Category Archives: Volume Six: Though Guiltless

HELL 2.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d return before they woke.

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

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

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

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

Southeast Asia, unfortunately, was not saved by anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did this woman deserve it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because you saved me, I want to help you.

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

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

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

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

6.20.6

“Hey, kid.”

I pause the video. Doc smiling at the camera is almost enough to destroy me. I take a few deep breaths and wipe my eyes, trying to steady myself. After regaining fortitude, I press the play button.

Doc looks just like I remember him from Houston. A gristly, overdone man with silver-gray hair, wrinkles upon wrinkles, and cold eyes. His smile is not happy, though rarely were his smiles ever happy.

“If you’re watching this video, that means you saw Megajoule’s last vlog, which means you found out that the rest of the videos were encrypted. Which also means you and I have had a talk about that.”

We never had a proper talk.

“I encrypted the videos because I wanted you to come to me when you’d seen… when you saw that I’d been mixed up in all that mess. That I’d done some god awful things, kid. I wanted you to see it because I didn’t really have the strength to tell you.” Doc sniffs, scratches his beard. Old familiar affectations that I miss so dearly. If only I’d gone to him calmly. But with Pandahead and everything that had happened, I had no wherewithal to speak to him.

I’m making excuses.

“Anyway, hopefully you and I have sorted that out and you’re willing to listen to my advice. Either that or you got Drone to decrypt the videos. Which, if so, that’s fair, kid. I wouldn’t blame you for hating me.”

I don’t hate him. I don’t think I did back when I found out. I was furious, indignant, and full of grief, but I never hated him.

“The rest of the videos, the encrypted ones, they aren’t like the vlogs you’ve seen. They weren’t designed by OPI to condition you to take Megajoule’s place. These videos… he saved them…” Doc trails off, lost. “I’m honestly not sure why, other than that he wanted to show you something you couldn’t see otherwise. The other side of being a big hotshot hero like he was.”

I’m not quite sure what this means. What other side?

Doc shakes his head at the camera. “The cost of his legacy, kid. I kinda hope you never watch these. I hope you never have a reason to watch them. See, as I’m recording this you’re out there in Houston, doing the masked vigilante bit, and right now that seems to be enough for you. But if there’s ever a day where you have people… the world depending on you, then you need to watch these.

“You’re the type that’s gonna give too much of yourself. Dumbass.” His bluntness catches me off guard and I laugh. “I’m serious. You’re a dumbass. You’ve got that same streak, the need to save other people at the cost of yourself.”

Reminds me of what Ruby told me, back in Houston. My corpse. Hurtling. Dead horse at this point. But maybe that’s because I haven’t learned my lesson yet.

Doc is silent for a moment longer, rubbing his cheeks, eyes staring through the camera as if he can see me on the other side of the screen. “I love you, kid. I never had a son of my own. Not until you. You gotta know how much I care about you. You gotta know how much I want you to succeed. I want you to find yourself a partner that loves you for you, I want you to be happy with your life and where it’s leading, and I want you to feel safe from all the shit the world is gonna try to make you eat. Because kid, the world’s gonna try. It’s gonna rub your face in the dirt and make you bite the curb and it’s gonna fucking suck.”

C’mon, Doc, this isn’t fair. You’re gonna turn me into waterworks.

“I just want you to take care of yourself. I don’t know when you’ll watch this video, whether it’s after I’m gone or if you and I just had a screaming match over the truth. And maybe you don’t wanna listen to advice from me, because in your eyes I’m a traitorous bastard. Trust me, kid, ain’t just your eyes. I’ll never forgive myself. I’ll go to God with this guilt and I’m not even sure I’ll let go of it then.”

Doc falls silent and glances away from the camera. A handful of seconds, a heartbeat or two, enough time to drink in the image of this man that saved my life. What a paradox of a human; savior, destroyer. Murderer saint.

“I shouldn’t turn this to a video about me. One last little bit of advice, Gabe: there’s a difference between self-reflection and angst. You don’t quite got that right balance yet.”

“Pot calling the kettle black.” Without thinking about it, the words come to my lips, and Doc apparently had the quote on his mind, too. We say those words in unison.

“If there’s one thing you take away from what I’ve recorded, it’s that you gotta save yourself before you save others, kid.” After all the smiles I got from him, this is the only one I’ve ever seen reach his eyes.

The video ends.

His words hit dead center mass. Almost like he punched me in the gut. The emotions roaring inside me I’ve no idea what to name or do with, so instead of psychoanalyzing myself I click to the decrypted videos. There’s only a dozen or so, and each one is less than five minutes in length, with two of them only thirty seconds long.

I start with the beginning, to see what lesson Doc wants me to learn from this.

The first video opens in the lobby of a gorgeous mansion. The perspective is from a bodycam, like a hidden camera. The audio is muffled. I can only assume that Megajoule made this video. Why make it so… secretively? Why hide this?

“Honey?” The voice just off camera is his. “What’s that?”

Megajoule appears on screen and I realize that he’s not the one filming. He doesn’t look so ragged in this video, not yet, not yet. That’s still a few years off, I think.

“It’s a camera!” a young girl replies. “Mom bought it for me, so I can make like daily vlogs and stuff. You can hide it in your shirt so people don’t know you’re recording. But I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna wear it in my head band. Like a flower.” The girl giggles.

“That’s not a bad idea.” Megajoule grins at the camera’s owner, holding his hand out. She takes his hand. I’d guess the owner of that hand is around twelve. She wears a colorful bracelet with the name “Addy” spelled out by the beads. A little elephant charm dangles from the wrist.

“Where is mom?” Megajoule asks.

“She’s upstairs.”

Megajoule nods. “You talked to her today?”

“No.” The girl — Addy — stammers. “Are you staying tonight?”

Megajoule gives her the kind of smile you give a kid when you’re about to lie your ass off or apologize for being shitty. The smile that knows what’s about to happen is wrong but it’s not going to change. Certainly not for a tween girl.

“There’s… this thing I’ve got to do, Addy, or a lot of people are going to die.”

“After your thing?”

“Yes, after this thing. But you understand, don’t you? There are people, just like you and me, at stake. If I don’t go, they might get hurt. They might die. You understand, yes?”

Addy does not answer before the video ends.

The next video starts on a dark stairwell, with light coming from downstairs. Addy is muttering and sniffling, and a tiny sob escapes from her, but almost immediately she is overshadowed by a woman loudly shouting downstairs.

“-you can’t even spare your daughter one night? I don’t care that you’re in Russia, I care that you’re not fucking here, Julian!”

Addy cries out at the woman’s profanity. I’m guessing that’s the mom. The one that looks vaguely like Ruby, if I’m being honest. I believe her name was Victoria. Not a cape herself but at one point in Mega’s vlogs I think he said she was a UWC politician.

“I’m here far more than you are! And I’ll be here when she needs me! I’m the one making arrangements, I’m the one who makes sure she is doing her schoolwork and eating right and I’m the one who has to listen to her cry because you’re not here.”

Addy only listens to this one-sided argument. I wish I could hear Megajoule’s objections, his counterpoints, so that I could know if they sound anything like something I might say. If maybe he’d say something like, “Once I’ve tracked down this enemy, we can talk about it then, huh?” Probably thinks he is being gentle in abandoning his family. Maybe even protecting them by keeping them at arm’s distance.

Victoria devolves into screeching nonsense interspersed with the phrase, “You’re not here.”

And what is the worse sin, not being there for your family, or allowing them to be hurt? Who sinned? Me, or him?

The next video is from a family dinner, with Julian and Victoria sitting across the table from each other, quietly eating. There is a birthday cake on the table with frosting that says, “Happy Birthday, Teen!”

And no one smiles. The two parents eat in silence. They do not look at Addy or at each other, only at the meals in front of them. They eat as if it is hard work. They go about this work with a grim, professional demeanor, and I can’t help but think that maybe they should have just let Addy have a birthday with her friends.

The next video is pretty innocuous, set in a beautifully manicured lawn. Addy tosses a ball for a gorgeous border collie. The dog barks and chases the ball across the lawn, while Addy narrates.

“Lilith is a good dog. Every morning at 7 a.m. or so she wakes me up by booping me on the nose with hers. She sleeps in my room. Its more reliable than an alarm clock. Anyway, I get up with her and we go play for a while before breakfast. Mom says the exercise is good for Lilith and for me.”

