An event in The Pandimensional Pandemoniac Menagerie Sleepover, as rendered visually here.
First there’s light, an initial dim glow, sourceless, to the large room that takes up most of Warehouse 5, level B. As we step to the center, the light above flares, becoming a sun and blue sky. Grass shifts and grows beneath our feet. Palm trees and other foliage burst outwards, hemming us in.
“Perfect,” Summer says, smiling. “More than enough privacy from the others. Now all you need is privacy from me. I’ll be over by the door.”
I raise an eyebrow.
She laughs. “In case you need me. Either of you. I’ll be listening to music”
I snort. In stereo.
Summer pivots, and is able to walk far enough away in the large room to give a reasonable sense of privacy.
The other Alycia looks at me. “You realize he’ll probably watch a recording of this. I’m assuming the place is wired.”
“Unlikely. For one thing, I think he’d consider it skeevy, and his sense of shame would probably outweigh his curiosity. Second, the two of you had a chance to talk, so a lot of that pressure is off. Third --” I hold up my right hand with a certain gesture, and a keypad appears in the air. I tap in a sequence. “-- I built the interface system, so I know how to shut down the observation routines.”
She weighs whether to believe me or not (I would ponder it, in her shoes, then finally nods). “So.”
“Aria – Summer said you wanted to talk.”
“Yes.” I sigh. “Though I didn’t send her to round you up and bring us here for the purpose. That I didn’t was why she took it upon herself to do so.”
“Yyyeah, she’s not quite my Aria, but more than close enough for me to recognize that compulsion to help.”
“It’s … come in handy. Usually.”
The silence stretches between us. I have a million questions to ask. I’m apprehensive about all of the possible answers. I suspect the same is true on her side.
“This is … odd.”
My smile is slight. “I’ve met my male other-dimensional counterpart. This is more odd than that.”
“Uncanny Valley of dimensional identity. Probably a paper in that.” She pauses. Her tone when she continues has dropped the bantering note. “And seeing Jason again. Talking with him. Alive. Present in today.”
“I hate you. And I envy you.”’
I bow my head briefly to acknowledge both. I try to keep the anger under control.
“It’s funny,” she continues, not amused, “I know him so well, but not at all. He seemed – a bit more mellow. Mature.”
“He still has his immature moments, believe me.”
“He wouldn’t be Jason if he didn’t.”
Another long silence. “But he’s not the Jason I knew – the one I still know.” She taps her right temple.
“You knew him mostly as a kid.” I give her a crooked grin, without much feeling it. “I was there. So much there to unpack – but you didn’t have much of a chance to know him as an adult.”
“Not for the last year and change, no. But … I also know him better than I could have imagined, all from that last, terrible moment. That part – a lot of him, his memories, his goals and drives and wants and fears, it all got … pushed to me with his nanobots.”
The feel of them flickering across my skin like a spray of sand … perceiving through them the crackle of the dimensional wall … and for those few, brief moments, that contact with Jason’s very consciousness.
“I don’t understand. You mentioned that, but didn’t go into the details.”
She feigns a casual reply. “Yes. Not something I like to relive. For a lot of reasons.”
Her eyes widen slightly. My words aren’t quite a command, but not quite the comforting way Summer would do it. It’s the best I can manage, except to add, “Please.”
She nods, fold her arms even as she opens up. “The basement of the Capitol in Federal City --”
“-- in the Sepiaverse, got it. I was there, too.”
“And Father --”
I make an inarticulate sound, feeling that familiar surge of anger, but flaring even hotter than usual. Being with myself gives me permission. “Madness. Madness!” I make a sharp gesture with both hands. “Murderous insanity I was only beginning to truly realize. What he’d done to me. What he was doing to others. The waste, and the pain, and the death …”
And in return, I see fire in her eyes, an anger on her face that I recognize from the mirror all too well, but which looks different, disturbing in an unmirrored version, drawing me up short. “I know,” she growls, dammit. And on top of that he’d decided --"
“-- to kill me,” we say at the same time.
She glares, then gives a curt nod.
“Betrayal that I could have – should have – predicted. That was my fault.”
“My fault. And Jason saved me from my Father, and my fault.”
