelgänger went. We’ve used a couple of Drone’s old designs on silent flying cameras and, with Director Lancer’s permission, have scouted out the property we know belongs to Doppelgänger.”

The images remind me of Parlor, how wrong that went. We’ve got to be more careful. No underestimating, no false starts. We had a great plan the first time around but Pandahead turned out far more ruthless than we expected.

Then again, he’s imprisoned in our basement.

“As far as we can tell, Doppelgänger hasn’t left the house since he fled Argentina. He went straight there with Kassandra. He does seem to have a basement, so we don’t know if he’s using some method of underground travel. Kassandra also extracted Paul and returned with him just this morning.” She clicks through images of the house from the outside, showing pictures of Doppelgänger, Kassandra, and Paul walking around the house.

“No defenses? No guards?”

“None besides Kassandra and now Paul, but he may feel confident in us not coming to the States. I don’t know if he knows about Director Lancer but if he’s smart, he’s expecting us,” Bedevil says.

“He’s expecting us. Templar says he might have the power to inflict degenerative conditions on people.” I point at the image of Kassandra. “We need to remove her, first. Her and Paul. Epione’s trying to figure out a way to change the clones’ Affect so they won’t be brainwashed.”

“Gabe,” Bedevil asks, slowly, “What if they can’t be changed? Or what if, Epione removes the brainwashing… and Paul genuinely wants to serve his father?”

That’s a tough one to chew on. I grimace, thinking about the possibility, but it’s true. You can’t always save someone the way you want to save them. “Then he’s our enemy.”

“I’m sorry,” Bedevil says.

“Don’t be.” I’m not going to be dumb about this. I’m not going to lose to Doppelgänger by being too emotional. He wants me to see the clones as brothers and sisters, and since he views them as machinery, he has the advantage in that scenario. But he’s wrong about that. They aren’t my family, but they are people.

People can surprise you.

“One thing,” I tell Bedevil. “Paul is my brother. I know what you said, but that doesn’t change that. We share a real father.”

Bedevil nods after a moment. Little compromises, I suppose. I know she’d want me to be dispassionate but I’m not going to compromise that. Because he’s not just a clone, not just a piece of machinery. He’s his own person, and trying to deny that he’s my brother… that’s playing into Doppelgänger’s hands, too.

“If we can’t save him by getting him away from Doppelgänger or changing his Affect, we save him the only way left. We give him the mercy of death.” I turn to Bedevil. “Gather the Inheritors, Templar, Archimedes, and Linear. We don’t have to go today, but let’s start planning our attack.”

5.18.2

Maisa and I skip the training, given that Saw Off used the room as a Kleenex tissue. Instead, I head back to my apartment while she splits off to go do her own thing. When I get back, I find Bedevil on the couch, with two cups of tea that have long gone cold.

“I hope you weren’t waiting for me too long.”

“Don’t apologize for that. You needed time.” Bedevil doesn’t take her eyes off me as her tea cup floats through the air. “Can I get some of your heat?”

I smiled and raise the tea’s temperature with my power, channeling the energy through a tendril of air. I’ve gotten so much better at the fine details. The surface of the tea steams as if freshly brewed and Bedevil takes a sip. She nods her head sagely and then offers the tea to me as I sit next to her.

“I’m not much in the mood,” I tell her.

Bedevil puts the tea back on the table and then cups my face with her hands. The feeling is odd; lopsided from her missing fingers on her right hand. A grim reminder of how fragile we are despite our powers. She strokes my cheek with her whole hand and stares me down with glistening, broken eyes — still beautiful and golden after all this time. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t need to speak.

All I can think is how close we’ve come to death, so many times. This latest instance of danger just shows me how close it can still come, even when we’re entrenched in the fortress of New Foundation and surrounded by friend. All I can think is that I’m wasting time.

“Will you marry me?” I ask.

The question catches her off guard. “I already said yes, didn’t I?” Even so, she smiles and a little laugh accompanies her caresses.

