//001: Starting Out Sideways
88:88 a.m., by the clock on the end table. At least until he fumbled to turn off its shrill alarm; then it snapped properly back to nine in the morning.
Waking up on a mattress which had, during the two years since initial purchase, been gradually assuming a U shape. Difficult to stay horizontal when the universe wants you to sink into it, hammock-style.
Dave Smith was not one for literary metaphors, so the irony of it was completely lost on him. Which was a shame, given how accurately it described his day-to-day living as of late.
He’d interviewed for permanent positions on a regular basis since graduating, but had yet to land one. The problem was and wasn’t his commercial art portfolio; very solid work, they would say, clean and neat. What they would not add was inspiring and creative or shows amazing promise to grow and develop, because he did not. He was merely solid, clean, and neat. They had a name for people like that… "temporary contractors." Nobody you really needed or wanted an ongoing personal relationship with.
As a result, he’d been telecommuting while completing a number of random tasks for a number of random clients, many of whom he never saw again after shaking their hands at the start of a project. Oh, but they’d email him, they’d email him quite a bit.
Peeling himself out of the U-shaped bed, Dave didn’t bother changing out of his t-shirt and pajama bottoms—no need, really. Instead he went right to his computer, tapping a key to bring it back to life, to check his email. His apartment was his office was his life, after all.
We’d like the lower lines to criss-cross and then reconnect, his current client suggested. And can you make it more like a Celtic knot?
Funny. Dave could’ve sworn that a few days ago, they’d specifically asked him NOT to make it look like a Celtic knot.
He’d designed and redesigned and refined this silly company logo dozens of times. Every day, new emails would come in from Lucid Technologies with new "design suggestions." By this point, he was used to them contradicting each other. The design had long ago stopped looking like a logo and started looking like one of those mazes they put on kiddie placemats at fishstick restaurants. But, fine—he would spend today working on the new suggestions, mail the results back, and tomorrow repeat the process anew.
But first: ham sandwich. An odd choice for breakfast, but he ran out of English muffins yesterday, and leftovers would have to do until he felt like leaving the apartment for a shopping run.
Add some old mayo, scarf it down with 1% milk.
Step out of the apartment to grab the newspaper.
As usual, his hallway was dead quiet. Presumably his neighbors had real jobs, real places to be; he never saw them, at any rate. Didn’t even see who delivered the newspaper. Didn’t even READ the paper (who read newspapers these days?) but someone kept delivering it, so he figured it’d only be polite to bring it into the apartment every morning.
Work on the design a bit. It was taking shape… what shape that was, he had no idea. But it FELT like it was taking shape. Hopefully Lucid Technologies would finally be satisfied this time, and send him the stupid paycheck for a job well done…
Bounce a tennis ball off the wall, ponder design.
Work on the logo.
Sit down to play a dungeon crawler on his video game console. He’d been stuck in the same labyrinth and fighting the same chaos elementals for a hell of a long time, with no end in sight. This killed a few more hours as he pondered the design.
Work on the logo.
Maybe read a bit, or watch a movie.
Bedtime. Sink back into the U, close your eyes, and wait for the next day. Just how things are.
Dave Smith could, by many metrics, be considered the least interesting person alive. He had no "life" in the 1990s definition of it, i.e. "Get a life, you loser." He had little personality to speak of, unless blandness was coming back into fashion, 1950s-style. The universe would have casually overlooked his life and death without really missing out on much.
In fact, the universe did exactly that. Fortunately for Dave Smith, "the" universe was not the only universe paying attention to him.
This would prove to be tremendously important when the very next day, he’d meet someone who’d change his path forever, his apartment would be destroyed, he’d lose everyone he ever knew or loved, and he would nearly be killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.
All of this because Dave did not realize that his city was not his city anymore, and hadn’t been for some time.
Blissfully unaware of his impending doom, Dave snored away as his spine was deformed by the bed. If it were capable of independent thought, that spine would have been satisfied to know the horrible mattress was going to be shredded into so much stuffing and springs in eight hours’ time.
88:88 a.m., by the clock on the end table. At least until he fumbled to turn off its shrill alarm; then it snapped properly back to nine in the morning.
Waking up on a mattress which had, during the two years since initial purchase, been gradually assuming a U-shape. Difficult to stay horizontal when the universe wants you to sink into it, hammock-style.
Peeling himself out of the U-shaped bed, Dave didn’t bother changing out of his t-shirt and pajama bottoms—no need, really. Instead he went right to his computer, tapping a key to bring it back to life, to check his email. His apartment was his office was his life, after all.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but it’ll have to wait.
That was new. Lucid had delivered a fresh round of changes to implement every single morning, until now. Seemed he had the entire day to himself. Infinite possibilities stretched out before Dave Smith—go to the movies, head to the park and feed the ducks, learn hang-gliding. Or at least take a shower and go shopping. Not that he’d do any of those things, but it was nice to know the options were there.
But first: ham sandwich. An odd choice for breakfast, but he ran out of English muffins a couple days ago, and leftovers would have to do until he felt like leaving the apartment for a shopping run.
Add some old mayo, scarf it down with 1% milk.
Step out of the apartment to grab the newspaper.
Step out of the way as two people run past him, directly into his apartment. They shut the door behind them—locking him out, as he heard the mechanism firmly latch shut less than a second after the wooden frame shook from the impact of the heavy door being slammed against it.
This left Dave standing in the hallway, holding the newspaper. His house keys were inside, of course.
Despite his extremely rapid home invasion, he wasn’t shocked. That was just how Dave Smith rolled.
Instead, his concern came from the fact that the lights in the long hallway outside his apartment were starting to flicker… and go out, one by one, in the distance. pop. pop. pop. The superintendent was going to hear about that, certainly. Not safe to walk down the halls without light—
The door to his apartment opened just long enough for an arm three times stronger than his own to grab Dave by the back of his university t-shirt and drag him back into his own apartment.
Dave staggered into the apartment, roughly yanked in and released by the man. No sooner than he was clear then his DIY Swedish bookshelves were being shoved in front of the door, to barricade it.
"All you’ve got is a lousy knob lock," the man grumbled, while bracing the shelves diagonally, testing them to see how much give they had. "No deadbolts, no chains. Are you looking to get killed? And here I am, out of door spikes… Penny! Exit check!"
A young girl bounced by, just under his immediate field of view.
She threw open the door to his closet, with bare plastic clothes hangers rattling around from the force of it. Dissatisfied with his wardrobe, next she checked the bathroom—where the ratty shower curtain and old toothbrush were there to greet her. And… that was the end of her door-seeking quest, as Dave’s apartment barely qualified as a closet, what with the living room and bedroom and kitchen sharing elbow room with each other.
"No connecting exits," she replied, quickly. "There’s the window, I guess, but…"
For lack of a better option, Dave stood around looking confused. And studying the two uninvited guests.
The one who tossed him casually aside was pretty impressive for a guy approaching middle age. Graying around the sides, true, but otherwise he’d pass for one of those action heroes you see sneaking up behind terrorists armed only with a combat knife and an endless supply of vengeance. Not a beefcake 80s action hero toting an M-60, but one of those lean-yet-athletic nothing-to-lose action heroes who favored a quick neck snap twist.
Dave’s reason behind immediately jumping to movie imagery was because the man dressed the part, as well. He had on cargo pants no doubt brimming with MREs and extra ammo clips, and an authentic-looking bulletproof vest. The genuine firearm and—yes, that was in fact a combat knife!—sealed the deal.
An armed intruder would be worrying to many. Dave instead was curious about the contradiction offered by the girl plus the man, working as a team.
Because she was not a tough-as-nails hitter chick action heroine to go with her action hero dad. She was probably about thirteen years old, skinny rather than buff and brawly, and dressed like a mountain climber… backpack brimming with useful gear, rough climbing boots, kneepads and elbowpads. No body armor here, just an ordinary t-shirt and khaki shorts. She also lacked the gent’s neck-snapping musculature, and his grey hair; what he could see peeking underneath an old-timey explorer’s pith helmet was ordinary red hair pulled back in two short pigtails, to stay out of her way. A shining example of youth and boundless energy, as she desperately searched Dave’s little four-walled world for some way out…
Of course, eyeing the girl was probably not going to make the guy very happy. Maybe that was the reason why Dave now had a knife to his throat.
"Erm, excuse me," Dave felt the need to say in his defense.
He didn’t dare turn his head, but did catch frantic movement out of the corner of his eye—the girl waving her hands, trying to interrupt this before the walls got painted red.
"Dad! Dad, whoa!" she exclaimed. "What’re you—"
"Back off, Penny," the man warned—not angrily, just sternly. "Right. Who’re you? How’d you get here? You with that thing that’s hunting us down? I warn you, go cubist on me and I’ll—"
"My name’s Dave Smith, I moved here two years ago, I’m not sure what thing you’re talking about or why it’s hunting you down and what’s an avant-garde art movement have to do with any of this?" Dave asked, smoothly providing the answers the man sought. "And if this is a robbery, my wallet’s over there, although I’ve only got twenty-three bucks since I haven’t hit the ATM recently…"
The girl (apparently named Penny) dared to put a hand on the arm holding Dave at knife point.
"Dad, calm down," she spoke… sternly but gently, similar to her father’s prior command. "He’s not one of them. He must be an import! This is his home."
"Horsecrap. Nobody can live in the Sideways," the father warned. "This guy’s gonna Picasso on us any second, just you watch…"
"Fine. Then you can deal with it when and if that happens. Meanwhile, we’ve still got the first Picasso to deal with, don’t we…?"
Slowly, and hopefully not reluctantly… the man backed down, pulling the knife away. Keeping an eye on Dave right up to the last second, before he turned and focused on barricading the door by trashing more of Dave’s furniture.
To distract the furniture’s owner from the ongoing destruction of his home, Penny decided to play welcome wagon.
"Hi, I’m Penelope Yates, and that’s my dad Gregory," she introduced. "Sorry for barging in on your home like this. You’re Dave, then?"
"Yes? I mean, yes, I’m Dave," Dave said, because it was true.