“Yes, I remember, he --” I choke off the words. Her expression. Her body language. No, no, no … this is the moment, the divergence. Shit. “But – not himself. Not for you.”
“‘Protect Alycia. Stop Chin. Save myself.’” Her eyes are wide. “His mission that day. It’s a mantra branded into my soul. I see it behind my eyelids when I sleep at night. I hear it in his voice when I can’t sleep.”
“It’s not your fault,” I say, automatically, even if I don’t fully believe it. My gut feels like I’m in a falling elevator.
“I called him a hero when I saw him. You remember the phrase, right? ‘Hello, hero.’ And I knew what he would do.”
Jason once told me that was the moment that broke through to a dozen different memories, the moment that punched him in the gut, the moment he knew who he was, who we were.
To me, it had always been just how I saw him. A phrase, sometimes sarcastic. Sometimes admiring. Sometimes manipulative. Sometimes desperate. But always, in one way or another, better or worse, the truth.
She’s continuing. “And he was, even though I couldn’t help always make it a bit mocking. And I said it because I knew how he’d react to it.”
“Heroically.” It’s a word I’d usually use ironically as well. I can’t right that moment. Because Jason. Because that was me, too – having said it, then, in that way. Sincerely, but with a knowledge of how he’d feel.
“Yes. Heroically. And I knew it. And he did. And he fucking died.”
Summer’s words bubble up before I can stop them. “It’s not your fault.”
The blistering look she gives me should peel back my skin. It only doesn’t because I can see how close to tears she is. It’s appalling – and utterly understandable, because I’m not that far myself. Dammit.
“I’ll prove it,” I tell her. “Tell me what happened.”
She gives her head a shake, like a horse reacting to a fly. “Fine,” she says, in that way that’s clearly not fine. “I had my guns on Jason. Father wanted me to kill him. I just wanted him gone, away, to not be there. He saw Father pointing his own gun at me, at the back of my head. He knew I had backward-engineered some of the nanobot tech – hell, he had sent me a package of it, with info on how to get to the Sepiaverse.”
I’m trying very hard not to scream or react, because hearing myself describe it – not a recording, but live, in front of me – is like being there all over again. The terror. The confusion. The anxiety. It was a defining moment in my life – and in hers – for far too many reasons, far too many of them unpleasant.
She looks at me, maybe at my expression; I blink, and at my sharp, confirming nod, she continues. “So, seeing me threatened, he gave them to me. The rest of the bots. All of them. A split-second to act, and he chose ‘Protect Alycia.’” A bitter chuckle. “Me, for fuck’s sake. His bots swarmed me, tied into the interface, armoring me up as they physically pushed me away from Father’s line of fire.”
The moment of silence was deafening. “And ‘Save myself’?”
“A distant third, apparently. He gave them all to me, imbued with his thoughts and memories and dreams and drives – the ones that thrice-damned father of his left him. All of it. He gave me all his protection, and Father’s shot took him straight through the heart.”
Our father. I close my eyes. It’s not real, not to me, but … I can see it, somehow. I can feel it. All through her trembling voice, tremors of fear, and grief – and fury.
“What did you do?” My voice feels rusty.
“I killed him, of course. Father. I stepped over to him, slapped the stupid guns out of his weak hands, and snapped his scrawny neck.”
My eyes snap open. Her face is a mask again, but like something out of a Greek tragedy, hard and merciless, the bloody justice of the gods. I nod in acknowledgment, even in approval. “And then?”
“I shut down his whole insane Keynome / Hidden Family plot. And then I went up to the surface and killed Byron Quill the same way.”
My head shakes slightly.
“You disapprove?” Incredulity. Anger.
“No, it sounds like just what I would have done – would do even now. If not for Jason.” My own voice cracks on that last word, its echoes hanging in silence for several seconds.
Her eyes are wide on mine, as she breaks that pause. “How is it he – how did he live in your world?”
“He made a different decision. He was --” Less desperate? Less despairing? There was this “for want of a nail” causality the others had found that left her Jason less stable, more inclined to sacrifice himself for his Alycia. But that was a universal-centric perspective. Think of it more that in my world, Jason had been more inspired to live, more driven to find a way …
“He decided to protect the both of us,” I say. “He used the bots to block the shot, not just save me – but he also tied into the neural link we both had with them. He shared what was going on with him, what he knew about what his father had done, what our father had, what was going on. And --” I break off, putting fingers to my lips.
