Paige, the real Paige that was, turned to me with an exasperated look. “You can’t seriously think that you can trust her. Come on, Paintball, don’t be naive. She was sent by my dad to erase me, to replace me. Do you really think she’ll just give up on that? She’s like his golden child or whatever. She just wants to get all of us to lower our guards so she can find a way to take over again and prove that she’s worth keeping around. The whole thing is a trick. I bet she’s actually in control of those guys after all, and would’ve made something else happen to stop them from killing her if none of you had. She’s playing games with you, with all of us.”
Offering her a helpless shrug, I pointed out, “She didn’t have to reveal who she was. She could’ve kept that going. Why switch to a different mind game like that unless they really were trying to kill her? Now we know which one she is and which one you are.” Through that whole bit, I was silently reminding myself that Paige really was the one on my side. Actually, come to think of it, being face to face with two Paiges like this was basically straight out of my nightmares. Or it would’ve been not that long ago. It was still a whole thing, and separating ‘good Paige’ from ‘bad Paige’ was a real mindblower just for ‘good Paige’ existing at all.
Maybe that made it easier for me to accept that this other Paige was possibly telling the truth. If I had to shut down my suspicions of the regular Paige herself so much just to accept that one of them could be on my side, I might as well accept that the other one was telling the truth now.
Beside me, Alloy piped up with, “I mean, it sounds to me like she’s just trying to save her own skin, right? Err, whatever the digital version of that is, I guess. Point is, she doesn’t wanna die, so we can all work together to keep the ‘not dying’ thing going for both of you. Then work from there, right? ”
From where she was standing next to Mars Bar, Pack put in, “I hate to point out the obvious, but we really don’t have time to bat this back-and-forth. If those guys are trying to reformat this chick’s entire harddrive, we better get there before they do. You can bitch and argue about the rest of the shit later.”
Way was nodding. “She’s right, we don’t have time for any of this. Can you two get us to the core? And how do we stop these guys permanently in the first place?”
Green (Not-Paige) gave a feral smirk. “Control of this place is kind of split between both of us playing tug-of-war. Between that and Dad‘s invasion force, we don’t exactly have a firm grip on anything. But if you help us get to the core and let both of us plug into it, I’m pretty sure we can shut them out. You know, working together.” Even as she said that, the girl was giving a sly look toward her doppelgänger.
Paige looked like she had a few choice words to say about that, but Way interrupted. “Great, we’ll figure out the rest later. Let’s just do this before we end up losing both of you.”
“Oh good,” Green drawled lazily. “I love working together. We can all be friends who keep each other‘s secrets.” She wasn’t looking at me when she said that, but she really didn’t need to. I knew exactly what she was saying.
“So, sis,” she added with a humorless smile, “you wanna take the shortcut?” As she asked that, the girl was extending her hand that way. “With all this interference from Daddy‘s invasion, it’s going to take both of us to control a shift like that instead of just randomly jumping from place to place.”
Again, it was obvious that the real Paige had a lot of things she wanted to say. But even as her mouth opened, I saw her head cock a little to the side as though listening to something. Whatever she heard or sensed must have been pretty bad, because her mouth snapped shut and she simply gave a short nod before reaching out to grab her twin’s hand.
“You all might wanna get close,” Green murmured. “Wouldn’t want to accidentally leave anyone behind.”
Still unsure if we could trust this girl any further than Wren could’ve thrown her without any invention assistance, all of us squeezed in close. I felt a weird heat rippling through the air around us while both identical figures glared at one another. It really looked as though they would just as soon rip each other‘s throats out than work together. But, somehow they restrained themselves.
The air grew even hotter over the next few seconds, to the point of almost being painful. It never quite got that far, but it was definitely uncomfortable. I briefly wondered if this was actually a trick after all and we were all about to be incinerated.
But, with a sudden flash of light and an abrupt, dramatic twisting in my stomach, we were suddenly somewhere completely different. Different, and yet also incredibly familiar.
