city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //008: Heart of the City

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 CDC facility which does nothing to control diseases whatsoever. Whatever you do, don’t look in the rooms, because the patients are recursive.

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…

There’s nothing more terrifying than the truth. We lie to ourselves every single minute of every single day—we pretend the unimportant is important, notably, in order to keep some semblance of order over the chaos. It’s very important to go down to the corner mart for a quart of milk, for example. A lot of mental effort is put towards that task, along with monetary resources gained through other mental effort, all of it leading to a frosty glass of milk.

Except the milk is not important—the milk is a lie. The truth is something which would put you straight off your milk, if you stopped to seriously examine it.

The truth about ourselves, the truth about our situation, is paralyzing. The truth about the City, the steady and measured pulse of its beating heart… those are the truths nobody wants to know. So, they lie about what they think matters, to avoid opening the door and seeing who exactly is on the other side.

Except when the one on the other side doesn’t give you a choice in the matter. At that time, you will know her heart—and if it drives you mad in the process, so be it.


//008: Heart of the City

As Penelope Yates tried desperately to ignore herself, she briefly pondered having a tall drink of water. That would sort things right out—not the bottled water they’d been buying by the shipping crate lately, but water from the tap. A public drinking fountain. So refreshing. Maybe then, she’d be able to sleep properly… with no dreams.

But no, because her father insisted that she avoid whatever the hell Seth Dougal was scheming, she had to dream. Dreams which had been getting increasingly weird, since her life started getting increasingly weird.

Worst part of it? They were, in a moment of either supreme irony or supreme importance, lucid dreams. Just like the name Vivi had picked for their hideout. It’d almost be better if she wasn’t aware she was dreaming—maybe then they’d fade away on waking, without mattering in the slightest.

Instead, these were self-aware dreams. She fully understood she was dreaming, nothing she was seeing was real, and she should be able to stop it… except she couldn’t. Instead, she did her best to completely disregard it. Stand with back turned, and pretend nothing was happening while waiting for the damn alarm to ring.

This is the second layer. The dream of the city and the city of the dreamer, it’s all connected. The dream can be what you want it to be—

"I want it to go away," she suggested to herself. "How about it? Can you make that happen?"

Can you make that happen?

Alas, she could not. Instead, she ignored it. Pointedly.

At the moment, Penelope was ignoring a pair of old-timey television screens with images that extended well beyond the confines of their glass tubes, begging for her attention. Two exemplar moments played on a loop, because of COURSE memory needed to be represented with a recorded-media based metaphor. Ugh.

One screen showed the incident at the Defined Tower… first with her father being murdered right in front of her, then rewinding and replaying, this time identical save for the wound being but a scratch. Dead, alive, dead, alive. Alternate takes of the same shot, like discarded footage from a movie shoot. Sometimes it zoomed in or went for a different angle, really milking it for all it was worth.

The second television showed an exciting bicycle chase through a toy store. No doubt the fine editing work of Flynn-Frisk Funnies Studio, there. It was indeed funny, the way a restroom appeared out of nowhere for them to escape into prior… and then as they were chased out of the store, an infinitely small crack in the walls of the Sideways gave them an exit from impending Bedlam-flavored doom. If she had a remote and could turn up the volume, maybe that television would have a laugh track…

Penelope didn’t want to watch either of them. Neither of them made any sense. She somehow remembered her father getting killed, but he didn’t get killed… and then an impossible waterfall of cars destroyed the Picasso that didn’t actually kill him. And all the lovely spontaneous shortcuts in the toy store? Equally impossible. They formed exactly where and when she needed them most, as if willfully created, which was utterly and completely impossible.

You have to look. You’ve already agreed to look, been made to look. These things happened.

"No, I really don’t have to look," Penelope mumbled, her back turned. "They didn’t happen like that. I’m imagining things. I know this is a dream and I’d rather not have it, so I’m not going to pay any attention at all. So there. Nyah. You may as well give up."

You have to understand. Even if only in hindsight, you need and want to understand.

"I already understand. Obviously Dad never died, and those doors were there to begin with and I simply hadn’t noticed them at first. That’d make sense," she reasoned.

You have to accept yourself. Just as the oracles have embraced you.

A trinity now, standing behind her. The clack of typewriter keys and the soft rustle of felt. The same force linking the three together, the force of lucidity…

"You mean Gramma Scarlett and Cassie," Penelope recognized—without turning around. "We don’t know how they can do what they can do. Scarlett doesn’t know why she can see the future in her dreams, and Cassie has no idea who’s on the other end of her cosmic typewriter. Maybe they’re mutants, like you read about in comic books. Or a secret Department of Safety superweapon program. It’s got nothing to do with me, anyway. I’m ordinary. Like Dave."

You believe Dave is ordinary?

"Shut up and let me sleep!" Penelope screamed into her own head.

You believe Dave is ordinary?

Finally whirling about, to confront herself. To face the glowing heart-child, pulsing red with the throb of every life beat in the city—no. Ignore it, even as you stare it it. Don’t recognize, don’t acknowledge, just… yell at it.

"YES, I believe Dave is ordinary! He’s the most ordinary person in the world!" Penelope declared. "You know why I like him? Because he’s completely non-special. No crazy dreams, no cosmic coincidences, nothing scary and weird! He’s just an average guy trying to live his life. He’s trying to make the world a better place—just by being a good person. That’s all. There’s all this craziness around him but he’s not part of it. I want him to be able to float above it all, since I obviously can’t manage that myself. I want him to be happy!"

In contrast to Penelope’s anger, the other part of her was calm and curious.

And if he’s not ordinary? If he is special, in the same way all who are connected to you are? What will you do then?

If Penelope had an answer for her own questions, she couldn’t deliver it. She remembered waking up instead.

Quickly rubbing the sleep out of her eyes (despite not getting very much of it) she tried to focus. Snoozing on a cot in the dark of the Lucid Dreamer’s basement storage room was hardly restful—and no windows meant it was tricky to tell if it was day or night. Fortunately, her alarm clock—after a quick bash to make its LCD screen read something other than 88:88—announced it to be nearly morning. In fact, it was ten minutes before she was going to wake up anyway.

Another day, another stab at the conspiracy which threatened to… do something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear yet what that something was. Penelope wasn’t really enjoying her tenure as a freedom fighter, but her father was keen on it, and she was keen on keeping him from getting himself killed stupidly.

Hopefully today’s plan would be enough to root this mess out. Hopefully this would be over soon, and she could get back to her… relatively ordinary life of crawling the Sideways and drawing maps. Hopefully. Always have hope.

---

The wide open spaces and blue skies of the Outlands made them ideal for farming and industry, but they were also ideal for people who purposefully wanted to be distanced from the rest of civilization. Or, in the case of Jon Boston, for people who purposefully wanted him to be distanced for the rest of civilization.

It probably wasn’t a conscious decision. They had plenty of justification for it, after all. Fresh air is just the thing for your lungs, Pop. You can’t risk living alone any more, not with your health. You’ll like it there, it’s a beautiful retirement community. You can play all the Bingo you want. And so on. Endless justifications for taking him out of his beloved little apartment in the fringes of the City, and dumping him in a comfortable oubliette.

Then came the lung cancer diagnosis, and the sporadic visits from relatives who wanted nothing more to do with him ramped up ever so slightly… before ramping back down, as he hung in there like a bastard. By this point, no doubt they were waiting for him to croak and cough up the inheritance.

But before he could politely up and die, he had one more thing to do. A burden to set down. Because there was actually a reason Jon Boston himself wanted to stay away from civilization, a person he wanted as much distance from as possible. Today, that particular story was of concern to one Gregory Yates. A story Jon was ready to tell.

After that, if his supposed nemesis somehow found out and took offense? So be it, Jon thought. He’d had enough life.

"Don’t worry about me," Gregory Yates insisted, taking the guest chair of Jon’s tiny convalescent hostel room. "I’ve already made the enemies I’m going to make. If this enrages them, well… I don’t think that’ll actually change anything. If anything, it’ll make my work easier. Trust me on this. Now. How did it start?"

Fair enough, Jon decided.

"It started in the eighties. A lousy decade, all around," He explained, sitting up in his uncomfortable bed. "Sometimes I think the Earth’s a parasite. We feed on its people, it feeds on our souls. It’s stupidly morbid, I know, but America was thriving in the eighties while the City was crashing down around us. Highest unemployment rate on record. Homeless squatters all over the outer city fringes. Those were the ones Bedlam found. Men with nothing left, ready to embrace… whatever. Gangs. Cults. Motivational speakers. Same thing."

"My old gang formed around then," Gregory added. "I echoed in two years later. So yeah, I was there. Eighties. Screw ’em."

"Damn right. Lousy time to be a cop OR a robber," Jon said. (Odd, two people from opposite sides of the line chatting so casually now. But both were retired, in their own ways.) "So, I had O-2 clearance in the Department. High as you get without being the head honcho, in charge of my own investigation squad. We got tasked by O-1 to deal with these pockets of desperate weirdoes, cults and such. For instance, the so-called ‘Cult of Bedlam.’ Understand, they were just rumors… missing persons cases were spiking high, yeah, but ‘They’re being sacrificed to a chaos god’ felt… it felt like hogwash, frankly. Still does, except…"

"Except you were there. You saw them firsthand."

Bad memories, floating up. He’d called them on purpose, though. Jon gritted his teeth through the pain of it—and the pain in his lungs—and nodded, acknowledging the truth.

"Your name wasn’t reported in the newspaper article that broke the story, but I have it on good authority you were part of the raid," Gregory said. "You and your men were hailed as heroes. So why all the secrecy?"

"Wasn’t how we did things on the job, back then. Not when there was Picasso exposure. Didn’t want the stigma following our boys home, have folks in their communities think they got infected. On top of that, it was my only moment in the sun… after that, I kept my head down, stayed uninteresting. Retired early, and I’ve been lying low. Ever since… that freak started running the circus. Dougal—"

As if intoning the name was enough to summon up agony, Jon ran through the paces of a coughing fit. Blood on a tissue. Whatever.

"…I had better things to do than chase down rumors about Bedlam. But a dispatcher I’d come to trust came to me, said she saw a pattern in the kidnappings, swirling around a central point. A warehouse. She’d been on the money about other things… claimed they came to her in dreams. I know that sounds crazy, but…"

"Ms. Scarlett, yes?"

A surprise, there. But this man showing up out of nowhere, asking questions nobody had known to ask him before… should anything surprise Jon, at this point?

"I take it you found her? Is she still alive?" Jon asked.

"Alive and kicking. She’s the one who gave me your name," Gregory acknowledged.

"Huh. Yeah, that’d be her. Dizzy dame, nobody at the district station house paid much attention… but I’d gotten mileage out of her instincts before. Figuring I could put this Bedlam thing to bed, I took a few boys with me to the warehouse. Weren’t expecting anything, maybe rouse some transients, arrest some ranting loon, but… but what we found there… when we saw her…"

Pausing, to make sure his breath was even. He did not want to collapse into a coughing fit, not at this point in the story.

"Bedlam is real," he confirmed. "She exists. A crazy-looking thing, shaped like a little girl. You only see… it’s like you only see her shadow, but the shadow is alive, so who knows what she really is? Doesn’t matter. She was there. Her followers had kidnapped some boy, offering him up to be turned into a Picasso. That warehouse, the things they’d painted on the walls, the walls and the doorways and everywhere…"

He jerked, hearing the gunshots again. Not really there, he had to remind himself; just a memory. Memories can’t hurt you. At least, not directly.

"…we opened fire immediately. Guns out and unloading on the crazies. We were shooting and shooting and we didn’t stop. Papers didn’t print that bit, you know… that they didn’t fight back. They just screamed and some Picasso’d out—but they all died, left and right. We executed them, flat out executed them all. I think we all went a little mad, that night. Whenever I have a nightmare, it’s that one. It’s ALWAYS that one."

First time he’d spoken of that night, now thirty years on. Telling a stranger about the spontaneous moment of crazed slaughter was… not easy. But he’d been preparing all day. And why not? What did he have left to fear, dying of cancer? Already happening.

But the truly terrifying part… that he kept for the end.

"It’s a miracle none of us shot the kid. Once the smoke cleared, we hustled the boy out of there. The papers reported the basics—officers on scene in shootout with gang, child rescued," he noted. "No details. No names. Cult of Bedlam, that got out, no way to keep that out, but… no details beyond that. Certainly not anything specific about the minor involved. Not a thing…"

Gregory must’ve sensed that loose end. Most people would be horrified at the description of the shootings, but he didn’t seem to care about that… he’d latched onto the part that Jon truly feared.

"Who was the boy, exactly?" Gregory asked.

"…one thing I left out of my official report… was the boy’s eyes," Jon spoke, answering while trying to avoid answering. "Because I saw the look on his face, gazin’ on that horrible shadow-child. Both of them the same age. And both of them smiling. The boy… the boy liked what he saw in her. I… I almost shot him down with the others, mistaking him for a lunatic. My mistake was in not taking him for a lunatic. If only I’d… if I’d just…"

Gregory allowed him a moment to stop clutching at the sheets, to calm himself, before asking again.

"I have to know… who was the boy?"

Jon closed his eyes, as if expecting to be struck down by a bolt of lightning for this. Not that the lightning would be immediate, of course.

"His name was Seth Dougal," Jon told. "Bright boy. Clever. Immediately devoted his life to learning the job, scaling the ranks of the Department of Safety until he was on the very top. None of the others could see, not like I could… I saw madness behind his eyes, the few times he crossed paths with me at the Department. I saw it pushin’ him on, smiling all the way… so as soon as I could retire, I did. I got the hell out of there. I’ve been nothing ever since, and for that, I’m thankful. They say the cult’s back in action, lately. Likely his cult, now. I’m glad to be where I am, far away from him."

Sensing the story was done, Gregory nodded to the man. Thankful.

"For what it’s worth… I already knew about Dougal’s involvement. We’ve been working this situation, the new Cult of Bedlam, for some time now. I didn’t know why he threw in with Bedlam, but it doesn’t actually matter," Gregory offered.

"…you knew? Then why did you want to hear an old man’s rantings?" Jon asked.

"A few reasons. Scarlett thought you might want to talk about it, get it off your chest. And the timing was just right… me here, with you, in the middle of nowhere. Perfect bait for a trap."

Craziness. For a moment, Jon wondered if this young man was just as nuts as the cultists he’d gunned down that night… or himself, doing the gunning. But no—Gregory was calm and collected. Not even the false calm Seth Dougal projected, with inner madness. This was method without madness. But… still risky.

"You, your friends, Scarlett… you’re all taking this new cult head-on, then?" Jon asked.

"That’s right. Trying to, anyway."

"Then I hope for your sake you finish what we couldn’t. Because the old Cult of Bedlam, that was… nonsense. Random kidnappings and disorganized, half-mad men. They were abominable, but ultimately, not much of a threat. A cult with Seth Dougal at the head… well. We’ll all be lucky if we’re dead by the end of whatever he’s got planned."

---

Lucky lucky lucky lucky. Couldn’t believe his luck. The stars were right. Ducks in a row. Luck lucky luck.

Everything was coming up Cartwright.

He’d been having a bad run of it this year, honestly. His career as a police officer took something of a turn for the worse when his boss sacrificed him to Bedlam, driving him completely insane. Cartwright had to admit, in the few times he was capable of admitting it, that going mad was something to be concerned about.

But now, he had a new role—he was a friend of the most wonderful girl in the world, a friend, a good friend, a girl who drove him screaming into his own skull and back again and made him into something strange and powerful and—

Lucky. Lucky. Had to focus on the luck. All this luck coming out of his ears, drowning out the orders.

His original orders were very loud and clear: You know this Yates man quite well, yes? Good. I’m far too busy with the fear campaign to bother with that old fool myself. You know the patterns and personality of Gregory Yates well, which will aid us. Therefore, your task is to observe and report on his activities. Do NOT engage. Bedlam does not want any friends in direct contact with his daughter, little Penelope, and I’d rather not allow indirect risk. I realize this is going to be hard for your feeble little mind to grasp, Cartwright, but observe and report only or I will make you wish I was the one hurting you. I promise you that when the time comes to kill Gregory, I’ll let you know.

But so much luck, luck and ducks and stars. Hated, HATED Gregory Yates, the wife-killer, the gang-banger, the bastard. And here was Gregory Yates, all alone in the middle of nowhere…

This had been such a BORING assignment. Studying Gregory’s movements, watching from afar, taking notes… all good police work, made him feel like a proper cop again instead of a minion of the cult. But Cartwright inevitably grew restless… and with Dougal’s attention on other matters, Cartwright’s brain slid a bit to the left.

