The scene inside is barely controlled chaos. All of the officers in the room, maybe twenty or so, are on their feet facing away from me. Loose papers are drifting to the floor, phones have clattered to desks, and hastily-pushed-back chairs are slowly spinning in circles.
The focal point at the far end of the room is Vince Amano, standing calmly in an open doorway while half a dozen police officers point their guns at him, and twice that many shout various instructions. A few conflict, but they’re mainly still along the lines of “Get on the floor!” or “Get your hands up!”
Vince acts like none of them are there, though, and instead locks eyes with me from across the room. He sneers.
“Good of you to join us, Dan. Thought this might bring you running. You hypocritical, self-important, conniving waste of space.”
“What do you want, Vince?” I’m having to shout to be heard over the continuing clamor, but I’m not about to add to the confusion by striding into the middle of it. As it is, I’m getting a number of looks assessing whether I’m a enemy or ally. I do my best to project friendly vibes.
Vince laughs, the easy laugh of someone in total control of a situation. “In general? I think I’m moving up from the small time. This is a pretty nice place here. I think maybe I’ll move in.”
Great; I’m being toyed with again. I don’t see an option other than to play his game, though, so I ask, “But what do you want from me, Vince?”
He grins. “From you, Dan? I’m going to kill you. And there’s nothing anyone here can do to stop it.”
Vince takes a step forward, and immediately the room rings out with gunshots. I have no idea how many were fired, but at least two hit Vince, both squarely in the chest. His shirt shreds in two places and blood spurts free, darkening the surrounding material and spattering the floor, but although Vince staggers back a step, he does not fall.
“Ow,” says Vince, brushing at his chest like a man brushing away crumbs after a meal. Where he wipes away the blood, I catch a glimpse of unbroken skin beneath it.
“He’s got a vest!” someone shouts, and there’s a second volley of shots, one of which strikes Vince in the head, rocking it sharply to one side. Again comes the brief spray of blood, and skin flaps freely from the wound for a second before falling free and drifting to the floor.
Vince straightens his head and, while looking directly at the cop who shot him, uses the back of his hand to wipe away the blood. His head, like his chest, is whole and unblemished.
“Ow, I said,” he says with quiet menace. “Stop that.”
The officers are all frozen, unsure of what they’re seeing or what to do next. Vince raises his voice again. “Like that trick, Dan? I haven’t figured yours out, pyro, but I stumbled across that while I was trying. I’m fast, Dan. I can replicate myself to fix damage, using the material from whatever hit–“
I hear the jittering sound of a Taser being fired, and Vince convulses briefly before continuing, “–me. A lesson that not everyone here seems to be getting.”
He glares over his shoulder at the officer with the Taser, now trailing two useless wires that end without barbs. The policeman stares back, transfixed.
While Vince has his eyes off of me, I mutter sharply, “Peterson!”
“Yes?” he says, equally quietly.
“Get them out of here. As many as you can.”
“What’s that, Dan?” calls Vince. “I’d hate to miss a single sewage-laced word from your cesspit mouth.”
I take a few steps forward. “You’re a loser, Vince.”
Vince laughs, but sharply. “So, it has a spine!”
“Couldn’t get a crew until you made one. Couldn’t hack it as a robber until you became invincible. You know regular criminals knock over fast food places all the time, right? They do fine. You got beat by, what was it, a mop bucket?”
“That wasn’t me!” spits Vince.
“Not directly, but it was you. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Finally someone who’ll put up with you, and all you had to do was build them yourself.”
With hands clenched, Vince starts toward me again, only to go down in a hail of bullets. He’s struck over a dozen times, driven to his knees on the floor, but while my ears are still ringing with the echoes of the shots, he rises again, his clothes in tatters.
“Enough of that,” he snarls. “Come!”
From the door behind him, the clones pour through. A few are in street clothes, but most are wearing a motley assortment of prison scrubs and police uniforms, clearly looted from the police station. Over two dozen clones come through the door, outnumbering the police officers, and Vince’s expression settles back into a cocky grin as the police fall back from the emerging mob.
“If I’m so easily beaten, you whimpering rodent, then come and take me on.”
I start to respond, but before I can, one of the policemen tackles Vince from the side, driving him to the ground. As one, the mob of clones rushes to his aid, and the officer disappears under a tide of bodies. Drawing batons, the other officers enter the fray, and everything devolves into a sea of fists and incoherent yelling.
I think about joining in, but considering how easily Vince has taken me out on every occasion we’ve tangled, I can’t see how I would add anything helpful. The tide is already quickly turning against the police; although a number of the clones appear to be injured or at least bleeding, their teamwork is impeccable and they’re using it to great advantage.
Also, every time one of the cops hits the real Vince with a baton, it dissolves on contact as his nanomachines tear it apart to restore his body. Vince is making the most of this, putting himself in the way of the blows and methodically disarming the police.
In minutes, over half of the police are unconscious on the ground, and the remaining seven have pulled back into a tight protective knot. One of these is Peterson, bleeding heavily from his nose but looking otherwise unhurt.
“Get them out of here!” I shout at him. “It’s only going to get worse.”
Vince laughs mockingly. “What makes you think I’m going to let them go, toy hero?”
Instead of answering, I gesture, and the ceiling between the two groups erupts into flame, dropping chunks of burning tile even as it roars outward. The Vinces and the police all recoil, and I shout again, “Get them out!”
At last, Peterson listens, and with a barked command leads a run for the door. As he passes me, he shoots me a significant glance, but I have no idea how to interpret it. Is he telling me to take Vince down? To wait for backup? To not set the unconscious cops on fire? I need to get better at nonverbal communication.
As it stands, though, all I can do is follow through on the plan I came in here with. It honestly wasn’t all that good a plan to begin with, and it really made a lot more sense when I pictured fighting Vince in some sort of empty building. Also, I had hoped that there would be a lot less of him. I didn’t know about the invulnerability trick before, either. They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but this thing’s so far past survival that sticking with it at this point feels more like necromancy.
When the only tool you have is a hammer, though, everything starts to look like a nail. All I have is fire — and when you get right down to it, this building’s as flammable as any other.
“Come on, Vince!” I shout over the crackle of the fire. “I don’t care how many of you there are. I’ll take you all out!”
The Vinces circle slowly around me like a pack of hyenas, edging closer as they go. From somewhere outside the circle, one calls out, “Oh, but Dan! You haven’t seen all of my new tricks yet. It’s not just how many of me there are. It’s also how much.”
The ring of Vinces around me laugh at the look of confusion on my face. Before I can figure out what he meant by that, I hear a quiet popping noise coming from the floor, and look down to see a spreading stain coming from one side of the circle, which has parted to let it through. At the far end, I see the original Vince crouched down, fingertips pressed against the carpet.
Near me and closing in by the second, I see a nightmare.
Vince has clearly branched out from creating complete copies of himself, and learned how to make partial copies. Rippling toward me, converting the carpet as it goes, is a horrifying pale mass of fingers, toes, eyes, hands and more, joined in a sickening pool of skin. I have no idea if this organic carpet has any sort of intelligence, but it is clearly alive, as every limb, every digit, every organ is moving.
I flash the carpet in front of me into flame, halting its advance, but I’ve now cut my space in the circle in half, and the clones are dangerously close behind me. Fire in front, street-fighting clones behind, and a writhing mass of flesh threatening to literally consume the entire building — at the very least, my plan can’t make things much worse for me.
I turn my back on the fire I’ve created and face the clones, arms at my sides, palms up.
“All right,” I say. “Who’s first?”