city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //006: Glitch Beat

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 discount all-night pharmacy. It’s sheer lunacy to slug back any of the bottled concoctions you find, but since nothing is as it seems, they’re actually quite normal.

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 city shakes and shudders, pulsing with life, growing in size every day. This is the core of the City of Angles, the landscape from which it was named. Concrete and steel and glass and pavement and asphalt and the pounding of so many feet. Despite the terror it represents, the instability and risk, this is home. This is where people live and work. This is where they love and strive and declare they are alive.

But during the hours when most of the safe and sane are huddled under the sheets, when the imaginary sun goes down and the imaginary stars rise, that’s when a particularly lively section of the populace makes its move. The night life, the scene, the culture underground. They have their own rhythm, one which stands in defiance of the living dead who refuse to set foot outside their door if they can avoid it. Turn down the lights, turn up the music, and see them go…


//006: Glitch Beat

Breathe in, breathe out.

Random and disconnected thoughts. Floating images and memories. I let them wash over me, turbulent waves, swirling eddies. I saw the ocean, once—it’s one of the few sights I can remember from that world. It’s not a big blue thing. It’s dark and punctuated with white foam, twisting and turning, moving according to nature’s whimsy. I felt it between my toes, soaking the sand, and I will never forget it.

The distant past. I remember my brother’s smile when he smeared the kitchen with jam. I remember my mother’s exasperated sigh, as she dragged him off to take a bath. I remember the sunlight through the kitchen window and the glistening strawberry goo.

My lunch-as-breakfast, three days ago. We were running low on supplies, money tight, but I got some of that jam so I could make my sister Marcy jam and toast. She’d never had it before.

Blue skies and sunshine, the playgrounds of public schools. Warm and calming. Kids everywhere, in motion, swirling like the tides. I remember all these things…

While I let the chaos flow over and around and through me, exercising my mind, as I’m exercising my body. It’s muscle memory at this point… a variety of yoga stretches and brief aerobic routines, a little bit of everything. It happens as I think of other things. Limbering up, getting ready for the night yet to come. Unlike Marcy, who camps out on the couch with a box of wheat crisps and licorice for hours, I pay exquisite attention to my form. It’s part of who I am and what I want to be.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Pull the random thoughts together, sequence them. Bring myself out of the fugue state. I can feel my heartbeat and I use it to guide me out of the meditation.

Coming to the City of Angles, at a tender young age of seven years. Joining the Wei family, a foster care paperwork error, and staying long past the point I was supposed to leave. My sister’s favorite new shiny thing which she wouldn’t let go of…

My sister. By blood or not, she had become my sister, and I hers. She was my new life. I was now Vivi Wei, and even as I missed my brother and my mother, I moved forward to become Vivi Wei.

Present day, present time. Deep exhale. And here.

The rec room.

We started our days out here—I ran through my workout while my sister Marcy planned her next art piece. Eventually as the sun set we’d go our separate ways, but this was a joint constant. I could count on it in my life.

Fetching my towel, I dried off from the exertion and wandered over to a corner of the room where Marcy was working.

Or rather, wasn’t working. Odd. She’d been staring at the same blank spot on the wall this whole time, with no sketch to show for it.

Didn’t need to tap her shoulder or otherwise signal her. She heard me approach, felt my presence. I can feel hers in turn, even if I can’t hear her.

My fingers fluttered through the gestures of sign language, after I had her attention.

[What’s wrong?] I asked. [Writer’s block?]

I could tell she was frustrated; her signing in return was sharp and fast, snapping off the gestures in rapid order and without much flow. Like I’d caught her with her hand in the cookie jar and she wasn’t happy about that fact.

[I want to do something big. I want to do something important. I’ve got something…] and a pause, as she tried to think of how to explain it. [On the tip of my tongue. But I can’t figure out what it is. Been having weird dreams lately, and I know they say you can’t read in dreams, but I could swear I’ve seen words there…]

I recognized it immediately, of course. She constantly felt the pressure to top herself, to go big or go home. That drive to create leaked into every aspect of her life, sometimes distracting her to death.

[They can’t all be monumental. You’re allowed to do smaller words, or just do something for fun,] I suggested, slowing down the signs, deliberately making her slow her thoughts in turn. [Or just skip writing tonight. Come with me to the club! It’s going to be a big night for the Zig-Zag. You can invite Slyck, if you like.]

You didn’t need to know sign language to know what sticking your finger down your throat and mock-gagging meant. Although I was fuzzy on whether she was gagging at the thought of the Zig-Zag, or of her on-again off-again boyfriend Slyck.

[At least think about it,] I asked. [The invitation’s always open. You know that. Come on, let me fix you some lunch. You skipped dinner last night; that’s not healthy in the slightest.]

I could shower and get dressed later. Right now, Marcy Wei needed me to keep her straight, whether she liked it or not.

I am my sister’s keeper, and she mine. In the early years, when a scared little deaf girl was nearly driven into herself by this city, Marcy was there to keep me safe. She’s the reason I was able to level out, to appreciate the city and its wonders, and regain my smile. Marcy was my interface to the world, my ears and voice, and she stood by me when nobody—not even my accidental foster parents—would take a stand.

Now, in our twenties, I was doing the same for her. Without me, she’d float away or sink forever. I know she believes in the Echo Revelation, believes to the point where she somehow thinks she’s less “real” than I am. Keeping her spirits up and keeping her attached to life is the key. And it’s something I’m happy to do for a loved one.

---

I’m always up for a party.

As a kid, it was birthday parties. I loved the colored balloons, the party games, the cake with fluorescent bright icing. Dozens of sugared-up kids bouncing around in someone’s house, sometimes playing, sometimes fighting, but always in motion. I couldn’t communicate very well at these parties and Marcy hated social gatherings, so often I was partying by myself… but by myself within the crowd. It was close enough to inclusion to keep me hooked and yearning for more.

Years go by and the parties start getting more intimate and more crazy, without parental supervision and sometimes with beer if someone’s cousin knows a scavenger gang. My communication gets better thanks to writing pads and friends who start learning how to read my sign language. Now I’m in small groups who can understand me, within larger groups overall. Going to one party introduces you to people who can get you into other parties, and so on… until you’re a teenage party girl supreme. Having fun, making mistakes, learning from mistakes, growing and loving. By that point, the “disability” was barely disabling anything.

And now that I’m an adult… parties are my life. And my livelihood.

I started out as a bartender at the Zig-Zag, a prestigious position in a prestigious club. The Zig-Zag was square in the middle of the Zag, a back-and-forth winding roadway at the heart of the city which had been completely stable for decades. This was primetime, the main drag, the big show. The only reason I was able to even get my foot in the door was because of my high school connections; a guy I went out with knew someone who knew Gee Bee.

As a bartender, my deafness suddenly became an asset. I could read the lips of patrons no matter how loud the music was—and after I got adept at reading the lips of slurring drunks, I never messed up an order.

Eventually patrons came to know me as a regular, and a sort of signing shorthand emerged… this signal for this drink, that signal for that drink. It became a scenester thing. If you knew how to call out to Vivi from across the room, you were now a deeper fixture of the Zig-Zag than before.

So, every night I’d tend bar, and take breaks to dance.

I’ve always loved dancing, ever since music finally clicked for me. I eventually came to understand music as an indirect experience… a reaction to someone else’s action. Put headphones on me and I won’t know what to do with them. But put headphones on someone else… and soon enough I’ll pick up on the music that’s coursing through their body. I spot the patterns, the swells, the rushes. I move in sync. Now, put dozens of people in a room with music, pulsing through the crowd like a wave… and I’m in there with the thick of them, feeling it. It’s an amazing experience.

Tending bar, dancing, my star rising… and soon, I’m on a first name basis with the V.I.P.s. I’m being requested by name to handle drinks for parties in the upper rooms. I’m invited to join those parties. Sign language, even if it’s just a few specific iconic gestures, becomes the trend of the day with those in the know. I’m included, well and truly.

And one day, Gee Bee up and says “You’re practically running things around here anyway, so why not make it official?”

So the on the evening after I made my sister jam and toast for lunch, I was working my sixth straight month as primary entertainment director of the Zig-Zag. I was the breadwinner of our house, the girl of the hour, the star of the show. I made the show happen. And I took great pride in the work.

The hours before opening were hardly glamorous. It took a lot of sweat to make the show happen each night; especially on nights like these, with a live music act about to take the stage. Live electronic music, which was even worse, since we had to be ready for whatever crazy array of gadgets were going to be in play. Plenty of wires to check and signals to balance… I used audio monitors with spectrographs to check the levels, but fortunately I also directed a small army of tech-minded scenesters. Together, we’d make sure the show worked.

Gee Bee was on hand, too, making one of his rare appearances. He’d opened the club back in the seventies, and was entering his own seventies at this point. Like everybody’s favorite crazy old uncle, he had a comfortable feel about him of a well-worn slipper—granted, a slipper made of leather and wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt, which broke the metaphor badly.

Communication between me and my boss was often difficult. He couldn’t sign to me due to his arthritis, and his vision wasn’t particularly great anymore so even if he knew my signs he couldn’t read them. On top of that, his dentures meant lip reading was, well…

“Are they hear yes? Your friend and two night’s magician,” Gee Bee spoke, his lips forming each syllable.

…it was more art than science and not particularly magic. Sometimes it took a second or two to swap out my initial guess with a correct stab at what was really being said—context and expression came into play heavily. Knowing what Gee Bee would be concerned with right now, and given we weren’t pulling rabbits out of hats later, I mentally filled in “here yet” and “tonight’s musician” immediately after my first reading.

To reply to him, I pulled my smartphone from my purse and flicked open the single greatest app I’ve ever paid ninety-nine cents for. A few rapid pokes at the touchscreen later, and the phone read my reply back to him through a voice synthesizer. I’m told the voice is actually quite pleasant—I had to test a few different downloadable voice packs on Marcy before I found one that didn’t make her wince.

Hollister texted to say he’s running late and may arrive after opening, but we’re ready for them, my phone told him.

The elder statesman of the club scene nodded his approval. “I’m curious about this new style of music, so I think I’ll stick around and watch the show,” he said (after a few mental word substitutions). “I don’t think I’ll be rocking it on the dance floor, not with my hip acting up, but I’m sure you can make up for that. Let me handle the bar tonight—you enjoy yourself, kiddo.”

I didn’t need my app to express my thanks. A full body hug would do.

I couldn’t apply my usual enthusiasm behind it, not with Gee Bee’s poor joints, but I hugged him all the same. I like being cuddly and close to people—I like people. I like the warmth and comfort of being around and near people.

He gave me a reassuring pat on the back, and then my earlobe wiggled.

Those weren’t related events, of course. I had a bluetooth vibration alert embedded in my jewelry; stylish and functional. Someone was texting me.

After detangling myself from Gee Bee and giving him a big thumbs up of confidence, I turned to dig my phone out of my purse. A few swipes and taps and I was in my messenger app.

Ghostwriter: goddammit Slyck broke up with me

I must’ve done a whole-body sigh, because Gee Bee took the signal as a suggestion to wander off and give me a private moment. I was thankful for that, as I took a seat by the sound mixing boards for a serious texting session.

Vividly: What happened?

Ghostwriter: little bastard said he was tired of the “booty calls”
Ghostwriter: don’t get what his problem is, he’s a guy, guys are horny all the time. he should be thrilled when I wanna drop in for a casual screw
Ghostwriter: gave me some crap about wanting more out of our relationship I dunno like maybe he wanted long walks by the lake in the moonlight or something whatever

…which was not surprising in the least. And as much as I wanted to be in my sister’s corner, I had to agree with that poor guy she’d been toying with for the past year.

I’ve had plenty of loves in my life, far more than Marcy. But I’ve always been honest with them. For some, I’ve had a deep and lasting spiritual connection which gave us a bond beyond the physical… and for others, it was simply people looking to enjoy each other’s company, without inhibitions or promises. But one way or another, I was always clear about my feelings and open about discussing them. We share and love. I’ve left few broken hearts in my wake.

Marcy, on the other hand… she’ll often pick some poor submissive looking fellow as her “new boyfriend,” keep him at arm’s length whenever she doesn’t want to bother dealing with him, and then reel him in whenever she wants something. It’s a bit cruel, honestly. I’ve tried to talk to her about it, but she just doesn’t seem to grasp how love needs to be a two-way street.

Best I could do right now was console her and try to nudge her away from another episode like this.

Vividly: I’m so sorry to hear that, sis.
Maybe it’s for the best, though. You never seemed very happy with him, and neither did he. I think this is what both of you need.

Ghostwriter: screw him if he’s gonna be a jerk about this. screw boyfriends

Ghostwriter: can you ditch work tonight? let’s just rent a movie and get drunk at home or something. get a pizza and some beer and just crash out

Vivdly: I can’t, Marcy. It’s a big night for the club. Hollister’s found someone famous from Earth to play music here.

Ghostwriter: bleh. double bleh. but ok
Ghostwriter: I’ll just pizza and beer and movie by myself
Ghostwriter:
it’s cool, you got your job and your friends, I don’t wanna mess with that. see you later tonight.

…which could be a recipe for disaster.

Marcy’s idea of “a relaxing night of pizza and beer alone” usually morphed slowly into “a night of self-loathing and externalized anger while getting progressively more and more drunk.” Dollars to doughnuts I’d come home to find her in a depressive stupor, unwilling to move from the couch and spending the next day in a hangover haze of apathy.

But… Gee Bee was counting on me. The Zig-Zag was my home, too. I wanted to support them just as much as I wanted to support my sister…

I’d have to split the difference.

Vividly: Honey, I can’t leave right away, but how about if you drop by the Zig-Zag for a bit? I think you need to try and have some fun tonight. Once the concert’s done, I’ll duck out early and we’ll go home to watch a movie. OK?

Ghostwriter: eh, ok. but I’m not dancing. and I get to write something on your bathroom wall later. I promise it will be awesome.

Vividly: I’ll put a frame around it when you do. See you soon! Hurry over, we’re starting soon.

Phone back in purse. Crisis… hopefully averted.

Tonight I’d have to juggle a new musical act, keep the crowd hot, and make sure my sister had as close to a good time as she could. I’d also have rounds to make to greet all my friends who were coming by for the show, and I should really make sure the bar is stocked—and that the bottles with large print labels were near the front, if Gee Bee was tending bar tonight, and…

A juggling act and a half. Honestly, it was hard to enjoy the club when you were working the club, and having a heartbroken sister along for the ride would double the difficulty. But I’d dance from crisis to crisis, deal with it smoothly, and come up smiling. I always did. You just had to find the right beat to move to.

