“The Doppelganger” –John Palmieri

Honorable Mention, Fiction

I stood in a room of mirrors, my eyesight slightly clouded by the haze of sleep and the arcane air of a dream. All around me I saw nothing but me. I hadn’t realized that I had dramatically changed since my time with my ruthless captors, and I hadn’t taken the time to evaluate these changes. I glanced around the mirrors, examining every detail of my worn, tired body. Because of my former master’s strict rules, my dark hair had never been allowed to be in its natural, somewhat curly state which now lay atop my head wild and unattended. My tired eyes made the speckled blue in them look the tired cloudy gray of interrupted sleep. I was taller than what I saw in the mirror, I thought, but then again, I wasn’t one to stand in front of the mirror for hours and hours. In fact, I was almost sure this was my first time ever doing it for more than a few seconds. I could see the sheaths my swords rested in. The sheath resting on my right side was light and thin, and its shiny metal glistened in the ominous light from above. The sword within this sheath, Ferrum it is called, was forged from a special form of iron-bauxite mixture, making it sturdy but light, making it a valuable ally in melee attacks and swift opponents. Its dubious twin, Nox, rested firmly on my back in a specially made satchel. Nox was much longer and heavier than Ferrum since it was made from a peculiar combination of obsidian and ivory, giving it a dull purple-black color on its formidable blade and a rough, stained beige color on its hilt. Surprisingly, I bore hardly any scars, blemishes, or any sign of the brutal physical torture that I endured while in captivity. However, the mental and emotional trauma they inflicted will probably never depart from my mind, perhaps the source of this strange dream.

As I scanned my appearance, I heard someone yell from behind me. I flinched and turned my head in the direction of the scream, my reflections perfectly synched with my every move. I wildly glanced around the room in search of the sinister voice as fear slowly built up within me like frigid water. Then I heard it again, and this time I made out “Traitor!” from the ethereal lips of my tormenter. I turned to see that my reflections no longer mimicked me, instead, they mocked me and glared at me, their words like spears straight into the depths of my inner being. The octagonal room contained eight mirrors, and thus I was subjected to eight ruthless, uncaring tormenters. One called me a psychopath, giving me the look of a fearful child expecting death; another branded me a traitor, the look of a disappointed parent shrouding his face. One accused me of being a “lying, cheating bastard not fit to live,” his voice filled with the rage of millions pining for my blood to be spilled. One yelled incessantly the word “coward,” his tone similar to the tone of rabid protestors. Another proclaimed loudly, “This is the man that is said to liberate us from the clutches of evil, and yet he stands there shaking hands with the devil himself. I say he must be killed!” The other three mumbled words that I could not make out, as they came from their mouths like fire from a vengeful dragon. In the center of the room, I fell and clasped my ears, trying to block out their incessant mockery and threats, though it proved futile, as they only got louder. I tried telling my distressed self, “This is a dream, nothing more than a figment of my mind,” although I knew it was my mind simply repeating what was said about me and what I thought of myself. Frantically, I tried waking myself up by pinching the most sensitive skin, by throwing myself off some imaginary cliff, by any means I could find. But nothing helped, it was as if my mind was trapping me within its vengeful, sardonic clutches, unleashing its pent-up wrath upon me. I sat there for a moment, taking in their insults. For a moment, I believed every word they said, for deep down I thought it was true. Suddenly a dark haze filled my mind, and I considered laying on my sword. But then, instead of laying upon the sharp, dense tip of Nox, I unsheathed it, and attempted to silence my tormentors.