"I have to say, you’re taking this experience remarkably well, Dave! Better than any other fresh import we’ve run into," Penny said, with a smile that was like a reassuring pat on the head of a small child. "That’s very good, very good for you. Bodes well for your future in the city. Assuming we survive, I mean. I mean, we will survive, most likely, because hey—it’s not our first run-in with a wild Picasso, you know? We survived those and we’ll probably survive this one. All we need is an exit, they lose track of you eventually, bad visual acuity because of the distortion field. So, relax!"
"I am relaxed," he stated. Because he honestly had no idea what was going on, which meant there was no point in becoming unrelaxed over any of it.
"That’s good, because as I noted before, it bodes well for your future. Although I’m not entirely sure how you’re relaxed because to be honest I am kinda freaking out right now," she added, maintaining the strained smile. "Dad? Door? We good? Did it leave?"
Greg was about to respond, when the door responded for him.
A gentle rapping. Light, like someone’s knuckles hesitating mid-knock, before resuming. Trying to be polite, trying not to disrupt the gentleman who lived here.
And more knocking. More knuckles. Three hands worth, which implied more than one person.
Then one hundred knuckles total. Still gentle, still polite, but far too many of them going simultaneously to sound polite. Dozens of people knocking on your door at once, which meant a feat like packing in a clown car, given Dave lived at the end of a narrow hallway…
At this point, even Dave was starting to worry. Too many things he didn’t understand were happening for him to take his usual approach of not worrying about it. On the other side of his front door, what sounded like a horde of very polite people were very, very eager to get inside. And judging from his new companion’s reactions, those very polite people would then likely murder everyone.
The doorknob began to rattle.
Slowly… Greg backed away from the barricaded door. Which meant he did not have much faith in the barricade.
"Out. We need to get out, now," he emphasized. "You, college boy. Got a rear exit in this dump? Anything non-obvious?"
"It’s… uh, the rent isn’t particularly steep because it’s just a one-room apartment," Dave supplied. "There’s only the door. And the fire escape, I guess— wait, what—?"
The other doorknob had begun to rattle. Because his door now had two doorknobs.
It was periwinkle blue, made of that fake crystal glass you’d find on doorknobs at grandma’s house. The second knob had appeared slightly above and to the left of the original, and just below a third knob, which was stainless steel. Briefly his eyes hurt, and then there were six doorknobs. All of them different, all of them rattling…
"It’s going to keep twisting the door until it grows a knob that’s not locked, and then we are boned," Greg explained. "So. Fire escape. Now. I’ll go first to make sure it’s safe."
He brushed past the pair, grasping the bottom of the window and yanking up hard. Since Dave had never opened the window before, it gave a creak of protest before giving up and awkwardly slotting upwards.
"Dad! Wait wait—you said never to go outside when we’re in one of the Sideways!" the girl protested. "We don’t know what the space will be like out there…"
"No options, honey. We’re going out," he said. "College boy, you go last. If it eats you, at least my daughter and I can get away while it’s distracted, got it?"
Dave didn’t even respond. He was busy getting ready to leave.
After all, even if you were caught in your pajamas with morning stubble and bed hair, you didn’t leave the house without the essentials. Smartphone, check. Wallet with twenty-three dollars and his ID, check. Keys, check. (He had four keys on the ring—a key to his father’s house, a key to his apartment, and a key to his old dorm room. Might be a good idea to check in on Dad, after today’s madness was done.)
His bare feet hit the cold metal of the fire escape just as his front door split into fifteen smaller doors and fell apart. He was tempted to look behind him to see what exactly was breaking into his home, but suspected if he did that he’d finally understand what it was he was supposed to be worried about. And then, he might go completely crazy.
When Dave was very young, his mother and father took him to see a themed attraction park owned by a major motion picture corporation. He got to experience a simulated earthquake, he got to watch a simulated tornado, and was nearly eaten by a simulated shark. Back then he was easily startled, so an endless series of brushes with simulated certain death had nearly driven his eight-year-old brain into a dark corner to hide and suck its thumb.
He rarely gave any thought these days to those incidents. The one takeaway from his vacation experience was instead a curious simulation which was not promising horribly painful death, but instead a puzzle of sorts.
They were buying a hot dog from a street vendor, on a simulated city street. In the distance, Dave saw the rolling hills and buildings of San Francisco… stretching impossibly far, all the way to the horizon. Which didn’t make sense, because he knew the theme park wasn’t that big. He tugged and tugged at daddy’s coat sleeve, begging to go get a closer look. Eventually, his parents gave in, and the race was on to see how far the road went.
It dead-ended in front of an elaborate multi-layered optical illusion—a series of painted wooden panes, flat as the boards they were made from, which only looked like a distant city when you yourself were at a distance.
And now, someone had plunked down one of those elaborate paintings outside his apartment window.
Dave wasn’t sure how he hadn’t noticed it before now, now that he was desperately scaling a fire escape in his bare feet, trying to escape an unknown horror that was intent on very un-simulated murder. Despite that threat, it was the illusion before him that grabbed his attention and wouldn’t let go.
The side streets and buildings past his tiny little window were nothing more than flat paintings. In fact, the entire side of his building appeared to be in fact a large room, with the walls designed to look like they were not walls. It was like another theme park ride, where you sat in a tiny car and were shuttled through dark fake-cities, usually teeming with robotic pirates.
He felt the need to bring this point up, to the two who were doing a much better job escaping than he was.
"Excuse me," he spoke up, "But what happened to th—"
"There’s nothing out there and there never was," Gregory Yates barked back. "It’s just a stream of connected spaces. Try not to look at it and for heaven’s sake, don’t look down either! Just keep climbing."
"Yes, but my point is, only yesterday there was definitely something resembling a real city outside my window," Dave replied, while rounding one of the U-turns in the fire escape. "I think there was a city, anyway. Not that I really paid attention but I think I’d have noticed someone replacing my borough with THAT… and why shouldn’t I look down? I’m not afraid of heights."
He looked down.
And saw something worth being afraid of.
At first, a splitting headache snapped across his brain pan. The human eye is not very good at processing things which break all known laws of optics.
Soon, his mind told him he was looking at a blurry thing which was completely in focus, so long as you had seventeen different focuses at the same time, all of them several feet away from the actual space of his head. If you could see the entity from all those perspectives at once, MAYBE you could put it together, like a jigsaw puzzle. Instead, you were looking at whatever it was through a multitude of shattered windows.
Whatever it was… it was warping the fire escape, as it scaled up after them. Not bending the metal or rusting it—the fire escape simply got… STRANGE, as it went. Branches started forming which went nowhere, or doubled back on themselves. Perfectly ordinary looking metal structures which were designed by a civic engineer who had gone completely insane, without losing any of his crafting skills.
They bubbled and warped and bent and snapped back into shape as it passed, leaving behind a structure which would do no one any help if they had to escape a fire. Or escape a malevolent, reality-eating monster.
One which had noticed him. And was now trying to speak.
No doubt because his life had somehow turned into a monster movie, it used a creepy little girl kind of voice.
stop // come // wait //
delicious // eat // tasty
Dave stopped looking down three seconds after he’d started. Closed his ears to the thing’s babbling and broken voice, tried not to even think about whatever it was.
His current situation was that he was climbing to escape something bad. That was enough motivation, really.
Until they ran out of fire escape.
By this point, the façade on the wall opposite to them had wrapped around to the wall they were on. The side of the building Dave was climbing had stopped being a building and started being a poor imitation of one—crudely painted lines to represent brick and mortar, splotches of blue paint for windows. A smooth surface… and a fire escape that terminated a good ten feet below the actual rooftop itself.
Without a word, Penelope pulled a grappling hook and thick rope from her backpack, passing it to her father. Gregory took two spins with it and hooked the edge of the roof neatly.
"Hope you did a lot of fake rock climbing at the Student Union, boy," he called out, without looking down. He gave Penelope a leg up to start climbing the rope, then was up and over in the blink of an eye after her.
The reason why Dave wasn’t afraid of heights was because he indeed did a lot of fake rock climbing at the Student Union. It was an easy way to get exercise in without having your bike constantly stolen. Trying to resist the urge to look down and confirm that the thing was still after him, he grasped the rope, and hoped like hell that he remembered that lesson from his school days more than he remembered Econ 101.
They were lucky the roof even existed. The fake room beyond Dave’s window capped off with a ceiling designed to look like the sky—but had included enough headroom for a fake rooftop to go with the fake building. If he stood on his toes and reached up, he could touch that sky…
There was one problem. The roof was completely featureless. A square of black pavement, from edge to edge. Aside from a meager attempt at a surrounding half-height wall, which they’d grappled up and over, there was nothing there of any note.
No air vents to slide down. No access door leading to a stairwell back in. On all four sides, simply sheer drops to the bottom of the artificial play space. Not even any other fire escapes, as a quick glance over the sides proved. The roof was a dead end.
"So we drill through the ceiling or blow it up and then head back down again through the building, right?" Dave asked. "Or parachute down to the street?"
Penelope brightened. Well, she still had a manic panic about her, but her smile desperately peeked through.
"Wow! You know, that’s really good thinking," she said. "You’re getting the hang of this, Dave! Hey Dad, next time I go out exploring let’s bring a drill, some explosives, and maybe a parachute. Except, um, we don’t have any of those things right now so I think we’re stuck up here…"
Gregory, meanwhile, was loading a fresh clip into his handgun. Because he’d spent two of them already before they even reached the apartment, trying to drive the thing back.
"Pull back to the opposite edge," he ordered, stepping back. "More distance. If I can line up a shot, maybe I can find a vital spot and end this before she makes contact and infects us…"
"You can actually shoot that thing?" Dave wondered.
"In theory. It’s flesh and blood, at the core—but getting through the mess of physics it’s become is… darn it all. Wish I’d brought grenades this time. Or a shotgun…"
Penelope rested a hand on Dave’s arm. Well, hung onto Dave, more like.
