Category Archives: Volume Five: Compulsion to Move

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.

5.19.1

Templar knit his flesh. We did hours of CPR. Epione tried to bring back his Affect.

I yelled at his corpse.

Suppose there’s not much else to say.

ARC 19: SOMETHING BLUE

 

There was no evidence in the house, destroyed by the earthquake Kassandra summoned. Both the Doppelganger clones are dead. The real Doppelganger was never even there, which was something I’d suspected. I’d hoped he’d show, but I’ve learned not to pin everything on hope. In the victory, some defeat.

Saw Off fended off an assassin from killing Archimedes, which would have ruined all of our suits and a lot of our gear. We brought Kassandra back to New Foundation. In the defeat, some victory.

I study her from behind a one-sided window with Templar. She resembles a woman crossed with a tiger, long red hair cascading over black and white striped fur. Her face is mostly human. She has bags under her yellow cat eyes. She slumps her powerful shoulders, and though she is free from Doppelganger’s mind-control, she does not look as happy as Paul did. Perhaps she wished she died instead. I empathize.

Archimedes and Epione sit with her now, questioning her on the names from Doppelganger’s list. She’s expanded everything we know about Doppelganger’s dealings exponentially.

Templar is unnerved by our new guest. She watches Kassandra through the glass, chewing on her lip. She shakes her head, almost in a daze. “You’d think after recognizing you as distinct from Megajoule, I wouldn’t have trouble separating this woman from the one I fought in Syria.”

“Weren’t you there for the Fear?” I ask.

“Yes and no. I still fought Kassandra and ended the war. I still saw what she did to cities she left in her wake. I still stood over her warped body, and watched her army throw their weapons down. And all this time, I never thought I was fighting a puppet.” Templar opens her mouth to say more, but then closes it. The look on her face reminds me of Bedevil’s, back when I showed her the video of Megajoule.

I seek to fill the silence, to find something for Templar to ground herself on. “Do you want to talk to her?”

Templar scoffs. “And what would I say to her? I’ve never met this woman. She is not the Kassandra I fought. There’s no catharsis here, no closure for me.”

I suppose that was a dumb question. “I mean, you could do what Bedevil did. You could fuck her and get her to marry you, and then install her as the leader of a new cape org. I’m sure that would be very cathartic.”

Templar takes that about as well as I could hope. She arches her eyebrow at me like I’m insane and snorts. “If nothing else, you’ve got your humor.”

Humor to mask pain. I shrug and we fall silent.

After a little while, Archimedes and Epione leave, but they make a pit stop in the observation room. Archimedes beckons me over. “Look alive, Gabe. She wants to talk to you.”

I didn’t expect that, but it makes sense. We share a creator. I’m sure to her she feels that makes us siblings, as much as I felt that made Paul my brother. How could I explain that’s not what bound us together?

“How much did she give us?” I ask. “Enough to clear us from President Genz’ shit list?”

“As deep as you dug us into that shit list, yeah. She handed us a shovel. She confirmed all the names we knew and gave us more. She knows deals, she knows hideouts, she knows way more than we knew. Linear’s already coordinating teams, so don’t you worry your pretty head about that.” Archimedes pats me on the shoulder. “It’s nice to know that no matter how bad you can make things, I can always count on you to fix them, too.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “Thanks?”

“You’re welcome,” Archimedes says. “Get in there, champ, and see if she’s got anything else for us.”

Kassandra perks up as I enter the interrogation room. She stands up to greet me, though shackles bind her to the table. I nod and sit across from her.

Strange to see the genetic modifications Doppelganger made to her up close. She’s even more different from the original woman she was made from than I am from Megajoule. A tigress geomancer.

Maybe, once all is said and done, she’d make a good team mate. Time will tell on that.

“I think we’ll take you out of those soon.” I point to the cuffs. “I wasn’t in charge of that.”

“I understand. I was his right hand,” Kassandra replies.

“Why did he leave you as bait then?” I ask.

“He has many right hands. His plans do not hinge on me. They didn’t hinge on Paul, either, though you did deal him a sore blow in India.”

I click my tongue. “You know a lot about his work. How do I know you aren’t just a plant? Another trap from dear old dad?”

“Have your empath read my mind,” Kassandra replies. She leans over, showing me her teeth — her fangs. I don’t need to have Cynic’s power to know what she’s thinking and feeling right now. She hates Doppelganger, possibly more than I do.

Actually, certainly more than I do. She was essentially his slave. “Fair enough. Why did you want to talk to me?”

Kassandra struggles to speak. She retreats back to her chair, stammering for words. It takes her a few seconds to compose a sentence. “When you first announced yourself to the world… he wanted to claim you. That’s why he visited, why he never tried to kill you.”

“I know that.”