The new orders were: You know this Yates man. You know how evil he is. Observe and report. I’m too busy to kill him myself, and you hate him so much, so I’ll let you kill him. Follow Gregory, bide your time, wait to kill him, the time is coming, he’s hurting you, kill him…

Those were the orders, yes, those were his original orders: Kill Gregory Yates. Simple and perfect.

The Cult of Bedlam was too chaotic, even when it was working at peak condition, for anyone to even notice that Cartwright’s instructions mutated along the way.

With single-minded determination, Cartwright had tailed his prey right out of the City and through the Suburbs and into the Outlands. He kept a respectable distance, avoided notice. Hard to do on the open highway of the Outlands, but he probably succeeded; the target didn’t seem the least bit worried about Cartwright’s sub-compact following him.

Yates got out at a retirement home, went inside… observe and report drifted around Cartwright’s mind, a dim and distant sound. Too quiet to matter. Not now, not with this amazing luck.

Because having finished his business here, Gregory was now all alone. Standing in the parking lot of the retirement home, leaning against his car, playing with his smartphone. Probably checking social media, posting photos. I killed my wife, the most beautiful woman in the world, and oh also here is a funny picture of a cat.

Perfect. Nobody else was here. Nobody to save him. He didn’t really matter, anyway. He could die and it wouldn’t hurt Cartwright’s new best friend in any way. After all, it was the girl that was the real problem. The girl and the boy…

Cartwright just had to walk right up and kill him and then that would be the end of it. Maintain his human form, so hard to do that lately, but he had to do it. Gregory had to see his human face, right before the end. The end. No more Gregory Yates.

One foot in front of the other. One last walk and then he could unleash the new power he had, the power of being Bedlam’s best friend, and tear Gregory apart. Each part torn from each other part, yes, that was the way. One foot in front of the other in front of the asphalt in front of his face in front of—

One foot on his back, keeping him pinned to the asphalt while the injector went into his neck. No time to embrace Bedlam’s gift—his human bloodstream accepted the drug immediately, putting him to sleep.

Gregory tapped his bluetooth headset, to cut off the call. No need for long-distance communication, given the ones he was talking to—Archie and Karla—were a mere twenty feet away now, having successfully snuck up behind Cartwright for the takedown.

Cass pulled her delivery truck up on cue, and the living remains of the Seventh Street Scavengers hauled Cartwright’s drugged body out of sight.

---

"Yes, that’s how it happened," Penelope agreed. "Of course, he didn’t tell me the plan. He’s not particularly good at sharing, especially when it comes to putting his life on the line in stupid ways."

You weren’t there for that. You didn’t see it, how can you remember it?

Nonsensical, of course. She wasn’t expecting much sense out of this situation—the many television sets, each showing their own vignettes. The other self. Back and forth, yammering, making no sense at all… but then again, why did dreams have to make any sense whatsoever?

"I don’t remember it. It’s not my memory—I told you, this is how he explained it happening," she repeated, at risk of redundancy. "Besides, dreams are weird and loaded with warped imagination. I probably filled in the blanks. It’s just another type of creative writing, like Cass does. …well, she does poems, not fictional prose, so I guess it’s not the best comparison, but…"

Yes, she does not write fiction. She writes truth. She wrote his truth, yes?

A new television, rolling up on little wheels. Archaic technology. Penelope could barely remember when televisions weren’t an inch thick and came in four-by-three aspect ratios. The image on the screen… a filthy-looking fellow, tied to a chair. Bleak and dark.

"Look, are you going to insist on showing me this stuff all night? I’m pretty sure this isn’t helping me rest," she said, trying to ignore the new addition to this gallery. "Aren’t you me? Don’t you have a vested interest in making sure I get my beauty sleep?"

You believe you are asleep?

"Well, duh. I remember you trying to show me things, and I wouldn’t turn around to look at them and… wait, no, I… that dream ended, I woke up in the Lucid Dreamer, Dad was gone, a few hours later he showed up with Cartwright, and… huh. Am I napping? That’s got to be it, I’m napping…"

You have to understand, she insisted. You want to understand. Remember how it happened. Know what happened.

"I already know what happened, I was there!" Penelope insisted. "Cartwright eventually woke up, and that’s when we started to figure out what was really going on…"

---

Swimmy. Swimmy and swimming…

No, wait, no. Opposite. Solid. Solid and swimming. If he was just swimming, if his mind was adrift, he’d probably drift away from humanity as well. In fact, that was his first instinct—embracing the gift that people laughably called "cubism," losing himself in it. But he was too solid for that. Solid and soft.

And tied to a chair. Arms behind his back, human legs lashed to chair legs, securely fashioned.

And, for some reason, there was a teddy bear in his lap.

A bright light had been aimed at his face. That plus his darkened surroundings meant he couldn’t see particularly well, couldn’t see the ones who had captured him or where they’d taken him…

…but they could see him just fine.

Gregory almost felt a pang of pity for the man. The last (and technically first) time he’d met Officer Cartwright, the man had been sharp and confident. He’d taken some oddly personal pleasure in trying to pin Gregory with a crime he didn’t commit, thwarted only by cleverness and a bit of bluster… but even in defeat, he was composed.

This wasted, washed out thing was not the Cartwright that he’d locked horns with months ago. Like the other "Shabby Men," as Scarlett had named them, he’d let himself completely go. Scraggly beard, long fingernails, and a distinct shower-free aroma. Not uncommon, for those who fell between society’s cracks… but the madness in his eyes, even doped to the nines on sedatives, that was truly pitiful.

"Let me summarize what’s going on here, so we can get to business," Gregory spoke, when the man came to. "You can’t flip out and go Picasso. Not only do you have enough drugs in your system to put down an elephant, but you’ve been bear-proofed against cubism. You’re stuck here and powerless, so you may as well cooperate."

Cartwright’s head rolled around independently on its neck stump a bit, as he tried to focus through the weirdness in his veins.

"Familiar," he managed, with a sputter. "Familiar. It’s very familiar…"

"Trust me, you’ve never been here before. And you’re going to be out the door just as soon as we’re done."

"No, I mean this. This. This situation," he clarified. "Interrogation. You. I had you in one of these, some time ago. Almost had you, for the things you’ve done. But you got loose. Now, you have me. That’s a funny thing…"

"Trust me, I’m laughing on the inside. Now. We need information about the Cult of Bedlam—"

"Did you bring your daughter with you on this adventure?" Cartwright asked, trying to see past the spotlight. "You’d expose her to all this madness, wouldn’t you? It’d be just like you to take her child and ruin that little girl forever. I almost got Penelope away from you, back then. Almost. Slipped away—"

The girl’s voice, next. Confirming she was there.

"I’m not leaving his side," Penelope declared. "And you’re wrong about Dad. Completely wrong—"

"Not now, Penny," her father insisted. "Cartwright. Focus on me, thank you—I’m the one asking the questions. Now. We’ve picked up others in your merry band of misfits, but always too low-ranked, or too crazy to give us anything solid. You, though? You’re Seth’s right-hand man. I’d bet you’ve been following me for weeks now, but lately, you’ve been pretty damn obvious about it. Probably losing your grip. All that combined means you get to play the weakest link. Good job."

"Won’t tell you anything about Bedlam. Not a thing," Cartwright promised. "She’s my friend. She showed me things you can’t even begin to start to consider comprehending. Won’t tell you anything about him. Dougal. O-1. He’s given me something wonderful. He’s a brave man, a smart man, with a plan for this city, a plan you’ll never—"

"You’ve been diluting Nightmare Fuel into the city water supply," Gregory declared, to cut to the chase. "We know. We found the ruins of a drug lab run by one Doctor Montgomery, which filled in most of the blanks. It’s put the city on edge, bottling up their nightmares, giving them dreamless sleep. We haven’t been able to shut down the entire operation, given it’s just a few of us versus all of you… but it’s only a matter of time."

…which was clearly not what Officer Cartwright expected to hear. His prideful ramblings stopped dead… leaving him with a very human look of confusion about him.

"Seriously?" he asked. "You figured all of that out?"

"Seriously," Gregory confirmed, nodding. "Even with Seth running the show, this is the Cult of Bedlam we’re talking about. Its bedrock is madness. They weren’t very subtle in the eighties, and they’re not subtle now. You’re just too chaotic to carry out a grand scheme for very long without making mistakes. Us capturing you being proof of that."

"Then… what am I doing here?" he asked. "There’s nothing left to interrogate me for. That’s the plan—drugs in the water supply. People turning Picasso. It’s perfect. It’s horrible. I’m wondering if I’ve made a mistake when I was befriended. I made no mistakes. Everything is fine. What? What more is there than that?"

"That’s what we’re here to find out. Because the drug alone is not enough to transform the city into a cubist paradise—incidents are on the rise but it’s not enough to take the whole city down. I don’t think Bedlam would settle for a slightly increased amount of cubism when she could bring about a proper apocalypse. We’re missing something about this plan. You’re going to help us find it."

His head flopped to the side, one eye fluttering shut as he tried to think through the haze.

"I don’t think I can help you. I don’t think I will help you. I hate you very, very much," he pointed out. "I don’t know anything. I’ve forgotten more than I ever knew. You’re a murderer and a thug, Gregory Yates, and I’ll never help you. There’s nothing I can do in the face of Bedlam. She’s my friend. She replaced my fear with grace. I’m terrified of her. I’m not making sense. You won’t be able to get anything out of me, you goddamn bastard, you killer—"

"Fortunately we’ve got other means of drawing a confession out of you," Gregory explained. "All you have to do is sit right there and stay comfortable. …are you ready? Remember, no names. He can’t see you, and Dougal doesn’t know EVERYONE in our little gang."

On the other side of the blinding spotlight… two figures indistinct from Cartwright’s view, but very distinct to Gregory. One of them being distinctly uncomfortable with all of this.

She pulled up a chair… turning it backwards, straddling it, studying the madman in front of her from her safety in shadow.

"Don’t know if this is gonna work," Cass the poet / taxi driver / cargo trucker noted. "It’s not like telepathy. I just… sometimes read about people, when I look at them. Vague things. Whoever’s typing to me doesn’t dredge up useful specifics…"

The one at her side, encouraging and comforting, rested a small hand on her shoulder.

"Remember what Grandma Scarlett said. Don’t think of it as someone typing to you; you’re the one providing the words," Penelope reminded. "You’re the one with the actual insight, like how she controls her dreams. Just look at the guy, and tell us what you read in him…"

Cass adjusted her glasses, peering nice and hard at the drooling individual bound to a chair. Squinted. And clearly got nothing in return, as the developing frown on her lips suggested. So, she tried glancing aside, distracting herself… then glancing back.

A series of near misses, culminating in missing her forever.

"…which tells me jack-all," Cass said, after repeating the roughly typed letters wobbling over Cartwright’s head. "Sometimes it’s insight into a person’s motivations, sometimes it’s a wry observation, usually it just makes no goddamn sense. Any clue who he’s thinking about?"

"It’s not relevant," Gregory immediately declared. "Try again? Could be like fishing. Maybe you’ll get something else."

"Not how it works. I get one little blurb, and that’s it. It’s meant to be a summary, I think. Like a fortune cookie that doesn’t care if it seems relevant or not… sorry. Don’t think I can help much. …you’re not gonna have to waterboard the guy now or something, are you? Should I be hustling the kid outta here before it gets messy?"

The kid in question felt the need to speak up, before that line of thought got chased any further.

"We can’t kill him," she declared. "And Dad promised we wouldn’t torture him. Everybody knows torture doesn’t actually work like it does in the movies. I still think C— the uh poet, might be able to get something out of him, and without needing to resort to thumbscrews."

"It’s a nice thought, kid, but all I can see is what I can see. Sorry."

"But poems are usually longer than one line," Penelope pointed out. "In some ways, aren’t you writing a poem about this guy? It should by way longer! Like, one of those Greek epics I had to slog through in my online courses!"

"Well… yeah, but it’s not. That’s the long and short of it," Cass replied. "I can only read what’s there."

"But could you write more than what’s there? Not read, but write?"

Hanging on the end of her question, Penelope stood on her toes, anticipating. Cass didn’t… SEEM immediately dismissive of the idea. In fact, she was thinking about it, having held back her default no-can-do just a moment…

…to swap it for a slow nod.

"Someone bring me my Clark-Nova," she declared. "I’ve got a poem to write."

---

Coming up short is a lifestyle choice, a dedication, a final omen which dictates the rest of a life not very well lived.

Coming up short is missing opportunities, going left when you should go right, falling in open manholes you could have seen miles away.

Coming up short is his excuse for everything that has gone wrong in his life.

Coming up short is his justification for everything that has gone wrong in his life.

The father, the mother, missing education, missing job opportunities, missing a chance to get him private education. Missing chances at a better life.

The child, the son, missing life connections, missing social opportunities, missing a chance at love eternal. Missing Elizabeth, the only girl who ever had a kind word for him.

The man, the officer, missing paperwork, missing promotions, missing closed cases. Missing a shot at being anything other than two rungs down the ladder.

The fool, the lunatic, missing his future, missing his chances, missing his mind. Missing any hope for a life beyond the chaotic glory he’s been tricked into embracing.

All because one man didn’t miss a key detail that he missed.

The fault lies within, the fault lies without, the failure is his own to own, the failure is society’s responsibility.

The failure was redeemable, finally having the one thing he wanted, revenge against the one who made him miss his chance with her, the one who distracted her from him so long ago.

The error of omission, of missing observations, being dragged down just short of the mark, dragged away have his humiliating life laid open bare

The final miss, missing his chance, missing his shot, missing the mark, and henceforth Cartwright will not be missed by anyone. Not even himself.

The sharp clack of that final period snapped Cass out of her trance.

Her two companions had been reading over her shoulder, the whole way through. She felt vaguely alarmed that she hadn’t even noticed, but of all the things to be worried about today, that probably ranked low.

Despite being the author of the piece, she hadn’t actually read it yet. So, she skimmed it, while Penelope and Gregory did their own internal literary analysis.

"Wasn’t Elizabeth my mother’s name?" Penelope wondered aloud—

"Elizabeth Elizabeth, Lizzie, Liz, third row, second seat over from the window," Cartwright interrupted. "Only one who ever talked to me like I existed. Always wanted to ask her out, never did. Never once. Felt stupid. Didn’t think I was good enough. Tried to be good enough. Went with a bad seed in the end, some local hoodlum, not me, not the good guy. Just a friend. Tried and missed—"

"It’s not relevant," Gregory declared. "In fact I’m not seeing much of anything in here that’s relevant…"

Cass leaned back away from the typewriter, while hanging onto her chair. "This is his life, man. It is what it is. Not my best poem, but I’m under pressure here, y’know? You’re lucky I got this much out on paper. I could try for volume two, maybe…? But this seems to be the whole deal, start to finish. I just write the words, up to you to interpret them."

Scanning the lines up and down, Penelope did her best to interpret. But in her online classes, crusty poetry and really old books were not exactly her strong suit. She was better at math and geometry… logic puzzles, pattern recognition, that sort of thing. Colorful metaphors just felt like fluffy nonsense to her…

Patterns. Might be something to that, actually…

First four lines are about shortcomings. Don’t focus on the whiny life complaints; count the lines in each block, identify the blocks, see how they fit together. Four on shortcomings. Four which detail his life, step by step. Then one single line on its own which breaks that pattern, then four more lines, then done.

That one single line stuck out. It didn’t fit with the others, which meant it called attention to itself.

"One man didn’t miss a key detail that you missed." Penelope spoke, looking back up at Cartwright. "Who and what?"

The memory triggered another stream of babble, much as the teenage memory of schoolboy dreams did.

"The key, the key detail, the keys. Keys on a key ring," the former officer replied. "The boy had four keys, not three. Dougal spotted it. Dougal’s a clever bastard, rising in the ranks, when I never could. He saw the keys. He also saw something in the spiral, the weird crayon-shape. A drawing on a placemat. This is the single most important piece of evidence. The boy. This is the key, Dougal said. The key was the boy was the key…"

She should’ve had a sinking feeling, knowing what the answer to her question was going to be. Not a rising feeling, like something coming to mind which she’d been trying to keep out of her mind…

"What boy…?" Penelope asked.

