Vince is doing an excellent job of keeping me on the defensive, and I hate it. I can’t let this keep up. Every time I run into him, I come out worse than before, and meanwhile he can just send an army of clones after me. So even when I do end up with the upper hand, it’s a meaningless victory; at best, I’ve managed to save myself, while not inconveniencing him at all.
That’s not entirely true. I did torch his car. But thinking about that reminds me of the terrible sound of the man trapped inside screaming as he burned, and I skitter away from the thought as my stomach lurches.
After a second, though, I set down the remaining half of my burger and force myself to examine the idea. If Vince’s confederates are just made-to-order clones, constructed out of whatever raw materials were lying around, are they really people? I didn’t have any compunction about setting my couch on fire, so why should I care about burning down something that, two hours earlier, was part of that couch? Looked at that way, this goes from an impossible army arrayed against me to just one guy with no relevant powers.
Obviously, the clones are able to walk, talk and function on their own, but if the argument against killing a person is that you’re ending something unique, then that clearly doesn’t apply. Really, it’s no different than when I exploded the gun during the robbery at Børger; it’s just the removal of a dangerous weapon.
This argument might be logically sound, but it’s doing nothing for me emotionally. My disgust at the idea has welled up into full-blown nausea and near-panic. The image of striding towards Vince through a room of charred corpses, the stench of their flesh filling my nose and their shrieks still echoing from the walls, is horrendous. It conjures up the nightmares I suffered after killing the mutated ape-men that attacked me when my powers first manifested.
No, if I kill Vince’s clones in anything other than self-defense, it’ll be cold-blooded murder in my mind. As it is, I’m still slightly horrified at how casually I can consider the idea of killing in self-defense. I don’t like that that’s moving from “worst-case scenario” to “in all likelihood.”
On the other hand, I’d be an idiot to ignore the fact that that’s what’s happening. Vince and his clones are after me, and I’ve got to stop them before they manage to maim or kill me, or worse, my friends.
It’s weird that that’s worse. Logically, nothing’s worse for me than dying. Everything else I can, by definition, live through. This information comes to me from the same part of my brain that claimed that the clones were nothing more than couchstuff, though, and therefore okay to kill. That part of my mind makes interesting arguments, but they’re not ones that impact how I feel in any way at all.
I need a plan to take the fight to Vince. Right now, all of the ones I can think of end in one of two ways: either me burning everyone alive, or me getting beaten into a bloody pulp. I’ve had more than enough of that latter option, and I really don’t think I could bring myself to do the former. I need to mull it over and come up with something that lets me walk away unharmed but assured that Vince won’t come back.
My usual technique to let my brain run is to disengage by watching Netflix, but even as I get up and start to head inside to do that, I remember that my couch has been partially absorbed, set on fire and then covered in wet towels. It’s not exactly going to be the relaxing environment I’m hoping for. Is this a first-world problem? “I can’t comfortably watch Netflix” certainly sounds like one, but “because thugs trashed my house” makes it less so.
And when you add in “So I set my couch on fire with my mind to chase off the burgeoning clone army,” then I really don’t know what that is. It’s pretty specific to just me at that point. It’s a Dan world problem, I guess.
I drag a chair in from another room, but when I try to shove the couch out of the way, my ribs protest heavily and I almost fall into the blackened mess when my knees buckle from the pain. I end up sitting behind the couch, but I can’t get comfortable in the chair, I’m the wrong distance from the TV and occasional drafts blow the stench of smoked couch into my face. I’m not even an hour into the movie before I give it up as a bad call. I take a shower and head to bed, hoping that things will look better in the morning.
In the morning, things look the same.
I take a second shower, but the stink of the fire is still lingering on my skin and in my hair. After several cycles of rinsing and repeating with the shampoo, I decide that I’m as smoke-free as I’m going to get right now, and towel off so I can go face the day.
The kitchen smells of smoke now, too, so after my cereal I go around and open all of the windows in the house, not just the ones downstairs. The thermostat says it’s 27° F outside right now, so it’s a good thing that I’m not feeling the cold anymore. As I’m going around the house, I find where Vince’s other clone came from. He made it out of one of the interior walls.
