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 toy shop. And yes, all the dolls they sell are excessively creepy.
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…
The existential crisis that the city represents is something everyone who lives there has to deal with, in his or her own way. Every place and every person is a copy of something or someone else… you are not who you think you are, the Echo Revelation states. This goes doubly so for natives, who never existed on a world called Earth in the first place.
Some find a way of dealing with that problem. Some ignore it. Others give in to despair and lose their minds.
Some throw their fists in the air and scream at the sky that they DO matter, they DO exist, they ARE here and nobody will convince them otherwise. Torn from roots and torn from family, they form new bonds. Families thicker than blood. They challenge the accepted wisdom of the Echo Revelation, in their own ways. They speak. They write. They make their mark…
//003: Kilroy Was Here
The day started out as always with a progression from one room to another. Wake up in one, move to the other. That’d be the best place to explain what’s what, since the progression says a lot about us.
Now when we signed the lease in the first place, the paperwork had tagged these two rooms as bedrooms. The scumbag landlord who rented us this space thought we’d be using it like that, one room for her, one room for me. Two balanced spaces, completely identical in size and shape, with identical windows looking out at nothing in particular. He raised an eyebrow when we told him that wasn’t the plan.
If we did that, splitting our lives apart into two cloned boxes, that’d leave only the main living room for fun. And we wanted a lot more fun than one room would allow for. So, we’d both sleep in one bedroom and leave the other room for Whatever.
As an avid reader of body language I could tell the greaseball who was renting this dive was secretly pondering that particular setup and all the dirty implications it held. I’d made a mental note to check the shower each day for pinhole cameras, after that.
It’s a frequent misconception that my sister and I are secretly lovers or something like that. I guess it’s an understandable if disgusting assumption to make. After all, she’s ridiculously cuddly and personable with everybody (including me), and on top of that we don’t look a thing alike—despite having the same last name, I’m a surly Asian chick, she’s a bouncy blonde.
But the simple fact of the matter is that this is what happens when you open your home to a "disabled" refugee foster kid. By blood or not we’re family, closer than most but still family, and there are no sordid details to our living arrangement. And if there were, honestly, it’d be none of your damn business.
I don’t like it when folks who don’t "get" us immediately reach for nasty little labels to stick all over us. They’re foul things that ruin our mood. For example:
Marcy Wei (that’s me) gets grumpy when you try to stick her with titles like "problem child" or "graffiti vandal" or "cause for concern." People don’t like me when I’m grumpy, because I’m typically grumpy already and those make me super grumpy.
Vivi Wei (that’s my sis) gets sad when you try to stick her with titles like "dummy" or "dirty hippie" or "slut." You don’t really want a sad Vivi; she’s usually energetic enough to light up a room with her brilliance. Sad Vivi dampens that down to a dim glow. And then I get super duper grumpy.
Anyway, all insinuations that ended up being implied in the process aside, shuffling the purpose of rooms around has worked out quite well.
For the bedroom, we bought a queen-size bed which nearly filled the space available. Closet space wasn’t a problem, because even if her stylish ensembles took up tons of room my grubby casual duds took up very little. Doubling up in the same bed has never been a problem. The few times I’ve bothered having boyfriends and wanted some slap and tickle, I went to their place; I didn’t drag them back to mine. The room my sister and I bunk down in is a sacred space. It’s safe and it’s ours.
This in turn left the other room as an open area for anything we wanted. For her, it’s yoga and exercising—she stays in shape, has to stay in shape really, to keep pace with the night life. For me, it’s writing my words on the walls. I promised the landlord I’d clean the place up if we ever moved, so I could do whatever I wanted in there. That meant I stick to the edges of the room, while she takes the center. Division of space. Works well.
I stick to markers and pencils for most of my doodlings and noodlings in our shared rec room. Spray paint in a confined space is a terrific way to drop dead from fume inhalation—also Vivi preferred her workouts in the nude, and I didn’t wanna accidentally give her a pre-layer of aerosol body art before she hit the clubs. (Didn’t have to worry about pervs looking in on us; I’d painted a nice sunrise over the window ages ago. Filters the limited light we actually get through that tiny window, makes the room nice and colorful, she likes it.)
Consideration was key when you had a tight living arrangement like we did. Sharing everything also meant not interfering in anything. I gave her space as I worked in one of the corners… swapping between my black book and the marker lines on the wall, studying the way they compared, trying to find the best composition. I’d rolled over this spot with white paint a few hours previous to give me working room, tricky to do when nearly every inch of the walls was covered in remnants of past pieces.
While I stood still with my wrist working the marker back and forth on fills, she did some variety of ridiculous contortions which apparently unblocked your chi or some such bullshit. (She tried to get me into healthy living a few times, but the idea of giving up beer and cheese curls in favor of carrot juice and rice cakes was anathema to me. Also despite being agile enough to run from the cops for half a mile or so, I wasn’t exactly the human pretzel she was.)
No words were exchanged as we went about our business, separate but equal… quite normal given the circumstances, though. In fact, I’d completely forgotten she was there until I noticed her out of the corner of my eye, toweling off and studying my work.
Figuring it was about as finished as a rough draft could be, I stepped away, turning to face her.
[What’s it mean to you?] she asked me, after flinging the towel over one shoulder. Had to have her hands free, after all.
I was able to explain without too many gestures, thanks to our mutual signing shorthand. No reading lips for us; I’d known sign language since the year Vivi joined our family, and I could mentally translate the clipped and quick sign combinations we favored into full language instantly. I got what normally takes most folks a few sentences to explain out in a shorter span, complete with the emotions I wanted to convey.
Vivi nodded along, understanding perfectly. She was familiar with my art and knew my usual themes; this was a very succinct version of them, but still quite in line.
[You’re still planning to paint it in the Defined Tower, then?] she asked, slipping in our personal sign for the Tower. It was like the normal sign, fingers shaping the edges and then tracing upward—but GROSSLY exaggerated and wide. After all, there was only one "tower" in contention for that lofty expression.
I nodded, with a thumbs up. [That’s always been the plan,] I replied. [Everybody will see it there. I need to get this word out, far and wide. Plus, I’ll be the first one to get up in the Defined Tower. That’s going to be great for my rep.]
[You’re sure it’s safe to reach the Tower, though? I don’t like you going past Edge Station…]
Body language was half of sign language; emphasis being placed through a subtle shift in the eyebrows, worried looks, visible concern. She’d been antsy about this piece ever since I told her my plans. Even tried to talk me out of it twice, which she almost never did, knowing my passion for writing. It just wouldn’t be the same to throw this up on an overpass or something, not when the Defined Tower was out there, squeaky clean, waiting to be used as my canvas…
[I’ll have Slyck with me, like I promised you,] I reminded her—his name being a variant on the sign for "smooth," only more tweaked. Another mutually agreed-on signal. [I won’t be alone. He’ll watch my back. But I don’t think we’ll run into any trouble out there, and you know I don’t get lost in the city. I’ll be okay, Sis.]
Despite one of us being sweaty and the other one still wearing yesterday’s clothes, Vivi reached out and nearly crushed me with a hug.
With her arms around me, I could feel rather than see the sign she pressed into my back… thumb, index finger, little finger. Middle and ring curled underneath. [I love you.]
I returned the sign, against her own back.
This was my sister. I was the only family she had—despite opening their home to a refugee foster child, my mom and dad were always distant, never really in her corner. I’d been in her corner since we were very little, and intended to be there the rest of my life. Strange and beautiful Vivi. Stuck living in a world that was a foul and nasty thing. She was too good for this place.
And even if I knew that life was ultimately a cosmic joke, that I was just a dream of an echo and nothing more… if I really thought I wouldn’t be coming back from the Distant Tower, I wouldn’t have gone that night. No matter how important my words were to me, Vivi was always going to be more important.
