city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //007: Well Enough Alone

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 subway station. Unfortunately it got rotated ninety degrees, so unless you enjoy plummeting down an endless tunnel, don’t go there.

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…

If words are the hammers and nails of the English language, idioms are the high school shop class artifacts. Stools, chairs, flower boxes, coat racks, common things people make use of to get through their lives. They’re binding cultural artifacts which carry weight and meaning which is understood by all, even when the metaphor wouldn’t be immediately apparent to a non-native speaker.

For example… "Tend your own garden." "Keep your head down." "Don’t rock the boat." "Mind your own business." These are the knick-knacks used to fortify your home against the dangers that the City of Angles throws at you. By focusing on your own problems and minimizing risk, there’s no chance of being plowed under by the problems society can throw at you. Enlightened self interest will get YOU through anything, comfy and cozy in perfect isolation.

As for the others around you, there’s another coat rack for that.

"Better you than me."


//007: Well Enough Alone

Doctor Carlos Alvarez had operated his neighborhood pharmacy for ten years running. This was his dream, from the earliest age he could remember—to heal the sick and provide for those in need. Getting through school had been brutal, and working up the funds to open his own franchised retail drug store involved taking out loans on top of student loans… debts he may never really get out from underneath. But he’d done it. He made it happen.

Truthfully, at this point in his career he didn’t need to work the long hours he worked. It was a small shop by any standard but he did have employees and regular work rotations, so he could take most evenings off to be with his family. But his was a face that people knew, far more than the come-and-go young employees who used his store as a stepping stone towards brighter careers. He liked to be the smile that greeted people when they came through the door.

But aside from the idealistic sense of being a pillar of the community… this was December. Longer hours meant more money for the gifts he wanted to be able to afford for his family. And even though few people braved the cold and ice of a Boston winter to get to his little shop, he was there to serve all the same.

Three hours from closing time, and Carlos was behind the counter, busy watching the weather report on his laptop computer. The storefront windows had iced over, making the street view a blurry mess. He had to make the call to close early and go home before the worst of the storm rolled in, or stick it out for the few customers who might come in. It was a decision he was waffling on, weighing the pros and cons as the little digital man on his video stream talked about low pressure systems and cold fronts…

Until the little digital man stopped moving. A tiny swirling circle of dots indicated the stream was buffering—quite odd, since he’d never had bandwidth problems from this site before…

An error message popped, announcing the connection lost. Also strange. Maybe the WiFi was down? Not that Carlos knew what to do to fix that, beyond unplug it and plug it back in.

Fortunately, he had older technology to fall back on. A television set in the back storage room had been gathering dust for some years, only used as a closed-circuit monitor for the front room. Presumably it would still work for broadcasts. He debated leaving his post at the dispensary counter, but the TV monitor and even the bells over his door would alert him to anyone coming in… and getting one last update on the weather would probably be enough to help him make his decision to stay or go.

Except the television wasn’t working, either. It got a grainy picture of his shop just fine, but broadcasts were a no go. Strange. It was old and only standard def, but the set wasn’t hooked up to rabbit ears anymore. He’d upgraded to a reliable cable service at the same time the internet went in, a nice two-for-one bundle. And not a single channel was coming in.

Briefly he entertained the idea that classic snowy TV static meant snow was on the way. Like an analog fortune cookie signal, maybe. He could see a shape in the snow of some sort… maybe a human figure… a girl? That might’ve been the outline of a dress. A smile. Hard to say…

So, rabbit ears, then. That’d help him tune in and be sure. They were nearby, collecting even more dust than the television had been collecting. He’d gotten a fancy new digital over-the-air antenna, so it should at least pick up local stations…

Still static. White noise. Vague shapes and nothing solid. Either every television station in town vanished, or far more likely, this old video junk had given up the ghost.

Well… for lack of better information, he’d have to assume the worst. Not worth risking being snowed in. He’d phone home and let his wife know he was on the way.

No signal. No cellphone carrier.

The entire world went away, some part of his mind suggested. No, that’s stupid, the rest of his mind insisted.

…jingle-jangle of the bells over his door. Okay. ONE more customer, then he’d head back.

Emerging from the stock room and closing the door behind him, Doctor Alvarez was prepared to issue his usual greeting of a hearty "May I help you?" but didn’t finish the sentence.

Three customers. Official-looking uniforms, somewhere between a jumpsuit and a cop get-up. Nothing he could recognize. And one of them was quite clearly and openly armed, with a semiautomatic sidearm at his hip…

"No need for alarm, we’re here to help," the one with the gun said, holding up a hand in a greeting / defensive gesture." "City First Responders. I’m O-4 Security Officer Gilt. Please remain calm."

"I… am calm," Carlos tried to point out, realizing halfway through his statement that people with guns asking him to remain calm are either a good reason not to be calm or know a good reason which is why they insisted you be calm.

"Standard sweep," Officer Gilt spoke to his companions. "I’ll check entrances and exits. Polk, take inventory. Smith, tend to the import."

"Right. Okay. I got this," the young man named ‘Smith’ mumbled to himself. He plastered a big comfortable fake smile, and approached. "Hello, sir. My name is Orientation Trainee insert your name here. —Dave Smith. I’m Dave Smith. Ah. And you are…?"

"Carlos Alvarez," the doctor responded automatically, trying to peer around the smiling man at the other two. A man with his hand already on the hilt of his gun, peering out the front door into the street… and another one whistling away as he rifled through the long, straight shelves of Alvarez Drugs. "Excuse me, but are you with the police…? Is something going on I should be aware of? If there a reason I shouldn’t be calm?"

"Please remain calm," Dave Smith repeated, by rote.

"I am calm. I said that."

"Right. Well, that’s one thing in your favor," Dave said. "Most people aren’t very calm in situations like this. Honestly, it’s a bit of a relief to find someone who IS calm. I mean, last week there was this apartment building, had to be dozens of people, and they only sent our one team in for all those people, it got a bit crazy and—um—actually I guess that’s not really relevant to your situation and I’m probably not helping, am I, sorry about this—"

"—excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?"

This directed to the one Carlos was genuinely concerned with, the shifty-looking guy who’d been pawing through his inventory since he got here. Polk, his name was.

"Taking stock," the lanky man replied, waving a tablet computer. "Photos, bar code scans, things like that. Man, you got a lotta great stuff here! Resources has been on my ass about trying to track down and requisition more medical supplies. Ohhh, yeah, this is the mother lode. We are talking promotion city—"

"Look, I’d like to know exactly what is going on here," Doctor Alvarez insisted. "This is my shop, and I don’t know what authority you claim to be from, but nobody is ‘requisitioning’ anything unless you intend to pay for it, and… and… WHAT is going on?"

An exasperated sigh, from Mr. Officer With a Gun. "Smith, please…?"

"I know, I’m on it," Dave insisted, before turning back to Carlos. "Okay. I don’t know any better way of explaining this, because I’m honestly only a trainee and the last guy… left, I’ll go with ‘left,’ before he could train me. But your entire shop just got picked up and dropped in another city. Seriously."

"…seriously," Carlos repeated, obviously not taking it seriously.

"I know. And I’m the guy they picked to explain things to you. Sorry about that," Dave apologized again. "You deserve better, honestly. But this is what we have, you know? —look, if you think you can handle the shock, I know a really easy way to convince you that I’m not crazy. Let’s have a look out your front door."

As the Doctor mentally compiled a list of antipsychotics these men clearly needed, he nodded in agreement and moved to follow Dave. If only so once he got to the door, he could make a run for it and try to call the cops.

---

The windows had iced over, blurring the street view. But Doctor Alvarez knew exactly what he’d see out there—the pad Thai restaurant, a mail order franchise depot, the tree which had been planted by the sidewalk and grown quite tall over the years, etc. And even if it was snowing out, odds were good there’d be a squad car outside the restaurant. It was popular with the boys at the precinct. They’d be able to help him with these madmen…

His feet did not crunch in the light layer of fallen snow. Despite the December cold, there was no snow.

Similarly there was no squad car. No restaurant. No tree.

Other buildings, other signs. Not many signs and buildings far too tall. Even the sidewalk had different pavement… and it ran at a strange diagonal angle, as if the building was askew rather than aligned with the road…

This wasn’t Boston. As Dave Smith had suggested, his entire shop had been picked up and dropped in another city. Every signal to the outside world had been snipped off, because the outside world was not the outside world he remembered.

Instead, the city was darker than Boston. Many of the buildings looked abandoned. Carlos didn’t come from the greatest of neighborhoods, but there was solidarity to be found there—he had the same spirit they had, to band together against their circumstances. Whoever lived here… if anybody did live here… there wasn’t any sense of that. Even standing for less than a minute on this slanted street he could feel the place drained of all life. Not Boston. Not the life he knew.

There were any number of explanations, of course. Could all be a dream. Maybe the cold meds he took for his sniffles earlier this morning were having an adverse effect. It was also entirely possible he was undergoing the first episode of latent schizophrenia. Science had any number of answers to offer.

Or maybe Dave was right. And from the sad look on Dave’s face, joining him at the door, Dave wasn’t happy that he was right.

"Best I can say right now is… sorry," he said, echoing earlier apologies. "I’m new to this city, myself. I know what you’re going through. But I’m afraid it only gets weirder from here on out. …I don’t think I’m supposed to frame it that way, but… personally, I figure honesty’s as good an approach as any."

"My shop got moved to another city," Carlos decided he was going to have to believe.

"Um. Yeah. There’s some fiddly bits and details, which you’ll learn about in time, but… yeah."

The next question was a logical progression, and also something Dave couldn’t provide an answer for.

"How do I get home?" Carlos asked.

Fortunately for Dave, who had been expressly told to stabilize the import and leave the Echo Revelation for his superiors in the Department of Orientation to deal with, a distraction reared its head in the form of a brief light over his shoulder. Light from an open stock room door.

---

Polk was already one shelf in, scanning and memorizing, when the pharmacist stormed in on him.

"You can’t be back here, whoever you are!" Doctor Alvarez insisted. "My shop. Private property. Hell, there was an Employees Only sign!"

Much to his disgust, the man named Polk snorted back a giggle at the rebuke. He picked up a cardboard box containing a prescription antidepressant, studying the tiny print carefully.

"Dave, keep the import on a leash, okay?" Polk replied, resuming his scans. "I wanna get this place inventoried and my ass out the door ASAP. He’s only gonna slow us down. —man, you’ve got some nice stuff back here! I can’t wait to get it hauled off and indexed properly—"

The doctor yanked the box from Polk’s hand, placing it back on the shelf.

"I want all three of you out of my shop, now," he insisted. "You don’t look like any police I know of, no matter what city this may or may not be. And I’m running out of ways to say that this medicine doesn’t belong to you—"

"Actually, it does," Polk said, with no small amount of amusement. "Department of Resources Ordinance 14/b, Annexation of Imported Real Estate by Designated City Official. Got to keep the wheels of the city turning, buddy, and there’s only so much grease to go around. Plenty of sick people are gonna need this stuff. Public good, and all."

"Are you kidding me? This is America! …I’m assuming this is America. I’m not hearing any accents here," Carlos reasoned. "And in America, I’ve got rights. You can’t just barge in here like you own the place!"

"Sir… please remain calm."

This coming from the man with the gun.

Not that Mr. O-4 Security Officer Gilt would use that gun on him. Not that he was suggesting as much, or resting his hand on the hilt, or doing anything threatening. He didn’t have to make a threat. No look of menace in his eye, not even a steely cold businesslike attitude. Compassionate even, perhaps. But all he really had to do was repeatedly quietly request that Carlos Alvarez remain calm. Remain passive. Go along with what was happening to him.

Within minutes, Carlos had been kidnapped, and now he was going to be robbed. Wonderful. The only thing keeping him from going mad was a simple and seething disgruntlement at his situation, and hope that soon he’d be able to get out of here and back to his family. How soon was another matter, but…

Jingle-jangle.

A lousy time for customers. The three men didn’t know what that sound meant, but Carlos did. Not wanting to take an eye off the guy sizing up his life’s work like a side of beef, he turned to the television monitor. Flipped it to the closed circuit channel, to see who just walked in.

Two people.

With guns.

They wore a uniform as well, although one Carlos instantly recognized. It was universal, no matter which city you were dropped into. Bandanas, hand me down clothes, pistols held sideways. If the nice and sympathetic government trio were legitimate thieves… these two were their illegitimate counterparts. Gangsters. He wasn’t familiar with the grey-and-black color scheme they wore, but the way they wore it made gang membership patently obvious.

By this point, his new city official friends had noticed the television monitor. And Alvarez took a tiny and spiteful amount of joy that they looked just as unhappy with the situation as he was.

Dave continued watching the monitor, as if curious about this fanciful thing called a CRT tube. The rest of them, Alvarez included, had a brief pow-wow about what was happening.

"Salvagers," Officer Gilt recognized immediately. He went for his cellphone, in a holster opposite the gun holster, keying some obscure code into an app. "Grey Market Gang colors. Thankfully just two of them, they aren’t rolling aggro with their whole crew. Greyscale must’ve gotten a neighborhood watch tip about the new import. I’m calling in for backup, but we’re outer city, so…"

"So they won’t be here for minutes. Goddammit," Polk cursed. "This is what my career’s come to, is it? Four years and I’m still out in the boonies, getting jumped by Salvagers. Dammit. Dammit. What do we do here? What’s the playbook say?"

Cellphone back in its holster. Gun out of its holster.

"Secure the resources, protect the civilians, hold them off until backup comes," Gilt replied. "Dave’s not rated for a firearm and neither are you, so that means I’m on it. Doctor, I saw a back door—there’s no promise it connects to the alley, not anymore, but I want you and the others through that door if firing starts. I don’t care what you see in there, you stick with Polk and Smith and you run. Got it?"