“I mean right now,” I tell her.

My proposal stuns her. She sits back from me and snorts. “You’re kidding?”

“I’m not.” I reach out and I take her hand, and a shiver travels up my spine at her touch. Even after all this time, her touch drives me wild. I take the ring off her finger. “I’ll make you a new one, right now. I’ll take you to where I made it and swear a vow.”

“But what about our wedding?” Bedevil asks. “What about our friends?”

“Before he left, Paul asked me if I loved you more than him.”

Bedevil leans back into the chair, her fingers still in my hand. A moment of silence comes and goes and she’s not smiling, not anymore. “Gabe, as much as I love you and want that, you know it’s not smart.”

“I know.” I retreat from her. I admit, it does sting just a little bit. Still, she’s right. “You know what my other question is, don’t you?”

“I don’t know the answer to it, either,” Bedevil replies. “Paul’s not going to be easy to get, Gabe. Not after everything that’s happened. We know that Doppelgänger is capable of more than we imagined. We need to step back and study and think.”

I know she’s right, but it doesn’t make it easier. Paul is my brother, and Doppelgänger is moving every second we don’t stall him. He’s replacing more and more people, and we might never know how many in the end.

“So what do we do?” I ask, exasperated. “Just sit here on our hands until he strikes?”

Bedevil shakes her head. “You know that’s not what we’re doing. Epione’s looking into the Affects of everyone of our staff. She’ll find any discrepancies. Templar is studying Mago to see if there’s any changes in his body that denote whether or not he’s a clone—”

I can’t help myself. Anger swells at Paul’s plight. “So we are sitting on our asses, then?”

“That’s not fair, Gabe.” Bedevil slams the disher shut once the teacups are in. “He’s more dangerous than anyone we’ve fought!”

“So we need to stop him as soon as possible!”

“Remember what I said, back in Houston, when you wanted to rush in and save Maisa? Paul doesn’t need your corpse hurtling at him.” Bedevil stands up and clears the tea cups as if that will calm us both down, but her small chore does nothing for my temper.

I can’t help but imagine Paul back in India, slaving away inside that engine room.

“You said we know where Doppelgänger is hiding and that the flags gave us permission, right?”

“We don’t need to charge in like that!” Bedevil retorts. “We need to take our time and figure out what all he can do before rushing in at him.”

“Every day we waste is another person replaced, it’s another clone, it’s another lash on Paul’s back!”

“And if you die going in the first time, if you go in and Doppelgänger has some kill switch on you that we don’t know about, how many clones is that?”

I’m so angry it feels like I’m sinking back into my head, the edges of my vision gray and widen. “Do you even care about him? He needs us!”

Bedevil raises her voice and lashes out at me: “He doesn’t need you being stupid!”

“Is that what I’m being,” I say, rising, “Stupid?”

“Yes! If you think charging in is the right idea, you’re being stupid.”

“And you’re being cruel! My brother—”

“He’s not your brother!”

That stops me in my tracks. The building fury screeches to a halt inside my chest. I digest what she says, because, while I’m pissed, I know Ruby. She’d never say something like that out of malevolence.

Bedevil closes her eyes. “Gabe,” she says. “Gabe. He’s not your brother. He’s not your family.” She closes the gap between us, her voice softening. She gingerly hugs me, and I’m too stunned to stop her. “That’s what Doppelgänger wants you to think. He wants you to be overly emotional and charge in. Paul isn’t your brother, he’s bait.”

I really don’t have a reply.

Bedevil squeezes me tighter. “I know it hurts. But please, trust me. We’re doing everything we can. We care about him, Gabe. I care about him. He’s not your brother but he’s the closest thing you’ve got.”

“How is he not my brother?” I ask, pulling out of the hug. The question grates at me, rubs a nerve, but I can’t call the feeling anger. Surprise?