"It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay," she promised. "You don’t have to be afraid. Dad’s beaten Picassos before. We’re going to be fine—"
"Shh," Gregory hissed back, taking a proper non-Hollywood handgun stance, waiting for the target to come in view…
It had walked up the side of the building after them.
Dave couldn’t help but look at the thing, now. Flesh and blood, at the core…? He did see a vague human shape in there, come to think of it. Arms and legs, a head. A strange mix of green and brown, actually. Dark brown hair, or at least some mass of particles and strands that animated in a wild fashion around what might be its head. Dark green, of its clothes… a suit? A dress? Some odd triangular shape… with an orbiting ribbon, a sash of some kind which seemed so familiar…
Step by step it approached, flickering and bending as it went. Stuttering and slow, limping as it moved. Moving was causing it physical pain, almost, as it flared with eye-tweaking activity each time it shuffled ahead—
The sharp report of a gunshot nearly broke his focus.
And did absolutely nothing to slow the approach of the creature. If Dave’s eyes could’ve tracked the bullet, it would have seen the projectile pass through the outer edge of the phenomenon, turn thirty-two degrees, continue another two feet, then melt into a tiny wad of liquid metal.
But because his focus wasn’t completely snapped by the shot… he could now see what was so familiar about the band of cloth circling around the thing’s torso.
It had tiny, tiny badges floating around above it. Like embroidered satellites, across a sea of felt. Merit badges.
He willed himself to pay attention to the thing’s babbling.
mister // mister // selling these delicious //
mommy where are you //
made from tasty natural ingredients // mom, stacey keeps putting gum in my //
for a good cause // make it stop // help // flavors you know and love // make it stop //
Dave physically pushed at Gregory to keep the next attempted shot from hitting home. It went wide, completely missing the little girl. Not that it would’ve connected, regardless.
In return, Gregory gave enough of a shove to send Dave staggering.
"That’s not a gosh darned GIRL SCOUT, okay?!" Gregory shouted. "Not anymore! Now stay out of things you don’t understand, brat!"
"You can’t kill a kid!" Dave declared anyway. Because it was a universal truth, in his view.
"LOOK at her!" Greg yelled back, taking aim again. "That’s not a little girl anymore. She’s been Picasso’d! Tortured and twisted by the city into that. And if she gets too close to us we may end up just like her! So unless you’ve got any other brilliant ideas, back the heck off!"
Many people would have raced through their minds, trying desperately to think of a way out of the situation. Panic and fear driving you to scramble for a weapon, a strategy, a tactic—anything that would keep you alive in the face of certain death.
Dave was not many people. There was a very, very simple way to deal with someone selling cookies door to door, after all. Why look any further than that?
He stepped in front of Gregory’s gun, and smoothly withdrew a wallet from his pajama pockets.
"I’d like to order two boxes of Thin Mints, please," he stated.
The Picasso stopped advancing.
It crooked what was possibly its head, studying him carefully. Then studying the money in his hands.
"I’m not exactly sure how much they cost, but I remember they were my mother’s favorite, so I think I’d enjoy them too," Dave continued, holding out twenty-three dollars, all that he owned in the world. "Let’s see… can you make change, or should I call someone at your troop office, or—"
"For heaven’s sake—!"
Gregory yanked the cash out of his hands and tossed the whole wad at the young Picasso.
("Hey, that was all the money I had left in the world!" Dave protested, of course.)
The bills, on approaching the girl, began to twist and warp. Denominations shifted, the face of Washington became something unpleasant, and then finally they were deep enough into the cloud of the phenomenon that they could no longer be properly seen.
2.3 tense moments passed.
// thank // you //
Slowly… the break-point in the fabric of reality faded. It grew smaller and smaller, becoming translucent against the painted backdrop of an artificial night sky, until the girl was simply gone.
A piece of paper fluttered to the rooftop, left behind in her wake.
On it was a completely random mishmash of letters and numbers, in wildly varying fonts. Only one word was even slightly legible: RECEIPT.
Getting back down from the roof took far longer than scrambling up it.
The chaos left in the wake of the distorted little girl had rendered the fire escape into something not entirely unlike a vague recollection of a fire escape from someone who had seen one years before. Gregory took lead; he tested each section of the winding iron structure, making sure it was stable enough before he’d let his daughter climb down. (His first suggestion was to send Dave as a canary in a coal mine, but Penelope vetoed the idea.)
There was only one way out of the "Sideways," as the pair had called them—the way they came in. Since they’d been chased down a dead end by the Picasso’d girl, it meant reversing course. Including visiting Dave’s apartment again. Or rather, what was once an apartment.
Gregory had overturned some furniture in his efforts to make a barricade. The cookie-seller had overturned the idea of an "apartment" in order to break down that barricade. What was once his front door was now a multitude of smaller doors with many doorknobs, scattered across his entranceway. His bed had been turned into two beds, each triangular in shape. His kitchen was now a bathroom comprised entirely of toilets which was in the shape of a kitchen; any thoughts of being a bit thirsty went away when he saw what had become of his coffee maker. His closet of clothes had been fused together into one giant polyblend lump of sleeves and trouser legs and shoes, which meant he’d be stuck in his pajamas for the duration.
And, much to Dave’s disappointment, his computer had been turned into a computer made entirely out of cheese.
All that work on Lucid’s corporate logo, gone. He still had a good picture of it in his mind, but it would’ve been nice to have the files to show for it. Proof that he had not in fact been completely wasting his life, telecommuting out of his dingy little hole in the wall for so long.
Gregory was busy picking through the mess, looking for anything stable and useful enough to take with them. Dave didn’t move to stop him from salvaging what was left of the place.
"It’s going to be okay," Penelope assured Dave, while they waited. (She’d been doing that quite a bit, even though Dave hadn’t shown any signs of distress yet. Not even at seeing the disaster zone that was his home.) "We’ll take you back to the city with us. It’s MUCH more stable there, not like it is this deep into the Sideways. You’ll find a new place to live. Okay? Dave?"
"Would I like the answer if I asked how I could get back home? I mean, back to Earth?" Dave hazarded.
"Ummm… maybe?" Penelope tried. "It depends. I mean, did you really like that world? Did you have unpaid phone bills to deal with? Or—oh, I know! Maybe you get excited about embracing bold new life challenges?"
"That means there’s no way back, then."
"…yeah. Sorry about that," she said. "Nobody’s ever managed to find a road back to your world, and nobody knows how or why people end up here. It is what it is, you know? But… you can make the most of it! Start a new life. Full of exciting and fresh opportunities! I mean, not here, this place is a death trap, I mean back where I’m from. The city proper. Very exciting there and not always fatal. Once I’m done mapping out this part of the Sideways—"
"We’re heading straight back," Gregory declared, while testing out his grip on vaguely ovoid porcelain knives from the toilet-kitchen. "No more exploring. Adventure’s over, Penny."
"But I’m not done," she protested. "It’s only been a day and a half and you said we had supplies for five days. Besides, we barely mapped out that hallway network, and I KNOW I saw a storefront through one of those doorways we passed while we were being chased. I could find something really valuable—"
"Do you really think there’s only one Picasso out there? Or are you waiting to find out if the rest of her troop is close behind?" Gregory asked, setting the knife aside. "We’re done here. It’s not worth the risk. Besides, it’s going to take us another day and a half to work our way back, and with your new pet here, those rations will be going even down faster. The sooner we dump him in the Department of Orientation for processing, the better. Either that or we toss him to the next Picasso we meet, I guess. Now let’s get moving."
Hiking his backpack strap up an inch, Gregory stepped carefully past the multitude of doors scattered across the floor, and back into the hallway.
Sheepishly, Penelope tipped her pith helmet to Dave in apology for her father’s behavior.
"He’s just really protective," she excused. "He’s not THAT awful a person when he’s not busy trying to keep me alive during an expedition. C’mon! I’ll show you the rest of this part of the Sideways. You’ll love it!"
Dave did not love the Sideways.
He didn’t hate them, either. They were just… there. And incredibly strange.
The hallway of his apartment building had been copied verbatim into this new, weird world. Where it normally turned right and headed down stairs, though, it connected to the hallway of some other building entirely—from a hospital, it seemed, judging from the labels and chart-holders next to each door. Doors which, despite Penelope’s insistence that they map every inch of this place using her tablet computer, had been left closed. If you wanted to survive in a creepy haunted lair, the last thing you should do is investigate hospital rooms, after all.
From the hospital hallway they connected to the hospital cafeteria, which had plastic chairs turned up on plastic tables… a cavernous room, which halfway through started having piles of wooden crates instead of dining tables, until it was simply a storage warehouse for a home improvement megastore. Two rooms, sharing the same space, stronger at opposite ends. A few warehouse offices connected, but with no workers in sight. Which was probably for the best.
After that, it was a long, long haul through a series of bedrooms. All of them were completely mismatched; a children’s bedroom would connect to an extremely fancy hotel room which connected to what looked like a makeshift meth lab with a ratty old cot in the corner. Bedrooms rarely had two doors, which meant that they had to progress by going through a door, then climbing through a window into another bedroom, then going through a door, and so on.
All the while, Penny kept chattering about how amazing this place was—how organic the flow of rooms was, how strange the way they all clustered together, the unique patterns she was seeing here which weren’t anywhere else in the Sideways. Because she had explored a LOT of Sideways, in the years she’d been doing this amateur urban spelunking.
The way she’d explained it was like this:
"Have you ever seen something funny out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn your head, it’s gone? The Sideways are like that. The whole city is a mishmash but it’s not THAT mixed up of a mishmash; you can only find connections this random in the Sideways, and you can only find the Sideways by noticing a flicker in the corner of your eye which isn’t there when you turn to look at it. You gotta use mirrors to indirectly look, and THAT’LL show you the door for real. And you can find all sorts of amazing things in there!"