Anger, rage, and hatred fueled my arms as I flailed them with Nox in hand into the mirrors. Tiny shards of glass pierced my body, but at that point I didn’t really care. I watched as each twisted, vindictive version of me transformed into broken glass, their sinister laughter ending in a fragmented wail of shattered crystal. Soon eight mirrors turned into four, then two, and then one. As I walked up to the final mirror, I saw this last form of me glaring into my eyes. He said nothing, perhaps his fear had forced his mouth to silence his mockery. Before smashing his mirror, I took a moment to evaluate my last opponent, obsessing over every detail of this demon before I ended its wraithlike existence. At a glance, this reflection was my twin. But almost immediately, I found minor differences in him. His eyes, rather than my sapphire blue, were dark gray and cloudy, and they seemed to be staring right through me. His skin was tanner than mine and it seemed smoother. In his left hand he held a sword similar in color to Nox, but it lacked the mass and components of Nox. Behind him I saw a black mist squirming in some phantom wind. Then he spoke, “Hello, Apollo.” His voice was that of a soothsayer, smooth and relaxing. He lacked the condescending tone of the other mirror doppelgangers; rather, he seemed compassionate and calm.

“Hello,” I said, unsure of what was going on. “Who are you? And how do you know me?”

He remained silent for a moment before replying, “I am Atrius. I am you, and you are me,” he said mystically.

“How is that possible?” I asked, still unsure. His voice, however, seemed to abate my intense fury and fear, and I lowered my sword to the floor.

“Everything is possible, Apollo. The fact that you are standing in this room is very impossible, as it does not exist, but yet you are here.” He stood there for a moment and awaited for my reply.

“If you are me and I am you, how are we so different?” I asked, confused.

“Every coin has two sides, Apollo. I am simply the other side of your coin, the hidden side, the side that is locked away. And we are not as different as you may think.”

Surprised and slightly curious by his answer, I asked, “Locked away? Why would you be locked away?”

“I wouldn’t say that I am truly locked away. I am merely, how should I say… I am merely waiting, waiting for the right moment to come out.”

“When would that be?”

“I come only when the conditions are favorable. In truth, I am a parasite. Not a detrimental parasite in any means, but more of a mutualistic relationship. For instance, my true form is merely a formless ghost destined to a life of eternal wandering. In that form, my immense power is limited. But within a vessel, or a body, my power is doubled. I reside within you, giving you full access to my power in return. My insight, my wisdom, and most importantly, my skills and strengths are all yours whilst I reside within you. But what does this have to do with the right conditions? Here is the answer: I am protective of my host. Anyone, or anything, that tries to hurt it, harm it, or endanger it will feel my full wrath until their endeavors are halted, which usually ends in their death. But only when the host and I are truly in tune and there is nothing keeping us apart, only then will I show myself.”

For some odd reason, I was enticed by his power. I felt a deep and irresistible urge to gain access to his immense power, and I was willing to do anything to get it. I was sure that he knew this too, as I saw a smirk come across his face as I pondered what he said.

“I can help you Apollo,” Atrius said, his words flowing from his mouth like crystalline water into a tranquil pool. “I saw what these mirrors said about you, what you said about yourself. You are insecure about yourself, and you struggle with it. I can help you overcome it. I can help you overcome that struggle and make you who you are supposed to be and give you everything that you desire.”

I was shaking in my shoes. A river of tears erupted from my tired eyes and fell to the cold stone floor. I fell to my knees and buried my head in my hands, trying desperately to restrain the tears. Finally, I relented and said, “Every day I struggle.” I cough and sniffle before continuing, “I struggle with my morality, with my sanity. These aliens, these savages, they’ve messed with my mind. They’ve molded me into a killing machine, a robot who takes orders from a despotic emperor on a distant world. They’ve broken me down to my bare mind, and built me up again in their own way. They’ve stripped me of everything that makes me human! They’ve taken everything. Everything I’ve done is ‘for the good of the empire.’ ‘Apollo!,’ they’ll say. And I’ll immediately submit. They’ll order me to slaughter a group of my own people ‘for the good of the empire.’ They’ll tell me to destroy something built by human hands ‘for the good of the empire.’ They’ll poison my mind with those sayings, and eventually I will do anything ‘for the good of the empire.’” I paused for a moment to regain my composure. “Now I’m here, taking orders from other people. That’s been my entire life-Apollo do this ‘for the good of the empire.’ Or now it’s, ‘for the good of humanity.’ I struggle with my identity – am I really a traitor? Am I really less than human, as I was so repeatedly told? Am I the monster they think I am? Who am I? I just wish I actually had the ability to make my own decisions, to decide what I think is best, to mess up, to learn, the natural way, from my mistakes. I wish I had the ability to set the record straight, to show everyone who I really am, whoever I may be. You understand, don’t you?” I look up and find Atrius mirroring my position.