“Doppelgänger, I think, thrives on that fucked up family dynamic. He wants you to view him as your father. That only gets reinforced if you see Paul as a brother… by default you’re playing into Doppelgänger’s hands that way. I’m not saying you’d get mind-controlled, but you see how that manipulates you into being more emotional? See how you want to charge in with no information at all? See how you’re only thinking of him… when we lost Lugs and Mago, and more?”

I sigh out my rage, embers and sparks leaving my chest. She’s right, she’s right. After that, she lets me stew on her questions until I know that she’s absolutely right. I really am letting him fool me. My love for Paul, my imagined connection, it let my friends get killed. Saw Off lost her last friend from Houston, we lost our connection to Argentina’s capes. The people that Paul killed fleeing, they have families and friends, too.

Still, I’m angry that we had this fight at all. I don’t know what it means for us. “Okay, you’re right. I’m going to go get some air.”

Bedevil frowns. “Are you sure? You spent all night out… Are we okay?”

“We? Yeah.” I stuff all the things I want to say. I wouldn’t say we’re not okay, but this fight… this fight shook me. “Am I really stupid?”

“No, no,” Bedevil sighs. She takes my hand. “You’re not… I shouldn’t have said that.” She kisses my hand. “I know how much this hurts. We will save Paul, I promise you that.”

I nod and smile and let her kiss my hand, but deep inside I think that we can’t save everyone the way we want to save them.

 

Later in the evening, as I’ve had time to think about what Bedevil said, I decided to drop in on Templar and ask her about Mago’s body.

The morgue is a grim room, all metal and linoleum and cast in sickly pale light from the buzzing fluorescent lamps. Mago rests on a metal slab, his eyes and his throat in tatters from a knife, his fingers clawed, his face twisted into a grimace. The light casts him as a ghoul, gray and cold.

But that isn’t Mago. That’s his clone.

Templar stands over his body, looking more a butcher than a doctor. Her long, platinum blond hair is tied up in a bun, out of her face so she can work. She has one hand on Mago’s arm, her fingertips connected to his skin as if they were one flesh.

“Do we know what happened to our Mago?” I ask, quietly so as not to break her concentration.

Templar simply points behind me, to another of the metal slabs. Our Mago is there, his throat slit and one of his fingers missing. He stares at me with his lifeless, accusing eyes, and I wonder when he was ghosted. I was here when that happened. We all let him disappear on our watch because we underestimated Doppelgänger.

“Mago cut out his own eyes and his throat, stabbed himself in the chest and stomach at least five times before I got to him.” Templar releases her connection to Mago and approaches me so that she can whisper. It’s almost conspiratorial. “But the worst thing is that Doppelgänger put a failsafe in this clone. His body underwent a massive circulatory shock, multiple ruptured brain aneurysms, and his heart stopped. His brain stopped sending signals. I couldn’t do a goddamn thing, it was like he’d already been dead for minutes.”

“You mean that Doppelgänger can inflict conditions on his clones?” I ask.

“Yeah. I wouldn’t rule out weird stuff like degenerative diseases. His work is subtle and impressive. I’m guessing there’s far more to his power than just duplicating people. I’d guess he can manipulate people on a genetic level.” Templar pats me on the shoulder and then frowns. “Okay, you’re all good. Just making sure.”

“Thanks.” I return to the clone Mago and study his wounds. He stabbed himself so many times and he didn’t even have to. Now I suspect that Doppelgänger has a sadistic side — something we can use in the future. We might find some easy bait for him.

“Did it bother you, seeing Kassandra again?” I ask, not really knowing where else to steer this conversation. But I’d bet he’s awfully pleased Templar knows, now.

Templar looks like a woman out of time, for a moment. As if I grabbed her by the scruff from Syria and plopped her into the morgue to tell me what was happening in the past. When she sweeps her eyes over the room she does not see the metal or the linoleum. She sees sand and blood.

“It did,” is all she says after that.

“Do you think…” I trail off, reconsider. “How would Doppelgänger have gotten a clone of her?”