Lilith, the border collie, returns with the ball, dropping it on the ground and pushing it to Addy’s bare feet with her nose. Addy picks the ball up and tosses it once more.

“She watches cartoons with me every day when I finish with my tutoring. That never takes very long, I’m usually done by noon, I think. I wish there was a dog park nearby I could take her to, maybe so she could make some friends with the other dogs. I think she must feel lonely a lot, with only me around. Mom sometimes. Alexa, that’s my teacher, she doesn’t like dogs. Isn’t that so awful?”

Yeah, it is, Addy. I never trust someone that doesn’t like dogs.

Then I wonder, who is Addy making these videos for?

Where are her friends?

“At night Lilith sleeps at my feet while I read and stuff. She also likes to hang around the kitchen while I cook dinner. I really hope mom would let me get another pet soon, since there isn’t a dog park.”

The next video is of just that: a new dog in the house, this one a little pug that Addy has named Jeremiah. She likes her biblical names, it seems, and it reminds me a lot of Epione. “Okay, so Lilith doesn’t really like Jeremiah yet, but I think she’ll get used to him. It can be really hard making friends.”

Oh, my God.

This girl doesn’t have any friends. She is literally the princess trapped in a tower by a dragon. Only this dragon is her parents.

She is alone. Her mom only shows up in a few of the videos, Megajoule only in the two I already saw.

I understand what Doc was trying to tell me. Megajoule was too busy for his family. He was out there, giving of himself, being the world’s big damn hero. He made videos for his surrogate son while his true daughter languished at home.

And in the end, isn’t that what killed him? He went out thinking he could topple OPI all on his own. He failed, obviously, even though he planted the seeds of their eventual defeat.

He should have saved himself instead of dying, but he went on a crusade and paid the ultimate price.

The last video is not a bodycam video, but one of Addie sitting on her bed with her two dogs. Lilith rests her head across the girl’s lap, while Jeremiah breathes in the snorting, gasping way of a pug.

Addy’s cheeks are red and wet, her gaze locked downward. She frowns, stroking both of her dogs’ heads. A pretty young teen, dressed in a jean jacket and pink pants. Blond hair in a neat ponytail. She’s in makeup like she expected to go out.

“Hey, dad.”

I don’t know if I should keep watching this, as it feels like I’ve torn into Julian’s mail. I’ve shattered through the barrier of Megajoule for a rare glimpse of the man hiding behind his confident smile.

Yet, Doc included it in the files, apparently at Mega’s request.

“I don’t know what to say to you. I’ve honestly never known. What does a kid talk to Superman about, even if he is her dad? And really, are you even my dad? You and mom… you made me. But honestly, I’ve read magazines and stuff, I know that it’s supposed to feel good when you make a baby, so I can’t imagine you were thinking about me when you and mom did that.” The thought of her parents having sex disgusts her, and she makes a remarkably goofy expression like she’s gagging.

She continues. “Why am I even making this video?”

“I know,” I whisper. “He left you and you’re trying to tell him that it was wrong.”

Addy obviously can’t hear me. “I hate you. That’s really the end of it, isn’t it?”

Fuck.

“You’re not my dad. You’re not even mom’s husband. You are Megajoule and that’s all you’ll ever be. Somewhere up in the sky, somewhere fighting monsters. Never here. Megajoule doesn’t go to PTA meetings or even let me go to a fucking normal high school. He doesn’t show up to my birthdays anymore. He doesn’t do anything for me. He might as well not even exist.”

The young Addy ages ten years at that one realization. I watch it happen. I watch a teen realize in the span of three seconds that the world is shit and that’s what adulthood is, just knowing that it’s shit.

“You don’t exist.”

And that’s the last video. The last of the things that Megajoule left me.

How can I reconcile this with his words? Reach, dream, strive, become.

Does chasing the better version of you come at the cost of your loved ones? Epione wants to destroy the Fear using my love, knowing full well that I could lose it. I’m sitting around New Foundation trying to save it from the clones, instead of going to find Ruby. I’m here. I’m not there.

I have to save myself before I can save others.

That was Megajoule’s mistake. Abstractly, I knew he tried to bear it all alone, thanks to what Ruby told me, but seeing his daughter tell him she hates him for abandoning her is different.

Megajoule made himself into the hero the world needed him to be, transforming the man into a weapon.

I am the weapon who must make himself a man.

6.20.5

Turmoil has seized New Foundation. As I return — alone — I find myself ensnared in an upheaval, the source of which is not apparent. I should know why my home base is in disarray. I should have gotten a call, but I left my phone at home so no one could track the GPS. This initial, confusing sea of information is parted by a single word that passes from person to person.

Warlord.

His name washes over me. Why he strikes dread in me, I don’t know. I’ve fought his like before and triumphed. There may be some small sliver of me that fears the Youxia, that thinks they are a different class of being beyond the Superheavyweight threats like Carnality.

The speakers carry Templar’s voice in chorus. “All core personnel report to command.”

Ruby is waiting for me at the entrance to the command room. Over her shoulder I can see that all the Inheritors have gathered, even Epione. Mr. Gold is there, too, but now we know he’s a clone. Sir Bellamy, the tall, thin man from ORDERS, confers with President Genz away from the others, eying me as I stop at the door. Close behind them is Dana Romero, Genz’ woman in our midst, who’s been quiet up until now.

Archimedes, Linear, and Oracle stand together, a trio of frail reeds staring at the main screen.

“Where have you been all night?” Not-Bedevil is worked up, taking on a tone of worry, grabbing my wrist. How her hand feels like a manacle! Her other hand caresses my cheek and I fight to keep my composure. “I called you over and over.”

“Sorry, I went on a walk and left my phone plugged in.” At least that is the truth. Even if only partially. I’m glad I’m good at lying. “You know me. Can’t sit still sometimes. What’s going on?”

Not-Bedevil gives me a little smile, and a wave of weakness hits me. I want to lean in and kiss her. She gazes at my lips. Hers part so exquisitely, the little creases at the corners so like my Ruby’s. They are not, and they are. The contradiction is painful to the point of tears.

“Warlord hit New Delhi,” Not-Bedevil says. “He made it over the mountains with his band.”

The horror unfolds on the main screen in the command room. I’ve come late to the party. We’re following the camera feed from an Indian news crew. Hurricane force winds batter their car. Heavy sheets of rain obscure the city. Lightning whips from the sky a dozen times in as many seconds, lighting up the black sky. Figures move in that darkness, aircraft, helicopters, capes that can fly.

The camera crew freaks out, their shot goes wild as the car makes a rapid turn. From behind, a figure stands in the road, his hands held up above his head. Lightning comes from the heavens to strike him, but the electricity makes him grow rather than immolating him. Tendrils of plasma weave around his body like armor, sprouting four additional arms and a lance of light. He hefts this weapon to throw at the retreating crew, but one of the Indian capes flies into him, carrying the Youxia up into the storm.

It would take me hours to fly there. “How old is this footage?”

“One hour or so,” Linear says. “New Delhi has already fallen.”

He switches the channel of the main screen to some shaky phone footage of a golden-armored woman that looks more robot than human. Both her gauntlets and the eyes of her mask are lit up with azure light. A halo made of razors spins above her head. A storm of swords, gleaming with each lightning strike, joins the dance of her halo before descending on the person holding the phone. They cry out and drop the phone, but before the phone stops, suspended in the air.

The camera moves up until we are eye level with the Youxia, her mask a blank slate aside from the sapphires alive with fire. She clenches her fist and the video ends with a crunch, and a chill runs down my spine.

“We have footage of the one we believe to be the Warlord,” Linear says.

Unlike the previous two videos, this one takes place in the middle of a sunny day. New Delhi is yet to be destroyed. This is also phone footage, and it starts with the camera aimed at a dead little boy, half his face missing from what looks like small arms fire. Not-Bedevil grabs my hand, and despite my better judgment, I give her a reassuring squeeze.

The screen falls on a man and a woman walking through the streets together.

The man, I assume the Warlord, stands at what I’d guess is seven feet tall, almost as tall as Krater. His skin glints like pure diamond under the sun. He wears no clothes, as if he has no need of them. His jaw, his nose, and his eyes all have the sharpness of a blade. Even his black hair looks like razor wire, dangling down to his shoulders.