---

Doors open at nine. Crowds in through the doors, starting to mill, warming the party up…

No sign of the DJ, or Hollister, or Marcy. Not yet. The DJ in particular running fashionably late, considering he was on deck in half an hour. Even without bartending duties, I was wildly running around putting out and stoking fires.

We were easily going to be at capacity tonight, with the high profile musical act that would supposedly be arriving soon—and the doorkeepers were having trouble keeping us at that capacity. This wasn’t originally a night club, it was some warehouse space that arrived on the Zag back in the fifties, and that meant a lot of entrances and exits to mind. Not usually a problem, but on a stormy night like this one, the ship tended to leak and take on water.

The crowd was ready for it, but word had spread that the star of the show was missing. I warned the staff to keep a lid on that, to emphasize that everything was (as far as they knew) going to be fine, but word got out. I went around to the groups I knew, trying to assure them and keep them excited for what was to come, all while sneaking to send panicked texts to Hollister…

Vividly: What is going on? Are you on the subway yet?

TheAvenue: Finally got him out of bed and dressed. Think he got stoned or something, sorry. Riding subway, en route, eta 30m. Get things ready so he can hit the stage right after arriving, gonna be cutting it close.

Twenty minutes later, and Marcy showed up.

[Are you handing out free candy or something?] she signed to me, horrified at the size of the crowd. [I practically had to bulldoze my way through the crowd at the door to get to the doorman. He didn’t recognize me at first, either. It’s not like I haven’t ever been here.]

[Sorry, I’m so sorry,] I repeated. [It’s a crazy night. The guy Hollister’s bringing in was really hot back on Earth. He’s a… ‘D-U-B-S-T-E-P’ artist.]

It occurred to me a bit too late that I didn’t know the sign for dubstep. Fortunately, Marcy managed to invent one on the fly.

[You’re kidding me. You seriously hired one of those…] Tugging at her cheeks, to mimic the sound I’d heard dubstep was famous for. [‘WUB WUB’… guys? Have you even experienced ‘WUB WUB’ before? I don’t think you’re going to like it…]

[It’s hot and popular right now, and the Zig-Zag’s benefiting from that,] I explained. [I book the best acts for Gee Bee, period. Listen, I’m sorry to leave you like this but can you wait at my table? I need to tend to things.]

Marcy looked nonplussed.

[You want me to hang out with your crazy friends?] she asked. [I thought we were gonna ‘enjoy’ the show together.] With air quotes, of course.

My table, my corner of my club. My friends. Zeke and Joey, the cutest couple you ever did meet. Fi, the poet who deigned to hang out with us every other week. Amanda, who was having so much trouble with her love life…

They didn’t get along very well with Marcy, the last few times I’d managed to get my sister to show up at the club. But they knew how much she meant to me, and they could keep an eye on her until everything was calmed down.

[It’ll just be for a few minutes, until everything’s on track,] I insisted. [The timing’s bad, I know. I’ll do my best to—]

I froze mid-sign, seeing a flash of light by the backstage entrance. Movement.

Throwing a quick [Back soon] to Marcy, I slipped through the crowd with practiced ease, making my way to the back.

---

My team of behind-the-scenes ninjas were in hot-stepping mode, now. Doing final checks, warming up, getting ready. That could only mean one thing—showtime was nigh.

I wormed my way around them, careful not to interrupt their work. The backstage area was tiny, as tiny as possible to squeeze in more area in front of the stage. The “green room” matched that, being little more than an oversized closet with a few cheap secondhand chairs for the acts to relax in before their gigs…

Tonight’s act had slumped into one of the chairs, and was… no, not meditating. Definitely asleep. His oversized glasses had slipped down his nose, and his long asymmetrical hair was dangling back as he snored away.

This was the first time I’d met the fellow that Hollister had been going on about for days, but that first impression wasn’t a great one. The man was pale and sickly, dark rings under his eyes. Unhealthy in every respect…

A worrying sight. Hollister looked equally worried.

I’d known Hollister for some time, in an informal manner—everybody knew Hollister. He knew everyone, or knew someone who knew everyone. He reminded me a lot of the distant memories of my little brother, back on Earth… always smiling, always trying to please, to show off the neat mischief he’d wrought.

Only after a strange evening outing with my sister did Hollister approach me directly, and get to know me directly. Only then did I come to learn that the care-free partying smiles were a front. The real Hollister was a ball of worries, and those worries were very much at the surface tonight.

Even one of my customary full-contact hugs didn’t bring him out of it. I was worried as well, so we made a lovely couple in that regard.

Once his hands were free, he explained. His signing was still coming along and we didn’t have much time, so he fell back on my lip reading to make himself clear.

“He’s been drifting in and out of sleep all day, and having nightmares. I tried getting him some coffee but it didn’t help,” he said. “His Department case file said he’s been having trouble sleeping and I know he wanted to find some work, so I thought this would help him, but… honestly, I’d have left him at home for his own health if I didn’t know how important this was to you.”

…which left me in a very, very bad place. And Hollister knew it, which explained the guilty look he was giving me.

I needed an act. If this went badly, such a high-profile event, it’d hurt the club. It’d hurt Gee Bee. But if I pushed someone clearly in some sort of psychological crisis into performing just so I could make my life easier, what would that make me? I don’t like hurting people, or letting people hurt themselves…

“I’m so sorry. I should have told you more about this before,” Hollister continued, since I wasn’t replying. “I thought this would help him. I’ve been working his Orientation case for weeks, trying to help him get back on his feet since arriving in the city. I figured maybe if he could just find a gig he’d comearound, bebetter, so I didn’twanttoworryyou. It’smyfaultyournthsmssiptyn—”

A finger pressed to his lips. He was talking a mile a minute now, visually incomprehensible. No sense in it, so I stopped it in its tracks.

I hated having to use my phone app at a time like this. So impersonal, but Hollister didn’t know enough sign language yet, and I had to be clear.

I’ll cancel the event, I typed. I’ll take responsibility. I don’t want to hurt your friend. It’s okay, Hollister.

“No, it’s not okay,” he insisted. “I wanted to do something nice foryouand I’ve fkdtallupmsosr—”

A brief flicker at the edge of my sight distracted me from trying to read the mess on Hollister’s lips.

Our mutual friend was awake.

His head had jerked forward, before the rest of him slowly followed. Sitting upright, now. Adjusting his glasses.

“Showtime,” I think he said, before lurching to his feet and out the door before anyone could stop him.

---

Momentum carried things the rest of the way through. I tried to chase after, but my team already had their hands on him, running him through the paces. Where to enter from, what his cue would be, how things were going to work. They’d been ready for this all night and stopping that would be like holding back the tide. The DJ wasn’t resisting; alert and ready to go, he went along, nodding to the explanations.

I tried keying in stop on my phone and making people listen to it, but they were focused on him, now. My little synthesized voice held no weight. Hollister did his part, some sort of argument with the sound technician, even talking with the DJ. I couldn’t read properly in the dark and from these angles, people with their backs to me; all that was clear was this show was happening. The DJ shook his head a few times, presumably at Hollister requesting he step down.

This was what he wanted, after all. Like Hollister said, he wanted a gig, and Hollister was the guy who could get you what you wanted. Both as a caseworker for the Department of Orientation and as a dealer in things that need dealing with, he was the one you turned to. He’d done this as a favor to me, a favor I never asked for, trying to prove his worth. It was his default response to the world, a need to justify himself to the ones he cared for. I could have done more to dissuade him, honestly… but a hot act for the club was just so enticing…

We found ourselves at my usual table, minutes later. Zeke and Joey, Fi, Amanda. Marcy. Hollister. Me.

And on stage, a man who needed no introduction. I didn’t recognize many faces in the crowd; they were largely imports, people eager for a taste of home. Here was someone they knew, even if I’d never met him before tonight.

On stage, he didn’t look like a shambling wreck. He looked alive and ready, reveling in the cheers, soaking them up. Ready to rock their world with his unique flavor of music. I could feel the vibrations through the club floor, the wild appreciation…

Well… maybe this would work out. Whatever problems he was facing, he seemed happy to be up there now. The gig was going off on time, and the crowd was happy. Gee Bee would clean up, and all would be well…

The beat was steady, at first. Dance music. Even without hearing it, I could feel it, see it washing over the crowd. My crew who ran the lighting rigs knew how to sync their work perfectly to whatever sound was pumping through the ridiculously oversized speakers of the Zig-Zag.

As that pulsing wave started to rise… I started to feel my groove again. Later on in the show I could hit the dance floor, enjoy this properly. Show this city I was alive, we all were, and no matter what problems we faced we could face them together. Me, Hollister, Marcy, even our new friend on stage—

Broken beat. Stuttering.

At first, I thought something was wrong. I only felt the impact indirectly, seeing as the cadence of the crowd shattered, fragmented. My lighting crews, not sure what to make of it, started falling out of sync.

Did the speakers blow? Was the DJ’s equipment malfunctioning? Was…

No. The crowd was still happy; I could feel their cheering, see their smiles. But the music had become distorted and chaotic. It broke down completely, and strangely enough, that seemed to be what they craved most. The moment they were waiting for.

Wub Wub. I got it, now. That’s why Marcy didn’t think I’d like it. This was music, but it wasn’t music I could experience. It broke every pattern I was able to sense. It worked for the crowd, they lapped it up with a spoon, but to me… it was just chaos. Visual white noise. Glitched beats.

Even as my friends at the table cheered, I sank into the vinyl of my booth. By myself, within the crowd.

I suppose part of me was ecstatic. We’d done it—we pulled off the gig, and the Zig-Zag would rock down to its foundations tonight. Nobody was going home unhappy, they got what they came for. We’d had rock acts before, or experimental music I couldn’t get a grasp on. This wasn’t really anything new… but after the exhausting evening, being excluded like this didn’t help my mood.

Marcy flicked for my attention.

[Sorry,] she signed. Not I told you so, just sorry. She knew how crestfallen I felt at this moment, and was sympathetic.

I put on a smile, for her. Maybe for myself, too.

[If they’re happy, I’m happy,] I signed back—fingers audible over the likely incomprehensible level of volume that flooded the ears of the club. [I’m going to hit the bathroom. I’ll be back soon.]

Gee Bee had a small bathroom backstage, a private one. At the moment, privacy was what I sought. Getting through the crowd to reach it was tricky; if they were dancing and moving in unison, I could have slipped through easily. As is, I had to force my way there through the bedlam.

---

I had no right to cry.

It was selfish of me to think of this place as my own personal party. In the end, it wasn’t for me—it was for them. They were happy, so I should be happy, just like I said.

Of course, that was a line Hollister often used, and I called him out on it each time. He gave of himself and his time and resources perpetually to make other people happy, never once thinking of himself. Generosity is a virtue, but erasure of the self… that could become a vice, in time. An addiction.

This wasn’t the same, was it? When I gave to others, I was giving to myself, too. I’d built a nest here, a safe place where I was a participant rather than on the silent fringes. Tonight, after working so hard… my reward was to be pushed back to those silent fringes.

But it was just for one night! Not exactly the end of the world. Not some mass rejection. Couldn’t I accept one night of that? Was that selfish? Did I have any right? Did…

Thinking in circles. No clear answers.

This was just one night. It would be over in less than a day’s time. Marcy had the right idea in the first place; we should head home, dig in, and let it pass over us. Time gave perspective, and in time, I’d see this for the minor disturbance in my life that it was. I could regain my positivity. Not likely tonight, but soon.

Beyond the tiny staff bathroom, I could still feel the crowd. It felt like a stampede of some sort, crazy and aimless. No comfort to take in it; at last, I knew how others often felt in night clubs, battered on all fronts by too much meaningless noise, driven to headaches. Mine was already forming.

I’d been tucked away back here for minutes. Time to go and face this.

Gee Bee had given me the night off, technically. I’d thank Hollister for his time, say goodbye to my friends, grab Marcy and head home. Simple enough—

In my reversed world of the bathroom mirror, I saw the door fly open.

Marcy.

No words, no signs. Grabbed my arm, pulled hard, hard enough to hurt. I tried a one-armed signal of protest but she wasn’t even looking, not looking back, as she dragged me out through the backstage area towards the exit…

Hollister was there already, waving us in. He had been frantically trying to twist the knob, to get the door open. I wanted to explain that it was locked, that most of the entrances to this converted warehouse had to be locked to keep folks from sneaking in. But there would’ve been a guard back here, who could let her out. Where was everyone…?

He screamed something. Marcy might’ve yelled back in agreement, because now all three of us were on the move. Jerked back, going towards the stage now. Hollister kicking the push bar on the doors open to—

Chaos.

Lights everywhere. Strobes. The lighting rigs were out of control. In the dark, sometimes a colored beam would pass, and I’d see, I’d see…

Bodies. People running. People being trampled.

The bar, smashed, glass everywhere. The bar was twisted in the center, steel and plastic warped and bubbled like wax under a blow lamp. I saw Gee Bee’s face. I didn’t see the rest of him. I couldn’t and didn’t want to…

Marcy pulled and this time I willingly followed. We stayed around the edge of the room, trying to get to the front door, where the crowd was desperately pushing to get out. To get away—

The flickering spectre interjected itself in our path. One moment it wasn’t there, the next it was there. Jerking between two frames of a bad videotape, static swirls and color bleeding in its outlines.

The DJ. Still playing, hands on controls and turntables that were swirling around him now. Light and electronics and wires, a cloud of them, shredded and multiplied and twisted and floating free from all laws of physics.

Picasso.

And he was blocking our way to the exit.

His face, I could see so many of his face. Rocking out, getting into his music. Screaming for help. Terrified. Grinning madly, lips pulled back like a skull’s grin, reveling in the spotlight. All of it simultaneously…

What truly made me fear, however—the thing that sent me screaming in on myself—was what he said. Because I could hear it.

        it feels so good // i can feel the music in me // i want to share this // with // all my friends…

Those were the first words I’d ever heard in my life. I can only assume I heard them; I couldn’t lip read that mash of overlapping visuals, and he certainly wasn’t signing. The words entered my head, clear and true. Not my own thoughts. Someone else’s thoughts, expressed in the way people express their thoughts. With sound.

Backed to the stage, now. Pressed against it. Hollister trying to shield my sister and I, as if that’d really do much of anything.

World going dark. A smothering feeling. Something heavy being thrown on top of me.