"Like what?" Dave asked. (He wasn’t actually that interested, but it helped pass the time, and the girl seemed to enjoy talking about it, so…)
"Well, the thing which is funding, like, EVERYTHING we do is the Crackers," Penelope explained, as they were climbing through yet another bedroom window. "Ah, that’s the name people gave to the slightly cracked smartphones. We found a shelf in a store somewhere in the Sideways, and there’s ONE phone on the shelf. It’s got a crack in the upper right corner, but otherwise it works fine. And if you pick the phone off the shelf… it’s still there! You can grab another and another and another and never run out! That’s why everybody and their dog has phones, even though, um, there’s a lot of poverty out there. They’re cheaper than air. And Dad and I made a hefty bounty off them! Great find, right, Dad?"
Gregory spoke up, to add his two cents.
"A great find, although we did have to give a Picasso the slip to get it," he said. "Some irate customer who was there to complain about her data plan to sales clerks who didn’t exist anymore. Glad the Department of Resources took over after that…"
"Bottomless phones and another Picasso?" Dave asked. "But… that kind of thing doesn’t normally happen in the city, you said earlier?"
"Heck no! You need to be in a REALLY weird place for causality to go that strange on you," Penelope emphasized. "And the weirder the place, um… the more likely it’ll infect you with cubism. At least, that’s what the Department of Safety says. But the phones are totally safe, and they made us a mint!"
"I guess you can make a lot of money looting places like this, then."
"Well, yeah, but… that’s not really why I do it," Penelope admitted. "Um. So! … so. What about you?"
"Me? Uh. What about me?" Dave asked, puzzled when the focus suddenly shifted to him.
"What’s your thing? What’s your deal?" she asked. "It helps to have a thing or a deal. Means you can find a place in the city to make your own. What’s yours?"
He had to think about about that.
"I draw stuff for corporations," he summarized.
And that was it. Which took Penelope a few moments to realize was in fact the start and end of it.
"That’s all?" she asked.
"Well… I was never good at fine art, and I can’t cartoon, and… people pay for you to draw logos and adverts and fonts and stuff. So, yeah. I draw stuff for corporations."
"Do you like it?"
"People pay you to do it," Dave said, with a shrug. "I mean, they PAID me to do it. They don’t anymore, I guess, now that I’m trapped here forever. …I am trapped here forever, right?"
"Well… explorers like me are always checking unchecked roads and routes, trying to find a way back, but… in, um, practical terms, for all intents and purposes… yes," she admitted. Again. "Are you SURE you’re feeling okay…? I’m not an Orientation Officer, and technically I’ve lived here all my life so I don’t know what it’s like to lose everything, but you’ve got my sympathy if that’s worth anything which I’m not sure it is so, umm… um. Yeah."
"I’m fine," he replied.
"Dad? I’m not sure Dave is really fine."
Which was the last straw for Gregory Yates.
Not that he was angry at his daughter. "Anger" and "at" and "Penny" were three words which never found confluence in his mind. He could be frustrated with her, he could be annoyed, but there was never anything close to hate there for the only thing left in his world he truly loved. Of course, his flavor of love could be a bit tougher than others, but the situation called for it. Especially the current one.
It was nighttime in the Sideways, and they were camping down in two adjoining bedrooms. Gregory was very insistent on the arrangement. Penelope would get the queen sized bed in the comfortable room, where he’d sleep on the barcalounger next to it. As always, she’d packed her pajamas and even a teddy bear which she was probably a few years too old for—but when you slept in the Sideways it wasn’t a bad idea to embrace what comforts you could, Gregory felt.
Dave, meanwhile, would be in one of the bunk beds in a kiddie bedroom which connected to it. Most likely because Daddy was not happy about a boy several years older than his daughter sleeping within arms reach of her. And yet, despite being out-of-sight / out-of-mind… Penny kept talking about him. Hence, the last straw.
"Penny, it doesn’t matter if Dave is really fine," Gregory explained, while arranging some quilts around the edges of his sleeping chair. "Dave is not, in fact, our problem."
"But we saved him from being stuck forever in the Sideways! We’re his rescuers!"
"Yes, we saved him. And that’s the extent of our relationship to Dave Smith," he clarified, having a seat. "Look. You said it yourself, earlier; you’re not an Orientation Officer. Dave’s probably so deep into shock that he’s not even responsive to the craziness of his new situation. He’s going to need their help, not ours."
Penelope sat up in bed, pouting. "I don’t think the city’s crazy…"
"No, but you didn’t come from where he comes from. …I’m from his world, remember?" Gregory said. "It’s a very orderly place, compared to here. Everything makes sense there. So when I first got here it took me a long time to accept what happened; I needed a lot of help from the Department of Orientation. I was about his age when it happened, too. Right now, we are not what Dave needs. Once we get home… we’ve got to leave him in the hands of professionals. That’s the mature thing to do."
"No buts. Keep your distance, Penny, because Dave will be going away soon. It’s better for him that way… even aside from orientation, you know the life we lead is dangerous. And I don’t just mean the Picassos."
"You keep me safe just fine. We haven’t had any problems in ages…"
"Discussion’s over, Penny. Now. Did you brush your teeth?"
She crossed her arms, and grinned manically to show off shiny gums before glowering in protest.
"Let’s bunker down and get some rest, then," Gregory said, pulling a quilt over himself. "We’ve still got a hike ahead of us before we’re out of the Sideways. No time for naps tomorrow. Night, honey. I love you."
An hour later, and Gregory was asleep. He slept lightly, of course; ready to spring into action at the slightest noise.
Fortunately for Penelope, she’d long since learned how not to make the slightest noise when she wanted to sneak out of bed.
No more home. No more job.
His father, left behind. Everyone and everything he knew left behind.
Stuck in a place which was completely alien and weird. No matter how much she claimed the "rest of the city" was less weird than this particular spot of it.
A weird place where people could wake up insane and distorted and wander endlessly in cubist agony for the rest of their lives, and accidentally bring that ruin onto others.
And Dave felt… nothing.
You’re coping remarkably well! the bubbly Penelope had said. She did 90% of the talking, really, while Dave said nothing. And felt nothing.
He didn’t feel tired, for starters. Despite hiking all day, climbing in and out of windows, scaling piles of furniture whenever they hit a particularly unorganized abandoned space. No, right now he felt like lying there and staring at the bottom of some other kid’s upper-tier bunk bed.
No home, no job, no family, nothing.
No thoughts. Nothing to say on the subject.
Until she popped up out of nowhere and nearly sent him rocketing into the wooden flats holding up the bunk above him.
"Hiii," she whispered. "Shhh. Dad’s dozing away. Stay quiet."
Dave regained his wits quickly… and instinctively backed away from her, scooting against the wall the bed was pressed against. Because if Gregory stopped snoring and caught him with her, he’d probably have a new mouth in his neck in seconds.
"Dad wants you to go to the Department of Orientation when we get home," Penelope explained. "So we’ll have to part ways. …he’s right, I know. But… I don’t get a lot of chances to make friends, you know? He keeps folks away from me, and, um, sometimes there’s good reason for that, but it still sucks. So yeah, okay, sure, you’re a really old guy—"
"—not THAT old—"
"—but even so, you’ve been to that other world! And now you’re here, and that’s really fascinating to me! So if you gotta go soon, I wanna talk s’more before you gotta go. Okay? I mean… I’ll leave you alone if that’s what you want, I guess…"
Dave settled in… sitting cross-legged, across from her. This would likely take a while. And it wasn’t like he was sleeping either, so…
"So I’m a sensational new find, like those cracked phones?" he wondered.
"Don’t be like that," she said, assuming it was a verbal pout. "I’m a people person, that’s all. I like talking with people, when I get the chance. …well. Talking at them, I guess. In fact I should stop talking at you and just let you talk. Okay? Okay. What’s on your mind, Dave? You’ve heard more’n enough of what’s on mine…"
He stared at her for a bit, saying nothing. Because he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to talk about.
Then he talked anyway.
"It’s not that I’m really great at coping with things like this," he stated. "I wish you’d stop saying I was. I’m actually completely terrible at it. That’s why I never bother with coping. I just… don’t know how to react, so I don’t react."
This time, it was Penelope’s turn to look lost and confused. She wasn’t expecting him to start chatting about something that deep. So, in response to silence, he continued.
"I used to have serious anxiety problems, as a kid. I spooked easily. A lot’ve things have gone wrong in my life. It just got to the point that… well… I was so anxious I came out the other side and everything that went bad on me was just background noise. And now I just don’t even care. I just do what I have to do, one way or another. …I’m not making a hell of a lot of sense, am I?"
"No, it… I mean, that makes sense," she said, slowly coming around from idle chit-chat to serious discussion mode. "So… all of this is actually getting to you?"
"Maybe. I guess. I don’t really know one way or another," Dave admitted, with a shrug. "But unless there’s a way back, then these are things which are happening, and that’s that. I can’t get worked up about disasters anymore. Like when the Twin Towers fell, and I didn’t really have any feelings about it. Or when I found out about Mom’s cancer."
"O-oh. Um. I’m sorry to hear that about your mom, Dave."
"It could’ve been worse, really. In a way, she was glad she found out too late."
And… he was apparently done, because silence reigned again.
"Sooo… you just keep going, then?" Penelope asked, to fill in the gap. "There has to be more than that, though. A reason to keep going. I mean, even when I’m scared, I keep going because I believe… um. You’ll think I’m crazy, actually. —or maybe not, since you don’t have any preconceptions about the city… okay. Wanna hear my belief?"
"Sure," Dave said, possibly not meaning it. (He was used to making automatic small talk, after all.)
"I think the city has a heart," she said. "Sure, plenty of mappers think there’s some pattern to it we’ve yet to grasp, but I mean something beyond that! Sometimes, I can almost feel the way this city feels. And if I map more of it, I’ll know that heart. If I manage that… if I can understand the city, right down to the roots… maybe I can use what I learn to help people in this city find hope. —which is incredibly silly, and Dad really thinks it’s silly even if he doesn’t have it in him to say it out loud, but… um. My point is, well. That keeps me going. …what keeps you going?"
It was a question he’d never given serious thought to.
Maybe it was this surreal place. Maybe the late hour, the lack of sleep, the quiet internal desperation. The pleading look in the optimistic teenager’s eyes, really hoping that Dave was going to say something which would make her feel better—because knowing his dead reactions were more fatalistic than deadpan wasn’t a pleasant thought. Maybe Dave just wanted her to feel better.
