Title: Dreaming Reality
Spoilers: Massive spoilers for Epithaph One!!! Be warned!!! And a handful of other season one episodes.
Summary: Topher Brink's ideas destroyed the world. They also destroyed Topher Brink.
Rating: PG-13, violence
Characters: Topher, Paul, Adelle, Claire
Author's Notes: This is an exploration and a lot of theorizing on my part on the fantastic episode Epitaph One. Mostly it's an exploration of Topher's journey through those events and some things that happen before it. The timeline shifts around a lot but I've made it clear at what point everything happens. If you haven't seen Epitaph One this will make no sense!!!
Author's Notes 2: If anyone is interested there is a slash version of this fic that is a Paul/Topher pairing. I know ff. net doesn't like when you double post stories so if you want to read that version just go to my profile and my homepage link will bring you to it on my livejournal.
Juice boxes and empty bags of Skittles covered every surface that wasn't already heavy with wires, motherboards, screwdrivers, cables and more in the Dollhouse laboratory. It had taken almost a month of sleepless nights and enough sugar to kill a lesser man, but Topher had done it. He had finished the new Imprint Chair.
Standing up he huffed with pride as he looked over the Chair. There was no longer any trace of the outdated analog cables used to siphon memories at the speed of molasses. Now there was just a beautiful halo of light and waves that would flood the empty minds of Actives with skills and memories until they were brimming with personality.
He sure hoped it worked.
Topher hefted the wedge in his hand, another component completely designed by himself, and took a deep breath before shoving it into the cartridge slot.
There were so many things to test. They had to know if the wedges could hold and upload entire personalities without corrupting them. They also had to find out if he would he end up frying the first Active who tried the new chair or just imprint them faster and better than before. There was only one way to find out. Tests.
And this was the first test. The cartridge he had put in the slot was a blank. He typed a sequence into the monitor to set the Chair to automatically copy and then he sat down, falling tensely into the reclined position. He then took a moment to wonder what the hell it was he was doing.
He wasn't sure it if was arrogance, curiosity or the fear of failure, but he had to know if the chair worked. Right now. Alone. He hit the last button and the halo lit up. He grunted and twitched as electricity filled him and his mind seemed to go into a brain vacuum. Then it was over, he was being pushed forward, he was copied onto a wedge and his brain was still intact, as far as he could tell. He stood up shakily and patted the Chair affectionately.
"Well baby, as much as that sucked, I'm glad I got to be the one to break you in," he mused aloud as he pulled the Wedge out of the slot and quickly labeled it 1.0. He ran it through a quick diagnostic and smiled, the personality seemed intact. He placed the wedge down reverently and left the lab, finally heading off to bed.
Tomorrow would be a big day. He would tell DeWitt they were ready to upload the first Active with the Chair. He just hoped that he didn't end up frying the poor person's brain for good. Maybe they would give him one of the convict Actives in case, then he wouldn't feel so bad if something went wrong.
Something went wrong.
Paul looked around the Dollhouse nodding, pleased. He had been away for months, wading through hell in the outside world. Neither he nor Caroline had known what they were going to find when they got back here. Would anyone be alive? Would they be themselves? Would they be wiped? They just couldn't know. But it was good to see that the Dolls had all been given back their original personalities and they each hefted weapons without fear, more than willing to fight for their freedom, mind, bodies and lives. They all seemed strong. They could make it back to The Block and get the cure, he was sure of it. But he frowned as he couldn't find the face he had been searching for since they tore down the brick wall.
Adelle was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, looking hopeful of their rescue, if not for herself than for the Dolls. He glanced around one last time before he went up to her.
"Paul, you look well … considering," she greeted him.
"Thanks. You're still managing to get your hair done every morning I see, despite the apocalypse," he joked weakly and then actually fidgeted. He hadn't done that in months. "I … I don't see Topher anywhere. Is he … "
"He's alive. He's here," she told him but her tone was flat with no hope or encouragement. "He's in one of the pod rooms, I think Claire's with him now."
Paul's eyes widened, "Really? I never would have pictured those two together."
"No, Paul, it's not that, at all. I wish it was," Adelle said wistfully, angry pain suddenly coating her voice. "She's just sitting with him. Topher is … he's changed."
Paul's eyes widened with fear, "He was printed?"