“I think the one I fought in Syria might have also been a clone. I’ve been thinking about the shape of her face. It doesn’t look right with her white skin and her red hair, but it also never looked right with her brown hair and skin in Syria. I think she’s someone else altogether, some other person. Maybe a Youxia with powerful geomancy.”

“So, he’s cloned this woman and changed her race, multiple times?”

Templar nods. “He must have gone there first, after he fled the States. The timeline makes sense. Only a year or so later, the Syrian conflict started. Of course, I was there trying to fight the Fear, and that’s why OPI got involved at all, but I did have to fight Kassandra in the end, anyway. I’m not sure what she was doing in Syria.”

“Might have been an early attempt to overthrow a government and see if he could replace it,” I say.

“Possible. Could have been a simple test of her powers, too.” Templar shrugs. “When we go after him, I’ll be there. I think I’m the only person that could combat his power.”

“You could undo his damage?” That gives me hope. Maybe she could free Paul mentally. “Could you release someone from their commands?”

Templar shakes her head. “I couldn’t find anything that made me think Mago’s command was some sort of neurological trigger, or based in biology. Epione could be able to tell you if he can influence Affect, too. I’d guess he can, so long as they’re one of his clones.”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” I ask.

“We’ll have to, Gabe. Or else we can’t stop him.”

With that, our conversation is over, and I leave her to her work with one final person on my itinerary for the day: Epione. Truthfully, I’m scared of this conversation. It won’t just be about Paul or Doppelgänger.

We’re going to talk about Saw Off’s accusation and Epione’s question.

And I wonder… is Epione human?

5.18.1

The flight back takes an eternity. I’m anxious to return. I worry for Paul. For Bedevil. We weren’t able to get a message back to New Foundation, which scared me a little, but Linear offered up quite a few reasonable explanations as to why the comms would be down.

Remise shuffles through the White Shark without aim, a lost child searching for her parent or some figure of authority to rely on. Seeing none, she sits down next to me. “We might be stuck with Sal.”

“I’m guessing you worked out something?” I’m not sure why that would be bad news, but then again, Remise probably hates her guts. It might be good for us but not for her.

“Yeah. She wants to start paperwork on dual citizenship again. She’s gonna pardon me for whistleblowing.” Remise shakes her head. “I don’t know, Gabe. I said yes because I didn’t want you to get arrested and held for months on end by her.”

I scoff. No one’s ever been able to hold me for very long. I’ve got a lot of experience breaking out of prisons, even if I had a little help a few times.

Remise doesn’t find it amusing, though. She tsks me. “They aren’t OPI, Gabe. She isn’t Cynic. She’s at the height of her power, not the downswing. She would have held you, Linear, and Gold up for months if she had to. I wish you’d told me we were going there so we coulda planned for it.”

“I assumed Linear had.” That’s no excuse, so I shake my head. “Sorry, Remise. You’re right. We’re on the same team and I—”

Linear interrupts, shouting from the cockpit. “New Foundation!”

A huge column of smoke rises above Buenos Aires, a black curtain closing out a show we apparently missed. My body is cold, my heart scarcely beats, and I need Bedevil to be okay. I need her to be okay.

ARC 18: SOMETHING BORROWED

 

 

Bedevil is okay, at least, she isn’t harmed. She’s waiting for our White Shark in the hangar, which we land in after determining the smoke is from the courtyard and front entrance. She rushes to me and we embrace. I want to cry out and hold her, but I maintain composure. I force us to part. “What happened?”

Bedevil is a wreck, out of breath, and in between deep heaving, she tells us, “Doppelganger… replaced… Mago… took Paul. Killed… Lugs.”

If ever there was a time where I had no words, where I had no idea what to say, or think, or feel, it does not come close to this moment. The Fear terrifies me because it is an enemy species trying to wipe out humanity and feed on our emotions.

But Doppelganger… Doppelganger could replace every single one of us. I see it now at last and I am afraid for an entirely different reason. This threat comes from within us, like a cancer. The Fear roars and screams and destroys. They are the knife thrusting at us on the battlefield.