Maybe it was the truth.
"I keep going because I’m hoping in the end, it’ll all sort itself out," he said. "It’ll all make sense and things will be okay."
Suddenly, he was being hugged. In a very little-sistery sort of way.
"It’ll be okay, Dave," she whispered. "I promise. For you, and for everyone."
Which is exactly the scenario that Gregory arrived to, when he swung the doorway open.
Quietly, Dave prayed that his execution would be swift and painless. Instead, he heard a stern but patient voice which did not sound like sharpening knives.
"Penny, get back to bed. It’s late," Gregory spoke.
Sheepishly, the girl extracted herself, and tried to play this off as a casual and completely unimportant situation. Sneaking away quietly, past her father and back to her room.
"Um," Dave offered.
Gregory closed the door behind himself. And locked it.
With a heavy sigh… Dave sank back into the Star Wars sheets he was lying on previously. A crazy-protective father and a far too personable teenager. Just another thing on top of a pile of things which were, at best, problematic and unsettling…
No home no job no family weird place dangers everywhere.
Still, he found himself sleeping soundly in minutes. Probably just a complete collapse from exhaustion. Probably.
Dave’s grand introduction to the city itself came in the form of a basement laundromat in an apartment building. It looked… well, like the dingy little laundry room in his own apartment building, just with the machinery in a slightly different configuration. With no windows and nothing to scream aloud "YOU ARE IN A STRANGE PLACE!", it was almost comfortingly normal.
The abnormal part was that they walked straight out of a wall. But, as Penelope had explained, the entrances to the Sideways were hidden… you’d never find one unless you indirectly looked at it. Or went to lean against a wall and fell in, presumably, which is why the edges of the entrance were marked with yellow and black hazard tape.
DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY — SIDEWAYS ENTRANCE — DO NOT CROSS, the black lettering cheerfully declared.
"Er, were we supposed to be in there at all?" Dave felt the need to ask. "I mean, I know I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but you two did and that warning looks mighty authoritative…"
"It’s just a yellow-black," Penelope said, pulling her tablet computer out of her backpack, to review the map she’d been making. "The Department of Safety doesn’t LIKE mappers going in, but it’s not illegal. If it was a red-black that’d mean an official quarantine and, well, yeah, we don’t go there. Although I don’t see why they insist on stopping us! I mean, okay, it’s dangerous. But if someone’s willing to take the risk, why not let them in? You could find all sorts of great things in the Sideways that’d help people… new repeaters, new resources, new shortcuts… "
"And you could let a Picasso out into the city," Gregory said, while hiking his sagging backpack up on one shoulder. "Law’s there for a reason, Penny. Odds are they’re going to black-red this one off after we submit our report, too."
"We could just hang onto the map ourselves," she suggested. "We don’t HAVE to file it with the DoS…"
"We’re not black hat mappers. It’s our responsibility to report a Picasso, you know that. At any rate… we’re clear of that mess now," he concluded. "So, Dave, welcome to the City of Angles. I’ll give you cab fare to get to the Department of Orientation. Just tell the clerk at the front desk that you’re a new import, and they’ll put you through the system. Have a nice life—"
"Can’t we at least get lunch first?" Penelope asked/begged. "I think Dave’s been a really good sport through all this, and we shouldn’t just pack him up and ship him out like that. Let’s show him the sights!"
"We talked about this, Penny. He needs orientation, not a tour guide. I’m not in the mood to be around when his mind is blown by those sights."
Dave politely raised his hand, wishing to speak.
"My mind doesn’t easily blow," he explained. "And your daughter’s talked about the city a lot. A LOT. I’ll be okay. Also, I am kinda hungry. They sell real food here, right? Not Soylent Green or anything…? Although I spent twenty-three dollars on two boxes of cookies, so, um… if you could spot me, I’d appreciate it…"
Between Dave’s earnest calm and his daughter’s bubbling enthusiasm… Gregory rolled his eyes and relented. Just as he’d done ever since running into this unfortunate.
Rolled his eyes downward.
And left them there, for a moment. Studying something in the gloom of the laundry room…
"Let’s go big! Dad and I know a really great seafood place. It’s kinda expensive since, um, no oceans around," Penny chattered away, leading Dave out of the room. "Still, this is your big debut! I’ll kick in some of my allowance if I gotta to get you a lobster…"
Footprints in the room’s dust. Cigarette butts. Four little impressions, like chair legs, in a neat square. Which matched nicely with a chair that had been moved to one corner of the room for the time being.
The people who lived in this apartment building didn’t actually use this laundry room. Ever since an entrance to the Sideways was found here, the room was a no-go zone; sure, your chances of accidentally falling in were slim, but city citizens were not a risk-taking sort. The washing machines were nearly rusted shut and unusable.
Someone had been here, regardless. Having a seat, having a smoke. From the angle of the chair… waiting for someone to come out of the Sideways.
Either they got bored and left, or had to visit the potty and were on their way back right now. Neither option appealed.
"Lobster sounds good," Gregory decided, wheels turning in his mind. "In fact, lobster sounds very good."
The City of Angles.
That wasn’t the official name, of course. There was no official name. But the joke had been passed around so long and so often that it had stuck in everybody’s head. A city, where everything was at a slightly askew angle to everything else? City of Angles. Sticky, very sticky.
These were the sidewalks that the trio were walking down, now. Finally out in the open—the real open air, not a painted simulation of an open air environment. Dave didn’t think he was claustrophobic, but he had to admit a certain sense of relief at taking in a breath of car exhaust and garbage and sweat and humidity. All very familiar smells to a graphic designer who had been living in a city for the last two years…
The best part, hands down, was the sunshine. It was high above his head—hopefully not just painted on a false ceiling—and even at street level there was enough sunlight trickling down to warm his face.
But the differences between the city he left and the city he now had to call home were striking.
The angles, those were obvious. This was what Penelope called "The Zag," a central roadway that zig-zagged along with a series of sharp lefts and rights and lefts and rights. Yet it was certainly all one street, judging from the painted lines on the road, and meant to be taken as such rather than a diagonal slice of city blocks. The sidewalks confirmed it, snaking along and hugging the edges of the asphalt perfectly just as sidewalks should.
The buildings GENERALLY followed the back-and-forth nature of the roadway; sometimes the sidewalk would be too narrow or too thick, as the looming brick-and-mortar structures squatted in positions that would make any civil engineer weep in agony. No Leaning Tower of Pisa effect… but they were rotated a bit, like teeth in a mouth that hadn’t seen a dentist in fifty years.
As for the buildings themselves, well…
"So that one’s actually a department store," he repeated, pointing to what was obviously a warehouse, with the U-Stor-It logo painted over.
"Yep!" Penelope confirmed.
(Gregory took point, so he could glare at anyone who came too close. Despite being out of the Sideways, he was in bodyguard mode for reasons unknown. At least this left Dave and Penelope to chat without interference—from him, and from anyone who might slow their progress down the sidewalk.)
"And that building which clearly was a shopping mall is now low income housing."
"Yep! Dad and I’ve traded with the folks there a few times though, so, uh, I guess there are some mall aspects left…"
"And the steps down to that subway station lead to a hair salon."
"I used to get a really nice hairdo there, before Dad started making me wear a helmet for safety reasons. Now I just stick to pigtails, they’re easier. And cuter. It’s hard to look cute when you wanna be functional."
"Why not just… I don’t know, use the buildings for what they were originally?" Dave asked. "Seems like it’d be simpler…"
"You tell that to the fifteen shoe shops I once saw along the same street," Penelope said. "Nobody needs that many shoes. —okay, lame fashion magazines say I do, but I prefer a good pair of boots. Better for long distance hikes."
"Demolish a few of them and put up something else, perhaps?"
"Ooooh… bad idea. The city… ummm… it doesn’t like that," she tried to explain. "I read in the history books about how in the 1930s, when things were just starting to get organized, the Mayor tried a demolition and construction spree. Aaand… the district he did it in is now almost completely Picasso’d and sealed off by the Department of Safety. My theory’s that you gotta keep the overall shape the way the city wants it—you can fiddle around a bit, but only a bit."
"So, you can’t snip somebody’s arm off and install a third leg and expect it to work," Dave summarized.
"Exactly! See, you’re getting it. New buildings keep arriving, and we have to make the best of them. There’s no known pattern or predictability yet. Your vision just goes screwy, and BOOM, something new’s inserted itself between two buildings. All the roads shuffle around to make room. The city’s always shifting and moving! —okay, not ALWAYS, the Zag’s been relatively stable for decades which is why it’s so popular, but you can still never be too sure. Maps constantly have to be updated, to keep people in the know. Smartphones are great for that; most mappers sell their data to map-app keepers and can make a great living that way."
All of the nuts and bolts were fascinating, from a technical standpoint. Clearly it excited Penelope to talk about her city, too. But the part Dave didn’t feel comfortable bringing up, the key difference, was what he saw in the people.
There weren’t as many of them here as there were back home. This was an overgrown and underpopulated city; plenty of folks on the sidewalk, plenty of cars on the road, but clearly not as many as there should be for an urban center of this size. More importantly, the ones who were here had a certain urgency that hastened their steps. Get where you’re going, because where you’re going may change on you if you don’t hurry…
He was familiar enough with anxiety to see it in their faces. Getting by day-to-day here was challenging enough for most, too challenging for others.
No wonder Penelope’s dream was to fully comprehend the incomprehensible shape of the city. Living in uncertain times was bad enough, and adding uncertain places on top of it couldn’t help. "Making do" was not the same as thriving. Even if Dave had been making do for quite some time, he had enough of an objective viewpoint to know the difference.
"I think I can make do here," he decided to say.
"Really? That’s great!" she replied, smiling. "You just watch; you’ll be on your feet in no time. Personally? I love the city. It’s exciting! It’s full of wonders, full of things to see and people to meet. A lot of people, all they see is the downside, you know? Usually imports, like you. Um. No offense. But for folks like me who were born here, well… this IS the world. What’s to fear from it?"