"Dave Smith," Cartwright recalled. "The key is Dave Smith."

The rising words inside Penelope could be heard loud and clear across her memory, now: You believe Dave is ordinary? They weren’t spoken in a mocking tone originally, in the dream she kept having every night, but right now they certainly felt mocking…

"We’ve gotta get Dave out of there!" Penelope declared. "If Bedlam’s gunning for him, if the Department of Safety gets their hands on him, I can’t believe this, for weeks they’ve been after him and I kept ignoring his emails and calls because you said not to involve him but he’s totally involved and always was and—"

"And we’ll swing by his place to pick him up right now," Gregory agreed. "Poet, get the truck prepped. We’re leaving immediately."

"—what? Really, Dad?"

"Yes, I wanted to keep him out of this. And I’m hardly Dave’s biggest fan, but… clearly the boy’s important in all of this, for some reason. Whatever that reason may be, I want Dave out of Bedlam’s reach. We’ll hide him here in the safehouse until we figure out our next move. …I take it you’re going to insist on riding along on this one, Penny?"

Visibly vibrating with energy, Penny grabbed Cass’s arm, nearly pulling her from her chair. "Let’sgolet’sgolet’sgo!" the teenager yammered, tugging. "Gotta go! Gotta rescue Dave! Move out move out!"

The young explorer pulled her poetic companion from the room, up the basement stairs and into the Lucid Dreamer above before Cass could say a word.

Leaving Gregory alone with his would-be archnemesis.

Cartwright eyed the trusty sidearm that Gregory had taken to wearing at all times. Eyed the gun, and the man, the man with the gun.

"So, now what happens?" he asked, curiously.

"I’d very much like you out of my life," Gregory admitted, knowing what the man really meant. "Not that I personally care one way or another, but you’re a risk factor for my daughter. Unfortunately, she’s also the reason why I have to leave you alive. We’ve got friends here who will keep you fed and watered—and sedated—until we can figure out how to put you back together. So no, I’m not going to shoot you. I’m not the ganger bastard you think I am, Cartwright. I stopped being that long ago… left it behind, for her. Her, and Liz."

With his business here concluded, Gregory turned to leave. Cartwright’s plaintive, almost pleading voice gave him pause.

"I have to know," the broken-down man said. "I have to know. Elizabeth. The two of you went into the Sideways together, but one year later, only you and your daughter came back. The official record chalked it up to an accidental death. …did you kill her? Did you kill the only woman I ever loved?"

The fact that Gregory had to think about how to answer did not ease Cartwright’s mind.

"Yes," Gregory Yates confessed.

And then he explained why.

It was the only thing which kept Cartwright going, and now it was gone. Everything else had been stripped away from him. He’d lost each piece of the laughable excuse that was his life… his career, his sanity, and now his hate. All that remained was the also-ran, the pathetic wretch that knew it was pathetic.

No point anymore. The shining glory of Bedlam didn’t even feel glorious anymore; that illusion had been stripped away when the anger that powered him had faded.

Fortunately for Cartwright, amidst the cots and boxed food and other trimmings of a secret society safehouse, Vivi Wei had brought along a full length mirror. After all, she wanted to look her best, even when she was hiding out. And in this mirror was the blue-eyed answer to his silent prayer for an end to it all.

When Vivi came downstairs to check on their captive, she found a pile of ropes with expertly tied knots loosely draped around an empty chair, with a single teddy bear sitting where Cartwright once sat.

---

An empty chair, with a single teddy bear sitting where Cartwright once sat.

The fuzzy standard definition image winked out, leaving a tiny phosphorescent dot in its wake. Old technology. It caught up so slowly to her, no matter how tightly she clung to the modernity of the city. Strange, so strange the way the wake moved slowly—

"I never saw that," Penelope realized. "I didn’t see that. We came back later and Cartwright was gone, but… but I didn’t see how he left. What happened to him…"

You have to understand. You want to understand—

Pulling at her pigtails, twin shots of pain to distract. Turning her back on the vast array of television sets, on the strange images both familiar and unfamiliar. Turning her back on herself.

"This is a nightmare," Penelope decided. "I’m just having a nightmare. I’m imagining things that never happened, mixed with things I remember happening. That’s completely normal, the way life jumbles up everything on your mind into a stew while you sleep. I’m completely normal…"

You want to be completely normal. I’m sorry. You’re not completely normal.

No more rage at the strangeness of her situation. She was too worn out from the parade of images and that pleading voice, the voice that matched her own. By now, she could barely manage a whimper.

"I want to be," she spoke.

I know. That’s why you are, because you want to be normal. But there are things you need to understand, all the same. I’m so sorry. You are who you are.

"I’m… I’m scared," Penelope admitted… daring to look back, at the other self. "Where am I..?"

Now… the bright child was behind her, offering a comforting embrace. An embrace, and a direct answer. No puzzles to challenge her identity, at least this time.

You’re in the Heart of the City, she explained to herself. You’re here with those you love. Your father, and Dave. You found him.

---

Finding parking for Cass’s box truck took longer than the actual trip out to District 23, home of the Plaza Arms and Dave Smith. Looking for a parking meter which wasn’t occupied, tied to a ridiculously small space, or broken into by people desperate for coinage proved too much for Penelope Yates… after a few minutes of this she simply jumped out of the truck, breaking into a flat run for the door of the apartment building.

Gregory caught up moments later, while Penelope was mashing the call button for Dave’s apartment. And getting no response.

Fortunately the building’s buzzer and lock combo hadn’t been in proper repair for some time, so nothing stood in her way as she busted down the doors (a process much like opening them, but with more vigor) and bounded up the stairs. Technically she’d never been to his apartment before—they were far too busy to stay in touch outside of email and texts—but he’d offered his address long ago, just in case. She’d memorized it.

And on arrival at the door to Apartment 2B, she found it criss-crossed in red-black Department of Safety quarantine tape. Damage to the wood surrounding the doorknob suggested it had been hammered open at some point.

"No no NO. Arghh," Penelope grumbled, giving the door a bit of a kick. "They got him, Dad. We’re too late. Too damn late!"

"Language, honey. And this could’ve happened days ago," Gregory suggested. "There’s no way we could’ve known—"

"Yes, we could have," she countered. "Because he emailed me last night. He was HERE, Dad. We just missed him. If you hadn’t insisted I leave him out of this, if you weren’t hacking my email to make sure I didn’t reach out to him, maybe we could’ve—"

"Hold up. What?" he asked. "Hacking your email?"

"I know when someone’s hit my account, Dad. I’m younger, remember? I know more about tech than you do. I know you’ve been reading my email!"

"…honey, I wouldn’t do that to you," Gregory said. "I trusted you to keep Dave out of our mess. I didn’t need to spy on you. I wouldn’t know how to hack an email account, anyway. If someone was listening in on your mail, it wasn’t me. Why didn’t you tell me about this before?"

"Because you were—! Uh… wait. It wasn’t you? Then… who…?"

"Department of Safety," he concluded. "This would’ve been good to know earlier, Penny. …look. We can talk trust issues later. Right now we need to figure out why the cult wants Dave. And before you suggest it, rescuing him is out—we don’t have the manpower to stage some kind of full-scale raid on a police station, even if we knew where he was. Right now the best thing we can do for him is figure out Seth’s plan, fast, and stop it. Let’s start by searching his apartment…"

Gregory examined the door. Although it had been clearly forced open, the Department was unusually thorough in sealing it up after. Standard quarantine spikes to permanently fasten the door to the frame, and quite a few of them, had been rammed through at various angles. Usually the red-black or yellow-black tape was enough to keep anyone but a desperate Salvager out of a potentially cubist space, but Seth had ensured this place would resist all but the most determined looky-loos.

"We’re going to need a crowbar," he determined. "Hopefully there’s one in all the bric-a-brac rattling around in the back of Cass’s truck. Let’s go figure out where she parked and we’ll sort it out from there."

Her neck was mid-nod… before she noticed the briefest of motions, just behind her father.

"Go on ahead," Penelope suggested. "I’m going to look around a bit, see what I can find out."

"Department of Safety could come back, Penny. I don’t want you out of my sight—"

"They came and went, Dad. And I know how to hide if I gotta. Don’t worry about me," she insisted. "Go get a crowbar. We need to move fast on this, right? We’d have to question the neighbors anyway, may as well split the tasks."

Despite a look of mild suspicion… pragmatism won over, and Gregory decided he indeed needed to move fast. After a few more assurances that she’d stay out of trouble, they split the party.

Leaving Penelope to investigate the one who had been peeking in on their conversation.

The next door neighbor should’ve been in Apartment 2C, but the number was missing from the door. Curious. Penelope knocked away, politely but enthusiastically. Sort of a two-and-a-half knock.

No response.

"Hello?" she tried calling out. "I’m looking for my friend; he lives next door to you. …I saw you listening to us, out here. Can you help? Do you know what happened…?"

One full minute later, and the door opened a crack yet again.

Penelope put on her bestest winning smile, for the benefit of the somewhat nervous-looking woman on the other side of that door. The neighbor was clearly on edge, swimming in a little pool of fear and anxiety. It took her a minute to even acknowledge she’d heard Penelope, and those fingers did tremble as they held onto the doorknob… her eyes stayed fixed on the ground, not even looking at the visitor.

"Th-they took him," the woman said. "Took Dave, they took Dave. Police. Safety officers. Late last night they took him…"

I didn’t tell her his name, Penelope realized. Whoever this was, she knew exactly who Penelope was talking about. Of course, it was normal for neighbors to be on a first name basis, yes? Not that Penelope would know, never having lived in one place long enough to get to know the neighbors—and her father wasn’t the neighborly type, which didn’t help, but… Dave’s email, the one he sent to her alternate account the other night, DID mention "someone who I’m surprised to say I care for quite a bit." It was a stretch, granted, but… a boy and a girl living side by side, and him worried about the well-being of someone who could be on edge…

It was worth a sympathy gamble, at the very least.

"I’m worried about Dave, too," Penelope spoke truthfully. "I’m trying to figure out why they took him. Anything you know could help me, and help him. …did he ever mention me? Penelope Yates? I’m a mapper, I specialize in the Sideways…?"

…which might have been the wrong thing to say. Her eyes widened in recognition, finally looking up to see who was at the door.

"Sh-she doesn’t like you. Any of you. I shouldn’t be talking to you," the woman mumbled. "You look a lot like her. That’s weird. But she doesn’t like you. She only wants me to be happy, she doesn’t want me to get hurt, she knows things are going to get bad with all of you, she doesn’t want me getting close to him because I might lose him I don’t know I don’t know what to do, she took him, I don’t know what to do…"

A bad time for Penelope to recall that Dave had mentioned the source of his concern for this woman being "eldritch bugaboos." Bedlam, perhaps…? Which would also explain the "you look a lot like her" comment. Something Penelope had been trying to forget, as a matter of fact. So much here to untangle, so little time…

Focus on the immediate. That was a lesson Gregory had hammered into her, time and time again. Don’t overcomplicate when lives are on the line.

"I want to help Dave," Penelope promised. "I think you want to help him, too. Please… please, anything you can tell me that will help him, anything at all, would be… um, helpful."

Conflicting emotions. Conflicting goals, clearly, as the woman pensively gripped her doorknob. Penelope could see the minute wobbles of the door on its hinge, as she pondered whether to close it or open it. Pondered the risks.

Honestly, this whole thing was a risk for Penelope. She thought she was just going to gather intel from a neighbor, not potentially poke someone in Bedlam’s camp, if that’s actually how far this went. But she’d gone too far in this short but dangerous conversation not to see it through, especially if someone who cared more about Dave than Bedlam could come over to their side. It was worth the risk…

Apparently the woman agreed, as her door slowly opened.

"I’m Kelsey Jones," she introduced. "And I’ve got my own Sideways shortcut into Dave’s apartment, if you want to use it."

---

By the time Gregory and Cass had found a crowbar, they found the unlabeled door to Apartment 2C wide open, with Penelope waving them in like an airport tarmac director.

One six-foot-long jaunt through the smallest part of the Sideways he’d ever seen later, and the entire group was now in Dave’s apartment. Along with an unfamiliar young woman…

"Long story short," Penelope said, "This is Dave’s next door neighbor who’s a friend of Bedlam but wants to help us help Dave. And the Department of Safety stole a corporate logo sketch that was on this coffee table last night. I saw it sitting there in a photo Dave emailed to me, but it’s gone now. We better get back home, fast, and figure out exactly what it is. Come on, time’s short."

---

Exciting music should’ve been playing. After all, our heroes were setting forth to rescue one of their own—it was to be a grand chase, all across the city and deep into the Sideways, as far as one could go into them.

"We were too late," Penelope recalled. "We didn’t know at the time, but Bedlam was already on her way to the Heart. She’d gotten a huge head start. They had Dave, and they had everything they needed to get access…"

Not everything.

The next monitor rolled into play. This one at least made sense—a high angle shot, down into a Department of Safety interrogation room. An actual, factual video camera could’ve made this recording. How exactly that recording got into her dreams was another story, but she’d given up trying to question exactly what was going on, by this point.

Penelope bit her lip. "I should’ve been there for him," she said. "We kept him at arm’s length. I obeyed Dad, for the most part. And he was being watched by our enemies for every moment we were ignoring him. I keep thinking that if I’d reached out earlier, I could’ve done something… did… did they hurt him? Is it my fault they hurt him?"

Her other self was curious, now. Leaning on the monitor, displaying the interrogation room. If you knew what they did, that would be a memory you couldn’t possibly have had. Dave hasn’t told you what happened. Are you sure you want to know something you couldn’t know?

"Y… yes. I want to know," she decided.

And sat down before the monitor, cross-legged, to watch what was on the tube tonight.

---

Earlier, much earlier…

…Dave Smith was having a terrible night.

For starters, because it was literally how his night started, he got beaten up by a gang of Salvagers and had to go to the emergency room. He was fortunate to get out of that mess with only scrapes and bruises aplenty; the doctors didn’t feel there was a risk of concussion or internal bleeding, so they sent him home. A good night’s rest would be enough to at least help him stabilize.

Unfortunately, an hour or two after Dave crashed out on his couch in sleep, he was awakened by a battering ram to his door. Before he could properly object to men in body armor and riot shield helmets storming his apartment and messing up his recently vacuumed carpet, they had him handcuffed and out the door. They only paused to swipe his house keys from a tray by the door and carefully roll up the full-page Lucid Technologies logo sketch he’d left out.

Now he was having trouble resuming his prior sleep, given he was in an interrogation room deep within some Department of Safety precinct. Fluorescent lights, lack of proper bedding, and extra bruises added on top of today’s pre-existing bruises meant no more sleep for Dave Smith. Sitting upright in a chair and handcuffed to the desk didn’t help matters.

At first he wondered if they came after him for his involvement in the craziness at the Grey Market, but nobody had actually charged him with anything. No mug shots taken, no fingerprinting. Straight from some precinct back entrance into a tidy little room to sit and wait. And wait.

Despite his predicament, he wasn’t particularly worried. Which was worrying, since most people would be worried about being bagged without Miranda rights and dragged off to a cell. But what gave Dave some comfort was that Kelsey wasn’t here—they’d completely ignored her door, compared to the loving attention they paid to his with a battering ram.

If this was about the gang fight earlier, or her cubism outbreak… they didn’t have all the facts. And if they wanted to get those out of Dave, well, he could make up some story that completely omitted her. He knew damn well what the D-o-S did to people with cubism, even the uniquely controllable cubism that Kelsey exhibited. No way he’d help them hurt her.

An hour later Dave learned the truth about his incarceration, gaining the answers he was patiently awaiting. He didn’t like them, but hey. Answers.

Despite being a new arrival to the city, Dave knew who Seth Dougal was. Everybody did. He sat on the City Council, representing the Department of Safety. He ran the show. He had great power and sway. And he was smiling quite, quite widely. Maybe a little too widely for a human mouth.

Seth pulled a chair up to Dave’s table, opposite him.

"So, I suppose you’re wondering what’s going on here," he spoke, after taking time to straighten his green power tie.

"Kinda," Dave admitted. Playing it careful, not to admit to anything.

"You’re not officially here. You’ve committed no crimes and done nothing wrong. Oh, there was that Grey Market incident—I’m well aware of it—but that’s not really of any concern to me," Seth said. "They won’t matter, in the long run. Or the short run, really. No, I had you arrested with no log made of the arrest and delivered here by my most trusted officers so we could torture you for information in an illegal fashion. It’s going to be an extremely unpleasant and if you resist us, you will likely not survive."