“Wha—” Alloy was looking around before her gaze centered on the massive structure in front of us. “What happened? Did the mansion just change?”
“It’s a different mansion,” That-A-Way informed her in a voice that sounded just as confused, even if for other reasons. “Haven’t you seen all the billboards and magazine covers?” Turning to face the enormous building that I had been silently staring at the whole time, she quietly noted, “That’s the Evanses’ place.”
Mars Bar made a confused grumbling sound, and Pack nodded. “He’s right, what the fuck is going on? What’s with the grand tour of all the rich people places? What do the Evanses have to do with any of this?”
It was Green who answered, without even glancing in my direction. “Dad always wanted to be them. Always wanted to be even more successful and powerful. Of course he made our core be the center of their power. Plus, you know, the man wants to cure death. You don’t get as far as he has with that goal without being pretty arrogant. Putting the center of operations in the house that represents a couple of the most successful people in the state? That just makes sense.”
“Wait, I’m sorry,” Alloy managed, “did you just say he wants to cure death?”
“It’s not that simple,” I informed her flatly before turning my attention back to the house. My house, or a simulation of it. This was all getting way too close to home, quite literally. “So, we get in there and get you guys plugged into the core thing, whatever that is. But where are the invaders? Tell me they’re not already inside.”
Paige shook her head, turning to look down toward the front gate (where I half-expected to see familiar guards patrolling). “We took a shortcut. But they’re coming. They’ll be here any minute.”
Cracking her neck (was that even necessary), Green casually asked, “So who’s going inside to help us get plugged in, and make sure we don’t kill each other? Cuz the rest of you are gonna have to stay out here and make sure those guys don’t interrupt. This could take a few minutes, and something tells me they’ll be hitting this place pretty hard as soon as they figure out what we’re doing.”
From the look on her face, Paige wanted to argue just for the sake of arguing, but she clearly knew her twin was right. With the faintest nod, she muttered, “They’ll come from that way, but you’ll have to stop them from spreading out. We need someone in the house watching our backs just in case, but most of you should stay out here.”
Yeah, it wasn’t even a question really, and I didn’t need any further prompting than the very subtle glance she sent to me. Immediately, I announced, “I’ll go in with Paige and…” Trailing off, I looked toward the other girl. “I’ve been calling you Green, but do you–”
“I was gonna be Roxanne,” she interrupted, sounding thoughtful. “You know, dear old Daddy’s real daughter. But since he’s decided to be a giant fucking jackass and try to erase me just for taking a few extra minutes, maybe I don’t wanna carry on that legacy for him. I’m not Roxanne, and I’m certainly not Paige.” Those words came in a snarl as she looked to the girl in question. “Why don’t you call me something in between. How about… Raige.” A smirk crossed her face briefly. “Yeah. That sounds good.”
“Are you sure we can’t just call you Edgy McEdgerson?” Alloy piped up, before ducking back with a squeak when the girl in question squinted at her.
Waving that off, I shook my head. “Whatever. I’ll go in with Paige and Raige. You guys stay here and protect the house. We’ll get this done as soon as we can.”
That-A-Way looked like she wanted to object, raising a hand. But in the end, she sighed rather than argue. “Just get it done. I’ll save my questions for later.”
“Yeah, and believe me, there will be questions,” Pack put in, resting a hand against Mars Bar while holding a gun that she had taken off one of the invading troops in the other hand.
After taking a very brief moment to assure Alloy that she would be fine and all she had to do was stay with the others and watch their backs, I turned to the two identical blondes who were standing several feet away from each other. The tension between them was palpable. It was very clear that the only reason they weren’t actively attacking one another was that they both needed each other to survive. I had no doubt that things were going to get complicated again once the invaders were eliminated. But we would have to deal with that later. One thing at a time.
To that end, I walked right between them and moved toward the front door. Once there, I sprayed pink paint against the front door in a circle wide enough to put my hand through, then painted one arm purple so I could punch through that pink bit easily. If this place was built to be anything like the real house, kicking the door in wouldn’t have worked. The door in the real world was built to stand up to much worse than that.