Even if I always came back home to her, we had very different lives.
Right now she’d be down at the ZigZag, her home away from home. Either doing a run at bartending to add to the household income, or working as the entertainment director, or simply dancing the night away. She had friends I didn’t have, moved in circles I didn’t move in. Sometimes I’d drop in at the ZigZag and she’d try to socialize me, but the ridiculously loud and colorful night scene wasn’t my thing. I preferred the dark and quiet of the streets. Move on your own, hoodie drawn up, hands in pockets, keeping to yourself. Backpack loaded with spray paint cans. Be unimportant, just a person on the street… until you slip away and do your thing. Like I’d do that night.
Once the sun went down, I made my move.
The subway line expanded recently, with three new completely mismatching stations being added to the red line. Thankfully roads in the City of Angles tended not to plow head on into a wall—they got shuffled around, twisted, extended, but the connectivity remained. The new stations meant the ride to Edge Station was longer than I’d have liked… and less direct. I wouldn’t get there until nine. But I’d get there.
As the train made stop after stop, the car I was in gradually emptied. Folks heading out to dirtbag apartments like mine, out near the edges, where the rent was cheap and you had more conditional rules to worry about. (Don’t go to floor 23. It doesn’t actually exist. There’s an opening to the Sideways where the door to apartment 452 should be. The lights are out in the main stairwell and the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top, so have fun walking up there. And so on.) Our place was a haven for new refugees being dumped by the Department of Orientation, and twentysomethings with irregular jobs like me and Vivi. Nobody would honestly care if our semi-broken building started infecting folks with cubism.
A stop before Edge Station, and the only person left in the car with me was a homeless guy who had been basting in his own urine for weeks. Maybe a refugee who lost it, maybe a native who hit the skids, who knew. Wasn’t my problem.
With nobody watching, I slipped the silver marker from up my sleeve, popping the cap. Heavy ink, drippy, but perfect for tagging.
Turning in my seat, I scrawled out the word ADVANCE, with an arrow piercing the letters and pointing towards the front of the train. A simple and quick design… signed with my name, my symbol, a tiny cartoony ghost with X’s for eyes.
I’d been using that icon-tag for my whole run as a writer. I was the Ghostwriter.
Tomorrow some commuter would see that word. Maybe this car would be headed in the direction it pointed, and they’d think about which way they’re going, that they’re advancing, moving on. Maybe the train would be going the other way. Then they’d have to think about it a little more…
The City Council saw graffiti as vandalism, pure and simple.
And it is vandalism. It’s illegal. You do it in public spaces, you do it where you’re not wanted. Graffiti on canvas in galleries is nice, it’s positive, but it’s also just aerosol art in comparison.
But you don’t write because you’re a hooligan, a young punk who just wants to do something illegal—you can jaywalk if you’re seriously getting off on lawbreaking. You write because you have to. Graffiti is the soul of the city, laid bare in line and form and word and picture, capturing the spirit of an age of those who had no other way to prove they existed.
You’ve got something you want to get out there… usually just your name, your mark, saying I was here. For the first few years, back when I was daring to tag up Suburbia around my parents’ neighborhood, getting my name out was enough. My little ghost adorned school lockers and walls of fast food joints.
I was a toy, really—some lamer who did nothing beyond tags and throw-ups, nothing of any importance, like a dog marking territory. I only seriously got into burners and pieces when I got to the city and decided this was gonna be my life’s thing.
It wasn’t enough anymore to sneak my wacky pirate nickname onto every surface I could find… that didn’t prove I really lived, in a world where nobody was really alive. I had to put my thoughts up there, too. The ghost I doodled in my notebooks as a kid was adorable, like a goth corporate mascot, but I tried not to think about why I was so attracted to it. Now, in my twenties, I can grasp it and wear it like a shield. I’m a ghost. We’re all dead, unless we can prove otherwise…
Odds were low anybody would see ADVANCE and consider how that related to their life. But it didn’t matter. When I saw that bare subway window, I knew that was the word which had to go there. It was already written; I just made other people able to see it there.
A rip-roaring belch distracted me from considering my written statement. The smell of stale urine.
In a voice that was simultaneously raspy and watery, the bum mumbled something in his sleep.
"Green child of madness is comin’," he breathed, loud enough to be heard five seats away. "Gonna crawl down the spiral and into our beds. Bedlam inside you. She’s comin’ for you. For all of us."
And then he flickered.
It was subtle, like watching a scratched DVD. A brief error, corrected by software which couldn’t know exactly what the image was supposed to be. The arm that scratched at his stomach in his sleep blurred, snapped, and the outline of it stayed behind for a few seconds like an afterimage.
Edge Station was only a few minutes away, but I immediately jerked the emergency handle on the door, to move between cars. Wasn’t supposed to do that while the train was in motion, but damned if I was gonna sit around a guy who was going cubist on me.
Nobody knew exactly how or why someone went Picasso. Come into contact with one or lurk in an unstable place like the Sideways enough, sure, that made some scientific sense. You didn’t want to lick the sheets in a TB ward, either. But some folks never came into contact with anything cubist and still slowly, gradually fell into that doom… no coming back once you were fully bent.
The whispered cant goes: You give in to despair, let the city crush your spirit, and you’ll lose yourself along the way. You’ll Picasso.
Might be true. Might not be. But no matter how gloomy of a ghost I was, I was fighting against that despair tooth and nail. The writing was my way out of just sinking, forever into the pit.
Edge Station, end of the line.
As the city grew in size over time, Edge Station got pushed outward. It hovered at the edge of the city (hence the highly descriptive name), a stone’s throw away from where the city stopped being defined.
The City of Angles stretched on forever, as far as anyone could tell. It wasn’t like you’d step off a disc and fall into the void for eternity. But after a certain fuzzy line was crossed… the buildings started being less buildings and more suggestions of buildings. Fake storefronts and apartment stoops, with doors made of rough wood that wouldn’t open. Windows that were representations of windows, painted on the walls. Shadows that extended too far, during day and night…
Go far enough… and you’d be in a maze of upright brick pillars, the rough shape of a building without being a building any way. And by that point, common sense claimed, you probably weren’t coming back. It looked stupendously easy to get lost out there. If you did return, you were probably completely cubist.
Needless to say, few people actually wanted to go to Edge Station. It would’ve been closed outright if there weren’t some housing complexes and shops here, with rent so low that they may as well be squatters’ homesteads. When you had nowhere else to live, you lived near the edge.
The open-air platform of Edge Station was a dead zone. At this time of night you wanted to be indoors; anybody who actually lived here was huddled in a corner of a tiny room, desperate and waiting for the daylight. Only a crazy person would come here for fun.
I cooled my heels and sat down on one of the benches. Waited for Slyck to get here.
Waited a good ten, fifteen minutes. Two trains rolled through and nobody got off. I was probably a juicy target, a young and supposedly attractive girl on her own in the middle of nowhere. Wasn’t worried, though. The city itself was scarier than its denizens, who were in turn scared off by it and thus left me alone.
I didn’t share Vivi’s fear of the city fringes. That was a leftover remnant of Suburban living… the fear of what lurked in shadows, be it Stranger Danger or Picassos or who knows what. I’d wandered in and out of the alleys and abandoned buildings of this city long enough that I didn’t fear it. On the off chance there was actually an axe-murdering serial rapist with a nervous twitch loitering under a flickering street lamp, I carried a can of mace mixed in with my art supplies. Somebody wanted to screw with me, I’d roll aggro on them in turn.
In fact, I was very much feeling the need to roll aggro on someone. Because Slyck was late as hell.