Then he splits into four people. One moment he is a single, diamond human, and then he is four; one azure, one crimson, one ebony, and one ivory. In concert they lift their hands up to the sky, as if in worship, and clouds gather to blot out the sun.

Linear pauses the footage, rewinds it, and zooms in on the companion to the Warlord.

She appears to be an East Asian woman, I think Chinese, but the features are very familiar to me somehow.

Templar recognizes this woman immediately. “That’s a clone of Kassandra.” Perhaps that’s because she’s already seen through this trick once. The original Kassandra was Syrian, at least as far as we know, but the one we’ve captured appears to be Irish.

Somehow, Doppelganger has influenced the Warlord. Whether they have a deal or the Warlord is unaware of the Kassandra’s true nature, there’s another pot that Doppel has his maimed fingers inside.

With everyone important gathered in one room, I want to ask about the recording from my glasses, the day that Doppelganger revealed his plans to me. That should be enough to stop his plans, to prove the list of names we put out. But I need to pick the hill I die on very carefully.

Most people in New Foundation think I am stupid. And in certain ways, I certainly am. I’m not the brightest when it comes to people threatening my friends, or when I’m faced with injustice. I rush in. I deal in collateral damage and apologies, not in prudence.

But I am observant, and I know how to play a role. I play the role of the idiot and ignore the footage. I ignore the connection to Doppelganger because I can’t afford to rouse the suspicion of his clones. “We’ve got to help those people.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Genz says. “They’ve already taken New Delhi.”

“ORDERS is expected to ally with the Sovereigns, Russia, and Australia to halt their advance,” Sir Bellamy says. “Lady-General Tomas already plans a counterattack at India’s borders.”

I keep playing my game. It’s easier when I actually believe what I’m saying. “We should be there with them.”

Genz is not having my bullshit. I’ve grown so familiar with the vaguely patriarchal figure disappointed in me, but Genz is an artist at the practice. He is disaffected, he is stern. “We can’t be. By the time we get there, the Warlord is entrenched, and we’ve got priorities.”

“What priorities?” I ask. “This nonsense war with the States?”

“The States have an Inheritor, Gabe, in case you’ve forgotten!” Genz roars.

Using Remise as a weapon stings. And what fucking sucks is I’ve barely had time to think about her. I don’t have the courage to ask if she’s a clone, too, and because of that I’ve no way of knowing if going after her is smart. “We know she wasn’t taken by flags. You want a war with the States, you send your armies. You don’t send New Foundation.”

“I’m going to send my armies. Paraguay is going to send its armies. Chile, Bolivia. Peru. When they all go to war with the States, they’re going to wonder why Aethon sat it out. They’re going to wonder why their heroes did nothing.” Genz turns his paternal fury toward Archimedes. “You’re the leader here, Archimedes. Act like it.”

Archimedes raises his eyebrows, points at his chest and then at me. “I’m sorry, I thought you were talking to Gabe. Seeing as you haven’t said a word to me since you got here, Genz.”

“Don’t you start this,” Genz says. “I gave you quarter. I turned on Cynic when you asked me. If not for me—”

“We wouldn’t be here. Understood, understood,” Archimedes says. “But you also set us up as a neutral humanitarian aid organization, chartered by the UWC to stop cloaks and save lives, with the ultimate goal of fighting the Fear. Now, I’m not some sort of super-genius engineer with over two decades of experience serving as a high level official at OPI who helped mastermind the overthrow of one government and could very well mastermind a second one, but fighting the States seems to be outside of that charter, president.”

Maybe I can trust Archimedes.

Genz clenches and releases his jaw, settling into a malevolent smile. “You’re very lucky that I do not have you arrested for treason.”

“I am,” Archimedes replies. “We’re not going to war for you, Genz. Fight the flags on your own.”

“And what of Nero and the flags? You’re not interested in bringing him to justice?” Genz asks. He looks to me. “He killed Megajoule, he killed your friend, he’s a monster.”

“Lucky he isn’t here right now, then,” I say.

Genz shakes his head and snaps his fingers at Romero. “I swear, Archimedes, that this will have consequences.” With that final word of threat, he’s gone, and so is Romero with him. I suspect she’ll be back in the morning.

“This really the hill you have to die on?” Not-Bedevil asks Archimedes.

“You hush, apprentice mine,” Archimedes says, waving his hand in her face. “Gabe’s right for once in his life. We’re not going to war, ever. We’re not going to fight for men hiding behind desks that want blood because someone spat in their direction.”

“The States are trying to destabilize South America, though,” Linear asks. “We’re really not going to do anything about that?”

“We’re going to stop it.” Archimedes turns his attention back to the screens. “We’ve got intel on where they’re holding Remise. North Mexico, close to the border. We’ve had eyes in the area and some of the people from that merc group the Setting Suns have been seen in the Coahuila province.”

“That’s Sledge’s old stomping ground,” Mr. Gold says, almost absentminded.

“And the Setting Suns are his disciples, as it turns out,” Archimedes says. “Locals have all talked about the mercs being more interested in fighting the Sanctified Remnant, who still plague the area. You’re not going to war with the States, Gabe, because I’m sending the Inheritors up to save Remise.”

I try not to grimace. That’s not an order I can easily defy. “I’ll need a few days to prepare.”

“Prepare what?” Archimedes asks.

How to say this, how to word this so I cast off suspicion? I shake my head, trying to come up with some excuse, when Not-Bedevil steps in for me.

“Paul, Arch. He’s still… the entire team is still recovering from the raid on Doppelganger’s property. Meltdown was even supposed to have her leave for three days.”

Archimedes nods. “Alright, then. Once Meltdown has her vacation, you and the Inheritors go rescue Remise.”

With that the meeting is disbanded. I can’t help but wonder why Not-Bedevil would speak up for me. Seems she should want me to go after Remise, to get me away from New Foundation. Makes me wonder if Meltdown’s vacation is an important event for the clones.

I spare a passing glance at Epione as we depart. I sign her Flashfire’s hand signal for rally and she signs it back. Guess I’ll be seeing her in my dreams tonight.

Back at the apartment, Not-Bedevil makes us tea. She does this exactly the same way that Ruby did (does, you fool, does!) and I watch her with Isabelle slumbering in my lap. Maisa idles about in her room with the door open, and I catch her eye.

Is she a clone?

She smiles at me.

I smile back.

Is she?

God, help me. I know I don’t believe in you but if you’re out there, please. If anyone is out there that can help me, please.

Not-Bedevil sits down next to me. Pawpaw stares at her. He knows. She offers me the tea but I can’t take my eyes off Pawpaw, I’m so scared he’s going to give us away. I take the tea. I blink at Pawpaw, hoping that he might understand, but he’s a dog. He keeps staring at her.

“Are you okay?” Not-Bedevil asks.

“Thanks. For getting Archimedes to hold off.”

“You need the break.”

I do.

She smiles, strokes my hand.

“Do you think Megajoule ever struggled like this? Had people pulling him in so many different directions?” An absurd question because I know that he did. I have proof.

Not-Bedevil starts to speak, but then falls silent. I need her so badly that I need a distraction from her, because another second of her stroking my hand and I will kiss her because it is her, all the while hating myself because it isn’t her. The only reason I would do such a thing is because I am weak and unworthy of Ruby.

I stand up with all the willpower in the world, focusing my attention on that last realization: that I have proof of Megajoule’s struggles. The videos that Archimedes decoded for me. “I’m gonna… go clear my head. Genz got under my skin, I think.”

Not-Bedevil nods. “Take all the time you need, babe.”

Another weakness, a different kind; that demands I whirl around and scream in her face: do not call me that. You don’t get to do that, you who raped me and lied to me.

I restrain that urge, too. Instead, I get the laptop from my closet and I take off to the beach, my go to spot for alone time.

For a while, I just sit there in the sand, studying a storm that’s brewing out over the ocean. I wish to throw the laptop into the sea, hurl it into that storm. I’m not sure why that’s my first desire. Perhaps I’m afraid of what’s on the rest of the videos. There was a reason I didn’t continue watching them after the black hole one.

I need to see them, though. I need to know what else he wanted me to know.