Heat, burning heat, stepping right into an oven.

Marcy’s arms around me, pressing the sign for I love you against my back, hard enough to bruise. Desperate…

…and then, light. The smell of ash and smoke.

Men in fireproof suits, lifting the fire rescue blanket they’d draped over the three of us… while other workers continued to blast the fried body of the DJ with anti-Picasso flamethrowers. The musician had melted into the floor by this point. No longer moving. No longer even Picasso’d.

The Department of Safety to the rescue.

---

A triage station had been set up on the street outside the ruins of the Zig-Zag.

This meant stopping traffic on the Zag… which had never been done before, not in decades and decades. It was stable, it was the core of the city, it never changed. Sure, the road was famous for worming its way left and right around diagonally twisted blocks of buildings, but aside from that it was the closest thing to normalcy the City of Angles got. Now, traffic was being rerouted around the asphalt in front of the club, while the wounded were treated and men in hazmat suits tromped in and out of the club.

Despite entering into the dead of night, it was bright as day out here. News crews had set up on either side of the triage zone, shining floodlights, capturing every moment of the wounding of the Zag. The Department of Safety wasn’t being particularly subtle about this—shutting down the main drag, invading with dozens of health officials and safety inspectors. Plenty of juicy visuals for the news sponge to soak up. People were no doubt watching it all unfold on live cable television… watching, and trembling in fear as one of the foundation rocks of their lives was jackhammered into granite powder right in front of them…

The three of us had been kept away from the main circus, in an isolation tent. The Department officials didn’t buy that we hadn’t come into direct contact with the Picasso; we were being observed for signs of cubism, even as our cuts and scrapes were being treated.

I was being looked at with suspicious eyes by safety officials, in particular.

After all, my sister was practically growling with anger at not being allowed to leave, and Hollister was actively trying to leverage his civil service cred to get us better treatment. Both of them were fighting.

Myself… I was just sitting there, in silence. Normal for me, but I felt like I’d’ve been silent even if I could make a sound.

We lost the Zig-Zag. We lost Gee Bee; he was one of the confirmed casualties, along with those who were trampled trying to escape, or those the Picasso had run into head-on. This was a tragedy, a murder, a loss of everything I’d embraced in my life since moving out of my suburban foster home with my sister. Everything, gone, in the blink of an eye…

i want to share this with all my friends, the Picasso said. His voice echoed in my mind. So earnest, so joyful. Picassos were horrible things, suffering and hateful and lashing out, I’d heard. This one was… happy. It reached out to us as a friend, not as an enemy. And yet, it would have killed us all the same… it did kill those I held dear. Everything gone. Blink of an eye. Everything…

Despair is a side effect of cubism. Or maybe cubism is a side effect of despair, nobody knew. Either way, the doctors were watching me for any telltale signs, no doubt. Marcy was, too. Even as she paced and fretted and raised hell, she kept an eye on me.

After what felt like hours, the authority of authorities entered our little vinyl cell.

He didn’t wear hazmat gear; instead, he wore a white suit of immaculate tailoring, matching the snow white of his beard. A tall man, dark of skin, composed and perfect like a statue. Comforting and strong. Strange to feel sure of those attributes only seconds after meeting him, but clearly it was a practiced poise—he wanted you to feel comforted by his strength. Being an adept at reading body language, I could see it as a clear and blatant intent.

He spoke to one of the health technicians—turned to the side, so I couldn’t fully read. Marcy accosted him, likely asking for us to be released. Hollister joined in. But after a few brief words to them… the man turned to me, focused.

His hands flowed into sign.

[My name is S-E-T-H D-O-U-G-A-L, and I am in charge of the Department of Safety,] he explained in flawless ASL, while speaking those same words aloud for Marcy and Hollister’s benefit. [I want to apologize for your treatment. While it is standard policy to isolate those who may have come into contact with a Picasso, the amount of confusion out there has slowed your processing to an unacceptable degree. You haven’t shown any signs of cubism. You and your friends are free to go home.]

Marcy replied—she must’ve been agitated, because normally she’s sure to face me while signing and talking. I believe she was explaining exactly where Mr. Dougal could shove his slow processing.

[Please understand, the number of injured is quite high, and the media interest and traffic issues have caused no end of difficulty,] Seth replied. [In addition… this is not the only club we’ve been called to. Two other nightclubs have had cubism incidents tonight. The deaths are still being counted.]

The chill of autumn in the city didn’t match the chill I felt at that moment.

[What do you mean?] I replied.

[There have been three incidents total. We don’t currently know what the connection is between them, if there is any connection at all,] Seth responded, to me. [By emergency authorization from the mayor, I am issuing a public health and safety warning regarding similar clubs and social gathering points. We are not instituting a curfew at this time, but we will recommend caution and avoidance of such facilities to improve citizen security. Given the tragic loss of life, this is the least we can do. I’m sorry for any inconvenience.]

He paused briefly, to accept a clipboard stacked thick with papers. Scrawled off a signature in triplicate, then passed it back to a hazmat-wearing technician.

[Your paperwork is processed and you’re free to go. Have a nice evening, Miss Wei,] he signed… with a nod of the head to punctuate.

It seemed… sudden. Everything so crazy, all this mess, and then just… sent home. Dismissed. Maybe it was the shock of what happened tonight, but I had no idea how to feel one way or another about this new development.

[That’s it?] I asked. [Nothing else?]

[What else would we require of you?] he asked.

[Hollister and I knew the man who went Picasso!] I signed back, some of Marcy’s anger leaking into me. [Nobody’s asked us anything about him. Why not? We could help you figure out why it happened. I don’t believe the club itself was at fault, even if you have had other incidents in clubs tonight. How can you issue some vague “safety warning” without knowing for sure? This should be investigated!]

[And I assure you, any possible causal connections will be investigated thoroughly,] Dougal promised. [The safety warning is simply our initial guidance on this issue. If we require your assistance, we will be in touch, but I ask you to trust us. We are professionals. Thank you for your time.]

And then, through the tent flap and into the night air. Off to important Department of Safety business. Destroying my entire world in one blow, and then gone with a confident stride.

---

When sunlight reached me again, I felt less urgency to get out of bed and start my day. No need to go exercise and meditate. I did it anyway, but found it harder than ever to pull myself together, to find the beat of my heart and reassemble my self around it.

The Zig-Zag had been shut down; damaged beyond repair. Other clubs were also feeling the sting of this, not just ones which had endured Picasso rampages. Nobody could prove those clubs were responsible for their cubism incidents, but thanks to that “public safety warning” the cable news stations were having a field day. Experts gleefully declaring that there must be something dangerous in the music, or the lighting, or the liquor… or simply that the sorts of people who would go to those places surely were cubism time bombs waiting to blow. Strange young people. Loose morals. High on drugs. Dangerous. And the Department of Safety, while saying nothing to support those theories, did absolutely nothing to stand in their way. Their investigation was officially still ongoing.

But all of that, the confusion, the fear, the politics… all of it was just frustrating and worrying. The real depressive blast I was hit with was far more personal.

Gee Bee was dead. The kind-hearted old rocker, the one who wanted to pass his youthful love of music onto next generation, had a closed casket funeral a day later. With few living relations, and fewer club regulars willing to head out of their homes to attend, it was a very lonely service. I attended, Marcy attended. A few from my circle of friends did, but not many. Amanda was there, going through tissue after tissue… and oddly enough Fi, the aloof poet who sometimes deigned to hang out with is, was one of the first to show. But Zeke and Joey, the Zig-Zag’s cutest couple, were nowhere to be found.

Nobody had prepared a eulogy; the service itself was hastily arranged by a distant nephew, who didn’t even show up for the funeral. Since nobody else would stand up to speak for the dead, it fell on me. I lasted two minutes before I was crying too much to make any coherent signs.

But in the end, I didn’t have proper time to mourn. I needed to start hunting for a job, and immediately.

I was the breadwinner of the Wei household, after all. I’d rode on a wave of connections and handshakes right into an extremely cushy position, using the money to keep our modest little apartment stocked with food. Marcy sometimes pulled a part time job when things were tight, but had trouble keeping them. I was the one keeping us afloat… and the rent would be due sooner than later.

Both of us had shiny high school diplomas and little else to our name. I could’ve flipped burgers or become an entry-level typist in an accountancy firm… work a trained monkey could do. But I yearned to be reborn from ashes, and rejoin the world I had been ejected from: to entertain, to dance the night away, to join the party. I was well known in that scene. Surely there’d be SOME work available to me…

---

…nine days of job interviews later, and no joy.

Hollister tried. He really tried; he felt responsible, no matter how much I tried to assure him he wasn’t. But the market for my skills had dried up overnight. No clubs were hiring… most of them were battening down the hatches and running with skeleton crews, or were simply closing down to wait out the tide of public opinion. Even bars and watering holes were keeping a low profile, not wanting to get caught in the negative splash of a high-profile Picasso incident.

The few places there WERE hiring, well…

I tried going to the first interview alone. I was a proud and strong woman, ready to make a good impression without needing to rely on anyone else. I was well known in the scene and surely I could prove my worth.

Except, of course, the confused-looking woman who was doing the interview didn’t know sign language. I had to use my phone app, which meant a delay between her question and my response while I keyed in my words. Her patience wore thin quickly.

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how you’re going to be able to handle talent relations like this,” she explained. “If I could afford to provide accommodations for your disability, I would, but… I’m afraid it’s just not in our budget. Thank you for your time.”

I couldn’t even explain why that wouldn’t be needed. She’d waved in the next candidate before I could finish typing.

Hollister suggested a lawsuit, citing discriminatory hiring practices. But the last thing I needed was to make waves.

That was the real problem with my “disability.” Or my sex. Or my sexuality, for that matter. Even my general archetype. I could get neatly filed away, assumptions taking place of explorations, and if I tried to fight back… I’d get a reputation as being troublesome. Bitchy. I couldn’t afford that, not now, not when I needed to keep my name clean in this shrinking scene.

If I raised hell with a short-sighted potential employer and they passed word on to other potential employers, that’d be even more strikes against me. Then it’s not just a matter of hiring some… some deaf-mute hippie, but a deaf-mute hippie who’s going to be a royal pain in the ass. Once lawyers get involved, I’d be lucky if I could get a job shoveling fries.

Two failed interviews and five calls without any response whatsoever. Opportunities running thin. Hollister going to the well so much he was coming up with empty buckets… and taking time away from his daily job, working at the Department of Orientation. I didn’t want him sacrificing his own career for mine, and eventually told him I’d do my own job hunting for now.

Even aside from aiding and abetting Hollister’s city-sized white knight complex, this was a matter of pride. My sister and I set out from the Suburbs against my foster parent’s wishes, headed into the city with little to our name. We were determined to carve a place out of the City of Angles for ourselves. If we had to start over from scratch… so be it. I couldn’t let this defeat me. No matter what.

---

Finally I found something vague, but promising.

Dancer needed. No classical training required. Service industry experience a plus, bartending a double plus.

This time, I brought Marcy with me as a sign language interpreter. Lightning fast responses would help my case; she could demonstrate how easily I could communicate under the right circumstances.

We took the subway down to Crossway Points. Not the best part of town, sitting at the juncture of several ridiculously low income blocks known for instability. Every now and then a new road was linked up, making the tangle of intersections thicker and weirder… rent stayed low, people got high, and the Department of Safety was rarely to be seen. But this was my first attempt at finding a job without Hollister’s help, and I intended to see it through…

We went by subway during daylight hours, well before the club opened. But even without the facility in full swing, the vague advertisement became highly specific when we opened the doors and saw the stripper poles on stage.

Before I got ten steps in the door, Marcy stopped me in my tracks.

[NO,] she signed. A big No, shaking her head while pinching her fingers shut hard enough to impress a snapping turtle. [No, no. Turn around. We’re not at some clichéd daytime-talk-show level of desperation here.]

When she moved to leave… I stood my ground. Refused to budge.

[Rent is due in two weeks,] I reminded her. [And the food’s running low. I have to get started on something, and fast. This is…] Paused, to think of a good way to sign it. [Dancing. I can dance, no matter what kind of dancing. It’s not ideal, but this is still… close to where I wanted to be. And I’m not exactly modest about my body, sis.]

[I’m not having a bunch of perverted old freaks drooling over my sister’s body and stuffing dollar bills up her asscrack. Forget it,] Marcy replied. [You’re not some trashy skank, either—]

My sign interrupted hers. Thankful Marcy was signing silently, as other women who were preparing for the club’s opening moved around us.

[Don’t denigrate people like that, Marcy. That’s incredibly unkind. You always say you don’t like it when people stereotype us, don’t you?]

It probably made her teeth grind, but… she knew better than to belabor the point. Instead, she changed tactics.

[There’s other jobs. Catering. Waitressing. Hell, I can get a job too. I’m in this with you, aren’t I? We could both go get some crappy-but-paying job. We could beg Mom and Dad for a loan, even. You don’t HAVE to do this.]

She was technically right. It wasn’t like only one door was open in front of me. But, she was also wrong. Because even if this was left of center, it was still hitting the target I was aiming at. This was the night life. Parties. High spirits. I would be involved in my dream, even if my involvement wasn’t exactly ideal…

Fortunately, Marcy understood that. At crisis points, where words were failing us, often we somehow could see into each other’s hearts. When she filled the visual silence I left behind, she did so with more calm than her earlier flailing outburst…

[Even if you could live with this, I know it’s not what you REALLY want to do,] Marcy pointed out, with briefly flaring emphasis. [And it stinks that you have to settle for something you don’t really want to do. You know, someday the public will find some other shiny scary thing to be afraid of… everything’ll go back to normal. If only we could wait out the stink of that mess at the Zig-Zag…]

[Well, we can’t,] I pointed out. [There’s no time, Marcy.]

[If we can’t wait, then we should DO something. …there’s something we can do,] she added after a pause. [I’ve been thinking about it ever since that night. What if we… hang on, let’s get out of here. I’ll explain outside. We’re getting funny looks.]

True. We’d walked right in the door of the club and started waving our hands at each other in silence. Already some of the employees were wondering what was going on, and we’d be approached any moment now if it kept up. If I needed to keep a good first impression I needed to get out of sight, if my sister insisted on an extended conversation.

So, we swapped the smell of cigarette smoke and booze for the smell of car exhaust and open garbage bins in a nearby alley. Not a huge improvement, but standing around outside the building gave us an unusual sense of privacy. Out here we were just loitering and quietly chatting, while the world passed us by…

[Let me walk you through this crazy idea of mine,] Marcy continued. [We have two weeks until the next rent drop, and I bet I can sweet talk the landlord into a delay. Let’s see what we can do to improve the situation between now and then.]