But Alvarez was waving his hands, no, no. "You don’t have to shoot at anyone or get shot at!" he insisted—but quietly, just in case. "They don’t know we’re back here. We just have to lock the door. Backup’s on the way, right? To arrest them?"

"Can’t risk losing the meds, doc. The city needs them, and it’s my job to defend them—and you," Gilt replied, checking his firearm, making sure it was ready. "Two on one, but I’m a professional. Maybe I can scare them off, maybe it’ll come to shots, but either way I have to go out there—"

"He’s looking for something specific."

This coming from Dave Smith, who had been ignoring the tense discussion completely, in favor of watching television.

"She’s scooping up anything she can get, but he’s looking for something," Dave explained, not looking away. "He’s searching the shelves and not stealing anything. He needs something specific. He’s worried, desperately worried. And she’s…"

Unsure as to how Mr. Smith could get all that from the grainy security camera, Carlos leaned over to have himself a look. True, one of the two was a young woman who was grabbing every single thing she could—even two dollar packets of band-aids. And yes, the man wasn’t touching anything, not yet.

Also, and this made Carlos wonder if his earlier broadcast problems were the result of his TV being broken, there was an odd video distortion effect every second or so coming over the wire. It was isolated to the portion of the picture where the woman was looting… a blurry, flickering snap of electronics going haywire…

When he glanced up, Dave was grabbing Polk’s tablet away from him, checking the hastily built index of drugs. Ten seconds later and Dave Smith had a full box of a particular drug, and was headed to the door.

"Orientation Trainee Dave Smith!"

Hand on the knob, paused. Again, Gilt didn’t draw his weapon, didn’t make a threat. Just used rank and name to stop Dave cold. But the young man wasn’t showing any fear, not fear of his boss, not fear of what he was about to do.

"Nobody needs to get shot," Dave promised. "Including me. I know exactly what to do. Trust me on this, Peter. Please."

Not waiting for a response from Officer Peter Gilt, Dave opened the door, and passed through into the main shop. Alone, and closing the door behind him.

---

Suda suda suda suda suda. She’d been mentally chanting it, ever since they got the tip through back channels. Suda suda suda.

That’s all this was, to her. A chance to score large amounts of Sudafed, to pass on to other gangs that mixed it up to make crystal meth. Best part was that the score was theirs and theirs alone; Jackie had asked the tipper to pass word of drug store imports directly to them, rather than to Greyscale the bossman. No need to bring the rest of the Grey Market Gang on a private score, no need to divvy the proceeds, more for them, all for them, get the cash, get the stuff, get out, get to bed, sleep, can’t sleep, no dreams, dreaming of money, all the money they could ever need to up-stakes and head to the inner city where it’d be safe again…

Honestly, Lonnie had no idea what to grab—she wasn’t seeing any boxes clearly labeled Suda. So she was grabbing as much as she could of anything slightly interesting, scooping it all into a shopping basket.

"Grab it, grab the Suda, c’mon Jackie, grab it," she mumbled to herself, to her companion. "We gotta hurry. Farts gonna be here soon. Soon. Gotta hurry—"

"Don’t RUSH me, okay?! Christ!" he shouted back. "Don’t rush me. I’m looking…"

Testy. Jackie had been testy lately. Something on his mind, Lonnie figured, something weighing. Usually he smiled more. He hadn’t smiled lately, not even hearing about this score. This great score. Why was he looking for drug store tips, anyway? Didn’t they normally roll ‘lectronics? Suda. Who cares. Get yours, get out—

Door. Open door.

Two guns, trained on the FARThead by the Employees Only door.

Scruffy-looking guy, box tucked under one arm. He did his best to hold his hands up, surrendering, without dropping the box he had wedged under there.

"I’m unarmed," the guy announced. "Dave Smith. Orientation representative. Um. Trainee. No gun. It’s cool. I’m not here to fight."

Jackie was on the ball, as always. Stepped up, mighty and true. Gun sideways, street style, that Jackie. Lonnie had her gun too but her gun was shaky, very shaky lately, she’d never have hit the mark. Jackie would protect her…

"I’m not here to fight either," Jackie said, which was strange because Lonnie always remembered Jackie itching for fights. "Just stay the hell out of my way and we’ll be gone in a blink. You called in backup, didn’t you? Your little FART bros?"

"They’ll be here soon, yeah," Dave warned. "So you need to get what you came to get, and go. I won’t stop you. Actually, I think I’ve got what you need… just… gonna hold this out here, okay, not a gun, just a box, here…"

Carefully, trying to stay in a surrender pose while simultaneously holding out a cardboard box, Dave offered the item procured from shelves of controlled substances.

"Alprazolam," he explained. "Anti-anxiety benzo. And plenty of it. That’s what you’re looking for, right? For her?"

Jackie the hardboy, his gun wavering. Lonnie wondered why.

"For my sister, yeah," Jackie replied. Lowering the weapon just slightly, so he could safely and slowly retrieve the box from Dave’s outstretched arms.

"I saw her flickering. And I’ve read the same websites you have," Dave Smith explained. "For what it’s worth, I swear by the stuff. It’s helped my anxiety attacks a lot. I don’t know how long Alprazolam’ll effectively fight off cubism incidents, but… for what it’s worth… I wish you two the best. You should get going now, before the Department of Safety gets here."

Worried, now. Cubism? What? Lonnie felt fine. Never better. She didn’t scream that much lately, in the night. Not that much.

"We’re going, Lonnie-hun," Jackie said, backing away from Dave slowly. "Going now."

"Too much stuff left to grab, it’s a big score, we can’t just walk," Lonnie protested. "Jackie, c’mon, big time, this is what we neeeed to get away from the GMGs, we can be okay again, I swear, we can // we can // we can—"

"We’re going," he declared.

And they were gone.

---

Less than an hour later, and the Departments were out in force. Two of them, anyway.

Department of Safety set up tape around the building, Yellow-black, as a precautionary measure to keep anyone from nosing around. People in the City of Angles knew better than to mess with a squadron of safety officers around a yellow-black building. There wasn’t much enforcing of safety needed, of course; now that the threat has escalated from a three-man First Action Responder Team to a full-blown import investigation, the Salvagers would steer clear. The gangs weren’t crazy enough to attack head on.

Meanwhile, the Department of Resources was busy carting away the entire contents of Carlos Alvarez’s drug store. Polk got the ball rolling, but he wasn’t in charge, not by far—he was just the first feet on the ground, to pave the way for poachers yet to come. Carlos was forced to loiter street-side, watching the entire process… with the sole representative of the Department of Orientation at his side.

"Not seeing how this is any better than gang-bangers robbing me blind," Carlos spoke with bitter tones.

Dave had no apology and no justification. Best he could was shrug in sympathy.

"You seem like a decent guy," Carlos said, turning to Dave. "Better than this. Courageous, too. I saw what you did for those two. You put your life on the line to get them out of my store safely, so nobody had to get hurt, including them. You didn’t even bat an eyelash, didn’t panic…"

"I’m just trying to help," Dave offered.

"About the only person here who genuinely is, at that. So. What happens now, Mr. Smith? When do I get to go home?"

And there ended Dave’s ability to help.

He could tell Carlos that his family was safe and sound… and that Carlos Alvarez was likely with them now, while this Carlos Alvarez had to spend the rest of his future alone in the City of Angles. That would be honest. Honesty seemed like a good concept in general, but…

Nothing Dave could say could really help. In the end, Dave couldn’t help anyone, despite taking one of the riskiest jobs the city had to offer expressly to try and do something better with his life. To help others. He had no words for Carlos Alvarez, no comfort, and focused instead on processing the paperwork and putting the good doctor in the system. The best he could do.

---

Dave Smith stared down the barrel of two guns that night, one of which was held by someone on the verge of going Picasso. He’d nearly died.

But he’d stormed right into that situation without a single moment’s hesitation. It was a voluntary flavor of Nearly Died, one without regret: Dave saw what needed to be done, and did it. That was his superpower—while other people were going to pieces, Dave Smith had his act together. It was something a good friend pointed out to him, what seemed like so long ago.

I think you’re stronger than you believe you are, Dave. I think you could really help people… and maybe that’d help you help yourself, in the end. Promise me, okay? Promise me you’ll try.

Playing hero had some consequences, but one way or another his working day was now done. Time to go back. His apartment at the Plaza Arms wasn’t too far from the District 23 First Action Response Team Headquarters, no sense in taking the subway. Other people would be worried about muggers or gangers eager to roll someone like Dave. Dave didn’t worry about that.

Back to his crummy and crumbling apartment. Door closed and locked.

Empty and silent.

Breathing. In, then out. Regulate it. Keep watch. Slow and… okay, maybe not very slow, but steady. Keep it steady…

Keep it…

Dave Smith was safe and sound in his own little corner of the world, with no guns and no threats and no risks, and it was here that he finally began to panic.

His panic came from having a moment to himself and his own thoughts and realizing in a single sharp instant just how completely alone and lost he was in the still and quiet and insanity of the City of Angles. A city which ate people alive, which drove a woman to suicide, which pushed people to crime to save a loved one, which took with one hand while patting you on the head with the other. An inescapable city of contradictions.

Life alone had been enough to drive Dave’s nervous condition over the edge and out the other side, to the realm of quiet desperation. Now life in the City was looping his suppressed horror back around to actualized horror. Locked away in perfect isolation in a place they told him was his new home, this apartment, this cell, he was losing his nerve all over again.

Fortunately he already had his own Alprazolam, in a tiny little bottle in a tiny little cabinet in his tiny little bathroom.

---

I’m starting to rethink my career choice.

When I got started in the city, I was offered a job just like my old one — sit perfectly still all day and draw advertisements. It would’ve paid the bills and been completely ordinary. I might have even been able to do it entirely from home, telecommuting, just like I used to.

I turned it down because this is New Dave. I wanted to be something more. So instead, they offered me this job with the FARTs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I turned down the art job. I’m a lousy artist, anyway. I keep fiddling with that old Lucid Technologies logo (Officer Gilt thinks it might make a good masthead for the team newsletter) but sometimes I think it’s getting farther away from what it should be, rather than closer. Maybe I shouldn’t bother.

I’m getting off track. My point is, I want to be something more. You’re right about that. If I’m stuck here in this place, I need to make the best of it and the best of myself. But these guys, the FARTs, I don’t know if they’re right for me. They don’t help people, not really. They’re damage control.

Yesterday I met a brother and sister facing cubism in the family. I wanted to help them, maybe figure out from security footage who they are, get medical attention for them. You said before that cubism isn’t a doom curse — that you’d even met people who came back from it.

But Polk told me in no uncertain terms A) not to bother, because Safety would just "purge her cubist ass with fire," and B) I should mind my own business if I want to get promoted to a cushy inner city job where the city is stable and there’s hardly any gangs. That’s the sort of apathy I’m dealing with here.

Anyway, I’ve got a few days off from the job. I’m the Hero of the Day; Gilt was highly impressed with my "bravery" and he says I’ve earned some shore leave. Hooray for me.

Maybe I’ll meet up with you and your Dad for lobster or something? I know you’re really busy with something your Dad doesn’t want you talking about — secret Sideways adventure stuff, I guess — which is why you can’t email too often. If you can’t make time for it that’s fine, I totally understand. I’ll figure something else out. Let me know.

-Dave

---

On the plus side, Dave hadn’t been having nightmares lately. He had a few weird ones in his first weeks here, particularly during orientation, but nothing since. Sure, sometimes he felt like the room was too large or too small or too quiet and he had to regain control of his nerves while awake… but at least that whole "night terrors" problem was somehow solved.

So one comfortable night later, and he was up and moving in this crappy little apartment again. Running through the morning rituals didn’t take long. Normally after that he’d be walking over to HQ to sit and wait for any new buildings to arrive in his district… but as he’d emailed Penelope the previous night, he was officially on leave. Even if he half-lied about the reason why.

Gilt did use the word "bravery," and seemed genuinely impressed by Dave’s actions. Peter Gilt had been one of the few quasi-friends Dave had managed to make; even if he still stayed professional and detached, at least Gilt seemed to approve of Dave’s spunk. Sadly, their superiors up the chain in the First Action Response Team saw Dave’s actions as foolhardy and a waste of good medicine, so he was on suspension for a few days. Gilt was the one who suggested he should view it as a reward for courage, even if it was just the courage to buck the system.

"The work we do is rarely pleasant, for anyone involved," Officer Gilt had explained, with a comforting pat on the shoulder. "All of us do what we can to make the system work for everybody involved, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. Cheer up, Dave. Things would be a lot worse without us around. Take a few days off, enjoy your time, come back refreshed."

Except routine was what kept Dave refreshed. Without the routine of daily work, he was left with nothing to do but sit around "home." Truthfully, that’s pretty much what he did back on Earth, but… it felt different, here. There was more ambient menace in the air. Tension thick enough to cut with a chainsaw. While Dave could hold himself together in situations of obvious external stress, these moments between filled with unidentifiable internal stress were unbearable.

It had been ramping up considerably in recent days, too… that sense of pervasive and nonspecific dread. No clear cause. And unless it was Dave’s inability to have proper perception playing pranks on him, the dread wasn’t specific to him. It was all over the city. Sure, people moved with fearful purpose any day of the week, but lately… something in the air…

Not that he intended to sit around all day worrying about existential horror. This was New Dave. He embraced a ridiculous career because it was the way forward, not the way backward. So, he’d use today to find some other means of moving forward.

This meant creating a list, to track down causation.

