I wished that I had Grak’s temporal plate, because I wanted time to think, not just about what was going on, but about what I knew. Pinno had said that the entity had acted like Doris until they reasoned with it, and if it was acting like Doris because it was Doris, then that meant she could be reasoned with and talked into not being the person that everyone thought she was. And for her talk of moving against the Blues, she hadn’t actually done that, she had been waiting in this facility, waiting for … well, by all appearances, waiting for us, or someone like us, an imperial response or something. Had she heard everything we’d said? If she had, then she would have heard everything we’d discussed with Pinno as well.
“Okay,” I said. “We’re letting you free.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” said Raven.
“We promised,” I said. I looked over at Grak, giving him a nod. If I had figured it out, I hoped that he had too.
“Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “I really think that we should talk about this before doing anything rash. If she’s a world class blood mage, one with more blood, hers and others, than anyone has had before —”
“Promises work better when people know they’re ironclad,” I said. “You’re saying we should defect against Doris? That justifies a lack of trust in us.”
Amaryllis was watching me, and I could feel her mismatched eyes boring into me, stripping me bare. She was good at reading people, but not that good if she was in the wrong mindset for a proper reading to take place. Maybe she could see that Doris wasn’t actually afraid of us, but maybe she thought that was because of typical Doris fatalism, not because she had the upper hand. Maybe she thought that I was being headstrong, not that I knew something that she didn’t. I wasn’t trying to make my face readable, because Doris was watching us, but I was hoping she would understand.
“Okay,” she finally said. “You’re right.”
Grak dropped the ward with a brief gesture, and Doris scooped a handful of blood up from the ground, then tossed it at the boundary where the ward had been, testing it.
“You don’t use a wand?” she asked Grak.
“No,” he replied.
“What are your plans once you’re out of here?” I asked her.
“Good question,” she replied. She stepped forward, cautiously, until she was past where the ward had been. She’d been careful to move so as to not put herself too much closer to us. “Did the Blues send you here?” She was directing most of her attention at me, not the others.
“They did,” I replied. “They wanted us to shut this down, but they didn’t tell us quite what we were dealing with, and it seemed as though to them, this was a threat so powerful they couldn’t ignore it. At the same time, they couldn’t deal with it on their own. I’m not sure whether or not they knew what they were up against. It seems to me that if you’re gunning for them, we should make a deal.”
“A deal?” she asked.
“A deal,” I nodded. “We were going to teleport in supplies in exchange for tracking a few individuals, hopefully establishing a long-term deal with them, tit for tat. Presumably that capability is going to be yours once you make your move, which means that we should make a deal with you.”
“You would double cross them,” said Doris, nodding.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “We’re not allied with them, just trading partners. We’re not offering material assistance to your coup, we’re just trying to figure out something that protects our interests.”
“But you are double crossing them, because you said that you would do this,” replied Doris. “You said that you would deal with what had happened here.”
“They lied to us about what was going on,” I said. “Maybe they didn’t fully know what had come in and killed so many people, but they knew more than they said.” Or they had intentionally shielded the clones we’d talked to from knowing enough. “They were talking about every Doris in the EZ dying, and maybe the chance of the problem spilling out beyond that. If they had been upfront with us about this being an internal matter, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t have agreed to deal with it. If you hide things in the contract, the contract is null and void.”
“Well,” said Doris. “It’s food for thought. And who are these people you’re looking for?”
“Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle is one,” said Amaryllis. “Fel Seed is another. Aside from that, we have a list of names, some just as tests. There are certain people we would like to make sure are dead.”
“We used to talk to him,” said Doris. “You’re trying to kill him, I suppose?”
“Wait, you talked to Fel Seed?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” Doris scoffed. “Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. He arranged for one half of a communication entad to be transported to us. He thought that we were all natural allies. He got frustrated with us though, and eventually stopped calling.”
“Huh,” I said.
“We didn’t mean any offense,” said Amaryllis.
“None taken,” said Doris. “And if that’s what you want, what are you offering in return?”
“Whatever you need, in your new regime,” I said.
“Food, clothing, maybe even entads,” said Amaryllis.
“Labor,” I said. “Expertise. Companionship.”
“You would send people in?” asked Doris. “We don’t have a lot of other people living here. The Empire forbids it.” It went unsaid that life could be hard for someone who came in, and amenities left something to be desired.
“The Empire can be swayed on the classification of this place as a major exclusion,” said Amaryllis. “You’re excluded, but that doesn’t have to mean that you keep on living the life you’ve been living. All it will take is agreeing to follow a few different rules.”
“If I follow the rules, that means I’m at the mercy of those who don’t,” said Doris. “You know that. Anyone who comes to the EZ knows that.”