"Wiped?" he tried again.
She actually laughed, "If only."
"Then what is it?" he demanded. "What's wrong with him?"
She looked away, unable to face him, "He's … broken."
Paul shook his head and jogged towards the pod rooms as tears tracked Adelle's cheeks.
"Hey, it's Tazer King. What can I do for you?" Topher asked curtly when Paul came into his lab.
"I've been here for a month now Topher. Are you ever going to let that drop?" Paul questioned.
"It's not likely, no," Topher informed him, fiddling with a console. "You see I'm a firm believer in first impressions and though yours was memorable, it was also painful. And not the fun kind of "oh man that guy tells terrible jokes" kind of pain, no actual physical pain. I'm scarred."
"You're not scarred."
"I'm totally scarred. Emotionally, metaphysically, spiritually … I may never trust a tall man again," Topher told him.
"How about a peace offering? What if I told you I brought you candy?" Paul questioned, eyebrow raising with his smirk as he held up a plastic bag that promised to be filled with sugary greatness.
Topher looked intrigued but then shook his head, "Then I would tell you to go find a schoolyard where that kind of stuff will actually work. My affections will not be bought with trifles."
"There's a cupcake in here too," Paul added.
"Oh!" Topher said involuntarily. He chewed his lip in consideration. "Fine, since you begged and it's pathetic, I will accept your trifles and your cupcake. Truce."
Topher stuck out his hand to shake on it. Paul smiled and shook it, "I'm glad you could be mature about … ow!"
A jolt of electricity suddenly shot up Ballard's arm, forcing him to release Topher's hand.
"Jesus! What the hell?" Ballard swore as he shook out his arm.
Topher laughed and held up his hand – there was a small metal disc attached to his palm.
"You've got to be kidding me. A handbuzzer? What are you, twelve?"
"Close," Topher said with a smile. "Relax, it was barely fifty volts. Be lucky you're still conscious, unlike the way you left me. But hey, look at it this way, we're even, now we can be friends. Oh, and I'll take that, thank you."
Snatching the bag of candy, Topher quickly shoved a sucker into his mouth, "It's true, revenge is sweet. Ooh, twizzlers."
Paul was secretly amused, and pleasantly surprised by Topher's strategic sneakiness. He hadn't given the little genius enough credit it seemed as he was able to surprise even the paranoid FBI agent. He put on an angry front though as he turned to leave the lab, "Enjoy the candy then while I go soak my hand. Bye Topher."
"Wait!" Topher called out suddenly.
"What?" Paul asked, sounding confused now but not angry.
"Um … do you uh play laser tag by any chance?"
After running down the hall Paul found himself taking the last few steps into the podroom slowly, calculating the length of each stride, listening to the sound of each bootfall so he wouldn't have to face what he saw inside. Trinkets, books and toys were everywhere, all neatly categorized and lined up around walls and openings, creating patterns that he was sure only one person could understand. Paul recognized most of the items from Topher's lab and apartment. The walls were covered in scribbles that looked like equations drawn in chalk. Dr. Saunders was sitting by an open pod, book in her lap. She didn't seem to notice him.
"Claire," he said to get her attention. She looked up at him, "Where's …"
That's when he saw it, the blond strands of hair sticking straight up from inside the pod. The head below twitched at the sound of his voice and slowly a familiar, yet entirely foreign, pair of eyes peeked over the edge of the sleep chamber.
"Topher," Paul breathed, unsure if it was a greeting or a question.
Topher's eyes widened and he hopped from the enclosure, not unlike a rabbit jumping from its hole.
"Tall man?" he asked tightly and Paul smiled at the old nickname from so, so long ago.
"Yeah, it's me," he assured him as he got closer. "We came back."
Topher didn't move until Paul touched his shoulder. Topher looked at it for a moment, then his eyes were shining with the realization that he was actually there.
"You didn't answer the phone. I thought you answered the phone and you were part of the army," Topher whispered in relieved agony. Then he fell into Paul, collapsing with a sob against the older man's chest, arms wrapping tightly around his upper arm. "Don't answer the phone! Never answer the phone!"
"It's okay Topher, I won't. I won't answer the phone, never," Paul assured him, rubbing his back in circles as he fought back his own tears and the agony forming in the pit of his stomach.