I cocked my head to the size, puzzled. [What do you mean?] I asked.

[The media’s running wild with the theory that it’s all the social scene’s fault, that clubs themselves are dangerous, that they caused the Picasso incidents,] she explained, with requisite air quotes. [That fear is what’s really between you and a dream job—if there wasn’t public pressure on the entertainment sector, they’d be hiring again. What if we could do something to change public opinion?]

Interesting. Marcy was always keen on getting her words out there, having people stop and think about them. What was she proposing? I nodded, for her to continue.

[We can’t do that without the facts. The truth,] Marcy continued. [The scene itself didn’t cause that guy to lose it. Let’s look into what was REALLY going on with that DJ, see what was really to blame. Maybe his apartment was going cubist, maybe he was hanging out in the Sideways, maybe he had a pet Picasso… something we can feed the journos and the cops. How about it?]

…I wasn’t even sure how to reply to that. It was silly. Absurd. Completely implausible.

[I’m not exactly N-A-N-C-Y D-R-E-W,] I reminded Marcy. [And neither are you. We should be leaving investigations to the Department of Safety.]

[They aren’t doing crap to help us! They’re responsible for this mess in the first place, with that stupidly vague “public safety warning.” But we’re in a good position to look into this—Hollister knew the guy who wigged out at your club. He can point us in the right direction. Come ON, sis. We’ve got to try. Please?]

It was understandable, of course. The situation was well out of our hands, and Marcy hated being out of control. She wanted to fight, just like she wanted to fight when we were stuck in that isolation tent a little over a week ago. Marcy refused to accept when life threw her snake eyes.

So…

[If this leads to a dead end… I need to take this job,] I warned her. [Even if you don’t like it. Even if it’s not what I was dreaming of. We have to be practical. Until then… you have a deal.]

[If this doesn’t work, hell, maybe I’ll stick on pasties and grind the laps of fat losers cheating on their wives,] she suggested.

…a horrifying mental image, there. I could also easily see her taking a broken bottle to the jugular of the first guy to toss a catcall her way.

Sooner or later, she’d have to accept the reality of the situation. But, I supposed it couldn’t hurt to play along a bit… if only so she’d feel better about having tried.

---

We got started immediately. The sooner we began our amateur sleuthing, the sooner Marcy would understand how hopeless this was, and the sooner I could get her consent to take that job. I didn’t need her consent, any more than she needed mine when she went out into the shadows of the city to practice her art… but in the same way she made concessions to me to help me feel better about that, like taking Hollister with her on her last outing, I’d make this concession to her. Love is a two-way street, after all, even familial love.

She was right in that Hollister would make a good starting point. He knew the DJ more than I did; it tied directly into his day job as a counselor for the Department of Orientation.

When I first arrived in this city, it was the Department of Orientation which found me a foster family. There was a paperwork mix-up—the Wei family was ready to send me back if not for the sudden attachment Marcy had developed for me. From what Hollister had been telling me, mix-ups like that were quite common. Half the Department coasted a wave of apathy from paycheck to paycheck, and little could be done by those who truly cared for the well-being of the innocents who found themselves here against their will.

During daylight hours, when he wasn’t jockeying favors and granting wishes for the subculture of the city, Hollister worked a Department job at one of the many orientation seminars the city ran. This week he was stationed in an out-of-place looking motel, adjoining a Burger Buffet Bonanza™. He couldn’t take time off the job to meet with us—he’d already taken a lot of time off and bent the rules a tad trying to find me a job. He was playing the exemplary employee to make up for it. But he promised he could sneak away for a time, if we’d meet him at the restaurant.

He offered to buy us dinner. I declined, in part because I didn’t want to encourage his extreme selflessness, and in part because the “food” was quite abhorrent. I’m not a vegan, but I disapprove of unnecessary cruelty to living things, and eating these alleged burgers would’ve counted as cruelty to the human body.

Marcy, of course, took him up on the offer and had a pile of grease in the shape of a triple decker. It sat in its wrapper for now; we had only a few minutes to converse, and she needed her hands and mouth free.

“Seriously?” was Hollister’s initial reaction.

“Seriously,” Marcy repeated, in word and sign (for my benefit).

“The Department of Safety’s already looking into that mess. What could you two possibly find out that they wouldn’t have found out already?” he asked. “I know they get a bad rap for being too slow—hell, all the Departments get slammed in the media for being ineffective. But speaking as a city representative myself, I think you two really need to leave this in the hands of the professionals…”

“If there’s nothing to find, what’s the harm in looking?” Marcy asked. “Come on, Hollister. It’s worth a try.”

“Even if you find something, what makes you think it’ll be a magic bullet that solves your job market problems? It’d have to be some amazing revelation, like being best buddies with the Cult of Bedlam, or something. Even then, there’s so many ways they could spin it which wouldn’t get you what you want. We’re talking a long shot of a Hail Mary of a desperation gambit. I don’t get it.”

“Because if we don’t try, your darling Vivi’s going to have to—”

I grasped her wrist in mid-sign. It was enough to get her to stop talking, as well.

Last thing I needed was to tell Hollister about my pending job opportunity. He’d already bent over backwards trying to help me; if Marcy cast me as a poor, desperate girl forced to take her clothes off for money, Hollister would go ballistic. He’d find out eventually, but I’d rather he find out after the fact. It was, after all, my own decision to make and no one else’s. No need to complicate things.

[Was he having any issues before that night?] I asked, while Marcy translated my signs aloud. Better that than the phone app, for a quick discussion. [Showing any signs? Did he talk about his cubism? If cubism is brought on by exposure, surely he’d have said what he was exposed to. If it was depression, there would’ve been signs.]

“But that’s the thing, he was doing pretty well,” Hollister explained. “Not at first, I mean. I got assigned his case because he was having the usual culture shock new imports get. When I first met him at the craphole the Department had found for him to live in, he was having trouble sleeping. I was going to get him a shrink, but on my next visit… he was smiling and happy. Said he’d found a way to sleep at nights and felt a lot better.”

Strange. [He didn’t look very well rested the night he died,] I pointed out.

“Maybe he was lying to me, I don’t know. Even back then I thought he still looked tired, but… he WAS lively and active, so… I didn’t worry. That night was the worst I’d ever seen him. Even then, he was eager to hit the stage and move forward with his life. No hopeless bleak despair. A bit tired, but hell, I can miss sleep and get cranky without turning into a Picasso.”

[So if his mood was that high, there had to be some external factor. Maybe we should look into the apartment he was assigned to,] I suggested.

“No way. It’s been quarantined by the Dee-oh-Ess. Yellow-black. Could be a cubist paradise, for all I know; I haven’t gone back since.”

That wouldn’t stop Marcy, of course. Normally it’d stop me cold. But something was tugging at me, here…

I’d told myself this was a fool’s errand, a way of placating my sister. But the idea that someone in good spirits who was looking forward to his future could turn into a Picasso was… a bit terrifying. Everybody knew cubism led to despair, or despair led to cubism. If you cut out the despair, even cut out the cubism, if anybody could go Picasso at the drop of a hat, what did that mean for people like me…?

All my life I’ve tried to be a bright soul, working to brighten the souls of others. Parties are a means to that end. That was one reason I agreed to Hollister’s suggestion of hiring the DJ in the first place, I wanted to give a fellow refugee from Earth the helping hand that Marcy once gave me. By lifting each other up, this city no longer has to be a place of fear.

Perhaps this was worth looking into. Not that I expected it to lead me back to my comfortable little world as Lord of the Dance—that was unrealistic. But personally, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why.

[I’d like to visit his apartment, all the same,] I said (ignoring the mild surprise from my sibling interpreter). [I promise we’ll play it safe, Hollister. No major risks.]

“I’d feel better if I could go with you,” he grumbled. “I’m stuck doing ridiculously long shifts and after-hour client visits lately, to keep my boss happy. …I’ll get you his address. Be careful out there, Vivi. —and you too, Marcy.”

Which earned him a semi-playful punch to the arm from my sister, which made me giggle ever so slightly. Even in dark times, there could be some light, I’d always felt.

---

Space in the City of Angles wasn’t exactly at a premium. New buildings arrived all the time—far too many to be filled up with people. The old Earth saying “buy land, because God’s not making any more of it” was completely irrelevant here.

So, how do you price real estate when real estate was pouring out of a faucet? Location. Quality. Purpose. True, “Location” was fluid as new neighbors squeezed through the cracks, but some areas were quite stable. For instance, the Zig-Zag… used to be situated smack dab in the central area of the city, its most stable and reliable thoroughfare. That made it expensive as hell—but Gee Bee was old money, thanks to his days in the music industry and his connections. He could afford to buy out the equivalent of Park Place and Boardwalk.

And then you had this place, which was somewhere between Baltic and Mediterranean Avenue. The cheapest spots on the board, the low-hanging fruit you scooped up but never really did much with. Terrible location, poor quality, unsuitable for any purpose.

From what Hollister had explained to me, unless a newcomer to the city was determined to be high value (as assessed by the Department of Resources) they were typically sent to the lowest-rent sections of the city. Pushed out to the fringes, crumbling away, sometimes collapsing into cubism. The idealistic government mandate from the earliest days of the City of Angles dictated newcomers had to be provided for with homes and jobs… but nobody said those homes and jobs had to be worth having.

It was meant to be a springboard—get you on your feet, get some local currency, then get out. When Marcy and I finally reached the front stoop of the apartment building, a stoop with a door almost falling from its hinges, the names places next to each door buzzer were loosely slotted bits of cardboard. Nobody expected them to stay around. Either they’d succeed and move on… or vanish into the night.

I scanned the current roster of the Plaza Arms (oddly named, given there was no plaza around). Y. IVES, K. JONES, D. SMITH, A. GHANEM… and S. MOORE. The surname of our ill-fated DJ friend.

Unlike Marcy, I rarely traveled this deep into the worst parts of the city. I wasn’t quite sure about the protocol for approaching places like this. I vaguely remembered from television that you pushed the button for the person you wanted to visit, then waited for them to say something on the intercom which somehow unlocks the door, but that wouldn’t exactly work in my case…

Marcy leaned around me and mashed all the buttons randomly. Presumably that worked, because we were in seconds later.

She moved with surefootedness. This was her turf; she routinely journeyed around and through and over outer city buildings, away from the safety and businesslike attitude of the inner city. I let Marcy take point on this one, following rather than being followed.

Unlike our rather nice little apartment complex—complete with a food co-op on the ground floor, a common area where the buskers and hipsters hung out, and other niceties like good wallpaper and no rats—this was indeed a “craphole.” It must’ve been built decades ago, and little renovation or restoration had been done since. So many lights were out that it was practically midnight in its stairwells and hallways, despite being a good hour or so before the autumnal sun would set. No doors were open; no friendly neighbors, unlike the apartment we’d rented with parental seed money. We saw nobody at all. I suspect it would’ve been deathly quiet to match.

At last… we came to the forbidden door. Lined in yellow-black tape, a well-known sign that you proceeded forward on your own terms and the Department of Safety would not be held responsible for any injury or cubism sustained. I suppose we were lucky it wasn’t red-black and completely forbidden; I wasn’t looking to break the law TOO much today.

This was quite normal, from what little I knew about safety procedures. A Picasso’s home would be sealed off until such time as it was determined not to be a factor in their cubism. Usually, that was a rapid turnover—particularly if the owner had a rather lovely home which the Department of Resources could annex and resell—but nobody was in any rush to repurpose this particular domicile.

Tentatively, I grasped the knob. Which didn’t budge. Locked. Obviously, they wanted to discourage people from wandering in, even if it was only a yellow-black.

Apparently that was not stopping my sister. She nudged me, to make way… and then produced what I can only assume were lockpicking tools from somewhere on her person. I don’t know why I was shocked; as a graffiti writer she had to get to places she wasn’t supposed to be. I only hoped her nightly outings wouldn’t one day land her in jail…

I was expecting the place to be a wreck. Not in terms of the quality of the structure, but in terms of all the DJ’s personal belongings being overturned and emptied. That’s what the police did, after all—they boxed and bagged the evidence, then took it with them. This was indirectly a crime scene of a multiple manslaughter incident; Seth Dougal said there’d be an extensive investigation, which would’ve taken them through here. There was no need for the Department of Safety to be tidy. We’d be lucky if anything was left other than empty drawers and closets…

When Marcy flipped the light switch, however, I saw a perfectly ordinary low income bachelor pad. Dusty and musty, with the smell of food going bad, but… otherwise completely intact.

Drawers and closets closed, and likely full. No footprints in the dust on the wooden floors. No sign anyone had disturbed this place since that night. Unless the Department of Safety were fastidiously tidy and carried a can of dust for sprinkling behind them as they left, which would’ve been nonsensical… they’d never been here.

Marcy waltzed right in, taking a quick survey of the room. She’d come to the same conclusion.

[What the hell is this?] she asked, facing me. [Did they just seal the place up and never come back?]

[Maybe they were worried the room was dangerous?] I suggested. [They did tape it up, they had to have done SOME study of the place…]

[People are living on this floor. If the building was going cubist, they would’ve evacuated. I wouldn’t put it past the D-O-S not to be lazy bastards, though,] she grumbled through brisk hand gestures. [At least this makes our job easier. We can search the apartment ourselves—and if nothing else, we can call the D-O-S out on not moving forward with that investigation Dougal promised us. Let’s look around.]

There wasn’t much to look around at.

Marcy gravitated to a laptop that had been left slightly skew on his desk. I busied myself with closets, drawers, and cabinets… finding things you’d expect to find. The three main essentials in life: food, clothes, medicine.

Food, going bad. Lots of boxed breakfast cereal, plenty of milk that smelled just LOVELY when I dared to open the fridge.

Clothes. Charity hand-me-downs and some official Department of Orientation jumpers, default clothes given to all newcomers. He’d taken the time to dye some of it black, in keeping with his overall style.

Medicine. Some melatonin bottles I recognized from a popular herbalist’s store, probably because of his initial sleep problems. Toothpaste, shaving lotion, mouthwash… and a few unlabelled and empty glass bottles, sitting in the waste basket. Maid hadn’t come through yet, obviously. I’d have assumed they were originally for cologne if not for the caps with embedded eyedroppers. Maybe eye rinse? Contact lens solution?