The champion of Bedlam awaited some sign that the doom that had befallen this foolish young boy was sinking in. A tired and blank-looking stare wasn’t really what he was looking for. It wasn’t even the blank stare of someone terrified beyond rational thought—Dave Smith was simply rather bored and tired.

"Of course, you could avoid the worst aspects of your miserable fate by cooperating up front," Seth offered anyway, despite a lack of pleading horror. "You have information that we need. Skills we must employ. If you assist us, then I can promise you will in fact survive this night in some shape or another. Given the choice between an agonizing death and a strange existence, most pick existence. It’s the only sane thing to do. Wouldn’t you agree?"

"Can I get some coffee?" Dave asked, instead.

"…what?"

"Coffee. Brown. Hot," he described. "I’ve had a very long day. I’m really very tired, and if you want me to stay awake to listen to this, it’d really help me a lot. I’d appreciate it. Thanks."

"Are you… mocking me, son?" Seth asked, puzzled. "I’m telling you you face horrors beyond your comprehension, a terrible end to your miserable little life, and the best you can offer is to politely ask for coffee? Hmm. Perhaps you’re already quite mad…"

"No, I’m just really tired. Like I said. I really could go for a cup of joe."

Curious now, Seth studied the boy deeper, looking for all the little tell-tale body cues of emotion. Blind courage? No, this wasn’t some playful stance of defiance; the boy looked too slack in his posture for that. Madness? None of the shifting about that normally comes with Bedlam’s flavor of neurological miasmic mess. What sort of ploy was this, what game was he playing? Perhaps Seth had found a formidable opponent, at last…

Undaunted, he continued with his explanation. From his coat, he produced a copy of the Lucid Technologies logo.

"You don’t know what this is," he noted. "You’ve been drawing it and redrawing it ever since you got here, but you don’t know what it is. I do. And more importantly, my partner knows what it is. She also knows it’s incomplete. We had hoped it was complete enough, but sadly, the very last part of the pattern is missing. So. Tonight, you are going to complete your work for us."

Dave blinked several times. "You want a corporate logo? Seriously? I already told Officer Gilt I’d give it to him when I was finished…"

"We’re accelerating the timetable. Outside pressures, you understand, it throws everything off. Annoying elements are getting closer every day to our operations… but that’s not really your concern. This is your concern, this schema of yours."

"But it’s a logo. Black-bagging me over a squiggly little scribble seems a little extreme."

"Ahh, but it’s so much more than a logo… and the ‘corporation’ you drew it for is something of a rival of ours. We want it for ourselves. We want you to finish the drawing. Do this, and we ensure your survival. You refuse, and we tear you apart until nothing remains but a burnt-out husk capable of nothing except finishing the drawing, and then that husk gets repurposed for unspeakable ends. Work with us, or suffer. Will you finish your grand task, Dave Smith…?"

Good. Now the boy was considering this options. Perhaps his surprisingly steely resolve was helping him evaluate this pragmatically; that would give Seth the result he sought. Maybe the boy didn’t fear pain, but surely that meant he was rational enough to make the only rational choice—

"Nah," Dave said, leaning back in his chair. Well, as far as he could with the handcuffs holding him to the desk.

"Hmm. I don’t think you understand the gravity of your situation, son—"

"A good friend of mine said the Department of Safety was up to no good," Dave explained. "She’s in danger because of whatever it is you’re up to. Given the way you’re describing it, making it sound like a bad Lovecraft novel, I’m thinking Bedlam. I’ve seen the city get more and more on edge lately, more cubism, which is obviously related. So if I help you, it helps her, and it hurts my friends. That means I’m not helping you. Sorry. I mean, really, it’d be just stupid to help you. I can’t think of a single good reason to do so."

"Did you not hear me describe the tearing apart and the husk and all that? Don’t you want to live?"

"Oh, definitely. I like living. I don’t particularly want to be husked or whatever, but I’m going to have to say no. Sorry to be a bother about it, honestly."

The lead of the Department of Safety (and Cult of Bedlam) considered this, hands folded together, tapping his upper lip as he pondered… while the overhead flourescents flickered, and grew slowly dim…

"Mortal fear doesn’t seem to be your lever. It works quite well on most, but I suppose we’ll need more to tip you into our hand," Seth said. "Very well. We have ways of conscripting the reluctant into our brotherhood. This is a good-cop, bad-cop routine, you understand. And I’m good-cop. It’s time for you to meet bad-cop."

Dimmer and dimmer. Darkness in the room. The power wasn’t going out, not exactly… the light was being swallowed by something, drowned out. The inverse of shining a light in a dark corner; this was shining a dark in a light corner…

And soon, they were not alone.

The living shadow manifested, sitting cross-legged on the interrogation table. Inches away from Dave’s face. Wrapping around his being. Moving through him.

Hello // hello // hello, Bedlam echoed, through the tiny interrogation room. Smiling, smiling away with a million smiles, the cat who was about to swallow the canary. I’ve wanted you for some time. // You took away the scout from me. // You put her mind back together, and she faded away soon after. // Murderer. // Thief. // I will murder you. // I will steal your mind. // I will make you serve me, I will take you apart and put you together as my new friend, my toy...

Unthinkable geometries twisted the room, adding new corners where corners didn’t exist before. Living nightmare replaced waking dream, enveloping all Dave could see, replacing all he could hear with the white noise of chaos. Bedlam began to pulse with the sickened throb of a maddened mind, pouring herself into him, filling him with her idealistic night terrors…

You’ll know fear few have ever experienced. // I’ll remake you in my image. // But the fear, the fear is just a // birth // birth pain. // A becoming. // Becoming my friend // best friends forever. // Once you emerge through fear and out the other side // out in the world of perfect nightmare // on the other side of terror where madness is sanity, you’ll see the glory of—

"But I already did that once," Dave pointed out.

Immediately, the twisting shadows froze. Mid-twist.

What. //

"Through fear and out the other side, right? I already did that," Dave explained. "Long ago. My anxiety got so intense, beyond medication, so far beyond anything rational that I just… burst through. Then I didn’t really worry anymore. I’m sorry, but I’m just not afraid of you. I’m too broken to be afraid at times like these. I mean, it’s really creepy, I think you’re doing a great job and I’m quite impressed, but things like this can’t shake me. That’s sort of the only thing I’m good at, actually."

The burning green eyes of the nightmare child bored deep inside Dave. And found… fear. There was fear, it was the core of his being, but… it wasn’t fear she could grasp. It was a hollow and shriveled fear, an old one, which now fit him like a comfortable shoe. Useless to her.

Kill you. // I could kill you. // I should kill you for hurting my friends.

"Mr. Dougal already suggested that, and I’d be okay with it," Dave pointed out. "It’d keep my friends safe, after all. I wouldn’t enjoy it much, but…"

Kill your friends. // Twist the lucid child in half. // Always wanted to. // Destroy Penelope Yates. // Burn your little sister to the ground. // Nothing but ash in your mouth…

"That’s not much of a threat, either. I think if you could do that, you’d have done it by now. I sympathize, Gregory is a pretty scary dude. I can’t recommend tangling with him, he even gives me the willies sometimes."

The smiles of Bedlam twisted around into fractal sub-smiles.

Kelsey Jones // Kelsey // The Troublemaker // Kelsey could die. // I could kill her. // You want to keep your friends safe, yes? // You would obey me if I threatened to kill Kelsey Jones.

That should work. Bedlam saw that inside his fear, a fear for his friends. This would be her lever…

"I don’t think you’ll kill her, actually," Dave spoke, calmly. "You don’t want to hurt your friends, either."

I’ve hurt friends. // I ate Montgomery. // His terror was delicious.

"But Kelsey’s different. She accepts you, right? Really thinks you’re not beyond redemption," Dave pointed out. "In fact, I’d say she’s probably the best friend you have. Unlike Seth here, she’s kind-hearted. She also sees beauty and grace in the things you do, in the nonsense of the Sideways Signals. I don’t fully get it myself, but I’ve got faith that she’s right about you, that you’re not entirely horrible. And I don’t think you’d want to sacrifice your only real friend just to push me around."

Now it was Dougal’s time to chuckle. "Cute, but wrong. I can have Miss Jones in a cell with the snap of my fingers," he suggested, holding up two fingers to snap for emphasis. "We can have her beaten to within an inch of her life. We can violate her body and mind in ways you can’t dream of, and make you listen to her screams all the while—"

// … no.

The fingers remained unsnapped.

"What?"

// not her. // she is not leverage.

Sensing his chance at prying the design loose from Dave Smith, the chosen of Bedlam chose to make his opinion known.

"Bedlam… listen. Friend. You have to understand the importance of this," Seth suggested. "You trusted me to run your cult, to organize it in ways you can’t organize things. I ask you to trust me on this. If we can use that pathetic shut-in’s pain to make him ours, we have to do so. This is the process we must go through, if you are to befriend the whole city—"

Now Bedlam was in Seth’s face, spinning about, burning with eyes of green flame that briefly turned his immaculate white suit a pale green from the sheer glow.

// NO. // No, // she declared. // You do not touch her. // You do NOT. // Dave is the key. // Dave has the keys. // He will not go mad and join us as a conscript. // He will not save his own skin. // He will not help us. // But we don’t NEED him to finish his task. // We do this my way.

"But without the complete design, the last leg of the journey is a blank. Brute forcing a lock is hardly a plan, and we can’t even know which lock that key will fit—"

// Don’t care. // This city must be saved. // I must befriend all. // So, we will tear that place apart until we find the source. // I will not be denied, not when I am this close. // Burn it all. // Destroy it all. // Every lock, the key in every lock until one opens. // Tear this city apart if need be to put it back together correctly. // We go, NOW. // The road is long. // Bring him. // He may yet be of use. // We are going to the Heart of the City. //

---

Right before everything went to hell, there was a gathering.

Here stood the ones who knew, on some level, that they were all tied to something—or someone—very important. Few really recognized that connection, or wanted to recognize it. That didn’t matter. The words and numbers had followed them around, leading them up to this moment. All of them, under one roof, in one room, to learn what was to come.

An ominous descriptor, one probably worthy of carefully typed poetry by their resident wordsmith, but at the time none of them felt particularly poetic about it. They had a problem on their hands to chew through.

The poet was there, Cassandra the oracle who saw through people and could write their stories. Earlier this year she was perfectly content to drive a taxi and fail to light the world on fire with her long-line poems that aped the style of her mentor. Being nothing of consequence outside of a strange hallucinatory brain fungus was just fine in her book. Now, she was acting as a combination of chauffeur and interrogator for a rebel alliance and not entirely comfortable with that fact.

Her benefactor was there, Scarlett the soothsayer who rose from her pillow each morning with the plight of those in need firmly in mind. Many a decade she’d strolled through this city, and gained a kinship with its stranger side that few would accept. She accepted it gratefully. In fact, she was pleased as punch to be here now, right when things were going to get very strange indeed.

The questioner was there, Marcy the painter who put forward her one-word challenges all over the city. Waking people up to the nonsense of their lives had been her calling, and she fell into the rebel role quite nicely. It had empowered her art these last few weeks, desperately trying to get the word out not to trust the forces of Bedlam who demanded complacency and fear from the masses… even if few paid much attention to her words, which were often painted over by lunchtime the next day.

The empath was there, Vivi the dancer who heard the true and unspoken voice of people. On the surface, joining in this little group had gotten her career truly launched with a club of her own… but she’d come to care of these strange folks who hid in her club’s basement, knowing them personally, wishing them well. Even if on some level, having experienced the horror that Bedlam wished to unleash firsthand, she worried about how much of a fool’s errand this would be.

The old guard were there, Archibald Tully and Karla Berkowitz and Johnny the Maître d’. Survivors of the old 7th Street Scavengers. Unrecognizable now if you knew them once as Archie Crowbar and Kut-ya-up Karla and Johnny the Icepick, but despite the rotund trappings of middle age, they carried themselves like bulldogs. Cuddly, yet fierce… and ready to swoop in to extract throats if things came to that.

The chaotician was there, Kelsey Jones, the online Troublemaker. And she was not happy to be here. The whole building felt weird, and there were teddy bears everywhere that seemed to stare at her. Scarlett wasn’t pleased she was here, either… someone that closely knit with Bedlam, in the heart of the Lucid Dreamer. But Penelope had insisted Dave would want her to be here and be safe, therefore Kelsey would stay. Even if she was having doubts about throwing her hat in with this crowd.

The paternal figure was there, Gregory Yates. Formerly a no-good punk named Kegstand Greg who roughed people over and stole and generally did not give a word-he-doesn’t-say-anymore, but that foolish boy was long gone. The man in his place had been changed forever, and now stood by his daughter’s side, to protect her from all the evils of the world. He stood ready for a fight, even here in their secluded safehouse.

And then there was Penelope Yates.

"We need to figure out what this is," she explained, setting her tablet computer down on the cheap folding card table. "Dave emailed me the design last night. Whatever it is, this may be why Bedlam’s kidnapped him. He’s been working on it since… well, even before we found him in the Sideways, he was working on it. And this is the crazy part—he told me once he was hired by a company called ‘Lucid Technologies’ to make it. Name ring a bell?"

"Th-the club?" Kelsey offered. She tugged at one of the long sleeves of her shirt, as if trying to stretch it out, hide deeper inside it. "S-sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt, just… just trying to be useful…"

"No, no, you’re right. It’s ‘Lucid’. Like the Lucid Dreamer. The word’s been following us around a lot. I know Grandma Scarlett likes to use it. …why is that, anyway?"

Scarlett clicked her dentures, once. "It’s a fine word," she justified. "It suggests clarity and understanding. No haze of lies or misdirection. And a lucid dream is one that you control… which is what I do. I use the voice within me to guide my dreams, and help children in need. That’s why I suggested it as a name for the club to Vivi."

A raised hand, from Marcy.

"Sorry, I was just interping with my sis, and… she says she came up with the name on her own," Marcy explained, while Vivi nodded along. "It was on her list of possible names, right before you came up and suggested it…"

"All the more reason it’s important," Penelope said, to bring things back around. "So that means the drawing might be important, too. He’s been mailing me drafts of it—and the Department of Safety might’ve been watching my email. Also, Dave’s boss works for the D-o-S and wanted him to finish the design, too. This was the only item we know they stole from his apartment when they kidnapped Dave. So. We need to figure out what this is."

The combined minds in the room gathered around the high-resolution photo, studying it. And studying it. And studying it.

"It’s a scribble," Gregory decided. "Case closed."

"Daaad! Unhelpful."

"Sorry, honey, but that’s what I see. It’s a scribbly spirally thing. Like you’d stick to a fridge with a magnet when you just wanted your kids to be happy. —uh, for the record, I loved your drawings. Legitimately."

Cass crouched down, studying the tablet computer closer. Scratched her chin. Frowned. "Not really seeing anything in this, and I’m supposedly the one who sees into things," she said. "Search me. You say this Dave character sent you earlier versions, right? Maybe it’s like a flip book animation, or somethin’. You still got them on file?"

"Yeah, uh, hang on, let me…"

Penelope reached over, flicking through her image library. She’d set it up so all email drafts and map files and photos of her friends got dumped into one huge pile of pictures… which actually wasn’t very helpful, now that she thought of it. She flipped past photos of Milly and Lucas, EchoMap dumps of Sideways crawls, old drafts of Dave’s logo, a photo of Karla passed out drunk on an armchair that she thought was funny which was just sort of embarrassing right now, more logo drafts, more EchoMaps, more…

Her fingers paused, still making contact with the touch-sensitive glass surface. Then flicked back.

EchoMaps. Logo drafts. Flick left, flick right.

"It’s a map," Penelope realized.

"That scratchy thing is a map?" Gregory asked. "I’m not seeing it."

"No, no, it is! Here, look, I… just… hang on a minute. I need to do some crazy CSI stuff here…"

She retrieved the tablet from the table, having a seat on the floor and firing up an image editing program. Normally she only used it to color the red out of people’s eyes in pictures or put captions on cats, but now it was going to have to pull duty as a collage maker.

For the base, she put Dave’s latest draft. On top of it, she pulled in any EchoMap dumps she could get. Make them translucent, start rotating and scaling them. Like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to find where the edges fit… except in this case, it was finding where the line carved a path through existing hallways and rooms…

Penelope didn’t even notice the small crowd gathering behind her, to watch over her shoulder. She was onto something here, she could feel it. Downloaded as many maps as she could from the cloud, ones she couldn’t fit in on her tablet because they were too huge. Deleted a few games to make room. She could lob birds at pigs some other day—this was way more important.