Giving up on being polite, I busted out my Cracker and dialed him up. It was the cheapest cellphone available, a clone of an outdated model with a crack along the top of the screen—some weird repeater artifact a mapper had found years ago—and I couldn’t afford a premium cell carrier, but hopefully it’d work even out at Edge Station.
It worked fine. Except his line rang four times before he picked up, which suggested at the truth of his non-appearance.
"Uh, hey," he greeted, which confirmed my suggested suspicions.
"You’re not coming, are you," I stated rather than asked. "Saw my number and hesitated before answering, too."
"Look, Ghost, I like you and all, but… c’mon, you know it’s cray, right?" he asked. "Going out to the Defined Tower? I didn’t think you’d seriously go through with it—"
"I’m going through with it. Are you coming or not?"
"Ghost, YOLO, alright? You Only Live Once. And to me that means I’m not gonna throw that one life away running off the edge of the map—and neither should you. I worry ’bout you girl, y’know? Look, Racker invited us to a party at his loft, let me get some beers and I’ll meet you there and we’ll find some other way to kick it tonight. Right?"
I pushed away from the station bench, starting to pace angrily.
"Hanging up, deleting you from my contacts, don’t bug me again you goddamn toy," I glowered at him over the line. "I can’t believe I was seriously considering having sex with you. Bye, Slyck."
"—wait what? I thought you were a—"
In old days, phones were beefy plastic things you had to slam down on a cradle in order to disconnect. Hence, "hanging up." As much fun as it might’ve been to spike my Cracker into the concrete of the subway platform… they didn’t grow on trees. (Well. They sort of did in this case, but I wasn’t stupid enough to leave myself without a phone all the way out here.) Instead I tapped the red button on the touchscreen with authority, and shut Slyck down.
Another few weeks without a boyfriend. But whatever. Didn’t need him. He wasn’t serious about the writing.
More important problem than not having someone to throw myself at in a night of drunken frustration: not having someone for my trip tonight.
I could just go on my own. I wasn’t going to get into any trouble, no trouble I couldn’t handle myself. Vivi would never know…
But I promised. I pinky-swore to her that I’d have someone with me. Maybe it was just for her peace of mind, but… I had to follow through on a pinky-swear between sisters. That’s how it worked.
I needed another warm body to fill Slyck’s shoes. Someone insane enough to go with me on this strange long trip. Or… someone desperate enough…
Oh, dammit. No. Not him.
But this was a code red emergency…
I didn’t actually have him in my contacts, because as many times as he tried to slip Vivi his phone number, I’d intercepted and destroyed it. Last time I think I actually ate the napkin. Fortunately, he was on six or seven different social networks, flooding them all with pictures of his kegstanding girl-groping party-hardy lifestyle, with full contact information on each. After all, he was the guy who knew a guy. You had to be able to reach him if you needed something… and sadly, I needed him tonight.
To his credit, he was there in fifteen minutes.
The figure that stepped off the train at Edge Station looked like he’d just walked off the set of Miami Vice. A mismatching pile of fashion tropes that had long since gone out of date… sunglasses at night, a popped collar, and a cologne so thick I could smell it over the axle grease of the trains. Juuuuust enough stubble to look rugged and manly without looking unkempt. Gold chains that sparkled in the glare of the overhead fluorescent tubes.
He wasn’t chewing on a toothpick but he probably would’ve if he’d thought of it first.
The only thing ruining his Vintage Smooth Operator look was the folded up stepladder he was awkwardly carrying under one arm. And his general unease at being here in Edge Station.
Spotting me, he strolled right on up, setting the ladder down.
"Let it not be said that Hollister Avenue doesn’t come through in the clutch!" Hollister declared. "The little sister of the ZigZag’s Patron Goddess wants a ladder? She gets a ladder!"
"We’re the same age," I informed him. "I’m not her little sister."
"Right, right. Sooo… I ducked out on a really sweet party so I could hit up a hardware store and schlep this thing all the way out to the boondocks," he reminded me. "Now, I’m always up for doing a pretty girl a favor, but color me curious as to what this big surprise is you said I’d have waiting in store for me. I’ve been game to play along, because getting an ‘in’ with the Wei Sisters is a big plus, but—"
"I need you to carry that thing and come with me. I’ve got work to do."
"Ohhh…. oh! I get it, I get it now," he said, with a grin. "Babydoll’s goin’ out to paint the town red, right? Need to get to those hard to reach places? Weeeell… as a duly authorized representative of the Department of Orientation I should be dissuading you from your life of crime, but hey—let’s get dangerous! …but not TOO dangerous. Where’re you headed, exactly?"
Hollister dipped his sunglasses down, so he could properly follow my finger to its destination.
At the risk of losing his cool guy persona… he pocketed the shades completely, so he could flash me a look of disbelief.
"The Defined Tower," he replied, flatly.
"The Defined Tower," I confirmed.
Everybody knew the Defined Tower.
It raised a few eyebrows when it showed up a decade ago. In the middle of all those fake brick lumps, beyond the safe zone of the city proper, into the vague and nebulous idea of a cityscape… a thirty-story building had appeared. Poof, just like that. Lit up like a Christmas Tree, spotlights and everything.
Nobody knew why a completely intact building of that size had been copied into the city amidst its least stable structures. That far away from known space, the city was a meaningless maze of concrete and brick… with the Defined Tower being the exception to that rule. It was flawless and perfect and nobody, NOBODY in their right mind wanted to traverse the vagueness to see what was inside.
"You want to go past the fuzzy edge of the cityscape, into the fake buildings, and… what? Write your name on the front door of that monstrosity?" he asked.
"No, I’m going to paint a mural inside the windows of the 20th floor," I explained. "They’re pretty tall. I wasn’t sure I’d find a ladder in there, so I needed you to bring one. Now let’s get moving."
He pointed at me, with both index fingers.
"You… you are insane," he declared. "And I am absolutely, positively, utterly, completely, totally, certainly not going to waltz into the weirdness just so you can scribble on the walls of a likely haunted tower. And if your sister knew what you were up to she’d probably give you a spanking—"
"She’s okay with it," I said, honestly. "We each have our passions, we respect them. But… she made me swear I’d bring someone to watch my back. And that’s, against all my better judgment, you. My original partner bailed and you’re the guy people call on when they need a thing, right? I need this thing."
"Honey, there are limits to what Hollister Avenue can provide. And there’s nothing you can provide in return which—"
"I’ll teach you how to flirt with my sister in sign language."
If he was still wearing his sunglasses he’d probably have peered over the top of them at me.
"You’re serious," he recognized.
I was. I was disgusted with myself about it, but I was serious.
"You want an ‘in’ with her, right?" I asked. "As much as I don’t particularly like you… I’ll teach you how to woo your ‘Goddess.’"
I knew his type. Dropping the sleaziest pickup lines, trying to chat up anything with breasts, pretending he was some big shot of the night scene. He was all wrong for Vivi—just some cheap bastard chasing skirt like a lawyer chases ambulances. But I needed to make this concession if I was going to get in that tower.
I was expecting him to either blow me off, or be giddily enthusiastic at the prospect of deafie nookie. He was a man who was led by his lower brain, after all.
Instead he showed an oddly light optimism.
"Do y’think it’d help?" he asked, curious. "Learning sign language, I mean. Would she like that?"
"It can’t hurt your chances," I said in all honesty. "Look… Hollister, we’re going to be fine. I’ve been past the edge before and I survived. I’ve got maps. I know how to navigate and how to lock down an exit strategy. We’ll get in, you hang loose an hour while I do my thing, we’ll be back before you know it. …besides, it’s now or never."
"Because of the quarantine."
He knew his stuff. But, he did have the inside line. For all his sleazy swindler trappings, he was a civic worker.
"Seth Dougal’s about to crank up the border security," he recognized. "Barricades. Guards patrolling the edge. Too many kids wandering off into the mess and not coming back, too many concerned parent groups…"
"And that means I’ll lose my chance to make history, yes."
