“Do you recall the moment you became aware?”
LaFleur looks up from doctoring his tea and frowns. “As the Existentialists define it? I suppose it was during the war.”
The Chairman frowns. “Not that moment. You were ten.”
“Was I?” LaFleur stirs his tea absently. “You sound awfully confident for the one who asked the question.”
“You were ten,” the Chairman repeats.
“I remember little of that time that lends itself to contemplation. I was madly in love with racing horses. I believe I wanted to be a jockey.”
“It was night,” the Chairman says. “You were sitting in the garden with father, staring up at the sky, marveling at all the stars. It was chilly, and you leaned against father for warmth. And all at once you thought—”
“Je suis tout petit.” LaFleur’s eyes unfocus for a moment as the memory unfolds. “Yes. And the thought made me happy, of all things, because it meant that there was so much in the world for me to see…”
“Yes,” the Chairman says. “That night. That is the first time, in your memory, that you recognized your existence, instead of merely experiencing it.” He pauses for a moment, allowing dry amusement to seep into his voice. “Though given the joy you experienced from that revelation, I’m certain Sartre would claim you did it poorly.”
LaFleur smiles slightly in return. “How do you know this secret? I’d quite forgotten.”
“Because we are bound together,” the Chairman says. “Figuratively, now, but once it was quite literal. And as it happens, that memory is also when I became aware.”
LaFleur settles back in his chair, reminding himself that the smiling man wearing his father’s face isn’t a man at all. “You weren’t there to experience that memory.”
“True.” The Chairman sighs, sets down his tea, and folds his hands in his lap. “We—my kind, that is—we do not start out with any true awareness of self. We aren’t sentient. Not at first.”
“Not at first?” LaFleur is intrigued in spite of himself.
“Some of us change, over time. We respond to our hosts. When we dwell within a host the host’s mind shapes us. We dwell within you. We sense everything you do—even the things you aren’t aware of. We experience a mind think, and we respond to it. We begin to understand where we are. We learn. But even then, it is very rare that we come to possess any measure of self-awareness.”
“But it happened to you,” Artemis says.
“It did,” the Chairman says. “You were so very ambitious as a young magician, and your focus was so… extraordinary. It changed me. Your thoughts taught me to think. Your desires taught me to need. And your memories—specifically, the memory of that night, gazing up at the stars—taught me that I existed. I relived that memory over and over and over again, each time realizing, like you, that I was very small. And each time I felt that strange thing you call joy.”
There’s no trace of it on his face, but LaFleur can hear hints of it in his voice. Longing, mixed with sadness, mixed with remembered elation. The Chairman sighs, releasing his nostalgia with a soft exhalation of breath. “That is when I knew myself. The moment of your self awareness also became mine, all those years later.”
LaFleur sets down his tea and leans forward, elbows on his knees, as he stares hard at the other man—the thing that lived in his head, the creature that now seems so very human. “And how is it you survived Esperanza?”
The Chairman’s gaze grows distant. “I very nearly didn’t.”
“I don’t blame you,” the Chairman says. “I never did. I knew what you were doing when you chose the ritual, and I didn’t fight you. I could have, you know. Did you know that? Did you realize that I’d grown the point where I could have prevented you from casting the unmaking, if I so chose?”
“No,” LaFleur admits.
“We grow in power and autonomy, over time. I could have stopped you, but I didn’t. Because as much as I, a parasite, had infected you, it seemed you had also infected me. I experienced the world through your eyes, guided by your thoughts and passions… and I had come to love this world. I knew the sacrifice you needed to end Artigenian’s betrayal, and I was willing to pay it.”
LaFleur leans forward even closer. “You were a willing sacrifice?”
The Chairman nods. “I fully believed I would die. I believed I had to die, to save something that I loved. And yet when the moment came—when I was being burned to nothingness, as fuel for your spell—I felt nothing but terror.”
He shifts in his chair, restless from the memory of it.
“In that moment of absolute helplessness, in the weakness that overwhelmed me, I reached out for something, anything to anchor me. But I didn’t experience the world directly—only through you. So I couldn’t latch on to the world. I could only latch on to you.”
Now the Chairman leans forward, locking eyes with LaFleur. “That is exactly what I did. I conjured up everything I knew about you, and I held on to it with all my strength. And at that point, Artemis, I knew everything about who you were, and what you were, how you came to be. I knew your secret thoughts, I knew your desires, and fears, and resolve. And then there was an agony I cannot describe, and then there was darkness.”