Fifteen minutes later, and the overlapped ghosts of Sideways maps covered a good portion of the spiral. Very little towards the absolute center, where the line skittered off to nothing—Dave did mention in his email that it wasn’t quite finished—but she had a starting point.

"An Outlands Sideways access point at the Gas ‘n Eats Diner," she announced. "It’s on an endless highway. Dad and I explored it, once. That’s where the map starts. Then… follow my finger, here… it goes through some parts of the Outlands branches of the Sideways… and apparently connects to a section I explored in the Suburbs, a toy store. From there it’s into the City-level Sideways, and on and on until… well, I don’t know where it eventually leads. Somewhere deep. But it’s all non-Euclidean connections and shortcuts, using hallways we hadn’t explored yet—the overall path probably runs a lot a shorter than it looks. Point is… this is a map."

"A spiral down through the layers," Kelsey thought aloud.

The attention this brought her was not pleasant.

"S-sorry, it’s just… I’ve always thought of it as layers," she explained. "Like network protocol layers. Or better, a cake, a tiered cake turned upside down. Larger to smaller, deeper you go. I mean, think about it. The Outlands are huge, and sit on top. Then one layer down are the Suburbs, smaller… then the City itself, small but densely networked. And connecting it all together are the Sideways. Down and down, spiraling, large to small, like an upended cone, and it spirals down to… to… a point. An origin point. A heart…"

"The heart of the city," Penelope spoke, to complete the thought. "The toy store guy said Bedlam wanted to get to the heart of the city. It’s a silly term, I know, but this must be a map that leads you there! Look, it IS like a cone, and that means it all spirals and flows upward from a single origin point at the very tip of that cone. The very bottom of it all. That’s what Bedlam’s looking for, the City’s origin point! Like a river’s source! Like… like… I’m out of metaphors here but I think you get what I’m aiming at."

Gregory scratched his chin, unsure. "I don’t like putting money down on metaphors and guesswork," he pointed out. "But whatever’s at the end of this map, it’s something we do not want Bedlam having access to. That’s pretty obvious. Here’s how we’re going to… Kelsey? Something wrong?"

Their newest member was hugging herself with both arms. Trembling.

"I… I think she’s on her way already, actually," Kelsey spoke, through clenched teeth. "Getting closer and closer. It’s like… like that sick feeling in your stomach when you know things are going wrong. Rises up, from below. I can feel it. I’m. I’m gonna lose it. You need to get away from me. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’m cubist. I’m sorry. I’m messing everything up, I just wanted to help Dave, I’m your enemy, you can’t be around me // you can’t // I’m lost // I can’t—"

Backing away, slowly. All of them, as the girl flickered. Gregory had his hand on the hilt of his gun, ready…

One didn’t back away. She put her arms around the terrified young woman. Brittle arms, but warm and tight enough to keep her in place.

"Shhhh. Shhh, child," Grandma Scarlett whispered. "You’re not lost. No one is. Be still, be calm."

"You can’t // you can’t—"

"I can. The bears that we use, our guardians? They are love," Scarlett explained. "I’ve seen you shy away from them, but you don’t need to. Loving dreams were shared with them, and now they share them with you. That shines through the darkness of any nightmare. Shhh. Be still. …I’d best leave you young folks to this affair. Poor Kelsey needs my undivided attention if she’s to make it through this night, I feel."

Slowly, she led the frightened girl away from the others. But did pause… to glance back at Penelope, specifically.

"Remember that, child," she spoke, with determination. "No one is lost. No one."

With that oddly intoned note in her wake, the two departed.

"…right. As I was saying, it’s a good old-fashioned Sideways crawl for us," Gregory said, deciding to take over now that the theory portion of the evening was complete. "We beat Bedlam to the heart, we don’t have to find out what happens when a chaos god pokes the origin point with a stick. Since it’s a non-Euclidean path we’re going to have to start at the beginning—the Gas ‘n Eats Diner. Otherwise we could stray off track too easily. Good thing we know a shortcut to get there. Archie and Karla, you’re with me. I’ll need muscle and guns. Johnny, stay here to guard my daughter and the others. Let’s move. "

"Do I seriously need to say it, Dad?" Penelope interrupted. "Seriously?"

"You’re not going with us," Gregory declared. "Honey, I said you’d be with me on this crazy adventure, but I’m willing to break my word when it’s this important. We’re going face-to-face with Dougal and his pet chaos goddess, and there’s no way this ends without violence. I’m not putting you in harm’s way."

"I’m going with you, and you can’t stop me."

"Actually, yes, I can," he stated. "I’ve gotten adept at tying crazy cultists to chairs, and—where the hell did Cartwright go, anyway? Ugh, not dealing with that right now—and I’ll do the same to my own daughter if I need to, to keep her out of the firing line—"

Before he could stop her, Penelope keyed a sequence into her tablet computer, and its screen went dark.

"Gesture lock," she announced. "My tablet. My map. And now, I’m the only one who can access it. Good luck getting to the heart without me."

Which was enough to test even Gregory’s legendary patience with his precocious daughter. Muscles tensed behind his skin as he tried to maintain composure; a headache was not far behind.

"Penny, we do not have time for this," he tried to reason.

"Penelope," she corrected.

"What?"

"My name is Penelope. Use my real name," she spoke, glaring him down. "I may be young but I’ve been through more gnarly stuff this year than most adults. I’m done being treated like a child. If I have to resort to a childish trick to get you to deal with me, that’s only because you won’t see me as anything other than your little Penny. But Penelope has her own damn good reasons for wanting go with you."

"Really. And what, exactly, are those?" Gregory asked, crossing his arms. "You want to be an adult? Reason with me like one. Why should you go with me into the middle of an assault? …is it about that Dave character? Please tell me it’s not just about Dave."

"Of course not. This about more than Dave. This is about what I’ve always wanted: to know this city’s heart," she explained. "What do you think I’ve been trying to do during all these years I insisted we crawl around the Sideways? I want to know. I NEED to know and understand the truth of this city. And if this map is right, X marks the spot where I can get some answers. If you don’t take me with you… then all that’s gone to waste. This may be dangerous, but that doesn’t matter. This is my life, Dad, and my dream. Let me have it."

…which left Gregory in something of a pickle.

He’d been struggling with this for a long time. Penny was certainly a kid, being only thirteen years old. But… Gregory had been about her age when he got started with the gang, scouring the Sideways and running wild and being an independent spirit. But… he’d also been pretty stupid about it all at the time, being only a kid. But he valued that independence all the same, and wouldn’t he want the same for his daughter? But she was going to make mistakes, and had in fact made mistakes even in recent history. But, but, but

Days like these, Gregory truly wished Lizzie was still here. She was the smart one. She pulled him back from the brink when he was a self-destructive little punk, and he’d been trying to do the same for Penelope. And failing.

But…

It’s not like Lizzie was all caution and responsibility. Gregory’s idealized memory of her was one of poise and maturity, but each day he saw more of Penny in her. After all, Lizzie was the one who wanted to get into mapping and exploring, to put her husband’s talents at scavenging to better use. For all her maturity, she was also ready to face foolhardy danger in the name of something greater. And now, so was Penelope.

So, he could either fight his daughter in this over and over, holding her back from the inevitability of growing up… or he could give her room to fly, and do his best to keep her from crashing in the process.

"You’re not getting a gun," he warned. "You’re staying in the back of the group and we’re taking point. And if things go sour you’re going to run for the nearest exit back to the City you can find—because as much as you want to follow this map to the end of the road, the end of the road will be Bedlam if we screw up. Understood?"

Penelope was already stuffing her tablet in her backpack by the time he finished.

"Understood," she agreed. Apparently with enough caution and responsibility to know what points to argue, and which ones to roll with. "Let’s go… do… thing. Move out? Roll out? I really want to say something cool and badass right now other than just ‘let’s go,’ but I can’t think of anything awesome—"

"Let’s go," Gregory decided.

---

As much as Penelope wanted to, she couldn’t pause periodically to take EchoMap readings. This wasn’t an explorative journey into the Sideways, which were normally slow and calculated affairs, studying every nook and cranny. This time, they moved with purpose, following a line which charted a path through territory both familiar and unfamiliar.

Normally a Sideways crawl could take days… or longer, if your route went non-Euclidean and you weren’t paying enough attention to notice. When pathways weren’t two-directional and doorways led to different rooms depending on the direction you approached from, the Sideways went from being a curious thing to a deadly thing. Plenty of amateur mappers and even professional Department of Resources mappers had been lost forever from careless wanderings. Even Penelope’s dad got lost down here for a year… the same year she was born. The same year her mother died.

So even if they wanted to move quickly—and they did move quickly, at least compared to the speed of an exhaustive survey—they had to move cautiously. The four of them traveled as a pack, loaded with backpacks full of supplies which could keep them alive should they get lost. Although if they did get lost and Bedlam reached the end of the map before them… well, nobody quite knew what would happen, but it would not likely be pleasant.

"Next left," Penelope announced, glancing up from her tablet while carefully stepping around discarded toys. "The back stock room. The Sideways continue through there. I saw it when I was down here with Lucas and Milly."

"Bedlam’s been after this for some time," Gregory interpreted. "If she got this far already then they were probably tapped into your email for some time, getting the drafts that Dave sent you, trying to figure out where they were eventually going to lead. We’re lucky they don’t know about your second account. Maybe they don’t know we’ve got the completed map."

"It’s not actually complete, though. Dave said he was almost finished…"

"Obviously it’s complete enough, or Bedlam wouldn’t be making her move now. We get lucky, we can come up behind them, and… stop them," Gregory chose to phrase.

The one-word unspoken question hung in the air, after that.

So, Karla busied herself with distracting Penny. They didn’t need some secret plan or hand signal; the 7th Street Scavengers had an odd sense of each other, and Karla knew when to run interference. Giving Archie and Gregory some time to whisper in private, moving ahead of the other two.

"…how?" Archie filled in, speaking the question. "How exactly are we going to stop Bedlam? Three middle-aged former punks and a kid are not a formidable army. What’s your plan?"

Making sure Penelope wasn’t looking… Gregory unslung the backpack from his shoulder, tugging the zipper down. Then tugging it back up, once Archibald Tully had an eyeful.

"Seriously," Archie replied, unsure if his buddy was serious.

"Seriously," Gregory spoke seriously.

"Grenades? C4? I’m not even going to ask where you got military-grade explosives. We didn’t play with toys like that even when we were dangerous dudes," Archie pointed out. "I’m also not going to point out that setting off bombs in the Sideways is an extremely bad idea. You’ve heard the same tall tales I have. Blowing away walls, holes that lead to nothingness, or weirder than weird things…"

"Fire and explosives are the best ways to take out a Picasso. My sidearm’s good for intimidating Salvagers who mess with us, but Picassos are too disembodied for me to reliably find a center of mass to shoot at. Splash and area of effect is the key. Bedlam’s the Picasso to end all Picassos, so I brought the booms to end all booms."

"Taking you along with her."

"If that’s what it takes, yes," Gregory agreed. "I do what it takes to protect my daughter. If that means asking my best friend to grab her and run for it while I blow Bedlam to hell, so be it. Lizzie would want you to watch over her when I’m gone."

"Yeah, no, that’s not happening. Give me your backpack."

"Archie—"

"I’m getting old, Gregory. I’ve got half my life in front of me but I’ve also got half my life behind me, and nothing comparatively important to show for it. Yes, I have a fish restaurant which offers gainful employment to our futureless miscreants, that’s good stuff… but you have considerably more ahead of you than I do. You’ve got her. You’ll see her grow and move on and have kids of her own, one day. If someone IS going to splatter Bedlam, it’s better that I do it than deny you all that."

Gregory let out a trademarked groan. "Look—"

"You know, you’re way too used to getting your way. Father knows best, right?" Archie continued. "But this year, things haven’t gone your way. Your daughter’s turning into an independent young woman. She’s making connections that you normally shun, pushing the world away to keep her safe. Just consider this another in a long string of things you are no longer in charge of, and be happy for it. If you’d just let go once in a while, maybe you’d be a happier man. You know Lizzie wouldn’t want you this wound up all the time."

Defeated, Gregory swapped backpacks with his old friend and mentor.

"All I’ve been trying to do is what Elizabeth would’ve wanted me to do. She wanted me to raise our daughter, and protect her."

"No, she wanted you to raise your daughter," Archie corrected, adjusting the backpack straps. "You tacked on the protection racket yourself. Look, man, you’re family. Love and blood. You ran with me in the streets, you married my sister, you got me set up good. You did right by her, in the end. Let me do this for you. Assuming I even HAVE to do it. Who knows, we might have a ray of hope in our future."

Hopeless.

Endless.

Terror.

Leaning hard against the wall, Gregory desperately tried to catch his breath. Which was strange, because he couldn’t recall how that breath got away from him. A glance through his blurred vision confirmed the others staggering and fading as well… the wave of nausea and anxiety building deep within his belly echoed on them, as well…

Nothing had changed. Just another hallway in the Sideways. No monsters in sight. And yet, something had not so much tickled as throttled Gregory’s primitive lizard hindbrain. The fight-or-flight instinct was screaming for flight, even if there was nothing to fly from…

Gradually, the burst subsided… but left tension in the air. Heavy tension where none should exist. Granted they were headed down to the origin point of the city and towards unknown doom, but this felt more like an external tension, something being forced on them.

"What… the… heck?" Gregory mumbled, as he very, very slowly regained control. Control enough not to swear, of course, Lizzie disliked swearing. "What the heck was that…?"

---

"It was Bedlam! It was Bedlam, she’s down there already! You have to move faster!"

Gripping the CRT tube, shaking it by the wood grain frame. Didn’t even realize she was doing it, until she did it.

…which immediately made Penelope feel self-conscious. It was like shouting ‘Don’t go in there!’ while watching a horror movie. But this wasn’t a movie of the week, this was recent events, playing out in front of her. Conversations she wasn’t privy to alongside things she remembered well…

"We were ten steps behind the whole way," she explained to herself. "Didn’t know it at the time. We thought we were hot on her heels, but she was already there. —already down here, at the Heart of the City. She’s here now, isn’t she? Down here with me. That’s what this really is. I’m disjointed, I’m messed up, I’m… I’m going cubist, aren’t I? Picassos lose sense of time and space…"

You could be. It might happen. Surviving her nightmare is up to you—a nightmare and a dream are variations on the same thing, she told herself. You’re afraid. You’re afraid to see these things, yes? Aren’t you afraid you’re slipping further away?

"Hmm. I don’t think I am. Not actually slipping away, I mean," Penelope realized. "I’m seeing what happened, what really happened. I think I’m putting things together, not falling apart. …I know what I want to see. When Bedlam started banging around down here, trying to bust down the doors, and we felt that wave of despair… what happened up there? Back home. If Bedlam running wild in the Heart of the City felt like that to us in the Sideways… what’d it feel like to everybody up in the City itself?"

This time, she pulled the TV set in herself. Didn’t feel the reluctance she felt before, had no intention of looking away—she needed to make sure her friends were safe. Even if she went completely insane and ended up wandering the Sideways forever as a lonely ghost, at least she would know if the others survived this disaster…

---

Night was falling on the city, in more ways than one. And the moment the sun went down—by coincidence or perhaps by design, no one would ever know—it began.

The entire City had been on edge for weeks. Nobody knew why; nobody was having unpleasant and foreboding dreams or anything like that, but tensions ran high. Arguments and fights. People confining themselves to their homes, afraid to go out. Cubism incidents on the rise, and the Department of Safety unable or unwilling to keep it all under control. Plenty of dire warnings in the media about it all, safety alerts and recommendations, which did nothing to ease the mind—and in fact were designed for the exact opposite…

One night, the dam started to leak. Which was better than the dam bursting, but when the dam represents the collective psychological state of the world and the water represents reality-twisting madness, even a small leak can be disastrous.

What triggered the leak, no one knew. No one outside the circle that had grown around the Lucid Dreamer, that is.

They could feel it, even in a building lined with Grandma Scarlett’s hand-sewn shields of faith. The mood of the entire City darkened—every layer of it, from the City to the Suburbs all the way to the Outlands. That strange feeling that crawls up the spine for no reason began crawling up every spine simultaneously…

Normally, a sudden wave of ominous dread would be a little odd, but not represent a huge problem. But for a populace being gradually dosed every single day in Nightmare Fuel, it was a one-two punch to the sanity that many couldn’t take.

