The revelation that they were in China, buried in the middle of a ruined city filled with God knows what kinds of superhumans, should have dashed their hopes of rescue. It should have deflated them and made them resigned to their fate at the hands of Doppelgänger.
Instead, it lit a fire under the three women. Three days passed, which they could tell by watching through the safe-box. They determined no one was watching them through the cameras and they hid their discarded food underneath one of the cots. The propped up the cot frame they’d broken by simply slotting the leg back in place.
The Thin Man lurked outside the vault door, reading his book, but if his twin lurked, too, then they must have switched out while Bedevil slept or plotted an escape. She only ever saw the one clone beneath the window.
Echo was dead; there was no mistaking that. They dragged her off. They did not return her. Bedevil spent a night mourning but now she had to focus on saving Meltdown and Maisa.
After three days, Doppelgänger did not return. The only visitors they had were clones that came and replaced their bedpans. Bedevil had a theory: “He’s left the compound.”
“How do you figure?” Meltdown asked. She’d pepped up since Bedevil convinced her to get off her cot.
“He visited us every day, or at least more often. I’ve only seen one Thin Man. I think Doppelgänger is out. I think he’s left.” Bedevil couldn’t admit she was pinning hope of escape on a suspicion, but she had such little hope it would not survive if she didn’t find support for it. And it was likely Doppelgänger had to leave the compound at some point. Even more likely that his absence was their best chance for escape.
Her stomach rumbled; the price of their gambit to clear their minds and avoid being drugged. It had worked but now they were hungry, edging toward starving.
Meltdown didn’t agree right away, and Bedevil couldn’t blame her. She’d made an assumption based only on what she could observe: the singular, harshly bright hallway, the changing days, and the scarecrow man standing guard alone. Assumptions carried risk. Meltdown hesitated, visibly afraid at the prospect they’d make a wrong mistake. Yet she nodded in the end. “What’s our plan?”
“We need to deal with the Thin Man, first. If we kill him, we end his power cancellation.”
Meltdown left her cot, scooting closer to where Bedevil sat under the safe-box they opened. “You’re sure?”
Maisa slept in her cot, still recovering from the beating the Thin Man gave her after the clones took Echo. A flash of pity and guilt stopped Bedevil from speaking; pity that the girl was here, guilt that she couldn’t stop the Thin Man from hurting the girl. Guilt that Maisa was imprisoned yet again, locked away like she must have been when she was in Pandahead’s ring.
“I’m sure,” Bedevil said. “When he got angry, I felt my power return for a second. I think he needs to be in control and if he isn’t, we might get our powers back. And if we kill him, definitely.”
“How do we kill him?” Meltdown asked. “He’s armed.”
Bedevil pointed to the leg of the cot they’d ripped free. “A few more of those and we are, too. The door opens outward, which means he’s disadvantaged coming in. The operating table Doppelgänger uses isn’t bolted down and it’s made of metal, which means we could use it as cover and charge him out the door. We get him riled up — which he probably will be once we ambush him — or we kill him, and we can use our powers to escape this place.”
Meltdown thought about it. “But the other clones.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m working on. We need to get him to open the door on his own, without any of our clones involved. At least until we can get our powers back. We’d need to wait until we’re sure he’s alone.”
“What if we wait until they change out our bedpans, a couple or so minutes after that, and then you and I start another fight? D-man wants us alive and if we threaten to kill each other the weird guy has to intervene, doesn’t he?” Meltdown shrugged as if this was a pitiful offering, but to Bedevil it was a divine gift. Of course he wanted them alive! He wanted more and more powerful clones, and that was why he’d gotten rid of Echo. She was… well, Welterweight, maybe Cruiserweight.
That made Bedevil the worst sort of person. Turned her into someone like Doppelgänger, turned her into a creature whose only aim was survival.
Staring at Maisa, her breath whistling through her broken nose as she slept, Bedevil realized she’d do whatever it took to get them home. If that meant sacrificing some of her humanity… well, she’d given it up piece by piece for years, and only just now had she regained it. What was a little more to make sure these two held their loved ones again?