“You’re in a unique position,” I said. “You’re powerful. You might be the single most powerful Doris to have ever lived.” She definitely was, if I was right about her. We were surrounded by her blood. She hadn’t even threatened us with an explosion of blood at lethal velocities, which I took to mean that she simply wasn’t worried about us. “You don’t need to make doubles, which means that you don’t have to worry that you’re going to get betrayed by someone who’s exactly as strong as you. Imagine yourself as, if not a god, then a demigod. You’re not at the mercy of those who don’t follow the rules, because even if you follow them, you’re still stronger. When you’re in a position of power, you can dictate how things will be. The only enemy you have here is yourself.”
“But you’re suggesting that I don’t split,” she said. “Meaning that I wouldn’t have myself for an enemy.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I meant your only enemy was yourself in the sense that you have to worry about self-sabotage, the infectious nature of self-hatred. It applies even if you’re not literally set against yourself.” I was watching her. There was a risk in making this about me, rather than about her, but if there was some grander point to Doris Finch, then I supposed this was it. “It’s easy, when you hate yourself, to just fuck things up because you think that’s what you deserve, or because you don’t care about what happens to you — or you only care at the lowest, base level, when the you of tomorrow seems far away. All the slavery and murder that have marked the EZ since its creation, that hasn’t just been because it’s expedient, or downright necessary, it’s been because you don’t give a shit about those other Dorises. More than that, actually. You know them, and you think that they deserve what they get.”
“Which they do,” said Doris.
“Which means that you deserve it too,” said Amaryllis. The tone was sympathetic, but the words weren’t.
“And I do,” said Doris. Her eyes were on Amaryllis. “Obviously I do.”
That gave Amaryllis pause, but I had expected it. I understood the mindset.
“Forget deals with us,” I said. “You were sitting here for a reason. If you wanted to break out, you could have broken out. You’ve been building up power there in the plane of blood, and at a guess, you’ve had a capacity to steamroll the other Dorises for, I don’t know, months. The Empire might be able to stop you, but it would probably cost them resources that they don’t want to spend, which means that the prospect of being untethered from this fucked up society is ahead of you. But you haven’t acted, because it’s scary.”
“Scary?” she asked, not doubting, just seeking clarification.
“It’s scary to be in charge,” I said. “It’s scary to not have anything to fight against anymore, to have no enemies that can realistically stop you from doing whatever you want.”
“Something you know from experience, I suppose?” she asked, raising a blood-matted eyebrow.
“Yes,” I nodded. “But I realized that even before the world was cracked open in front of me,” I said. This was overstating my abilities and means by quite a bit, but we had a billion obols now, and if I had prep time, I could rival the greatest. I wasn’t a god, but maybe a lesser demigod, again, with prep time. “Even for people who can’t clone themselves, there’s such a thing as being your own worst enemy. From what’s been written about you, you shirk work unless you’re forced into it, you take shortcuts and cheat yourself, you have very little drive — honestly, I think some of it is probably just detachment and numbness, but I don’t actually know you, I just know myself. If you want to talk about your future and how you’re going to manage it, we can sit down.” I glanced over at Amaryllis. “My wife has some good thoughts on how to deal with yourself, both internally and externally.”
“I don’t want an advisor,” said Doris, shifting her stance. “Someone who is going to try to turn me to their own ends? No thank you.”
“Someone to help you be the person you want to be, or the person you should be,” I said. “And I agree, you would want to be careful about who you let into that position, and you don’t know us at all, we’re just … not you, and that makes us a bit more worthwhile to talk to. We all know you could kill us whenever you wanted, so we’re safe to bounce things off of.”
“You’re making assumptions about me,” said Doris.
“If I’m over-estimating you, I think that’s probably fine,” I said. “But I’m not trying to talk myself out of a jam here, I really am trying to help you.”
“There are obvious incentives for you,” she said.
“Sure,” I replied. “And that makes it hard for both of us. It makes the things I’m saying look like they might be a ploy. Obviously there are benefits to being friends with the strongest Doris in the EZ, the one who no one can steal from, the one who no one can kill, even if you decide that you don’t want to be the lord ruler of the others.”
“And why would I decide that?” she asked.
“It’s what I would do,” I said with a shrug. “If I had to pick a bunch of things to be, manager, negotiator, and politician would all be at the bottom of the list. I’d let someone else handle things, even at some cost to myself, because that’s how much I don’t want to spend my time trying to coerce people into doing what I want them to do, or making hard decisions about resource allocation, infrastructure, cultural norms, laws … I’d have preferences, obviously, but if it were possible, I’d have someone perfectly aligned with me do it for me.”
“The same is true for anyone,” said Doris. She was staring at me. I was doing the bulk of the talking, which I knew wasn’t my strong suit, but I kind of got where she was coming from, and maybe that made up for the lack of raw social power. My picture of Blood God Doris was that she had been through the wringer, fighting for ages, not wanting to fight, but being forced into it, over and over again, employing temporary measures to stay ahead, to survive, but just fucking exhausted by it all. If she rested though, some other Doris would pull ahead.