The first sign was Kelsey’s scream. Scarlett was there, trying to soothe her, but she’d already embraced the chaos long ago… that toehold plus the N.F. in her veins would’ve been enough to instantly spike her deep into the depths of cubism, if not for the sanctuary she was taking refuge in. As is, she simply suffered and cringed in agony.

"It’s over, it’s over," Kelsey burbled, through tears. "We lost. Everything’s lost. She won. She wants me to be perfect, like her. Wants everybody to become like her. Scared. So scared. I… I don’t want to be like her. I want to stay here. With Dave. With all of you. Please. Please, help me…"

"Shhh. Shhh. You are safe in these walls, young one," Grandma Scarlett assured. "We are protected by the purest compassion imaginable. You will not become like her as long as you stay with us…"

Cass did her best not to shiver. "That is damned creepy feeling," she admitted, wrapping her arms around herself. "What is this, some side effect of the drug? But we’ve been drinking bottled water! Freaky… like someone walking on your grave. …no, like someone dying on top of your grave. Like death on top of death, pushing you down into the dirt. Like—"

"I know you enjoy your wordplay, Cassandra, but I suggest this is not the moment to indulge."

"Uh. Right. Sorry, ma’am…"

Moments later, Marcy and Vivi ran downstairs from the club above, Marcy carrying a laptop computer. She put it down on the table, where the others of their little band had gathered.

"It’s exploding all over the net," she explained, with signs for her sister’s benefit. "Picassos, everywhere! Out in the open! It’s a disaster and a half. The Department of Safety precincts are loaded with them. Nobody knows what to do except stay home and hide. Did… did Bedlam already win? …I don’t know what to do. What the hell are we gonna DO? "

Given that the rebel alliance consisted of a poet, a dancer, a graffiti artist and a guy formerly adept with an icepick… a silent consensus was reached that not much could actually be done.

"Are we boned? Seriously. Just tell me if we’re boned," Marcy requested. "Be honest."

The contrary opinion was given by the most helpless of the bunch, the frail old woman trying to comfort Kelsey.

"No, we are not ‘boned,’ as you so politely put it. So long as we can draw breath, we must. We must live, and have faith. Meanwhile… there is in fact something we can do. If the city is falling to chaos, we need to save as many people as we can."

Cass nodded, thinking she’d caught on right away. "The building. It’s laced with anti-Picasso bears. We gotta go out there—it’s dangerous as hell, but we gotta grab as many folks who haven’t flipped out and gone cubist as we can and bring them here. Gotcha."

"Mmmm. Well, no. Rather the opposite, I’m afraid," Scarlett corrected. "I hope you brought your running shoes."

---

C-average, right down the board. Not the best, not the worst. Unnotable in every respect—not even notably upset about being unnotable. Janice was simply content to be someone who is a person who is alive in a place. Is content. Will be content.

She was content to go out and get the groceries today, despite feeling oddly unsettled by the sky. Janice hadn’t been agoraphobic in the past, but lately every action she took had a measure of apprehension behind it. Unsure about going out, could be mugged, could get lost. Unsure about driving on the roads, could get in an accident, could be late for dinner, could lead her family to worry about her, could, could, could…

It didn’t make sense. But very little made sense right now. C-average, right down the board. No more homework today. She’d graduated a long time ago. She was tired and wanted to go home. Why didn’t anything make sense?

Her groceries were out of their bag. She’d spilled them, when she lost her mind. Now they were in a state of flux around her; bananas were oranges were milk, eggs were potato chips. Paper or plastic. Maybe both at the same time, hard to say, really… they had a glossy feel and a matte feel. Everywhere, all around her, bagged and ready to carry home.

Going home would be lovely right now. There’d be less screaming at home, hopefully.

So much running and screaming today. Mostly running away from her and screaming. Why? Janice needed help. She needed someone to tell her things were going to be okay, because right now, they didn’t feel the slightest bit okay. Everything was wrong in every possible respect. Cars were being shoved or bent or broken as she walked by them, trying to catch up with people, trying to talk to them. Excuse me, what’s going on, did you feel that just now, I’m a bit worried about all this, why can’t I feel myself here right now, what, help // help // what…

I’m a Picasso, some part of her realized. But no, of course not, she couldn’t be a Picasso. She didn’t go traipsing around in the Sideways, she wasn’t depressed, she hadn’t been flickering or jittering… there weren’t any signs. People didn’t just go Picasso out of nowhere. Even if they were feeling oddly alarmed all the time. All the time. Alarm bells. Ringing and ringing—

A half-brick punctured her shopping bag self. Paper or plastic. It became both.

"HEY! Hey, over here! You great big freaky grocery thing!"

Someone threw something at her. She stopped trying to flag down a bystander to ask what was going on, focusing instead on whoever did that…

Kids these days, honestly // Hello, what’s going on? // Help me help me I don’t understand // two dozen should be enough with the pancake mix, she called out to the young woman.

Moving towards her, now. Not walking, just… moving. She was running away, running away from Janice, but Janice always seemed to be exactly twenty feet behind. That meant moving through a bus stop and a parked car but for some reason they didn’t pose much of a hindrance.

Hours or minutes later and Janice was bursting through a wall of glass and neon and staggering and catching her breath in lungs which finally started existing again. All her fresh produce and cereal boxes dropped to the floor around her, scattered… as a blanket was tossed over her shoulders.

"Okay, okay, we got ya," another woman spoke, one with glasses and one of those funny old-timey hats. She moved in to support Janice, as her knees weakened. "Easy, now. You’re safe and sound."

"Wh // what… what just happened?" Janice asked, confused. "Excuse me, what’s going on? I was out shopping, and suddenly I felt the strangest thing, and… oh. Oh God. I was a Picasso, wasn’t I…?"

"Briefly. But you’ll be fine in here; nobody can go Picasso behind these walls," Cass explained. "S’why we’re rescuing as many of you as we can. I gotta get back out there and bring someone else in. Head to the bar with the others, Vivi’s got a teddy bear and some water for you."

---

Cubism above, spreading through the city like a stain on the carpet. Slow and creeping, but utterly inevitable, and very difficult to get rid of. Penelope didn’t know any of that was happening knew that was happening, she knew, somehow she knew because she was going mad, mad at the Heart of the City, wasn’t she but even if she knew, she didn’t have time to worry about it. Because they had their own cubism to deal with.

The last stretch of the map was traversed at a full sprint. A bad thing to do in the poorly lit and chaotic realm of the Sideways—you never knew when the next door would join to a hallway at a funny angle, or when a toppled over piece of furniture shrouded in darkness would trip you up. Normally, Penelope and Gregory crawled the sideways at a, well, crawl. Safety first. But ‘safety first’ also meant not crawling around when you’re being chased by Picassos.

Picassos. Plural. Two of them.

Whether they accidentally stumbled across the stomping grounds of these two wayward souls or if Bedlam sent them on an intercept course, the end result was the same. They had to move it or lose it.

Penelope ran in the middle of the pack, with Karla and Archie behind her and Gregory leading the way. Occasionally they had to give her a little push or help her when she stumbled—reading a map on her smart tablet to ensure they didn’t take a wrong turn while running for her life was not particularly easy. And if they did take a wrong turn, if they went through some non-Euclidean one-way connection… they could be lost for good. Then, it’d just be a matter of time before the Picassos hot on their heels got them.

Naturally, one of them spoke with a creepy little girl’s voice, echoing down the endless hallways.

Kicker lane active // ball 1 locked // ball 2 locked // no jackpot for you, she chimed, with a voice like the bells and beeps of a pinball machine. My friend wants you drained out // down the center drain // game over for all of you // over // over and over…

No doubt there was a very interesting story as to why a child obsessed with pinball was chasing them, a cloud of blinking lights and spinning bits of plastic and steel ball bearings, but Penelope didn’t have time to ponder her origin story at the moment.

As for the second Picasso… that one didn’t speak. It just screamed. Overlapping screams in some twistedly pleasant four-part harmony, as if the Beach Boys were being electrocuted. Also it was on fire.

A glance down at the map. Her EchoMap software was pulsing rapidly, trying to get a grasp on the surroundings despite their high-speed rampage and the shrieking horrors following them. It wasn’t outputting a particularly good map, but it was enough to give her a rough idea of what was coming up.

"Next left then one hundred yard dash across open room!" Penelope called out. "Then I think an elevator, then… that’s it! End of map! Almost there!" already there, already in the heart, remembering this tense moment which was just moments ago

Gregory, gun drawn, kicking down the door ahead of them. Light flooding out, and…

…a fancy, elegant ballroom.

Chandeliers. Hard wood floors, perfect for dancing. Tasteful curtains over windows that showed… nothing. The sky beyond windows in the Sideways always looked completely fake, even faker than the fake sky over the City of Angles, but this deep in the works they didn’t even bother throwing up a flat Hollywood set decoration skyline. There was simply nothing out there.

Charging across the room, towards an incongruous looking elevator in the distance. The strip of wall it was embedded in didn’t belong to the ballroom; tasteful wood roughly transitioned to painted-over brick, slick like the walls of an old high school. No markings, no indications like "Heart of the City, Right Here!". Dave had mentioned his map was incomplete, but… this was the only way out, the only way through, and they’d have to see where it went.

After dealing with the murderous monsters chasing them, that is. Penelope skidded on the hard wood, stabbing the call button for the elevator—a DOWN button, of course, no UP button at all—while the three adults turned to face the visually distorted things that settled in the middle of the room.

Collect hurry up award // jackpot value is rising, the pinball-obsessed child teased, a matrix of reflective spheres forming around her in a cubical shape…

"You two get moving," Archie said. "Karla and I will keep them off your back as long as we can."

Gregory’s grip on his sidearm tightened. "Archie, we don’t have time for—"

"No, we don’t. Get moving," his old running buddy stated… while slinging his backpack off one shoulder, letting it hit the floor with a heavy impact. "Take her to the heart. You know I’ve got this."

After less than a moment’s hesitation… Gregory nodded in agreement. "Try not to blow the windows. We need to come back this way when we’re done. Penelope, MOVE."

She wanted to object to leaving two of their party behind, but by then a soft ding had signaled the arrival of the elevator, and they were on their way.

Down, down to the lowest point of the City of Angles. The source of the spiral. The heart of the city.

---

"I’m here now," Penelope realized. "But it all went wrong. It’s all going to go wrong…"

Television sets as far as the eye can see. Every memory she should and shouldn’t have. Like the memory of being found in the Sideways, a impossible child that was never actually born…

She couldn’t look away from those monitors, now. Penelope had already accepted that she wanted to know, she couldn’t turn her back to them and ignore them as she’d been doing. But were they driving her mad? Were they driving her sane? Impossible to say.

For what it was worth, her other self was sympathetic.

This is difficult for you, she told herself. You know that. And it may very well break you. But it has to be done. You must either break or emerge whole. Those are the only ways out.

"I’m scared," she admitted. In a voice much smaller than she’d have liked.

You should be.

---

The elevator only had two buttons, marked L and B. With B being the lower selection, she opted for that. While jamming the DOOR CLOSE button, of course.

Smooth silver doors sliding shut, blocking her view of Archie and Karla, staring down two aberrations of nature. Possibly the last time Penelope would ever see them again. this is near it, near the moment of Bedlam’s rage, did they survive, please show me, it’s too close and I can’t see

Gregory, reloading his gun with a fresh clip. He’d sprayed a few in the direction of their pursuers, for what good tiny little bits of flying metal would do against a Picasso. Hitting the brain stem clean on something that was largely non-corporeal was always a bit of a crapshoot, to use an inappropriate term.

"Penelope, I…" he started.

And couldn’t think of anything reassuring to say. So he went with honesty.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen," he mumbled. "I shouldn’t have brought you down here. I don’t think we can actually do anything to stop Bedlam. Darn… d… dammit. Dammit to hell."

"We had to do something," she reminded him. "We couldn’t do nothing. I mean… at least this way we’re trying, right? I don’t know what we can actually do either, but… we had to. We just had to… and I had to come here. It’s where I need to be."

Silence. Not even elevator music. Elevator music would’ve been nice, really.

"How do you know that?" Gregory asked. "How do you know you need to be here? …Penelope, look, you… I never told you this, but I guess we’ve come too far now, and…"

"You found me in the Sideways. I’m not really your daughter."

How did I know that? I can’t think of how I knew that, is that like how I know things in this strange place I’ve found myself, but I knew that in the elevator and that was just before now, I’m lost, I don’t understand any of this, help me

Gregory couldn’t ask how she knew that. He was too shocked to hear her say it outright.

"You’re wrong, though," Penelope added… with a tiny, sad smile. "You found me in the Sideways. And I am really your daughter."

ding.

…we came in?

Hallway. More glossy and painted brick walls. Pipes and overhead lights. Cheap industrial design…

The elevator opened to a small lobby. Guard station with monitors and a chair, unoccupied. Coffee mug with a three letter acronym on it. Standard ceremonial American flag, upright and loose, like you’d find in any government facility. Security cameras in every corner of the room…

And a sign mounted on the wall, a single identifier to declare where they were.

Gregory stepped out of the elevator, gun drawn and aimed, checking every angle. Behind him… Penelope slowly emerged, fixated on the sign. Forming the words.

"Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," she read. "CDC. It’s even on that mug. I don’t get it. This is it? A medical research facility is the Heart of the City? I was expecting something, I don’t know, weirder than this—"

The heart trembled.

Something shook the room, shook the corridors in the distance. It felt like a wrecking ball slamming into the side of the building, sending a deafening roar down the boxy hallways of the facility. One impact. Two impacts… lighting flickering, electricity wavering under the strain of whatever was assaulting the place…

And the creepy feeling, that pulse of dread and doom and panic, surging with each hit. Bedlam. She was down here.

Isn’t this where…

"Stay behind me, honey," Gregory insisted, gun pointed squarely at the hallway ahead. "We’re moving."

---

Every hallway the same. Door after door after door, each with a keyhole lock, a sturdy 1950s-era metal doorknob, and a room number. Room 5. Room 17. Room 3. Room 21. Not in any particular order, either—certainly not numerical order, and the hallways themselves formed a maze of right angles, which looped back around on themselves in impossible ways. Penelope tried using her EchoMap app, but it crashed outright trying to make sense of the readings it was getting…

This was still the Sideways, even if it was an oddly CDC-flavored Sideways. The occasional fire extinguisher, eye wash station, or emergency defibrillator suggested the basic rigmarole of scientific safety. Plastic folder cubbies were bolted next to each door, possibly for patient paperwork, but they were all empty.

Most importantly, every door was locked. She’d been trying the knobs randomly, as Gregory led the pair onward into the facility. None of them budged in the slightest. If she put her ear to the door, she heard nothing… although the successive series of impacts and roaring waves of darkness from deep within the facility made eavesdropping difficult.

But the doors weren’t the only features down here. They passed nurse waystations, pharmacies, supply closets. A break room, at one point, complete with water cooler and a bulletin board with employee-posted flyers for used cars or guitar lessons. This was an echo of some place on Earth, some place where people worked… heavily monitored by cameras and buried deep underground, given no windows whatsoever, but still a living locale.

All of this, from just two minutes of exploration. And two minutes would be all they’d get, because the next open room they reached was occupied.

One man on his knees. And another with a gun behind his head.

Seth Dougal took the time to adjust his tie with one hand, while steadying the grip on his pistol. The muzzle was flush with the back of Dave Smith’s head.

Gregory wasted no time in taking aim at Seth, adjusting his stance like a marksman. Steady and strong. But not before making sure Penelope was safely behind him.

For a moment, the four of them remained quiet.

"Hi," Dave offered, weakly.

"This is actually very good luck for me," Seth decided. "You, being here. Dave has been… uncooperative in helping Bedlam find the correct door to the heart itself. Perhaps a few more variables in the equation will help…?"

"Let him go or I drop you," Gregory declared, simply.

"What, and risk me ventilating our dear everyman’s skull? I don’t think so. This is a classic movie scene, Gregory Yates, a Mexican standoff. Isn’t it beautiful, this classic tableau—you the crusading hero, me the psychotic villain? But you know how those standoffs end. Badly."

"Five seconds," Gregory added.