I boot up the laptop, smile at the old wallpaper (a cutesy picture of a basket full of puppies) and click on the file containing Megajoule’s vlogs. A thrill of nostalgia overcomes me, putting a lump in my throat and bringing tears to my eyes. This clunky old computer belonged to Doc. Still has some of the signs of his influence. Stains, scratch marks, and a NASA sticker.

Archimedes was good on his word. The videos are there and they all have proper thumbnails now. But unlike the ones I’ve already seen, they aren’t thumbnails of Megajoule sitting at a table in front of that sterile, blue background I’d grown so familiar with. The thumbnails look like they were taken from some kind of bodycam footage.

Except for the one after Megajoule’s last vlog.

That video’s thumbnail is just a picture of Doc’s face.

Is this a trap from Doppelganger? Could be. Could be that Archimedes was meant to lull me into false security, that Not-Bedevil was meant to encourage me toward watching these videos so I’d fall under subliminal control.

I inhale, exhale, and take a leap of faith. I open the video from Doc.

6.20.4

Lucky that not-Bedevil won’t be back until late. I get on some night-stalking clothes, my old leather jacket from Houston, and hit the pavement. Well, more like hit the sky above the pavement, but same difference.

Buenos Aires downtown is both familiar and strange. Superficially it shares many of the same details as Houston. Big skyscrapers, concrete hodge podge, neon lights, a lot of people. But even after being here for a year, I still find it hard to navigate. A building I think I recognize misguides me, leading me far astray from where I wanted to go. An intersection beckons me along the wrong path. A packed avenue, lit up like day, slices downtown in half.

I feel the urge to go down there and travel the old way, the Houston way. The Home Run way. Bounce on rooftops, dance above alleys.

Simpler to fly, and still exhilarating, but not quite in the same way.

Maybe I yearn for simpler days. Maybe I yearn for an actual place to exist, rather than feeling like I exist in too many places. I’m receding back to old thoughts, the feeling of being a ghost. But rather than feeling like I’m nowhere, now I am everywhere. Because the world needs me to be. They need Aethon like they needed Megajoule.

But what do I need? Beyond finding Ruby again. Beyond beating Doppel. I don’t know the answer. I thought saving the world is the answer but it turns out that task is too complex for one person. I know, fucking duh, but that naivety got me through Cynic and Rorschach.

It’s just not helping me here.

Saw Off made herself the queen of her dingy motel by blowing her entire month’s salary on renting the rooms for what I was led to believe was a “nonstop party.” But this little kingdom she built herself is withered and silent. One story of quiet rooms, bathed in shadows. The sign is dead. The office lights are on but no one’s manning the desk, it seems.

Now that feels a lot like Houston.

Epione appears out of the shadow in such sudden fashion that at first I wonder if she’s picked up a new power. No, this is an old ability, cultivated from gentle politeness, from sharing a home with parents that hated her, from trying to make herself seem as a little as possible. She is also wearing a bit of her old mask costume, the dark black outfit. Her disembodied head bobs toward me, wearing her polite smile. “Evening, stranger.”

I smile, mostly because I need to smile. “Is she alone?”

“She is. She’s in this room,” Epione says. “How do you want to approach this?”

“Oh, I dunno, just ask her point blank if she’s a clone, I think.” I grin at Epione. “I think that would work only on Saw Off.”

Epione titters.

“Maybe we just force our way in and you check her?” I ask.

“I think that will work best. If she fires off any shots, you can take them.”

“I’d feel better if it wasn’t point blank, but sure.” I knock on the door.

Saw Off groans inside.

I knock again.

“MINUTE,” she shouts. “Jus’ a minute. A minute.”

“You’re late on payment,” I growl, trying to sound like a pudgy motel owner. Not sure that I nail the impression but I hear movement inside the room. After a few seconds, the door opens, and Saw Off’s face wedges into the gap, blinking at Epione and me.

“Gabe? Ep?”

“Sorry about this,” I say, and shove the door open with a burst of kinetic energy. The girl yelps and falls back, while Epione dashes in behind me, muttering, “Dearest apologies.”

Saw Off starts to scream but I warp down and put my hand over her mouth, and tell her, “Listen, we have to make sure you’re you. I know that seems insane but just let Epione check you.”

Saw Off, instead of screaming or biting or shooting shotgun blasts from her nose, raises her eyebrows like that’s the most insane thing she’s ever heard. It probably is, not gonna lie.

She settles down and goes limp. While Epione checks her Affect, I check the room; dozens of beer cans, a couple of empty handles of liquor, ashtrays with pot in them, used condoms. Just about every vice someone could indulge in short of hard drugs, and I wouldn’t put it past her to have some hidden.

After a couple of minutes, Epione opens her eyes. “She’s the original. If we trust Tim Prince.”

I let my hand up from her mouth, and Saw Off begins a tirade as soon as she’s free. “What the fuck is wrong with you two?!”

I don’t have words to respond. I’m so overwhelmed to know she’s safe that I wrap her in a bear hug. The embrace stuns her. “Gabe? What’s wrong?” She hugs me back. “Gabe Babe, are you okay?”

Gabe Babe. Ah, the old familiar words. Saw Off started it but Bedevil used them to keep me separated from Megajoule in her head. The memory draws tears to my eyes, chokes me up. I release Saw Off from the hug.

She’s staring at me, wide-eyed and flabbergasted. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Doppelgänger,” I manage, swallowing the knot in my throat. “He took a lot of people. He took more than we thought.” And I explain the entire story to her, from how Doppelgänger fooled us into focusing on Paul while he had his way with New Foundation, to his plan to cause massive instability. We tell her who we know has been cloned (Meltdown and Bedevil, at which Saw Off gasps and grabs my arm, and says, “Sorry, sorry, holy shit.”) and who we suspect (Archimedes and Genz being our top suspects, but everyone is fair game), and who we know is safe (Kassandra, Flashfire, and Tim Prince).

“Damn.”

We’ve devolved into a pseudo-cuddle pile, my head on Saw Off’s lap, Epione’s hand on my shoulder. I don’t know if Ruby would be mad at me about that, but I really need genuine human touch right this second, from people I know I’ve known.

“And you’ve got no idea where he took Bedevil?” Saw Off asks. “Or how he ghosted them or anything?”

“No,” I tell her. “We’ve got Kassandra spying on people. But I’m worried I’ll be ordered to go fight the flags soon. Or not-Bedevil will want…” I shudder. “She’s pressed me for a kid. Like, a baby. Right now. The worst thing is that Ruby wanted… wants… kids. So I would never have suspected if Epione hadn’t told me. I’d be having a child with this impostor.”

Epione starts as if to say something, but then closes her mouth. Her hesitance surprises me. She usually speaks her mind, or at least finds some polite way to say what she wants.

“Man, if I were you, I’d get fuckin’ hammered.” Saw Off doesn’t laugh or grin or perform any of her usual crass expressions. She strokes my hair. “This is some shit we’re in.”

We’re interrupted by a buzzing sound that resembles a transformer going bad outside. The cutting drone hurts my teeth for two heartbeats and then fades away to humming.

“What the—” Saw Off starts, but Epione hushes her.

“Three Affects outside. They just appeared out of nowhere. Silver.”

I peek out the blinds. A portal stands, wrapped by electricity like someone laced blue thread around the hole in the world, and through it walk two men — Mr. Gold and the one I recognize as Sir Bellamy from ORDERS. A short, African man holds the portal open with his hands woven into the electricity. He nods to his two companions, and the portal folds in on itself. As it closes I try to find some clue as to the location, but all I make out is a cement wall.

“A portal,” I tell Saw Off and Epione. Now his seeming omnipresence makes sense. That’s how Doppelgänger ghosted people from under our nose. He has a teleporter capable of moving others around. One of the rarest power types on earth.

Mr. Gold and Sir Bellamy (that strange, thin scarecrow of a man) approach the door. That confirms two more people as clones, which is good. Except that they’re going to raise some kind of alarm.

Mr. Gold knocks.

I look back at Epione and Saw Off and make a fist. I’m going to hit them hard, right off the bat.

Epione nods and takes out one of the rings from her pocket, and puts it on. A tendril of water sprouts out of the sink, splitting into a dozen tentacles. Saw Off hides behind the bed. I’m guessing she doesn’t have any shotgun shells loaded.

