city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //002: Orientation Express

Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to a lending library. It’s inadvisable to ask if they use the dewey decimal system.

There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—we’ve got streets which lead to dead ends, roads which criss-cross and loop back around, highways which go nowhere. Literally nowhere, as in "anybody going down that road is not coming back." This is not a good place to wander off unless you like wandering off forever…

Nobody knows where the city came from. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The city exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new people with it.

We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.

If we’re going to survive this, if we’re going to stay alive and thrive, we need to learn to live in the City of Angles.

…here’s an angle to consider...

Dave Smith is an ordinary joe, one who epitomizes the word "ordinary." Ordinary in every way, shape and form, except for the critically important ways in which he is not. His entire apartment was juxtaposed into the city without him realizing it—and then promptly destroyed by a wandering Picasso, a person fallen to chaos.

He’s made friends along the way, including the young mapper Penelope Yates… but being a newly arrived refugee, he has a series of emotional hoops to jump through before he can take his place in the city. Now he’s on his own, running the gauntlet of the Department of Orientation…


//002: Orientation Express

Sunlight streamed in through the cheap plastic blinds, illuminating a room which could at best be called shabby.

That alone wasn’t enough to wake up Dave Smith. It never had been; he’d been using an alarm clock since he was a kid, having to get up before the crack of dawn to make the school bus. If he had his druthers, he’d sleep in until afternoon. Not that he was naturally narcoleptic or anything, he just rarely had anything compelling enough in his life to wake up for.

Of course, that was back on the Earth he knew. One he’d never be going back to, now that he’d landed in the City of Angles.

This wasn’t his home. This wasn’t his bed, or his window blinds, or his pillow. He was all alone without a penny to his name in a world which had been actively trying to kill him. That should have been enough of a compelling reason not to sleep in… but on the other hand, sleeping in meant dreaming away this nightmare, which was enough of an upside to stay snoozing until the alarm clock buzzed.

His hand fumbled for the clock, knocking an empty carton of previously delicious cookies aside in the process.

Yawn, sit on edge of bed, stretch. Scratch at his butt through the pajama bottoms he’d worn ever since departing the smoking ruins of his life. Hopefully the motel had a laundry service.

Shower, dry off, brush teeth using the tiny samples of nasty green toothpaste.

Slippers had been provided by the door, along with a note. Please See Front Desk to Complete Registration, and Welcome!! With two exclamation marks.

He was here to become oriented, apparently. People cared about his well-being and wanted to make sure he was ready to join the vibrant society of the city. All he had to do in return was sleep and wake and listen to what they had to say several times in a row. Dave could manage that. He’d been coasting long enough that coasting through this weirdness was achievable. Ride it out, and hope for the best.

---

The analog wall clock made of stainless steel was ticking loudly enough to be heard over the receptionist’s tinny little radio, which was playing some sort of smooth jazz ear pap suitable for any office.

"Name?" she repeated, to catch his attention away from the retro-style timepiece.

"Dave. Dave Smith," he added.

The woman with the beehive hairdo wrinkled her nose. Between that and the horn-rimmed glasses, she seemed to fit in nicely with the ridiculously outdated motif of the motel, at least.

"Full name, please," she clarified.

"…Dave Danger Smith."

She had been glaring at him before, but that glare now sharpened and flattened out simultaneously.

"I had a very eccentric mother," he explained. "I’m actually not dangerous. I’m the least dangerous person you’ve ever known and I avoid danger like it was… um… danger."

With a sigh, she jotted down his name, trying very hard not to sketch in quotation marks around his middle name.

"Full names of your immediate family members?"

"Richard Allen Smith."

The receptionist allowed another exasperated pause, to egg him on.

"That’s it," he stated. "My mother died some time ago. It’s just my father, no brothers or sisters."

"Mother’s full name, please," she said. "This is for the official genealogical cross index records. I need both of them."

"Oh. Ah, Annabell Valentine Smith. Originally Annabell Marie Valentine, if that helps. Neither of them are over here, though…"

The receptionist kept her eyes down as she wrote, which was something of a relief. Those sharp looks had been gradually flaying off Dave’s flesh.

"The Department of Orientation will make sure of that," she said. "The records have only been digital for the last few years, and honestly those idiots can barely keep track of the letters of the alphabet much less the entire population of the city, but… if any relatives are here, we’ll let you know. Probably. …any food allergies?"

"No."

"Any medication requirements?"

"No."

"Any psychological issues so far? We do have a more advanced track for people who are unable to cope. Are you unable to cope?"

"No…?"

"Anything even remotely interesting about you that I should be writing down here?" she asked, cutting to the chase.

"I… ah… no, probably not," Dave admitted. "I’m not very interesting. People often tell me so."

"Previous occupation?"

"Graphic designer. Artist. Um, freelance. I didn’t really have any steady work, except for this one contract which—"

"So, commercial artist," she said, ticking off a box. "That it? Any other special skills?"

Dave considered this one.

"Some people say I can keep a level head in a crisis," he suggested. "Not that you can earn a living doing that. I mean, nobody pays you to not react to things. …nobody pays you to do that in this city, right? Or is there a burgeoning non-reaction industry out there?"

Glad to be done with it, the receptionist slammed the bottom of the form with a rubber ink stamp, and handed it over along with a laminated card and freshly printed schedule.

"That’ll get you past the Department of Safety officials at the gate, assuming they show up for work today," she said. "Not that we recommend leaving the motel compound until your orientation is complete. The Department of Orientation assumes no responsibility for any harm or hazard encountered beyond the compound. New clothes will be provided for you tonight and the Burger Buffet Bonanza™ adjacent to the motel is free if you present your laminate. This orientation course is optional and you’re free to leave any time you like, although personally I’d suggest you stay put, shut up, and listen to what the instructors tell you. Also, job placement services will only be available to those who complete the course."

His head nodded the whole way through, like a bobblehead in a 1.3 Richter scale earthquake.

He had no intention of leaving before they made him leave, of course. What little he’d seen of the city proved that stepping past a certain line was a bad idea—and learning where that line existed was a good idea.

---

While Dave had taken corporate courses to learn about illustration software and such, those typically happened in swank hotels or business learning annexes. There would be preprinted name tags, comfortable chairs, coffee and bagels, and sometimes even chocolate chip cookies on Tuesdays. The atmosphere was professional and the surroundings modern.

The Seaside Sandy Shores Motel was neither professional nor modern. Nor even seaside.

The city had deemed fit to yank some tacky motor lodge up by the roots from a Mid-Atlantic tourist trap, and likely yanked it up during the 1960s. The whole thing was painted varying shades of teal and pink, with plaster seashell designs over every door. Which did not fit at all when it sat like a low-lying pile of kitsch amidst towering brick structures taken from an inner city slum, on all sides. The roar of traffic was no substitute for the roar of the sea.

With no real reason for people to WANT to rent rooms here, it had been taken over by the Department of Orientation to use as a halfway house for people like Dave. He’d noticed a few others in his situation, huddled in their rooms or wandering the outdoor terraces aimlessly. He supposed being shaken by the whole experience of being yanked into this world was completely understandable. The tacky and inappropriate surroundings did little to comfort them.

On the plus side, there was a swimming pool. Few corporate learning annexes had swimming pools, in Dave’s experience. That meant he could enjoy his free Burger Buffet Bonanza™ Breakfast Burrito while sitting in a plastic reclining chair, and enjoying the reflection of sunlight on the rippling surface.

Being one of the few refugees who was apparently willing to go enjoy the poolside experience instead of curl up in a ball and whimper made him stand out, however. Which meant he was immediately approachable by those who were waiting for someone to make the first move.

He was just finishing up his breakfast burrito when his mentor and wizened sage for the week wandered up.

The guy wore a very tacky white suit straight out of the 80s, with a white tie and a pastel flower print shirt. Popped collar, of course, and a pair of snazzy sunglasses hanging from the neckline. The smell of the grease holding his styled coif in place was nearly as strong as the smell of the burrito Dave was munching. The retro look meant he fit in perfectly with his surroundings, however, which meant maybe he wasn’t as badly dressed as he might’ve been elsewhere.

Unlike Dave, he was in fact wearing a name tag to this training seminar. It read "Hello, My Name Is (Hollister) And I Am Here To Help!!" which meant whoever slapped two exclamation marks on Dave’s welcome note probably designed these, too.