Doppelganger is the surgeon’s scalpel, inserted into our ear in the middle of our sleep.

The next few hours are touch and go. A lot of talking. A lot of words that I don’t hear. Bedevil stroking my arm. Lugs’ body in the morgue. Mago next to him. Meltdown, Maisa, and Oracle returning from Africa. Our debriefing, the revelation. Some flag director from the US who is swearing up and down to Archimedes and Bedevil that he’ll let us do something.

I process a few images, but my mind is blank.

I’m not sure when it is, but I find myself standing on my balcony. The sun is burning up the horizon and sinking into the ocean, and I remember how only a few days ago I brought my brother up into the sky to watch it a little bit longer. I thought if he saw how free I was that maybe he could become free himself.

I was naive. I am naive. I feel like a bull in a china shop. Somewhere across that crimson slate of sea India is without power and weakened to a threat crawling over the Himalayan Mountains. Warlord, who wants to challenge me personally. Lady-General Sal, who rules her kingdoms with an iron fist, wants us for an ally. The outbreak of cloaks. The US flags. Nero, wherever he is, lurking and waiting.

Funny how I can only think of Paul. When really I should be worried about this tangled web of politics, of superhumans trying to balance with each other.

“Gabe?” Bedevil asks, stepping onto the balcony. “Are you okay?”

I can’t answer her. I don’t know if I am okay. I don’t think I am okay. Not until Paul is safe again. “I think I need to be alone.”

Bedevil’s voice fades away, out of my perception. Her fingers graze upon my shoulder and then she is gone, as if I dreamed her. The apartment is cold and empty, it is dark.

I fly out to the beach and stand in the sand. The sea is inviting and kind and so I step into the water, up to my knees, soaking my jeans. How can I stop this man? He’s smarter than I am, by a long shot. He played us for fools, waited until our strongest people were gone and struck. He could be anywhere, replacing anyone. He has so many under his sway.

Did Megajoule ever have enemies like this? Or is this man solely mine?

I sigh and shake my head. Old thoughts. They rear their ugly head sometimes.

Sand crunches behind me, sudden, as if they flew and landed. At first I think Bedevil has followed me, but when I glance over my shoulder, I find Maisa coming to sit down next to me. “Hey.”

“Hey. How was Africa?” I ask.

“We were only there for five minutes.” Maisa pats my shoulder and offers me a frown. “I’m sorry, if I was here… I almost stayed to help Epione.”

“No point thinking like that,” I tell her. “We didn’t know he’d already started working us over.”

“Are you trying to tell me to take this well when you clearly aren’t?” Maisa tries to make that sound sarcastic, but neither of us can muster any humor.

We sit together in quiet for a bit, watching the day molt into night. After the sky turns purple and blue and dark, mixing with the smoke from New Foundation HQ like an ugly bruise, Maisa sets little balls of light on the surface of the water. The balls drift out with the tide like paper boats carrying candles, illuminating waves with their ghostly color.

“Do you want to train?” Maisa asks.

As she asks it, I realize hitting something really hard would make me feel better.

New Foundation HQ is quiet, too quiet. Nobody walks the halls outside of security — a small skeleton crew of soldiers and capes on loan from Argentina — and their numbers are dwindled from before. Someone told me Paul killed about five people on his way out, including Lugs. And Mago, poor Mago.

Bedevil told me they found his body, the original Mago, in a dumpster somewhere, with one of his fingers missing and his throat torn out. Mago, who called Bedevil and I lovebirds every day we helped with the restoration work a year ago. He helped run New Foundation, he was the cape Lucio Genz hand picked to be on the table with us.

I don’t know what his death means for us, now.

Paul’s exit left a hall completely caved in, a couple of fissures in the central lobby, and a broken pillar by the entrance. The cloned Mago sabotaged the energy field barrier and the radio array while we were out, from what I heard.