“Not everyone,” said Amaryllis. “I enjoy that kind of thing.”
“You enjoy making hard decisions?” asked Doris.
“Sometimes,” said Amaryllis. “I enjoy being at the center of a humming enterprise. I like setting up tasks and then checking them off, one by one, coordinating departments to solve keystone problems, coming in to learn the people and issues involved. I enjoy the process of picking between two goods, or even two evils. Some people don’t like the act of evaluation, or sour on it when there’s skin in the game, but I’ve always had a taste for it. That’s not true of Juniper, and from what he seems to think he knows about you, that’s not true of you, but there are people who gravitate toward those roles, and I’m one of them.”
“Odd,” said Doris. She tapped her foot and looked at us. We weren’t particularly acting like she could kill us, which I was sure she noticed. If it came down to it … well, it depended on what her precise limits were. “I’d take more food and more water,” she finally said.
“You could have a hot shower, if you wanted to,” I said. “We’re not in any rush.”
“I don’t suppose you have a hot shower in that vest?” asked Doris, raising an eyebrow at Grak.
“I do,” he nodded.
From within the vest he pulled out another piece of kit he’d picked up, a tiny little house the size of a coat button. He hesitated for just a moment, then walked some distance away from us, well beyond the star magic structure, and set it down within his anti-blood ward, the only place where the floor was cleared. With a command word and a hand signal, it began to shake and grow where it was, until it had enlarged to its full size, which wasn’t very big. I was pretty sure that it was based on a tiny house that I had seen on TV: I loved tiny houses.
“It’s a portable home,” he explained to Doris as he walked back to us. “It has a small tank with hot water, a small stove, a refrigerator, a shower, a toilet, and a bed. It’s yours to use. The cupboards are stocked. Take what you want.”
Doris hesitated. “Bound to you?” she asked.
“To me,” said Amaryllis. “Invested in him.”
“You could have this for every Doris in the EZ,” she said. “Hot water, a shower, it would change everything.”
“That’s one of the reasons we brought it,” Amaryllis lied. “From what I understand about the way investiture works with you, it would have no problem proliferating, so long as it stayed invested.” This would obviously require a lot of clone killing, which was left unsaid. To Amaryllis, and to a slightly lesser extent, to me, killing the clones the moment they were created in order to steal their stuff wasn’t much of an ethical question at all. Amaryllis would have murdered a clone of herself without thinking too much about it, and that clone would have happily gone along with it. “We do, of course, have access to a wide variety of entads that we could give to the EZ. Historically, that approach hasn’t yielded results, but perhaps things would be different this time.”
“Maybe,” said Doris. She was looking at the little house. Maybe she was thinking that it was a trap, but I was pretty sure that she was strong enough that there was no trap that we could have set for her that would have been strong enough. I wasn’t sure about our odds in a straightforward battle, but I was confident that trying to lure her into a trap would result in battle. The blood all around us was her blood. Her body … well, maybe she had a spare on the other side of the portal, or somewhere in the facility, or maybe she just didn’t need it anymore. We didn’t actually know what her powers were.
In theory, given that my fingerprints were all over Aerb, its systems designed by an alternate reality version of myself, I might be able to figure it out just by thinking about what I thought was cool. I was trying to brainstorm when Doris began moving, not particularly quickly, in the direction of the tiny house. We waited in silence until she had gone inside.
“Well,” I said. “I think that went well.”
“How powerful is she?” asked Amaryllis.
“Dunno,” I said.
“Did you get outside information?” she asked. This was by way of asking if I’d gotten a quest update.
“Nope,” I said. “And just so you know, I’d put even odds on her being able to hear us.”
“To hear us,” said Amaryllis. “Through all this blood?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe. It’s certainly possible.” Anything was possible. That was one of the things that made this approach attractive. Partly I just didn’t want to have another big fucking battle that we skated through by the skin of our teeth.
“Grak,” said Amaryllis. “Wards?”
“Better if you come near me,” he said. “I’m saving concordance.”
We all stepped in towards him, getting inside the wards that he’d put up.
“To make it clear, we’re vulnerable to a blast?” asked Raven.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s going on here,” said Pinno. “Something about the future we saw … this is different.”
“No,” I said. “Not actually different, I don’t think, your books were just making their own guesses about what had happened. A giant blood entity came through the portal and took over the EZ, it’s just that the blood entity was, in fact, a Doris who achieved the absolute highest heights of blood magic through being able to clone her own blood, living non-stop in the elemental plane of blood, and having maybe as many of a million clones working on the problem at once, with the best of them culling the rest. The entity acted like Doris because she was Doris, and listened to reason because Doris would listen to reason.”
We shouldn’t be talking at all, signed Amaryllis. I know you’re deadening the noise, but we don’t know what we’re dealing with.