Gregory, who had apparently been listening in the whole time, spoke up.
"Cubism," he started, counting off on his fingers. "Starvation. Muggings. Getting lost. Gang violence. Cults. Drug overdoses. Going homeless. Getting arrested. Sickness or injury with no coverage. Accidentally walking into the Sideways. Losing hope and wandering off. Your street rearranging itself and leaving you stranded…"
Having run out of fingers before he ran out of horrors, he gave up at that point.
"Guess if you’re lucky, VERY lucky, you can move out to the Suburbs," he added, to show he saw at least a little upside. "You can get there if you know the right roads out of the city, the ones that don’t just loop back around. The Burbs are just as random as the city core, but at least they’re less fatal. There, the worst you’ll have to worry about is having a bad WiFi signal and spotty hot water service…"
Penelope was quick to jump to her city’s defense, under that waterfall of negativity.
"I mean, okay, a lot of that happens, sure, fine," she dismissed. "But that’s… all of those problems can be solved! Eventually. With the right thinking. With good maps."
"Honey, this city’s been here nearly a century. If the Mayor and his Departmental cronies were going to sort things out, they’d be sorted out by now."
"Dad, you’re making us look uncool in front of Dave!"
"Don’t think Dave really cares. Do you, Dave?" Gregory asked. "You’re not the caring-about-things type, ri…"
He trailed off, mid-observational insult. Narrowed his eyes, as he glanced in the reflection off a Plexiglas-covered bus stop.
And reached back to grasp his daughter’s hand, right before picking up the pace.
"I’m extremely eager for seafood," he explained immediately, before anyone asked what was up. "It’s been a long day and some fish and chips would be perfect. Wouldn’t mind seeing your Uncle Archie, either."
"Oh, right! Archie’s the guy who owns the place," Penelope explained to Dave, distracted by the chance to explain more about everything to the new guy. "Keep up! We’ll be there soon!"
A glance in a passing shop front window reflection confirmed Dave’s confusion at this change of pace.
And that the two men in suits were still following them, Gregory sourly noted.
"That Fish Place" was not a particularly inspired name for a restaurant, until you considered that it was just about the only fish place that existed in the City of Angles. Sure, you could get beef or chicken or even venison—thanks to the most distant layers beyond the city and beyond the suburbs, where random grasslands and ranches and rural communities had been mashed together—but no oceans meant no easy access to fish. And yet, That Fish Place had fresh fish daily. If you wanted fish, that was the place to be.
Originally it was a bit of a seedy, rough-and-tumble place that brewed a mean codfish liquor. It had been converted out of a former clothing sweatshop with a highly unique basement; that grim and grimy industrial building was hardly a welcoming locale for an eatery. Fortunately a company that specialized in rebranding and redesigning had worked with That Fish Place to make it into a family restaurant, complete with wacky stuff on the walls and waiters with pieces of flair. Since then, it became an upper middle class destination of choice.
The industrial space wasn’t completely revamped, of course—you couldn’t simply knock the building down and stick a new one up. The city wanted Thing A in Slot A, and you didn’t want to push back too hard on that. But with enough decorations and dividers and elevator music, you could make even the worst rust bucket in the universe look cheery and inviting… even if just under the surface lurked something ugly.
No matter how hard they smiled or how often they tried to shave off the five o’clock shadows, Gregory Yates knew the crowd that ran this place. They had a very valuable resource under their floorboards, and enough of a checkered past to know how to defend it. Nobody had made a move since the upscaling of the atmosphere… but they would be ready to shove, if push came to shove. Which made it an ideal destination for today.
Gregory flashed a rare smile as he walked in the door, breezing right past the couples and families who were waiting to be seated for the lunch rush. Walked up to the Johnny the Maître d’ (originally known as Johnny the Icepick) and shook his hand, exchanged pleasantries, made a big show of it.
"Greg Yates! Hey man, it’s good to see you!" Johnny the No Longer An Icepick called out, reaching out for a manly hug. "And little Penelope! And… wait, who’s that guy?"
"A new friend. We’re showing him around. Any chance you can squeeze us in somewhere? A table in the back would be just fine," Gregory said aloud, before moving in for a Manly Hug Where You Hit The Other Guy On The Back Repeatedly.
"We’re being followed by two goons in cheap suits," he added quietly, once he was in whispering range. "Get us out of sight and tell Archie."
"I think we can cover you," Johnny said, in response to both requests. Ignoring the pleas of the customers who had been waiting an hour or more, he whisked the trio away on the winds of friendship.
And flicked a hand gesture, which caused two waiters who could easily have passed as linebackers to very, very casually loiter near the door.
Gregory spared a glance over his shoulder, to see the goons who had been lying in wait for them outside the Sideways pause at the window… and move on. Good. But he didn’t breathe easily; relief could come when he knew what the hell was going on. And until then, well… no sense worrying Penny, or Dave, for that matter.
After days of being alone in the Sideways with nobody but her dad and her new buddy, Penelope was glad to be back in the city. Even gladder to be at That Fish Place, which always had a festive and jovial atmosphere.
It felt right, to her. This was a place where families, entire families could come and sit down and peacefully enjoy something they rarely got to experience. The staff, despite looking like extras in a documentary about the Hell’s Angels, were friendly and kind and always had a good joke or two to share with the owner’s niece. That Fish Place represented the promise of what the city could be, instead of what it was, and Penelope felt that was the perfect way to introduce Dave to the core of the city.
Except Dave wasn’t cheerfully smiling. He seemed about as nonplussed and nonchalant as he did in the Sideways.
Dave’s probably so deep into shock that he’s not even responsive, her dad had guessed.
I never bother with coping. I just don’t know how to react, so I don’t react, Dave had said himself.
It was probably too much to hope that getting him out of the scary part of the city would be enough to get the guy to both relax AND enjoy himself. She had been holding a glimmer of hope that he’d be able to do it, but… Dad was right. He needed help from the Orientation experts. Maybe they’d be able to get him somewhere he needed to be, where he could feel at home.
Still, she wasn’t going to shut down the welcome wagon just for lack of a smashing success.
"Honestly, I’m not THAT into lobster," she admitted—since her dad was gone at the moment, off to visit Uncle Archie. "But my uncle always loves to make me a special lobster chowder when I get here, something off the menu, and I like to make him happy. You can have some too, if you want. Or do you see anything else on the menu you like?"
Dave glanced over the laminated card full of wackily named dishes and zany entrees, trying to figure out what appealed. Not much did. Not much didn’t appeal, though. Honestly, he was too busy idly doodling on the back of a kid’s menu with the box of crayons they’d left at the table to give it much thought.
"I never really had enough money to sit down and eat somewhere. Usually I got pizza or Chinese takeout or something," he said. "And in college I practically lived off cold cereal. I think I’ve got the gourmet sensibilities of an alley cat at this point. Sooo… I don’t know. I’ll go with the chowder, I guess."
Figuring it wasn’t worth it to push the guy into expressing his heart’s yearning desire via meal selection, Penelope let that one go. Besides, something far more interesting had caught her eye.
She studied the weird design Dave was scrawling away at, using a brown crayon. A twisting, spiraling, tangled thing… at first she assumed he was just scribbling randomly, but…
"What’s that?" she had to ask.
"Hmm? Oh. I was working on this before my computer got turned to cheese," Dave said. "Just trying to see if I remember it well enough to remake it. It’s supposed to be a logo for some company that makes internet routers, or security systems, or digital sausage makers or something…"
Penelope tried to follow the line work, with her eyes. Each time she did, her gaze just slipped deeper down the center of the mess, like she’d gotten lost along the way. Honestly, it sort of hurt her brain to try. She couldn’t imagine it being stamped out on t-shirts and printed on coffee mugs or anything.
"That’s a logo? Aren’t logos usually snappy and simple? Or maybe with a picture of an animal, or something…"
"Search me, this is what they wanted. My job was to make it happen, not ask what they were thinking," he said, giving up for now. On a whim, he folded up the menu and stuffed it in his back pocket, with his wallet.
"You know you’ll never get paid for that job, right?" Penelope asked, making sure. "They’re back on your world. No point working on it anymore."
"I guess. But… I don’t know. Can’t hurt to keep my skills sharp and stay in practice. I’m going to need to get graphic design work here, now. This kiddie meal menu is the closest thing I have to a portfolio anymore. …where’s your dad? Shouldn’t he be here? We need to order our food soon…"
Penelope laughed. "Dad always, always eats the same thing. Fish and chips. That’s it. Very predictable, like a watch. A food watch. A watch that tells food instead of time, or something. Anyway, he’s probably busy catching up with my uncle. They’ll be back soon after having a few laughs, just you wait and see."
"Kegstand Greg! You old son of a bitch!"
"Archie! You old son of a… a…"
Gregory offered a helpless shrug, unable to finish his greeting.
All the same, his old friend reached out for an even manlier hug than Johnny the Maître d’ offered. It was enough to nearly pound Gregory’s lungs out through his chest.
Three hundred pounds of equal muscle and fat, Archibald Tully carefully had a seat behind his official managerial desk in his tiny little wooden chair. He nearly dwarfed his desk, and certainly seemed far too large for the two tiny shot glasses of whiskey that were ready and waiting.
He promptly downed both glasses, while Gregory had a seat opposite.
"Still booze-free and swear-free, huh, Greg?" he asked. "Fine here! More of both for me…"
Gregory set his backpack aside, settling in. "I wish I could say this was just a social call, Archie, but…"
"But it’s business, and it’s bad business. I know how it is with you, Greg," Archie said, leaning back in the creakily protesting chair, steepling his fingers. "Word passed up the chain from my boys at the door you had company. Didn’t get a good enough look. Kind of wild-eyed, they said… could be… pfeh. Lord above knows you made enough enemies over the years, from before and after…"
"They were lying in wait for us outside the Sideways," Gregory explained. "We missed them by a hair. Dumb luck. Fortunately my kid wanted to chow down here, so it was good cover. I don’t wanna worry her. She has enough things to worry about already…"
"What, you’d turn me away if I came alone?"