Dave was a big fan of TO DO lists. Of course, he didn’t always get around to DOing everything that needed TO be DOne, but making lists, that was a sensible thing to do. So, with a wide-open day ahead of him and no idea what to do with it, Dave decided to take psychological stock of his situation.

Using a note keeping app on his smartphone, he drew up a simple chart.

LIFESTYLE LIFE ON EARTH LIFE IN THE CITY
Home Crummy apartment
(quiet, uninteresting, isolated)
Crummy apartment
(quiet, uninteresting, isolated)
Career Commercial art
(distant, unsatisfying, underpaid)
Professional FART

(distant, unsatisfying, underpaid)
Friends Only one, age-inappropriate
(father)
Only one, age-inappropriate
(12yo kid)
Romance None currently None currently

 

Finger tapping on screen. The modern equivalent of a pencil tapping on a pad, in thought.

Maybe Old Dave and New Dave weren’t that different. From a glance, both were complete losers with bad jobs and prison cells for homes and no friends within the target demographic and as for girlfriends, well… one extremely awkward prom night experience with two weeks of follow-up fumbling before both drifted off in embarrassment probably didn’t count in the long run and certainly not in the short run.

In fact, the only real difference between the two was New Dave’s insistence on leading a life that reached beyond tucking away in a corner and plugging away at a wage slave job until the End of Days. New Dave, spurred on by said age-inappropriate friend, wanted to make a difference. Because he could. Because allegedly it was one of the few things he COULD do that others couldn’t, actually.

But if he was going to reach beyond for the sake of others, how about for his own sake?

And so, Dave added a new column to that table.

LIFESTYLE LIFE ON EARTH LIFE IN THE CITY TO DO!
Home Crummy apartment
(quiet, uninteresting, isolated)
Crummy apartment
(quiet, uninteresting, isolated)
Make this place really feel like home!
Career Commercial art
(distant, unsatisfying, underpaid)
Professional FART
(distant, unsatisfying, underpaid)
Figure out how to actually HELP people!!
Friends Only one, age-inappropriate
(father)
Only one, age-inappropriate
(12yo kid)
Make new friends somehow!!!!
Romance None currently None currently girlfriend?????

 

…and drawing a blank again. Because he had no idea where to start with any of that, particularly the farther down the table he got. It wasn’t like you could head down to the Girlfriend Store and pick one out, perhaps in a ready-to-assemble flat pack kit.

But… furnishings were available in ready-to-assemble flat pack kits. And Dave’s home was decidedly underfurnished and underdecorated. Maybe he wouldn’t feel like he was living out of a closet if it felt more like it was his own home. Specifically, New Dave’s home.

That was something he could do today. He could go buy furniture. Perhaps personal electronics or digital media, as well. Being a red-blooded American, he knew that the answer to life’s existential dilemmas could always be found at the bottom of a credit limit.

Ten minutes later and Dave was bundled up for cold weather, locking the door of Apartment 2B behind him.

---

With brisk stride and fierce determination, he walked straight into someone loitering outside.

The impact was comical, sending both of them reeling, arms pinwheeling to try and regain balance. A cardboard box fell from her arms, lightly impacting on the grungy hallway carpeting.

Dave scooped up the box that the woman was delivering, holding the cardboard container out for her to accept. Unusually light, whatever it was…

"Sorry, sorry, entirely my fault," he offered along with the box.

"Yeah, thanks," she accepted, taking it back. "That one’s 2C, right? The apartment next to yours? Number’s been yanked off, can’t tell…"

"Uh… I think so. I’ve never actually met my neighbor," Dave admitted. "I’m in 2B, and I know Mr. Ghanem is in 2A, and… well, if you’re looking for Mr. Moore, they taped off his apartment, and—"

Moving past him, she dropped off the box at the doorstep of what was presumably 2C. While glancing at some delivery instructions loaded on her cellphone and muttering.

"Some days I wish things were less gonzo," the woman explained without actually explaining, before turning to leave.

Figuring she might be in a foul mood and following her around would be mistaken for stalking, Dave stayed by his door for a bit before departing for the furniture store.

It was only when he was rolling along in the subway system that Dave realized he’d actually met her before. Some weeks ago, when he was just starting out as a trainee, someone had flipped their taxi cab and he’d checked to make sure she was okay. Good to know everything worked out all right for her, whoever she was.

---

Life’s many unanswerable questions are neatly shoved aside when you’re busy grappling with the deeply important decision of what coffee table defines you as a person. In the end Dave got a highly personal coffee table, an individualized entertainment unit, a reasonably nonconformist television to go in that entertainment unit, and a few copies of some old mass-market movies he loved re-watching endlessly. Comfort food, basically. His budget for the month was annihilated and he’d likely be eating peanut butter sandwiches for a week, but at least he could throw on the Matrix or Star Wars and burn off a few hours when things got thick.

Delivery of the goods was going to take a day or so, and he had to be at home and ready to receive them sometime between the hours of 7am and 11pm, but that wouldn’t be much of a problem now. Well, it wouldn’t be fun to sit around going stir crazy all day waiting for someone to show up Any Moment Now with his goodies, but presumably it wouldn’t result in a mental breakdown.

On returning to Apartment 2B, a conundrum had interspersed itself between him and the front door.

Someone had moved the cardboard box from this morning to his doorstep.

He distinctly remembered the discussion with the nice woman in the hipster glasses about 2C, how this box was meant for 2C. Why would someone move it to his door? Maybe they accidentally kicked it? But the box didn’t look too damaged. Regardless of how it got here, it was up to Dave to complete the delivery. Not quite on par with delivering torpedoes to a two-meter port without a targeting computer and blowing up the Death Star, but it’d do.

Two seconds after knocking on the numberless door of 2C, he remembered he’d never actually met his neighbor.

Two minutes after knocking on the numberless door of 2C, he figured he’d probably never actually meet his neighbor. Maybe he wasn’t home? Dave could drop off the box and call it a completed quest, but given it already ended up at his door once, maybe it was better to knock again and make sure this got to its destination…

His knuckles hovered over the door, which had opened at some point between the decision to knock and the attempt to knock.

Dave had to adjust his gaze downward slightly, as a young woman peeeeered at him through the crack in the door, from an apartment of darkness. Although he could only guess at the gender of his neighbor from her voice, given the poor lighting.

"Not buying anything," she mumbled. "Sorry."

"Uh, no, this isn’t something I’m selling," he said, hefting the box for emphasis. "I think this is yours. I saw it being delivered this morning, but for some reason it was—"

"I moved it," she interrupted. "It’s not for me. See? Says 2B. Turn it over."

Curious, Dave spun the box in his hands. Indeed, APARTMENT 2B was printed on the bottom, opposite to the This End Up arrow. Which was strange—if it was intended to be a delivery address, wouldn’t it be on the top…? And the delivery woman was specifically citing 2C as its destination…

"I really think this was intended for you," he insisted. "I was here this morning when it was delivered, and… um. Can I come in and we can sort this out? Maybe open it up, see if it’s something you ordered? Feels a little weird to be having this discussion through two inches of doorway…"

"In?" she repeated, as if the word could be misinterpreted. "You want to come in? In here?"

"Um, sure. If it’s not a bother. I mean, us being neighbors and all, you can trust me. Not that proximity implies trust, I just mean… I’m… not entirely sure what I mean. Look, I’ll just leave this here, and—"

"I’ll need to tidy up first," she said. "Wait right here. Right here."

And the door closed.

So, Dave waited right there. Box in hand, its light contents sifting about a bit as she shifted weight from foot to foot.

And waited.

Five minutes later the door opened again, and this time managed more than a crack’s width. Not that this helped Dave to see what lurked within; the lighting was terrible, even moreso than the poorly lit hallway of the Plaza Arms.

Honestly, he could’ve passed the box over and headed back to his safe little apartment. That would be the sensible thing to do. Find some way to kill a few hours, go to bed, wake up and wait for the furniture, watch some movies, watch some more movies, wait until his suspension was up, go back to his job, try to talk a few more people through their life breaking down around them, count the days, get on with it, keep going, and eventually die.

Instead he walked into her apartment.

---

If Dave’s apartment was an underfurnished craphole, this place was an underfurnished craphole with a side order of creeping willies.

She’d gone with the default lamps and furniture, the same minimalist set Dave had started out with. And apparently hadn’t branched out much from there; if anything she hadn’t changed the bulbs long after they blew. Instead, the place was lit entirely by the glow of various CRTs and LCDs and LEDs.

That was the first thing he noticed, because the only way not to notice it would be to look at it from space. A bank of television sets, of every make and model… ancient tubes with cranky turn-dials, modern high-def sets, big box department store special junkers, and more. They’d been stacked in a roughly pyramid-like shape, using piles and piles of DVRs and VCRs as base bricks for the Aztec temple of video sacrifice. Each one blazed away with light… most turned to the white noise between channels, others showing random TV shows. To add to the weirdness factor, all of them were muted. Silent flickering pictures and flowing snow, begging soundlessly for attention.

On the opposite side of the room, on the standard issue desk where Dave kept his pile of random things he had no other place for, she’d placed a wide array of computing hardware. Like the pile of televisions, it was a mish-mash of all things computer-y from across the generations… two LCD monitors, one giant beige-framed tube monitor, two desktop towers with blinking lights whirring away below. A single keyboard, at least… although it was covered in a tea cozy with a stained daisy embroidered on it, to ensure no portion of the arrangement escaped Strangeville.

It was in the dual glow of video wall and computer pile that he saw her properly for the first time.

A twentysomething, much like him. Baggy clothes, pajamas likely, telecommuting style; some oversized high school t-shirt ("DISTRICT 37 PHS" with some manner of snarling cat head) and baggy sweat pants of generic make. Dave had existed in a similar state long enough to recognize it when he saw it… clothes you wore when you didn’t really care to reach the sophistication level of buttons or zippers, and didn’t expect you’d need to be part of society anytime soon.

An asymmetric bob of blonde hair—pale enough to be damn near white—swayed as she moved to gather up some empty pizza boxes from in front of the TV, clearing a path for him.

"I couldn’t completely tidy up," she explained, setting the boxes on top of other, similar boxes. "Wasn’t expecting guests. I don’t get many guests. Not many at all. Sorry. Have a seat, mister…?"

"Smith. Uh, Dave Smith," he greeted, in the traditionally awkward manner of his people. The couch was exactly where it was in his own apartment, so he could find it despite the flickering radioactive lighting. "I’ve been living here since I arrived, but I don’t think I’ve met you yet, miss…?"

"Jones. Kelsey Jones. —sounds like Bond, doesn’t it. Bond, James Bond. Why do people do that? —don’t really get out much. I do all my work here, so I don’t really get out much and… and…"

As if she hadn’t been living here untold lengths of time, Kelsey’s introduction trailed off while while looking around for a seat Dave knew didn’t exist. The apartment mirrored his own, and that meant one couch and one couch only. For lack of a better option, she had a seat next to him… although a respectable distance away.

No coffee table—which is why Dave had bought one today—but he could set the box between them, on the middle seat of the couch. A good, polite barrier.

"Anyway, I saw the delivery person this morning, and she was asking for Apartment 2C," he continued from earlier. "I think your door number got damaged, or something. You should probably call the super about that…"

"Oh, I tore it off. It’s like widebanding your true name, if you let people find you that easily," Kelsey explained. "Better to make them work a bit for it. Then the only people who find you are really keen on finding you. Works great. Highly recommended. Really a problem when you need food or toilet paper deliveries but it’s worth it, really worth it."

Weirdness is like an invisible line drawn by societal standards. Once you cross it, no comfort can be found, and retreat is highly recommended. Dave was aware, on some primal level, that he had just crossed the Rubicon of weirdness when the girl who stayed inside all day watching a dozen televisions at once admitted to testing the toilet paper delivery man’s mettle.

But unlike most people, Dave’s tolerance for external weirdness was remarkably high when it wasn’t directly impacting his immediate survival. And wasn’t he pondering making new friends…? Playing nice with the girl next door meant knowing someone in this city OTHER than your indifferent coworkers, the people you’re trying to save who end up hating you, and the preteen Sideways explorer whose father would put three rounds rapid in your head if you looked at her funny. It wasn’t a huge step up, but a step up was a step up.

Of course, if he was going to stay and play, that meant a topic of conversation. And Dave was not the most socially graceful of social animals.

Fortunately he’d carried a topic starter in through the door with him.

"What do you think’s in the box?" he pondered. "Had you ordered anything recently…? I know deliveries are big business here, so people can stay home all day…"

"Here? Where? Here? Oh. Newbie," Kelsey recognized. "From that other city. The big one."

"Er, from Earth, yes…"

"I track all my orders in a spreadsheet. I use a spreadsheet. It says I don’t have anything pending which would arrive in a box of this shape," Kelsey reasoned. "And it did have your address on the bottom. That’s really weird. What’s in the box? Wait, you don’t know. Okay. Let’s open it. It might be a bomb. You should open it."

Putting his faith in the likelihood of not being exploded, Dave went ahead and opened it.

Button-eyes stared back at him from the depths of the box.

"It’s a teddy bear," he confirmed, pulling the bear free from the box. "Someone sent you a teddy bear."

"Sent you a teddy bear," she redirected. "I didn’t order a bear. I… I bear-ly ordered… I… no, I can’t think of a pun. Sorry. It’s yours, anyway. I don’t want it. Sorry."

Briefly, Dave considered arguing the point.

But… there was something oddly comforting about the plush toy. It was clearly made with love; even in the dim of the television screens he could tell it was a hand-made craft rather than a mass-manufactured product. It was staring at him with those buttons, which was definitely odd given dolls can’t actually stare since they are not alive. A good stare, though. Like it was agreeing with him about something they hadn’t discussed yet…

He tucked the bear back into its box, accepting it wordlessly. Probably for the best; Kelsey didn’t seem comfortable with the thing, from the way she pressed back up against the opposite arm of her couch, away from it. Instead, she looked to the half-dozen shows airing on the dozen televisions, doing a cursory check of them. Something to occupy her eyes.