"You know, I really think we can fight the problem with education, not big scary roadblocks. Big scary roadblocks won’t deter the determined—they make the prospect of certain doom look edgy and rebellious. I keep telling the Dee-of-Orr folks that we gotta get out there, talk to the kids in a way they can relate to—"
"Are we going or not?" I asked, eager to get moving. "Are you in or out? One night of your time. And then you can make whatever obscene gesture you want in my sister’s direction. I am bending my rules for you here, Hollister. Make note of that."
He took his sweet time making up his mind. Probably was weighing the odds of banging my sister against the odds of coming back alive, the scumball. Had to be what was going through that noggin of his.
"Hell, let’s do it," he decided, in the end. "What’s that thing the kids say now? YOLO?"
I hated that phrase.
It was factually wrong, after all. None of us were alive. We were ghosts, all of us, living in a ghost town.
"YOLO, whatever," I agreed. "Let’s go."
I wasn’t afraid of this city in the same way Vivi was. Unlike her I was born here, I allegedly lived here, and one day I’d fade away… but the city wasn’t my enemy. I knew how to move with it instead of against it.
The undefined spaces beyond the edge were intimidating, yes. But they were less threatening than real buildings, in the same way a model railroad is less threatening than a steam locomotive bearing down on you at full tilt. It’s a fake place, a movie set, nothing impressive compared to the original. After a while, you paid the odd feeling of being behind the sets in a haunted house no mind.
But you did respect it. And you worked with it, to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.
I left chalk marks on each building, as I went by. You had to use marks the buildings would accept… hobo signs, primitive graffiti tags, icons representing free WiFi for war drivers to enjoy. Sometimes I sketched a quick hopscotch board. These symbols would keep through the night, because they were a part of the lore of the city.
The theory mappers and explorer kiddies had was that the chalk marks would anchor the buildings down, encourage them to stay still, because now they were more realized aspects of the city. The city has a shape it likes to take on, and fighting against that shape causes disaster… while playing along with that shape can be to your benefit.
I also had a map loaded in my Cracker, but it was already out of date. Without chalk anchors, the undefined spaces shuffle when nobody’s looking. Still, even outdated, that map kept me going in the right direction—and it wasn’t like the Defined Tower was hard to miss.
It was hard to miss Hollister freaking out as he trailed behind me, lugging along the portable folding ladder.
"This is nuts," he said. "This is nuts. This is nuts…"
"Y’know, that’s the kind of attitude that gets you Picasso’d," I told him. "You start to panic, you slip away, and suddenly you’ve got eight-faceted eyes and your outline’s jittery like you’re on meth—"
"Not! Helping!" he declared. "I’m calm. I am a calm little lake in the middle of a calm little land next to a calm little tree. …I am actually looking forward to getting to the tower, compared to this. At least the tower’s a real place… y’think we’ll be the first people to set foot there?"
"You’re the government stoolie, you tell me."
"That’s Resources. …or Safety. Or the FARTs. There’s kind of a turf war for who gets to call ‘First!’," he explained. "Orientation only mops up the aftermath. And since I haven’t seen any paperwork about refugees from the Defined Tower…"
"Not surprised. It’s useless to Resources, since you can’t reliably run back and forth looting it. And Safety is happy locking down anything even slightly strange."
"For extremely good reason," Hollister reminded me.
"So yes, I’m guessing we’ll be the first ones there. Certainly the first ones to do what I’m planning to do. It’s gonna be… well, you’ll see. Everyone’ll see, when I’m done…"
And there it was.
Squeezing through an alley that was narrowing itself right down to the end, there it was.
A fully defined skyscraper. Offices, still with power and light, with spotlights to keep it nicely illuminated. (The City’s power grid was a strange thing, in that it looped back on itself with no clear source, yet always provided power. Apparently that extended even this far from the grid.)
People with telescopes had identified it as being some major financial company’s property back on old Earth, something famous from a famous city, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was the light… and the deliciously large windows waiting for me.
"Island in the sea, eh?" Hollister commented, in about as much awe as I was in. "Beats the hell out of the fake buildings. …y’don’t think there’s security guards, do you? Maybe a Picasso security guard or something…?"
"People have been looking at it for ten years from afar, and haven’t spotted any," I said. "I did my research on this. The building’s completely empty; we should be fine. Doors are locked, so… smash yon ladder through yon glass door there, hey?"
"Might set off an alarm…"
"Big deal. No guards, remember? It’s an empty building."
"Even so… let’s approach this cautiously, ‘kay?" Hollister suggested. "We bash the door in, then wait five. If nobody shows up to greet us, THEN we go in. Look, I know you’re brimming with confidence and I really admire that, that’s totally awesome, but throw pragmatism a bone here. We need to be able to leg it if the ghost tower has actual ghosts in it."
"I thought you loved risky fun?" I countered, turning to face him. "You’ve got shots from crazy parties up on your website every week. Aren’t you the guy who went skinny dipping in a swimming pool filled with champagne a month ago?"
"…you know a lot about a guy you claim you don’t particularly like."
"When it comes to risks, I do my research."
Hollister grumbled a little… but let it out in a long exhale, a relaxation technique.
"I’ve done some downright ridiculous things in the name of a good time, yes," he agreed. "But this is not what I call a good time. And it’s not a ridiculous thing I’m willing to dive into head first—and it’s not my own head going in, it’s yours, too. I gotta look out for my peeps. So. Break window, await response, and if everything’s clear… I’ll go in with you. We got an accord?"
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to have to butt heads with him tonight.
I knew his type; dangle boobs in front of him like a carrot on a stick and he’d run where you wanted him to, right? True, going out to the Defined Tower in exchange for boobs was a bit of a stretch, but…
"Whatever," I agreed, in the end.
With a nod, Hollister adjusted his grip on the ladder. Grasping one end, he hefted the cheap aluminum thing up, pointing it like a lance at the glass doors… and lunged.
Glass shattered. No alarm sounded.
We stood in silence for five minutes and were not cut down in a bloody reprisal by an army of security minions.
"Still worth making sure," he decided, breaking the silence. "Right. Let’s get in there so you can get your art on."
The building was absolutely, completely solid. The hallways and stairwells were laid out in a logical fashion; no weirdness like you’d see in the Sideways or the crummier parts of the city, where mismatched rooms were connected to each other. This palatial monument to high finance had been lifted wholesale and plopped down intact.
We used the stairwells exclusively, only switching to a new one if we ran out of stairs. A short, direct ascent. Once we got to the 20th floor, we had to leave the upward spiral to find the lobby I was seeking… and that meant cutting through floors full of cubicles and executive meeting rooms, past offices with cat calendars and tasteful Swedish furniture.
Honestly, it was quite boring. Boring enough for us to let down our guard and feel comfortable here. Even Hollister.
"Mid-nineties," he spoke up, as we were crossing through a cubicle farm.
"The monitors," he said, pointing to the big boxy beige things. (Or at least waving the ladder in their direction, anyway.) "CRT tubes… one-point-three-bar-repeating aspect ratio. Lumpy full size towers, too. These computers are all mid-nineties, and clearly they had money for top of the line. But the building only showed up a decade ago… even by then LCD was coming into play."
"Huh. I’m not much of a computer nerd," I stated dismissively.
"You have a smartphone in your pocket which is more powerful than ten of these things put together and you know where to find my website. Everybody is a computer nerd these days," he added. "My point is, this building’s older than its birthday in the city suggests. Not much entropy, either. I wonder why…"
"You’re the government type, you tell me," I said, kicking a chair on wheels out of the way. Apparently someone had been playing a round of office chair basketball before quitting for the day.