"Of course not. We were running buddies and blood brothers. Close enough to family," Archibald noted. "And actually family when you married my sister. I owe you for hooking the old gang up with legitimate work, for finding this place with the Sideways repeater basement full of fishies. I’ve got plenty of love for you… but I can only stick my neck out so much. That’s just practicality. Only so much neck to stick out."
"That implies you have an idea of who was coming along to put an axe in your neck," Gregory recognized. "Wild-eyed guy in a cheap suit. Any idea who it could be?"
Archibald poured himself another glass. He’d need it.
"I hear rumors," he ruminated. "You know this city drives some folks over the edge. Makes ’em believe in all manner of crazy shi… crazy crap. Like those Exodus freaks, the ones who think the Endless Roads lead back to Earth, or to Heaven, or Nirvana, or whatever…"
"You think one of those was tailing us? What’d we ever do to them?"
"Didn’t say that. Just… crazies like those crazies. Or… like the Bedlamites."
Gregory eyed his old buddy, suspiciously.
"They went out of business in eighty-two," he reminded Archie. "Hunted down by the Department of Safety. Just a bunch of Picasso worshippers LARPing at being masonic wizards or something…"
"Hunted down, or went into hiding in places nobody’d find ’em. Like… y’know… the Sideways," Archie said. "I’m not saying I have proof. I’m just saying what the street’s saying. Lotta people out there going cubist, lately. It’s really been flaring up in the last decade. Makes people wonder if the Cult of Bedlam’s still active. And… since I know you two love to explore the Sideways—"
"She loves it. Not me."
"The Sideways are sacred ground to Bedlamites, folks figure. And you two disturb that shi… that manure on a regular basis, yeah?" Archie reminded him. "Look. We used to be hard, together. One gang of lost boys from Earth, up against the wild of the city. But that time’s over, Greg. We settled down, went straight, got jobs. You married my sister and turned pro at bodyguarding, I nailed down an eatery with the help of the old boys. We can watch your back, put you three up for a few days. But you gotta walk out the door eventually, and if there’s some cult after you, there’s only so much I can do…"
"A few days will be just fine," Gregory said, grateful despite Archie’s trepidation. "Enough time to talk to some contacts, figure out the score. I’ll offload our third party with the Department of Orientation—no need to risk the poor idiot’s life, or to burden the old gang with all three of us."
"And of course, I insist on paying for your lunch today," Archibald said. "No ifs, ands, or buts. Now, let’s go say hello to my favorite niece. I’ve got her favorite lobster chowder already cooking up in the kitchen!"
By the time Gregory got back to his daughter, it was too late.
They were caught, and there was no escaping. Not from this. Because he’d been so focused on what strange new enemy could be interested in him, that he’d forgotten about the traditional enemy of all who mapped the ins and outs of the City of Angles.
Two men with non-shabby suits were sitting at the table, with a nervous-looking Dave and Penelope. Not the same men who had been following them—but just as dangerous, and twice as unavoidable.
They’d been polite enough to wait for Gregory’s return. One flashed his badge, on seeing Penelope’s father arrive.
"Officer Cartwright, Department of Safety," he said, with a cat-eating-canary smile. "Gregory Yates, you are under arrest for violation of the Advanced Quarantine Protocols Act of 2006—specifically, venturing into a red-black section of the Sideways. You have the right to remain silent."
DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY OFFICIAL RECORD —
DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT PERMISSION OF AN O-2 LEVEL SECURITY OFFICER
ARRESTING OFFICER: Security Officer Cartwright (O-3)
Gregory Yates (Quarantine Violation)
Penelope Yates [MINOR] (Quarantine Violation)
Dave Smith [UNPROCESSED IMPORT] (Violation waived due to extenuating circumstances pending cubism evaluation)
ARREST INTERVIEW FILE 001: PENELOPE YATES
INTERVIEWING OFFICER: Security Officer Jensen (O-4)
[Jensen] Penny, do you know why you’re here?
[Jensen] Would you like a soda, or maybe some candy? I can ask the desk sergeant to get you some. Have you eaten in a while? You were in the Sideways. I can’t imagine you’d find any good things to eat there. Does your father–
[Penelope] You’re not going to make me say my Dad’s a bad Dad. I had a good breakfast. And I was going to have lunch before you grabbed us, you jerks.
[Jensen] Penny, you’re here for your own safety. You’ve been in a very, very dangerous place. We’re trying to help you. We’re your friends.
[Penelope] I’d have something to say about that, but Dad doesn’t approve of swearing. Instead, I will use this gesture. *performs an obscene gesture*
[Jensen] We know your Dad’s been bringing you to dangerous places. Sometimes past the known and stable edge of the city, sometimes to the Sideways, sometimes to recently imported buildings… all sorts of dangerous places. Didn’t you see the red and black tape on that Sideways entrance?
[Penelope] It was a yellow-black, not a red-black. We checked. We didn’t break the law!
[Jensen] According to our records, that entrance was marked red-black, and has been for two weeks. You would have seen that it was off limits. Witnesses placed you going in that laundry room and coming out days later. I’m afraid it doesn’t look good, Penny. Now… why does your Dad insist you have to go to dangerous places like that?
[Penelope] Don’t pin this on him. I’m the one who makes him go there.
[Jensen] I rather doubt that, Penny–
[Penelope] You call me Penelope. Only Dad gets to call me Penny, because I’m always gonna be his little girl. And I’m done talking about this stuff, so I’m gonna sing the theme to Spongebob Squarepants until you let me out of this room.
[Jensen] Now, Penny–
[Penelope] WHO LIVES IN A PINEAPPLE UNDER THE SEA?! SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS! ABSORBENT AND YELLOW AND POROUS IS HE *subject continues to sing until well after Officer Jensen departs*
ARREST INTERVIEW FILE 002: DAVE SMITH
INTERVIEWING OFFICER: Security Officer Jensen (O-4)
[Dave] Finally. Listen, I’d like to lodge a complaint. I’ve done nothing wrong, and–
[Jensen] We know. We’ve been observing you long enough to make an initial determination that you are not experiencing cubism. So, you’re free to go.
[Dave] Oh. Well. That’s very understanding of you.
[Jensen] I’ve asked the Department of Orientation to send over a bus for you. Welcome to the city. They’ll take care of your temporary housing and training sessions, to help you get acclimated. I take it the Yates have informed you of where you are?
[Dave] Yes, and in fact, where exactly are–
[Jensen] Someone will be by shortly to show you to your ride, and your things will be returned to you. Apologies for the inconvenience.
[Dave] But what about Penelope and Gregory?
ARREST INTERVIEW FILE 003: GREGORY YATES
INTERVIEWING OFFICER: Security Officer Cartwright (O-3)
[Cartwright] Good to see you looking healthy, Gregory. How have you been lately?
[Cartwright] Frankly, it’s amazing to see you looking healthy. You’ve been spending a lot of time in the Sideways over the last few years, with your daughter. How old is she now? Thirteen? Fourteen?
[Cartwright] Bit of a dangerous hobby to drag your own child along on, isn’t it? Exploring in forbidden places. But… I guess that’s par for the course for you, isn’t it, Gregory? Even after your gang banger days are done, you find new ways to cause problems.
[Cartwright] I’ve been following your file for some time now, waiting for a good chance to catch you where you’re not supposed to be. We’ve been tightening up quarantine qualifications for years, just to keep people like you from throwing your lives away stupidly. Sooner or later, we’ll have every dark corner under lock and key before you can get there. Then what’ll you do with your life, I wonder?
[Cartwright] You know, you’re something of a legend around the Department. Nobody’s ever been able to nail you down for anything. You play it safe, lately. Untouchable. Personally? I’d love to send you up for murder. Shame all the evidence is tucked away deep under the city, isn’t it.
[Cartwright] I bet even if I did find some way to drag up those thirteen-year-old charges, the jury would pull it down to manslaughter. After all, your wife DID consent to join you on that little venture into the Sideways. Brilliant mapper, by the way; her data’s still quite pricey on the market. A lot of folks miss her. Do you?
[Cartwright] You were lost for a full year down there, according to the records. Went down with a wife, come back without one. Got a baby girl out of the deal though. Now, that’s just the public record on the subject; what I’m curious about is–
[Gregory] Susan’s Law.
[Cartwright] Excuse me?
[Gregory] Violation of quarantine protocols is acceptable in the event that another’s life is in immediate danger. Put into effect as a samaritan law, when Susan Mathers lost control of her baby stroller and it rolled through a red-black door to the Sideways. The court accepted that her breaking of quarantine was acceptable as it resulted in the rescue of another human being, with the caveat that the Department of Safety and City Council was not to be held legally responsible for any risks taken in the process.
[Cartwright] Yes, I am familiar with the law. Being an officer of it.
[Gregory] You can’t hold me or my daughter. We were simply following the letter of that law when we went into the Sideways to rescue someone.
[Cartwright] I’m sorry, who exactly…?
[Gregory] Dave Smith. He’s in the next room, isn’t he?
[Cartwright] Let me see if I’m interpreting you correctly. Stop me if I’m getting it wrong, please.
[Gregory] Will do.
[Cartwright] You’re saying that your purpose behind breaking quarantine in the first place… was to save the life of one Dave Smith.
[Cartwright] A young man who you never met before now, and who was apparently LIVING in the Sideways for some time without realizing it. Someone you couldn’t have possibly known was in need of rescue.
[Gregory] The end result is the same. We saved his life. Susan’s Law says nothing about intent.
[Cartwright] I’m… fairly certain the intent is implied–
[Gregory] And, if you insist on claiming I’m abusing my daughter, I’m going to add "following my child into the Sideways to save her as well" on top. The media will love it, believe me. I’ll also point out that the entrance was in no way, shape or form a red-black.
[Cartwright] I have the records right here, Gregory. It’s a red-black. I sent an officer down there just to verify, and confirmed the color of the tape outline.