"Sooo… watch a lot of television?" Dave asked.

"What? Oh, no, not really," Kelsey explained. "I collect signals. You know."

"Pardon?"

"Ess-Ess. Sideways Signals. The shows between the shows," Kelsey said. "Patterns in the chaos. Things that don’t exist. …huh. You’re really new, aren’t you? Nobody told you about things like Channel 23?"

"I didn’t have a TV until… tomorrow," Dave replied. "I mean, I have one coming tomorrow. And I guess I watched some TV back in Orientation, but there was this thing where I fell asleep with the set on and… yeah. I haven’t seen much TV. What’s Channel 23?"

She paused, before explaining. Like a video on pause, every muscle frozen. Unsure if she should continue.

In the end… she pulled her legs up, hugging her knees as she sat on her spot of the couch, looking into the flickering static of the video collection jars she’d set up across the room. And told her story.

"Nobody knows. Nobody can find it," she said. "Every single cable provider and all the over-the-air pirate broadcasts, none of them have a Channel 23. You can’t broadcast on it even if you try, and if you push ‘up’ on your remote on 22 you land on 24. It’s the holy grail of people like me who poke around in the signals, trying to find the weird things the Department of Safety doesn’t like us looking for… can’t put a yellow-black around the intangible, but if they could…"

Briefly, her eyes went to the stack of video screens… flicking at each image, looking for something. Pondering the static and the patterns that may or may not exist within.

"I hack cable boxes and inaccessible websites with impossible IP spaces trying to find things like Channel 23," she spoke. "Everybody’s got their own theory. Personally, I think it’s just a matter of going at it from another angle, maybe from another frequency or amplitude or time slot or outlet or… or… something. Some way through the chaos, working with it to understand it. So. That’s the sort of thing I do. I collect Sideways Signals. I know it’s dangerous, I know it scares people. Sorry for being creepy."

"So the broadcast space of the City has its own Sideways, just like the physical space?" Dave wondered. "Huh. I hadn’t thought of that. How’s that work, exactly? And the City’s Internet is like that too?"

"It’s just that I happen to believe that wait what?"

Kelsey leaned forward, peering at Dave from a funny angle. Her hair did indeed look positively white in the glow of unknowable channel spectrums; white and flickery, from the pulsing static and snow being broadcast onto it.

"I just apologized for being creepy," she pointed out.

"I’m not creeped out," he pointed out. "This is my not-creeped-out face."

"But you should be. Everybody is. It’s one of the reasons I don’t have guests. Nobody normal likes poking around with Sideways Signals. You shouldn’t like sitting around talking to someone crazy enough to do that."

She was right, of course. A sensible person would be politely backing out of the room by now. From Orientation to the grave, the city taught you to fear and respect the many ways the City of Angles could kill you. Rule number one of survival was not to go poking at forbidden places with sticks, be they virtual or otherwise. And the pervasive doom atmosphere was indeed soaking into the fabric of Dave’s anxiety…

But that was different from this. This was not that. This was a person. A person very much like Penelope, for that matter… someone with faith and hope in something, and willing to chase it while others were content to let it slip by. Which was more than Dave could manage for himself, some days. Kelsey Jones wasn’t something to fear at all.

"I’m not creeped out," he summarized, for lack of better articulation. "Anyway, Danger is my middle name. Legally, I mean, my mother thought it’d be a great joke. Dave Danger Smith. And I’m okay with this."

Clearly, Kelsey wasn’t expecting him to be okay with it. It was a confession, not a talking point—she was admitting to sins. But even that didn’t explain the wide-eyed reaction Dave was getting…

She stood up from the couch suddenly.

"I need to go wash my hair," she declared. "Excuse me."

The bathroom door closed behind her.

Dave drummed his fingers on the bear-bearing box, not quite sure what to make of this development. The sound of running water suggested she had indeed spontaneously decided it was time for a shower.

Eventually he got up, deciding to bow out for now. Clearly she didn’t want the delivery, which was his original reason behind coming here. No sense in overstaying the welcome.

He did, however, fetch the stack of empty pizza boxes on his way out. He’d just drop them off at the dumpster outside the building for her. It was only polite… and about the only helpful thing he could think to do.

---

So, I met a girl today. My next door neighbor.

Like you, she’s an explorer — did you know that there’s a "Sideways" for TV and the Internet? Maybe radio, too. Well, of course you knew, you know everything there is to know about the Sideways. Anyway, that’s her turf. She explores the "Sideways Signals." And "Sideways Sites," I guess, to keep the alliteration going. I bet that’s what they’re called.

It’s quite a fascinating idea. After excusing myself from my visit, I spent the evening researching it. But there’s not much out there about it, other than dozens of Department of Safety articles discouraging unauthorized cable boxes and such. I found some forums devoted to them, but they’re all password protected.

I’ve been exploring wikis and websites in general for weeks now, burning the boring hours, so I can learn more about this world. Particularly cubism. Our encounter with that Picasso feels like ages ago, but it’s stuck in my mind ever since. I knew how to help those two Salvagers thanks to reading a "home remedy" for cubism online. At least, I hope I was able to help them. My theory is that the more I know about this place, the more I can understand it, the less I’ll feel awful about being here. That’s my hope, anyway.

Didn’t get a reply to my last email, guessing you’re busy as heck. I hope everything’s okay with you. I won’t be able to get lunch tomorrow anyway, I’m going to be waiting around for my new furniture to arrive. Well. I say tomorrow, but really it’s today, since this is after midnight. You know. I’ll go to bed after I hit Send.

Still hanging in here. Still making do.

-Dave

---

Still calling out. Still ignoring it.

He wasn’t having a nightmare. Dave didn’t have nightmares anymore, none he could remember. So hearing something that sounded a lot like Penelope’s voice, calling out in distress across a great distance? Couldn’t be hearing that in his sleep. It would be, by definition, distressing. And he was not having a nightmare. Wasn’t having any dreams at all largely. Still ignoring it.

Not safe there. Not with him and his calm assurances. Not with her and her smiling patron of temptation. Not even safe with us and our loud and lucid dreamers.

Very distressing words, which he chose not to hear. Well, he thought he chose not to hear them, but really the choice was made for him. Same effect, in the end. Words landing on deaf dream ears.

Guard the design. Guard yourself. Look to the bear. Let it guard you, and hopefully guide her. That was the best I could do.

And that was just nonsensical, which made it twice as easy to ignore. His pumping blood assured him all was well and he was not in fact in the throes of terror, being swallowed whole. Nobody was. Everything was fine.

I can’t reach out any further to help you. If we do, she’ll see you. May see you already. I don’t know. I can’t help. I’m sorry. Be well. Be safe. You’re almost done.

Well, that might be a bit of a relief, if Dave knew what he was almost done doing. He didn’t, so it wasn’t a relief. Besides, he wasn’t hearing it anyway. Minding his own somnambulist business. Keeping his head below the pillow. The rush of fluids reassured him. Pumping. Pulsing. Dragging. Thumping. Talking.

What?

Cracking an eye open from his non-nightmare, he slowly focused on the alarm clock. And the stuffed animal he’d dumped on his bedside table behind it.

7:47am. He’d overslept, because the little switch on the top which had four positions and he’d moved it to the third instead of the fourth and he didn’t have the volume up so the sounds of Zack and the Wheezer’s Morning Zoo Crew did not wake him. The joys of owning a clock radio.

The sound that actually woke him was people in his apartment, moving heavy furniture. Normal people would immediately fear for their safety, assuming someone had broken in and was robbing the place. Dave, despite the sluggish nature of his morning tardiness, guessed correctly on the first shot that the nice people from the furniture outlet had arrived twenty-three minutes ago. They did say they’d be around between 7am and 11pm, after all.

Uncaring about his pajama’d state, Dave emerged from his tiny bedroom into his tiny apartment, where very large men were being directed by a girl with green hair.

"No, two more feet to the left," she ordered, pointing. "Two to the left and eight inches away from the wall. Two and eight, feet and inches. I need enough space to get back there and make the hookups—"

"Kelsey…?"

It took Dave some time to recognize her. For starters, she wasn’t wearing slacker-casual anymore—she’d changed into a comfy-looking T-shirt and longsleever combo, with some Internet meme printed on it. Baggy sweat pants were replaced with cargo pants, loaded with as many holes as there were pockets, bursting with tiny tools and measuring tapes and tightly wound bundles of cable.

But most notably, her nearly-white hair had been dyed a deep green. Apparently she did indeed have to wash her hair last night, as announced.

"Oh, I saw them bringing your stuff, so I figured I’d help because I know how to hook all of this up and because the stuff you bought is terrible," she explained quickly, while two burly men adjusted his entertainment center to her liking. "They sold you gold-tipped HDMI cables. I really hope you didn’t pay much for those. I have better ones, and a spare hacked cable box so you don’t need to pay for a sub, and I’m going to get you some WiFi going, can your phone do N?"

"Kelsey?" he repeated, because he was in no mental shape to make further mental leaps.

She glanced up at her own tattered green bangs, hanging asymmetrically.

"Uh, I thought it was time for a change," she said. "Changing for a time. I bought the dye weeks ago but never had a good reason to… anyway, I’m going to set everything up and—no, no, the couch needs to move too, it has to be centered, it’s very important to be centered for the best viewing angle, look just move it this way, centered, this way…"

Deciding that the girl next door had his glorious television experience well in hand, Dave fixed himself a bowl of corn flakes, then went and brushed his teeth and stuff.

Technically speaking he was undergoing a home invasion (how exactly did Kelsey get them in through his front door without a key?) but it was more of a breaking-and-decorating sort of offense, which wasn’t offensive at all. Best to let them have at it rather than get involved at this point. He might get a sofa dropped on his foot if he intervened.

This strategy paid off, because by the time Dave was fed and presentable, the nice men from the store were gone and Kelsey was relaxing on his couch doing color calibrations on his shiny new television set. Even had her feet up on his shiny new coffee table.

Dave had a seat next to her before realizing he was a bit too close. So, he coughed politely and pressed up against the left armrest a bit.

"Sooo… you’re all set," she said, holding out the remote like an offered blade, hilt-first and upside down. "I programmed everything into your new universal remote. It’s not yours, it’s mine, but you can have it, I already have twelve and this one’s not the best one. It’s good enough. You can’t get Channel 23 but you can get Channel 783 which some people say can show you your heart’s desire if you watch at the stroke of midnight on a leap day, and you can get Channel Ninety-Q, which you can’t actually get to because this only has numeric inputs but if you want I can manually tune it there, would you like that?"

"I… do not know?" Dave offered. "Would I like to watch Channel Ninety-Q?"

"Oh, absolutely not, they say watching for more than three minutes makes you blind."

"I don’t think I’d like that, then."

"Suit yourself. So… who are you?"

Initially it struck Dave as a bit of an odd question. Sort of like if the brave adventurer just swung across the ballroom on a chandelier, striking down the rogue who was about to kidnap the princess, and then as the music swelled and the camera angle got super dramatic, he asked her ‘Who’re you again?’.

But on his second thought… it wasn’t odd at all. Kelsey had talked his ear off the night before about who SHE was, what she did, why he should steer clear of her completely. And then she left to wash (and dye) her hair, granted, but it was still a lopsided balance of power in this neighborly meet and greet.

So, Dave told her who he was.

He explained how he used to be a graphic designer, because two strangers always started off on the career description foot. Of course, that led to explaining how he was apparently living in the Sideways for some time without realizing it, which interested her greatly. He spent more time describing his dramatic rescue by the adventuring odd couple than he did on anything else.

But, eventually he got to his recent career as a FART, and even talked for a bit about his frustration with trying to do anything of any worth whatsoever in his current position. Which was, not coincidentally, why he wasn’t rushing out the door to get to his day job today, and had time to sit here and chat with his new neighbor…

"I don’t think I’m really helping anyone. Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. I kind of want to help, since I never bothered going out of my way for anyone but myself for so long… so worried about my worries. And all I got for it was a lousy job, a contractual obligation company logo I haven’t finished yet, and a one-way ticket to the City. There’s… I don’t know. There just has to be more to life than that."

It was more than Dave would have ever told anyone, long ago. He didn’t even open up that much to his father. Granted that was due to there already being considerable weight on his dad’s shoulders, and Dave not wanting to add to that… but this felt different. Both Dave and Kelsey were unspoken self-acknowledged social disasters. Perhaps the usual barriers cancelled each other out.

Still, it was hard to tell if he was talking her ear off and/or making her uncomfortable. She had a perpetual aura of being backed into a corner… it was more plain by light of day in an apartment with proper lamps, but it echoed what Dave had felt from her the previous night. Always walking on a wire. If you plucked at her, she might twang. Funny. Dave often thought of himself being the same way, especially during the worst years…

When he decided to bring his overly honest introduction to a stuttering halt, however, she returned the salvo in full.

She started by apologizing for taking so long to let him in the door yesterday—that the only people who ever came knocking were deliverymen.

"Haven’t actually been outside in… in… I think it’s been a long time," she decided on. "No need. Great delivery services, just great. Nowhere really I need to go. Even when I sell some of my finds, people come to my door to pick them up, or I upload them online. Everything I need’s right there. Don’t need anything more. Um. This is the first time I’ve visited someone else in… in… it’s been a long time, I think."

Kelsey also explained that she was a "Digital Salvager," finding and selling data from the darker corners of the broadcast spectrum. Plenty of websites got echoed into the City of Angles, in whole or in part, but accessing them was tricky as tricks got. Plenty of TV shows were floating around as well, if you knew how to tune into them, and how to record them. They were elusive.