“Who is it?” Saw Off calls.

“Hey, kitten,” Mr. Gold replies. “It’s me. Javier.”

Saw Off pulls a pistol from under the bed. “Hey, daddy. Let me just get the door.”

I turn the knob.

I actually don’t play much of a part in the following fight. I hear Mr. Gold shout, Sir Bellamy curse, and two gunshots. By the time I’ve processed and gotten ready for the fight, it’s done. Mr. Gold and Sir Bellamy are down, the former dead from a bullet wound through his head, the other on the way with the bullet in his heart. Saw Off’s aim was true.

She is calm at first, holding the pistol with casual grace, but that fades when she sees exactly who she’s shot. Her face scrunches, she kneels next to him, while Epione and I check on Sir Bellamy. Epione places her hand on his temple and closes her eyes, going into a trance, while I check his vitals: fading, fading, fading. I sense the heat of the bullet lodged in his heart, the muscle spasming, shutting down. Blood failing to flow.

“He’s a clone. He can cancel powers,” Epione says. With her declaration, he’s gone. Not dead but without medical help he will be, and we aren’t in a position to call for it. Can’t bring him back to New Foundation, not without a shit ton of questions.

Nothing we can do about this, really.

Saw Off caresses Mr. Gold’s cheek, and asks, “This ain’t my Gold, is it?”

“No,” Epione says. “I don’t think so. I think he got taken.”

“Is there a chance he’s alive?” Saw Off asks, not taking her hand from his face. She stares down at his corpse, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“I—”

“Gabe.” Saw Off grabs my chin, stares me in the eyes. I’ve seen a lot of expressions on this girl, but I’ve never seen anything as frightening as this. Never seen her cold-blooded, not even when she lost Lugs. “Don’t you lie to me. You tell me if there’s a fightin’ chance he’s alive.”

“There is,” I tell her. “As much a chance that Ruby is.” And I hope it’s true, God, I do. I’ve no idea what those chances are.

The gargoyle look. Her face, her eyes, like Flashfire’s. Fury. Anguish. Powerful emotions, so powerful I swear I can feel them burning through her fingers squeezing my jaw.

And then she relents, letting me go.

“They’re going to send more,” Epione says.

Each of the dead men has a commpiece in their ears. Probably to call the teleporter. A part of me wants to call for the portal, wants to charge through it and see what’s on the other side, but that would be stupid without any backup or intel.

“What’s the story?” Epione asks me. “What do we do?”

“Saw Off defended herself and took off. No one knows where. You and I were never here.” I gently pull Saw Off up from not-Mr. Gold’s body. “Saw Off, grab your gun, grab what you need to survive for the next few days. I have an idea.”

A few minutes of Epione and Saw Off clinging to me while I let the Earth turn underneath us, and we’re hanging over the church that Longinus pastors. He lives on the grounds, I believe, in a small clergy house. He’s alone, he’s out of the way, and I doubt he’s on Doppelgänger’s radar. He’s not active with New Foundation, he’s barely stepped foot inside HQ since we took over.

He’s also alone, judging by my heat sense and Epione’s empathy. Which means we can check him without worry of intrusion.

We touch down on the grass, I knock, he answers, confusedly glancing between me and the girls. “Gabe? You know it’s late.”

“I know you were up,” I say. “I can sense you moving around. Epione?”

Epione reaches out to take his hand. Longinus looks back and forth, taken aback, but he places his hand in hers. “What is this about? Oh, that doesn’t feel…” He shivers. “What is she doing?”

“She’s making sure of something. Though I think that you haven’t drawn your hand back means you’re okay,” I say. “You don’t know anything about Doppelgänger, do you?”

“Who?” Longinus ask.

“He hasn’t been on the news after everything?” Saw Off asks. “The dude ransacked New Foundation, we got the names of all the people he’s cloned, and he’s like… body snatching world leaders. You not tuned in, preacher?”

“I watch the news every morning so I know what my flock is worried about,” Longinus says. “I’ve seen nothing about anyone named Doppelgänger.”

Of course. Someone’s controlling the flow of info out of New Foundation. But there is footage, data, evidence somewhere in New Foundation’s computers. Like the video we got on my glasses of Doppelgänger confessing to everything.  “Coffee?” I ask. “And not the special kind, please.”

Half and hour later, all is told, and the lost child Longinus stares into his mug as if the answers to this dilemma are in there.

“So, Saw Off needs to hide away for a bit,” I tell him. “More of Doppelgänger’s clones are going to come looking for her. I don’t think you’re a target, since you’re not… politically important, or active with New Foundation. I don’t even know if he remembers you’re alive.”

“I’ve tried to keep a low profile.” Longinus shakes his head, but then gestures to Saw Off. “Of course, you’re welcome to stay as long as you need. I just hope you’ve got a way out of this, Gabe.”

I hope so, too.

Saw Off, poor Saw Off, trudges her way up the stairs to the room Longinus uses for guests. I’m not fully convinced this place is safe, but better than nothing. Epione and I wait downstairs while he helps her get settled and shows her around the space.

“Gabe, I need to tell you something,” Epione says. “We must get Mr. Gold and Bedevil back.”

A weird way to start this conversation. “I know that.”

“And Ashley. We can’t let Doppelgänger ruin those relationships.” Epione fixes me with her stare, so brilliant and piercing. Reminds me of Oracle’s shining gaze and how they changed my perception even as we spoke.

Those are all very specific names. We don’t know who all was taken, but to name a few in particular over the others that might have been… seems odd. “What are you getting at, Ep?”

“When the Fear comes, Gabe, I need those positive bonds.”

“I still don’t understand.”

Epione sighs, frustrated with me. “I’ve… I’ve got to tell someone this, Gabe. Someone who understands what the Fear is capable of. Who understands what it can do and how to fight it. You can’t tell a single soul what I’m about to tell you, not until we finish this fight for good. Do you understand?”

My stomach sinks at her tone. She’s too intense, too fixated on me. Too fixated on what she’s telling me. But I agree, because I know I need to hear what she’s about to say. “Okay.”

“Not even Ruby.” Epione grabs my hand, her lips tight. “Swear it.”

Reluctantly, I nod.

“I’ve…” She halts, her head rolling as she searches for more words. “I’ve been nurturing the bonds around me. You and Bedevil. Flashfire and Meltdown. Saw Off and Mr. Gold. A few others, but those are the main three.”

“What do you mean, nurturing?” It can’t mean that she’s forced our emotions. It can’t be. “You didn’t make me fall in love, did you?”

“No! No, it’s still you. All I did… think of it like a farmer, making sure pests and things don’t kill the crop. Or like a smith, making sure there aren’t any impurities in a weapon she’s forged. That’s what I’m doing. I’m making sure your bonds, the love you feel, is going to be strong enough to fight the Fear.”

She’s weaponized our love. Our relationships. I turn to face her fully, my back to the stairs, and I lean in to whisper. “What are you doing to us?”

Epione retreats back from me a bit, her brow furrowed, her mouth twisted into that petulant frown she wears when she’s disappointed or angry. “When you… when I brought Bedevil to your Affect while you were a host to the Fear… I created an intense bond between you two. More so than the others, at this point. The Affect gives us strength. You two are stronger the closer you are to each other. Smarter, faster, and better. You know… you can feel each other. I don’t know if you could visit her mind but you knew something was wrong with the Bedevil you married, didn’t you?”

Holy. God. She’s right. I did know. I thought I had cold feet or I was scared. But I knew, deep in my heart, that something was wrong. “You’ve linked us?”

“Yes. Like I was linked to Flashfire, and like I am linked to you. But… your bond with her is based on the love you felt for her. I didn’t create it wholesale.”

“You just made it… more,” I mutter.

“Yes,” she admits.

I curl my hand into a fist. My mind, my heart, my emotions. Is anything I feel for Ruby real? Just because Epione influenced it, does that make it false? I don’t know. I can’t answer that right now. “Why did you do this?”

“It’s how we beat the Fear, Gabe. You got lucky when you fought it. I’d already wounded it with my love for Flashfire, but I broke it in the process.” Epione frowns. “You used all of your bonds to form a weapon, but it would have broken, too, if not for the Fear already being weakened. I’m making as many weapons as I can.”