When she saw Gabe again, she’d know it was worth it.
But God! A spear in her heart. She thought it, mandated it: Echo is dead. You can’t change that.
“Let’s pick a fight, then.”
They woke Maisa and explained their plan. Meltdown put on another minor show of theatrics, as she had once or twice the last few days to throw off the suspicion of their earlier endeavor, and Maisa and Bedevil wrenched two more cot legs free. They replaced them, only unfastened, and waited.
Midday turned to afternoon outside and the vault door opened yet again. The clones and the Thin Man entered the room to replace the bed pans. The clones — two of Bedevil, one of Meltdown, one of Mr. Gold — did their duty while the Thin Man stared them down.
Her heart stopped when she realized he was studying her, eyes squinted in suspicion, which made his gaunt face look even more like some ghoulish mask you could buy in a Halloween store. Cast in the harsh light from behind him, his suspicion transcended into the full attention of some dread demon, its hell eyes burning through her scalp to mine out her thoughts. She almost wanted to scream: Yes! We are plotting our escape!
“Where is Echo?” Meltdown asked, full of hate. Her question pulled the demon’s eye away from Bedevil.
The Thin Man placed his long, spindly fingers on Meltdown’s jaw and clamped down, pulling her eyes up to meet him. Not that she needed the help, she was very willing to stare him down. “Shut your mouth, bitch. You’ve run it constantly these past few days, and father will not mind if I take your tongue.”
With that, he released her, the clones departed with the old bedpans, and he shut the vault door behind him.
The girls wordlessly grabbed their weapons, their plan already cemented in their mind. A simple plan, with only one moving part: the vault door. The simpler a plan was, the more likely to succeed, Bedevil hoped.
Or the more likely to be stomped on by a greater snare than they anticipated.
But it was either wait to die or force the issue now.
Thus armed with scraps of metal, they overturned the operating table. Bedevil sawed the restraints free and used them as dusters, in case she needed to punch someone. The other pair she gave to Maisa, who trained often in hand-to-hand.
They were exhausted, starving.
Desperate to win.
Meltdown started her horrendous shrieking, ranting and raving: “I can’t die here! I can’t! My baby! My Jamie! My Jason!”
“Shut up!” Bedevil screamed back at her.
“Both of you calm down!” Maisa shouted, adding to the pantomime fight. “Put that down, Bedevil!”
“You don’t have the guts!” Meltdown’s shrieking filled the space, pressed against the walls, and dug into Bedevil’s ears so deep she thought the sound would slice her brain.
“You don’t think I do?” Bedevil played at swinging the leg around, smacking it against the stone and table, hoping it would ring loud enough for the Thin Man to hear. Hoping that he was not summoning the clones but decided to investigate alone. She knew if he brought anyone else they were dead. “Just shut up! Shut up or I’ll make you shut up!”
“I’ll fucking kill you, you psycho!”
The mechanism hissed. The moment of truth came. The vault door swung open.
The Thin Man stood there, blinking in surprise, alone.
The trio screamed in unison, a last ditch warcry to give their muscles as much energy as they could muster, and charged forward with the table. The Thin Man had no time at all to shout, only to aim his gun and fire once.
The bullet pinged and Bedevil felt a pinch in her hip somewhere, and then warmth even as they charged. Her legs threatened to give out but Maisa and Meltdown did not relent. They slammed into the Thin Man, throwing him to the ground. His gun clattered to Bedevil’s feet.
Meltdown smashed the Thin Man in the face with her makeshift pole while Bedevil fumbled at the gun with shaking hands. Her leg, her upper thigh, she’d been shot, she dropped the gun, the Thin Man kicked Meltdown—
Maisa soared by on her board of light. “My power!”
“Go!” Bedevil shouted. “Find out where we are!”
Electricity crackled around Meltdown’s head, feeding in tendrils from the lights and the outlets lining the walls. A wave of force emanated in a sphere around her, flinging the table, the gun, and their makeshift cudgels. Bedevil dove to the ground, unable to hear over the wall of sound accompanying the unleashed Meltdown.