"Bedlam’s quite upset, being so close to her prize and unable to reach it," Seth noted, smiling widely. "I can only imagine the havoc playing out up top, with her rage expressing itself down here. Of course, this is nothing. Once she gets to the heart itself, she can fully express that nightmare. That plus the my lovely drug will turn this entire world into Picassos. It’ll become the City of Bedlam. Perfect and chaotic, immortal madness with nothing more to fear—"

The wall behind Seth turned red.

Bedlam’s best friend collapsed like a doll, flopping lazily backwards. The horrific display made by his exit wound smeared as he slumped against it, smearing down the wall as he sank at last to the floor.

Throughout it all, Gregory remained perfectly calm. Unlike the shock and horror on the faces of his companions.

"A Mexican standoff is when three people are pointing guns at each other, not two. When only two people have guns out, whoever shoots first basically wins," he explained. "I had plenty of time to line up a kill shot, so I took it. Now I suggest we get the hell out of here before Bedlam notices what just happened."

The lights didn’t go out. Electricity was still pumping through the wires, in that weird way power always flowed in the City of Angles, even down in the Sideways. But nevertheless, the world went dark around them. That’s what happens when every shadow in the room becomes the living embodiment of bottomless hatred.

Those discrete pulses of anxiety being sent up through the hallways by Bedlam’s efforts, pounding on door after door to try to find the one she desired… those were peanuts. The absolute terror they felt now was like someone unscrewed their scalps and began to pour fear right in.

my friend //

MY FRIEND //

YOU KILLED MY FRIEND //

"Tight" was a word in Penelope’s vocabulary, before. But now she knew the definition of it, well and truly, as she curled in a tight little ball on the floor of the CDC facility. Screaming and crying, but unable to hear her own voice over the noise of Bedlam ringing through her head.

every turn // every time // you tried to stop me // I’m trying to save this city //
hate you so much // ruining everything // I’d been avoiding you // like I avoid her and her mirrors // but this //

      THIS //

  hate you // hurt you //
  your worst fears // I will make you face them //
I will destroy you // but not kill you // just destroy you. // completely.

No more screaming. No more movement. Just lying on the floor, so tense as to be locked rigid.

Except for one. The one immune to Bedlam’s charms.

"You’re not including me in that?" Dave asked, confused.

The shadow child crouched over Penelope and Gregory’s prone forms looked up… smiling at Dave Smith.

you get to enjoy this, too. // because this is your worst fear, isn’t it? she asked. not pain. // not death. // you can bear any burden because you’re already broken. // but can you bear to see your friends suffer // and be unable // completely unable // to do anything about it…?

Face what you fear most. //

He opened his mouth to say something. And couldn’t say anything.

Because there it was. That old familiar feel, the oncoming wave of anxious energy. Control slipping away. Everything right is wrong again…

Little Dave Smith, the boy who feared everything, the boy who made mountains out of molehills. That boy couldn’t handle anything life threw at him. That boy, who had emerged in the lonely and desperate hours since his arrival in the City of Angles, was back. Because Bedlam was right; Dave could swallow anything thrown at him, anything but this.

He’d tried to save Sarah. He’d tried to join the First Action Responders, to save everyone. To leverage his own problems to solve the problems of others. And now, there was absolutely nothing he could do to keep Penelope from drowning in a sea of pain. Nothing at all.

---

Face what you fear most. //

Bang.

Running in the streets, laughing and throwing rocks at windows. The only people around for miles.

Archie was a few years older, but he’d taken the kid under his wing. Nobody else would, after all; he’d run away from the Department of Orientation, refusing to accept that his family was gone and the foster system was his fate. He found a new family in the Seventh Street Scavengers. They liked this upstart brat, the wild child that hated this city and loved to defy it at every turn.

"NICE one!" Archie called out, as a third story window shattered on an abandoned building. "Good arm there, good aim. Hey… you wanna see the Sideways?"

"What’re Sideways?" the brat asked.

"All sorts of treasure down there. Never know what you’ll find, and not many gangs to rumble with. C’mon, let’s go salvaging. You’ll love it."

Bang.

Disapproving stares. He was used to them from the teachers who knew he’d never amount to anything, but now he was getting them from Liz Tully, Archie’s kid sister.

"You’re a no-good thug, Gregory Yates, and I don’t like you at all!" she declared. "Just like the rest of my brother’s friends. And you smell awful!"

For the first time, he didn’t laugh it off when someone gave him that look of disdain and pity. He didn’t like it at all.

Bang.

Laughing away and throwing popcorn at the screen. It was a private show—he’d broken into the abandoned theater and set everything up a day ahead of time, projector and reels and all. Lizzie didn’t know that Karla was along for the ride, running the reels.

Karla seemed to like the idea of Greg and Lizzie together, maybe just to annoy Archie, but hey… if it got him some quality time with his girl, Greg was all for it.

"Hey. You’re my girl, right?" Greg asked.

"Mmmmaybe," Lizzie said, with a wry grin. "You’re growing on me. Like kudzu, or mushrooms. Kinda grungy and icky but… growing."

"The hell’s Kudzu?"

"You’d know if you paid attention in Biology class. …y’know, I could tutor you, there. It’s seriously NOT hard to score on those tests and pull your grades up. I know you’re smart enough to do it, if you’d just put in the effort."

"Thought you already had some guy you were tutoring…"

"What, that Cartwright kid? His parents paid me, sure, but this I’d do for free," Lizzie offered. "How about it?"

Bang.

Signature on paper, making it nice and official. Dry rice thrown in the air, which the city official had expressly warned Karla not to do, but she wasn’t the sort to bother following the rules.

The former Seventh Street Scavengers emerged from that dusty old government office, cheering on the new Mr. and Mrs. Yates. Archibald gave Gregory a few hearty, manly slaps to the back in congratulations.

"It’s all changing, isn’t it?" he wondered. "Gang isn’t really a gang anymore. We’re getting jobs. We’re moving on. Honestly feels weird to be… to be… responsible adults, now. You ever miss it?"

"A little," Gregory admitted. "But Lizzie’s got a good idea for how we can make some scratch and relive the good old days. We’re gonna make Sideways maps and sell ’em online. Internet’s going to get big, man, information superhighway is HUGE. There’s a whole market for independent mappers now. Maybe even get some salvage finds to our name while we’re at it."

Archie wrinkled his nose. "I don’t like the idea of you dragging my little sis into the Sideways, man…"

"Relax, I got it covered. You know me; I’m hardcore. Only difference is now I can be hardcore and legit."

Bang.

Gun in his hand, but wavering. He never wavered. He was a steady hand whenever the guns came out during gangland days, and a steady hand when trying to dissuade Picassos from following them around. But now… but now

Flickering form. Already getting distorted.

"You have to do it," Elizabeth said. "Please, Gregory… you have to. Shhh. It’s okay. I love you—"

"Can’t. I can’t," he spoke… while keeping the gun raised. "Lizzie, I…"

"If you don’t, I’m going to lose who I am anyway. I won’t be me anymore," she reminded him. "I’ll be a ghost of myself. And… I might come after you. Picassos are drawn to the familiar, without even realizing they’re a threat to their loved ones. I could hurt // hurt you. I could hurt her…"

Her. The baby, mewling away where they set her down, out of sight of the gun with blankets to muffle the noise of the shot. The child they found, while lost in a series of mixed up Sideways. The child Lizzie had grown so attached to…

"I want you to raise her," Elizabeth said, seeing his glance to the side. "Please. She needs a father. That child is something special, I just know it, and I’m relying on you to find your way back to the city and give her a good life. Do that for me, and I’ll die happily. Please… I… I’m losing it, it’s like, like I’m slipping away // sleeping away // Gregory, don’t make this any—"

Through gang dust-ups and Picasso dangers and everything else this City had thrown at him, Gregory had never actually killed anyone. He’d fired his gun plenty, but never actually killed anyone. Not until that day.

Bang.

All the happy memories were brutally painful. That was the point—Bedlam showing him everything he had lost, right up to the moment he lost it. Happiness turned sour. All because Gregory made a decision, and pulled a trigger.

"You didn’t have to die," he understood.

"I didn’t," his wife agreed, her blood still pooling around her body, her face still smiling.

"We didn’t know at the time that people can come back from cubism. We still believed what the Department of Safety said, that Picassos were as good as gone, and once you were infected…"

"I didn’t have to die. You didn’t have to kill me. Penelope has shown you that I could have been saved."

"I killed you for no damn good reason…"

"That’s right. You murdered me for no good reason," Lizzie’s corpse said, rictus grin still there, so many teeth, such a bright smile through the blood. "You’re a no-good thug, Gregory Yates, and nothing good can ever come of you. Nobody could ever love you. Murderer. Killer…"

The gun didn’t waver, now. But it wasn’t pointing at her anymore. When did he turn the gun around? Couldn’t remember, but there it was, under his chin. He knew how to aim it to make the kill shot.

"You’re not a father. Nobody like you should be a father," the many mouths of Bedlam-Lizzie spoke. "You should have given Penelope up for adoption at Scarlett’s orphanage. You should have left her where you found her. Better that than let her spend one minute with someone as horrible as you. Cartwright was right. You’re right. You deserve to die. You deserve it. You know what to do."

Gregory knew what to do.

---

Face what you fear most. //

Surrounded by the impossible, now. By moments where Penelope twisted the world in her favor. Even her birth was a twist in her favor… a child from nothing, born of no one, manifesting in the Sideways whole. She wouldn’t be surprised to look down and not see a belly button at this point.

Slowly… she rose from the floor of her nightmare, the cloud of images floating away at a comfortable distance, the other self rising with her.

"That’s what I’m afraid of, isn’t it?" Penelope spoke aloud—at no one in particular, at least no one obviously present. "You wanted to break us down by making us face our fears. You’re giving me a nightmare, disjointing my memories, trying to drive me insane…"

Another self, now. One behind her, dark and shadowed and green. It had been watching silently this whole time, watching Penelope interrogate and comfort herself simultaneously.

Now, Penelope was able to see it. Able to see all of herself, really. And somehow… it made her sad for Bedlam.

"I’m sorry, but I think this kinda backfired on you," she admitted. "I wasn’t going insane. I was going sane."

The shadow that looked like her… looked confused. So, Penelope explained.

"What I fear most is accepting the truth," Penelope spoke. "The things I’d been brushing under the rug all this time as coincidences or simply outright ignoring. How the city twists around when I want it to… the dreams I’ve been having… the way I’m connected to all these people I’ve surrounded myself with. You forced me to to look that square in the eye because I was so scared of doing it myself. I know who I am now."

Jittering shadow. Fear. Green eyes wide.

// no // no…

"I was born an ordinary person, because I wanted to live. I’m the desire to live that’s inside all of us, actually," she admitted. "Oh, I’m definitely Penelope Yates. I like being Penelope Yates. But I’m also the one who contracted Dave, hiring him to draw me a map to the Heart of the City, so I could finally learn the truth. I’m the one who helps Cass read the stories of people around her. I’m the one who helps Scarlett save the children with her compassion and her sewing. The dream is whatever I want it to be, because it’s my dream. …I’m sorry to be super dramatic about this, but—"

// NO NO NO NO

"—I’m Lucid."

No red-shift self, now. She didn’t need that crutch to explain the facts of life to herself. There was just Lucid, and Bedlam. Two of the three points of view sharing one soul.

But Lucid wasn’t gloating in victory. She was sympathetic to Bedlam’s shivering terrors… even reached out to rest a hand on her sister-self’s shoulder.

"I can’t say I totally understand what’s going on yet, since I’m also Penelope and she’s not quite got this all worked out. She’s human because she wants to be, and that’s limiting. A good kind of limiting. But even she knows that it doesn’t have to be like this," Lucid said. "We don’t have to be at each other’s throats, you know."

// have to have to. // chaos. life. // can’t have both…

"I think we can. We’ve both been going at the same problem, haven’t we?" Penelope said. "I’ve been mapping the city to try and understand it better, so I can help people live with the city instead of against it. I think the city’s beautiful—yes, even the Sideways. It doesn’t have to be this great big scary thing everybody has to hide from…"

// don’t have to hide // not at all, not at all // if everyone just embraces the nightmare, Bedlam suggested. that’s my goal. // to befriend everyone. // nothing to fear. // immortal. // dreamlike. // heavenly…

"Yeah, but that’s kinda the polar opposite, right? If people can’t lie to themselves and pretend the city is totally normal… resisting the dream at every turn… they also can’t dive headfirst into it and go completely crazy. Neither’s a really good way to live. There has to be a middle ground."

// chaos in life. // like kelsey…

"Or life in chaos, like me," Penelope suggested. "I think I can do it. If you just give me a chance, I think I can help get this city to where it should be. Not saying it’ll be overnight, but… c’mon. Let’s give it a try. No more driving everybody insane, or trying to force the city to be rigid and ordinary. Enough room for you and me. How about it?"

Wavering, the shadow uncertain.

// if I say no?

Penelope glanced around at the accelerated memoryspace they were occupying. Beyond that, she could see the walls of the Heart of the City… or at least the hallways and antechambers leading up to it. Brick and mortar. Echoed stonework of a long lost CDC facility…

"I can collapse this whole place," she suggested. "Neither of us get to the Heart. You don’t get to remake the city in your image, and everything continues on as it did before. Not a great outcome for either of us. Especially me, since I’d be dead. Or at least this incarnation of me, Penelope Yates, would be dead. Honestly, I’d rather not to do it. But… I will. If you make me choose between that or letting you ruin everything."

A brief spike of darkness, there. Bedlam hated being denied the things she wanted—even by her own friends, which was what led her to charging down here pell-mell before Seth’s plan had fully come to fruition. But… even with her complete lack of impulse control, she had enough sense to know when it wasn’t worth hanging on any longer to an idea.

Besides, in the end, she’d likely win anyway.

// still so limited. // still penelope, even if you’re also my other self, Bedlam teased, while bowing in defeat. // a hard, hard road ahead. // unaware of what lies in wait… // the nadir of our trinity, sorrow’s Echo. // the distant threat of the bleed. // far worse things than me. // so much simpler to soak the city in nightmare // save everyone, all at once // everywhere…

"Simple doesn’t mean better."

// won’t help you. // won’t stop you. // will wait patiently for you to fail.

"It’s a starting point, at least," Penelope said… offering a friendly smile, and an extended hand to shake. "We can sort the rest out later. For now, I really need to get back to being Penelope. So… are we cool?"

---

There was no gun at his head. Not in reality—the reality he now was waking to.

Gregory snapped to his senses, feeling a hand taking his. His daughter’s hand. All the agony that had been coursing through his mind had ceased… everything crystal clear once more.

"It’s going to be okay, Dad," Penelope spoke. "I promise. …it’s over. Bedlam’s retreating. We won. Dave? Dave, you okay?"

The young man (still in his pajamas when Seth kidnapped him, much as he was when Penelope first found him) looked up from his seat in the corner. Body shakes starting to subside.

"I… think… yes, I’m okay," he decided. "As okay as I can be, anyway. Is she gone? For real?"

"She’s agreed to leave us alone," Penelope decided to summarize. "I can explain more later once I’ve figured out exactly how to explain it… Dad? You can put that away, she’s not coming back. Trust me on this."

Immediately, Gregory holstered his gun. Feeling vaguely self-conscious about having it at all.

"Let’s get out of here, then," he said. "Dave, you’re with us. Archie and Karla are hopefully still up top, fighting Picassos… we double back to find them and then go home. …okay, I know that look. It’s the ‘I’m about to directly countermand your paternal order.’ What exactly is more important than getting out of here alive?"

"Getting to the Heart of the City," Penelope spoke. "Like I wanted to do in the first place."

"Isn’t this it? It doesn’t look like much, but—"

"Dave’s map wasn’t finished. The Heart’s in one of these rooms. Although I don’t know which one…"

She found a key ring being pressed into her hand. Dave’s house keys. Specifically, he had four keys on the ring: a key to his father’s house, a key to his apartment, a key to his old dorm room… and a key which was there all along, even if he never noticed it because it wasn’t always actually there. One which was just the right size to fit in the heavy metal door locks they’d been passing along the way.

"I’m pretty sure it’s in Room 23," Dave spoke. "I knew all along. I’ve been seeing that number all over the place ever since I got the city. I just didn’t want to tell Bedlam because, well, scary girl destroying city equals bad."

---

The Heart of the City.

Penelope was good at memorizing the layout of rooms, all the little details that went into urban planning and modern decoration. It was a key skill for a mapper to have. And a boon, given when she tried to record an EchoMap of the actual heart, her tablet bricked itself.