“We killed it. I killed it. We can do that again.” I want to say a thousand things. I want to call her a monster. She’s mucking with us so she has an arsenal to fight this thing.

“We can. But Gabe, you didn’t kill anything. You cut off one head. Like a hydra, more come back.” Epione shakes her head. “I’m going to find the heart of this thing, Gabe, and I’m going to run it through with everything we’ve got.”

“And what happens to my bond? What happens to the love between Flashfire and Meltdown, or Saw Off and Gold?” I’m struggling to keep my voice down. I’m whisper-screaming, and I know I’m scaring her. She can’t hide her fear behind her empty mask anymore.

“I wouldn’t ask you to give this if I hadn’t already spent my own love,” Epione says, her words frantic.

“I don’t want to give that. There has to be another way.”

Epione’s returns to her polite smile. “There isn’t.”

“Am I even your friend?” Like Cynic, like Oracle, like everyone that wanted to use me. Epione’s acting just like the tyrants, like she can just… “Or… front toward enemy.”

Epione doesn’t answer right away. The question catches her off guard so badly her mask slips and I can see that she is tearing apart inside. “Friend toward enemy,” she answers.

“I can’t give my love up.”

“Not even to save the world?”

I don’t have an answer for her. Part of me — my conscience, I believe — is already screaming in my head. Of course I’d give it up to save the world! But there’s an objector in my head, too, and it sounds an awful lot like Ruby. Who should have to sell their soul to save everyone else? 

I carry the argument: Greater love has no man than this— 

The imaginary Ruby interrupts. This isn’t your life. It’s your love. You have no love at the end of this plan. 

But she knows the most about the Fear. 

More than you? 

In shame, I turn my attention from the conjured Ruby voicing my doubts. The placid Epione waits for my verdict, wilting each second I can’t find the strength to speak. I take too long, and she leaves me there in the clergy house.

6.20.3

For the last year, Tim Prince has been reduced from captive ex-human trafficker and wielder of the Fear to basement dwelling gamer. At some point we saw no harm in letting him stream his video games so long as he didn’t have a way to interact with people, so day in and day out he plays his games, trying to get better times. I’ve begun to feel like a frustrated mom rather than his captor. I know he works with Epione on scouting out potential Fear hosts, but we haven’t spotted any since he agreed to help us, and there’s no point trotting him out if we don’t have suspects.

His dream persona reflects how his outward appearance has deteriorated. He’s gained twenty pounds since we captured him, he’s grown out his hair into a nappy afro, and he’s grown out a shaggy beard. He wears an off-yellow shirt that used to be white and has the Astros logo on it, and pajama pants that need to be washed.

You might be thinking we kept Tim in cruel conditions, but that’s not true. We gave him all the amenities he’d need to stay in shape. He has access to a gym, to a washer, dryer, and his own kitchen, plus Archimedes allotted him a budget for ordering out food. He basically lives his own definition of luxury.

“What the hell is he doing in here?” I ask Epione, trying not to yell. But I understand why Epione brought him, or at least thought she could trust him. He’s under constant surveillance. He has no privacy, not even to use the bathroom. There are no less than seven cameras on him at any given time. Just in case the Fear ever tries possessing him again.

Which means we’d know if Doppelgänger tried to take him.

“I’m here to help you with your problem,” Tim answers. He stands up and approaches me, wearing a genuine look of sadness. That sorrow, whether or not it’s real, makes him look like a homeless outpatient of a mental hospital. I’d not be surprised to find him on the streets, begging for money, and I have to wonder if I’d put any in his cup. “I’m sorry to hear about your girl, man.”

I can’t pretend to accept his empathy. I stop him with a glare, an outstretched hand, and a testy reply: “How can you help us?”

Flashfire looks just as pissed off as me. We both crusaded to bring him down, to put him behind bars, and neither of us ever settled that bad blood. Neither of us were happy with working with him, but we both stuffed it to fight a greater enemy. An enemy that has been quiet for the last year. “I’m wondering the same.”

Epione drops her polite smile and frowns at me. A massive disapproval of my conduct in her case. “He has a way to tell if someone is a clone. Which we need, now that Cynic’s ring is gone.”

Fuck! We haven’t even addressed Cynic’s ring. “How did we lose that? What happened?”

“They took it from my pocket while I was sleeping,” Epione says. “While I was here. Someone guessed rightly that I’d taken the ring. It could mean Archimedes is a clone and was aware of the switch, or that they figured we’d do that.”

“Can’t you sense people even while you’re asleep?” Flash asked.

“Yes, but they didn’t come into my room. I think they came close, I remember a silver Affect in the halls.”

And the ring, snapped in half. Reminds me of how Jamie’s ring was broken in Bedevil’s apartment. Very similar power used. “It might have been the clone of Bedevil. I woke up and she was gone. She said she took the dogs on an early morning walk, but…” I frown. “It could have been her.”

“Is she on to us?” Flashfire asks. “We can’t afford that. Meltdown…”

“Has she asked you to sleep with her?” I ask.

Flashfire’s face tells all. 

“Yikes,” Kassandra says, holding her hands up. “I’m glad I’m locked in a cell by myself, now.” Unlike the rest of us she does not look like her waking form. She looks like the original Kassandra, Syrian rather than Irish. She doesn’t have the cat eyes or the hide skin she’s held onto in real life. “Are you okay?” she asks me. 

A funny question coming from Kassandra. Only a week ago she was a thrall, and now she was caught up in his web again. “Are you?” 

Kassandra shrugs, an uncertain movement. “I thought I was safe. I should have known better. I thought I knew how far his reach is, but I think I only knew a part.” 

We thought we had the measure of him. 

“So what is your plan?” I ask Tim. “How do we find out if someone’s a clone?”

“Nah ah, not that easy,” Tim says.

“It is that easy.” I grab him by the collar of his raggedy ass shirt and lift him up to my face. “I’ll find you when we wake up and I’ll turn your cell into an oven.”

Tim Prince grabs my collar, too, hoisting himself up to meet me eye to eye, kicking at my legs and kneeing my gut. I don’t feel any pain. “You… If you want me to tell you, I need assurance you want leave me to rot in that cell if shit hits the fan. I’d rather you turned it into an oven now than let those body snatchers take me. I don’t want to know what body horror bullshit I’d be subjected to.”

I glance at Epione. “He hasn’t told you what his method is yet?”

Epione shakes her head. “I wanted everyone on board, even Kassandra.”

“I just go here,” Kassandra replies.

“It doesn’t matter. We’re all we can trust right now. We don’t know who has been taken or not. And I know you want to help us take down Doppelgänger.” Epione snaps her finger at me. “Set him down, Gabe, and let him tell us how this works.”

I want to crush him. All the suffering I endured in Houston could be laid at his feet. Even getting tangled up with OPI and captured by Cynic, all that was because of Tim. He had their eyes on him, he made our battle high profile. He drew the world’s attention to Home Run.

But I don’t. I let him down. “Tell us. We’ll make sure you’re safe if things go wrong.”

Tim straightens up and takes a step back from me, holding his arm out as if to stop me from a lunge. “Okay. Okay. I’ll tell you. There’s this thing I’ve noticed about kids.”

Flashfire gets this awful look in his eyes, that same look I saw so long ago in Epione’s backyard, the gargoyle look. “You better watch it.”

“It’s not gonna get weird. I mean with babies and young kids, not the ages I dealt with.”

“Ages?” Kassandra asks, but Tim keeps going. Better she doesn’t really know what he did.

“I see suffering in the Affect. It’s what I’m tuned into with my empathy. And there’s this thing that suffering does to a person’s Affect. It scars them, leaves these dark purple holes. I’ve seen people heal from them, but everyone has a wound, all the time. They just go and get new wounds somewhere. No one’s ever really whole, you know?” Tim frowns and shakes his head, lost somewhere else for a moment.

“But babies, young kids. They don’t have scars. If that dude really makes these people wholesale, just spawns them, they should be like babies. No scars, no wounds. That’s something only an empath could see.”

“But if they have the same memories as the person they were cloned from, shouldn’t they also have the wounds?” I ask.

“Do you got Megajoule’s wounds?” Tim asks, and again, I recall Longinus’ words: Who sinned, the man or his father?

“Fair point,” I say. “I don’t know, though. I don’t know if I did when I was younger.”