That means cutting people out of the conversation, I signed back. And it presents Doris, who is probably watching us, with the wrong picture of us, one where we’re paranoid schemers who have learned Gimb just so we can sign at each other without anyone listening in.
“So this is the plan?” asked Amaryllis. “We teach what might be the most powerful blood mage the world has ever known how to be good?”
“No,” I said. “Look, good can come later, right now, all she needs to know is that she’s basically invincible, that no one can take that away, and that it’s not a scramble for survival anymore. She’s experienced an unbelievable amount of trauma, on top of maybe not starting as the best person, and —” I stopped short.
“Joon?” asked Amaryllis.
“Just … Bethel,” I said, sighing.
“Bethel?” asked Pinno.
“He’s making the same excuses for her as he did for a former friend of ours,” said Raven.
“No,” I said. “No, I’m just forgiving Bethel, if only a fraction, and wondering whether this is all part of a planned lesson that was intended to help bring her back.”
“I’m afraid I’m lost,” said Pinno, narrowing his eyebrow ridges.
“It’s complicated,” I said. “Long personal history stuff.” I hesitated. “I, or someone else, can explain at least some of it later.”
“You think that Doris Finch is an argument in favor of having Bethel return?” asked Amaryllis.
“If Doris can be reformed, that is a good argument,” said Grak.
“They’re totally different,” I said. “I mean, completely, totally different, and it’s not really what we’re doing here, because this isn’t actually about Bethel at all, it’s just a thought that I had. I was explaining that the Dorises, as people, are completely fucked up. They’ve been suffering here, for a long time, at their own hands. And for this particular one, who is probably better off never splitting again, if that’s even something she could do, if it even matters given her presumed skill — for her, it’s important that she understands that she’s in a position where it doesn’t have to be how it was. Once she’s there, once she’s traipsed up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, then we can start talking to her about what her life should be like, how and why to break herself of her current terrible habits that have been learned over the course of a lifetime of pain and suffering. But I think what comes first is just saying, ‘hey, it can be okay now’.”
“We came in here with an objective,” said Amaryllis. “More than one, actually.” I was pretty sure the translation of that was ‘two quests’. “And so far as I know, those objectives haven’t changed.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Fuck ‘em.”
“Juniper,” said Raven. “You understand that there are very important people who might take offense to that?”
“I do,” I said. “I’m taking a gamble that we’re not on that much of a railroad. We’re going down roads, but some of them are being built right in front of us, and just because there’s a plan doesn’t mean that plan can’t be changed. If this opportunity was placed in front of us, it was for a reason, and I don’t think that reason was just so we would get some exposition before the boss fight.”
Pinno was looking very confused.
“And this is going to be your approach with all of them?” asked Amaryllis. “You’re going to talk to Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle about why torturing people in the name of commerce is probably a bad idea?”
“No,” I said. “Him, if I had to, I would talk about that desperate need to deny that you’ve done anything wrong, even when it’s clear to everyone that you have. I’d tell him that it’s seductive to believe that we live in an unjust world, and therefore excuse our patterns of being shitty to others.”
“But you’re not going to actually do that, are you?” asked Amaryllis.
“I wasn’t planning on it, no,” I said. “And even here, I don’t know that what I’m proposing is the right call. But she was waiting here, Amaryllis. Regardless of anything that’s happening on the narrative level, she was waiting here, and I don’t get the sense that she was marshalling power or waiting to see who would get called in, I think it’s because the idea of being the ruler of the whole EZ, especially this one, is fucking terrifying, as it should be.”
“You’re projecting,” said Raven.
“I’m finding common ground,” I said. “Realistically, our other option is to fight. Maybe we can win —”
“We can,” said Grak.
“We can?” I asked him.
“I left the ward up and removed the boundary,” said Grak. “When she passed through it I got a sense of how much blood she contained. If her extreme hypertension is suddenly relieved, the explosion will vaporize everything around us. No blood would remain. The struts would be destroyed and the portal would close.”
“Does she know that?” asked Amaryllis.
“I cannot tell with warding,” said Grak, looking her over.
“My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that she’s not just here, she’s there on the other side as well,” I said. “If she’s doubleplus ultrahypertensive, it’s probably so that she has a way to bomb the prime material plane, if it comes to that. It’s a dead man’s switch.”
I tried to think about what the virtue would look like. Infinite hypertension, the ability for your body to hold literally any amount of your own blood, plus the ability to continue producing blood even when you were definitely very full, a way for it to not kill you … I could see it as part of the progression from the hypertension virtue. Maybe I would add on a way to vent that pressure for effect, like little Tony Stark blood thrusters coming from the hands and feet, allowing flight. The other stuff that Pinno had mentioned, maybe I could see that too, blood homunculi and blood control, the kind of vast upper limits and capstones that someone very much like me might have thought up during a boring lecture in English class, all of it combined with the fucking broken ability to clone herself to make more blood.