"The phone. The Call. Hello? Who's there? Then you're part of the army and your subdermal electro-magnetic signals get caught by sampen tendrils in the frequency and then you're … you're not …" Topher buried his face in Paul's chest. "I'm still thinking. I'm sorry. You came back but I'm still thinking. I'm sorry I know what I know. I don't want to hurt anyone else."
"Topher, you'd never hurt anyone," Paul whispered to him but this only set him off worse. Topher started laughing hysterically, a terrible sound that quickly changed back into tears.
"No, ideas," he mumbled. "Ideas can change the world. Ideas can destroy everything. My ideas. My thought process and impulses and designs. I changed the world."
"No Topher, you didn't do this. You didn't do any of this, it's not your fault," Paul tried to assure him. He briefly glimpsed Dr. Saunders lowering her eyes across the room and he knew that she had tried this before, to convince Topher that he wasn't to blame, and it wasn't going to work, but there was nothing else he could do.
Topher was shaking his head, "My brain, my ideas. I can't stop them, I tried. I tried to make new ideas, to fix the old ideas but they didn't work so then I tried to make them all stop. No more ideas. I tried so hard to make them stop."
"Hey," Paul said gently. "They're your ideas, but they were stolen from you. You didn't do any of this Topher, you didn't want any of this, I know you. You're a victim. It'll be okay, I'm here now."
"Can't steal what I still have. Copied. My ideas, floating around out there, floating through the air and then my ideas call you and you pick up the phone and … Don't pick up the phone!"
"I won't," Ballard told him.
"Remote wipes," Topher said tiredly. "It all started with remote wipes. Once you can take it anywhere, then you're gonna take it everywhere."
It had been a long, crazy, nail-biting, hectic day as Echo was somehow remote-wiped during an Engagement at a bank heist. She was back and safe but DeWitt had told him to think long and hard about who would be capable of doing such a thing, and he could only come up with one name.
Topher looked at the paper Adelle had slid before him that would upgrade his security clearance so Adelle could confirm Topher's worst fears and tell him all about the monster he had created still being on the loose.
"Sign and initial at the bottom. I'll tell you what I know about Alpha, you'll tell me how he did this and how we'll keep him from ever doing it again," she instructed as she sipped her vodka.
Topher picked up the pen and signed as slowly as possible, dreading every part of the conversation that was about to happen. When he dropped the pen and collapsed into a chair DeWitt looked at him and asked quietly, "How is Alpha capable of this?"
"I never said it couldn't be done. I just haven't had the time to work out the logistics of a remote wipe, it was always within the realm of possibilities," Topher replied softly, almost apologetic.
"But how is he capable of figuring it out? I know he has 49 different people uploaded into him but even the combined intelligence of a hundred extraordinary minds couldn't fathom mental programming like we do," Adelle articulated. "How does simply having 49 personalities make him capable of huge technological breakthroughs that even we aren't aware of?"
Topher stared at her wide-eyed, confusion written across his face, "Are you just … messing with me?"
DeWitt shook her head, "What are you talking about?"
Topher leaned forward, seemingly waiting for the other shoe to drop but DeWitt continued to look confused.
"Alpha had every personality he's ever been imprinted with uploaded into him. Every one," Topher said slowly.
Adelle nodded, "Yes. And?"
"Every one," Topher repeated and snorted when she still didn't get it. "Even the first one. The very first one."
Realization dawned in DeWitt's eyes, "His very first imprint. Are you telling me Alpha is uploaded with your personality? With your knowledge of this house and our technology?"
"I … I thought you knew. I mean, I told you the first time we used the Chair that I was using my own imprint as a test," Topher explained.
"I suppose I only ever considered it a test," she replied. "He was only printed for a few minutes, just to see if it worked."
"Well, it worked. I mean, the imprint's old, from back when I first got here. He doesn't know stuff about the House but he knows the tech. And he can think like me, create like me, design like me if he wants. He doesn't have my boyish good looks, but that's about it. I mean, if I had the time and wasn't working like 16 hour days here, I could do stuff with this technology that you couldn't even dream of! And …"
"What?" she demanded when he trailed off.
He looked at her with guilty eyes, "Well, Alpha's got the time. Who knows what he can do."