Bedevil grabbed the gun and fired at the Thin Man, who’d been shoved against the wall by Meltdown’s gravity burst. He rushed to take cover behind the vault door, covering his head with his lanky arms.
The wall between her and her power vanished. She was right. She took no chances: with all of the tendrils at her command, she pressed the vault door in on the Thin Man. The mechanism and the hinges gave the shrill cry of their demise, and with them the Thin Man as he was pinched between the metal slab and the wall.
A bolt of lightning struck the vault door, and the Thin Man’s cry became monstrous. The smell of sizzling flesh hit Bedevil’s nose, a metallic, sulfurous, yet sweet smell, too many smells.
The inhuman scream shrank into a horrible squeaking and at last into nothing.
The Thin Man’s end did not coincide with the end of their escape. At the end of the hall, Meltdown already rushed to help Maisa, who trapped a Bedevil clone within a dome of hard light. Bedevil flung herself down the hall to join them.
Their battlefield was the basement lobby of a bank, their freedom tantalizingly close at twenty feet above, beyond a field of razor wire strung across the stairwell to keep intruders from entering. With their powers they’d easily slice through that, but only if they weren’t interrupted.
Two clones, one of Meltdown and one of Maisa, erupted from one of the side doors with lightning and colorful saws strobing with power. Bedevil aimed the gun but an invisible giant’s fist slammed her down, trying to grind her into bone meal. Not her telekinesis, but Meltdown’s gravity manipulation. She propped herself up with her tendrils, forming a cushion around herself to keep from being crushed.
The buzz of lightning, the whisper of Maisa’s constructs, the screams of battle. The gun burst under the enormous pressure, her ears popped, it was awful, awful, God almighty, awful. Gabe, she thought at the last miserable moment, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back to you. I’m sorry you’ll never know I died here.
Then she was free, as Maisa’s disk removed the clone Meltdown’s head. The clone Maisa responded in kind, trying to behead the original Maisa, but Bedevil flung the clone into the barbed wire and trussed her up with her telekinesis.
“We’ve got to go,” Bedevil said.
Maisa stared at her twin, bleeding out in a tangle of barbed wire, a wild and unnerving look in her eyes. Her own death mirrored there before her, robbing her of her will to fight on.
“Maisa! Come on!” Bedevil had no gentleness left; she seized Maisa by her arm, intent on dragging her out of the bank if she wouldn’t move.
But Maisa whispered a handful of words that would doom them. “We’ve got to find Echo.”
Bedevil couldn’t afford a rescue mission. She knew it was pointless: Echo was dead. She repeated the mantra. “Come on, Maisa, she’s been gone for three days. She’s not—”
“Gabe would never forgive us if we left her behind!” Maisa slipped free of Bedevil, sprinting through the doors before Bedevil could stop her.
Meltdown made to chase the girl, but whether to join or stop her, Bedevil couldn’t tell. She tried to give the woman direction: “We’ve got to retreat, Meltdown. Help me catch her. We can’t do this right now!”
“She’s right. Gabe would never forgive us if we didn’t rescue her.” Meltdown didn’t wait for a reply. She disappeared through the door.
Bedevil snarled. How dare they invoke her love? How dare they say his name like a god, as if everything he’d said was law. They didn’t know that he’d nearly killed himself three times over flinging himself into trouble, only surviving by the skin of his teeth or the help of his friends. They didn’t see him bloodied and broken after Sledge, after Nero, after every goddamn fight.
They only saw the ideal of him. Like Doppelgänger did when he claimed Gabe couldn’t save the world.
None of them knew the man himself, just what he presented. She shared his bed, she knew his heart.
And they were right. Gabe would never forgive her if she gave up on Echo without making certain.
Bedevil charged through the door after her friends, hoping that this wasn’t a suicide mission. Her hopes were dashed immediately: Maisa held a wall of light against a squadron of clones pushing down the hall. Bedevil, Mr. Gold, Meltdown, Maisa, Echo, more faces she recognized from New Foundation. They marched forward, their own powers smashing against Maisa’s shields, all dressed in the same black armor with the strange symbol: paper dolls, holding hands.