“Alright,” said Amaryllis. She didn’t really have the room to pace within her portion of Grak’s ward, but she was giving it her best. “She doesn’t like me, and I don’t like her. I would park a clone here, but I would be too worried about her killing it, which would have fairly large costs associated with it, both in Miunun and Anglecynn. We don’t want to leave anyone we care about in the EZ, because that woman is a literal walking bomb that could wipe the whole place.”
“Not quite,” said Grak. “I don't think that it would be that large.”
“Huh,” I said. “Large enough to be a deterrent and a fuck you, not large enough to end the EZ entirely?”
“It’s hard to say,” replied Grak. “Very large explosions of blood were not my area of study.”
“The question is, if our objective is reform or redemption of Doris Finch, of all people, how do we accomplish that?” asked Amaryllis.
“Step one is probably to conceptualize her as not being the same as all the others,” I said. “They’re all forks with no merging. The Dorises as a collective are terrible, but it’s entirely possible that individual Dorises are … I’m not going to say blameless, but we might be conflating slaveholders with slaves and oppressors with the oppressed.”
“I don’t understand how you can empathize with her,” said Amaryllis. “She could have solved these problems at nearly any point just by choosing to be different.”
“She’s a fuck up,” I said. “Look, the way I see it, Doris Finch is that feeling of deciding that you’re going to fuck around playing clicker games at one in the morning instead of working on a paper you had due. It’s slacking off and then doing everything you have to do at the last minute because only when it’s literally hanging over your head do you have enough motivation. Doris Finch is that, multiplied by a thousand. You’ll note that she doesn’t seem to take any pleasure from all the clone killing. Of all the things that there could be in the EZ, a lot of them are notably absent. No bloodsports, no recreational torture, no direct sadism, —”
“You’re being generous,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t mind that you are, but you should realize that you are. You see some piece of yourself in her, and you’re extrapolating out. And if this has all been set up for you, then you’re probably right, but as a general approach to dealing with people, I don’t think that it’s going to be workable.”
“But in the here and now?” I asked.
“I would like it better if we had outside information,” said Amaryllis. “But I suppose that would make you too obviously right.” She sighed and looked over at the tiny house. “I suppose we have some time. I’m going to take ten minutes to check out, if that’s okay with everyone.” She closed her eyes and started concentrating.
“I’m not sure that I understand … any of this,” said Pinno.
“Your work here is probably done,” said Raven. “It’s not the crisis that you came prepared for, and it wasn’t a civilization-ending threat in the first place.”
“I should let you know you’re not forgiven,” said Pinno. He looked at me. “Neither of you. I don’t believe that anyone in the Library would risk action against you, given how powerful you are, but it’s possible, and if you were involved in any kind of scenario where you were clearly a component of the problem, that might provoke a different response.”
“You can transport your catatonic people to the Isle of Poran,” I said. “I can fix them there.”
“I don’t think that will change much, as far as mending fences,” said Pinno. “But it would be appreciated.” He nodded to us, and his eels fluttered.
“Pinno?” asked Raven. “Anything you think you heard from us … it would be better if the others didn’t know.”
“I will make no promises,” he said, before giving us a small bow and moving away, his boots splashing through the blood.
“Well then,” I said. I looked at Grak. “Objections?”
“None,” he said. “Some of what you said resonated with me.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“I spent quite some time dressing in a way I did not wish to dress, doing things I did not want to do, because I thought that I deserved to be unhappy,” said Grak. “I do not share your opinion of a future self as a clone though.”
“Because of, uh, thread-based thinking?” I asked.
Grak nodded. “My people have clones, Juniper. I am a clone of my father, his father a clone as well.”
“Ah,” I said, finally making that connection. “I suppose my instinct is to say that you’re not actually clones in the sense that I’m using it to refer to Doris, but surely you’ve encountered that argument before, and it’s really more about, uh, how we conceive of the world. I won’t even say that it’s an invalid way of thinking.”
“It is probably not the time for philosophy,” said Grak.
“No, probably not,” I said. “But I’ll sit down with you to hash it out sometime, when we’re not a razor’s edge away from death.”
“Are we?” asked Raven.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I would hope we’re on the downslope. In a few hours, Doris will probably come out of there feeling more refreshed than she has in decades, which will hopefully make her a little easier to talk to. I think she — well, the other version of her — was right about it being hard to make good decisions when you’ve got so many problems you have to deal with. There’s a mindset that comes from the kind of scarcity that the Dorises continually face, and while Amaryllis is right, some of it is artificial, I think that pervasive way of thinking among the Dorises became foundational.” I looked over at the tiny house. “I guess my worry is that without branding as a new kind of entity, people will treat her like they think she needs to be treated, which will just make things more difficult. If everyone is trying to stab you in the back because they think you’ll stab them in the back … yeah, that would make it hard for Blood God Doris to find a good future for herself.”