"Hey hey!" the man greeted. "Dave Smith, right? Hollister Avenue, Orientation Officer. I’m your camp counselor, as it were. Fancy seeing you out here so early! Y’know in the years I’ve been in this gig, I’ve never seen someone come poolside first thing in the morning…? Usually they sit in their rooms until their session’s up…"

"I was hungry," Dave suggested. Holding up the burrito for emphasis. "And the weather’s not bad. Sooo… seemed to make sense. That’s all."

"You know, this is a fabu idea, just fabu," Hollister said. "Good thinking, Dave. You’re a sharp cookie. —funny, people don’t think of cookies as sharp, so why do they say sharp cookie? One of life’s many mysteries, Dave, one of life’s many mysteries. But! You know? Let’s go with this. Hang on, wait right here. I’ll be back in a few."

And then he was gone, scampering off across the empty parking lot and towards the motel rooms.

For lack of another option, Dave finished up his greasy tube of unidentifiable foodstuff and then… waited. Because the strange man had told him to wait, and he seemed like he was in charge.

Minutes later, and Dave was no longer alone at poolside. Hollister had dragged along three more refugees to meet him.

He only had a brief moment to get first impressions, as the energetic man in the suit quickly rearranged the plastic furniture into a rough circle, encouraging everyone to sit down.

The largest of the trio was what the media would probably pointedly not specifically refer to as a Scary Black Man, even while reporting on whatever alleged crime spree he had been on. He had all the right trimmings, with the baggy clothes and tank top showing off impressive musculature, and a ball cap which he was adjusting to keep the sun out of his eyes. But the eyes, well… they were just as uneasy and nervous as anyone’s in this place. There was nothing actually scary about him; what he was going through was plenty scary to himself, it seemed.

Next was a stick-thin blonde with clothes which were very possibly stylish, but Dave (who typically spent all day in his pajamas) knew absolutely nothing about style. To him, they just looked colorfully horrible. She had an equally colorful and horrible purse with her, which contained one horrible little dog—which Dave at first assumed was a plush doll, until it snapped an angry bark at him. Its owner cast an equally disparaging look at Dave, to solidify their mutual pact of instant dislike.

And then there was the totally ordinary woman in totally ordinary clothes who was completely in over her head. She stayed near the back, and didn’t move until Hollister physically guided her over to one of the cheap poolside chairs. She had a look about her which said that whatever the universe was doing to her at the moment, she was patiently hoping it would stop soon.

"Okay, so, that’s Jayden, Brittany, and Sarah," the guidance counselor identified, in order. "And this is Dave. Together, you’re Group Four. And you know me, I’m your good buddy Hollister. Welcome to Orientation! Let’s hear it for Group Four, people!"

Nobody cheered. So, Hollister coughed politely, and moved on.

"For the next few days I’ll be teaching you fine folks all about the City of Angles," he said. "That’s ANGLES, not ANGELS. Common rookie mistake, but you, you’re not common rookies, right? When we’re done you’ll be rip roarin’ ready to go and start your new lives! Like Dave here. Dave came right out of his room and decided to enjoy the pool, isn’t that right, Dave? It was all his idea that we hold our first session out here, instead of that musty conference room. Good thinking, Dave! Let’s hear it for Dave!"

He tried to start the applause himself. Nobody clapped. So, Hollister coughed politely, and moved on.

"Now, I know what you’re all thinking," he said, despite being in fact completely wrong about that. "You’re thinking, this Hollister guy, he seems like he’s got his act together. What’s he doing in a dead-end job like being an Orientation Officer? Well, I’ll tell you. I’m a people person. I actually like this job. I like to get people things they want, things they need. Hook-up Hollister, that’s what my friends call me—and I’ve got a LOT of friends. Like you! I’m here for you, to make sure you’re ready to go, to make sure you’re happy. Best way to do that is to get to know you, REALLY know you, as people. So we’re going to start out not by cracking open one of those boring three-ring binders and getting right into the lessons, like the Department wants. We’re gonna get to know you. —Jayden? You want to start?"

Jayden blinked in surprise, taken out of his thoughts by the sound of his name.

"Huh?" the young not-actually-a-gangsta replied.

"Let’s get to know you, Jayden," Hollister repeated, leaning forward into Jayden’s personal space to show how much he cared. "Tell us about yourself. Who you are, where you’re from, what you want out of this city."

"Oh. Well… if I gotta. Name’s Jayden," he said, despite being called by name three times already. "I’m… be honest here, may as well be given the situation I’m stuck in, I’m just some kid from Sacramento. —I’m not a kid, I mean, I’m twenty-one, got the card to prove. Raised by my aunt until she went, then back to my moms. Learned tough after that. Uh, but I’m not really lookin’ for any trouble or… lookin’ for anything. Nothin’ specific. A job, I guess. They get you a job if you sit through this thing, right?"

"That’s the plan, my man," Hollister promised. "I mean, they’ll try. Things can be tricky. But you? I think you’ll go places. I barely know you but I’ve got a good feeling, you know? Right here. Gets me right here."

"That’s your stomach," Jayden pointed out.

"Here," Hollister corrected, pounding on his chest over his heart. "Sorry. I missed breakfast. So, how did you get to the city, Jayden?"

"I was just down by the corner store with my boys, you know, just hanging out," he said. "Summer, you know? No school, nothin’ to do. Anyway, went in to get somethin’ to eat, and I was busy payin’ for it when BAM! everything went weird an’ the whole store got moved to this crazy-ass city. Took me and the poor old bastard who runs the place with it. …where’s he now? Mr. Fong. He doin’ okay? I was figuring I’d meet up with him when they said new folks go to Orientation, but…"

Now, Hollister was the one looking uneasy. "Ah… well… some adapt better than others," he explained. "I saw his file when I was reading up on you folks, and… Mr. Fong, it’s cool, it’s cool, he’s getting the treatment he needs. He’ll be able to accept the transition eventually, don’t you worry. The Department of Resources may even let him work in his store again! He’s like family to you, huh?"

"Naw, I just know him, s’all," Jayden said, with a rolling shrug. "Doubt I got any family here. And if they’re right, and there’s no way back… well… damn. There’s no way back, right?"

"I really hate to bear bad news, but no way back, that’s right, correctamundo," Hollister replied. "It’s harsh to say, I know. But people have been looking for decades, and nobody’s found a way back to Earth yet. That’s why we’ve got Orientation, so you can learn to embrace your new lives—"

"This is utterly ridiculous."

The voice of dissent coming from the leggy blonde with the purse poodle. Which yipped twice, in agreement.

"Assuming I haven’t gone completely insane and am imagining all of this," she suggested, "I’m not the slightest bit interested in your ridiculous summer camp. I don’t need adult career counseling, I HAVE a career. I’m a star! …how is it none of you have recognized me yet?"

She glared around at the group, getting only blank looks in return.

"Hello? Brittany Geneva?" she introduced. "Winner of America’s Top Voice, season three? Beat out all eleven other survivors in Lost Without a Passport: Brazil? Star of my own reality show, Brittany’s All That? …come on! I’m famous! Don’t you people watch television?"

"Can’t afford cable," Jayden offered.

"I mostly watch Netflix," Dave said, with a shrug.

"Um," Sarah the totally normal person offered, feeling she had to say something but not really up for saying anything.

"I don’t believe this. I’m trapped in some insane-o world with the only three people who’ve got zero cultural taste," the TV starlet exclaimed, rolling her eyes. "Well, fine! I don’t need you three. What I need is contacts. Media contacts. You, Hollister, you say you have friends in high places?"

The counselor in the white suit did his best not to look cornered. "High places, well, to an extent. I mean, it depends on how you define ‘high.’ If there’s an altitude scale vis-à-vis social importance and power—"

"And you DO have television in this city, yes?" she continued. "So, call up some television executive and tell them Brittany Geneva wants—no, insists—on a meeting. They’ll know me. I’m famous. I can get out of this ridiculous motel and back on the air where I belong! —or better yet, have them send a camera down here! Four mismatched refugees arriving at a new city, living in a kookily designed building? That has reality television written ALL over it!"

Unused to being pressured by the wide-eyed new arrivals, Hollister did his best to play it cool. "Television, media, yeah, I think I know some guys who know some guys," he suggested. "I mean, I think I do. At the very least I can make some calls and see about—"

"Good, you do that, whatever," Brittany stated—getting to her feet. "Meanwhile, I’m going back to my room to watch what passes for TV in this backwater world. And if you’re really so good at getting people what they want, you can get some gourmet dog food for Miss Mittens here! She’s starving."