My hopes of hitting something really hard are dashed when we make it to the training facility under HQ. Saw Off sits in the middle of the room. Shotgun scatter patterns scar the walls. She cries and swallows more shells, but doesn’t seem interested in firing more off.

I motion for Maisa to stay as I enter the training room. “Saw Off?”

Saw Off snaps her head at me, surprised by my entrance. She is a ghoul, utterly destroyed and lifeless, her eyes red and her cheeks splotchy. She crawls to her hands and knees, starts to shamble toward me, and then stands. “It’s not right, it’s not right.”

The sight of her breaks my heart. “What do you mean?”

“Lugs… Mil-dot… Vaquero…” Saw Off barks and holds her hands out like a bad magician. “I’m all that’s left of my stupid little shitty mask group. I lost them all following you around.”

God damn, what do I say to that?

“I lost everything, every friend I’ve ever had.” Saw Off wipes at her eyes. She walks up to me and, to my shock, presses her forehead against my chest. “I gave y’all everything, Gabe, I gave y’all all I had and what did I get back?”

I hug her.

Saw Off squeaks. She wraps her arms around my back and starts sobbing, and goes limp. She clings to me, desperate. She weeps. “My Lugs, my Lugs, my Lugs.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper back.

“I did so much for y’all,” Saw Off cries.

“I know, I know.”

She mumbles something that I can’t quite make out, but she pulls away from our embrace. I’ve never seen Saw Off weep. Cry maybe, shed a few tears, but I’ve always thought of her as unflappable. At the very least, she’d have a joke ready, or some remark, or an innuendo. There’s nothing on her lips now but spittle and snot, and a mumbled refrain of her friends’ names.

“I can’t every pay you back,” I tell her.

Saw Off sinks to her knees. I worry that she’ll retch onto the floor, but she just bows, a woman in prayer. “I can’t… I need to go. I need to go somewhere, Gabe, somewhere not here.”

“We can find you a way back into the States, if you want to move back to Houston.”

Saw Off laughs and wipes her eyes. She climbs back to her feet, looking a bit of her self. “Nah. Just a few days. A dingy hotel is fine. Somewhere I can drink and fuck.”

I nod. That’s a reasonable request… I think.

“Your… Your girl. Epione.” Saw Off grabs my chin and makes sure I’m staring her in the eyes. She’s not smiling or laughing or anything, she is deadly serious.

“Aren’t you her friend?”

“Not… not anymore,” Saw Off replies. “Y’all don’t understand what you’ve got with her.”

“What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t… Lugs hadn’t even started to bleed before she used that ring to drain him for power, she didn’t know he was dead, she didn’t even wait for his back to hit the floor.” Saw Off’s expression is twisted by the memory. She scowls and lets me go. “It was inhuman.”

Inhuman. And not two days ago Epione was asking me if she was a human.

“She was trying to protect you,” I tell her.

Saw Off hisses and swats at me like I’m a third grader and she’s my teacher. “Bull shit! Bull shit. She used us. She forced Tremble to use her power and she drained Lugs of blood. It ain’t no better than your clone daddy. He’s going around using people, and if that’s what you’re scared of, you need to sit down and have a good long talk with your Epione.”

There’s terror in Saw Off’s eyes, something I’ve never seen in her before. Genuine hate.

She blames Epione for Lugs’ death. And who knows? I wasn’t there. I don’t know if what she’s saying is true or if it was colored by the awful memory.

“My dingy hotel,” Saw Off repeats. “You’re gonna hand pick me some beautiful people, too.”

“I’m not gonna hire you any prostitutes,” I tell her.

“Nah, just tell him free sex and…” Saw Off winces. “Maybe a touch a drugs. Are we allowed to have drugs?”

“I’ll remind Archimedes to not test you when you come back,” I say. “Provided… that you are coming back.”

Saw Off doesn’t immediately answer me. I think she really doesn’t know if she’s going to come back or not. After a couple of seconds, she nods. “Yeah. I’ll be back. Just a few days. Drinking and fucking. And forgetting. Forgetting’s most important.”