That was how it happened. Alpha wasn't content to just stop at wiping Echo once during an engagement. He worked on the technology, improved it to the point where he couldn't just wipe an Active's mind remotely, he could wipe anyone remotely. He created a mobile, universal tool to erase a person's existence. His plan had been to use it on the Dollhouse, or so he told Paul later when they created The Block together. He wasn't going to go after the Actives, he had planned on wiping every person involved in creating, making and maintaining the Dollhouse. He had been days away from making the call that would wipe the Dollhouse out of existence, but someone had been watching Alpha, he still couldn't guess who, and the technology had been stolen from him. A few weeks later The Call went out that ended it all.
And the man whose brain he had used to build the technology now sat huddled in a sleep pod, clutching a teddy bear while he scribbled on the walls.
As Paul walked over to Claire he felt more exhausted than he ever thought possible.
He looked at Claire, destroyed and asked, "How did this happen?"
"Well, one day we ran out of juiceboxes so, you know, he just snapped," she replied curtly. "What do you think happened? You left and then The Call went out. He couldn't handle the guilt of destroying the world, it ate away at him. He spent weeks trying to find a cure, a block but he wasn't sleeping, wasn't eating. He couldn't concentrate for more than five minutes which made him feel even worse because he couldn't come up with any ideas to save us. The guiltier he felt, the worse his ideas became, the more he cracked. I think you can understand the cycle."
Her tone was angry, bitter at the whole situation and at Paul in particular. As they stood in silence for a moment she told him as much, "He talked about you, after you left. He was sure he had killed you."
"I never wanted him to think that. I never wanted to leave him here," Paul assured her, but her arms were crossed and she didn't look at him.
"How about now?"
"Especially not now. Caroline and I came back here to save everyone, to bring you all back to The Block with us," Paul told her, then he shifted his eyes downward. "We came for Topher especially though. Alpha's not doing well, the headaches are too bad for him to work more than a couple of hours a day. We thought Topher could help him develop the Block technology into something portable."
"Well that's going to be a problem," she replied. "He can't travel, he doesn't even leave this room. He'd never survive a journey anywhere, not like this. He can't go with you Paul."
Ballard's jaw clenched. He had figured as much as soon as he got in here and had seen what Topher had degraded into, still though, to hear it out loud made him face the reality of it.
"We prepared for the possibility that he might not be alive, but we never considered anything like this," he announced sadly. He had an idea but wasn't sure it would work, wasn't sure he wanted it to work. He turned Claire to face him, "Can you operate the Chair?"
"Go get it prepped and get me the most recent imprint Topher made of himself before The Call," Ballard instructed before striding back over to the pod Topher was hiding in.
"What are you going to do?" she demanded.
"I'm not leaving him here again."
Paul knew that they could have been more careful, should have been more careful, but in an organization as closely monitored as the Dollhouse it was hard to keep anything a secret. DeWitt had apparently been watching him and Caroline more closely than they had thought. She never interfered in their plans but she kept tabs on their progress, and the higher-ups in the Dollhouse Corporation kept an even closer eye on DeWitt, which meant they knew everything.
It was time to go. They had done all they could from the inside, now they had to run and pick their battles to take down the beast. Caroline hesitated only briefly, reluctant to leave the other Actives but she swore to come back and set them all free. Paul hesitated longer. He was leaving with Caroline for the good of everyone, to come save them later and return their minds and free will to them. But he ached because he was going to leave a part of himself behind as well. He tried not to think about it as they ran down the corridors leading to the outside world. They were almost clear, there was just one more corner to the elevator … where Victor was waiting, gun trained tightly on them both, clearly imprinted as some kind of ultimate soldier.
"Hello," he greeted them.
"Victor, you don't want to do this," Caroline pleaded with him as she was unarmed.
Paul brought up his own gun, "I'd listen to the girl, I'm a great shot."
Victor smirked knowingly, "Try it."
The way he said it, with amusement, worried both of them. Paul aimed for the Doll's shoulder and pulled the trigger.
"We've known about your little plan for awhile, not very well thought out I have to say. Switched all your bullets with blanks, sorry," Victor informed them. "Now, if you'll be so kind as to put your hands up and head back the way you … ah!"
Victor never finished his sentence, instead he just stumbled forward as he was struck hard from behind. Caroline stepped forward and hit him quickly across the temple to knock him out and picked up the working gun. Paul was completely focused on their rescuer though.