“You can fake wounds. I’ve seen people absolutely convince themselves they have a problem when they don’t,” Tim says. “Like my dad did. He’d… he was good at making shit outta thin air. And you know what his Affect looked like? I checked it, over and over, while he slept. He had his real wounds and he had these fake splotches, like wine stains. Those were the ones he made.”

Tim’s method silences the room. The implications weigh heavy on us all.

“But checking that would mean I have to touch someone, or get a really long good look,” Epione says. “I can make that happen… but it’s not going to be easy.”

“It’s better than guessing.” Tim drops his arm away from me.

I can’t help it. I wrench him to me by his collar, forcing him off his feet again. “If this doesn’t work—”

“What? You’ll kill me? I thought you needed me for the Fear.” Tim scowls and pushes free of me, though it takes a mighty shove that almost knocks him on his ass. “You’re the one that wants to save the world but the minute they come for your girl you’re gonna get crazy?”

His words cast a light on something I’d kept hidden. All the fighting as Aethon, all the missions, all the striving for that better world comes with a price tag. It costs my time, my energy, my heart. Time I could spend with Bedevil, time I could spend with my dogs.

It’s like what Bedevil said back in Houston. My corpse hurtling at my enemies. Sometimes this campaign to beat the Fear and save the world from tyrants… sometimes it feels like a drawn out version of my corpse. Like I’m going to win or die trying. And people around me will get hurt over and over. Saw Off. Flashfire. Epione. The people Doppelgänger took.

I’m fighting him because he’s a tyrant, but am I so different when I’m trying to impose my own vision of how the world should be? Just because my vision is everyone happy together, does that mean I have the right to force it on others?

Sledge once told me I’d never be satisfied with other people. Here, Tim is the perfect example of that. He’s a human. He’s part of this world I want to save. And yet he’s also symptomatic of the problem: the selfishness, the cowardice, the tribal mentality of “me over you” that so often reduces us to our base natures.

Perfect is the enemy of the good.

I sigh and let him go again. “We do need you.”

Flashfire looks uncomfortable with that, but he doesn’t say anything.

“I don’t know what the dynamic here is, but I’m assuming Tim did some messed up stuff. I did, too,” Kassandra says. “But Father… Doppelgänger doesn’t have any problems like this. He doesn’t have dissenters in his ranks, he doesn’t have people questioning loyalties. If they do, he replaces them.”

She’s right about that. “Thanks, Tim.”

“Yeah,” Tim replies. “So what’s next?”

“I’ll be coming back from my mission tomorrow. We already negotiated with the masks in Rio de la Plata,” Flashfire says. “Ashley and I were supposed to go on a vacation next week, but I don’t know if I can bear that. We’re supposed to take Jamie and everything. I’m thinking of how to back out so we’re not separated too long.”

That might be perfect. We can get not-Meltdown away from the other clones. “What if you still go on that vacation, and we try and free Meltdown from Doppelgänger’s compulsion?”

“That could work,” Epione says. “Free her the same way Paul was, isolate her so that she can’t call for help.”

Flashfire reluctantly agrees.

“What about me?” Kassandra asks. “I’m still in prison.”

“Me too,” Tim says. “Not much I can do about any of this.”

“You have your tremor sense, right, Kassandra?” I ask. “Can you pick up actual sounds through it?”

Kassandra nods.

“Then listen for Bedevil and Meltdown. We know they’ve been cloned. See if they talk to anyone, explain their plans, anything like that. And most important of all, if they mention any locations,” I tell her.

Kassandra nods. “Can do.”

“And me?” Tim asks.

“Sit tight. Keep playing games. Pretend like you don’t know any better. And if someone comes to talk to you, you tell us.”

Tim shrugs. “So the same shit I’ve been doing. Got it.”

“And shave. We gave you everything you need to take care of yourself.”

Tim shrugs again, smiles, and then disappears, waking from Epione’s dream. Kassandra disappears, too.

Epione sighs and stretches her neck. “I’m sorry, Gabe. I should have warned you.”

I nod, unable to say something nice.

“If we’re going to work together, you need to tell us when you want to do something,” Flashfire says. The gargoyle fixed his gaze ahead, not at anyone in particular. Strange how someone so handsome could make a face so ugly.

Epione frowns.

“Who else can we trust?” I ask.

“Our best chances of testing if people are clones are people who are isolated, like Meltdown will be when she goes on vacation,” Epione says.

A light bulb goes off in my head. Saw Off has been holed up in a dingy motel by herself for the last several weeks.

6.20.2

Fate conspires to separate Epione, Flashfire, and I from convening in our waking hours: Flashfire is sent out on a small errand to Montevideo across the Rio de La Plata, to resolve an issue with a mask vigilante group the authorities want captured. Epione is never alone, constantly having Templar and Bedevil over her shoulders while she pretends — with the fake ring she gave Archimedes in the place of Cynic’s — to read the cloned security woman’s mind.

Of course, whoever snapped the ring knows we kept it. How, I don’t know. But that means they have an empath or deduced that we’d kept the ring.

I’ve no idea how we’re going to do this without Cynic’s power. I can’t even believe it’s gone; we’ve had the trump card for over a year now and to have it ripped out of our hands when we need it most, well, doesn’t that just feel like God spitting in your face?

Given that it’s Sunday, I visit Longinus’ church, hoping for answers. I find only platitudes. The man or his father. “Bad shit happens, Gabe, and not even God can tell you why. Sure makes him look good, doesn’t it, though!” That’s all I got for my trouble.

There’s no way for me to know if Doppelgänger replaced Longinus, no tick that betrays him. I don’t know him well enough to know whether he’s different, anyway.

It’s almost like I’m reading a book every time I approach someone, thinking that if I stare hard enough, if my eyes are like a hawk’s, then I’ll find the misspelled word that gives the game away. But if there is a wrong word or a sour phrase to find, my eyes are too dull.

Alone, or perhaps just lonely even when surrounded by people, I return to New Foundation in the hopes that maybe God or fate or whatever is guiding these events will drop some morsel of hope in my lap.

The staff and capes of New Foundation dance around, puppeteered by some purpose I’m unaware of as I enter the lobby. The mystery is revealed when I find the nearest TV: Argentina and a coalition of South American nations have declared war on the States. No mention of the proof about Doppelgänger’s influence, though. No mention of Paul or his slavery. In fact, the media is destitute of any mention of clones at all.

Of course, the horrific news — or, it should be to me, anyway, but I’m having a hard time feeling much of anything at this moment — spreads across the world, blazing it, and I can’t help but wonder if Megajoule would be ashamed of me. I resurrected the organization that launched his career to try and help the world, and I’ve only brought it more war and more pain. I’m a broken cafeteria worker slopping suffering onto plates with a dead smile.

A revelation: this must be Doppelgänger’s plan. Spur us into war. But why?

I thought Doppel would be worried about India, seeing as he had the most estates there and he’d helped engineer their power grid. When he stole his battery back, why didn’t he return Paul immediately? Why hide him in North America where we could get at him with a little grease on the wheels of bureaucracy?

Because Doppelgänger never intended to return him.

Shit, shit, shit. An entire continent at war, an eastern superpower tottering on the edge of falling as the Warlord comes over the Himalayan mountains — there’s a few stories about that on the news, sightings and raids into Indian towns, but no proper battle between Youxia and India’s capes yet.

How do I stop this? How do I pick up the pieces? I’m no longer afraid of questions, but still a bit afraid of the answers.

One more book to read today, one more attempt at finding a wrong word. Squirming away from the crowd in the lobby, away from the monitors walling me in with their stream of news, I creep my way to Archimedes’ offices.

Archimedes keeps an expansive lab on the second floor of New Foundation HQ, a collection of labyrinthine workshops filled to the brim with empty soda cans, some crushed and some not, some even still half full, and the ruin of a creative yet impatient mind. Litter of all species covers the floor. The furniture has no rhyme or reason; see here that this desk has no chair, see here that this chair doesn’t appear to be designed for a human but an ostrich.

I find Archimedes hiding behind a metal shielding panel, staring through a tinted window and black lensed goggles at a glove resting on a table, hooked up by way of cables to a car battery. That he shields his eyes means something bad, I’m sure. “Is it going to radiate any particles?” I can’t draw those in, so I need to make sure.