The room suited the facility around it. This was akin to a hospital room… a large bed with raised metal rails, harsh overhead fluorescent lighting, and plenty of beeping or buzzing or burbling devices all around. Tubes and wires and sensor leads, all of them converging on…

Converging on…

Herself.

A girl in a hospital gown, one who looked just like herself. Facial features the same. Hair even the same, although not done in pigtails, and in fact colored shock white like an old lady. But the girl was certainly not old—she couldn’t be more than twelve going on thirteen, just like Penelope. They were in sync, age-wise. At least, they seemed to be…

But it was hard to look at the girl in the hospital bed. What was swirling overhead was far, far more distracting.

It was the City. Ghostly and unformed, like the undefined spaces beyond the edge of known space, buildings and street lamps and streets and more… pouring upward with a twisting motion, an upward spiral, upward from some vague space just over the girl’s head. Calling this the ‘source’ of the city was a more apt metaphor than Penelope could have realized (or perhaps exactly as apt as she did realize) as it flowed up and through the ceiling… presumably upward and upward, to generate more buildings for the City of Angles itself.

The patient was dreaming the city. Eyes closed, sleeping away, and dreaming everything around them.

A plastic hospital wristband offered:

  • an unhelpful bar code,
  • a blood type,
  • an age (twelve),
  • a date of birth (February 23, 1906),
  • and a name of sorts ("Patient 23").

And nothing else.

Gregory got a bit more out of the ridiculously thick pile of papers on a clipboard, hung by a peg at the foot of her bed.

"Patient 23," he read. "She’s… apparently been in CDC care since 1918. That’s the same year people think the City started to exist. She’s been asleep ever since, never waking. The rest is… it’s just a bunch of doctor scribbles and notes about heart rate and brain waves and so on, going back and back to before the CDC existed…"

Being both confused and more likely than the other two to overcome his shock at being confused, Dave politely raised his hand to speak.

"I don’t quite get it," he admitted. "Who is this? Why does she look like you? Why does she look like Bedlam too, for that matter? Or is it that you and Bedlam look like her? Is she really making the city? Is the city all her dream? How could she be twelve years old and one hundred and nine years old? What’s going on here, exactly? Should we wake her up—?"

"NO."

The force of it surprised even Penelope, despite the fact that she was the one issuing the objection.

"N… o. No," she repeated, trying on the word. "No, we should not wake her up. …I don’t understand this even though I really think I should, especially given the other things I’ve learned about myself today, but… I think waking her up would be extremely bad."

"Really? Why?"

"Because if she’s dreaming up our entire world, and we give her a wakey-wakey nudge…"

"Oh? Ohhh. Okay, yeah, bad," Dave agreed (while switching to a quieter tone of voice). "I think I see why Bedlam wanted in here. Turn her dream into a nightmare. …I’m not sure I like any of the implications of what all this could mean but I’m still a bit puzzled about what we should be doing next, all the same."

Gregory looked away from the tightly packed pile of meaningless medical data, to look towards his daughter. His first instinct was to declare okay, here’s what we’re going to do, we lock the door behind us and throw away the key and then we go find Archie and then we go home and forget any of this ever happened but honestly… this wasn’t his decision. This was her life, and her decision. It was time he started accepting that.

Fortunately, Penelope had made her decision.

They left the dreamer much as they found her… with a few key differences.

For one, they took her chart and medical bracelet. Those were mysteries that needed to be investigated, if Penelope was ever to find closure on this journey she’d been taking since she the day she was born.

Next, they left Penelope’s teddy bear in the dreamer’s arms. Her Gregory Bear, the bear she’d made for herself out of a wish and a thought, the ur-bear behind every bear that Grandma Scarlett had ever made. It seemed for a moment that the dreamer smiled in her sleep.

Finally, Penelope closed and locked the door behind them… and slid the key underneath. If even Bedlam couldn’t break down this door, nobody would, and with the key inside it would never be opened again. They could’ve taken the key with them, hung onto it for safety, but that’d just encourage would-be megalomaniacs like Bedlam to kidnap and torture everyone around Penelope to get their hands on the Heart of the City. This way, the dreamer could sleep peacefully, and her city would go on much as it always had. For now.

---

The city went on much as it always had.

She had a moment to reflect, some weeks later. A visit to That Fish Place, to have some lobster. Father laughing it up with Archie in the back room, leaving Penelope to her thoughts and her seafood.

Thoughts of the night when everything changed, and the days beyond… not the lucid television-monitor memories of that strange experience, just ordinary memories, but clear to her all the same.

At the moment the dreamer was given a teddy bear of her own, Bedlam’s influence over the dream shattered. The wave of Picassos and those that turned into Picassos in reactionary terror were instantly returned to their normal shapes. Just as a pulse of fear had started the cascade of chaos, a pulse of calm ended it… a calm that settled over the City, the Suburbs, and the Outlands like a warm blanket. For a night and a day, the city knew no evil. No murders, no muggings, no theft, no fighting, no negativity.

Of course… nothing lasts forever. And soon, the media began the drumbeat of fear anew. Picasso night! What happened? Where was Seth Dougal in our time of need? What is your government doing to prevent a future outbreak of cubism? News at 11. Still, not exactly a new tune, and as the Nightmare Fuel burned its way out of blood streams, dreamful nights of rest helped tilt the city back to normalcy.

Archie and Karla reunited with the group. Gregory was surprised to find they hadn’t been blown to kingdom come; the grenades were useful in keeping their attackers at a distance, but what settled matters was the strange calming wave from the Heart of the City. Instead of facing two monsters, they faced a very lost-looking little girl and a confused-looking man soaked in gasoline. Both ran away rather than talk the situation through. Penelope wanted to go looking for them, but Gregory insisted they get topside, and she was too tired to argue it.

With no more need to organize a makeshift rebel alliance, Scarlett returned to her orphanage. Cass resumed running deliveries. Sometimes they’d meet at the Lucid Dreamer for a bit of catch-up, but the group didn’t have a reason to hang together any longer. Penelope kept in touch with everyone by email and text, but it was clear this moment in their lives had passed. They had their own lives to live, now.

Archie went back to his restaurant. Karla celebrated her husband finally getting out of traction with a night of passionate rekindling that nearly put him back in traction. Vivi took up the mantle of her former mentor Gee Bee, running one of the hottest clubs in the city. Marcy resumed writing one-word challenges all over the city.

None of them really talked about what happened in the Heart of the City. Penelope wasn’t sure who to tell about it, even among her friends. Wasn’t sure what to tell them, since she didn’t fully understand it herself.

She was Lucid. She was Penelope. She was life in chaos. She was just some girl. She knew things she shouldn’t know. She only knew what she knew. That strange moment in her life had passed, leaving her with memories and little else. At least, little else she was ready to tap into just yet.

But she wore the hospital bracelet now, like a combination of a good luck charm and a reminder string for her finger. Proof that the city’s mysteries ran deeper than she could ever imagine, and she should never look away from that fact.

There were challenges coming. Bedlam had insinuated as much. And Penelope had seen one herself, in her lucid dream at the Heart of the City…

Because she knew how Officer Cartwright, the broken down and ruined man, had slipped free of his captivity. He made the ultimate escape, thanks to a vision in a mirror. A girl, twelve going on thirteen, with brilliant blue eyes and a sad expression of sympathy.

Echo. The third in the trinity of viewpoints, the dreamer’s reactions to her dream.

She made an offer to Cartwright, which was gratefully accepted. And then he no longer existed.

Idly, Penelope twisted the bracelet on her wrist, thinking.

"Things are gonna get worse before they get better," she realized.

---

---

It was ridiculous, honestly. He’d already pulled the graveyard shift twice this week—once more than he had to, just because Wilkins wanted to trade off. And what’d he get out of that? Free membership to the office coffee club? He didn’t even LIKE coffee.

That meant he had to be in the facility after dark, when security was even more paranoid than usual. He had to go through the checkpoints, keep his badge front and center, smile and take it when the bored guards gave him more grilling than he deserved. All so he could wander these halls, checking in on the patients, yep, still asleep, still vegetables, who cares, not him, not anyone

Eventually he gave up even pretending to do his job. His boss wasn’t on site, so why keep up appearances? Better to take a nap on the couch when nobody was looking. He needed his energy for the day shift, anyway; they were supposedly getting the new MRI prototype today, the one they’d dubbed the Dreamcatcher. If anything was going to shake things up in this going-nowhere project, it’d be that.

So, Doctor Jack Hayes crashed out on a Carter-era couch in a break room that hadn’t been redecorated since Nixon, and snored away. The quiet hum of the shiny chrome refrigerator kept him company.

He woke seven hours later, because the telltale sounds of activity hadn’t been present.

Peel self off couch, taste horrible in mouth, scratch at unshaven beard. Hate life. Get up, grab clipboard, get back to making rounds before anybody notices…

Except the hallways were different.

The hallway was not actually a hallway. It was a living room. Half of a living room, really—the other half was a high school locker room. And beyond that seemed to be a dentist’s office. Three rooms for the price of one, all outside the door of the facility break room…

He knew what this meant, of course. He just didn’t want to accept it. So he closed the door, counted to five, centered himself, and began screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming.

There was a knife in the drawer which they normally used to slice bagels. It could slice his throat. Well, no, that’d get messy and dangerous, the best bet would be to use the wrists. Down and not across, down and not across…

Pushing up the sleeves of his CDC-issued lab coat. Skin pale and waiting. Knife sharp and waiting.

Waiting.

The knife clattered into the sink, before Jack Hayes sank to the floor opposite the fridge, pulling at his hair. Unable to do it. Unable to do the only sane thing in an insane world.

Because Jack knew the score, because he’d seen the game playing out in classified prototype MRI scans they’d been performing, he wasn’t the least bit surprised to see a creepy girl with blue eyes studying him from inside the reflective surface of the fridge.

"I’m so sorry," the girl told him. "You don’t want to be here. You don’t deserve to be here, in the City of Angles. It’s cruel and unkind…"

"You’re the third aspect," he recognized. "Your name’s Echo. Oh god. Oh god, I’m here, I’m really here. I’m inside the dream of Patient 23…"

"Split away, echoed into this world. The real Jack Hayes has no idea you’re here. He’s awake and toiling away in his hateful job, but at least he’s real, at least he exists. Unlike you. Doctor Hayes, I’m so sorry. You don’t deserve this miserable existence. Nobody does. Nobody in this entire city should suffer this existence…"

Jack’s head hung. At least he had the good fortune to meet her, of all people. It beat meeting the second aspect, that was for sure.

"It’s going to be fine. I can make it so you won’t hurt anymore, not at all. You’d like that, right?" the girl asked. "You’re only an echo, like me. A dream of a person, not really here. Nobody is real. Once you accept my revelation, it won’t hurt anymore…"

"Do it before I wuss out again," Jack whispered.

"…but I’m sorry. I can’t do it yet," Echo spoke. "Not yet. I need your help. The city needs you. The Heart has been sealed, but the dreamer must awaken and end this terrible nightmare forever. You can help me do that. Will you help me, Jack Hayes…?"

It’s not possible, he was going to say. Because they’d been trying to wake the oddly unaging Patient 23 for almost a century, now. Nothing worked. Brain wave manipulations, chemical stimulants, electrical shocks… nothing got through. His superiors had theorized that if Patient 23 awoke, the city in her dreams would be lost. All the psychic echoes trapped inside it would fade, like… well, to abuse a metaphor, fade like a dream.

But… Jack was one of those echoes, now. He was inside. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that a man on the inside could make it happen…

He could destroy the city and "kill" everybody inside, including himself. But would it be killing, really? They didn’t exist. He didn’t exist. What did any of it matter? Why not wake the dreamer?

Slowly, Doctor Hayes pulled himself from the floor. Resisting the urge to laugh a little.

"Why not?"

//end


But wait, before you continue on to the next volume… there’s more to read in this one! Get three bonus short stories, author’s notes, and artist’s sketches in the vol//001: Bedlam book!

next chapter

Comments

  1. … well dang.

    “It’s not really magic; it’s just a dream by someone on Earth.”

    “… dreamed by a girl who hasn’t aged for over a century.”

    Double mind-screw right there. :P

  2. > Television sets as far as the eye can see. Every memory she should and shouldn’t have. Like the memory of being found in the Sideways, a impossible child that was never actually born…

    I’m now even more strongly suspecting that the City is Penelope’s dream, though there’s some timey-wimey stuff that doesn’t quite make sense. Eg. why would the city’s history go back that many decades? Too long for it to be one living person’s dream in real time, but weirdly short if its history was created retroactively. And what causes buildings and persons to get copied? The Tommy Westphall theory would suggest that it happens to stuff the real-life Penelope sees or comes into contact with, but in that case it would be concentrated in one location on Earth.

  3. I didn’t really expect the story to go Tommy Westphall, despite the explicit reference earlier in the story. I had thought maybe Penny was a copy, like the phones nearly everyone has, are those also Echo’s doing?

  4. The whole waking the dreamer and the morality of killing everybody inside is a bit contrived. Unless most people would consider the Matrix life any less real than any other life, insofar that a life consists of self-aware information, regardless of where that information is stored. I dont know. But you’ve done a good job presenting the different views, regardless

    • The reason why I can say this with absolute certainty is a spoiler I won’t reveal, but yes — the “dream” worlds are very much real, and destroying them would murder millions of people. It’s implied at the very end of the series, and longtime readers of mine that know how it ties into other books will know why.

  5. “Why not?”

    I actually had the same thought when Penelope refused to wake the dreamer. After all, this is a city of people that shouldn’t exist, and this girl is continuously bringing more people into it, and it’s probably true that the majority of those people aren’t going to have a good time. So, the dreamer is, essentially, mass-torturing and imprisoning a good number of people and bringing in others all the time. Waking her up will kill all the echoes, but at least it will hopefully end the stream of victims she keeps bringing into her unfinished world and forcing to try to survive while she sticks buildings in front of them while they are going 80mph down a wide-open highway.

    Yes, it’d be nice to somehow try to find a way to wake her AND keep every one of the echoes alive, but while they search for this way, the dreamer will keep echoing in victims and I don’t think that’s conscionable. If I were the CDC or the president, I’d have killed the girl when I realized her creations were self-aware, suffering and increasing in number. Or at the very least I’d have killed her, or tried to, if I were Gregory in that room with Penelope, Dave and the dreamer. I’d certainly like to hear Dave’s thoughts on the incident.

    • I believe Dave’s thoughts on the matter would be “I’d rather not die.” Since I wrote Dave I feel comfortable speaking on his behalf.

      If you end the dream, a million people die, including everybody whose only crime was to be born in the City. Is life difficult for new arrivals? Yes, although it’s hardly “mass torture and imprisonment.” Life is difficult in general and City of Angles is very much about surviving and thriving despite those difficulties, not giving in despair and killing yourself just because you find yourself in a strange new situation.

      The next book you’re about to read very much goes into this, as the villain of that story has the perspective that everybody in the City doesn’t matter, shouldn’t have existed in the first place, and therefore genocide by waking the patient is absolutely okay. Obviously Lucid, as the spirit of hope that endures, feels otherwise and hopefully as the author I’ve done a reasonable job making the case why mass murder just to prevent the potential suffering of others is a bad idea.

  6. I should have an intelligent comment to put here. I really should. But I don’t. My mind is blown. I love it. It was an awesome read. Can’t wait to read more.

  7. I cannot help but notice the three aspects are Red (Lucid), Green (Bedlam), and Blue (Echo). Matching to RGB colors. I wonder if this is just an Easter Egg, pure chance or has symbolic meaning.

    • Quite intentional. It made sense to use color as an indication of alliance for various characters… Penelope’s red hair, Kelsey’s green hair, and such. The colors are appropriate to their mindsets. The red heartbeat of life and passion. The blue of water, cold of winter. The green of sickness and ichor. Things like that.

  8. Dave is a fun kidnap victim: “Through fear and out the other side, right? I already did that.” He has an interesting perspective on anxiety.

    Very interesting insights on Cubism, the Heart of the city, and Penelope/Lucid. The idea that Picassos could come back is pretty devastating, potentially, given how many have been killed.

    I like the comment on the need for middle ground and balance: “If people can’t lie to themselves and pretend the city is totally normal… resisting the dream at every turn… they also can’t dive headfirst into it and go completely crazy. Neither’s a really good way to live.”

    I can’t wait to see what happens with Jack Hayes.

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