“He’s not going to stop what he’s doing. He’s not going to stop trying to correct you.” Kassandra’s words quicken, as if she can’t speak them fast enough. “But you have to understand this, Gabe. He can’t clone from another clone. So if he can’t fix you by convincing you, he’ll do the next best thing.”

I realize what she’s getting at. “He’ll kill me.”

“He’ll kill you and replace your whole team. He’s convinced he’s doing what’s right.”

“So tell me, where is he going to go next?” I ask. “Where is he now?”

“Russia,” Kassandra says. “He’s going to Russia. It was his next greatest stronghold outside of India. He’s replaced half their senate and most of their superhuman administration.”

I chew on that bit of information. Two Hellpact states fully under his control. “Does he have Japan, too?”

“He started work on it,” Kassandra says.

I don’t know what his aim is, but clearly it involves the Youxia somehow. Maybe it’s time I turned my attention to China. I’m not sure where I’d even begin, or what I’d look for, but if Doppelganger wants something in there it might be instrumental in beating the Fear. I’ve got to keep in mind that is his end goal.

“Are you okay?” I ask Kassandra.

A question she didn’t expect, so she doesn’t have an answer prepared. She nods. “I’m free, I guess.”

“You guess?” I ask.

“I spent so long with fake thoughts and feelings that stamped out my real thoughts.” Kassandra picks at the cuffs holding her to the table like a bracelet or a wristband. Not like she’s trying to free herself at all. “The moment I woke up and Doppelganger’s thumb was out of my brain, my conscious was screaming at me. Is that any different from Doppelganger’s voice in my head?”

Maybe there is something between us besides Doppelganger. Perhaps he created a familial bond between me and this woman, a strange sibling connection he didn’t intend. “When I was younger, I used to hallucinate about Megajoule. I felt like everything I did was because of him. Every thought in my head I picked to pieces because I couldn’t trust my own mind. I had all these questions about myself and I was afraid the answer was exactly what I feared. That I did not belong to myself but to someone else. That the voice inside my head was not my own.”

Kassandra doesn’t reply to my story. She loses herself in thought, so I take my leave, and tell her to call for me if she wanted to talk more.

Yes, I can see this woman working with me. I don’t know what that future looks like, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve learned to work with a former enemy.

With nothing else on the docket for the day, I wander New Foundation and try to find something to occupy my time until Archimedes convenes the Inheritors for a debrief. Not knowing when that will be, I decide to get ahead of the curve and stop by the command room.

I am alone with the whirring monitors, the quietly updating stream of news on the main screen, and the rough-hewn stone table where demigods and heroes have conferred. I take my seat somewhere in the middle and stare off into spaces. I lean back into my chair and prop my feet up on the rough-hewn stone table. Dwelling on the last few days, on victory, on defeat, and on Paul.

Bedevil appears in the hall, lingering at the threshold of the room somewhat like a ghost. She studies me for a moment before approaching and sitting in the chair next to mine. Without saying a word, she holds out her whole left hand for me to take. She’s wearing the ring I made for her.

I sit up properly and take her hand in mine.

It’s been some time since I really looked at her. I take stock of what she looks like now, how she’s different, how she’s the same. Somehow, she looks younger and brighter. As if she got a good polishing in the last year. Her eyes have a bit of shine, though they’ve always been golden and beautiful. She wears her red dress jacket as if it were her cape costume. I still feel like she could lift towers in her work attire.

It’s her smile, though. That is the real thing. That is the treasure.

I clear my throat, wheezing out air that feels like it’s sat too long in my lungs. Like I’m opening a tomb. “I love you.”

She squeezes my hand. “I love you. Shall we get married?”

“We are,” I say.

“We are,” she agrees. “But I mean now.”

Her offer takes me by surprise. We’ve not really had time to sit down and talk since we came back from California. “Now?”

“Yes.” Bedevil smiles at me.

“Why do you want to do it now?” I’d go with her now, right this very second, but she was the one who thought rushing to get married wasn’t a good idea. “Don’t you want the big wedding and everyone there?”

“I want you.” Bedevil opens her smile to show her teeth, a flower unfolding its petals in front of me. She leans down and kisses my hand, and then sits back up. She reaches across the table with her maimed hand and strokes my cheek, staring into my eyes. “Everything else is bells and whistles for me. Take me to the mountain and make me a new ring, and I will make you one, too.”

“You don’t want Longinus to wed us?”

“We can swear vows before the sky and the earth.” She pauses, a sly grin on her face. “And Pawpaw.”

“That would be the most sacred of vows.” I chuckle. “Should we bring the cats, too?”

Bedevil guffaws. It can’t be overstated that I love her goofy laugh and smile. Once she settles down, she lets go of my hand. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” I agree. “I’ll take you to the mountain. Could we bring someone with us?”

Bedevil nods without hesitation. “So long as I can bring someone, too.”

“Who are you picking?” I ask.

“Maisa,” she says. My sister. “You?”

“Jason.” My brother.

Our family.

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.”