My investigation into the mundane details of a DJ’s life was interrupted by a flicker in the bathroom mirror. Marcy, trying to get my attention.

Out in the main room, she’d powered up his laptop, hooked to an AC adapter. The battery had probably run down completely in the time since he was last here, after all.

[I was thinking of looking for a diary, but this is the 21st century and people don’t have diaries anymore,] she explained. [But I did some research on this guy, and on Earth, he was well known for running his entire life from a laptop computer. So I figured… good place to start looking. Read this.]

She keyed open a file. Most of it was notes on music sketches, audio files, dates and locations for possible club gigs. Contact information for Hollister and others in the Department of Orientation. He was getting his life sorted out, using this document as a scratch pad for his thoughts and things he might need to remember.

scratch01.txt

Can’t sleep. Can’t keep from thinking about that other me back on Earth, how easy he’s got it. All his friends, everything he has, all of it right there and he doesn’t even know I’m here with nothing. I’m freaking out about what’s gonna happen to me, about the rumors I heard from others in Orientation about how goddamn dangerous this place is.

I want to move forward like the Orientation counselors say but I can’t keep my mind from racing. Tried Melatonin at suggestion of someone in my seminar suggested, didn’t help. Orientation guys can’t send anybody yet, but they promise someone’s coming to help. I’ll keep asking around meanwhile.

Not sure about the new songs, I just can’t make them gel, I can’t make anything work. Tried channeling my nightmares into my music but that’s not helping any…

Marcy tapped the touchpad of the laptop, opening the next file. scratch02.txt was a mess, a pile of random notes, nothing really coherent… same with the third file. But the next one had promise.

scratch04.txt

First good night’s sleep since arriving, thanks to the N.F. dose. No dreams at all, good or bad. Still feel a little run down but relieved that I could finally catch some z’s. Montgomery promised results and he delivered; this is just what I need to help me de-focus from my problems and re-focus myself on my work.

403-2998 montgomery

I think I’m going to get some remixes going — it’s a good foot in the door, playing something familiar but also unique to the City of Angles. Music that other me never would have made. I can make a name for myself here, a new name, maybe.

scratch05.txt

Met Hollister Avenue today. Apparently Montgomery wasn’t from the Department of Orientation. I’d assumed he was the guy they were sending since he just showed up with the drugs I needed, but I guess one of the feelers I’d put out myself hit pay dirt. Montgomery never actually claimed to be from Orientation, I guess.

Told Hollister I was sleeping again and would be ready for a gig soon. He seemed surprised. I probably looked a little tired, but I feel awake and in tune with this weird new city. No dreams. No worries. All that stuff vanishes into the dark when I go to bed and gets neatly tucked away, leaving the rest of me to face the day. I wonder if Hollister can get me a gig? I’d love to share this with the world.

scratch08.txt

I’m so tired lately. It’s weird, I’m tired, but I’m NOT tired. I get eight hours a night, sometimes more. Montgomery says this just means the N.F. is doing its job, keeping me level. I’m up to 15 drops. A little exhaustion’s to be expected. He suggested I take more tonight. I can’t sleep without it, so whatev. I’ve got too much ahead of me to worry about this. New mixes are going great; Hollister found me a gig, too. Get the feeling he’s shaking someone’s hand while he shakes mine, but that’s the music industry for you.

Montgomery wants me to rinse out the bottles and toss them in the trash as I finish them. Less to trace back to him, I guess. Whatev. I’m not gonna stab the hand of my pusher when he’s the only one keeping me going.

scratch09.txt

Sleeping so much. Sleeping during the day. Haven’t had a single dream. I used to have lots of dreams, all sorts, but now nada. Feels distant, like some part of me’s buried away. Can’t explain this. Taking more N.F. than usual, even though I’m getting plenty of sleep, don’t know why. I’m thinking that pusher gave me something that’s gonna screw me over in the end but I can feel her there behind my eyes and she’s smiling. Typing on keys I can only see in the mirror now, I don’t recognize these letters.

Called Montgomery, told him about the gig tonight. He knew already. He said the time’s right for me and the others and to drink the entire final bottle. I did it. I’m not srue why i think i need a nap before the show. i wantot share this witheveryone the laughter so friendly I’m remindd of that video of mine and ishouldbe scared of the dark inside the girl because it will

…which is where the document ended, when the editor autosaved it.

Simultaneously, I felt relief and horror. Selfish and selfless. Selfish relief that there was certainly a direct cause of the DJ’s cubism—some drug he was taking, which put him in an unstable frame of mind, ripe for becoming a Picasso. Selfless horror, that this man who just wanted to get on with his life… someone who was excited for the future, who was making plans… fell completely to pieces. He wasn’t despairing, not exactly. He was just… falling apart.

I showed Marcy my findings, which linked up to her own. Four small empty bottles, with eyedropper caps. The drug, the N.F., whatever that stood for.

[We have what we need, right?] I signed. [We have testimonial from his laptop which explains what happened, and we even have the drug bottles which somehow caused the cubism. It’s a direct link! The Department of Safety can use this to close the case and lift the public safety warning!]

But Marcy didn’t look thrilled at this development. If anything, her suspicion had deepened. She shook her head, while replying.

[I don’t think so. The Department of Safety never followed this lead even though it was the most obvious thing to do. They never searched his apartment or checked his computer. They could’ve found all this within hours but instead, they sealed the place up and left. At best, they’re amazingly lazy. At worst… I think they deliberately overlooked this.]

[That’s crazy,] I disagreed, shaking my head in turn. [They protect the city. Why would they ignore this? If someone’s making drugs that turn people into Picassos, that’s a huge safety problem!]

[You’re assuming that they’re trying to solve safety problems,] she replied. [Vivi, you’re not out on the streets in the crappy parts of town. I am. There’s huge, obvious problems out there the Department of Safety does nothing about. They put up their striped tape and call it a day, while salvager gangs loot new buildings, or people slowly lose their minds in homes that are twisting themselves inside and out… they keep people safe not by keeping them safe, but by keeping them afraid. Folks on the street know this, Vivi.]

[Come on, that’s just silly conspiracy talk! I hardly think that level of willful negligence would go unnoticed or unreported. The news loves a good scandal, right?]

[Cable news loves scary stories even more. Scary stories encourage people to stay indoors, to stay afraid, and to watch more scary stories and drive the ratings upward. For instance, taking an incident at nightclubs and using it to effectively kill off all public gatherings. Who needs a curfew when you can spook them into staying home? C’mon! It’s not conspiracy, this is just how things work. Why do you think I’m out there every night, writing my words on the walls, trying to wake people up? No. They’re not here to help us. And they either ignored this, or knowingly swept it under the rug.]

Two words floated to memory: Malice and Incompetence.

It was something Fi once said at our semi-private Zig-Zag booth. My friends and I were relaxing after my bartending shift some months ago, and the conversation subject turned to politics.

Amanda was having some trouble with the Department of Resources, which thought it still owned her apartment and was trying to lease it out to someone else despite her four-year residency. Joey and Zeke argued (in their cute little way) opposite points; Joey thought the government was trying to double down intentionally, Zeke felt it must’ve been a paperwork misfile…

Fi, the poet of the group, rarely had anything to add on any topic. She was content to sit there and smoke and soak in our discussions, 99% of the time. When she did speak, she used an economy of words.

To wit, she said “Malice or incompetence? Same results.”

Whether the Department of Safety maliciously schemed to keep everybody safe by scaring them into being risk-averse or whether they were simply making huge mistakes of oversight, the end was the same—my scene was suffering. It didn’t really matter if Marcy was right or wrong, here. The truth hadn’t come out. The truth needed to come out.

[Putting that aside for the moment,] I suggested, despite Marcy clearly wanting to continue at length, [We need to gather the evidence we came for. Whether we go to the cops or the media or the mayor or whoever, we have to prove what happened here. We have the laptop, but all the drug bottles are empty.]

[And washed,] she added. [Probably because the pusher didn’t want anything to trace back to him. The laptop’s not going to be enough; we’re too biased to be trusted and electronic documents can be faked with ease. We’ll also need something physical. If we had some of that drug they could run tests and things on it…]

After a moment’s thought… Marcy flipped back a few windows to document four. Highlighting the phone number.

[First one’s always free,] she suggested.

---

This was quite insane, of course. And completely against the promise I made to Hollister. Play it safe, no major risks. Instead, I was sitting in a public park, waiting to meet with the drug pusher who indirectly destroyed my life and murdered Gee Bee…

The plan was Marcy’s. She knew the ins and outs of the drug scene, even if she wasn’t a user; she knew enough people who were, since she tended to coast around the fringes of society in order to perform her art. Even if our days began and ended in unison, the evenings were spent in very different social circles, after all.

I sent text messages to this “Montgomery” person, using the phone number left behind in the ill-fated DJ’s notes…

Vividly: You don’t know me but we have a mutual friend, Mr. Moore. I was the director of the club he performed at the night of his death, and he told me about the great medicine you gave him. Ever since his death I’ve been having nightmares and insomnia. I can’t pay much since my place of work was shut down but I’d really like to talk, maybe get some of this N.F. stuff. Please? I’m desperate. I’m not a cop. Help me, please.

There was just enough truth mixed in with the lies to bait the hook. I was using my real identity; this person, whoever he was, could verify who I was. This was a bet on the Malice and Incompetency issue; if his drug maliciously caused cubism and he was targeting the night life scene for some crazy reason, he’d have found a prime target in me. If it was incompetence, that he was networking through the scene but unaware his drug caused cubism, I was still making my case appealing.

Later that evening, I got my reply.

(unlisted): Hello. I’m sorry to hear of our mutual friend’s passing. I think I can help you. Please meet me at Triple Fountain Park, at the benches near the third fountain, tomorrow at 11am. If this time doesn’t work for you let me know. Come alone.

Which meant the next day I was sitting by my lonesome in the middle of one of Triple Fountain Park, one of the less impressive parks the city had to offer, waiting for my new best friend the illegal drug dealer.

The park was a curious place indeed. Supposedly it was originally known as Fountain Park, and was popular with the local families… but then the park triplicated itself overnight, three side by side parks each with their own copies of the original fountain and surrounding sidewalks. That made the place weird enough that the kids stopped coming, kept home by their frightened parents.

According to Marcy, the unwashed masses moved in soon after… fringe people, those who fell between the cracks or Earth imports that couldn’t adjust. The only ones who hung out here now were nodding off on substances, drinking from brown paper bags, and/or living in makeshift cardboard empires. The Department of Safety sometimes cleared the park, but it didn’t last. These people had nowhere else to go, through misdeed or misfortune.

These parts of the city were alien to me. My sister walked through them constantly… maybe that’s why she maintained a foul disposition so often. I’d be disheartened too to know how much people were suffering, scraping by in poverty and homelessness, in the places nobody else wants to go. As much as I wished I could do something for them, as much as my heart sang out sadly as I carefully stepped around cardboard homes… I had to maintain my cover. I had to focus on the task at hand.

Not that I was suited to the task at hand. I stuck out badly here. I’d worn my baggiest, least interesting clothes for this meeting—finding something unfashionable and completely unsexy in my wardrobe was harder than I thought it’d be. Even doing my best to blend in, I drew attention immediately on arrival. Maybe orange wasn’t such a good color choice.

For instance, a man in a long and shabby winter coat, going bald but with a scraggly black beard, had… watched me on my way towards the bench. He didn’t make a move, didn’t threaten me, but his gaze stayed fixed on me the whole way there. Something in his eyes scared me, to be honest. His body language was relaxed, collapsed in on itself, but those eyes looked through me…

Terrible idea. This was a terrible idea. Even if Marcy was with me, ghosting along ahead me, wearing similarly ratty coats (acquired from her normal wardrobe) and looking like she fit in perfectly. She assured me I was not going to be assaulted, that people here minded their own business. She promised to lurk in the foreground—within my line of sight, but far away enough no one would think we’re together—ready to spring into action if anything went wrong. Although if anything went wrong neither of us were exactly masters of self-defense. A lousy plan. Insane. Inadvisable at best.

And yet, here I was.

On some level beyond my fear, I didn’t care about the danger. This was something I simply had to do—I wanted to look into Montgomery’s eyes. I wanted to see what sort of man would, by design or otherwise, destroy my entire world. I’d say what he wanted to hear, I’d get some of his snake oil, and then we’d make sure he was brought to justice.

When eleven in the morning rolled around, I got my answer.

I could see him coming from the edge of the park. The bench he’d selected for our chat was a fair distance from the entrance; clear lines of sight, with plenty of people able to observe. It didn’t seem appropriate for a shady drug deal—or maybe that was the idea, that we’d both feel exposed, so neither of us would try anything funny…?

If I didn’t fit in with the homeless and the addicted, he absolutely did not fit in. He reminded me a bit of Seth Dougal… a bright white suit, inappropriate for a park full of scrub grass and dirt and trash. It wasn’t quite as sharp of a suit, being a cut which didn’t suit his gaunt frame, with the cheap fabrics and awkward lines that pegged it as a cheap imitation. I knew my fashions, after all. This man was aiming for the same sort of class Mr. Dougal carried himself with, and coming up far short.

As he drew closer, I could see other attributes which stuck out oddly. Two-day stubble; not an intentional effort to grow a beard, just a overall lack of effort at personal grooming. His hair was finger-combed and shaggy, originally short and stylish but left like an unmowed lawn for some time. He’d given up on the niceties.

Despite looking like life had been grinding him down… he was smiling, on approach. Took a seat on the edge of the fountain, opposite my bench—a comfortable distance away, not invading my personal space, but close enough for an intimate conversation all the same.

Reading lips through beard stubble could be tricky, but fortunately he wasn’t THAT overgrown.

“Vivi, is it?” he asked. “I’m Doctor Montgomery. I’m pleased to meet you and again, I offer my condolences. I’ve gotten to know quite a few people in your scene. The passing of Gee Bee was the passing of a legend.”

I wanted to thank him (whether he was sincere or not) but already had a statement prepared on my synthesized voice app.

I apologize for having to talk to you this way, my phone read aloud. I’m deaf and mute. I can read your lips and if you allow me a moment to compose replies on my phone, it can read my words to you. Thank you for coming to meet with me, Mr. Montgomery.

Oddly, this didn’t surprise him at all. Usually people react with confusion when my phone does the talking for me. He didn’t even need a second to think about it.