"Orientation, remember? Resources are the guys who study the how and why of the city. And they don’t publish their findings," he said. "I’ve always suspected they don’t actually HAVE any findings, and just pretend to be in control to keep folks happy. City’s weird, plain and simple. …I doubt Resources would bother studying this place, anyway. Greedy bastards just want new space to annex and new toys to steal, and these toys are crummy."
And then, quiet. Just the air conditioning, our footsteps, and the loose rattle of the folding ladder. And Hollister’s breathing, which was quite heavy seeing as he’d just lugged a ladder up twenty flights.
Without a single complaint, either.
"You must want her pretty damn badly," I mused aloud.
"Huff. Huh?" he asked.
"Aside from some skittishness at setting out for the tower you’ve played along quite well," I said. "Even up the stairs when I said we shouldn’t take the elevators. A guy who goes that far out of his way for the slightest hint at a chance at nookie is either insane, horny as a toad, or determined as hell…"
Another rattle, as his tired arms hiked the ladder up an inch.
"First? The attitude? Up with it I will not put," he declared. "Second? You don’t know me as much as you think you do. If I was powered by my trouser snake there are far easier ways to solve that equation than this. Reason I’m taking things so far is because I said I’d take things this far, full stop. I said I’d help you get in the tower and play a combination roadie-and-criminal-lookout for you and that’s what I’m doing. Would you prefer I lay down my aluminum burdens and amscray?"
I waved his protests off. "I’m not complaining, I’m not," I claimed. "Whatever your reasoning I’m glad you’re being a sport about all this. It won’t be much farther now, anyway. Just need to locate the target area, and then it’s all on me to get the work done— there!"
It was nearly hidden in the maze of bulletin boards and routing signs indicating the location of executive offices and conference rooms. Every building had to have maps up indicating the fire exits and evacuation routes… doubling as a guide for those who did not in fact work here and did not in fact know where everything was already.
I tapped the map on the wall, to call Hollister’s attention to it.
"Welcoming lobby for the firm, three hallways down from here." I explained. "Floor-to-ceiling windows, twenty feet high. That’s the one that faces towards the city itself. It’s illuminated enough that a piece there will be seen for miles. Almost there, Hollister! Let’s move!"
I wasn’t the one lugging a folding ladder up twenty flights of stairs. He had every right to call a halt for a breather. He didn’t. And put together we had enough energy, especially this close to the end, to carry us both along with great speed.
Plenty of open space, with only a loose assortment of couches and tables and potted plants. A wall of glass to work with, with only a minor amount of steel window frame to interrupt the flow—nice and modern design, perfect for my uses.
With the fatigue of the trip finally catching up to him, Hollister plopped down in one of the leather armchairs, exhausted. Which was fine; he’d served his purpose in carrying the ladder and now he could chill a moment. Even using the refined and simplified design I’d been practicing on the walls of my apartment, it’d take me an hour to completely finish the piece.
I unpacked my backpack, getting the tools of the trade ready.
Blacks, whites, grays—I liked to work in grayscale for pieces, rather than a more colorful wild style other writers might’ve used. Stark and straightforward. The message mattered more than wowing someone with a rainbow array of smooth colors. Besides, a full color piece would keep us here for hours, and it’d be easier to sneak back into the city before the sun came up.
Thin caps, thick caps. Different spray approaches and good can control meant I could do a lot with a little, mixing in style without having to spread the color palette around. I’d preloaded caps onto multiple cans of the same shade, so I wouldn’t have to swap them around… a corner-cutting time saver, but not one that would hurt the work.
Finally, my black book. Between that and my doodling during my sister’s workout routine, I’d finished the piece before I ever got here. It’d be my guide for what needed to be done.
"You’re not going to have to climb out the window, are you?" Hollister asked, watching as I gradually turned my backpack inside out. "I’d rather not have to explain to your sister how you fell twenty stories to your death…"
"Reverse glass painting. Legit method. They used to do it in churches, even," I said, shaking up a can. "You do the outlines first, all the tiny little details, THEN the fills. Inside out, no room for error so it’s trickier, but doable. I won’t be bothering with crazy shaded fills, it’ll take too long; some smooth grey will get it done."
"Got this all worked out, huh?"
"I always come prepared," I replied, a bit smugly.
"I’m surprised. I mean, I thought graffiti types just sorta scribble away and then run for it from the cops…"
Unfolding the ladder, I propped it up to the window. May as well start at the top, so I’d get a better sense of scale. I pulled on a paper breathing mask and made my way up, can in hand.
"These ‘scribbles’ are my words, man. I take care with them," I called back. "Now keep an eye on the doors, keep your ears open. Just in case, I don’t know, the Department of Safety comes charging up the stairs with a SWAT team."
As I started sizing up the available space, comparing it to my notebook, I shook up the first can of the evening. The comforting and familiar metallic rattle, plus the white noise hum of the air conditioning and the buzz of the overhead lights, meant we didn’t hear the elevator dinging repeatedly in the distance. I could paint away in peace, losing myself in the linework, until it was almost too late.
I hoped like hell it was. I hoped the message and the line weight would be enough, because no matter how confident I was, hanging around in the Defined Tower all night and through the morning was out of the question.
The lines went up fast. Connecting them up and making sure they were balanced perfectly on the first shot was important; this wasn’t like a wall, where I could paint over mistakes with fresh design concepts or simply whitewash them out if they were that horrible. Reverse glass painting in a famous landmark had no margin of error. Either you made a masterpiece, or your fumbles would be on display forever.
Fortunately, my muse was with me. (I always suspected my muse, if one existed in the Greek sense, looked like Vivi.) The lines curved and arced perfectly. They connected cleanly. The fills went in quickly, a loose mash of grey that would give the overall shape definition under daylight or moonlight. The finishing touch—the cartoony ghost of the Ghostwriter—I could relax and throw up quickly, because I’d done that icon hundreds of times already. I knew the wrist motions by heart, even when amplifying them up for such a huge glass canvas.
After climbing up and down and repositioning the ladder a dozen times, it was finished.
I awaited review from the art critic I’d brought along.
Who was too busy chillaxin’ in a chair, reading some dude-themed music industry magazine to pay attention.
"I’m done," I stated loudly, with emphasis, to make a point, etc.
Realizing a girl wanted his attention, Hollister quickly put the magazine away… and noticed the piece for apparently the first time.
It was thrown up there backwards, of course, but if you turned it around in your brain it was plenty readable:
"Exist?" he read aloud.
"No, Exist. With a period," I corrected.
"Yes, thank you, I can see the little blobby thing at the end," he indicated, pointing to it just in case I needed to know where it was. "I’m just not getting it. We came all this way so you could slap up a random word and… is that Casper the Friendly Ghost?"
I was planning to leave the ladder here so technically I didn’t need Hollister anymore, but throttling him was probably not good sport.
"That’s my tag. I’m Ghostwriter," I said. "And it’s Exist, with a period. Because it’s a command, not a question. I’m not questioning whether people Exist. I’m telling them to Exist. You know, as opposed to… you know what? Nevermind. You did your bit already, you don’t have to pretend you—"
"It’s a defiant stance against the Echo Revelation, while acknowledging it as truth," Hollister said, scratching his chin as he read and re-read the word. "Exist. Just do it, just exist. Only way forward is to exist. It’s accepting the Echo Revelation but instead of caving in and giving up, it’s saying you’ve got to prove you exist."
Now I was reading him in far more confusion than he was reading my piece.
"… …. what," I stated, flatly.
"You have no idea the week I had recently," he said. "I work Department of Orientation. Refugees usually have trouble with the Echo Revelation. Well, thanks to that and a host of other bungles, my class of four students plummeted to one graduate… and I had someone suicide out thanks to the Revelation. So, yeah. Exist. I wish I could’ve said it so succinctly. Maybe she’d be alive today if I had. You want me to bring the ladder back with us or leave it here?"