The dog got off a few more agitated barks, before her owner turned on a heel and stormed off in a huff.

Hollister waited until Brittany’s motel room door slammed shut behind her before continuing.

"Sooo… Dave and Sarah," he continued, eager to get the meet-and-greet back on track. "Let’s get to know you. Which one of you wants to go first?"

Neither of them wanted to go first.

"Sarah, then," their team leader picked at random. "From your file, it says you’re from Georgia…?"

With attention firmly on her… the middle aged woman withered.

"I… I want to go home," she mumbled. "Please. I have a family, I have children. They need me…"

This, Hollister was more used to working with. He reached over, put a hand on her shoulder. Adopted his most comforting voice.

"I know this is hard to accept, Sarah," he said, "But you’re here, now. There’s no going back. But I promise you, I swear to you, your family will be fine. You don’t need to worry. Right now… what you have to focus on is your own life. It’s a new day, a new start! What you do with it is entirely up to you. …ah, just, it can’t involve going back."

"But, but my husband, my children…"

"You’ve got a loving husband and good kids. I read your file. They’re going to be fine—and so are you. You’re a strong woman, Sarah. Wife of a pastor, pillar of her community, supporter of charities and champion of the homeless, yes…?" he said. "Some people, when they come to the City, they’re complete unknowns. But your works echoed even here! We’ve got reports from people who came to this city before you that know who you are. Do you remember Yvonne?"

The name brought her out of her momentary despair. Mostly because it was a point of confusion.

"Yvonne? Here? Are you sure? I just saw her a month ago," Sarah said. "We’ve been working at the city shelter together for the last year. She was getting back on track after losing her house…"

"I know, and her orientation records had your name in them as a possible point of contact," Hollister said, with a grin. "See? You’re not totally alone here. Listen, she’s working out in the Suburbs at the mo’, but I’ll put in a call and see if she can spare some time to visit. Okay?"

Still unsure… Sarah offered a tentative little nod. Which Hollister took to be a gleeful nod of assent.

"That’s the spirit!" he said, removing his hand from her shoulder (so he could offer a thumbs up). "Right. Okay. I think we’ve all got some culture shock, and really, that’s totally reasonable. Personally, I think the standard orientation course throws you into the deep end too soon, you know? Here’s an idea—let’s break for the day. I’ve got binders you can bring back to your rooms and study at your leisure. We can pick up tomorrow, nice and fresh. And today? Just focus on resting, relaxing, getting used to things. You need anything, anything at all, I’m staying in room 3F. Just down the hall from Sarah’s room. Okay? Okay. I’ll drop by with your binders in a bit. And hey—I’ll find you all swimsuits, ‘k? Enjoy the pool."

He started shaking hands, and offering general words of comfort and support, before the group disbanded to wander off to their rooms.

Except for Dave. Who was still sitting poolside, having been completely overlooked in the meet-‘n-greet process.

Which was fine, really. He wasn’t particularly memorable, and he knew it.

---

GETTING TO KNOW YOUR GOVERNMENT!!

The unusual nature of the City of Angles means a more unusual approach to government. Like the old world America, we are a democracy — however, our branches of government differ.

  • THE DEPARTMENT OF ORIENTATION!!

    • Immigration: Acclimation, Housing (if available), Job Placement (if available)
    • Growth: Geneological Studies, Census Taking, Sociological Data
    • Health: Psychological Services, Welfare & Insurance Systems
  • THE DEPARTMENT OF RESOURCES!!

    • Economics: Financial management, fiscal policy
    • Acquisitions: Annexation & redistribution of newly arrived resources
    • Public Works: Power, Water, Communications
  • THE DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY!!

    • Police: Law Enforcement
    • Justice: Courts, Legal Development
    • Security: Quarantine, Mapping
  • Assorted cross-departmental task forces (Disease Control, First Action Response Team, etc.)

Representatives from the City, Suburbs, and Outlands are elected bi-annually to join the Mayor’s City Council and manage these three departments. Mayoral elections are held quad-annually–

knock knock.

Dave Smith looked up from his three-ring binder, to notice that it had gotten dark outside. Also, that he had a guest.

On opening the door he found Jayden holding up a six-pack of beer, from an unrecognizable brewery. Probably some local brand.

"Hollister got this for me. Probably wasn’t supposed to, but the guy’s damn eager to keep us happy," Jayden explained, letting himself in. "I was gonna get drunk in my room but figured, hell, what’s the point in that? May as well share. I doubt Brittany’d give me a second look and Sarah’s still a bit squirrelly, sooo… that leaves you."

While not a particularly big drinker, Dave accepted a can tossed his way. After all, what else was there to do? He’d already watched some of this world’s television, already got his phone updated to work with local networks, and already read most of the binder. Probably more than the others had accomplished, since Dave had accepted his fate by now. That meant a drink to celebrate wasn’t out of the question.

On tasting the foul brew, he almost changed his mind. His new drinking buddy made a similar scrunched-up face of distaste.

"Either Hollister got the cheap stuff, or this is actually the best the City can produce," Jayden said. "Ugh. Still, beer’s beer, right?"

"I’m not sure this legally can be classified as beer," Dave suggested. "I hope there’s something like the FDA here. I’m not done with my book, but I haven’t read about one yet…"

"You actually reading that thing?" Jayden asked, settling into a guest chair, while Dave sat at the edge of his bed.

"Why not? Beats not knowing how things work," Dave said. "Whoever wrote this thing was way too fond of Powerpoint, though. And Comic Sans MS. My inner designer is freaking out at all those adorably rounded corners…"

"Don’t seem like you’re freaking much."

"I don’t really freak out externally," Dave explained. "It’s a long story."

"Me, I’m freakin’ pretty hardcore," Jayden admitted. "Gettin’ antsy. I may just run for it, comes to that…"

Dave finished off the last of his beer and opted not to reach for another. "I thought you wanted a job?" he asked, setting the empty aside.

"Assumin’ they give me one. Assumin’ they don’t ship my ass off campus and into foster care…"

"I don’t follow."

Jayden pulled off his hat, swiping some sweat off his shaved scalp.

"My I.D.’s a fake," he said. "Says I’m twenty-one just so I can buy booze. I’m still in high school, man. Big for my age, but I’m still in school. Those search and rescue guys who hauled me and Mr. Fong outta there, they just took a glance at it and sent me along, but… well. What’s that binder of yours say about refugee kids?"

Dave’s mind flipped back a few dozen pages, to a section on immigration processing.

"They seem to be… relatively on the ball when it comes to adults. Maybe their foster care system’s not so bad," he offered. "I mean, most people end up here without any relatives or friends. They have to have some way of putting kids in a safe environment—"

"I ain’t a kid and I don’t wanna be treated like one," Jayden said, waggling a beer can at Dave. "If I’m here on my own, if I don’t got family, then… you know what? Fine. I’ll go it alone if I gotta and call it a blessin’ in disguise. I came from a goddamn war zone of a hood and I’m lucky to be alive right now. City of Angles is my fresh start. They get me somewhere to live and a job and I just keep pretending I’m an adult, I work hard, and maybe I can get somewhere better than I was, you feel me?"

"I feel you," Dave said, with a nod. "Well. I mean, I’m not feeling you, as in physically feeling you or anything, I mean…"

"But I get sent to some greedy family lookin’ for a handout for takin’ care of a ‘fugee brat, maybe that don’t happen. Maybe I just end up back on the streets. Here, I got a locked-in chance. Out there, chances could drop. I’ll go with the devil I know. —you won’t snitch on me, right?"

Dave shrugged it off. He couldn’t think of a reason to report this to the authorities; not out of some manly bond or loyalty, but just because it wasn’t his business. Still, an idea tickled the back of his brain.

"You haven’t finished high school, then?" he asked. "Could be rough out there. And no family to back you up…"

"That’s just how it’s gotta be, right?" Jayden said. "I’m not gonna call some strangers family. So… it’s all on me. Live or die, sink or swim, it’s all on me. …not sayin’ I’m thrilled about it, or that it’ll be easy. Scares me outta my mind, honest. But that’s the City, feels like. A lot like home."

"It was that bad back on Earth for you?"

Jayden finished off his current drink, and tossed the empty aside.

"Truth be told?" he said, leaning forward in his chair. "I was in Mr. Fong’s place to rob it."

"Seriously…?"