“I understand. So. How well did you know Mr. Moore?” he asked, folding his hands in his lap, rocking on the edge of the fountain. “It’s so unfortunate when this city takes its most promising new arrivals…”

Not very well. I’d just met him the night he passed. We talked a bit before the show, I responded, mixing in a little lie, to tie myself better to this man’s former client… or former patient, perhaps. He was excited about performing. I was told he’d been having trouble sleeping, but he said he was feeling fine, thanks to you. I was curious about the treatment, so he gave me your phone number shortly before hitting the stage.

…it took some time to type all of that into my phone, even with the extensive practice I’ve had with a virtual keyboard. Montgomery sat patiently through it all.

(I could see Marcy in the distance beyond the fountain, behind him… she was keeping half an eye on us, observing. Making sure I was safe and that the plan was unfolding according to, well, plan. Thankfully Montgomery hadn’t noticed her yet.)

“I’d asked him not to give anyone my number, actually,” Montgomery pointed out. “I suppose he was a bit excitable that night, not thinking clearly. But, no real harm done. After all, now it led me to you. And I’d like to help you, Miss Vivi.”

A stroke of good luck, there—my mind was briefly racing to craft a lie which would explain the sharing of a forbidden number. He’d supplied a reason for me less than a moment later.

I loaded another pre-made message, snapping off a fast reply.

I can’t sleep. I’m barely eating. I just see that poor Picasso, and Gee Bee’s face, and worse. The few times I’ve been able to sleep I’ve had nightmare after nightmare. I need to find a job again, I need to get my life on track, but I can’t do that if I can’t rest. Please, can you help me?

“As I’ve said, yes, I can help you,” he repeated. One disadvantage to pre-written messages. “I’ve helped a number of people in your… what do your friends call it? The ‘scene’? So many problems, so many anxieties and fears. They get in the way of the pursuit of happiness that embodies your scene. What if I said I could take all those fears, all the nightmares, and bottle them up so that they never bother you again?”

I’d say I’m interested, but I’ve got some worries. How illegal is this? I’m not sure I want to get in trouble with the law, I replied. This was Marcy’s suggestion; show some reluctance, to keep things realistic. And look like more of an innocent dupe.

“No, not at all!” Doctor Montgomery insisted. “It’s backed by a small investment firm, one looking into alternative treatments for the ailments that run so common in this city. I’m not pushing drugs, Vivi. I’m signing up test subjects for a very controlled and very safe trial run. We’re following all Department of Safety procedures, and plan to publish our findings in major scientific journals at the end of the trial. So not only can I help you with your insomnia and anxiety… but you’ll be helping others, in turn.”

…I found myself smiling, despite my suspicions. He was lying, of course. Very likely lying. But it was nice to think about, that someone was seriously considering the issue of the city’s emotional health. I used the dream that this could be true to power my reaction, even if my suspicions ran deep as the ocean.

All my life, I’ve tried to help others find happiness. Okay. I’d like to participate, I replied. What do I do? Do you have a sample with you that I can take home?

This was the critical moment. If he gave me the drug, we could take that to… someone. Maybe Hollister would know a reliable journalist, someone who would hear us out, if Marcy didn’t trust the Department of Safety.

Montgomery scratched at his two-day stubble, thinking. A hand went to his pocket… something in there. The drug? Did he bring it with him? The DJ’s files said he showed up with the little glass bottles, ready to administer immediately…

“I’ll put your name forward as a possible candidate, and ask my supervisor today for his approval,” he suggested, after taking his hand out of his pocket. “Let’s keep this above board, shall we? There’s paperwork and processing and other things to take care of, first. We’ll get back to you by text message within a week or two.”

Fast. Had to type fast. Had to be believable; play the desperation angle…

Doctor, please, I’m suffering. I don’t know if I can hold on another week or two. Is there anything you can give me now? Anything at all?

…and he stepped away from the fountain, to grasp my hands.

It was an attempted show of compassion. A bedside manner technique, to reassure the patient, to show that the doctor cares. Except his hands, they were… jittery. They didn’t look jittery, but I’ve held many a hand, and I know a jitter when I feel one. They almost vibrated with tension he wasn’t allowing me to see otherwise…

“I understand your plight. And I wish I could help,” he said. “But I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do today. I need to be going now. I look forward to possibly working with you in the future, Vivi. Be well.”

And then he slipped away. Hands in pockets, turning, walking off.

I tried rapidly typing a response, trying to get his attention with it. I hit the TALK button, held my phone aloft… but either he didn’t hear, or he didn’t care. Doctor Montgomery didn’t turn around.

Quickly, my eyes scanned the end of the park. They locked onto Marcy, in the distance—she’d been sneaking looks through a pair of binoculars now, to check my progress. That meant she knew something was wrong, well before he’d walked away.

[He didn’t give me anything!] I signed to her, across the way. [He’s leaving!]

I expected her to run back to me, to join up so we could discuss what to do next. Maybe wait it out, try to keep the bait on the hook, see if he took it eventually… a week or two meant I’d need to look at that job opportunity in the meanwhile, but we could still figure out—

Marcy was indeed running. Away from me, and out of the park.

Seconds later and my phone vibrated, with an incoming message.

Ghostwriter: following him on foot gonna see where he goes will report back

My jaw nearly hit the screen. I furiously tapped a reply.

Vividly: NO NO NO come back this is too dangerous we can just wait for him to get back to us!

Ghostwriter: might not get another chance don’t worry I know this city this is my city I won’t be seen will text you the address when he gets there love you

Insane. Inadvisable. What the hell were we thinking? This was so crazy…

One thing was certain—I wasn’t going to wait around in Triple Fountain Park for her reply. I picked myself up and got out as quickly as I could… using the opposite exit from the creepy man in the long coat. Who was, no doubt, still watching me.

---

Sitting in a nearby coffee house, trying not to draw attention, slowly nursing the same cup which was quickly growing cold. Eyes locked on my phone. Waiting for it to light up with a message from Ghostwriter…

I debated contacting Hollister.

But what good would that do? He’d likely charge to my side, even if it meant ditching his job to do so, ruining his career. And what would he do, once he was at my side? Reassure me? He couldn’t do anything more than I could do, which was sit around waiting for Marcy to respond.

…assuming she DID respond. Assuming she wasn’t caught. Assuming nothing went wrong, assuming I ever saw her again…

Thankfully, some time after sitting down and as the sun was finally setting… I got the message I was waiting for.

Ghostwriter: Mission accomplished yo. He went to a red-black quarantined warehouse in an unpopulated district on the fringe. No way this doc is legit. I found the perfect spy perch in an office block opposite, perfect view right into his office with no way he can know we’re here. Come join me. Grab a taxi, tell them to drop you off at the corner of 67th Ave and 67th Ave. I’ll meet you down there.

I read it twice, before replying.

Vividly: Come home NOW. This is getting too dangerous. If he’s breaking red-black we can just tell the Department of Safety.

Ghostwriter: Unless they know already. Come on, we can lip read him from this angle through my binocs. It’s far away and we’ll be safe. See you when you get here.

And nothing more.

Hopping a taxi was easy; convincing them to go out to 67th and 67th was another matter. If you hadn’t fallen through the cracks of society, you had no reason to go that close to the defined edges of the city. So, I gave the driver my best kicked-puppy eyes, and nearly all the money I had on me. That did the job.

As promised, Marcy was curbside and ready to greet me. She did so with a tight hug, with an [I Love You] sign. Followed shortly with [Gotta see this!].

I didn’t have time to chat—she grabbed my wrist, dragging me inside and up through the bowels of the crumbling old office building. We took the stairs rather than risk the elevator; even with the power on, no sense in trusting an elevator to work properly. (Any new buildings always arrived connected up to water and power, after all. Even if nobody knew quite where the water or power CAME from. The Department of Resources once tried to trace the pipes and wires, only to end up looping back around to where they started.)

She’d found an ideal little sniper nest. With the lights off in the room and the blinds turned just so, anybody who looked up here wouldn’t see anything of interest. Eager to demonstrate how awesome her find was, she passed me her binoculars… gesturing to the window.

As much as I wanted to get out of here… there was no sense in not looking, not now that we’d come this far. It was all happening so fast, one thing after another, definitely faster than I would have liked. But there was this sense that opportunity was slipping away, and if I didn’t take a chance I might lose out on… I don’t know. Lose out on knowing the truth. So, yes, I looked. I looked knowing full well the answers may not be pleasant.

The office block overlooked a large industrial warehouse, with red-black striped tape over every door and window. Despite having little to no population out here—at least no registered population—the Department of Safety went out of their way to seal off that building from prying eyes. The lights were on inside, true, but that didn’t mean much of anything…

Figures moving past the windows, that certainly meant something.

Marcy signaled for my attention with a tap on the shoulder, and signed [Second floor third window from back and check out who’s there with him,] nice and rapid. So, I refocused through the binoculars, to see…

…Doctor Montgomery, sitting at a desk and talking to someone. Interesting.

From the narrow view into his world, I could make out some details. A whiteboard with scribbles and chemical equations. A desk, covered in papers. Filing cabinets. Crumbling walls with peeling paint… he wasn’t particularly interested in renovating or keeping the place viable long-term, I decided. Just getting work done.

The strangest part was the person he was talking to. Someone in a white suit, similar to his own. A band of white hair, balding on top. Dark skin…

Marcy’s binoculars rattled a little as my grip tightened. The question of Malice vs. Incompetence had been answered. Because even if I couldn’t see the face of the man, I knew who it was. I saw that same back walking away from me with a confident stride, the day he destroyed my entire world.

Seth Dougal, director of the Department of Safety.

What little doubt could possibly remain was crushed completely when I shifted my focus, to try and read Montgomery’s lips.

“We’re still on ?crack?, Mr. Dougal,” he said.

(I think. At this distance, through a trick of lenses, lip reading was quite difficult and I had to make some guesses. “Track,” maybe? But “Dougal” was spoken clear enough.)

Seth, whose back was turned to me, had a rather long reply. A tiny, tiny shake to his head suggested he disagreed… but beyond that, I couldn’t tell what he was describing.

“It won’t be a problem,” Montgomery insisted. “I had to ?strike? the Nightmare Fuel dose to trigger their ?expectations?, but that won’t be needed when her ?affluence? is ?implied?. You can ?commute? without issues.”

More words I couldn’t read from Mr. Dougal. So I tried to read his body language… and failed. He had the same relaxed composure he had the night we met. If he was upset or angry or happy or disappointed, I’d have no way of knowing.

“Their ?laws? won’t impact matters. Between the ?reply? I’ve stockpiled here and at the ?mother? ?hostilities?, there’s more than enough. Granted, I wish I had more time to research and ?define?…”

Finally, more clear body language. Suspicion, I’d hazard. I’d seen the head-tilt Dougal’s took on when Marcy was being snarky about something. Dougal must’ve accused Montgomery of something, because immediately Montgomery grew defensive. A shift to the shoulders, drawing in. Narrowing eyes.

(I reminded myself to thank Marcy later for buying these ridiculously expensive binoculars. At the time I thought they were a needless expense just to find good graffiti spots, but they paid for themselves twice over today.)

“Your men are responsible for those ?seeks?. They were too… unstable. Conscripts and ?admin?. If I had more true believers this would be far quieter. But I’ve taken care of my own problems, and ?discontinue? to do so. You don’t have to concern yourself with me.”

Either that placated Dougal’s worries, or he was just tired of talking about it. His hand adjusted his tie, it seemed, as he changed topics. A better topic in Montgomery’s view, as he nodded along repeatedly… explanations or instructions for what to do next, maybe?

His final statement rang true across his lips, although I almost wished I’d misread it.

“For the coming of Bedlam and the glorious chaos.”

With their conversation complete, Seth Dougal walked past Montgomery’s desk and straight into a wall.

The wall rippled briefly, peeling wallpaper enveloping him like he’d walked into a freestanding pool. One moment later and the wall was perfectly solid again. Nobody would ever know it was an entrance to the Sideways.

I couldn’t take my eyes off Doctor Montgomery, even as he turned his back to me, producing a cellphone to have a chat. Likely because I was still having trouble believing what I’d just seen.

I knew what the Cult of Bedlam was, sort of. Everybody knew some crazy homeless guys had formed the cult back in the eighties. In their heyday they were kidnapping people and sacrificing them to their so-called cubist goddess, Bedlam… but the cult didn’t last very long. The Department of Safety, after careful investigation, found their gathering place. There was a huge gunfight. All the cultists died. Presumably.

Except they still existed. And Seth Dougal, the man in charge of keeping the city safe from Bedlam, was running the show. Working with drug slinging would-be doctors. Causing Picassos to exist somehow, destroying the social side of the city, pumping the populace with terror…

None of it made sense. But what made sense about a cult that believed Picassos were a good thing to be?

I had no idea what to do with any of these revelations. We obviously couldn’t tell our tale to the police; they worked for the Department of Safety. We could try telling the media, but again, what proof did we have? Testimonial? “Oh, I read their lips from a city block away, and we found some computer files.” Good for scandal rags to run wild with, but bad for actually making our case and being heard…

A flicker in the binoculars caught my attention. I’d forgotten I was still holding them up to my eyes, honestly.

Doctor Montgomery had finished his phone call, and turned back around to face the window.

To face me. To look directly at me, upwards towards the distant office block.

“I take care of my own problems,” he mouthed.

Disoriented, pulling my eyes away from the focusing lenses and back to reality. Turning to warn my sister, but too late.

The man was already in the doorframe, blocking our exit. The same man in the shabby winter coat and scraggly beard, the one whose gaze had fixated on me in Triple Fountain Park. Except this time, he was wearing a gas mask.

I didn’t have time to wonder why, as I found my legs not working anymore and the floor rushing up to meet me.

The last things I saw before I blacked out:

The homeless man, flickering and twitching, cubism passing over his surface like a ripple over a pond.

My sister’s hand, reaching out to me, trying to reach me… before she passed out as well.

---

Darkness. Nothingness. Empty. Void.

I’m a very vivid dreamer. Nestled in comfortably at my sister’s side, I sleep each night away in peace, across fantastic landscapes of color and light. I wander in and out of my best memories. I feel at peace in that sacred place, my home, my bed. I awake refreshed and ready to face another day.

Void. Nothingness. Empty. Darkness.

The few times I’ve had nightmares, I need only wake myself and feel the light snoring of my sister to know that everything is in fact all right with the universe. Fears are a matter of perception—they can be conquered by centering one’s self. After such wakings, I return to sleep with ease.

Nothing. Nothing at all. Drained away. Can’t reach me, she’s reaching, but she can’t reach me.