I had no response to that. So, he picked it up anyway.
"I don’t think you know me as well as you think you do," Hollister said, simply. "Now, if we’re all done here, can we please go home?"
I wasn’t crying, and yet my cheeks were suddenly wet.
No, seriously, I wasn’t crying. Not in one of those deep-emotional-denial sort of "I wasn’t crying, there was just dust in the room" deals. I mean suddenly my cheeks were wet when they were not one second ago. And my hair was wet. And my cotton hoodie was rapidly getting soaked…
An ear-shattering series of electronic whistles tore through the room, explaining the sudden indoor rainstorm.
Immediately I spun in place, back to my piece…
I used the best paint I could afford, stuff that would stand up to rain and sleet and snow for as long as possible. Even so soon after sticking it up there, even if I was painting it on a slick glass surface, it should’ve held on under the onslaught of fire suppression sprinklers.
That didn’t change the fact that my word was slowly melting downward, into an illegible smear.
I remember screaming, maybe even screaming something like "No no no NO." I tried to push the paint back up the slick and runny glass, messing up my hands in the process. It was too late, of course. Every overhead sprinkler in the room was dumping at full blast, including spraying down the piece and wrecking it in short order…
Faintly, I could see the reflection of orange and yellow flickers on the glass. A fire, somewhere. I didn’t care. It was being ruined. My one defiant stance, my tribute to the city, to give people hope and courage to stand up to the Echo Revelation and exist, and it was melting away.
I may as well have melted away, or burned to ashes. It didn’t matter. This was the most important work of my life and it was completely ruined. Echo said everything we did was futile and pointless, that life was endless suffering because we were never meant to be here in the first place. She would not be denied.
I could see eyes, wobbly and loose, reflected in the window. Either because I was actually crying or because of a distortion of paint and water, they looked oddly blue…
Torn away from that empty girl’s gaze by the hand on my shoulder.
"Leaving now!" Hollister declared. "Fire! Bad stuff! Leaving now!"
Somehow I staggered along, with Hollister leading the way. He’d probably move faster without the ladder, but right now neither of us were in any position to evaluate our situation on such a tactical level. Goal #1 was to GTFO.
Chaos in the cubicle farm. Cloth-covered cube walls on fire. Huge blazing patches here and there, which the sprinklers were having trouble putting down. Maybe the building wasn’t about to collapse in on itself or anything like that, but it was certainly a hazard zone for a lone artist and her dudebro companion.
The way back to the stairwell had been cut off completely. As I got my wits back, as I realized I had to focus on the existing I had preciously declared or I would very certainly cease to in short order, I started to rely less on Hollister dragging me along.
I tore the emergency evacuation map off the wall, the one which had led us to the lobby. If ever there was a good time to reference it, this would certainly be it.
"Into the hall and turn left!" I declared. "Another stairwell. C’mon!"
As far as I could see, the path was clear. We’d beat feet down twenty flights in a nicely insulated stairwell, be out the door, and back into the city in under twenty minutes. Fifteen if I could sprint, and I certainly could sprint when my ass was on the line.
It took some distance to get a proper run-up. Dashing out of the cubicle farm and into the hallway, cornering tightly to the left, I was already halfway to maximum speed.
If I’d been at maximum speed I might’ve run right into my doom.
Apparently whatever dark gods were frowning down on me that night decided that ruining my piece and lighting the building on fire just wasn’t horrible enough. No no. They also had to put a Picasso in my path.
To be honest, I’d never seen one in person. And for all my bravado about how I wasn’t afraid of this city or its offerings, I can also be honest and say I’d never want to see another Picasso again. They are pants-fillingly terrifying.
It was a mess of blue and grey, a swirl of plastic buttons and chrome-plated shields. There was skin in there as well, hidden somewhere behind the cloud of polyester and nylon. I occasionally caught a flash of pale flesh, like a statue in an art museum might have—framing eyes like clear glass. So many eyes. All the eyes… all turning on the girl who was skidding to a halt on the wet tile floor of the hallway, only twenty feet or so away from him…
Hollister was right. This building did indeed house a Picasso’d security guard. I could see his symbols of office in a blur, orbiting his twisted and agonized form.
Sixteen company-issued sidearms held in as many hands manifested, all clicking menacingly like a Hollywood hit squad.
private property // you see this badge // ugh, don’t wanna do night shift again //
the hell’s that noise // goddamn brat in my building //
your last warning // one of these days I’m gonna get to use this gun // patrol is so boring //
kill you // kill all of them one of these days swear to //
stupid little chink bitch // KILL
Oh, yes. Of course. It wasn’t bad enough to be killed by a crazed incarnation of reality-bending madness. I had to be killed by a racist crazed incarnation of reality-bending madness.
I didn’t care who just said that. I just ran This Way.
Bullets zipped through the air where Hollister and I just were. I could see something ahead, two people, an open doorway… something whizzing over my shoulder, towards the incoherent mess that was following us—
Heat at my back. Our rescuers had hurled an incendiary device, landing just short of the Picasso, nearly enveloping it in a burst of flame.
Basic survival skills when dealing with reality-bending abominations—a gun may help a little, but your best weapon is fire. Beyond the distortions, a Picasso is flesh and blood. Dodging bullets isn’t too hard for a Picasso but they’ll avoid fire, avoid it enough to slow down pursuit. Enough for us to get through the door and to safety.
Even if it also meant that they’d had to set off the sprinklers and ruin my art to save our lives.
My sneakers squeaked fiercely as I slid to a halt inside the corporate lunchroom.
Behind me, the door slammed shut—and tables and chairs were immediately slid up against it. Hollister, working in tandem with whoever our mysterious saviors were. Had to admit, the guy-who-knew-a-guy was on the ball while I was still trying to catch my breath and figure out what was going on…
A quick survey let me take in the pertinent details.
Some guy wearing body armor and a bandolier of what I could assume to be incendiary grenades was piling up tables and chairs, along with Hollister. He didn’t pay me any mind, too focused on his current task. Despite being heavily armed and armored he wasn’t wearing the dull green of a Department of Safety officer. Maybe I’d be torn apart by a Picasso, but at least nobody was arresting me for vandalism tonight.
The second of our rescuers was a bit less expected. A dude armed to the teeth, okay, that made sense in an action movie sort of context. A scrawny kid with an old-timey explorer’s helmet did not.
"Okay, so, I’m Penelope and that’s my dad Gregory," she explained, quickly. "We were mapping this place when we spotted the Picasso moving up the elevators and I insisted we try to help you out since you probably didn’t know it was coming and now I… have a bad feeling we cornered ourselves because I’m not seeing any way out of this room. Oh! Dad? Ceiling?"
"Ceiling," he confirmed, without looking away from jamming a plastic chair into the impromptu barricade.
"Right! On it!" the girl replied… and looked around for some way to reach it, given all the climbable furniture was gradually accumulating at one end of the room.
In the end she spied the discarded ladder Hollister had hurriedly hauled in here.
"Oh, thanks, that’s very forward-thinking of you," she said. "Hey, um, miss? Help me set this up?"
I should probably have stopped and asked what the hell was going on. How they got here, what they were doing here, if they set off the fire alarms and ruined my artwork, and so on. These were all burning questions sitting in the queue behind the most important thing in my brain, which was less of a question and more of a statement, reading I WANT TO LIVE DAMMIT.
So, I helped the kid set up the ladder. She was up it like a rocket once the thing was locked into position—pushing one of the foam core ceiling tiles to the side, to expose the crawlspace of ducts and wires and cables that lurked just over the heads of all corporate drones.
Meanwhile, the big strong strapping menfolk stepped away from their big strong barrier, satisfied with its solidity in a strapping sort of way.