"I think my best finds were the lost episodes of Lost," she concluded. "Found them in an impossible FTP archive. Bits and pieces that didn’t make it into the show, or… maybe they were never actually filmed at all. Never actually made, only dreamed up by the City itself. Either way I’ve got five DVDs full of ’em. They don’t make any sense, though… even when you try to piece it together, it’s just… random stuff. Numbers. Bears. Sometimes alternate takes of a shot used in the series. Sometimes long-held still shots of scenery or an actor just staring in the camera and screaming. Um. Is that weird?"

"I suppose? I’ve never watched Lost. Might be completely normal," Dave said. "Why, do you think it’s weird?"

"No, not really. But I’m a bad meter stick for that sort of thing. I do know common wisdom says I’m not supposed to watch them, that those sorts of signals supposedly cause cubism, but…"

It was the first danger-tone sounded that morning. Kelsey had warned that her activities were considered creepy and questionable before, and Dave hadn’t run away, which must’ve impressed her… but it did worry him, on some level. Worry for her.

"Is it actually safe?" he asked. "Watching Sideways Signals, I mean. Why chase after them like this if they’re dangerous?"

"Because I’m not afraid of them. Because I want to understand them. Understand and not be afraid of them," she rearranged. "It’s like white noise. Static. Snow. Snow crash. There’s no pattern to it, but sometimes there is. If you stare at it hard enough… um. Anyway. Actually safe? Well. Depends on who you ask. Who you ask matters greatly."

"I’m guessing the Department of Safety says no."

"Yeah. No. I mean, yeah, they say no. City officials say it’s horrible and awful and will drive you insane. But I say that… that… chaos isn’t evil. It’s just chaos. You don’t need to be scared of it. You just need to be good at riding it out. I’m good at riding it out. I do it all the time. I’m not afraid of monsters under the bed. She’s not all that awful. Do you want to watch Revenge of the Jedi?"

"Err, Return of the Jedi? Revenge of the Sith?"

And from one of her many pockets, Kelsey Jones produced a USB drive.

"Revenge of the Jedi," she repeated. "The one they didn’t film. Supposedly. It’s mythic. They say a Salvager gang found the reels in the Sideways back in the eighties, it’s been format-shifted and passed around online ever since. Around and around and around. Studied, verified, unverified, disproven, proven, buried, uncovered. Haven’t lived until you’ve seen an Ewok eat someone alive. …it’s kinda sketchy, though, and you are a government official, soo…"

"I haven’t gotten past Trainee. And nobody’s told me not to watch movies yet," Dave decided. "I’ll get us some popcorn."

And so the second day of Dave’s forced vacation was spent on the couch next to a cute girl, watching a movie.

It was the first time he got to enjoy Ewok cannibalism and second-reel surrealist Stormtrooper pie fights… and also the first time he’d felt truly comfortable since coming here. True, the film was a pile of headscratching weirdness that would unsettle most people, cobbled together by fans from scraps, but that was fine. It was practically normal, in comparison to everything else in his life. Just two people enjoying time together, letting the hours go by, sharing laughs and microwave popcorn. Hard to get more normal than that.

---

After the Jedi had been sufficiently Revenganced, Kelsey suggested they rewatch the third Matrix movie. ("Highly underrated. It really speaks to me.") She introduced Dave to levels of film analysis he’d never considered, and possibly were never considered by the filmmakers themselves. Allegories and metaphors about the nature of existence that justified every flop moment in the trilogy, if they were valid. By the end, he’d come around to her perspective.

He picked the next movie, opting for a romantic comedy about a character whose life (which may or may not have been fictional) was being written by a struggling shut-in author. The selection wasn’t made with much thought; it was just one of the four movies he’d picked up at the big-box department store where he got the television. Kelsey was oddly quiet as she watched that one. And by that point, when Dave returned from the bathroom and did not sit at the distant end of the couch, neither of them noticed.

When the movie finished, they immediately went on to some episodes of an animated series Kelsey liked. And a few web videos Dave had found recently which made him laugh. (Kelsey wasn’t the laugh-out-loud type, and Dave only half-laughed, but she insisted she found the cats to be funny.) And Kelsey wanted to watch something called "Candle Cove" but all that showed on the DVD was white noise, so they moved on.

And on, and on, and on. Pizza delivery. Movies. More popcorn. Heartburn. Antacids.

Eventually, it was one in the morning, and Dave rose from empty sleep to see his screen spraying gently quiet static. It had dropped back to the cable TV when the movie they were watching ran dry.

They’d passed out on the couch. Quite embarrassing, especially since now he had a sleeping body slumped against his shoulder. Any movement would wake her, and put him in a very awkward position. Well. More awkward than this.

So, for the time being, he stayed perfectly still.

This was not how he expected to be spending his mandatory vacation. Okay, maybe he was expecting to watch videos and waste time, but… this wasn’t time-wasting, not really. Felt more like time well spent. And he wasn’t doing it sitting all by himself on the middle of a too-large couch. Doubly unexpected.

Triply unexpected… it was the witching hour in the middle of his not-home in the middle of the City of Angles and despite the still of night, his pulse wasn’t racing upward when he focused on that. No panic. Not even the self-aware panic that comes from wondering if you’re about to have a panic attack and as a result causing a panic attack. There just wasn’t… anything. Dave had found the calm little center of his new world.

For a minute or two, he embraced that calm. Let it refresh him, like his boss wanted it to. Come back to work refreshed was his goal, and maybe not a goal beyond reach…

But in the end, he had to get up. It wouldn’t do to snooze the night away like this, for either of them.

First he had to extract himself without waking her, so she didn’t wake up with a strange man all over her. No easy task, but he managed it through extreme patience and ninja-like stealth skills borne of not wanting to cause a scene.

Next, he had to wake her carefully. Maybe a gentle-nudge…

Kelsey did not judo-flip him across the room on waking. That would just be silly. But she did awake startled, as if someone had jabbed her with something. Not used to having someone else touch her, maybe. So, Dave backed off quickly (careful not to trip over the new coffee table).

"It’s okay, it’s okay—we kinda passed out," he explained quickly. "It’s really late. Past one."

"Really…? Really. I fell asleep?" she asked. "Usually I only sleep with my white noise generator going…"

"Yeah, well… we’ve got one of those," he noted, gesturing to the TV behind him, over the shoulder. "I guess we should really call it a day. Hope you didn’t have anything important to do, I didn’t realize how late it was getting. Not sure where the time went, honestly."

And… the girl smiled. Which was a rare event. Even during the romantic comedy earlier she hadn’t smiled much.

"It’s okay, okay, okay," she insisted. "I liked—"

Her expression snapped back to nervousness so fast it was like the video of life skipped a few frames. If anything, she looked more spooked than Dave had ever seen her, even when he woke her moments ago. Eyes fixed at a point just over Dave’s shoulder, mouth open…

Curious, Dave turned to look. Just the television, blasting the static between channels. Nothing out of the ordinary.

"I have to go," Kelsey announced—on her feet, again faster than expected, like she went from sitting to standing without any of the transition one makes through physical space between. "Goodbye."

"Huh? I mean, okay, it’s late, I get it," Dave said, glancing back to the unthreatening television, confused. "But is there something wr…?"

He would’ve finished the word he started speaking, but when he glanced back, she was gone. Not just out the door, because the door did not in fact open or close. He thought he might’ve noticed if his door opened or closed. Just… gone.

While Dave had been living in the City of Angles for some time now and was starting to get the hang of how strange things were here, he was sadly not naturalized enough to think of anything other than: It’s one in the morning, my eyes must be playing tricks on me because I’m so tired. Nothing out of the ordinary going on here.

And so he retired to his bed, to enjoy another nightmare-free evening’s rest, thinking nothing more of it. The teddy bear by his bedside had fallen down the crack between the end table and the wall, but he didn’t think much of that, either. Tomorrow would be another day of lovely vacation—alarm clock, breakfast, washing up, and the day free. Maybe he’d check in on Kelsey then. It’d be the neighborly thing to do.

The walls were thin enough between their apartments for sound to leak through. Dave knew even before he knew who she was that she was a TV aficionado, based on the muffled chatter and game show music and sound effects that floated his way now and then. And if he hadn’t been asleep, maybe he would’ve heard sounds of a heated one-way conversation, followed by soft crying. But probably not.

---

Dave’s teeth were brushed with a bit more jaunt than usual. He used a jaunty angle, far more flippant than the usual straight up-and-down, side-to-side motions he used. Curious. He rolled with it, enjoying the mundane details of life rather than simply burning through them as efficiently as possible. His morning toast was a buttery delight, his morning coffee a dark rich roast despite being the cheapest blend he could afford.

He even put on a rather nice shirt. Not a formal shirt, mind you, but not the generic white T-shirts that doubled as both daywear and eveningwear. This was a parting gift to him from Hollister Avenue, a commemorative concert shirt for a band Dave liked back on Earth. A rare find in the City! Hollister had declared, assuming Dave would be a bit more thrilled with the garment than he actually was. But today? Today Dave could find some thrill in it.

It was in this shirt that Dave came calling on the Girl Next Door. Much like the first time he came calling on her, she took her sweet time answering the door. Which was fine; he could stand there poking through his email, smartphone in hand, waiting for her to tidy up or whatever it is she was doing.

After ten minutes, he decided maybe it would be advisable to knock again.

Of course, Dave hadn’t thought to get her phone number or her email address or any instant messenger contacts. Probably the most connected person he’d known in this city, even moreso than Penelope who was more of an outdoors-indoorsy type, and he didn’t think to get any connections going. Which, on thinking about it, made him feel rather silly.

VERY silly, actually. What was going on here? There was practically a cheerful orchestral accompaniment behind him today, and why? Because he met a nice girl, someone he spent a few hours with, most of which was spent staring at a 16×9 video screen? They were just neighbors. If he wanted to borrow a cup of sugar or loan her the lawnmower, fine, but this assumption that he could just skip over next door in the middle of the morning and… do what? Why was he even here?

There. There’s the anxiety. Needless worry over nothing at all. Because it was nothing at all. They had nothing, and it was silly to think otherwise—no. The worry was nothing. He didn’t have to worry. He didn’t have to think about this, much less overthink it. Just go with it, like he did yesterday, and whatever happens happens…

One way or another, he’d have an answer. Because her door opened. Just a crack, just like the first time, but—

"I can’t see you again," Kelsey mumbled, without even looking at him. "I’m sorry."

And closed, before he could say another word.

Leaving Dave to walk slowly back to his apartment, close his door, lock his door, lean against his door, and realize just how empty the rest of this day was going to be. What a silly thing to bank his hopes on. Silly indeed.

At least now, he had television. That would burn away the pesky hours of his life.

He sat on the couch, and turned on the idiot box, and turned it off again after night fell and it was time for sleep and time to wake up and time to start it all over again.

---

I think I’ve been dumped before I even knew I was in a relationship.

I’ve only had one "relationship" in my life, back in high school. I was always so focused on my grades and my problems and my family and trying not to worry about the looks people gave me because I knew that was all in my head that I never even considered the possibility of dating. Fortunately, one other girl in school had the same problem.

She was a nerd and an outcast and a geek and never, ever talked. Except the one time she walked up to me and asked me to the prom. Because nobody had asked her and I never considered the possibility of asking anyone. The entire experience was about as awkward and unpleasant as you’d expect, and thankfully quite short. She got married soon after high school and became a mother of five, so I guess she found happiness. And me, well, you know where I ended up.

Actually, this is an insane thing to be talking about with a girl your age. I mean, you probably still think boys have cooties. That’s still a thing, right? Cooties? Or are kids these days sexually active really early? I don’t know. I don’t even know how it worked when I was a kid. By the way don’t let your dad read these emails or he will probably shoot me in the head.

Been watching a lot of TV lately, and watching for your email. I guess you’re really super duper busy. I’ll just stop emailing now, this is getting too weird. I don’t blame you, though. I’m the one spamming your inbox because I don’t have anyone else to reach out to. My coworkers are my coworkers, Hollister’s so busy with his job and his new girl, and there’s just nobody else.

In a few days I’ll be back at work and this whole mess will be behind me. Everything will make sense again. I did fine alone back on Earth and I’ll do fine alone here, once I learn to live with it.

-Dave

---

Dad doesn’t want me emailing you, because we’re involved in something very, very dangerous. He says it’s dangerous to involve you in any way. So, I’m sneaking this email out from a new account he doesn’t know about because I got some weird blips and I think someone’s monitoring my main account — probably dad, that jerk. Honestly, dads, you know? Anyway I gotta be quick so can’t write long.

I don’t know if you’ve been mailing me, I’m not risking opening my inbox. I’d like to think things are going well for you, now that you have the job you wanted as a kid! But stay safe. And avoid the Department of Safety. They’re super bad news. I’ll be able to explain later. Have hope, Dave. Always have hope.

-Penelope

---

Four more days until the job and normalcy resume.

He’d spent an entire day just sitting there cruising around the channels. Didn’t know which ones were the mystery channels unlocked by Kelsey, and which ones were normal. All the shows were a little off-kilter, much like the ones he watched back during Orientation. None of them gave him much comfort. Watching game shows and talk shows and car shows and cooking shows and show shows could certainly drain away a day, though.

Three more days until the job and normalcy resume.

Dave decided it was time to get off his butt and do something fun, rather than mope around his apartment sporadically taking his Alprazolam whenever he was having trouble breathing or thinking. That was absolutely not healthy, stewing in his own anxiety and depression. It was Old Dave thinking, not New Dave thinking. So, he went out to the movies.

