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?”
“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.
“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.