Topher stood in the entrance of the elevator, his hardcover copy of Batman: Hush now dented from colliding with Victor's head. He was panting from the adrenaline and to cover up his emotional turmoil as he locked eyes with Paul.
Over the past few months Paul and Topher had become friends, one of the only ones each other had, in or outside the Dollhouse. They had been hanging out together on their nights off, with Paul teaching Topher some basic self defense while Topher taught Paul some techno tricks. Paul had even brought Topher a cupcake with a candle in it on his birthday. They never talked about work. They never talked about leaving. They enjoyed pretending at normalcy when they hung out. Just the night before they had made supper together – Topher had cheered at the sight of spaghetti and garlic bread – he loved his starches. They had played video games for three hours afterwards. Paul left around midnight, telling Topher he would see him at work. Paul had known they were going to run the next day. He hadn't said good-bye.
Topher just looked at them together and nodded, hugging his comic book to his chest.
"You're leaving," he stated, like he always knew it was going to happen.
"Yeah," Paul admitted softly. "I wanted to tell …"
"Don't," Topher cut him off tightly. "Don't. Just … go. You should both go."
Caroline was fine with that and grabbed Paul's hand to move him along. As they got in the elevator Paul looked back at Topher again, "I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Topher agreed, then surprisingly turned from Paul to lock eyes with Caroline. "So am I."
Her head tilted but then she nodded, accepting this. She hit the button to go up. To leave.
"Just do me one favor," Topher requested, quickly looking back at Paul, jaw trembling.
"What?" Paul asked eagerly.
Topher bit his lip, "Come back for me?"
The elevator doors closed before Paul could answer.
At the bottom of the stairs Adelle waited fearlessly to hear what Caroline had decided to do with her and the rest of the Dollhouse staff. The girl had her gun cocked and Adelle truly had no idea what she planned to do with it. But then her eye caught movement across the room and her heart clenched as Paul Ballard emerged from the sleep chambers carrying an unconscious Topher towards the Imprint Room.
"No. Ballard, what are you doing? Put him down!" she demanded, forgetting about Caroline entirely as she ran across the room to intercept him. Ballard ignored her and hurried up the stairs, clearly on a mission.
"Paul!" Adelle yelled again, catching up to him. "Put him down, he can't go up there."
"We sedated him, he won't even know, it'll be fine," Paul assured her, stepping around her and making a beeline for the Imprint Room.
"We?" she asked and turned to see Claire preparing the Chair. "What are you doing?"
"We're all leaving," Paul explained, laying Topher in the chair. "Topher can't travel like this."
"What are you going to do? Wipe him? Give him a personality strong enough to make the journey? I won't let you," Adelle told him firmly, taking a stance next to the unconscious scientist. "And I can't believe that you of all people would want to."
Paul sighed, clearly not happy with his options, "There's no other way. All you major players at the Dollhouse made imprints of yourself every couple of months. We'll wipe him and give him his most recent imprint from before The Call. He'll still be himself, he'll just be … earlier."
"It won't work, you think I haven't considered this already," DeWitt said angrily. "It's not a modified imprint, it's still just Topher, exactly like he used to be. When he finds out what happened to the Dollhouse, to the world because of his technology he'll just break again. Nothing will change."
"I don't care, as long as he'll be able to run and duck a bullet until we get to The Block," Paul told her.
"He might cope better this time, with Paul here," Claire offered in support of the plan. "The entire experience destroyed Topher, but thinking he got Paul killed made it worse. Maybe with him here it won't be so bad. Also, learning about something is less traumatic than experiencing it."
"What are our other options Adelle?" Paul asked. "Leave him here? Try to take him with us in the state he's in? Neither of those are acceptable."
"Besides, you'd be denying him his redemption," Claire pointed out, which definitely got Adelle's attention. "Alpha is degrading, he can't develop the Block technology himself any longer. He needs Topher. We all need Topher, functional. If he can help fix this, any of it, then maybe that'll count for something."
Adelle heaved a deep sigh and glanced at Topher, unconscious in the Imprint Chair. She loved to watch him sleep and pretend he might actually be resting, be at peace. She was too realistic to be hopeful he might ever be at peace again, ever display his childlike innocence and joy that he once exploded with, but if there was redemption to be found out there, he deserved a chance at it. Closing her eyes, she nodded tightly.