Bedevil glanced to her right and saw Meltdown gawking at a window, or really at what lay beyond it: rows upon rows upon rows of naked bodies stacked like books on top of each other. Packed like meat. So many people, all sitting there, quiet and still. Eyes open but seeing nothing. Mouth twisted into a vacant smile.
She reached out with her tendrils to crush it all. Her telekinesis ripped through cement, through glass, through flesh and bone. The worst thing was the naked clones made no sound as she brought the ceiling down on them.
Once that task was done, she turned to Maisa’s failing barrier. These imitations were not as strong as the originals, or else they would have busted through Maisa’s hard light long before this. Bedevil intended to show them how much stronger she was.
She collapsed the hallway, forcing a cave in and tons of rubble onto Doppelgänger’s clones. She didn’t know if that killed them or if they collectively had the power to survive, but it didn’t matter.
Bedevil grabbed Meltdown, whirling her away from the destroyed storage room. She tried to ignore a forearm sticking out of the ruin, groping around as nerve endings fired off. Easy enough: she was furious. They’d risked their escape and they had nothing to show for it. “We’re leaving. Now.”
Neither Meltdown nor Maisa could protest. They followed without a word.
She led the way out of the basement, ripping the barbed wire away as simple as a broom clears a cobweb from the corner of a room, and the trio escaped by punching through a glass door.
Over collapsed buildings and broken streets they soared, staring down at the end result of an unchecked superhuman war; a skyline of broken daggers, snaked through by a black river that bubbled and smoked like tar. No signs of human life, no lights, no fires, no safety. They’d made it free of Doppelgänger’s dungeon but they had no idea where they were. In some nameless Chinese graveyard, possibly crawling with bogeymen.
They alighted in a cube of a building, opened to the world by a charred hole in the top, and climbed down a flight of stairs and found a small room to hide away in. There was a singular window at an inconvenient height to look out, but that meant they wouldn’t have unwanted spies.
Bedevil could not find victory in this escape. She barely considered it one; they were still lost in an unknown land, a dangerous other world she’d scarcely believed existed. Meltdown and Maisa were in similar spaces, though Maisa found the energy to help Bedevil remove the bullet in her hip. With her tendrils and a strip of Maisa’s gown, they covered the wound. She hadn’t started to feel the pain yet but she knew it would come.
“Thank you,” Bedevil said, patting Maisa’s arm. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not injured.” The girl sat down next to Bedevil and scooted close, sharing her warmth. “I’m… We’re free. That’s it.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” Bedevil leaned into Maisa. The adrenaline began to wear off; pain started to take its place. They’d escaped, but she wondered if they’d even survive the night.
“That’s not it.” Meltdown looked hideous, an accusing judge staring down her nose at a murderer. “We left behind one of our own.”
“We didn’t leave behind anyone,” Bedevil said. “She’s gone, Meltdown. She’s dead.”
“You don’t know that. We didn’t get to see.” Meltdown stayed at her end of the room, and Maisa offered no statement one way or the other. She stammered, averted her eyes, and left Bedevil to the argument.
“We didn’t need to see. He took her because he didn’t need her anymore. What would you do if you were him?” Bedevil asked.
“I wouldn’t give up on her! Gabe wouldn’t!”
“Stop saying his name like it justifies being stupid.”
Meltdown started at that. “Stupid? Is it stupid to care about our friends?”
“No, it’s not.” Bedevil wanted to back track, wanted to forget all of this. She wanted to curl up and go to sleep. “But it is stupid to try and dig up a corpse because you refuse to see the truth. It’s stupid to get us killed because you can’t accept that!”
Meltdown sniffled, the accusation cutting deep. “She’s… we don’t know. That’s awful, Bedevil. That’s god damn awful and cruel and heartless—”
Bedevil rose to her feet, but her wounded leg betrayed her, bringing her to her knees. She gasped, pain running its blade through the bottom half of her body, and she couldn’t say another word.
I do care, she thought. I have to care about all of you.