Twenty minutes into the movie and he realized he was instinctively tilting his popcorn bucket a little to the right, as if someone sitting next to him might want any. Except nobody was sitting next to him and he felt incredibly stupid when he realized what he was doing. Despite going to some brainless PG-13 comedy with teased boobs and plenty of poop jokes, he didn’t really find a laugh.

To make matters worse… on his way out the door, he overheard someone arguing over the price of a large soda at the concession stand. Loudly. Angrily. Both in front of and behind the counter, there was palpable tension. And then a flicker, a glitch, and running and screaming and Dave was out the door ASAP. He didn’t stick around for the inevitable Department of Safety quarantine.

Two more days until the job and normalcy resume.

If pop culture was no comfort, maybe high culture was the key. Dave was ostensibly a visual artist; he’d studied art history in enough classes to know his Monets from his Morisots. In his hours of meandering online research he’d come across a website for an art museum, right here in the city. Surely quiet contemplation of paintings would bring some solace to his soul.

It didn’t, of course. Not because it was as hectic and tense a scene as the theater—it was a quiet and tense scene. Few people were out today to gaze in wonder at the collected works of Earth and the City. The few that were… well, they kept to themselves. Purposefully hugged one side of the hall or another, to avoid coming near each other.

Sometimes Dave would try to catch someone’s glance while standing at a painting, attempting to discuss the color or imagery, but… there was a weirdly hunted look in their eyes. A look he’d been seeing around the City quite a bit lately, actually. Like those two who exploded in an emotional outburst of cubism over something as simple as an overpriced beverage…

The only clue as to what was collectively going on came from someone who grabbed Dave by his jacket, while he was on his way out the museum door.

"Are you dreaming? Are you?!" the panicking man asked.

"Wuh, what?" was the best Dave could manage.

"Nobody’s dreaming. Nobody. I haven’t had a dream in weeks," he hissed, tightening his grip on Dave’s lapels. "I keep sleeping and sleeping and I don’t know if I’m awake or not. You made the sigil, didn’t you? You can end this! She’s waiting for you! You—"

"HEY!"

And the Safety Officer in charge of screening museum entrants chased the man off. Dave took this as his cue to exit, especially before anyone came asking him for details about what just happened.

Avoiding getting stuck in a dragnet around a theater outbreak. Dodging questioning related to a madman at the museum. Avoid the Department of Safety; they’re super bad news, Penelope had said. Dave saw no reason to doubt her, even if there was plenty of reason.

---

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

Probably one of the most overquoted quotes of all time, a vague doom prophecy taken out of context by people who had never actually read… whoever it was that wrote it, Dave mused dryly, since he had no clue either. But the phrase stuck in his head. Repeating, over and over. A mental loop which bounced off the walls of his mind as he bounced off the walls of his empty apartment.

One more day until the job and normalcy resume…

Going out was a mistake. Something was… wrong, in the city. Wrong in here, too. Wrong with Dave, wrong with everything. It couldn’t just be his own innate sense of ominous horror, the pointless anxiety that rises within to compensate for a life uneventful.

This morning, he decided that as entertaining himself wasn’t doing anything, he’d apply his tension constructively. He’d pour his passions into his artwork, such as it was.

He was going to finally finish that damn Lucid Technologies corporate logo. If nothing else came out of this vacation, at least he’d have that.

Nobody was paying him for it, of course. He didn’t have to bother, if not for Officer Gilt suggesting the strange shape might make good masthead art for the First Action Response Team of District 23 Weekly Newsletter. Dave’s hard work would at last have a home, appearing above stories about new babies born and puppies looking for a home and used cars for sale.

He hadn’t been in touch with Lucid in ages, had no proper client instructions to follow. Instead he drew, and redrew, and erased and started over as he felt needed to be done. It wobbled away from where he felt it had to be, then wobbled back, then got blocked for days, then grabbed him by the shoulders when he least expected it…

Today, it was rushing through him. He could feel it like his own heartbeat. He’d jettisoned the latest draft, even stopped using the cheap miniature paint program on his phone. A run to the corner store got him pencil and paper, the only way to properly do this. He would be done with this insane project, this nonsense, this thing, this whatever, this sigil, this who knows who cares get it done get this out of my head so maybe I can finally dream again

Around and around and around and around. Smaller and smaller, towards the centre.

A spiral. That was it. Which was funny, because he’d tried spirals before and they didn’t feel right. The key was to make it a spiral at the core, even if it was also a knot or a series of sharp angular turns or whatever. There had to be a base to it, a centre, or it’d all fall to bits…

Hours ticked away as he precisely sketched each line, scratching it in firmly once he felt it was correct. Didn’t matter that it had long since left the zone of sensible corporate art and entered crazypantsville. For once it was working, this weird thing that had been digging away at the back of his mind since before he even got to the City of Angles. A many-angled path, around and down, down, down into the page—

A muffled scream of terror interrupted him. Followed by the distinct sound of broken glass.

The line jittered and stopped.

He almost, almost, ALMOST ignored it in favor of trying to regain the shape that had finally become clear in his mind. But New Dave was already on his feet and out the door, pencil rolling away to be lost under the sofa, before Old Dave could lose himself in his own problems. After all, he knew who was screaming. And he’d be damned if he ignored a friend in need.

---

This time he had no intention of waiting around for five minutes.

"Kelsey? It’s Dave—what’s wrong?" he called out, through the wooden barrier that had separated them. "I heard you screaming. Are you hurt? Should I call 911? …if you don’t respond I’m just gonna assume I need to call 911. Kelsey? Getting my phone out. Just so you know. Okay?"

Of course, calling the cops on his neighbor if he was in fact overreacting would put him even more firmly in the doghouse. Where he already was. For some reason which had not been specified. Did he do something wrong? Was he too boring? Was— no. No time for perpetual loops of second guessing. If she was in trouble he needed to act, and if she wasn’t, well, better to be wrong than to do nothing.

His finger neatly tapped the 9 before he heard her door start to unlock; a gradual process with five locks to go through.

There was the crack again. He was getting used to seeing her through a tiny gap in the door, by this point. Quickly he looked for any obvious injury… but other than being pale as a sheet and trembling, she seemed okay. At least, not profusely bleeding or anything.

"I… I had a little accident, that’s all," Kelsey Jones mumbled. "It’s fine. Everything’s fine now. Now it’s fine. I’ll be… it’s—"

The door was now open wide and Kelsey was sobbing openly in his arms. This came as a bit of a surprise, given Dave didn’t think he’d even blinked.

"I’m ruined," she said into his chest. "Nothing’s fine. Everything’s not fine now. I broke my computer."

---

The place looked considerably more lived-in than it had a few days ago.

More empty pizza boxes, empty noodle boxes. Scattered books and manuals. TV remotes everywhere. Couch cushions misplaced, for some reason—why would she take her couch apart? Every television was blasting static now, just meaningless snow. Volume up. It’s remarkable Dave could even hear her scream over the background hissing.

And, although he was loathe to actually point it out… she looked terrible. Hadn’t showered in some time. Hadn’t bothered combing her hair. This was someone coming apart at the seams and making no effort at hiding it. But she wasn’t expecting guests today, so why bother hiding it…?

But her computer was in far, far worse shape. And weirder shape.

Keyboards often came in three-segment ergonomic configurations, but this wasn’t ergonomic for anyone except maybe Martians. It was twisted and twisted again, as if partly melted. The keys had been completely shuffled around, no longer a friendly QWERTY. In fact, the Q was completely missing, replaced by a symbol Dave couldn’t recognize…

The monitor had turned into an equilateral triangle. It wasn’t broken or melted—it was triangular, as if it had been manufactured that way in the first place. Fortunately it wasn’t functional, or Dave might not have liked whatever it chose to display.

As for the desktop tower itself… well. The window was broken, and for good reason. She’d defenestrated the CPU. It lay in pieces four stories below, in the alley where the dumpsters were kept.

Dave had seen something like this before, specifically a computer doing something like this before. When a Picasso cut a path of cryptic destruction through his old apartment, it transmogrified his computer into cheese. But if a Picasso had been roaming around Kelsey’s apartment, presumably it would affect more than just a desktop PC…

She recognized the questions he was about to ask before he could ask them.

"It’s from the Sideways," she explained. "Parts of it were, anyway. Memory chips. The keyboard. Ethernet adapter. That’s the only way to access Sideways Sites… you need a computer that’s been tainted with cubism. Otherwise you can’t interface the right way."

"And… the rest of the computer got infected?" he asked.

"Uh… okay, yeah, I think that makes sense," she sort of agreed. "Anyway, it’s ruined. I can’t do my work anymore, Dave. This is how I can live and make my rent—lost episodes of Lost are okay, but the only real money is in the digital salvage I find. I can’t do that without a cubist computer! I can’t I can’t I can’t I don’t know what to do now…"

"Count from ten to one, backwards," he suggested.

"What?"

"Do it. And breathe in and out once between each number."

"Dave, I have a problem, this is my livelihood, it’s gone, and I’m stuck, and—"

"Kelsey… please," Dave spoke, quietly. "Trust me. Ten to one. Backwards."

For encouragement, he took her hand, and squeezed gently.

Ten numbers later, and she wasn’t breathing quite as hard. Wasn’t trembling as much.

"Okay. Now. What you need is another computer, right?" he asked. "Where can you get the kind of computer you need?"

"I already know where to get one," Kelsey replied. More stable and centered than before. "I know what to do. I can reach out to the guy who gave me my old computer."

"Oh, you know a guy? That’s great!"

"No. No, it’s not great," she disagreed. "He’s a ganger. Name’s Greyscale. Runs the Grey Market Gang, one of the Salvager outfits in this district, specializing in electronics. They may deal in geeky stuff, but they’re just as brutal and dangerous as the other gangs. …sorry. Your neighbor works with the guys who take potshots at you FARTs…"

"I’m familiar with the GMGs," Dave acknowledged. "They knocked over a drug store my team was investigating. It’s why I ended up on probation. So… you’re afraid this guy will hurt you? Should I call Officer Gilt?"

"What? No. No no. No. Greyscale likes me. …LIKES me. I traded him a few website dumps for some new cubist computer gear, and now he won’t leave me alone. Keeps sending me creepy emails and texts. I keep trying to ignore them but he keeps hitting on me and has severe boundary issues and I’m terrible at confrontations and I can’t get him to leave me alone and he scares me so much and this is just gonna make it worse but he’s the only guy who can get me the replacement parts and— and. And I’m going to have to ask him for help."

Somewhere deep, Dave’s primitive man-brain stirred uneasily at the notion that he wasn’t the first man in Kelsey’s life. Then the rest of him smacked the man-brain down, hard, in favor of A) not being stupid and B) dealing with the real problem.

"Okay. You don’t have to deal with him at all if you don’t want to. You’ve got other options," he suggested. "I told you about my friends who are Sideways explorers. Surely they’d know where to track down some computer parts. They’re busy with something but I’d be willing to bug them for this. Or there’s Hollister, he’s my mentor-of-sorts. Also busy, also willing to bug him. Seriously. Let me see what I can dig up—"

"Can’t can’t can’t. Bad idea, very bad. I… okay. Um. I need to explain something without explaining anything…"

She was looking around for her couch cushions. Unable to find them, she decided to just sit on the floor. So, Dave sat across from her.

"Remember how I… told you I couldn’t see you again?" Kelsey mumbled, embarrassed to even bring it up.

"Um. Yeah. You know, if you’re not comfortable with me being here—"

"NO! No. Stay. Please stay," she added, to be polite rather than commanding. "It’s just that… how do I explain this… I talked to a friend of mine, the night after we watched all those movies. Well, she called out to me, first. Told me that she doesn’t like you very much. Um. Actually she kinda hates you. And your friends. Because you hurt her friends."

Another new brain sensation for Dave, being hated. He wasn’t used to being hated. Ignored, certainly, but… who exactly had Dave annoyed enough to arouse hatred? He hadn’t wronged anybody that he knew of…

"Please don’t make me explain more than that because I am dealing with a lot of things right now and I don’t want to make my life more complicated than it already is," Kelsey begged. "Just… point is, she doesn’t like you. She doesn’t like you and she doesn’t want you to break my heart. It’s bad enough I’m talking to you again at all, but if you pull your friends in on this problem too, well… it’ll just exacerbate things. So that’s out. Sorry."

"I have honestly no clue who this person is or why she’d be mad, but… Kelsey, look at us. We’re adults, here," Dave said. "We’re twentysomethings, even if it sure doesn’t feel like it some days, and that means we make our own decisions, and—"

"—and I wanted to see you again!" she admitted. "I didn’t want to tell you to go away! And for days I, I did my work and I was frustrated and I felt awful and I kept thinking about you and I know this is completely stupid since we just met and we barely know each other really and I don’t really know what’s going on but—but you’re right. I’m an adult and I can see who I want to see, no matter what my friend says. But but but… okay. Compromise. You. Just you. I gotta leave your friends out of this. Sorry."

He could’ve pushed more. Found out who this mysterious friend was… a particularly abusive friend, from the sounds of it. Found out why it was so important to keep Penelope out of things.

But, Kelsey had asked him not to ask. She was pushed right up to the edge, and Dave could see it. Too many things collapsing around her at once. He’d been where she was, knew exactly how little of a push it’d take to cascade that collapse. He’d want to know more… later. When Kelsey was out of the woods.

That meant addressing the immediate issue. And nothing else.

"So you have to ask your stalker for computer parts," he said. "I can be your intermediary here, if it helps. A layer of abstraction between you and him may help. I could do the pickup for you, or call this Greyscale guy if you don’t even want to talk to him. Whatever you think will work, whatever will make this happen without making a mess of it."