"Fine, do it. But for god's sake lie to him about what happened," she requested softly and left the room unable to watch.
Paul looked to Claire, waiting, "Well, can you do it?"
She nodded but didn't look happy, "I have his most recent imprint, but it's from well over a year ago. You would only have been here about a month. He'll barely remember you."
Paul's jaw clenched as he put his hands on his hips and paced for a minute, absorbing the fact that Topher wouldn't know him anymore, not really. Wouldn't remember the days and nights they had spent together, laughing, growing closer. But he wouldn't be broken anymore either.
He got himself together and looked Claire in the eye sadly, "Well, I'll just have to remember for the both of us. Fix him."
Topher collapsed onto the bed face first, moaning from the pain pulsing through his muscles. Paul stood in the doorway behind him, laughing at his discomfort, not in the least bit sore himself.
"Can you do me a favor?" Topher whined more than asked. "Call DeWitt, tell her I won't be coming to work tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. Tell her some time next year sounds good."
"Why can't you call her?" Paul answered.
"Because I can't move," Topher replied angrily.
"I'll take that as a compliment," Paul smirked, proud of himself.
"Take it however you want. But DeWitt won't be happy that you broke me," Topher muttered, still not moving in fear of causing himself great pain.
"I don't see how she'll ever find out. I'm not going to tell her and you can't move. I should be fine," he replied.
"I'll show you can't move," Topher said, reaching out feebly to grab a pillow which he chucked weakly in the FBI agent's directions. Paul caught it, amused. "Why the hell did I agree to let you throw me around?"
"You said you wanted to learn self defense. You mentioned something about a charming stranger breaking in and tasering you a few months ago being your motivation," Paul teased, throwing the pillow back on the bed.
"I didn't learn anything other than new levels of pain," Topher muttered.
"It's a slow process. Next time we'll do tackles."
Topher groaned at the thought, "When are you leaving?"
Paul looked at the pathetic mass on the bed, "I'm not going anywhere."
"Excellent!" Topher squealed. "I've got plans for you."
"I thought you couldn't move."
"Did I say my plans involved me moving? That's why I have you FBI Guy. You and your Abs of Steel and your stamina of eternity and your callisthenic workouts. I have many plans for you," Topher rambled, then pointed at the bathroom. "Going to need a hot bath drawn, then an icepack or six for when I get out followed by a three, no four, course meal. You should maybe start that now, I expect great things."
Paul shook his head in amusement as he watched Topher fall asleep and shoved the pillow under his head, "Never change Topher."
"For you, anything," Topher replied, then hummed as he thought it over for a second. "Anything that doesn't involve moving."
The halo dimmed and the Chair shifted, pushing Topher up into a sitting position. The sedative had been mild with the jolt from the chair being more than enough to bring Topher back to consciousness.
He blinked his eyes and looked around the room, immediately noting the strange lighting and that several things were out of place.
Paul was standing over him, seemingly waiting.
"Hey, Tall Man, you uh got something on your face there … and your hands … and your everywhere," Topher pointed out, indicating the dirt Ballard was covered in. "You just get back from an engagement? Hey, you never got back to me on the laser tag thing."
Paul allowed himself to smile, briefly, before he knelt down to be at Topher's level, "Topher, you're not going to understand this, but things have changed around here. You've had the last year wiped."
Topher's eyes had already started straying to the windows where the world seemed to have been turned upside down. Dolls were praying, one looked pregnant, Adelle was crouched at the bottom of the stairs.
"What the hell happened? Am I being punk'd?"
Paul hesitated, any lie would lead to the truth eventually, maybe they should just tell him now and help him deal with it, but in his moment of hesitation Claire stepped up, refusing to watch Topher crumble again.
"There was an attack," she explained vaguely. "On everyone. We need your help to save us. You're the only one that can do it."
His eyes widened, taking in her lack of scars, but he nodded, accepting this for now while his mind processed it, "Okay. Can I have a juicebox, and then save us?"
Paul smiled, "I'll go find you one, but then we have to go."
Topher looked confused, "Where are we going?"
Please tell me what you thought. I loved this episode and really just want to discuss it with people. Any other theories out there? And as I said, there's a slash version on my livejournal page. The link is in my profile.
Thanks for reading!