"I ain’t proud of that. Gang initiation, is all. Either I get in with them, or they just keep beating me up every day until I agree to get in with them. I didn’t have anythin’ against Mr. Fong. Hell, when everything went screwball, when those First Response guys showed up… I was glad. Meant no matter what else, at least I was out of that situation for good. Timing was perfect, I hadn’t even pulled my piece yet; I dumped it fast and made like an innocent bystander. No more Earth, no more living in gang turf, no more troubles."

"New troubles to replace the old, though," Dave pointed out.

"So? At least they’re different troubles. I’ll take ’em over the streets I came from," Jayden said. "Wasn’t any way out until the City of Angles gave me one. Not everybody’s lucky enough to get in one little fight and their mom gets scared and says you’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air. …’sides, my auntie died in a car crash few years back. I was alone and screwed back there, maybe I’m alone and screwed here, I don’t know, but… hell. Can’t be worse."

Alone and screwed. Dave chewed on that, for a bit.

He’d arrived in this City alone. So had most people, it seemed… alone, now hiding away in unfamiliar motel rooms, being given little comfort beyond binders of printed slides and one enthusiastic teacher of arguable competence. Brittany, forever cut off from the adoring public that made her world make sense. Sarah, having left loved ones behind and now facing a life of isolation. Jayden, trying to figure out the best way to move forward with what was given to him…

And then there was Dave. Plowing onward, doing what was asked of him, in hopes that it’d all sort itself out in the end. An empty and useless hope, in the face of all this weirdness.

The only one who had been able to make him feel like that hope was justified was some kid he’d met along the way. With all the radical shifts in scenery, that chance encounter felt like a dream he’d once had rather than something that actually happened to him.

It’ll be okay, Dave, she’d told him. I promise. For you, and for everyone.

"I think I’ll have another beer," he decided. "And propose a toast to your future. And mine. And, well, anyone else, I guess. Let’s just call it a toast to the future, in general."

The younger man cracked his first smile, pulling the aluminum can from its rubbery ring binder and tossing it over. One tinny clunk later, and they were drinking to good health.

"So, what job do you hope they’ll find for you?" Dave asked, curious.

"I think President of the World’d do me fine," Jayden joked. "I used to practice making speeches in my bathroom mirror, as a kid. How ’bout you? What’re you hopin’ for?"

The best possible job they could find him was a stable and well-paid job in graphic design, in a well-established corporation. He could draw neat little lines and impersonal company logos until the day he retired fat and rich, if he landed just the right position.

"I always wanted to be a fireman when I grew up," he remembered.

---

On a fake rooftop, underneath a fake sky. Fake stars spinning slowly in a spiral design, over head.

Television antennas, everywhere. That was silly; over-the-air broadcast was a dead concept. The idea of an apartment building roof covered in spindly, wiry, weirdly bent antennae was an anachronism. And yet, there they were… dozens of them, all rotating at strange angles. He could feel them brush inches away from his skin, like metal brambles that tangled and tore across an urban landscape…

Oh, right. This is why I don’t like getting drunk, Dave thought to himself. Nightmares. Of course.

He could only think it, because Dream-Dave was silently screaming. Dream-Dave usually was screaming and trapped in a weirdly-ordinary-yet-menacing version of the real world.

chirp

"This is a really weird nightmare," Penelope Yates said, hovering just over the lip of the rooftop, sitting indian-style across from Dave. "Are your nightmares usually this weird?"

It’s not really that weird. It’s just scary because it’s completely out of control.

"Oh? You prefer being in control?"

I wouldn’t say I’m fixated on it or anything. But given the alternative, I would prefer to have enough control to not be lost in a forest of spiky metal wires, yes. Wouldn’t you?

chirp

Penelope considered, and nodded in agreement. "Guess that’s a valid point. Why not take control, then? You realize this is a dream, so can’t you make them go away?"

His trembling body continued to barely avoid being scraped and clawed and eviscerated by the gleaming wires, while he considered that. They pulsed with a million broadcast signals, flowing in and around and through him like wind, threatening to throw him into the tangle… but never quite strong enough to do so.

I’ve never been able to before, he thought. That’s just not Dave Smith. Dave Smith enjoys feeding himself these nasty things whether he wants them or not, because he’s used to worrying. Always has been, whether it shows or not. But if I ignore it long enough, I’ll wake up and that’s that. Good enough, right?

chirp

"Who says you have to be that person anymore?" Penelope wondered. "Everything’s changed. I mean, look up at the stars. Those are your stars, aren’t they? You made them. A guy who can make the stars can be anything he wants, not just the person he thinks he has to be. Look up."

So, Dave looked up at the brilliantly lit stellar pattern.

Then he looked down at the rooftop, which finally jumbled itself into a meaningless bundle of razor wire. Without him in it, because now, he was in the stars.

"Much better, yes?" Penelope asked.

"Considerably," he agreed, with his voice now returned to him. "Hmmm. Is because of the City? Does it give you strangely coherent yet incoherent dreams?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. I’m part of your dream, how would I know?" the girl asked. "I’m the client, you’re the designer. You’re supposed to have the answers and I’m supposed to have the questions. For instance, where’s that chirping noise coming from?"

chirp

"That’s my phone’s text message beep," Dave said. "Someone’s IMing me while I’m asleep. Only person in this world who has my number is you… um, is Penelope Yates, so I guess she can’t sleep and she’s texting me. Which… you knew already, since I know. Okay, I get it."

Settling down among the stars, Dave had a seat on nothing and tried to make his headache go away. It wasn’t fair, being hung over during a dream. But even without the rooftop peril, this WAS a nightmare, so some suffering was probably a reasonable expectation.

"I wish I wasn’t so drunk. I could wake up and reply," he continued. "I totally forgot to call her after I settled in, like I’d promised to do. Poor kid. She can’t have too many friends, constantly living on the go like that…"

"Like Melinda from third grade, you mean?" Penelope asked.

"Right. Only knew her for three months, before her dad got his deployment orders and they had to move away again," Dave said. "I worried for weeks about how she was doing, overseas…"

"And now you’re worried about your father."

"He’s going to be all alone, without me there anymore. I’m trying hard not to think about it. It’s hard to keep my head together, with the craziness going on…"

chirp

"Penelope promised you it’d be okay," the imaginary girl reminded him. "That everything will make sense in the end. Of course, it’s not like she has any real say in that. The whole universe spins the way it wants to and nobody can change that, right? It’s out of control, especially in this city. All you can do is hope for the best."

Dave shrugged in agreement. "Guess so."

"Or you can look up, and go to the stars instead of being stuck down in the mire," she reminded him. "Like you did, just now. You want things to make sense in the end? Then make sense of them. Do it. I mean, look at the stars!"

"Uh, I already did that. I’m here, aren’t I?" he asked, pointing them out.

"No, no. I mean LOOK at the stars. Look at them."

And his perspective shifted.

Not to the rooftop, to the craziness and menace of the city. Not to being within the sky itself, too close to see it for what it was. There was a third perspective… somewhere else, somewhere outside, looking and truly understanding…

The stars had been arranged in a shape resembling his unfinished Lucid Technologies logo. He’d recognize the twists and turns of that spiraling knot-like shape anywhere.

Instead of a chirp, the next sound was his alarm clock sounding bright and loud. True to form, Dave Smith snapped awake, and probably forgot everything he just learned in the process.

---

Dave’s hand knocked a few empty beer cans off his end table, as he fumbled for the button which would make the annoying sound go away.

With throbbing agony in his head encouraging him to do otherwise, he pulled himself upright and tried not to think about the previous night’s festivities. Step one would be to track down some water and aspirin, step two would be to try to avoid throwing up, and—

—that should have been made step one, he thought in hindsight, after returning from an emergency session praying to the porcelain god. But at least it was over with.

Take a shower. Brush teeth. Brush teeth again, to get the taste out. Get dressed; Hollister had obtained some Department of Orientation sweat pants and t-shirts for him yesterday, which meant he would be once again wearing telecommuting garb. At least this time, he’d have shoes…

Check his phone. Instant messages. For some reason, he knew there’d be some waiting for him.

PennyLane: hi u there?
PennyLane: i can’t sleep. can’t call, trying not to wake dad.
PennyLane: he says we have to lay low a bit, after that brush with the cops. i’m planning my next adventure, though!
PennyLane: guess you’re still asleep.
PennyLane: it’s ok. you need your rest. call me when you’ve got time but no rush k? and don’t let orientation scare you. life in the city isn’t terrible. you can make whatever you want of it! you’re a new person and it’s all up to you!
i know you’ll do ok.