Kelsey shook her head. Slight snap to it, shaking too fast. "Won’t listen to you. Not at all. Only works with people he knows. …I gotta be the one who calls him. Maybe you can do the pickup, or come with me to get the stuff, I don’t know, but I gotta be the one to reach out. …stay here? While I make the call. Please…?"

This was the real job, wasn’t it? The one he was actually hoping for.

Help people out. Help people like himself. People stuck in the tangle of their life, trapped in a maze of problems both real and imaginary, unable to sort out one from the other. Help them, and symbolically help himself. Help sort out the world around him in the process.

I keep going because I’m hoping in the end, it’ll all sort itself out. It’ll all make sense and things will be okay.

The depths of Kelsey’s life-maze ran weirder than Dave could’ve imagined, and he’d already imagined them to be pretty weird. But he wouldn’t shy away from it, wouldn’t run in the face of that weirdness. Because that was Dave’s one superpower—he kept his head while everybody else lost theirs. For all his lack of skill on every other front, he had that going for him. And now, for her.

"Make the call," he agreed. "And I’m here for anything you need me to be here for. We’ll figure out some way through this together."

---

The good news was that Greyscale the Salvager Gang Leader Creepazoid did indeed have cubist computer parts he was willing to give her. For free, even.

The bad news was that he wanted Kelsey to pick them up in person. She tried to argue for sending someone in her stead to grab them (see also: Dave) but of course, he was quite insistent. Dave didn’t hear his end of the very short conversation, as Kelsey mumbled into her phone in pleading tones. He wanted to make negotiation suggestions, or maybe take over as she increasingly grew uncomfortable talking to the guy at all, but before he knew it she was hanging up and heading to the shower to clean up and get ready. Once again, leaving Dave in her living room while she washed her hair.

Dave took this opportunity to head back to his apartment and clean up as well. And try not to let his mind spin away into fruitless predictions of what was to come. Kelsey did tell Greyscale she’d be bringing "a friend," non-specifically, which presumably meant Dave. No way was she going alone—Dave was insistent on that. True, he’d have to go face-to-face with a gang-banger, but that was a day at the office, wasn’t it? He felt oddly calm about impending doom. It beat impending nothing, which is what really ground into him lately.

Twenty minutes later and they were in the back seat of a taxi, headed towards the outlying streets of District 23. Kelsey didn’t feel like talking much, along the way… that hunted look running deeper than ever. Dave didn’t intend to push. More information on what lay in store for them would’ve helped, but he could analyze and think on his feet if need be. That’s how he disarmed the situation at that drug store, after all.

The taxi refused to drop them off at their actual destination; this was outer-city gang turf, bad territory, full of abandoned buildings and quarantined structures. They’d have to walk one block to their destination… a large warehouse.

This much Dave had been expecting. He’d researched the typical structure of Salvager gangs, in his wiki-wanderings. After all, they were the natural enemy of the FARTs, in the same way a lion is the enemy of… of… whatever it is that looks after the gazelles while the lions attack. Hopefully with no FART uniform, Dave would be unrecognizable as their prey. Multiple teams were assigned to District 23 and he’d only had that one direct clash with the GMGs.

Salvagers like the Grey Market Gang looted newly arrived buildings, crawling the Sideways looking for valuables, camping out in territory like this warehouse that had fallen into disrepair. They sold their finds to anyone willing to buy at their prices—it’s funny how much new imports would pay for a taste of home, or what families would pay for packaged food. Shacking up in a warehouse full of pilfered goods, tagged to hell and back as private territory for the gang, was quite standard for them.

Nonstandard was the enthusiastic greeting Dave and Kelsey got when they made it through the metal detectors at the front gate.

Evening had fallen, and the GMGs were apparently were taking the night off from looting and pillaging to have a party. A whole cluster of folks Dave’s age or younger, wearing grey and black. All races, all walks of life mixed in… the City (presumably) didn’t pick and choose who got dumped where, and so the Salvagers reflected the City as a whole.

And all of them gave a big "Hey!" Or "Awright!" or "Whoa, hey!" on seeing Kelsey’s face, despite her efforts to hide behind Dave.

Immediately, Dave spotted Greyscale. It was hard to miss him, what with his position at the core of the party, surrounded by hangers-on and hot girls and booze. Also, he wore a gold pendant laced with diamonds that read "GREY," which helped. If you took off the flashy jacket and the sunglasses-at-night and the jewelry, he’d probably look completely ordinary… a lot like Dave, for that matter. But he had all those things, which marked him as extraordinary. Nobody had a Hello-My-Name-Is tag that cost as much as the GNP of a third world nation unless they had a name you needed to know.

"Lo and behold, the Troublemaker has arrived!" he declared, in a voice far too ordinary to be intimidating. He waved her in with both arms, thrilled with her arrival.

("Troublemaker…?" Dave whispered.)

("Online h-handle," Kelsey replied, in a voice lower than a whisper. "Will explain later.")

"Kelsey Jones, as I live and breathe. It’s like sunshine on a cloudy day when you drop in on me and mine," the gang leader continued….

…before peering over his shades, right at Dave.

"And… who’s this?" he asked. "Thought you were bringing one of your girlfriends, or somethin’…"

"I’m just Dave, her next door neighbor," the next door neighbor declared, to deflect attention—and the current topic—from the trembling girl at his side. "I’m here to help carry the computer stuff she’s picking up."

"Well, damn man, her stuff ain’t THAT heavy," Greyscale spoke, with a smirk. Several of his cronies had a chuckle, on spotting the smirk and realizing it was supposed to be hilarious. "Just some bits and bytes. Kelsey, don’t be shy, girl. Come on over. Have a seat, have a drink. T.G.I.S., you know? Thank god it’s Sunday, because none of us gotta go into the office tomorrow. Bring yo’ neighbor, too! ‘Just Dave’ is welcome in my kingdom. We are nothing if not neighborly."

"I, I, I, I," Kelsey started, unable to get past the first word. Glancing to Dave, desperate…

"We really can’t stay long," he supplied, smoothly. "Sorry to take up your time. We’ll take the computer parts and be out of your hair, no need to bother getting up or anything. Where are they…?"

Greyscale scratched his chin, in mock thought.

"It’s a biiiig warehouse. The Grey Market’s a treasure trove, y’know," he said, nodding to the cavernous, shelf-loaded interior behind him. "I’ll send some boys to dig up her gear. But could take some time. So much to sort through. Come here. Sit down. Have a drink. It’s a party."

The tone, that was something he recognized immediately. It was the same assuring tone that Officer Gilt used in his line of work. Sir, please remain calm.

A glance to his partner in crime.

Kelsey looked ready to run… but wasn’t running. She stood her ground, even if that ground was unsteady. And was in fact the first one to take a step forward, towards the circle of social gangsters. Having a seat on a crate of DVDs, right near an expensive stereo currently pumping out the hot sound of Oblivion’s Advocate, suburban punk rock darlings. Selecting it because it was wide enough for Dave to have a seat next to her.

"I, I, I just need the computer parts," she explained, finding enough courage to speak. "That’s all I need. All I need. I just need—"

Greyscale’s laugh cut her off.

"You’re still doing that thing where you repeat yourself, huh? Man. Forgot how damn cute that was," he said. "Little Troublemaker cutie, sight for sore eyes. Y’know, I missed you, girl. Been some time since you poked your head out of that hole, you know? Holed up in that crummy little place. Dave—it’s Dave, yeah?—you live there too. Still a roach motel or what?"

Dave accepted the focus of conversation. He could soak attention to keep it off her, no problem. "It’s not bad," he said. "I just added a coffee table. It’s looking better now."

More laughter. Furniture apparently being high comedy to the gang.

"The man has a coffee table," Greyscale declared. "That’s a man who’s sorted his life out, right there. Goes to work, comes home, sits at his coffee table, watches the news. A fine, upstanding citizen. Not like us punks and outcasts, right? All we have to do all day is… well, what do we do? Whatever we want, right? Right?"

Concordance from the peanut gallery, as his fellow gang members grinned ear to ear, nodding along.

"We live like kings. Finest things in life, only the finest," Greyscale explained. "I got the best penthouse in this crap slum. Floor-to-ceiling windows, spacious, room enough to party. The best toys, fun times forever. Ought to check it out sometime, Kelsey-girl. I got a cubist computer rig that’ll make your eyes bleed. Not literally, I mean. But makes this sad little gift I’m gettin’ you today look sad. You could be working on so much better if you’d sign on with the GMGs exclusively… might be safer for you, too…"

A brief silence, from the talkative gang leader. The crazed punk music pulsing behind Dave’s ear from a stolen stereo played a weird counterpoint.

It was enough to throw Greyscale off his good cheer. He sat in silence a moment, leaning back in his plush leather armchair of a throne, surveying the two newcomers.

"Whole city’s coming apart, you know," he told them. "You can feel it in the air, can’t you? Folks cubing out left and right. And the name I hear in the streets… Bedlam. Cult of Bedlam, man. People thought it was the end times in the eighties, too, when the economy was garbage and the homeless were sacrificing people to that so-called demon. But even now, in the era of plenty, that doom’s back. I could keep you safe through what’s comin’, little Troublemaker. You like the sound of that?"

If Kelsey liked the sound of that, she wasn’t making a sound in response. The same jacklighted stare, like a deer in front of an oncoming car.

"…it’s all the more reason for the Grey Market to party and live it up while everything burns down around us," Greyscale suggested—with a manic grin. "We are HERE, we are ALIVE, and we will run this city into the GROUND if we feel like it!"

That worked to upswing the mood. Despite actually declaring things to be horrible, his buddies took the "let’s party" aspect and ran with it—fresh beers popped open, affirmative words blurted out, catcalls, the whole nine yards.

But then, Greyscale held up a single hand—silencing them. And leaned forward, towards Dave.

"So you tell me, Dave-who-has-a-coffee-table… you look around, you look at all this," Greyscale spoke, twirling his hands slightly, gesturing to his hoard. "I’ve got everything a man could ever want, ever want at all. I run the street. Nobody screws with me. I live the good life. I take what I want—I always get what I want. And my friends, my crew, they soak in the lap of luxury along with me. I can provide everything the Troublemaker’s ever wanted. Now, why exactly—and I want you to think this over, really think about it—why exactly would Kelsey give all this up to live in a rotting little hovel next to a nobody like you? What makes Just Dave better than Greyscale?"

The crowd attitude swiveled on a dime. From party to sadness to party to anger… all of it now focused on him.

Better me than her, Dave decided. But he also knew better than to push his luck.

Fortunately timing was on his side. A new ganger had joined the party, now—one holding an open-top cardboard box, with the familiar beige plastic of an old computer keyboard sticking out. With the package ready for delivery, it was time to get the hell out.

"I wouldn’t say I’m better than you, Mr. Greyscale, sir," he stated, tacking on terms of respect to supplicate. "I wouldn’t say that at all. You’ve clearly built up a nice business. Family-owned. And it’s really been a pleasure doing business with you—if you don’t mind, I’ll carry that box for her—"

"She chose your world rather than be one of the GMGs," Greyscale pointed out. "You know, I’ve spent considerable time courting her on a personal and professional level to join forces with me and mine. No joy. Seems she’s happy to sit in squalor with YOU all day, isn’t she? I knew there had to be something… or someone."

Rapid breathing, right next to him. Panic setting in with Kelsey. Not good, not good at all… this was turning very, very ugly. Dave got to his feet, slowly, nonthreateningly.

"It’s getting pretty late," he observed. "Kelsey, do you want to leave?"

"yesyesyes," she mumbled.

"Thank you for the hospitality, sir, and the computer gear," Dave suggested. "We don’t want any trouble. We’ll just be going—"

And then he was on the floor.

In no time at all, the Grey Market Gang was putting the boots to Dave. They didn’t even need direct orders from the boss; they were an extension of his will. They knew what to do when someone got in the way of something Greyscale wanted.

I’m being severely beaten, Dave realized, on some distant level. It didn’t worry him at all. He was in utter agony, yes—desperately trying to protect his face with his hands, curling into a ball to hide his ribs, things like that—but it didn’t matter. They were focused on him. Maybe Kelsey could run for it. Maybe they’d get bored eventually and boot both of them to the street. …not likely, true, but he could hope…

"STOP IT, STOP IT!"

On her feet. She hadn’t stood up, she was just on her feet now. And contrary to her earlier terror… anger had given her enough strength to overcome her fear. She still trembled and jittered, but it was mixed with a fierceness Dave hadn’t felt from her before.

As if timed, the punk rock beat had begun to… twist. Strangely, white noise began to flow from the speakers…

With a gesture, Greyscale’s team ceased the beatdown. Dave groaned involuntarily, rolling to look up at Kelsey. Run for it, he wanted to say. But vocalizations were a bit beyond him, with no air in his lungs at the moment.

"Leave him alone leave him alone," Kelsey demanded… in command of the room, now. Someone standing up to Greyscale, an unthinkable thing. "Leave me alone and leave him alone, keep the computer parts, I don’t care, but I don’t want to b-be here and and I can’t I’m scared I can’t—"

Two twitches. Then… solid.

"You’re pathetic, Alphonse Grey," she declared, in a briefly stable voice.

…which wasn’t hers. The pitch was wrong; even with his head messed the hell up, Dave could tell. It was like two overlapping voices, Kelsey’s and another….

"Just because I traded you some data doesn’t mean you have ANY relationship, working or otherwise. I don’t like you. I don’t like your world. My world is digital and beautiful and chaotic and perfect. Yours is seedy and repulsive. I’ll never love you. And that’s how it’s going to be."