Until the whole thing rattled and shook from the force of impact on the other side of the door. The ptang! ptang! of bullets ricocheting off the metal door was also not a pleasant sound.
"Yeah, okay, that’s not gonna work," Gregory realized. "We need to go, and now. There’s a storage room next door; we go up and over and down into it, then route our way around and back to the stairs. Picassos are lousy at strategy, it’ll stay hung up on the door and won’t think to double back and find another approach. —the hell are you two kids doing in this place, anyway? Looking for somewhere to get high or something?"
"Dad, sheesh!" Penelope protested, peeking down from inside the ceiling crawlspace. "A) that’s stupid and B) not now, okay? C’mon! Leaving!"
Apparently ‘ladies first’ was not a gold standard for this guy, as Gregory went up the ladder next. Hollister approached, but paused, gesturing for me to go up next. Class act.
After taking two steps up… I paused, to look down at him.
"This is a terrible time to tell you that I only promised to teach you flirty sign language because I knew my sis would never actually sleep with you," I told Hollister.
He stood bracing the ladder, and… peered at me funny.
"…if it’s a terrible time to tell me, why did you tell me?"
"Because I’m not sure there’s going to be another time. Sorry. Sorry for all this."
Unable to meet his look, I went up, and through the dusty dark, and down the other side into the waiting arms of the pair who had been escorting us along.
The emergency exit map I’d been bringing around with me paled in comparison to the map the kid had on her tablet computer. Even while trying to track down the Picasso as it crawled its way up twenty floors, they had been mapping the whole way. Being, y’know, mappers, and all.
We had time to chat after we ditched the crazy security guy. By kicking the ladder over and replacing the ceiling tile behind us, he didn’t know we were one room over—as storage room which connected to a different hallway. That gave us enough rat-in-a-maze distance to work our way around to a different stairwell, and start putting a healthy amount of space between us and the Picasso.
Even if out of sight meant out of mind, we weren’t nuts enough to assume the danger was past. The four of us went down those stairs as fast as possible, while trying to avoid tripping over our own feet and rolling all the way to the bottom.
"So the crazy thing is that there’s this part of the Sideways in the Suburbs that connects to the Defined Tower!" Penelope Yates was explaining (while trying to keep her voice down). "Suburbs to city, just like that. I knew it! We ended up in the underground parking lot. I think this entire building is actually part of the Sideways, even though it LOOKS completely stable. Entropy’s really, really low here. Anyway, we saw the security guard Picasso sleeping at a monitoring station, and were gonna sneak by him when BAM! This alarm went off and all his monitors showed you two at the front door. Took him a while to wake up, we stayed hidden just in case, but he started heading upstairs a few minutes later, and—"
"Are you going to do this every time we run into a helpless stray, Penelope?" her father asked. He had his gun drawn, in case the trigger-happy Picasso somehow showed up around the next bend in the spiraling staircase. "It doesn’t matter why we were here or who we are. Better not to go into details. And we’re not taking these two out for seafood."
Sensing some hostility, I tried to put emotional distance up. It was a good way to deal with most awkward situations in life, I’d learned.
"Whoever you are and whyever you were here, man, whatever… just… thanks for bailing us out," I said, with exactly as much respect as was needed. "We’ll be out of your hair once we hit the front lobby and get out the door. …evening’s completely ruined anyway, may as well go home."
"Really? Why were you two in here, anyway?" Penelope asked. "You don’t seem to be mapping…"
"I was… painting a mural," I decided to phrase it, since ‘vandalizing a window’ rarely goes over well. "Up on twenty. Doesn’t matter. It got wrecked by the sprinklers, and no way I’m going back up to fix it."
Hollister, who was still a bit jittery but trying to look cool and confident all the same, showed sympathy.
"K-Kinda sucks," he agreed, with a little stutter when he nervously glanced behind us, looking for guns and blurs. "I mean, it was a nice piece. The word EXIST, with a period, so all the city could see. Very inspirational—"
"No point in sucking up, Hollister. I promised I’d teach you sign language and I will. Not that it’ll do you any good."
"Yeah, uh, what exactly did you mean by that, back there?" he asked. "We aren’t actively being attacked now, so—"
This was one of those times where when someone went shhhh, yours was not to question why, it was to do or quite likely die. We shhhh‘d.
Our merry procession had reached the bottom of the stairwell. One thick metal door lay between us and the open lobby, and freedom from this haunted house. But, even if the Picasso hadn’t followed us directly… it might have doubled back and used the elevators or other stairwells, to lie in wait.
Gregory was using a tiny spray can, like a miniature graffiti tool, to oil up the hinges on the door. The less noise they made, the better. After that, he waved for us to press flat against the wall… then drew his gun, stepped to one side, and opened the door a crack.
I couldn’t see what he saw, but after glancing this way and that, it must’ve looked all clear. He waved us through, stepping out first with weapon at the ready.
The front lobby looked much like it looked when Hollister and I first broke in. Scattered furniture, corporate logos, an unmanned security checkpoint and so on. The carpeting was soaked thick thanks to the fires upstairs setting off sprinklers all over the place, but you’d never know someone was chasing a Picasso around with Molotovs just minutes ago.
The broken glass of the front doors was just across the lobby. One straight dash and we’d be home free. But Gregory was moving carefully, leading the pack, continuing to make no noise. Shhhh still applied.
We’d gotten twenty floors up despite a Picasso roaming around. I’d taken my sweet time writing a burner which was then burned in turn. If all of that could happen without encountering the monster even once, it meant the thing could move very quietly when it wanted to.
For instance, it could be defying physics and standing on the ceiling just over our line of sight, lying in wait.
By the time any of us (Gregory included) spotted it, the hail of bullets was already airborne.
He’d kept Penelope behind him, just in case. There’s not enough time to react to a gunman to make decisions like that after the fact. Planning ahead saved her life.
Eleven of the simultaneously fired pistol shots went wide, missing the group entirely.
Three shots slammed into Gregory’s bulletproof vest.
One went into his leg.
One went into his neck.
Gregory hit the damp floor with a mild squelch, just as the cloud of smoking guns and malice touched down lightly, blocking our way to the front door. Guns clicking and reloading, ready for a second volley.
Nobody knew what to say, what to do. The one guy who looked ready for war had been dropped in the blink of an eye. Blood from his wounds had splattered behind him—on his daughter notably, also on me, and on Hollister.
Perhaps sensing how terrified we were, how he had us right in the nonexistent palm of his fractured hands, the Picasso took its sweet time to aim his next wave of death. He didn’t bother advancing, content to stand in the center of the spacious lobby, to own the space. To own us.
I can’t even imagine the look on the poor little girl’s face, but I could see the look on what passed for the Picasso’s face. All smiles. ALL smiles, no other defining characteristics. Hatred. Smug, smug hatred.
you have the right to remain silent // a paycheck’s a paycheck //
goddamn kids act like they’re owed // slant and I can have some fun // kill //
you see this badge // you are trespassing //
nobody can stop me now // she’s smiling at me // the child of madness // I can feel // KILL
Penelope Yates was trembling. I could see that much. Almost like her outline was vibrating. …hopefully not turning Picasso herself…
"No," she whispered. "No… Daddy, please…"
// KILL //
And we shifted half an inch to the left.
Or maybe everything else shifted half an inch to the right. Everything. The lobby, the Picasso, the building, the city.
My eyes were probably just playing tricks on me. A jitter of fright causing my gaze to snap slightly to the side. But it was a slowly expanding shift, outward from the center… from her. From the kid.
One second later and a Buick crashed into the security guard. Head on, from above.
Followed by a van. And a sport utility vehicle.