Fumbling with the phone through the haze of his hangover, he thumbed in a reply.

DaveSmith: Doing OK. Getting breakfast, will call later. Haven’t really seen anything scary yet.

On his way out the door, intent on getting more greasy foodstuffs, his gaze lingered on a blue thing.

Someone had slipped a blue piece of paper under his door. Some kind of leaflet. Assuming it was more orientation notes, Dave pulled it out of the door jam, unfolded, and read.

YOU ARE NOT BEING TOLD THE WHOLE TRUTH

The Department of Orientation is keeping something from you, out of fear of how you will react. We think you deserve to know the reality of your situation.

YOU DO NOT EXIST.
THIS PLACE IS NOT REAL.
YOU ARE ONLY AN ECHO OF WHO YOU THINK YOU ARE.

This was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in 1968, with the arrival of Elvis Presley in the City of Angles — and confirmed in the years that followed.

Do you wonder why nobody on Earth has raised an eyebrow at what would surely be a rash of missing persons cases? Enough people are taken to the City each year that surely it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Especially if a major public figure like Elvis vanished overnight…

PEOPLE WHO CAME TO THE CITY AFTER 1968 SAID HE NEVER LEFT!
THE REAL ELVIS DIED ON EARTH IN 1977.
THIS CITY’S VERSION OF ELVIS DIED IN 2002.

EVERYONE HERE IS ONLY A COPY — THE REAL YOU IS STILL ON EARTH

THE "YOU" THAT IS HERE IS ONLY AN ECHO OF THAT REAL PERSON

The Department of Orientation holds this truth back, until they feel you are ready to accept it. They claim this means your family and loved ones will not miss you, because you never left, and that means you don’t have to be afraid. No gaping holes are being left in society because nobody is being kidnapped by the City of Angles.

Those who are "born" in this city are figments of the City’s diseased imagination — they never existed on Earth, they were never real in the first place. These things occupy government seats, they rule over your tortured life in their streets. The Department of Orientation isn’t run by refugees, it’s run by natives, and the nightmares want you to suffer.

Every day you exist in this nonexistent place is a day of suffering. You do not have a soul, you do not exist, there’s no reason for you to keep enduring this just because they say you have to.

YOU ARE ONLY AN ECHO. YOU DON’T HAVE TO ACCEPT THIS CITY’S LIE.

Embrace the teachings of Echo. She is the path towards your salvation. She can help you embrace non-existence and finally be free of the City of Angles and the pain it brings. We love you, she loves you, and we promise to help those who accept this truth.

 

There wasn’t any time to ponder the truthfulness of it, the implications if it were true, or how Dave might feel about all of this.

Like the alarm clock which pulled him out of slumber, another sound pulled him away from this latest oddity. The sound of a woman screaming.

He immediately dropped the flier and ran out the door, towards the person in distress.

---

At least today, Dave had proper shoes on. That meant he could double time it up the concrete outdoor steps of the motel, to the third floor.

Quickly, his mind was putting together information. He knew exactly what to expect, by the time he arrived on the scene.

One, the screaming was coming from the end of the row of rooms—where Sarah’s room was.

Two, he’d seen blue leaflets sticking out from underneath other doors along the way. Someone had been through here in the dead of night, slipping them all the cheaply printed flyers.

Three, Hollister had assured Sarah yesterday that her family would be fine despite her arrival in the city… but didn’t say WHY. And if the flyer was telling the truth, now Dave knew why—and so did Sarah.

By the time he arrived at her room he knew exactly what he’d be seeing: Sarah, screaming at Hollister. Who was unfortunately quartered in the room right next door, and now bore the brunt of her distress.

The mother of two and devoted wife was shaking a slightly leaflet at him.

"Is it true?" she demanded to know. "Is it TRUE? Is this what you’ve been keeping from us?!"

Given the broken lamp near the door, likely hurled at velocity, Dave decided to enter the room without saying a word… but ready to get between them if need be.

The chaos had attracted more than Dave’s presence, however… a quick glance confirmed Jayden at the door, and Brittany nearby, although after one look at the situation she departed. Likely to continue the phone call she was in the middle of. Other refugees from other orientation groups were also starting to gather, drawn by the noise…

Which put Hollister on the spot. Everybody had the same question, even if they were less aggressive in asking. Is it true?

"Goddammit, those Safety goons were supposed to keep those nutbag cultists and their propaganda away from here…" he grumbled.

"Don’t you take the Lord’s name in vain," Sarah warned. "Don’t you dare. Now tell me if it’s true! Are we just copies? Are any of us real?!"

Clearly, this was something Hollister was used to explaining… even if he was used to explaining it under more controlled circumstances. He had a prepared speech and everything.

"All we know is what we can observe," he explained. "It started out as rumors, people who knew each other on Earth confused about why personal histories didn’t match up. The Elvis thing confirmed what many suspected… that when you come to the City of Angles, you never really leave Earth. So, yes. Refugees are, it seems, copies. Just like the copies of buildings and places that get pulled in here. And that’s the farthest extent of what we know about it—anything else is someone’s interpretation."

Sarah’s anger drained out, in an instant. Because the implications were far too horrible in and of themselves to focus on anything else.

"Then… it’s true," she realized. "We don’t exist. We’re just echoes. We don’t even have souls—"

"Whoa, who says that’s true? Who?" Hollister asked. "No souls? I don’t buy that for a minute. We are here. We are alive! I was born here and I certainly believe I’ve got a soul, that I exist. If you want to look at it from a religious perspective, who says this isn’t part of His plan? We can’t know for sure. All we can do is work with what we’re given. We were given a life here, for whatever reason—"

"This could be Hell," Sarah reasoned. "We could be dead, and this is Hell…"

"I don’t buy that. You know why? Because they left out the rest of the story on that flyer," Hollister stated. "It doesn’t suit the crazy doom philosophy of the Echo Chamber to tell people what REALLY happened to Elvis—"

"When he found out how he died on Earth, he turned his life around," Dave guessed, interjecting himself into the discussion.

All eyes, inside the room and loitering outside the room, turned to the person they had completely ignored.

"I mean… it just stands to reason," Dave said, feeling quite on-the-spot. "Elvis was a drug abuser headed on a path of self-destruction. One way he could have lived to the 21st century is if he saw what happened to the ‘real’ Elvis as a wake up call. …am I right? Okay, I’m swinging in the dark here, but—"

"No, no, you got it!" Hollister confirmed, thrilled to have someone on his side. "That’s the thing about the City of Angles, right? It’s a new beginning for all of you! Your life here may play out completely differently, but that doesn’t mean it’s a life of endless suffering like the Echo Chamber claims. It’s not Hell, that’s for sure. Whatever it is… it’s ours to make the best of!"

On a roll… Hollister turned to the crowd gathered just beyond the door, watching through the window, listening in on the confrontation.

"Nobody knows why the City of Angles exists, or how it works, or what exactly we are," he said, throwing a bone to the flyer’s claims. "But that’s the thing. It’s unknown. It’s unknowable. Where does that leave us? It leaves us with what we have. And that doesn’t have to be terrible! That’s what Orientation is for, in the end—to give folks hope. Life here will be different, it will be challenging, and you’ll be a different person as a result. But trust me… stick with the program, give it a chance, and you’ll be ready to take those first steps. Okay? Okay. …okay."

Lastly… he turned to Sarah. Who was nearly in tears, lost and confused by all this conflicting information.

"Yvonne will be here soon, okay?" he promised. "I gave her a call yesterday and she’s arranging for a ride into the city. She got here a few months back, so she’d love to reconnect. A familiar face may be just what you need to bridge the gap between your old life and your new one. And like I said before… your family is safe, and well. You never really left them. Everything’s going to be just dandy, I promise. Okay? Okay!"

He offered his biggest, brightest, most confident smile.

It took Sarah three moments to form a coherent response.

"Get out," was all she could say. Not harshly, not sadly, just… stated.

---

Sensing that the moment had passed, and not wanting to make things even more awkward than they already were, the crowd dispersed. Some to slink back to their rooms and consider for themselves what this new revelation meant, some to give up thinking about it and go get breakfast.

The only ones that stayed, leaning against the guardrail a few doors down from Sarah’s now closed-and-locked door, were the rest of Group Four.