“You actually care about her,” said Raven, looking at me.
“You were telling me that I should care more,” I said. I glanced at Grak. “It’s probably easier for me to care about Doris when I think about people as being these, uh, patterns, I guess, rather than threads, or assemblies, or something else. Besides that, she hasn’t personally affronted me.”
There was some silence within Grak’s wards, as we waited.
“I’m back,” Amaryllis finally said. “Do you think there’s a way that we could make that process take a little less time? I’m missing out on conversations.”
“Maybe we’ll figure something out,” I said. “You can still hear though.”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “But I’m concentrating on something else, and trying to multitask is, ironically, something that causes it to fail.” She looked at the tiny house. “Nothing from the Caledwich library, by the way, just a feeling of wasted time, which I’d known when I got my mission. I really should check on the others as well, at least one of each cluster.”
“Do you think you would do so well if your selves were pitted against each other?” I asked. “If it was a matter of only one of you eating?”
“We’d go half rations,” said Amaryllis. “And if we couldn’t survive like that, we would take a random chance to decide who to kill, or better, a stark evaluation of who was more fit to survive.”
“I’m not sure I would,” I replied. “I might get greedy, or just upset. That’s why I can’t find it in myself to be upset with Doris.”
Amaryllis looked at me. “Alright,” she said. “I understand.”
“Do you think you have the insight to help her?” I asked. “Because I don’t think that I can do this without you.” I looked at Grak and Raven. “No offense.” Having to say ‘no offense’ a lot was a sign that you were saying the wrong thing.
“I would not be able to help her if my life depended on it,” said Grak.
“She’s better suited,” said Raven. “By skill, if not temperament.”
“Obviously I’ll help,” said Amaryllis. “On the off chance I need to, I’ll just pretend she’s a worse version of you.”
Quest Update: Diplomacy in Duplicate — There is a god among Dorises, one with more raw power than any other has had before, unable to be killed by all but the most extreme measures (or memetics, that would work too). You’ve decided that you want to help her. Hopefully this wasn’t just because you learned that pacifism comes with buffs. This quest replaces Murder in Duplicate and has no end condition.
There were some bumps and turns in talking through things with Blood God Doris, but we had so many creature comforts available to ply her with that it wasn’t all that hard to get her to relax. The fact that Sable was, at any given time, filled with furniture, toiletries, foodstuffs, music, and entertainment, meant that it was easy to convert a section of the warehouse into a temporary chill out zone, which we had prepared for Doris as soon as she was done in the tiny house. She had come out wearing the clothes she’d found there, including a ridiculously stupid shirt that said ‘Clone Zone’, which I’d had specially made for Amaryllis as a gift, and Doris must have thought was meant for her.
With the grime, blood, and sweat all wiped away, she looked surprisingly normal. She had a single visible tattoo, which I could only see by her collar, peeking up from her borrowed shirt, and her hair was grown out, hanging damp down her back. There was still a hardness to her, which I’d seen in all the others, but she was powerful, and comfortable in that power. When she left the tiny house, she dropped all pretense, and the few inches of blood parted for her like Moses parting the Red Sea.
“I’m not sure I see this working,” said Doris, stretching out.
“And what’s clouding your vision?” asked Amaryllis. “Surely not people trying to kill you. You’re invulnerable.”
“Trust doesn’t come easily,” replied Doris. “Not either way.”
“It’ll be easier if you lie about who you are,” I said. Doris had cleared away the blood around us, which I appreciated, and I was feeling comfortable. “There’s no reason that anyone has to know that you’re Doris. I mean, it’s obvious if they look at you, but you can make a blood homunculus out of someone else’s blood, and that should cloak it.”
“A … what?” she asked, leaning forward a bit.
“Were you not listening in on us?” I asked.
“Watching,” she said. “Listening is a bit beyond me.”
“Oh,” I said. I looked at Raven.
“The damage is likely done,” she said, folding her arms.
“What’s a blood homunculus?” asked Doris.
“From what we know, you take control of someone’s blood and make a, uh, blood creature,” I said. “My guess would be remotely piloted, and more importantly, not tied to your unique magic, meaning, capable of leaving the zone.”
“And who would I kill for their blood?” asked Doris.
“Eh,” I said. “Humans can survive missing something like a liter of blood, you could get donors. Or you could get a blood mage to donate a person’s worth of blood.” I glanced at Raven, then looked back at Doris. I wasn’t sure whether Ell had one hundred times the blood volume of a human, but even if they did, I wasn’t about to volunteer Raven.
“They’ll think I’m a monster,” said Doris.
“Sure,” I replied. “But that’s not much of a change. And this is just a matter of public relations. Ironically, that might be a place where Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle would have come in handy.”