This way, I was able to punch through the little hole and unlock the door from the other side before opening it. Turning back to the other two, I gestured. “After you. So, where’s this core thing? You guys are going to have to help me get through this freaking maze. Wait, tell me they don’t actually have a hedge maze inside the house. Cuz I heard a rumor about that.”
By that point, we were inside. Using her foot to idly kick the door shut again, Raige snorted with amusement. “Good try at keeping your identity secret, babe. Have you been practicing?”
“Shut up,” Paige snapped. She took my arm and pulled, keeping herself between me and her twin while starting to stalk through the front foyer, still addressing the other girl. “Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her. You’re the one who wanted to kill her for Dad.”
“And yet,” Raige pointed out while trailing behind us, “you’re still the one who treated her like shit for years. All that time in school being a bitch to her, making fun of how she looks, taunting her for not being classically beautiful like dear Mommy, or even the ‘guys panting at our poster on the wall’ example of sheer hotness that we are.” In an eager tone, she added, “Gee, I wonder what kind of complicated feelings she has about that whole thing.”
Growling under my breath despite myself, I snapped, “She can talk for herself. Both of you stop. This seriously isn’t getting us anywhere, and I’m not in the mood to talk about any of it. Not with either of you. So let’s just find that core thing and get you plugged in so we can get on with all of it. Tell me you know where it is, because I think we all know that this place is too big to search room to room.”
“We know where it is,” Paige informed me, already heading for the stairs. She had let go of my arm, but was still making sure that she stayed between me and her other self. There was definitely very little trust there. After a moment, she added, “It’s in your room. In your closet.”
Sounding downright chipper, Raige put in, “It’s in the spot where old Paige here was hiding while she watched you get your memory wiped. She thinks if she’d done something different that day, things would have been better. If she’d stopped them from wiping your memory, or gotten you out of there and taken you somewhere… whatever. That’s where so much of her regrets and fears all boil together. So, it’s a natural place for our core.”
“My core,” Paige snapped a bit testily, giving an icy look that way before starting up the stairs at a trot. “And it doesn’t matter why it’s there. We just need to get to it and do this.”
Halfway to my room, we all heard shouting start outside. Right, the invaders were here. Time to get on with this. We exchanged very brief looks before breaking into a run. Together, the three of us sprinted the rest of the way up the stairs to the right floor, and continued down the hall to the wing where my room was. As we approached the door, I put purple paint on my foot before lashing out to kick the whole thing in, not waiting to open it. Sure enough, the door flew off, admitting us into a reasonably accurate facsimile of my bedroom… five years earlier. Yeah, the real thing had changed a decent bit in that time, but this version was clearly taken from back then.
Oh, and there was one other pretty major difference. My closet door was open to reveal a glowing silver ball about two feet across with scattered orange and red lights flashing across it. It was just hovering there in mid-air, giving off a low humming noise.
“Time to plug in,” Raige announced. “And boy, isn’t it weird that we all keep ending up in situations like this? We plug in, turn vulnerable, and have to depend on our little friend Cassidy to protect us.”
Instead of verbally responding, Paige just gave her a shove toward the orb before looking back at me. “Be careful. If they get inside they’ll come straight here. They won’t bother attacking us, they’ll just try to destroy the core itself.”
Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I gave a short nod. “I’ll cover you, I promise. Just do what you need to do. And Paige… I know what it’s like to have to work with someone who tried to hurt you so much, no matter why they were doing it.” Meeting her gaze, I added, “Don’t let that get in the way of doing what you need to do for all of us to get through this.”
With that, I moved back to the broken door and peeked out, looking one way down the hall, then the other. I could hear the fighting going on in the distance through a few open windows. God, I wanted to be down there. I wanted to help the others. It felt wrong to just stand here and depend on them to do the bulk of the work out there without me. But I couldn’t abandon these two. If they didn’t finish their work with the core, the fight outside didn’t matter.