"I’ve been pushing for them to reveal the ‘copy’ thing earlier in the curriculum, you know," Hollister admitted to his students. "It’s too hard to dance around the issue for days. But the headshrinks feel it’s better to spring it on you guys after you’ve had a chance to accept your circumstances… I don’t know. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad. Cat’s out of the bag, now."

"So what happens next with Sarah?" Dave asked.

"If we can’t reach her… Mr. Fong may have a new roommate," Hollister suggested. "There’s limited space in the Department’s therapy wards, so they keep letting folks who need serious help slip into the general program. Not surprised they sent Sarah here, but I’ll push to get her the help she needs if I gotta. …what about you guys? You all got the flyers, right? How you doin’?"

Jayden pushed away from the railing, looking out across the parking lot, the pool, the Burger Buffet Bonanza™… the whole span of the city, or at least the span that was immediately visible.

"Kinda sucks, since… well, I was hopin’ I was out of that hellhole for good. Now it sounds like some of me’s still back there," he said. "Feel bad for that Jayden. But this Jayden’s ready to get movin’ on all this. Have been since the start, so I guess nothin’ changes for me. As for Heaven and Hell and souls and shit, man, I don’t know and I don’t got time to think about it. I’m still game."

"My Dad’s not going to be alone," Dave said. "Leaving him was the only regret I had. …well, I regret getting stuck in a city that keeps trying to kill me, but… I guess nothing changes for me, either—"

Brittany snapped a finger, to steal the attention spotlight.

"Yes, yes, giant pity party, psychobabble, whatever," she said. "Poor, poor Sarah. Now—do I have a meeting with a TV executive or not? You said you were going to make calls for me, Hollister. Or are you too busy cooing over some washed-up MILF to pay attention to your main star?"

This would be the other major topic Hollister had wished to avoid talking about. But after confronting an understandably terrified and angry woman, why not go all-in and confront a would-be celebrity with a spiteful streak…? He committed to that course of action with some bitterness.

"I’m not in the mood to sugarcoat this, given I’m more worried about Sarah than you," he admitted, straight away. "So, yes. I made those calls. I know guys who know guys; I passed word up the food chain. And I got no bites. Not a single one. Nobody cares."

"Impossible—"

"It took hours for someone, anyone to get back to me who had ever heard of you before. The only time the city gets its hands on television shows from your Earth is when a video rental store or a warehouse full of DVDs gets dropped in here, and with everything switching to Internet streaming, that doesn’t happen often anymore. And here-today, gone-tomorrow reality shows? Even less often. So, no, almost nobody had heard of you. And the one guy who had? He said he’s more interested in pushing people seen on local cable stations than a refugee celebutante who feels entitled to the spotlight. Sorry."

In the face of a ragingly livid celebrity, Hollister put his hands in his pockets, and adopted an uncaring expression. One which said, too bad honey, that’s show biz.

So she kicked him directly in the crotch, and walked away without a word.

By the time the stars passed from his eyes, Hollister was being helped off the floor by Dave and Jayden.

"…m’gonna get fired," he mumbled, trying to swallow the agony down. "She’ll probably walk out now. Sarah’ll go to therapy. Crap week. …you two wanna walk too, I’ll understand… I’m a lousy teacher. I know it. Wanting to help’s not enough. I’m no damn good at any of this…"

"Let’s get him to his room," Dave suggested to Jayden. "I’ll go get a bag of ice from the ice machine for his groin. And I’ll grab my three-ring while I’m at it; we’ll do today’s seminar lessons in Hollister’s room. Sound good?"

Jayden helped shift the wobbly Hollister’s weight onto Dave’s shoulders, accepting the room card key. "Sounds good. I’m on it," he agreed, heading off to finish the errands.

"You don’t actually have to bother with the apple-polishing, you know," Hollister said, as Dave helped him limp along towards his room. "It’s not like there’s a test or anything. They’ll still try to find you a job, because the law says they have to. But the Department doesn’t really care about refugees; they only offer this lousy course to pretend they care…"

"You actually care," Dave said. "That’s good enough for me. So, I’ll care in return. Besides, I’ve got some questions about the stuff I read in the binder, may as well clear them up before we’re kicked out into the city."

Hollister focused through the pain, trying to read Dave’s perpetually neutral expression.

"I’d say you’re more ready for this city than most people who pass through my classes," he admitted. "But… okay. Let’s do this up right and actually teach the book. Get you two started out right. Fabu idea, just fabu."

---

The normal orientation course consisted of several days of sitting around in an emptied-out storage room of the motel, listening to your instructor read the slides aloud, bullet by bullet. Occasionally he’d bother answering a question or two, but it wasn’t likely. Meanwhile, the refugees would stare into space and wonder just what the hell they’d gotten themselves into, and eventually they’d be shoved out the door with instructions to report for duty at a laundromat or something.

And for most of the groups at the Seaside Sandy Shores Motel, that’s exactly what happened. But Group Four, despite being fragmented and on the ropes, was actually getting something done compared to the other groups.

By the time the bag of ice had melted, Hollister was feeling more like himself and less like he was going to throw up. Despite losing two of his students along the way he was in better spirits, and coloring way outside the lines when it came to official city living instructions.

"It’s not really where you live, it’s who you know. Where you live changes all the time. One day, might take you five minutes to walk to the corner store for a quart of milk; next day, it’s a block further away; day after that, you’re going down two side streets to get there. …not that it shuffles up THAT often, but you never know, right? So, you get to know who sells the best maps online—don’t trust the official Dep of Reez maps for that, they’re not on the ball—you’re good. Know the right people and you’ll know where you’re going."

"So… there are districts, and there aren’t districts?" Dave asked, confused. "Why bother marking off parts of the city by district lines if it changes so often?"

"Gerrymandering, my man. Gerrymandering in full tilt swing. That’s about all locality is good for—and even that’s a dodge. The city shuffles up on a regular basis since new buildings get inserted between old ones. That means even if, like… okay, here’s a working example: Italian-Americans tended to gather around the Spindles in the nineties, right? But then in 1997 this giant apartment complex from a largely Latino southwestern town showed up right in the middle of the Spindles. Brought two dozen refugees with it! Suddenly, bam!, culture clash, shifting voting patterns, nothing’s certain. Can’t rely on locality to mean anything, socially speaking."

Jayden thought this one over. "Great American melting pot," he recited. "Stupid song from the sixties or something, they showed us a cartoon about it in school when I was a kid. Never really worked like that, but guess here, it ain’t optional…"

"Right. City’s been like this so long that folks are used to it. Equality forced on us from on high. Or from below, or from the great cosmic spaghetti monster, or whatever," Hollister agreed. "Not like there’s universal acceptance, but… with each new generation you get more. Only way to survive is to deal with your own shit and not waste time hating on the neighbors, yeah? That’s the idea, anyway."

"City that much of a death trap?" Jayden asked. "I hear stories, I’ve seen the news on TV, but…"

Hollister paused before answering, to think that through.

"Nnnnot always," he decided on, in the end. "Not as much as folks fear. It’s not like evil woogums roam the streets eating people on a regular basis. But fear is a powerful motivator and the media and politicos rely on it to keep them in the green. Realistically… if you learn the lay of the land and aren’t afraid to shake some hands, you’ll do fine. It’s the ones who wander off alone that get in the mess. Having a good friend to keep you grounded is enough, I say."

Which sent up a red flag reminder in Dave’s mind.

"I need to make a call," he said, closing his book. "It’s getting late and I keep putting it off. Sorry; I’ll be right back."

"Hey, take your time," Hollister invited. "Anyway. Jayden, to answer your earlier question, if you wanna score the best lap dances you definitely want to avoid the Zag; those joints bill themselves as cheap and sleazy but honestly, they’re upscale and pricey. I recommend Pileup Intersection or the Crossway Points for the best dives…"

Dave loitered by the door, where reception was best. Penelope had helped him load new backdoor software on his phone, which re-connected him from his now nonexistent service carrier to the city’s public grid—not the best, she explained, but free’s free. It meant he had to be as close to the open air as possible to do more than send a few text messages, but…

Before he could flick down the contact list for Penelope’s number, he caught a glance through the motel room window of someone loitering by the other side of the door. Even in the dim of the setting sun, he could tell who it was.

Cautiously, Dave opened the door.

Sarah hadn’t knocked yet. She might never have, really… stuck in the moment of indecision, to approach or not to approach. So, Dave did the approaching.

"Hey," he greeted.