And whereas the couch was relatively densely-packed material, the wall contains a lot of hollow space, so there’s not a nice Vince-shaped cartoon hole in the wall. Instead, there’s just a big gaping section missing, with severed boards and hanging wires left where the nanomachines stripped away parts for conversion.
The good news is that it doesn’t seem to have been a load-bearing wall. I wonder if I can convince my parents that I took it down intentionally to make a more open floor plan? Probably it’s going to be better to just go buy some drywall, hire an electrician for the wires and fix this.
Also, that jerk stole a pair of my work pants on his way out. My last clean pair, too, so now I have to do laundry again. And again, “I have to use the washing machine in my house” feels very much like a first-world problem, but “because violent criminals stole my pants” makes it less so. Actually, that just makes it sound like part of a weird stand-up routine.
It’s not a great thing to realize that that’s a phrase that can describe your life.
I leave my potentially-first-world problems behind and hoof it to the bus stop. I’ve got an appointment with Doc Simmons at the hospital this morning for more testing. I’m not even sure what she’s trying to learn at this point. I’m starting to suspect that she’s just enjoying playing with fire.
Then again, so am I, and the doc provides a safe and controlled environment in which to do it. So it’s not actually a problem if she’s having fun watching things burn. It’s just funny to picture the look she’d give me if I accused her of that. It would come with a whole lecture on the rigors of the scientific process and the importance of testing things we don’t understand, too. Which would all be true, but I still bet she likes watching the flames.
No one sits near me on the bus, which causes me to suspect that I haven’t gotten all of the burned-foam smell out of my hair and clothes. This suspicion is confirmed when I get to Doc Simmons’s lab and she greets me with a wrinkled nose and a, “What do you smell like, Dan?”
“And a good morning to you, too, Doc. I set my couch on fire last night.”
“Why? Was it intentional?”
“Yes, there was — actually, can we just test whatever you’ve got set up today? I really want to forget about this for a little while.”
The doc persists, “So this wasn’t a spontaneous fire? You set your couch on fire on purpose?”
“Yes, it was on purpose. I’m fully in control of when things do and do not catch fire,” I say heatedly. I flash briefly on B-Rock’s melted sneaker and glance guiltily around the lab, but everything here seems fine. And Doc’s well-intentioned questioning doesn’t hold a candle to B-Rock’s focused needling, anyway. I wouldn’t qualify his hotfoot as a spontaneous fire, just an unwise one.
“Well, if you’d like to tell me why you set your couch on fire, I’d be happy to hear the story, but I won’t push you,” says Doc Simmons, turning away from me to fiddle with today’s experiment. “Ready to test some limitations?”
She’s set up a number of environments in which it would be difficult for fire to burn, to see where I can and can’t create or sustain a fire. It’s pretty interesting, actually, and does an excellent job of taking my mind off of my problems for a while. It might even be better than Netflix.
Over the next hour, we demonstrate that I can sustain a fire underwater as long as I keep concentrating on it and that I can create one hot enough to burn in moist air, but that without oxygen the fire gutters out. It’s a weird feeling; I can feel the intensity increasing in the target, but it just can’t manage to catch. Have you ever used a camera flash in a dark room, then reached for the after-image of something that wasn’t there anymore? It’s the same kind of feeling, a mental version of seeing what you should be touching and having your hand just pass through.
And like watching Netflix, allowing myself to get totally distracted for a bit gives my brain time to kick around a few ideas. “Hey Doc?”
“Would it be possible to borrow an oxygen tank from the hospital?”
She gives me a sharp look and considers her answer. “You said ‘borrow.’ What are the odds of it actually coming back?”
“Good? I don’t intend to hurt it.”
The doc casts a skeptical eye over my various cuts and bruises. “Your track record isn’t excellent on that front, Dan.”
“Can you tell me where I could get one, then?”
“No, I can loan you one. I’d like to ask what you plan to do with it, but I think I’d do better to have plausible deniability there. If you can come by tomorrow, I’ll have one for you.”
She pauses, then continues, “I don’t need to tell you how dangerous open flames are around an oxygen tank. Be careful.”
“I will,” I say. Which is true, for certain values of “careful.”