“And? And what?” A strained smile touches her lips. “If there’s someone you can share a secret with --”
“Actually, I think sometimes we keep secrets most of all from ourselves.”
She stares at me. “Wow. Now I know what Leo means when he says I’m so talented at backing away from an emotional discussion to dive into analytical minutiae.”
“He’s one to --” I give my head a shake, aware I’m echoing her gesture from a few minute before. “Focus.” I close my eyes, take a deep breath, release. A thought I’d never really faced before. That I have to share now. “That was the moment I realized how easily I’d been straddling the line between love and hate toward Jason Quill, all those years. And when I decided to come down on the side of love. Because that’s where he was, waiting for me.”
She looks like she’s been slapped, but I can’t hide this truth from myself, nor from her. Especially her. Even if it rips at her like a serrated knife to the gut. She gets hold of herself, manages a brittle laugh. “That is appallingly sentimental.”
“Yes. And the reality is far more complicated, and the motivations were far more varied and a blend of pragmatic and aspirational, but … that was at the core of it all. Hate. Love. And the choice. Laugh if you want.”
“You know I can’t, goddammit.”
“I know.” I find myself wishing Summer was here, rather than glancing in our direction and distracting herself with pop tunes on her phone. She’d know what to say to this other Alycia. And to me. I can only forge on. “And then we reached the mutual decision about what to do with our fathers.”
That snapped her out of it. “Together?”
“Both of us. About both of them.”
“Less. And more. Jason brought both of them together, then used the bots to kill the hyper-genius part of their brains.”
She frowns slightly, then her eyes widen. Then she smiles. It’s my smile, but it isn’t comforting. It’s damned scary. Is that how others see me? “That is fucking amazing,” she says in Mandarin.
“It was Jason’s idea. But it made sense to me. They had both squandered the gifts they’d been given, used them to hurt other people, hurt their own children. Now let them be stuck as merely normal smart guys in the ruins of a world destroyed by their dimensional analogs.” I give a light snort. “That boy has a wicked head on his shoulders, when he lets himself use it.”
Her face grows sad. “I’m – sorry I never got to see it. Or more of it.”
“Me, too. But – you and Leo.” I force a change in the subject.
“It’s not the same, I’m sure. But – it’s good.”
“I’m glad.” And I am. She let Jason die. Yes, that’s irrational, but rationality has nothing to do with it. But she’s found happiness. That is worth applauding, even as it feels vaguely narcissistic. “How did it happen?”
She shrugs. “When Charlotte and I made it back – barely – to our universe – I turned myself in to the Menagerie. I was – I’ll be honest, I was in really bad shape. Jason’s death. Killing Father and Quill. Even just Father’s betrayal and turning on him was tearing me up. The mental damage he’d done to me. On top of that, the bots and the programming problems Byron Quill had introduced … I was an emotional and cognitive mess. All I knew, from Jason’s memories in my head, was that the Menagerie could save me.”
I tried to think of what it would be like, handing myself up to strangers, even enemies, without Jason being there. It’s a reason I was so pissed when he quit the group, but I never really lost him the way she had.
“The others were skeptical,” she goes on, “and AEGIS caught wind of it – but Leo intervened, and had the pull to keep me in his custody. His own background told him something about me and my situation, and he had both the scientific and technical knowledge to deal with my mental problems – the merge machine he’d built for the two versions of Pneuma was key there. He only asked in return that I honor Jason’s legacy and help the team, and I …” She pauses. “I simply couldn’t say no. Especially since --”
“Since – Leo?” Was she so quick to shift her emotions? Was I that flighty?
“No! I mean – there was a lot more going on than that, and I wasn’t looking to – no, it was because of Jason.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“From what Jason thrust on me in that moment, I understood how he saw me, literally. The strength. The potential for goodness. His own feelings. It was, forgive me the pop psychobabble, an incredible validation of me as a person with … a person who had value. Who could do more.”