Of course, I don’t always soak in pleasant dreams or brief nightmares. I have had nights with no dreams I could remember, but I’d like to think I had them all the same, even if they evaporated in the light of morning. My theory is that I’ve never had a truly dreamless night, only nights where the dream wasn’t perfectly wondrous enough to enjoy thinking about during the day.

Gone.

But as I slept, induced into sleep by whatever chemical gas I had inhaled, I had no dreams. None at all.

There wasn’t time to ponder why, because when I roused from this empty sleep, I was already in a nightmare. The sort you couldn’t wake up from, because you were already awake.

Immediately, a wave of terror hit me. Before I knew what to be afraid of, I was afraid. A primal fear, the kind that soaks the back of your brain, tells you get out get out something bad is happening without specifying why. My eyes hadn’t focused yet, I hadn’t even remembered the circumstances of my unconsciousness, but panic was busy crawling up my spine all the same…

I couldn’t focus. Couldn’t cut through the fear with reassurance. My eyes swam in the fluids that filled them, ghostly afterimages. Metal, wire, something shining. Writing of some sort. Walls? There were walls, six of them. No, four. A perfect cube of a room. Door, where was the door, why wasn’t there a door…?

There was a door. But it was covered in metal. Wire. Mesh. A cage. A cage which lined the walls, a grid of lines, a skintight cell across cracked drywall.

I went for the door anyway.

Pain. My body jerked away in response.

Light caught my attention, to the right.

I WOULDN’T RECOMMEND
TRYING THAT AGAIN.
IT’S AN ELECTRIFIED CAGE.

…handwriting, on a sign. On a television. Someone had left a filthy old CRT tube television in this cell with me, and was holding up paper signs on the screen…

The sign lowered, and seeing the face of my captor helped me draw some conclusions through the absolute terror that still threatened to paralyze me.

Doctor Montgomery. He’d captured us, and thrown me in this cell. Of course, he couldn’t talk to me over a loudspeaker, so he went for the next best thing… a closed circuit broadcast, for an audience of one.

Where was Marcy? She wasn’t in here with me. I could see clearly now, clearly enough to read, and she was gone. Maybe in another cell? What was going on…?

The good doctor tossed his handwritten card aside, revealing another. He had been holding a stack of them… a prepared speech.

WE’RE GOING TO PERFORM AN EXPERIMENT.
YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN AN OVERDOSE
OF MY NIGHTMARE FUEL.

…and more cards, and more cards…

N.F. IS A FASCINATING DRUG.
PART SCIENCE, PA
RT NONSENSE.
IT SHOULDN’T WORK, BUT IT DOES.

IT INDUCES & ABSORBS NIGHTMARES,
LEAVING YOU DREAMLESS & EXHAUSTED.
THEY BOTTLE UP INSIDE YOU, NIGHT AFTER NIGHT.

BUT AN OVERDOSE…
THAT WORKS SO MUCH FASTER.

HOW ARE WE FEELING TODAY?

ANXIOUS?
SCARED? TERRIFIED?

PLEASE BE CLEAR.
THIS IS FOR SCIENCE.

A camera in the room. There had to be. This sadist would want to watch his handiwork.

My eyes darted all over, trying to find one, seeing nothing but endless metal cage mesh. My entire world, pinned and trapped, the room shrinking around me. Get out. Get out now. Fight it, stay on top of it, can’t, can’t think. Five sides to the room, no, four, blurred, there had to be… there. Corner of the room…

Shaking hands couldn’t form signs. They were too blurry, too indistinct. My muscles jerked and spasmed.

NORMALLY, THE DRUG WORKS QUIETLY, SLOWLY.
YOU SLEEP DREAMLESSLY, UNAWARE.
OF COURSE, IT CAN’T LAST.
EVENTUALLY, THE BOTTLE BREAKS.

YOU ARE OVERWHELMED.
YOU GO CUBIST.
YOU ARE FREED.

YOU’RE GOING TO BECOME A PICASSO TODAY, VIVI.
A MONSTER. A HORROR. PURE AND TRUE TO THE CITY.
AND I’M GOING TO OBSERVE THE PROCESS.

By now, the words weren’t on the cards anymore. They weren’t on the screen. They were in the room with me.

The reason my hands were blurry wasn’t just because they were shaking. They were just… blurry. Cubism. Signs of cubism…

Once infected, there’s no going back. Everybody knew that. Cubism was absolute inevitability, a fate worse than death, as you slowly became this thing which existed only as a ghost of your former self. The lucky ones get exterminated by the Department of Safety. The unlucky ones wander the Sideways, forever…

Curling up on the floor, hands around my head. Maybe I was screaming, I don’t know. Couldn’t look at the television anymore; too much, it was all too much. If I shut it out, shut my eyes, maybe I could refocus myself and come back from this, I don’t know, maybe, so afraid, so very—

Flashing light between my fingers. The screen angrily trying to get my attention.

Large print on the card. He’d been prepared for this eventuality, and wrote a card in advance.

IF YOU IGNORE ME AGAIN
I WILL KILL YOUR SISTER.

…which effectively removed the option of ignoring what was happening. Slowly I pulled my hands away from my eyes. Faced the television. Made it very clear to the madman watching by remote camera that I was paying attention.

The swimming image of the doctor on the television nodded, satisfied that he was back in control. He reached for a second stack of cards, approaching the camera to begin showing them off.

NIGHTMARE FUEL ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH.
YOU ALSO
NEED AN EMOTIONAL TRIGGER.
SOMETHING ANXIETY-GENERATING.

A LOUD AND CONFUSING CLUB, FOR INSTANCE.
OR ALCOHOL AND ENDORPHINS, CONFUSING THE MIND.

OR A SHARP SHOCK TO THE MEMORY,
DISLOCATING IT IN TIME AND SPACE.

SO, WE’LL TRY SOME FREE WORD ASSOCIATION TESTS.

New cards. Single words on each.

MOTHER.

I almost laughed. Anxiety-generating triggers? He’d failed already. After all, I use happy memories of my past each morning, when I left my mind drift during meditation and exercise. I’ve plenty of happy memories of my birth mother, the one who brought me into this world and cared for me with such love. Many happy memories…

…Mother, sitting alone in the kitchen. Trying to smile, for my sake. So much paper on the kitchen table. Even at a young age, I was an adept reader. I could read words like ‘PAST DUE’ and ‘SECOND NOTICE’. I didn’t know what the word ‘alimony’ meant or why Mr. Vickers, the man in the nice suit, was sending letters about it. The letters which made Mother cry.

Not a happy memory. Not one I even remembered having. But it was genuine. I was there, at that moment in time, looking at the bills and the bouncing alimony checks, things I couldn’t have understood as a child. Our tiny little household, constantly on the verge of collapse…

BROTHER.

That little goofball. Smiling all the time, making jokes. He wasn’t very good at jokes, he repeated ones he heard without really understanding them. He wasn’t as good at reading as I was. Wasn’t good at school at all, or learning much of anything. In and out of hospitals, still smiling, always happy to see me when I could visit.

Mother loved him so much. There was only so much she could do to help him get the help he needed, and it wasn’t enough.

Despair leads to cubism, cubism leads to despair. Were the sorrowful memories rising because I was infected? Were my memories causing the infection? I couldn’t avoid them. They rose up, with each new card shown to me. Mustn’t look away, must keep Marcy safe, must—

ALONE.

Always alone at parties. I loved the party atmosphere, kids bouncing around and having fun, but… they didn’t want me there. They stared. They made jokes because they knew I couldn’t understand them.

It was done as a favor to my mother, out of pity by the other mothers. Either my birth mother or my adoptive mother, the same pity was there. The kids never invited me. She made sure I was included, but I was never really included. I tried, I tried so hard, but…

WHORE.

Written on my locker, in plain view of everyone else at our school.

Finding in-roads to the social scene when I was still learning how best to communicate was difficult. The Wei family couldn’t afford home schooling for one, let alone two—we were tossed head-first into the broken social scene of public high school. There, I made mistakes. Sometimes people I thought were my friends were… not my friends. For each genuine friend I found, people I could trust and talk to, I also found liars and cheats. People who took the emotional connection I felt and played me for a fool with it.

I wasn’t particularly sexually active, not yet. I was still timid about expressing myself physically and emotionally through love—suburban attitudes beaten into my head about what good girls did or didn’t do. But I was active enough to draw attention from the wrong sort of boy, the kiss and tell type. And he told. And told.

When Marcy saw what the other girls did to my locker, she ended up suspended for a week—

SISTER.

—and there was the first chance I had to get out of this with my sanity intact.

The primal fear was pulling up the worst possible memories, even of things I remembered fondly. But with my sister, there were few horror stories to dredge up.

I wasn’t supposed to go to the Wei family. A racial mismatch, a cultural mismatch. The Wei’s had volunteered to temporarily host an appropriate foster child despite their lower-middle-class income, because it was the “in” thing to do at the time, thanks to a massive public relations campaign by the Department of Orientation. “Open your home to a soul in need,” they’d said, back when faith-based charity was a larger portion of the Department. I wasn’t even from a strongly Christian background, but they assigned me to the Weis anyway.

I didn’t fit at all. They didn’t know what to do with a little seven-year-old deaf white girl. But Marcy loved me dearly, right from the start. A temporary stopover as I worked my way through the system ended up being a reluctant adoption, to placate Marcy. She never felt like she fit in anywhere; I was someone just like her, only different. Neither of us fit. If she could reach me, I could reach her, and then we’d at least have each other.

There were fears, yes. But no matter how much I worried about her emotional well-being, no matter how much I feared for her safety and her future… those were fears born out of love.

From this, I had the strength to weakly pull myself off the floor. My hands were still strange, colorful and indistinct… the cubism threatened to engulf me. But I wasn’t sobbing through the pain of it. I looked to the television, and stared into the cathode ray tube with more confidence. He would NOT break me.

Doctor Montgomery paused, the SISTER card in his hand. Curious, now. He had other cards ready… but set them aside. Walked out of frame, to adjust the camera. It was time for new tactics.

The camera panned to the left, to something that had been out of frame.

Marcy. Handcuffed to a chair, and struggling. He’d already torn open her shirt.

A car battery, with jumper cables attached and ready.

If memories wouldn’t be enough to drive me over the cliff of my own mental well being, watching someone torture my sister would do the job.

Somehow I went from the floor to the door in less than half a second. Grasping for the electrified knob, pressing against the electrified mesh that covered it. Agony, sheer agony and pain. Disjointed time, back to the floor, back to the door. Rewind a few seconds, to the cards. To cards which I didn’t even see, but somehow remembered seeing SISTER. ALONE. WHORE. SISTER. MOTHER. BROTHER. SISTER. MUTE. RUIN. DESPAIR. NIGHTMARE. CHAOS. FREEDOM. BEDLAM. BEDLAM.

My arms were light now, light and color. I tried to move through the walls, to will myself to escape and stop this. My sister was screaming and I could hear the screaming, I could hear it, as sure as I heard the DJ’s cubist voice so long ago. But whatever part of me was still human couldn’t get past the animal reaction to pain, the shock cage. It was designed to keep Picassos in. Picassos, like me.

It had happened in less than the space of two breaths. I could see every wall at once, through an eye I didn’t have before. I could feel the erratic stomp-beat of what I didn’t know what my own heart. Time slipped, memories jumbled. How long had I been in the room, now? Was Marcy dead already? Did he begin torturing her yet? How did I get there in the first place? Cards. Cages. Memories…

A veil of tears poured, as I wept for what I once was. Normality felt like a lifetime ago.

She brought me comfort. Wiped away the tears, offered a hug. I-Love-You sign to the back.

He hurt you badly. // Very badly, the child of nightmares whispered in my ear. But he set you free. This prison can’t hold you, not really. // Hurt so badly, screaming and afraid. // Why afraid? // You don’t have to be afraid.

My words poured out through my hands, of which I had many.

[my sister // he’s hurting her // hurting // please // love her] I frantically signed, over and over and overlapping.

If you love her // then stop him, the child suggested. You don’t have to be afraid. // You are a thing to be afraid of. // He should be afraid of what he’s made of you. // Show him why. // Show him your vengeful love, and be free.

In a gesture of goodwill, the young girl stepped forward… and pulled my cage apart. The wires were such flimsy things, really. It seemed trivial to warp them and shred them, clearing the path towards salvation.

Upright and ready. My dancing shoes laced up tight. The music had already begun.

Light and sound and fury poured out of the experimental cell, flowing down the hallway of the condemned warehouse. I poured like rivers of silver wine through those halls, searching, seeking. Listening with ears I never had before.

My sister’s screams. I knew them, I heard them, no matter how far away I was. Turns out, I wasn’t far away at all.

Punching through the ceiling which became the floor which became the office of one Doctor Montgomery, member of the Cult of Bedlam, sadist, criminal, madman, ruiner. I shone with brilliant glow, radiant and blood red, my lighting crews timing the pulse of the stage show to the highly erratic beat of my heart.

He’d only just gotten started on Marcy. Less than five seconds had passed between his televised threat and my emergence as the burning-winged angel of love. And judging from the expression on his face, he probably didn’t have any pre-written cue cards for this particular situation.

For lack of a better option, the good doctor dropped his jumper cables and made a run for it.

Even this far gone, I wasn’t a murderer. I wanted him to stop hurting her; that’s all I wanted. But if he escaped, if he told Seth Dougal about tonight night’s main event, Marcy would be in danger once more. So, he couldn’t escape. So, he didn’t escape. I moved at the speed of music, giving chase as the doctor threw open the door of his office, and charged forth blindly…

…right into the arms of the sickly green-black child, who smiled as he spiraled away into her embrace.

I could hear Bedlam’s thoughts, or her words, or maybe they were the same thing.

Wondering why? she asked. True, he WAS helping me. // Helping my friends. // But you’re my friend, too. // You’re always going to be my friend, now.

I looked at Bedlam. With other eyes behind myself I looked at my sister, still handcuffed to the chair… and watching in horror, as the thing that was once her sister Vivi Wei hovered there, strange and terrible.

Couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. It was all sinking in, now—what had happened, what I had become. There was no way back from cubism, and certainly no way back from being a Picasso. I’d embraced it in full force, so I could save her life. The show must go on…

Marcy’s handcuffs turned into tissue paper. I’m not sure if I did that or if Bedlam did that. Probably her. Another gesture for my benefit.