"Um… hello," she said, in reply. Awkwardness rising. "I… couldn’t help but hear through the walls. Are you doing the lesson plans…?"

"Sort of. Kinda. In a way," he said. "Do you want to join us? I can get a chair from my room for you."

The answer was obviously no, judging from her pensive body language. Not just I’m unsure, but flat out No, I do not want to be here, I don’t like what is happening to me, I wish it would all go away

Ultimately, though, she offered the slightest of nods.

"May as well," was all she could agree to.

By the time Dave returned to the room, carrying a semi-lumpy guest chair on his back, he’d forgotten all about the phone call he was going to make. The surviving members of Group Four continued their discussion (with the lap dance point of interest hushed up promptly) until it was time to get their horrible dinners, and retire for the evening.

---

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

"Hiii! I can’t pick up my phone right now," Penelope indirectly replied. "Either I’m out of reception range, or it’s on mute because my Dad doesn’t want me drawing attention, or I’m being chased by a Picasso, or I’m peeing. Anyway, leave a message."

Beep.

And he had no idea what to say.

"Ah, hi. I’m doing fine," he got out immediately, because that beep was quite pressuring. "Sorry I didn’t ring you earlier, and sorry I forgot to reply to the text messages, it’s been very strange. But I’m doing fine. Soo… just letting you know. —this is Dave, by the way."

Touch the virtual button, hang up the phone.

On the whole, that was not one of Dave’s finest answering machine drops. He’d dialed her up in a rush, having realized it was edging on midnight and he’d once again completely forgotten to ring up the only other person he knew in the city… and then had no idea what to say to the recording device. Unfortunate.

His day was long done. Yet another meal of fast food turning uncomfortably in his belly, a change of clothes back into his freshly laundered pajamas, and nothing left but watching TV or cruising the Internet. Except, of course, he had no idea what to look for on this world’s Internet… www.google.com just returned a big page reading "LOL FUGEE NOOB." Which left television.

Sadly, television here was just like television back home—the names were different, the shows were different, but it was the same vapid array of sitcoms and reality shows and dire portents in the evening news that never really interested him back home, either. Even worse, it was the low budget late night deep cable offerings you might get in some backwater state, not any major network polish.

Commercials for "Jerky Bob’s discount free-range beef by the pound!" slotted into every other break; apparently whoever this Jerky Bob was, he was very keen on making sure every family squatting at home for fear of going out had plenty of frozen cow chunks on hand. There was a standard Strangers In a Strange House Are Eliminated One By One reality show, except it took on a bit more menacing of a tone than Dave was expecting… the people who got voted out genuinely looked upset to have to leave.

Finally, in the late evening news, there was an interview with the head of the Department of Safety.

"Mr. Dougal, researchers have pointed out that the number of quarantined entrances to the Sideways has tripled in the last five years," the reviewer noted from his teleprompter. "Do you see this sharp increase being attributed to more holes in the city appearing than normal, or simply more efficient techniques for identifying the gaps?"

The charming gentleman offered his most convincing and compassionate smile.

"I would say it’s both," Seth Dougal replied. "The Department of Safety is ever vigilant in informing the public of dangerous areas in the city. We are dedicated to keeping the population safe from the threat of the Sideways, and we are working tirelessly to ensure every trouble spot is identified clearly. That said, there is a distinct increase in the number of openings to the Sideways being created in recent years."

"So you see this as an ongoing trend?"

"Yes, and it’s one we need to be concerned with. Now, it’s part of my re-election platform to obtain more funding for researching the Sideways, to determine the cause of this. I believe with proper study, we will one day have nothing to fear. But should my opponent take my seat on the City Council… I don’t know if she would have the dedication I would have towards investigating this issue."

"Then my follow up question to you is this," the interviewer said. "Maps are being drawn of the Sideways every day. In fact, she’s likely out there right now, out of reach, in harm’s way—all to make sense of the city, and keep people safe. Is this a fool’s errand?"

"Oh, absolutely," Seth agreed. "A child’s whimsy is hardly any sort of noble crusade. It doesn’t matter that she has a rather scary father—this city’s nightmare isn’t something you can shoot in the head. He’ll die, and likely die screaming. Then, she’ll be pulled into the unending horror and be twisted into something unrecognizable. It’s inevitable, really. The entire city is going to fall to perfect chaos eventually."

"I see. And what of her new ally, Dave Smith?"

The man with the sharp green power tie laughed and laughed, his mouth opening a mouth.

"’Ally’? That’s really reaching, don’t you think?" he asked, through both sets of lips. "In ANY given situation, what good is having Dave Smith at your side? He’s hardly proper big brother material for that poor doomed child."

"What makes you say that? "

"Well, let’s run down his defining attributes," Seth suggested, counting them on six-jointed fingers. "He has no skills or talents whatsoever. He’s a failed artist. He’s mediocrity incarnate. He’s three inches from a mental break, and that’s on a good day. He knows, deep down, that he’ll never amount to anything—and he’s gratefully accepted that, taking refuge in the stability of the mundane. Comfort, even. Why reach, when you risk in the process? No, no… Dave has purposefully chosen to be nothing. What exactly do you think that nothing of a person can possibly do for little Penelope Yates?"

"So you’re saying that if this pale echo of Dave died in his sleep, the world would go on without any great gain or loss?" the interviewer asked, curious.

"Oh, I didn’t say that. Dave will become, much to his own horror, quite important," Seth assured him, with multiplying smiles of razor wire and concrete. "But once that purpose is expended, that singular strange connection and the end result of Lucid’s influence is realized… well… I don’t mean to sound cruel, but Bedlam will enjoy pushing him three inches to the left and directly off the edge of his own sanity. Just to show him how weak he truly is, in the face of her nightmare. No, no… Dave Smith sealed his fate when he made best friends with her sworn enemy. She can be quite spiteful, as you know."

"Indeed I do," the interviewer said, before being pulled apart at the edges by the chaotic dark which rushed out of the television set and consumed everything Dave cared for in life.

To his credit, Dave didn’t wake up screaming. He woke up silently, with the blare of his alarm clock the only sound to be heard.

The clock continued to ring for a good twenty-three minutes before Dave got up, shaved, brushed his teeth, showered, dressed, and wandered off in search of breakfast.

---

"Jesus, Dave, you look like crap."

This time around, they were using the actual storage room they were meant to be in. Hollister had done his best to tidy it up—straighten out the chairs, get rid of the litter left by other orientation groups, change the bulb in the overhead projector. He’d even brought in a few boxes of coffee on his own dime, to get everybody up and ready to face the day.

Nobody looked like they were up and ready to face the day. Jayden hadn’t gotten much sleep. Sarah was… continually unsettled. And Dave, unflappable and unmovable Dave, bore dark circles under his expressionless eyes.

"I’m doing fine," he insisted, accepting the offered cup of coffee. "Thanks. What’s the lesson today?"

"Honestly, I have NO idea where we are in the syllabus at the moment," Hollister admitted, taking his seat at the front of the room. "I was thinking of going totally off the book and telling you about what to expect from your first housing assignment. I’ve been making calls—let it not be said Hook-up Hollister leaves his peeps hanging! I managed to land you in a decent fringe building. …ah, and I do have one big surprise to drop on you! Jayden, specifically."

Jayden, who was just sitting down with coffee in hand, hovered halfway over the surface of his chair.

"Uh. Surprise?" he asked, glancing towards the door, in case he had to bolt.

"Hey, hey, be cool, it’s good news," Hollister promised. "Well, half good news. See, problem is we know you’re a minor, so this is the end of the road for the orientation program for you—"

Coffee spilled on the floor.

"My I.D. is legit! I told you!" Jayden declared. "I’m down, I’m ready to start in the city. Just let me—"

"Your aunt confirmed your age for us."

That put pause in Jayden’s protests.

"My auntie’s dead, Hollister. That’s cold," he declared, narrowing his eyes.

"Car crash, right? That was back on Earth. Not here," Hollister explained. "That’s the upside of the echo revelation, see? She got copied here two years before you lost her, so… you didn’t lose her! Department was matching your records to find some relatives, and they got a hit. She’s alive, and she’s ready to take you in; she’ll be by later this morning to pick you up."

A pause was inserted in the pause in Jayden’s protest.

"You serious about this?" he asked, not sure if he wanted to get any hopes moving in an upward direction yet.