I give her a tight smile. “Yeah. He … does that. I’m not sure it’s any healthier per se than living to seek Father’s approval, but it sure feels a hell of a lot better.”
"It is better. Intrinsically. Because he was a better person than Father. Intrinsically. "
Nothing is absolute. All is relative. In that context, getting Jason’s approval is, in fact, far higher praise than getting Father’s manipulative blessing.
She nods. “That got me through a lot. And, yeah, after that – Leo …” She pauses, then continues in a slightly more steady voice. “Well, once the pieces were picked up, he was there to help me keep them together.”
I can imagine that. Leo has his own demons, but a ton of steely compassion as well. I’d benefitted from that a bit, and more of it indirectly.
I still can’t help a bit of sarcasm. “And you lived happily ever after?”
She snorts with amusement. Okay, Jason’s right, that is an annoying sound. “Hardly. I’m still --” She stops, and the amusement drains from her face. Her eyes lock onto mine. “We have the same past, you and I,” she says, softly. “The things that we did – that we survived, in some ways, and didn’t in others. The way we were conditioned. That stuff never goes away. It never will. No matter how bright the repackaging, we’re damaged goods. I know that. I assume you do, too.”
I nod, slowly.
“That self-condemnation, that conviction of not being worth it – it’s always there in us, waiting to jump out.” She slumps slightly. “I used to think I wasn’t good enough for Leo. That I was somehow betraying him, still holding this unrequited torch for Jason that would always be in the way of whatever we were trying to build. The only way to counter that was to half-convince myself that what I had with Jason was distorted by tragedy and memory, made into something bigger than it was. Except --” She stops, still looking at me.
“Except,” I answer, “it’s my good fortune that I prove your latter self-destructive thought wrong.”
“Yeah.” A silence. “Like I said, I hate you. And I envy you.” She closes her eyes, breathes, then looks at me and cocks her head. “And what did you do after you pithed your father and your boyfriend’s dad?”
I feel that frisson of anger again at her sentiment, but go along with the topic change, presented in such a falsely light tone. “Charlotte and Numina and Jason and I made it back here.” I see her wince slightly when I mention Jason. “We used Leo’s machine, too – the one he’d built but not used to reunite Numina and Pneuma, or Summer and Aria as they later chose. We used it to fix my memories with his, and vice-versa – and also to fix the fucked-up coding that Byron Quill had stuffed into the nanobots.”
“So … you got Jason’s memories, too?”
“No! No, after that brief connection, nothing like that. We just patched the memories of events I had with the emotions he carried that Father had erased, and matched up places where he just had emotions left with the more complete memories I had. And then our brains sort of smoothed out the bumps, and it feels … mostly normal, most of the time.”
“Like blending a pair of vandalized photo albums from different family members.”
I make a face. “Yeah.” I shrug. “And then Jason quit the Menagerie, and then I turned myself into AEGIS, and then I got put into the Menagerie by AEGIS, and then I moved in with Summer, and then Jason and I started dating.”
She looks at me a long moment, opens her mouth, then seems to change her mind about what she was going to say. “And Leo?”
I feel oddly reluctant to share those details, to the extent I know them. “You’ve heard the basics. He and Aria reconciled whatever had been holding them apart, and they eventually split from the Menagerie to raise a family. Cue violins.”
Her eyebrows both rise.
I can’t help snorting. “Yeah, it’s complicated. Don’t ask me. When it comes to Leo and his extended clan, I’m still trying to figure out how I got over my – our – paranoia about robots to room with one. And – call her my friend.”
She chuckles. “I hear you. I was sure for so long that Aria was a threat to me, that she was plotting to do away with me to save Leo, then to take him for herself. It took some very long discussions with her to correct my errors.”
“The Newmans do long discussions well,” I say, a slight smile. “Except maybe Otto. He’s more action than psychoanalysis.”
“Are you kidding?” she says, laughing out loud for the first time. “He and I did a solo road trip to Denver last March. He’s an amazing conversationalist, if you pick the right topics. And very insightful.”
Huh, I mused. Live and learn.
“He – he’s been a friend. Like Aria. Like Leo. Like --” Her mood pivots on a coin. “Like we never had growing up. And I still can’t figure out, figure out for sure, why.”