It’s time to go, Vivi. // You can’t stay here anymore, not up here. // You’re a danger to her and others. // You don’t like to hurt people. // Come home with me, to my special places. // The Sideways. // Climb down the spiral with me, and help me find its heart. // We’ll be friends forever in the purity of the city’s dream-state.

I knew there wasn’t much choice in the matter. That’s what Picassos did, right? They eventually drifted off to the Sideways, to roam those halls forever. If I stayed up here… I’d hurt Marcy. I’d get lost. I’d forget myself, and get lost, and hurt Marcy, and hurt everyone, and eventually be boiled alive in the flames of a Department of Safety extermination team. Too late. Too late for me, now…

“NO!”

Her voice. I could hear her screams, before. But now, I could hear her voice.

“Vivi, no, please, no, NO…! Not you. Not this!”

Pleading. I could hear the fear in her voice, the sorrow. It was so sad and beautiful, my sister’s voice. I’d always wanted to hear it, ever since we first met—her voice and no one else’s. It would’ve been my one regret in life, the only thing I hated about my “disability.” When we first met, when the Department of Orientation official was arguing with her parents over paperwork, and—

Snapped back to the present. Almost became unstuck. Would’ve wandered, mentally and physically.

Come with me. // Come with me. // You can’t stay. // You know you can’t stay. // Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily—

—a hand grasping mine.

“If you’re leaving, I’m coming with you,” Marcy swore, gritting her teeth through the pain as her flesh-and-blood hand clung tightly to what may or may not have been my hand and may or may not have even existed.

Only seconds before her arm would be stripped to the bone, or removed, or twisted around. Her body destroyed, like poor unfortunate Gee Bee—

Breathe in, breathe out.

Her breathing. Her heartbeat. I could hear those, too. Unlike my own erratic half-heart, the heart of chaos, hers was solid and real. And it rang in my ears like the best music I had ever indirectly experienced.

Random and disconnected thoughts. Floating images and memories. I let them wash over me, turbulent waves, swirling eddies.

Pull the random thoughts together, sequence them. Bring myself out of the fugue state. I could feel her heartbeat, and I could use it to guide me out of the chaos.

Mother. Brother. Together. Love. Sister. Music. Home. Joy. Dream. Lucidity. Vivi.

My sister. By blood or not, she had become my sister, and I hers. She led me back to who I was, who I wanted to be. I was now and forever Vivi Wei, and even as I missed my brother and my mother, I moved forward to become Vivi Wei.

Present day, present time. Deep exhale. And here.

I fell into her arms, exhausted from the effort. Those warm and inviting arms. Real and human, just like mine now were.

Life was focused, again. My vision clear despite the deep haze that was settling into my mind, an adrenaline crash that was going to take me down into unconsciousness again.

But maybe there was a tiny bit of cubism still lurking… because while I could still see the young girl of madness (looking at me in a disappointed fashion) I could see another girl as well. A mirror image, a twin, but formed of white light and the pulsing red glow of life. And she was smiling to me, as I slipped into pleasant dreams.

---

My fever spiked to 103 that night, but Marcy didn’t dare bring me to a Department of Safety hospital. After calling Hollister for an emergency pick-up, she asked him to bring one of his least shady medical men to our apartment.

The doctor had no idea what was wrong, but noted it would likely pass, in time. I just needed bed rest and good food. I suppose feeling under the weather was a small price to pay for coming back from cubism, alive and intact.

I slept quite a bit for the next few days. Always, either Hollister or Marcy would be at my bedside. Marcy had taken a job—thankfully not at the Silken Veil as she’d threatened, but a basic burger-flipper role—and we got a reprieve on the rent. We’d stay aloft a little while longer, as I recovered.

The warehouse burned to the ground the next day, for some reason. The Department of Safety officially investigated it as an arson, but I bet they’d be cheerfully silencing the facts, as usual. Thankfully word of our escape hadn’t reached them… Montgomery must not have reported our snooping, keen on taking care of it himself. Our involvement vanished into the night, just as we had when Marcy pulled me from that horrible place and into Hollister’s waiting car.

Hollister wasn’t sure if he wanted to believe Marcy’s recounting of those events or not. If we were lying, it was an insane lie, one which had no rhyme or reason. If we were telling the truth… then not only was the government working with Bedlam, the government he worked for, but it meant I had in fact once been a Picasso. I hoped he wouldn’t think of me differently, knowing what I had become…

Three days later, I awoke refreshed and alert. No fever. No fatigue. Oddly enough, someone had tucked a teddy bear under my left arm as I slept.

I shuffled out of bed, putting on a bathrobe. Not quite up to trying my morning exercise routine just yet; I could slack off Marcy-style for now. I kept the teddy bear with me, though. It was comforting, for some inexplicable reason. I never played with dolls as a kid, but…

On reaching the living room of our apartment, it was clear we had visitors.

Marcy was talking with a kindly old lady, who clutched an extra-large purse in her wrinkled hands. Meanwhile, a man about as big as our front door loomed politely in the background.

Noticing my entrance, she offered me a gentle smile. Turned to face me directly, so I could read her lips.

“Rise and shine, dearie,” she spoke. “Sounds like you’ve had a bit of an ordeal, mmm? I know all about it, of course.”

[ALL about it?] I asked Marcy, with a few offhand gestures. And got a confused shrug in return…

“It seems we have some common enemies. And some common friends,” the lady continued. “A mutual friend by way of a friend. I believe you know a poet named Fi? That means you know a poet who knows another poet who in turn knows me. And when I heard through the grapevine that you’d taken ill, well, old Grandma Scarlett felt just terrible. So unfortunate, that business with the serpent and his worm… mmm. Now that you’re awake, I suppose I should get to the true point of my visit…”

She gestured for me to sit opposite her, on the love seat across from our couch. Colored curious, I obeyed, nodding for her to go on.

“We have common friends—and as noted—common enemies,” she explained. “Enemies in the form of the Cult of Bedlam. I’ve been fighting it in my own way for years, recently gathering allies to my cause. We were the ones who burned that warehouse, you see. A hateful place, just hateful. If only we’d gotten there sooner… I feel simply awful that we couldn’t help you in your time of need.”

…the idea of makeshift rebel alliance against the grand conspiracy of the Cult of Bedlam was crazy. About as crazy as the idea that the Cult of Bedlam was running the city. Which meant the two crazies cancelled each other out, leaving me with little left to do but nod along with the nice crazy lady.

“I’d like to make it up to you, in some small way—and you can provide an invaluable service to us in turn. We need somewhere pleasant to hang our hat, when we’re in the city. Somewhere the Department of Safety hasn’t already traced to us. I understand you used to specialize in crafting pleasant places for people to relax, yes…?”

Now, I felt the need to inject some sanity. Marcy was ready to interpret for me.

[Are you suggesting I become R-I-C-K B-L-A-I-N-E for your… band of freedom fighters? —it’s an old movie reference, Marcy.]

“Hah! Rick Blaine. I like that,” Grandma Scarlett said, after a soundless giggle. “It has mythic resonance, as a friend of mine once said. Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Given your experiences, I felt you would be the ideal candidate to operate our ‘Café Américain,’ as it were. But… there’s another side to that metaphor. Like Rick, if you would prefer to avoid this entire mess and to stay out of the fight, I understand. You’ve endured so much, you poor girl. I won’t make you endure more. It’s entirely your choice.”

Insane. Inadvisable at best.

And yet…

[Running a club requires more money than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time,] I pointed out.

“Really? Hmm. Well, let’s see… hmm…”

From her purse, Grandma Scarlett produced three used wadded up tissues, a pack of gum, a small porcelain statue of a cat, and one hundred thousand dollars in neat little stacked bundles. More money than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time.

“I suppose I’ll need to break open a few piggy banks for the rest,” she pondered.

---

Being a Picasso was like living inside a nightmare. The next two weeks were like living inside a dream.

I’d rallied together as many people as I could from the ruins of the Zig-Zag. Most were looking for work, just as I was. Some had gotten out of the business entirely… but enough were still around and still loyal for me to make a tidy little niche for us within the scene. Our club. My club. My own club.

The location wasn’t terrific, although that was by design. Being front and center on the Zag would’ve made us an open target for the Department of Safety’s ongoing campaign of terror against its own citizens. Instead we squatted in Crossway Points, halfway between the dire fringe and the pulsing core of the city. Not the most reputable of districts, but it was very much alive with activity. Perfect for running a public establishment which masked a private gathering of rebels in the back rooms.

Running the club both in front of and behind the scenes took a lot of work. Gee Bee had handled a lot of the money matters; here, I was learning fast and hard.

Some of Grandma Scarlett’s friends pitched in to help me figure things out—a nice guy who owned a fish restaurant gave me some valuable tips in business management. A guy who looked like he walked off the set of a Die Hard movie helped me coordinate security, both for the safety of the oblivious and happy patrons… and for the secrecy of our little revolutionary club-within-a-club. (Nice guy, if a bit gruff. His daughter was especially adorable.)

For some reason, ‘security’ also involved hiding teddy bears at strategic points in and around my club. By this point I’d stopped asking why, because the answers rarely made sense. Something about obscuring the vision of the enemy, or protecting against Bedlam’s lure, and so on…

Soon enough, on the corner of 23rd Street and 23rd Avenue, the Lucid Dreamer was open for business.

I’d gone from having everything I wanted in life to losing everything to nearly losing everything to having what I always wanted, in a little over a month. My life swung back around to where it was originally… waking around noon, getting ready to face the day alongside my sister, going to the club to do my thing, coming home to my sanctuary for peace and good dreams.

In the end, all was well. Love drove me forward and love of my dear sister pulled me back from the brink. The universe awarded me for my faith in love with a new home within the scene I adored so much. I could feel hope again, for the first time in so long.

But even this newfound hope was tempered with reality. The reality of what I experienced, becoming cubist, and knowing that someone out there was trying to leverage Bedlam to…

…well, we didn’t know what, exactly. We had pieces of the story. The drug. The cult. The terrible experiments, in the Outland and the fringes of the City. It was coming together to be a dark shape, indeed. Dark and frightening.

Even with that shadow looming large… I could hold fast to my peace. My love. My home. And in that, I would endure.

Breathe in, breathe out.

---

---

His breath had caught in this throat, when he saw it.

So, that would be their opening salvo. Their first public action.

“We’ll have it scrubbed off within an hour,” some Johnny-no-Name safety officer promised. Dougal couldn’t be bothered to memorize the names under his command anymore. “The paint’s laid down thick, but we’ve got solvents that can—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Seth Dougal recognized. “The morning traffic helicopter caught it on tape. It’s all over the news, all over the Internet. We look like a joke. Can’t even keep a vandal off the roof of our primary district office…”

A joke. He’d chosen those words well. This officer would pass them down the line, quoting his boss. This was just a bad joke, a tasteless joke. No value to it at all. No truth to be found here. Seth understood media relations—that was half of his war, after all, keeping the media pumping a message of fear into the people. It was important to define the frame, when someone else hung a painting on your wall. Literally, in this case.

If he let on the real reason for his concern… that someone was trying to get the truth out, that someone was fighting against them, destroying facilities and taking out the Shabby Men… well. That would induce panic, which was good, but could also shine light into shadows which needed to stay dark. Not good.

Not long. Not long now, at any rate. Montgomery’s death at the hands of these… these ridiculous and backward-looking fools, truckers and gangsters and whatever, they didn’t matter and neither did Montgomery, in the long run. Soon, all would be baptized in the waters of Bedlam. Everyone would know the perfect freedom of chaos. The entire city would be restored to what it should have been in the first place.

And even though someone had the gall to paint this on his roof…

graffiti: department of bedlam

…it changed nothing at all.

For the coming of Bedlam and the glorious chaos.

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. > the corner of 23rd Street and 23rd

    That address looks kabbalistically significant.

    23… the first association that comes to mind is Discordianism, which seems inauspicious when you’re looking to fight a Chaos cult. Then again, they’re also fighting a corrupt authority, so maybe it works.

  2. I may be missing another scene, but as far as I know only Marcie had met Penelope before – Vivi wasn’t there for the Defined Tower trip.

  3. Huh.

    Vivi didn’t recognize Penelope?

    I’d expect those minutes to be particularly… memorable, shall we say. >.>

  4. Did anyone else notice that the DJ was Skrillex? S. Moore. Sonny Moore.

    Jesus christ, man, that frightened me more than anything else I’ve read so far.

  5. Your grammar and spelling (the least important parts of really good writing), has been impeccable as far as I could tell up until now.

    So don’t take it as nitpicking when I point this out:
    But maybe there was a tiny but of cubism still lurking…
    -Should be “bit”.

    • Any impeccability is thanks to Lawrence Chu, my editor. He goes over my crud with a fine toothed comb before I publish the books. I’m actually quite awful at that stuff.

      I can fix this one here, although it’s in stone for the paperback, afraid. Thanks for reporting!

  6. There are two Back buttons on this one, my friend, and they both go to the main page rather than back to angle 5.

    <3. Keep up the fantastic work

      • First there was a back link, then there were two back links and a back button that all linked to each other. Then a MARQUEE full of IFRAMEs (probably twenty-three of them?) that pointed to the back link and that was when I panicked and closed the tab and put red-black tape all over my browser history.

        • Ẹ́V̮̗E͈̮͈R̶̶͖̠̪͘Y̢͔̣̬͍̘ͅT̫̜͚̩̼̘͓̞Ḩ͈̳͜I͝҉̳̙̻̗̬̼͙̙̮Ņ̰G̢̹̣͖̀ͅ ̬̳͔I̵̶͔̘̫̰S̴͓͝ͅ ̱̤̝̭̭̬̝̠̀F̖̤͓̺I̤̺̭͙̹̺̣N̨̨̳E͔̱͚͈̻̳̜͕͎͢

  7. I really like the relationship between Marcy and Vivi. They complement each other well.

    The comment on generosity (“ Generosity is a virtue, but erasure of the self… that could become a vice, in time. An addiction.”): That’s a good statement. Many of us get into a helping mode that can become detrimental, either to us or those we help (in the case of enabling). It’s important for us to care for ourselves, be aware of our buttons, and to learn the difference between helping someone feel better, and get better. It’s not always the same thing.

    The DJ Picasso was my favorite up to this point. He was so happy. The image in my mind while reading this was both hilarious and terrifying. Great character!

    The multiplying fountain park is pretty creepy and fun also.

    Perspective has a lot to do with this story. One good example being whether or not someone is disabled: A deaf woman ends up with an advantage in a noisy club (spying, bar tending, etc.).

    Great story!

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Copyright 2014 by Stefan Gagne