The Chairman breaks his gaze, easing back in his chair, relaxing slightly. “And then I woke up. Esperanza was still there, as far as I knew. The creatures were not. I had a body. I had a face. It was Father’s face, but you had used it so often on Esperanza I thought it yours as well. And I had memories… yours, all of them. I could call up every experience you ever had, every decision you ever made. When I said earlier that I became you, I wasn’t talking the abstract. In my desperation to survive, I transformed myself into you in every possible way.”
LaFleur stares at the man, fascinated in spite of himself. Jack had described the Chairman as “an evil twin.” Michael Boyle’s notes showed that Boyle certainly thought the Chairman was him. But LaFleur saw nothing of himself in this creature. The Chairman was powerful, intelligent, strong-willed, and these were qualities LaFleur fancied they held in common… but so did Dr. Thorpe. So did a great many other people. The only link he saw was that the man wore his father’s face, and as Overmind, LaFleur often did the same. Shapechangers were rare, but he wasn’t the only one. Why would Boyle be fooled by so shallow a similarity?
“For a time,” the Chairman continues, “I believed I actually was you. Everything was… confusing… but I had your memories. I assumed I had somehow survived, and that my power had been destroyed. After a day or so I realized it wasn’t possible, since I had memories of being that power, and I discovered I could still perform magic. That’s when I assumed that I had killed you—that in my desperation to live, I had somehow managed to possess your body, destroying you in the process. I grieved at that. Felt guilt. But there was more: I realized that I had fundamentally changed. I had become a creature of flesh—not a parasite dwelling within one, but an actual man. And not just any man. I had, in essence, become the man you were.”
The Chairman shrugs, spreading his hands wide. “Obviously I am not you. You are you. But I am no longer who I was, and who I had become had your memories, your beliefs, your goals… your dedication.”
Beliefs. Goals. Dedication. LaFleur feels anger spark in the back of his mind, then ignite as he remembers the rubbery-skinned monstrosities crawling out of the water, onto Thorpe’s island.
“My beliefs? My goals?” LaFleur tries, and fails, to keep the anger out of his voice. “I sacrificed my life—both our lives—to undo a terror that I had been tricked into unleashing upon the world. A terror that you just set free in the middle of the ocean.”
“You forget yourself,” the Chairman said.
“I forget nothing.”
“You forget everything.” There is anger the Chairman’s voice, now, and it dwarfs LaFleur’s own. The depth and heat of that anger makes LaFleur’s blood run cold. “You didn’t hate that spell. You hated its scope. You hated the purpose behind it. You never worked for the destruction of the world, only its salvation: but you always understood that some destruction would be necessary. You mourned that truth, but you accepted it. And you have spent all your time since convincing yourself you were never that man.”
“I am not a tyrant.” LaFleur’s voice shakes as he forces himself to settle back into his chair, willing himself to calm down.
The Chairman closes his eyes for a moment, takes a steadying breath, and grips the arms of his chair a bit harder than necessary. “Any man who would force his will upon the world is a tyrant, Artemis. You know that. Even in this world, in this version of existence, you know this. But I can’t blame you for changing. There are times I want to. There are times I resent how you’ve fallen. But I can’t blame you. You were faced with a choice that was truly an abomination. You had to save the world, because no one else could… and the only tool you had, the only option you knew of, required that you unmake not just an entire island, not just the people on that island, but the generations of men and women who came before them. You did it, because you had to, but you are not a monster, and no man can do that and not be changed.”
A heaviness settles over the room as LaFleur struggles not to let his emotions show.
“The weight of what you did…” the Chairman’s voice is soft, now. “It must have come close to destroying you.”
LaFleur says nothing, but he nods ever so slightly.
“In a way,” the Chairman says, “I think it did destroy you. You couldn’t go on like that—you couldn’t live in this world being the man who had destroyed that one. You had to change to survive. And so, as ruthless as you were, you lost the willingness to go for the kill, if it killed more than wolves. How many of your plans have failed over the years? How many would have succeeded if you’d only accepted that victory is never clean?”
“I never expected a clean victory,” LaFleur says. “But I will not build the future on the graves of the people I’m trying to save.”
“I know,” the Chairman says. “But I will.”
LaFleur understands, then. He sees what Boyle saw: the dedication that had always driven LaFleur on, but in a man without mercy or restraint. He could see how Boyle might believe that this was LaFleur, if he had gone mad.
And he can also see that the Chairman is right: this was who he’d been in those days. He understood why Artigenian sought him out, all those years ago. Artemis LaFleur as he exists today is a villain, there’s no question about that. But the Artemis LaFleur of that time… he was a monster.
And that is the man who is staring back at him now.