“I don’t think it’s a terribly hard problem,” said Amaryllis. “It would depend on what form these blood creations actually took, but if it’s just a matter of people being repulsed by blood control, that’s something that can be dealt with. It’s a downstream problem. The current problem, in the here and now, is what you’re going to do.”
“And you want me to be god-queen,” said Doris, leaning back and looking at us. She had eaten quite a bit, and drank more, but seemed sated now.
“You’re going to exert power just by existing,” said Amaryllis. “You can’t be challenged. You can be a small god or a big one, but you’ll be a god either way. As for us, what we want is for you to be a good partner. We don’t really care what has to happen for that to work out.”
“You don’t care if I need a quarter million obols?” asked Doris, staring at Amaryllis. “You don’t care if I need servants imported into the EZ? You don’t care about breaking imperial law.”
“We can work on all of those,” said Amaryllis. “But the Empire only has laws so long as there are people enforcing those laws, and so long as the Empire doesn’t decide that those laws need to be changed.”
“And you can just do that?” asked Doris. “You can change what the Empire says and does?”
“We’re kind of a big deal,” I said. “But for it to work, you need to take care of yourself. Look, we know that you’ve got a lot of blood in you right now, and if you pop, it’s going to wipe out most of the EZ.”
Doris stared at me. “Why in the fuck are you just sitting there then?” she asked.
“Risking our lives, I guess,” I said. “From everything that people say about you, you’re a backstabber and a cheat, maybe pathologically so, but you wouldn’t kill someone just because they wanted to talk to you. You’ve got nothing to gain.”
“That’s batshit,” she said. “You have everything to lose. If I weren’t so scared about what powers you’re hiding, I could steal everything you have. I could enslave you, ransom you, anything I wanted.”
“We’d give you pretty much everything we have,” I said. “Why the fuck would you steal? You dumb or something?”
Doris smirked at me, eyes brightening. “No,” she said. “You know that’s one of my buttons, huh?”
“Look,” I said. “We didn’t come here expecting you. We thought some kind of monster was going to come out of that portal. But you’re here, and … presumably you have the other end locked up tight?”
“I control it, yes,” said Doris.
“And if you were to die here —” I started.
“Not for you to know,” she replied, all humor leaving her face.
“He’s just curious,” said Amaryllis. “If he sees a mystery, he wants to go poke at it.”
Doris relaxed slightly. “Sorry,” she said.
“You’re going to have to get used to people being curious,” I said. “They’re going to test you. That will be one hurdle.”
“But we don’t even know what you want,” said Amaryllis. “If you want to stay cooped up in a building, that’s different than being, effectively, the arm of the law that governs the whole EZ, depending on whether that’s actually within your power or not.”
“You said you would give me anything that I asked for,” said Doris, abruptly changing the subject. “All your entads?”
“Some of them wouldn’t work for you,” said Amaryllis. “Most, even.”
“But you would give them over?” asked Doris.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “We wouldn’t. And you know that you could take them from us. That’s the challenge that comes with power. And that urge, the urge to take what you can, when you can, even if you don’t have a need right now, that’s just something that’s been built into your brain by years of not having enough.” Amaryllis let out a sigh. “You see it in people who survive catastrophes and wars, a desire to keep a pantry well-stocked even if it means that the food will go bad before it’s eaten, sometimes squirreling things away in hidden places so that if someone comes in and steals everything, there will be something left. You’re going to want things. You’re going to ask for things that you don’t even want, just so that you can have them, just to be assured that you’re not going to lose it all.”
Doris leaned back, and looked from Amaryllis to me. “I want to be better,” she said. “Fuck, I’ve always wanted to be better.”
“Before, you had an excuse,” said Amaryllis. “It was a good excuse. I would have used it, in your position. You were beset on all sides. You didn’t like making the copies, but it was necessary, and you would think, sometimes, that this time it would be different, that you would cooperate, or that you would split the spoils. And then it would come to that moment, and maybe it would happen, or maybe it wouldn’t, but you would think about killing her, or them, and taking it all for yourself, and you would think that, knowing that they were thinking it too. It’s hard to cooperate, when you know the other party is thinking that.”
Doris was staring at Amaryllis. She nodded once.
“You don’t have that excuse anymore,” said Amaryllis. “People will be coming for you, but you can beat them to a pulp. You have the luxury of acting in retribution, instead of in expectation. That luxury isn’t going to be easy. The instincts that you have, honed by decades of coming out the winner by being more ruthless, are going to fade slowly, and never completely. But if you go along with what your first instinct is, then you’re going to be worse off.”
“And what if I can’t help myself?” asked Doris. “What if they’re right about me?”