[Gregory] I’d love to see a lab analyze that tape, to figure out how fresh the glue is. But you’re missing my overall point. If you really want to paint me with a nasty brush, well, two can play that game. I have to wonder what your dirty laundry is like. And you know I have the connections to dig it up, don’t you? Since you’re such an expert on me. How far do you want to drag this, Mr. Officer? Are you so convinced of your case — and your own standing — that you want to play ball with me? Knowing exactly how far I’ll go for my daughter’s sake?
[Gregory] So, Susan’s Law. We walk. Today. Now, I’m going to call my attorney, who will back up everything I just said. If you’d like to waste everybody’s time and taxpayer dollars, we can sit here and stare at each other until he repeats my claim, word for word — in front of a Judicial Officer if need be. Or, we can leave now and save you a lot of paperwork. How spiteful are you, I’m wondering?
*interview ends at request of Officer Cartwright (O-3)*
The first thing Penelope did when she rejoined her father was jump up, grab onto him, and not let go.
All three of them were being released, pending further review of the charges. Gregory was short on the details, and Penelope didn’t question it; clearly he’d had a rough day, a rough COUPLE of days. and all that mattered was that they were free now.
They stood at the steps of the local Department of Safety offices, which were half a block away from another local set of Department of Safety offices, thanks to the city’s tendency to mock the carefully laid plans of men. All that was left was to wait for the bus which would whisk Dave off to his new life.
"I want you to call after you get settled in," Penelope insisted.
"And don’t let them scare you. The city’s not as bad as some folks in Orientation claim. It’s not actively trying to kill people or anything!"
"Once you get a new address let me know and I’ll bring a housewarming gift."
"I’m sure you can find work. Lots of new businesses pop up all the time in the city. They probably need logos and things and people to draw them!"
"Why do you care so much what happens to me?"
Which floored Penelope’s endless stream of enthusiasm. Or put it on pause, at least.
"I don’t mean to be rude, just… I still don’t get it," Dave said, hands in the pockets of his pajamas (still the only clothes he owned). "You didn’t know me a few days ago. I’m not a very personable person, I know that much. Your dad hates my guts…"
(Gregory cleared his throat. "I would define it as pragmatic indifference, actually," he said in his defense.)
"…so why do I matter to you so much that you want to stay in contact and make sure I’m doing well?"
Now, Penelope had to pause her rambling thoughts to really think. And answered with a question.
"Do you want to stay in contact?" she asked. "I mean, wouldn’t you like a friend?"
She was just a kid. She wasn’t related to him. There was no connection there, beyond the strange confluence of circumstances that brought them together in the first place. Dave couldn’t think of any sound logical reason why he should care one way or another. If anything, life would be much less complicated without someone around who routinely went spelunking in the darkest corners of Hell. He would be better off just moving on without dealing with any of this, like he always did when things felt uncertain.
"I guess I wouldn’t mind having a friend," he answered, instead.
The Department of Orientation occupied a slightly substandard motel, a dozen blocks away from the central Zag of the city.
Dave barely paid attention as his Orientation Officer explained how the government’s temporary hostel worked. What the curfew rules were, why they didn’t want new imports wandering off until they had completed the seminar, when meals would be served and so on. He soaked it all in for later consideration without really considering any of it.
Hours later (even if it felt like minutes) and Dave was sitting on a bed in a semi-lousy motel room which would be his home, until they kicked him out into the wider world of the city to sink or swim.
Not really his home. His home was gone. His apartment, his city, his world, his job, his family, everything that was his. He had a phone, an empty wallet, and a ring of keys to his name. Somewhere along the way he’d even lost the kiddie menu he’d scribbled a crayon drawing on.
Alone in a horrifying new place where insanity was infectious, he could accidentally step through the wrong doorway and be lost forever, and nothing he’d taken for granted would ever be true again.
Briefly, very briefly, the pang of panic surfaced.
He thought he had problems before, back in that world. Mother, gone. All his art ambitions collapsing around him because he just didn’t have the talent. Struggling to keep grades up. Living from contractor paycheck to contractor paycheck, alone in a city where he knew nobody, where he was surrounded at all times but lonely as hell…
All of that, he’d trade all of this for all of that in a heartbeat. Those were first world problems compared to being stuck in the City of Angles. And unflappable Dave Smith was becoming flapped very rapidly, sitting alone in the motel room, listening to the air conditioning, waiting for taskmasters to pour dire warnings on his head for several days about all the ways he could die.
Anxiety attacks were a thing of the past. He just didn’t bother with them anymore. Until now.
But just as he felt that rising swell, that initial sense of complete unease… something green caught the corner of his eye. Something which wasn’t there a second ago.
Two cardboard boxes, decorated with smiles and good cheer. Green, and full of tiny brown cookies with a chocolatey, minty taste. Girl Scout Thin Mints.
A note had been left on top of the boxes.
thank you, i feel better now.
The instructors who were there to help Dave get used to how things worked in the City of Angles would’ve likely recommended he run away immediately, notify a Department of Safety official, and have the boxes of cookies destroyed with flamethrowers to prevent any possible chance of cubist infection from having the slightest inkling of a notion of possibly taking place.
Instead he ate the delicious cookies, and felt tremendously better about his place in things.
The report had been filed. There wasn’t anything more to be said on the subject; the case just wasn’t airtight enough to bother the judicial system with it. He’d get back to it later, would find other charges, would make it stick in the long run. Officer Cartwright always got his man, in the end. So why say any more than that?
Apparently someone did have more to say about it, which is why Cartwright (an O-3) had been called before the primary Security Officer himself, the O-1, holder of the Department of Safety seat on the City Council. A man that Cartwright had never met before, being a full two ranks over his pay grade.
Being the first visit Cartwright had made to Officer Seth Dougal’s office, he didn’t know if it was good or bad that Dougal had called him in after working hours. He’d heard that Dougal worked late and in isolation, without a secretary or deputy assistant of any sort. Even heard that Dougal never actually slept, which was silly.
At least the office was nice. Carpeting was fresh, desk was mahogany, floor-to-ceiling windows showed a nice expanse of the city. The abstract art hanging on the wall behind Seth Dougal’s desk was a bit sketchy, given the natural aversion most in the city had to anything resembling a cubism, but surely someone that high up on the food chain could be afforded a few eccentricities.
As for Dougal himself…
A serene-looking fellow. Dark skinned with a contrastingly white suit that cost more than Cartwright’s weekly paycheck. Nice manicure. Green power tie. Every inch a sensible and well-grounded fellow.
"I understand you’re the one who brought in the quarantine violator today," Officer Dougal opened with, while sorting through the papers on his desk.
"Yes, sir. And I assure you, I’m not done with this Gregory Yates character," Cartwright insisted. "He’s a menace to public safety, and always has been. Since the anonymous witnesses who reported the incident have, ah, vanished, and certain facts regarding the accuracy of our record keeping on red-blacks have come to light—"
"There’s no sense chasing after some young fool who’s become an old fool, Cartwright," his superior declared, pushing the papers aside for now, and getting up from his seat. "What’s done is done. The ones who violated the sanctity of the Sideways slipped our grasp, but in the end we’ve learned a great deal. It’s time to shift our priorities…"
From his coat pocket… Seth Dougal withdrew a small piece of waxy paper. A children’s menu. He unfolded it carefully, and set it on the desk.
Cartwright squinted at it, unsure as to why some crayon scribblings were even slightly relevant to the Yates case. It looked like nothing important to him.
"I don’t expect you to recognize the importance of this," Dougal stated. "Few do. But when I tell you this is the single most important piece of evidence to emerge from today’s fiasco, I trust you to believe me. We stumbled across it completely by accident, but that’s how it goes, doesn’t it? It’s like the city. One thing connects to something completely different, which connects to something far stranger indeed…"
"It’s a crayon drawing, sir. What could that possibly have to do with—"
"This… Dave Smith, yes? An import. Who was living in the Sideways, for who knows how long. He was close to the core without realizing it, in tune with it. He even managed to lure one of her beloved children away from that dark place… that’s why I sent two of my agents to follow them. A task they failed at completely, but… perhaps that was for the best. We need to watch him carefully. Keep our distance, as the map he’s making is not yet complete, but watch him all the same."
"Sir, what are you talking about? What agents? And, well… he seems like a complete nobody. The real target should be Yates. That man is—"
"Tangential," Seth Dougal stated, folding his arms. "Related, connected in strange ways, but… no. This is the key. Speaking of which, didn’t you notice the discrepancy in his arrest report? The contents of his pockets…?"
"A smart phone, a placemat, a wallet, and a ring with three keys on it. So what?"
"Not the report. The photos of the objects," Seth said… reaching into his coat for the second piece of evidence he’d stolen.
A photograph of four keys on a ring. Or maybe three. Or maybe four…
Cartwright was an experienced officer in the Department of Safety. After years of sealing off dangerous parts of the city, you got a sense of impending cubism, of approaching Picassos. The hairs standing up on the back of your neck, bits of your brain starting to race. He was seeing an impossible thing, a static photograph which was in flux between two images, and that likely meant…
"I’ll… I’ll contact a quarantine team immediately and send them to his Orientation Center!" Cartwright declared. "We’ll seal it off and destroy the object immediately and determine if the boy is corrupted—"
"You’ll do no such thing. I just told you, we need the boy to finish his work, unhindered. Besides, you no longer have the authorization to commandeer departmental resources in any form whatsoever," Seth Dougal declared… extending a hand towards the other man. Smiling. "You tendered your resignation five minutes from now. I could have use of your unusually personal knowledge about the Yates case, and besides, you’ve seen far too much already to remain in the dark. It’s time for you to join a new organization, Cartwright… and your orientation begins tonight."
A blur. Snap focus. Things coming apart while still being together.
Cartwright tried to back away, instinctively, but he wasn’t moving in Euclidean space anymore. He was moving towards Dougal… through him, phasing, shifting. Past the desk, past the man.
Through the abstract art on the wall and into the Sideways.
Where he was not alone.
She smiled at him with six million mouths, each with six million teeth. And in the face of Bedlam, Cartwright no longer remembered how to scream.