"Sure I’m serious! Okay, okay, I did a big TV-drama reveal, mea culpa," he apologized. "But hey—you’ve got family, man! That’s more than most people get. What’s more, I pulled some strings of my own—Department wouldn’t be happy, but whatever—and found you an admittedly crappy part-time job in the same district she lives in. Just ’cause. You’re all set, Jayden. You get your fresh start AND you get some roots to grow on. Congrats."

Being used to life throwing a continual series of curve balls right to the noggin, it took Jayden a few moments to fully swallow it all. Especially difficult since he had been burning the idea that he was alone and about thrown against this new world head first.

But in time, he came up smiling.

"Well… huh," was all he could say. A pleased sort of puzzled noise.

"Huh indeed, my boy, huh indeed," Hollister said, with an equivalent grin. "Right. Anyway, enjoy your coffee, feel free to hang around—you can learn up all you like until the Department makes you amscray with your auntie. So! Let’s get this last day of training underway. I was thinking we’d… wait, where’s Sarah?"

She’d taken a chair near the back of the small storage room. Her binder and coffee cup and pencils were neatly arrayed in front of that chair… but she wasn’t in it.

And the door was quietly latching shut, having finished its hinge swing open and closed behind her.

---

At one point, perhaps the windows of the Seaside Sandy Shores motel offered a brilliant vista of sparkling sands and pounding surf. Transplanted into the City of Angles, the large windows instead afforded you a lovely view of a brick wall, and a sheer drop into a back alley between the motel and a block of flats.

A sheer drop that Sarah was looking over, sitting in the open window.

The pounding at her door confirmed that it was the smart move to lock it. The next smart move would be to jump, before whoever it was could run down three fights of stairs and out around the front of the motel, into the alley below. It would be so easy to just jump… the easiest thing in the world. It wasn’t even jumping; she just had to let go of the window frame and gravity would handle the rest.

Hesitating wasn’t the smart move.

One minute later, and Dave Smith was in the alley, directly underneath.

"Get out of the way, Dave," Sarah called down. "I don’t want you getting hurt."

"I could say the same!" Dave called up. "Sarah, don’t—"

"Don’t what? Commit suicide? I wouldn’t. Suicide’s a sin," Sarah replied. "But I’m not in the Lord’s sight, am I? I’m just an echo. When I’m gone, nothing’s lost. You heard Hollister; my real self is back home with her family. She’s safe and sound and happy… my family doesn’t need me. I don’t need to be here. I don’t need that constant reminder…"

Now, the other two were coming. Hollister, out of breath from making the long run. Jayden, well ahead of him. Good boys. Meant well. She didn’t blame them, not really…

"Sarah, I don’t think it’ll kill you to jump from that high!" Dave warned—before quickly whispering out the side of his mouth. "Hollister, run back and get the manager to unlock the door. —all it’ll do is hurt really, really badly!"

"So?" Sarah asked him. "This city is painful already. Who cares? This way I have a chance to end that pain…"

"It doesn’t HAVE to be painful! It’s a new life. It can be whatever you want it to be!"

"I never asked for a new life!" Sarah shouted, to the two below. "I never wanted one. I was happy, HAPPY with the life I already had! If this life, if it even is a ‘life’, can be whatever I want it to be… I want it NOT to be. Get out of the way, Dave!"

"If you jump, Jayden and I are just going to try to catch you, and then I’m guessing all of us are going to the hospital," Dave warned. "Okay? So… just climb back in, and let’s talk this over—"

There should have been some sort of last words. That’s how it worked on television; there’d be a dramatic life declaration or something, and then she’d jump.

Instead, she simply fell away. Slipping from the window with full intention—no arcing dive, which they would’ve been able to intercept. More like a puppet with its strings snipped suddenly.

Not that he didn’t try to stop it. Dave was hardly a star sprinter, but he was ready and let the reflexes do the rest. Jayden was at his side, ready to move, to catch the falling woman…

And they did. It hurt quite a bit, since it was less of a "catch" and more of a "cushion", but it worked.

He didn’t feel like any bones were broken. He might’ve missed a half a minute there from the impact and the darkness that followed, but he was alive. He’d done it, he’d saved her…

She should’ve had some sort of last words. A dramatic life declaration.

Instead she simply wasn’t breathing any more.

When the medics finally arrived on the scene, they determined one lung had collapsed on impact, and her head had cracked against the wall due to the awkward angle of the landing. She didn’t have a chance. But Dave and Jayden were essentially unharmed.

Essentially.

---

Around lunchtime, Jayden left the motel. There was much pinching of cheeks and kissing of foreheads when his auntie found out her favorite nephew had arrived in the city. Hollister handled all the paperwork for the discharge, shook the hands, made friendly.

Given only one student remained—with a walk-out, a disqualification, and a suicide knocking the rest out of the picture—that was the unofficial end of the seminar. Especially since that student was now holed up in his motel room, refusing to come out.

Hollister had left a bag of takeout food outside Dave’s door. It went cold soon after.

Unflappable Dave, unshakable Dave. You’d never know it from outside his skin. Look into his eyes and you’d just see limpid optic fluids. He’d sometimes proclaim how close he was to the break point, but it wasn’t an easy thing to believe; there was nothing to show he was on edge.

But three inches to the left, and you’ll find Other Dave. The one who had disappointment after disappointment, building up in big and small doses, leaving him constantly waiting for the next thing to go wrong. A bad grade. A bully. Falling off your bike and breaking an arm. Your mother’s diagnosis…

Dad never really knew how to comfort him. Dave wasn’t really sure HOW to be comforted, honestly.

In the end, he pressed a virtual button on a touch screen to reach out at last.

Ring.

Ring.

Click. "Hello?"

The phone trembled in his hand.

"I don’t think I’m doing fine," he told Penelope.

---

The conversation lasted maybe twenty-three minutes. He couldn’t even remember what was said. On some detached level, Dave was actually quite astounded at how well a teenage girl was doing at dealing with a broken-down Dave. Maybe because on some level, broken-down Dave was about the same age she was. Everybody’s a scared little kid, in their worst hours.

In the end he’d made some kind of promise. He couldn’t recall what it was, too exhausted to think straight, but it was enough to level his breathing again.

After the discussion was over, Dave hung up the phone, sank into bed, and fell asleep.

Dreamless hours. No nightmares whatsoever. A blessing.

Wake up. Shave, brush, shower, get dressed.

He moved in a haze, as he approached the receptionist who had "greeted" him on that first day. It was time to be discharged from the program—to find out where he was going.

Seeing that indifferent woman smiling at him was quite… was… quite. Just quite.

"Seems you’re in luck," she said, holding out a clipboard for him to sign. "We actually found you an entry-level position at a local advertising agency. Graphic design, just like you were looking for. Very old and respected company; you play your cards right, this could set you up for life. Just sign here, and it’s all yours."

You kept your head when others were losing theirs, Penelope had explained on the phone, ringing out in his memory through the haze. Maybe you’re not that great at keeping your head when it’s your OWN problems on the table, but you did everything you could for that poor woman. Don’t forget, you saved us from that Picasso in the Sideways. I think you’re stronger than you believe you are, Dave. I think you could really help people… and maybe that’d help you help yourself, in the end. Promise me, okay? Promise me you’ll try.

He wasn’t the old Dave Smith. The old Dave Smith was still toiling away in contractor obscurity, clinging to an ordinary life with all ten fingers, desperate to not have to think about anything or worry about anything or be anything. No obligations, no anxieties, no life.

If he was only an echo, a whole new Dave, that meant he could be anything he wanted to be. He could be what he really wanted to be.

He didn’t reach for the pen.

"I think I’d like to be a fireman instead," he replied. "Or a paramedic, or a first responder, or something like that. I want to help people."

The woman went back to the suspicious and bored looking person she was on the first day, when she had to resist sketching in quotation marks around his middle name.

"Really," she said. "Really? You’re seriously turning down the cushiest job offer I’ve ever found…?"

"I don’t care what you find for me, as long as it’s something where I’m helping out. I’m okay if it’s just volunteer work, and I have to wash dishes in my waking hours. Doesn’t matter," he said. "My name is Dave Danger Smith, and I think I’m ready to do something better with my life."

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. The echo concept is interesting, I wonder if there are parts of the sideways that include replicatable people, like the fish and the phone. I hope not, I suspect that would get pretty dark pretty quickly.

    • Nah, the Department of Orientation is on the level. They don’t exactly go out of their way to find GOOD jobs for new citizens, but they aren’t like funneling people into slave camps or anything.

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