“Just a shit ton of heat and light,” Archimedes says. “I’m trying to get that glove of yours working again. Without Nero to study, it’s slow going.”

“Can’t you just copy his power?” I ask.

“No, no, I need to see it in action. It’s strange, it’s like when I study someone’s power I get this charge, and I spend it when I make something. Close your eyes.”

Brightness and heat won’t bother me. I figured out a while ago I could stare right at bright lights and absorb the energy of the photons hitting my retinas. The world looks a bit dimmer for a second as I do so, but I’m not blinded when the glove shoots a bolt of energy into the ceiling. Unfortunately, the blast reduces the glove to a puddle of steaming goo.

“Nice.” Archimedes kicks his metal panel, a toddler having a tantrum, but his voice is calm. “How are you doing about Remise?”

Right, Remise. God, it’s shitty, but with not-Bedevil I’ve barely had time to think about her. We’ve got a few minutes of audio from after Nero and the Setting Suns captured her, and it seems like they didn’t want to kill her — but how can I even trust that those people are real, not plants from Doppelgänger?

God, how do I know that Nero hasn’t been replaced?

No, I’m falling into despair. I need to cut this shit out and refocus. “Why are we going to war with the States, Remise aside?”

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” Archimedes says. “I tried to argue with Genz about it. But Remise complicates things. Nero being a flag complicates things even more. And finally the trifecta of fuckery is complete with the fact that the States have been hiring mercenary cloaks to destabilize the nations still in the UWC.”

“What a fucking mess,” I say. “How did we get tangled in all this?”

“The world’s a spider’s web, Gabe. Why are you here?” Archimedes takes off his goggles, lumbering up off his seat like the gruff giant he is. The beard still unkempt, the hair still untamed, the bags in his eyes as deep as the day I met him. What a haggard man running our organization.

But I see in his eyes a sympathy. He wonders, too.

I want to open my mouth and bring him into our conspiracy, to invite him to the dream, but without Epione I can’t confirm if he’s a clone or not. Maybe he isn’t, given he’s not for war with the States, or maybe he’s a voice of reason planted by Doppelgänger.

“I don’t want to be a part of this war,” I tell him.

“Then don’t. Stay here. Argentina has an army, so do the other countries. They’ve got government capes that can fight the flags.” Archimedes places his hand on the table, hisses when he touches the metal, apparently having forgotten it was blazing hot from the glove. I could have told him, but… I don’t know, I just didn’t. “Damn this thing. This stupid glove. I thought I was supposed to die before my gear started breaking down.”

That does make me wonder: “Are you ever surprised you’re still alive? Don’t people try to assassinate people with tech powers?”

“I just love talking about my death, don’t you?”

“I’m serious.”

Archimedes snaps his fingers. “I actually almost got a knife back in my OPI days, during the Syrian thing. I was still churning out those bullets.” The man speaks of his near-death as if it were a day in a park. “Not sure who or how, but someone got a cape within a room of me, a guy that could do wonders with a knife, apparently. Cynic determined he’d been sent by Kassandra, meant to finish me off before my bullets could tear her army apart. If she had… I wonder what that would have changed, you know?”

“I’d be on a leash.” Though, saying that, I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t end up on one anyway. “Bedevil mentioned you’d… well, you kinda had took it hard.”

A close cousin to a frown appears beneath his beard, a twist of his lips and nose that betray his regret. I know regret and I know how to carry it, but something in Archimedes’ stance tells me that he doesn’t bring his sorry out of the closet often enough to wear it well. “Maybe that’s why the glove isn’t working.”

“Do our suits not count?” I ask.

“Those are for protection, even if you sometimes happen to use them to kill someone,” Archimedes answers. “The more and more I try to turn my mind on a weapon, a thing made only for death, I just find a void in my Affect.” He pauses for a long beat, shallowly breathing as he composes his thoughts. “And I have to say, it’s a relief, really. If it costs me a little power, well, I’ll pay it.”

I totter again on the edge of telling him about the clones. I come so close to inviting him to our dream room, to bring his brilliance to plan with us. A goldsouled tech genius on our side.

But again, I say nothing.

I can’t bring myself to trust him.

“Oh, one more thing,” Archimedes says. He gets up from his table and rummages through one pile among his many, and brings me back a laptop. I recognize the relic — my old laptop, the one I thought I’d lost after Cynic raided the Bay Biter’s hideout but that Archimedes had recovered. The one with Megajoule’s videos on it. “I decoded some of those files you mentioned this weekend. The videos from Megajoule. I swear I only watched four of them, scout’s honor.”

I try to manage the tremor of excitement in my hands as I take the laptop. I clutch it to my chest, and though it isn’t on, the computer spreads warmth throughout my chest. It isn’t that I’m overly sentimental about the laptop or the videos, but Doc gave me this laptop.

“What took you so long?”

Archimedes shrugs, though I can hardly find his attitude annoying. Not after he gave me this gift. “I’ve been busy. You know, masterminding a cape org, navigating delicate politics. Trying to pick up the pieces of china shop that you bulldoze through. You know, the works. I had some free time this weekend and I remembered it, so be grateful.”

I grin, though I don’t know if I can trust it. “I am grateful. Really.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Archimedes shrugs again and turns back to his pile of goo. “You know how you could repay me? Tell Genz to get off my back about the Archimedes Bullets.”

“He wants more? I ask.

“Of course he does. Everyone wants more. The bullet that beats super resistance. Of course, useless against telekinesis and kinetic absorption, and against Carnality, and Nero, and against anyone that matters. But damn does it kill people good. Primum, masks, regular Joe Soldier. Those are the people it kills best.” Archimedes sits up, scratches his beard, and adds, “I want you to go tell Genz he can fuck himself if he wants to use them.”

I imagine that would go over as well if I just smashed him in the face with a brick, but I nod. “I’ll try and word it more diplomatically.”

“Don’t bother.”

I take the laptop back to my apartment, the highway of my mind jammed with traffic. I thought that I’d want to pop the laptop open immediately, rush it out, watch every last video for wisdom… but what would Megajoule say to me that could help me with this? What could he say? Nothing, nothing, empty platitudes like Longinus. I hide the laptop in my closet, somewhere I think not-Bedevil won’t look — wedged underneath a suitcase we’ve never used.

I get a text from not-Bedevil. Templar, Oracle, and I are meeting with Genz soon. I’ll be in later tonight. Love you, baby, to the stars.

I shouldn’t leave her on read. I swallow my disgust:

I love you, too. Can’t wait for you to come home. I’ll walk the dogs.

Nausea, but I manage to send the text.

After I handle the chores, Maisa returns from her training, tells me that she’s started patrolling with Echo and the rest of Saw Off’s team. She says they’re looking for Remise. So much is happening, so many different plots, and I can’t keep up with it. I’m exhausted just talking with Archimedes and trying to text not-Bedevil.

Still, I thank her for telling me. Before I retreat to my room, she asks me, “Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” I manage. “Just… still a little shaken about Paul, you know?”

Maisa frowns in her way, and a chilling thought comes with that frown: what if this isn’t Maisa? What if I’m the only original in this apartment? What if my fucking dogs and cats were taken out from under my nose?

“You sure you’re okay?” Maisa asks.

I mumble “yes,” too many times and shut my bedroom door.

I am asleep within seconds of lying down. Thankfully, I do not dream but instead drift through an endless sea of black, but not ink like the Fear. It is an incandescent darkness. I want to stay, sheltered in the warmth, but a hand rips through the dream-cloth and pulls me out.

I arrive in Epione’s dream-room, the perfect replica of her living room in Houston. She and Flashfire sit on the couch together, and Kassandra sits on the loveseat.

But there is another, slouching in the remaining chair, his head leaned over the back of his seat, He throws me a grin like scraps at a dog. “Hey, Gabe.”

Tim Prince, Pandahead.

6.20.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you really believe it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night is coming. Soon, no one will work.

VOLUME SIX: THOUGH GUILTLESS

ARC 20: THE MAN OR HIS FATHER

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

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

This is a dream. I am not here.

I’m NOT HERE!

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

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

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

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

“Gabe,” Ruby says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I take it this is real,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t just kill them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is the ring?” I ask.

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

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

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

She isn’t. Our bed is empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve got diarrhea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A picture.

Cynic’s ring. Snapped in half.