Looming large, despite not being large. Greyscale, the average joe gang-banger who inflated himself with necklaces and shades, looking quite small indeed. He had to assert himself. Had to downplay this, had to take charge and redirect the room again…

"Don’t think I like the new attitude you’re copping," he declared. "Not one bit. You know, I first I saw you, saw this cute and sad little thing who deserved a proper patron. Wanted to do right by you, get you out of that apartment and into the REAL world. That so wrong? You hate me for wanting to help you really live your life, girl?"

Stutter, shift, frameskip. Kelsey going from fear to anger to some sort of… weird little smirk.

"I have a patron already," the Troublemaker declared. "I don’t // I don’t need you."

Noise, pulsing in Dave’s ears, like pumping blood. White noise from the stereo which had been playing nihilistic tween punk pop. But now, it was white noise with a pattern. Two notes, over and over. Two words in 4/4ths time, words spoken with a young girl’s voice, the same voice that had given Kelsey her dual-toned strength…

   do it // do it // do it // DO IT

At last, Greyscale started to notice what was going on. And notice how his buddies, his comrades in arms, were on the verge of fleeing.

"Waste them both!" he ordered. "Hurry up and—"

One foot forward. Not one foot in front of the other, not walking. Kelsey had shifted one foot as in a unit of measurement, now standing one foot closer to Greyscale. No walking. Just… a snap of transition, like a jump cut in film. A flickering video artifact from a signal gone wrong…

Dave wasn’t fast enough to do anything, not when he couldn’t even pick himself off the floor.

The members of the Grey Market Gang may not have been fast enough either, but they sure as hell were going to try to run for it when Kelsey Jones instantly Picasso’d out in the middle of their warehouse.

The scanline-laced cubist cloud of flickering afterimages where Kelsey once stood was not something you wanted to be near. Now, she was standing in front of the gang leader. She was at his side. She was hanging upside down over the chair, eyes locked and level with his. Pinning him in, jumping from position to position, so rapidly that it looked like multiple Kelseys all over the place, filmed live in front of a studio audience. Screaming and running, gangers grabbing anything valuable they could carry from the hoard before bailing through whatever exits were available…

The only ones willing to go down with this ship while the rats fled were the cowering little king on his throne, the woman he’d wronged, and a useless next door neighbor.

Little by little, the broken images of Kelsey swarmed closer to the trapped Greyscale. At either side, behind, in front, above. Closing in like the inevitability of time.

But… alongside them, pushing them along, there were other images. A shadow of someone else, someone smaller and younger. Through the blur of his eyes Dave couldn’t make out details, even after slowly getting to his knees, trying to force his focus into focus… but between that and the vocal trick, he knew enough. Dave could think on his feet, even if he wasn’t on his feet.

The spectre urged her on, as Dave struggled to speak.

 do it // do it // kill him // do it // he’s horrible // he made you live in fear // show him what true fear is—

Despite a body full of liquid agony, Dave got a few words out.

"You don’t need him," he spoke, echoing her earlier words. "You don’t need this from him, either. Please…"

As if someone had hit pause on the remote, the ghostly afterimages locked in. Somewhere in the morass of them… Greyscale whimpered audibly, squeezing in as deep into his armchair as he could…

Kelsey, sitting on the DVD crate, where she was at the start. She hadn’t actually moved, even if she did move in the quantum sense.

"She, she wants me to," his neighbor mumbled. "My friend. Bedlam. She wants me to hurt him. Wants me to leave you alone. Wants wants wants…"

"We’re twentysomethings," Dave reminded her. "We make our own decisions."

One by one, the images faded. Only Kelsey remained, whole and unflickering.

Still… Dave could see the shadows which faded alongside the light. And one of them glanced back at him. A face that was almost human glowered at him, displeased. Funny thing was, it looked vaguely familiar…

Less than a minute later, and they were gone. Kelsey collected her box of computer parts, and they left the king of the Grey Market alone in what was left of his Grey Market—picked clean by friends who had abandoned him, leaving him sitting amidst a a pile of empty crates.

---

She wasn’t flickering any more. He wanted to make sure of that, before they took a little cab ride to the nearest emergency room—no signs of cubism. The system had no interest in helping people who were falling apart, not if they were falling apart in that way. Only when it was clear that Kelsey had pulled herself together did he agree with her insistence that he get some proper medical attention for his numerous cuts and bruises.

Sitting there, bleeding and sore in a plastic chair, Dave perused an ancient magazine article about cheese or something and waited for a doctor to show up. Not much chatter… Kelsey had been very quiet. And Dave hadn’t pressed her on anything, even if he was full of questions.

Oddly, she answered one of them—the least of them—unbidden.

"It’s my middle name," she whispered.

"Pardon?"

"Trouble," she filled in. "Trouble is my middle name. My dad was a bit silly. Kelsey Trouble Jones. The Troublemaker. …when you said Danger was your middle name, it… kinda spooked me. The synchronicity of it. Patterns in chaos, they dig into me like that, won’t let go. Sorry if I spooked you that night…"

"Ahhh. Well… pleased to get to know you, Kelsey Trouble Jones," Dave Danger Smith said.

"And now that you know me… do you ever want to see me again?" she asked. "I’m slightly cubist. Slightly. I broke my own computer by accident, that’s what really happened. I can’t help it, I soak in chaos and I do it on purpose, and… and you should be afraid of me. I’ll understand if you are."

For this, he didn’t have to go Pardon? or What?. Dave even had an answer ready to the conundrum.

"I’m not afraid of you," he said. "Or of her. Or of Picassos, or any of that."

"Why not? Everybody else is," Kelsey pointed out. "Number one thing to fear in this city. Everybody’s terrified."

"Really? Are you terrified, then?"

"…no," she admitted. "But that’s the thing. I walk in the digital Sideways. I look at strange things and appreciate them for being strange. I decoded Bedlam’s presence in the Sideways Signals years ago, I’ve talked with her, I can feel her in the wires. She likes me. And I’m okay with it all. I understand it and I’m not scared. I don’t understand why you’re not scared…"

Dave set the magazine down, leaning back in the chair. His spine was unhappy sitting upright, anyway.

"I’ve been afraid before," he explained. "Afraid of all sorts of things. Sometimes real things, sometimes imaginary things, just to keep that comfortable level of fear up. I maintained a level of anxiety so high when I was younger that I eventually punched right through and out to the other side. Now… do you know what I fear? Being alone. Having nothing worth living for. Just existing, day to day. You’ve got something you live for. Honestly, I admire that. And if it’s Bedlam, well… I’m not going to talk you out of that. Maybe you see things in her I can’t."

"She’s… broken, in a lot of ways," Kelsey admitted. "A child, lost and scared. She’s lost some part of herself along the way, I can sense that about her. Maybe that’s why she sympathizes with me. …we’re both a bit broken too, aren’t we. You and I."

"Maybe," Dave mused. "But at least we’re broken together. That’s got to count for something."

---

It was when Dave was exiting the hospital, covered in a wide array of tiny bandages and ordered to stay off the job another few days, that he crossed paths with familiar faces.

Their eyes met only for a brief moment—Dave with Kelsey, the two of them almost leaning on each other for support as they walked out through the automatic doors. And Jackie and Lonnie, the former Grey Market Gangers, previously seen raiding drug stores for anti-anxiety drugs.

She was leading him along, laughing at some joke told previously. Eyes bright and clear. They were likely coming from the urban center, headed homeward. She didn’t spot Dave, and if she had, she might not have remembered him.

But Jackie spotted him. Remembered him. And offered, in one tiny moment, a look of absolute thanks for Dave’s help in saving his sister from collapsing into cubism.

Despite the official government reprimand for giving away city property, despite being grounded from a thankless job, despite being quite nastily banged up, despite his maybe/maybe-not new girlfriend being best buds with a goddess of chaos… Dave felt complete in that moment. It was a single bit of firm evidence that he had, in fact, made a difference in this city.

---

I’m assuming you’re checking email at your brand new account. But if this is cast into the digital void, that’s fine. I’m writing it for myself just as much as I’m writing it for you.

So, I had an eventful day. Eventful week. I can’t really summarize properly but let’s just say I’ve been finding things that give me hope in the weirdest of places. Maybe even in the most eldritch bugaboos this city can offer… I’m hopeful about that one, given it directly ties into the well-being of someone who I’m surprised to say I care for quite a bit.

You’re having problems of your own, and I get that. Your dad doesn’t want me mixed up in them, and I get that too. But you’ve been there for me to reach out to in the past, and I’m offering the same now. If you’re having trouble, I’m just an email away. Not in a "I’m desperately waiting for your response" way; I’m past that. I’m ready to listen if you’re ready to talk.

When we next meet, I think you’ll find I’ve got my feet on the ground properly in this city, at last. I’ll tell you all about it.

Meanwhile, attached is a copy of the Lucid Technologies logo. More or less finished; either way I think I’m done tinkering with it, time to get on with my life. It’s a curious shape, though. Lots of sharp little angles despite having this overall round motif. Completely useless as a logo of any sort. I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with it for so long.

The pain meds are kicking in (long story) and I need to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a new day.

Be seeing you,

-Dave

[Attachment: SpiralShape.jpg]

---

As Dave slept in another room, two eyes peered through the skewed and invisible corridor that connected his apartment to Kelsey’s. It was a corridor that hadn’t existed until recently, not until it was willed into existence.

Even in the dark of his apartment, the white of his drawing paper gleamed. Perfect little inked lines on perfect white paper, twisting back and forth, down and around. At last, completed.

No matter that this man had stolen away one of her friends, the Scout slipping free of the perfect nightmare-state she had inhabited and fading away peacefully. No matter that he was in league with her enemies, the ones who wanted to stop her from being friends with the whole city. No matter that maybe she’d even lost her little Troublemaker, the one who understood her, to his weird cooties.

In the end, Dave had crafted the one thing Bedlam coveted above all else—a map to the Heart of the City. The funny thing was that he’d crafted it for the other, the bright one, Lucid. Her clever champion Seth Dougal had sniffed out Lucid’s plan, turning it into Bedlam’s plan. While Lucid pulled together her champions the dark third lurked and waited, to snatch up that prize before Lucid could make proper use of it.

Her friends in the Department of Safety were already on their way. They’d secure her prize. Maybe they’d kill the one who’d bothered her friends so much, which would be neat, but it didn’t actually matter. Now, she’d be able to make so many friends. Friends and friends and friends forever, in an eternal world of absolute perfect chaos.

She felt quite smug about it, honestly. Victory over her other selves after so long felt so very, very sweet. The three of them, at odds with each other ever since the fever and division… and in the end, Bedlam would triumph. Her friend Seth had outmaneuvered the ones Lucid spoke to and through. Bedlam would at last have her city of wonderful nightmare. Not a city of dreams, not a city of awakenings. Lucid and Echo collapsing away to nothing, leaving only Bedlam…

Dave slept soundly, as boots marched up the stairs of the Plaza Arms.

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. > Apparently this bear comes with free social interaction.

    (I should’ve said free shipping)

  2. > And the delivery woman was specifically citing 2C as its destination…

    Apparently this bear comes with free social interaction.

    And more 23-references…

  3. So on a side note – in the author’s notes, you mention that Channel 23 comes up later after we know the spoilery truth. I don’t think we actually see that happen, though – can you tell us what you intended for Ch. 23?

    • Plot coupon I never cashed in on, I think. Often I’ll drop things in that could be useful later but never actually end up mattering to any significant degree. (See also Puck from Anachronauts, who gets several scenes and then never appears again.)

  4. … You know, I do see what you’re going for with Bedlam being green and Kelsey’s hairdye and whatnot, but…

    … nevertheless, Kelsey being a green-haired internet celebrity immediately makes me think of Hatsune Miku. :P

    • Actually, her original character design is based on Dodger / DexterityBonus / PressHeartToContinue, a YouTube personality. At the time I wrote this story she had this really awesome green hair dyed style going on and I thought OMG I NEED THAT FOR KELSEY SO CUTE AND THEMATIC.

      Plus, when I think Miku, I think something more along the lines of cyan / sea green.

  5. “She’d defenestrated the CPU.”

    The CPU is the small computational core of a computer, and it would likely not break a window. You were probably looking for the word/concept of “PC tower.” Dave has been working on his PC doing graphic design for a while, so I’d assume he’d know the difference.

      • Right, except I’d assume that anybody who worked on PCs as long as Dave has wouldn’t use the word “CPU” to refer to the entire tower–in my experience, I’ve only heard this substitution from people who haven’t had a lot of contact with PCs. Or do you know a lot of geeks/graphic designers who call towers CPUs?

        • CPU is actually a really common word for any computer — especially towers and slabs, but laptops and tablets occasionally — in some circles. Some scenes. Some I’ve been part of, some I haven’t. Doesn’t matter how technical, doesn’t matter if they’re tinkerers or designers or musicians or accountants, they just say CPU. Maybe they’re, we’re, a bit weird, if you’re looking in from outside, but hey, this is the city of angles, so it should be fine.

  6. caught a typo

    So, Dave waited right there. Box in hand, its light contents sifting about a bit as she shifted weight from foot to foot.

    as he

  7. I like this:
    “By focusing on your own problems and minimizing risk, there’s no chance of being plowed under by the problems society can throw at you. Enlightened self interest will get YOU through anything, comfy and cozy in perfect isolation. As for the others around you, there’s another coat rack for that. ‘Better you than me.’”
    That’s an important theme in this series, I think. Isolating not only prevents bigger problems from being addressed, it contributes to fear and despair, which is part of the process of becoming a Picasso.

    Nice ref to Max with the comment on Channel 23!

    “But I say that… that… chaos isn’t evil. It’s just chaos. You don’t need to be scared of it. You just need to be good at riding it out.” Good point!

    I really like these two characters together. They have a fun dynamic.

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Copyright 2014 by Stefan Gagne