He looks up and says as if he had sobbed as well, “I feel the pain you feel, the struggles you go through, the power you crave. I understand just as much as you do. What you have been through, I have as well. Let us do something about it, Apollo. You and I cannot change a thing about us separated. But together we can set the record straight; together we can put them in their place.”

Suddenly, a wave of rage flowed through my veins, and I looked at him straight into his clouded eyes and said, “Then how do we do it? How do I make the conditions right? How do I – no, we – set the record straight?”

“It’s actually rather simple,” he said, as we both stood to our feet in unison. “There is a glass barrier separating you from me, so all you must do is break the barrier,” he said with mystery. He presses his hand on the glass and smiles. I glance down at Nox, whom I had had a death grip on for the entire time, and look back at Atrius. He shook his head in affirmation. Slowly, I hoisted Nox above my head and slammed it into the mirror again and again until it crumbled. Shards of glass flew everywhere as the last mirror crumbled under the power of Nox. Once the mirror had shattered, I looked beyond the pile of shards to see my sinister doppelganger still standing before me, a satisfied look on his face. He smiled and mouthed, “Thank you,” and then, all at once, he flew forward and transformed into a cloud of black fog. The fog collided with me and I fell to the ground, the fog slowly dissolving into my skin and then slowly fading away. I felt a sharp, excruciating pain all over my body as the black fog dissolved into the very fibers of my being, though the pain fled immediately. As the room began to darken and the pain began to subside, I heard his voice whisper, “I am you, you are me. The pain you feel, I feel. The power you crave, I crave. Those you hate, I hate. We will set the record straight.” And then everything went black.

I awoke and sat straight up on my cot. I was out of breath and felt as if I had just finished running a marathon. I glanced around the little room, making sure I wasn’t still in a dream. The room still looked the same. A stand-up mirror stood in the corner of the room right next to a stool. The little desk I’d used to telegram those back in the states was still there with the pen I used. I got off the cot and walked over to the window, which was the largest item in the room. The sun was high in the sky. I guessed it was around nine-thirty, since the city wasn’t entirely busy yet. I saw the thatched roof homes lining the suburban streets of Karachi, Pakistan. Beyond the curve of the dusty road was the surprisingly calm Indian Ocean with several destroyers patrolling the coast. The sea breeze felt good as it rushed in when I opened the window. The sound of a car horn could be heard amongst the noises of the city. As I stood contemplating the view, my friend Leonidas came in. “Oh you’re awake,” he said.

“Yeah, what’s up?” I asked as I turn around.

“General Hopkins needs to see us right away. We’re heading back to the States today,”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. I’ll be there in a minute,” I sighed, somewhat reluctant to return.

“Ok, but they’re getting frustrated. I’d hurry before they send security, again,” he said as he walked down the corridor, his voice trailing off. I sighed and changed into my mandatory rebel uniform. It looked like normal street clothing, but in reality it was a set of very nimble but powerful armor that could change its form when I wanted. I was told it would withstand extreme heat and cold, and it was water- and bulletproof. But I figured they were just exaggerating. On the left sleeve was a small, red stitch of a bird. It resembled a phoenix on fire, with its wings flared. It was our symbol, the symbol of rebellion.

I grabbed Ferrum and Nox and put them on. Before I left, I stood in front of the glass, making sure I had put on the entire uniform. I looked closely at my eyes and flashed back to my dream, or nightmare. They were blue, and not the cloudy gray of Atrius. I smiled slightly, relieved that this was reality, and walked out of the room, not realizing my reflection lingered in the mirror.