A waterfall of cars, raining down from above, crashing through the ceiling. All pointed downward, like they were driving down the side of a cliff. Shattered steel and concrete and glass, pouring down in a straight line, right across the space where the Picasso was previously standing. Coming down from above and punching straight through the floor, presumably to crash in the parking lot basement below.
By this point Hollister and I had regained enough of our wits to grab the kid and run for it. He overturned a leather sofa, I wrapped her up tight and slid in behind it like I was stealing home base. Hollister, in turn, covered me. It was a big ‘ol duck and cover love-in—and for the best, as I could hear debris clattering against the walls and bouncing off the carpeted floor all around us…
The cacophony went on for a full minute, until it was done raining cars. Only after the worst of the noise stopped did we dare to look over the top of the couch.
The ceiling was gone. Most of the floor was gone.
Looking up through the newly created gap… we saw a parking garage. Delineated parking spaces, overhead fluorescents, reserved spots for corporate CEOs and everything.
Except it was turned ninety degrees on its axis, upright instead of flat, intersecting a dozen or so floors of the building. All the cars apparently had been cozy in their parking spaces until that one fateful moment when they all decided to remember how gravity worked, and went sailing sideways through the "wall" which was in fact the "ceiling" and, well, whammo. Dead Picasso, presumably buried under several metric tons of wrecked vehicles.
I’d call it impossible, but the city routinely mocked people who used that word, so. I decided to leave it at highly improbable that we had somehow completely missed an implausibly messed up sideways parking lot in the middle of the building’s superstructure.
Also highly improbable was Gregory, who was pushed up against the couch as well, breathing heavily and staring in amazement at what he’d backed away from.
I could see the three impact marks on his bulletproof vest. His leg was certainly bleeding; a basic flesh wound. But the kill shot to his neck wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. More of a graze. Ugly-looking, but just ugly-looking.
"What in the freaking heck was that?" he pondered aloud.
Thankfully his neck was not bleeding profusely, because it immediately developed a little girl-sized growth. Penelope latched on, hugged and hugged, and was not going to stop hugging for some time to come.
Whole building was really in the Sideways, so who knows why it happened? Just be thankful.
That was the official explanation from our official mapping experts, and it would have to stand. Neither of them seemed keen to talk about how a parking garage upended its contents on the noggin of a murderous Picasso just before it could kill us all.
Gregory was twice as eager to be rid of us after that, but he was too wounded to limp away without help. Fortunately, I had a guy with me who knew a guy. Hollister and I led the Yates pair out of the vague spaces, following the chalk marks I’d left along the way. After that Hollister directed us to a slightly shady free clinic in a tenth-floor walkup at the edge of town. Not a fun trip, but the patient survived, and was being stitched up by a tired-looking doctor we’d roused out of bed not ten minutes ago.
Penelope refused to leave her father’s side, even while he was being poked at with needle and thread. She had taken to perpetually hugging a fuzzy teddy bear retrieved from her backpack, however. Small comforts in bad situations, I suppose.
Hollister and I were content to sit in the decidedly non-sterilized waiting room of the doctor’s office, looking across the cityscape through windows, and trying to calm down after the night’s events.
I didn’t realize how tired I was. I wanted nothing, nothing more than to go home and crawl into bed alongside Vivi and feel safe and secure again. Put this whole mess behind me and get on with what passed for my life.
Hollister didn’t technically have to stay with me. I didn’t have to wait for the Yateses to get out of surgery, either. But we were exhausted, and he was content to be exhausted in my company. I’d just put him through a living hell and he had few complaints…
"I don’t think Vivi’s gonna go for you," I said, honestly. "Not for sexy funtimes, anyway. Truth is… she told me once that you remind her a lot of her kid brother, back on Earth. She’s an import, you know. Doesn’t remember very much about that life she left behind but that was one of the bright spots. A funny little kid brother. And… that’s you, now. She likes you, she thinks you’re sweet, but… you’re her new funny little kid brother. Not one-night stand material."
It was the much-delayed answer to a distant question, one that felt like it was asked days ago. It took Hollister a moment to make the connection.
"No one-night stands, huh?" he asked.
"No chance in hell, no. …so, I’ll teach you to flirt if you still want me to, but… she’s not going to be the hot party girl type for you. Sorry. I took you for a ride tonight and for that I’m sorry."
He slid down in the hard plastic seat, thinking about it.
"I wasn’t really looking for a party girl," he explained. "Wasn’t cruising for easy tail, in general. I’ve had plenty of that. …too much, honestly. Sometimes I feel like it’s expected of me to be the party dude. I’ve had all these really thin, short relationships because I’m the guy who knows a guy. I’ve done the walk of shame too many times. Marcy… that’s why I wanted to get to know your sister better. Not to hook up with her, just to get to know her. She seemed like someone I’d have a chance at making a real connection with. A genuine and compassionate person. Even if nothing really comes of it, I wanted to try. That’s all."
…I don’t like it when folks who don’t "get" my sister and me immediately reach for nasty little labels to stick all over us. They’re foul things that ruin our mood.
The irony was not lost on me that I’d slapped the "playboy bastard" label on Hollister from the moment I met him, and refused to look past it.
He’d done right by me tonight. He went the distance. But plenty of so-called Nice Guys did that, putting in kindness coins until sex fell out—what he did was more genuine. He didn’t want my bod, he saw me in need and despite his misgivings went along with my passions all the same. He understood my writing. He showed depth I hadn’t wanted to see in him. And in the end, all he wanted was a chance at something real and true. No coy manipulation. Just Hollister, laid bare.
I held up the sign. Thumb, index, ring finger.
"This means ‘I love you,’" I educated him. "The context and associated body language is important, though. Vivi likes to use this casually for all of her friends, flashing or waggling it with a grin. Because, well, she loves everyone. It’s like saying hello for her. Now, a physical touch with this symbol… well, that’s something else. But this is a good place to start."
And life, such as it is, goes on.
I wandered town, trying to get my mojo back with a series of quick throw-ups. Nothing special. I didn’t reuse EXIST. It would’ve been wrong to take something that important to me and toss it on the side of a convenience store.
During the day Vivi and I would take in a movie or hang out at the park. Sometimes Hollister joined us. He’d finally managed to approach her at the ZigZag club without my interference, and charmed the pants off her.
(Not literally. They weren’t even dating. Vivi called him "a soul in need," and added him to her entourage of nightlife friends. He seemed more than content with that. If their relationship eventually reached beyond, then… that was her decision. Wasn’t my right to step in the way.)
I made up with Slyck, when my nighttime excursions got lonely enough that I couldn’t handle it anymore. Boy, did I make up with him. By the time it was over he was left bewildered and I was looking for my pants.
"Sorry I ditched you," he apologized. "I just—"
"It’s fine, Slyck, whatever," I accepted. Well, I said it was fine, whether it was or not. "Don’t worry about it."
"Was glad to see you got the piece done anyway. Hope it wasn’t too rough out there."
I paused in the middle of looking for my left sneaker.
"I like it a lot," he continued. "EXIST. It really says… something, you know? I don’t know what it says but I can tell you’re really saying something—"
"Slyck, the piece got wrecked," I explained. "It’s gone. Just mush on the windows."
After insisting twice more, he broke out the telescope his parents got him when he was a kid, and pointed it at the Defined Tower.
Floor twenty. Floor-to-ceiling windows. Painted bright and true.
All the line work, all the twists and curves, the light grey fill, and my Ghostwriter tag. All there.
The borders were locked down by the Department of Safety the morning after my excursion. Penelope and Gregory had hopped the train that night, heading inward—going home. They hadn’t gone back to paint it. Hollister certainly hadn’t.
In fact, according to Slyck, he saw the piece up there the very night I failed to paint it. It was like it had never been erased in the first place.
But I hadn’t used red paint. And now, it was red.
No idea what to make of it. So, I didn’t. I just got back in bed.