“Because Father was a paranoid tyrant?”
“No, that’s a given. No. Why they would bother wanting to be friend with us.”
I sigh. Are the demons easier to fight when their not in my own head? Because the things that Jason has told me, that Summer has told me, that never seem quite believable when I’m in that kind of funk, seem somewhat easier to say with conviction when talking to someone else. Even when that someone else is me.
I shake my head, cross my arms. “We were raised both to be the egotistical masters of the world, and to doubt our value and the validity of our convictions, by the same twisted man who suppressed any emotions that he considered a threat. Self-hatred comes easily to us because we were raised and taught by someone who hated us as individuals, no matter his official philosophy.”
I point at her. “You said you hate and envy me? Likewise. I hate you that you let Jason die.”
She goes pale. “I – no! I wouldn’t --”
“I know that, dammit! Hatred isn’t rational. I hate that you ‘let’ your Jason die. I hate you for saving Ivan and Gregor’s lives when I couldn’t. There’s no way to parse those together rationally, but it’s still true. And that’s because we were taught to hate ourselves for our failures. It’s part of what he did to us, and part of how he controlled us.” I pause, then add, “And I envy you, too.”
“I envy you that you found and built an emotional life with Leo, a relationship de novo, without a mutual childhood of abuse and neglect and violence coloring it.”
“Leo had some pretty dark --”
“I know, but you weren’t part of them. I’ve worried a lot since that day, since Jason and I started having a real, in-person, ongoing relationship, worried that it was pathological, unhealthy, the product of complementary bad histories – that we had grown up together in our abuse, and my only chance at something resembling happiness was with someone as warped and broken as me. That without that background, without the shared memories of our childhood, without his sympathy and pity and tolerance – without those, I could never have something happy and meaningful and real with someone else.”
I point at her again. “But your experience belies the self-hatred that lies under that envy. It tells me in a way that no other wisdom could do, that no all-nighter wailing and gnashing my teeth to Summer and getting counsel and ice cream in return could counter. You are me. You are proof my fear, my self-hatred, at least to that extent, is false.”
She stares at me for a long, hard moment, then bows her head. “I never thought of it that way.”
“You were trained not to. But you still broke out of it, proved the programming was false.”
“So did you. In your own way.”
She gets it. I nod. “Together, we prove a point. He didn’t break us. Bent us, a bit, but not beyond straighening out, smoothing the creases.” I shake my head, trying to figure out if I’m angry, elated, sad, or ecstatic. "We’re worthy of Jason. We’re worthy of Leo. We’re worthy of Summer and Aria and all the rest. We’re worthy."
She takes a halting step closer. “Why can’t I feel that way?”
“It’s not just about feelings. It’s about will. And facts. And actions. We can turn our lives around. We have. We can help others – or try to. We can show we are worthy of the sacrifices, and love, that others have given us.”
She takes another step, bowing her head, stopping so close I could reach out and hug her. And I know that’s not an intimacy she wants.
Instead, I put my hand on her shoulder. She raises her face, wet with tears. "I miss him so much." She lowers her face again, cries silently.
“I know. But he gave his life for you, in desperation or not. Your life is the expression of his love. Act worthy of that, and you are worthy.”
We stand that way for a few long minutes, unspeaking, until she sniffs, slowly straightens up, wipes away the tears.
“I have a million questions I want to ask,” she says, voice soft and steady, “but that would probably be indulgent and unhealthy and unhelpful.”
“Probably. So ask one. Something random and trivial.”
A slight smile. “Do you remember the Antarctic?”
“Of course. That – thing he did then. When he was sleeping. Afterwards.” A sly raise of the eyebrow. “Does he still --?”
I bark out a laugh. “Worse than ever. And denies it totally.”
“Ha!” She laughs then, which is nice to see. Though, do I really show that many teeth when I laugh?. She goes on. “Leo is, if anything, worse. He --”
I hold up a hand. “That is intelligence I do not need, and never anticipate requiring.”
We both laugh, which is even nicer.
“Are we good?”
“I think so.”
“Do we need to figure a way to stay in touch across the dimensional barriers when this is over?”
“That – might be – pleasant. Odd, but pleasant.”