“The fact that we’re here, alive, says that they’re not,” replied Amaryllis. “You were waiting with the bulk of your power on the other side of that portal, resisting the urge to go on a rampage, to take everything you could while you had the power, because you could see that it had an end, and you wanted to make sure that it was the good end. That’s more proof that you can handle this.”
“Okay,” said Doris.
“It would be better with advisors,” said Amaryllis. “Better with a group of people that you can talk to, who can help you know what you want and how to make that a reality. There are going to be tests along the way, no matter what you do, and those tests will be easier to pass with support. I’m not nominating us, we have our own things going on, but I can suggest good people to you.”
“You’re good,” said Doris. Staring at Amaryllis. “Good at what you do. And you like doing it.”
“I’m unfortunately unavailable,” said Amaryllis. “But if you want or need my ear, we can leave you an entad to keep in touch with us. If circumstances allow our advice and counsel to be slow in coming, then letters will work too. One of the first things that I’ll get started on is reconnecting mail service and having regular bulk teleport into the EZ.” She let out a breath, then looked at me. “Sorry, but we’re on a bit of a time crunch here. We promised a dragon that we would kill Blue-in-the-Bottle, but we don’t know where he is, so we’re going to have to use the predictive power of the Dorises. If it’s okay with you, we’re going to go tell the Blues that this facility and what’s inside it is unlikely to be a problem for them in the near future.”
“You’re leaving me here, then?” asked Doris, looking Amaryllis over. There was a very faint note of desperation in her voice, and if I could hear it, then I was sure that it was a shrill alarm to Amaryllis.
“If you don’t want to be alone, I would understand that,” said Amaryllis. “We can stay with you for up to a day. I don’t imagine that you want to give up this facility, because it has the portal, but we can help you set up on the roof, if there’s roof access, or somewhere else that will be a little more inviting and accommodating. And after that’s done, when the time is up, I’ll be able to call in an entad clone of my own, who will be able to talk with you for at least as long as it takes to get permanent staffing.” Amaryllis had held off for as long as she could, but eventually she dropped the possibility of a clone. I hadn’t heard it in her voice, but she must have been watching Doris, hoping that there was some other resolution.
“Okay,” said Doris. “I would appreciate that, thank you.”
We spent the rest of the day helping her out, which mostly involved pulling stuff from Sable and having Grak set up wards around the portal so that it would be safe and protected. It turned out that there was roof access, and once we were up there, we spent some time doing incredibly fast landscaping, adding in soil and grass seed that were taken from Sable. It would take a fair amount of time for it to grow in, but if this facility was going to be a home for Doris, then it was better she have a place with some real, natural greenery.
“It will look great in another week or two,” said Amaryllis, after about an hour of work. “But these things take time.” I hadn’t even realized that we were working on a metaphor.
“They’re watching us,” said Doris, looking out at Dorisopolis around us. We were high up, but not so high as some of the other magestone buildings.
“Let them watch,” said Amaryllis. “Let them understand that someone is growing things here.”
I slept in the tiny house, which took a real leap of faith, but we had no one to offload sleep onto, and I wasn’t about to go so long while running on fumes. I was worried that I would wake up to the sound of calamity, but there was nothing but Amaryllis, running her fingers through my hair and telling me that it was time to rise.
It was the leaving that I was most worried about, but that was fine too, in part because Amaryllis had her clone there, and we weren’t actually leaving Blood God Doris alone. I still felt weird about leaving Amaryllis there, even though I knew she wasn’t the ‘real’ Amaryllis, even though I knew that they would merge experiences. I gave her a hug and told her to stay safe, and she seemed like she appreciated it, because I knew that this was something she really didn’t want to do.
“It’s going to be fine,” said Amaryllis once we were well outside the facility. “I wouldn’t have left her there if it wasn’t.”
“You really think it’s going to work out?” I asked.
“She’s just reassuring you,” said Grak.
“It’s going to take a long time, and be very uneven, and it might cost me my life, but yes, I think that it’s going to work out,” said Amaryllis. “Having a clone here is going to set me a bit on edge until I can get a replacement for her, and I’ll breathe easier once we’re out of the EZ, but yes, I think this is workable, if maybe not a panacea for the EZ as a whole.”
And for all the tension that we were feeling, our meeting with the Blues, their central leadership this time, went about as well as it could have been expected to go, with some token explanation about what had gone on in their facility, and terms for delivery of supplies more or less what we’d planned on when we’d come into the zone. I wanted to know the method they were using, especially because I was hoping that I could copy it for myself somehow, but everyone else was against spending more time in the EZ than we needed, especially since we could just pay the Dorises to do the work for us.
Roughly forty-eight hours after we’d entered the zone, we were leaving again, all resting easier once we were aboard the ship, but right up until the last moment that we could see the DFEZ, I was worried we would see a colossal detonation of blood. It never came though, and we were off, a small pile of coordinates with us, and tracking information for Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, who I was sure was going to get much less pleasant of a resolution.