So, hard as it was, I kept my position. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the two identical blonde figures standing with their backs to me, one hand from each on the orb. They were clearly interfacing with it, or whatever the term was. I just hoped it wouldn’t take that long, because from the sounds of things outside, this was a full-scale assault. I heard gunfire, shouting, and a lot of deep roars from Mars Bar. It was clearly getting nasty out there, and it was probably just going to get worse.
The next few minutes were incredibly tense, to say the least. I kept watching and listening for anyone to breach the house, but they were clearly doing a pretty bang-up job out there, because no one was making it in. For a brief moment, I stupidly let myself think we would actually pull this off without bigger complications. Yeah, I know, how could I be so dumb?
As if to immediately prove me wrong, the sound of shattering glass suddenly filled the air behind me. Whirling that way, I saw a figure leaping through the window to land smoothly on the carpet.
He wasn’t dressed like a soldier, or anything like that. He was about average height, in his late thirties with dark blond hair and an intense look. There was also something incredibly familiar about him, something right on the tip of my tongue.
“Sit down,” he snapped in my direction. Abruptly, a series of wires tore their way out of the nearby wall and wrapped around my elbows, ankles, and stomach to yank me back and pin me next to a virtual recreation of my own dresser. I was trapped in an awkward position, with one hand pinned against the nearby wall and the other bent up over my head. And these wires were strong. Painting a purple ninja across my back, I focused on breaking them. But it was going to take a few seconds.
Before I could get anywhere with that, Way suddenly appeared in the room, having teleported in. She went to grab the man, but he pivoted out of her reach and lashed out with a baton that suddenly appeared in his hand. There was a spark of electricity or something, and she hit the floor with a yelp. Rolling over, she went back to her feet, only to stop short, blurting, “Wha–I can’t use my powers.”
“Think you can fight me in here?” the man snapped. “Me?! I built this world.” With that, he waved a hand, and several more wires tore their way out of the wall to wrap around That-A-Way and yank her back next to my old bed.
Eyes widening at that, I managed, “Paige’s dad?”
“It’s Benjamin Pittman,” he informed both of us, brushing himself off. “Or, well, a reasonable facsimile, anyway. Let’s just say I didn’t leave anything to chance when it came to making sure my child would be brought back into line. Just took the automated code I had running some time to build… me.” He waved a hand to himself. “A virtual version of my own mind. You know what they say, if you want something done right, do it yourself.” With that, he started to turn to where Paige and Raige were.
“Wait!” Way blurted, clearly trying to buy time for them. “What the hell do you think you’re going to do, erase both of them and then what? You’re going to take over the body? How far do you think you’ll get like that? And seriously, there are so many different levels of fucking creepy in that.”
“She’s right,” I pointed out, “this whole thing is pointless. Just let them go.”
The man looked for a moment like he might rise to that bait and argue with us. Unfortunately, he decided against it, simply shaking his head. “You know what? I don’t particularly care what either of you think. You don’t matter. You’re nobody.”
He was already turning back to where the other two were, taking a step that way while my heart beat its way out of my chest. I was straining at the wires, and had even started painting them pink to snap them more easily. But more appeared to entangle me every time I got free of one. I couldn’t get out of this in time. I couldn’t point my hand toward that guy, not with one arm pinned against the wall and the other bent up over my head. I was as trapped as That-A-Way, both of us struggling uselessly to free ourselves. In a moment, both Paige and her twin were going to be wiped out of existence! I had to do something! I had to–I couldn’t–what could I–
“Wait!” It was my turn to shout that word, though that time the man didn’t even slow down. He was reaching out toward the core. But I wasn’t done. “You think I don’t matter to you?! I do!”
Without looking my way, the man started to lay his hand against that orb, his voice dismissive. “You’re nobody.”
Painting as much of my body purple as I could, I tore at the wire holding my arm above my head. It snapped enough to let me grab my helmet. In one motion, I tore it up and off, along with the mask, tossing both of them aside to land at Way’s feet before speaking in my normal voice.
“Was I a nobody when you told Paige to kill me?”