city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //009: Why Not

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 video rental store that’s still offering VHS for a buck a piece. Exactly what you’re getting on those tapes, however, may not match their cover art. Or bear any semblance to linear visual narrative.

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

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

We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.

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

…here’s an angle to consider…

The City represents an innate challenge to all those who live there. Expecting the unexpected isn’t enough—the city expects you to expect the unexpected, and instead frequently delivers an experience completely tangential to even the least expected of expectations. You can’t brace for impact, because the impact will always come from a direction you are unprepared for.

Many simply fold in the face of this challenge. It overwhelms with more than many can bear. And why bear it at all, when your peers insist that you don’t really exist, that you’re merely an echo? An echo fades; that’s physics in action. Better to fade peacefully than to stand and get smacked around on all sides by the City, right?

Or you can stand up to the blows. You can roll with them, move with them, no matter where they come from. You can live, and fight back. Deny the ones who tell you to lie down, take the lumps, and come up smiling for you are truly alive…


//009: Why Not

---

Four in the morning, and Jonny Nobody was stumbling back to the motel in his usual four-in-the-morning state. Namely, blisteringly drunk.

The last two years had been good to Jonny. Three years, really. Okay, so that first year of recording and touring back in 2013 had been a bit of a slog… living in craphole apartments, testing out drummer after drummer, finagling his way through the tangle of music industry contacts and contracts. It was long-term hard work for very little short-term reward. But after that first single dropped… after the whole #YOLO thing, after the album hit the charts, after the tour, after all was said and done… he’d pulled it off. And the following two years, from 2014 straight on through to the here-and-now of 2015, that was delicious gravy.

Delicious, alcohol-flavored gravy. Frequently served up in the form of well-connected parties, like the one he was stumbling away from at four in the morning that night. Evening. Morning. Whatever.

The band was soaring. The music was selling. The crowds of rowdy kids were rowdier than ever. And Jonny was reaping the benefits, all the booze and the cooze and the drugs and, most importantly, all the money. So much money. Money which could get him set for life, if he could ride this thing all the way into the ground…

Funny. He didn’t recall passing by some ritzy, upscale condo complex on the way to the party. Granted, he couldn’t even recall specific details about the party he’d just attended, but was reasonably sure the route between the motel and the party had been past some abandoned crack house, which would not likely be mistaken for a breeding ground for old money. And yet here it stood, smack dab between a pair of competing pawn shops and an all-night laundromat…

Well, that’s the City of Angles for you, Jonny’s brain sloshed.

If Jonny had been born and raised on Earth, that mystical far-away place spoken of in reverent tones and depicted only in looted media, he might have been slightly alarmed by a building appearing out of nowhere. Around here, though? Par for the course. (Not that Jonny had ever played golf or even seen a golf course, which were in short supply around the City. But some sayings carried through the cultural bloodstream, even without the steady availability of putters and five irons.)

Department of Safety barricades had been set up around the front of the building. Doormen in velvety-soft uniforms were chatting with cops, who were here less for protecting the rich folks inside and more for protecting their fragile sense of personal space from the newly dim and dark territory around them.

A brown van with a FART logo had been parked in an alley, with a bored-looking First Action Response Team loitering around it. Normally they’d be all over the place—standard practice when a new building from Earth inserted itself smack dab in the middle of the City of Angles. Confused immigrants would need a shoulder to cry on, dangerous immigrants would need to be tazed, and incoming property would need to be annexed by the Department of Resources. All quite expected… except this team wasn’t exactly swinging into the action. They were outside the barricades.

Since Jonny was currently stumbling towards that side of the building anyway, he decided to stop and chat. Well, to slur in a vaguely effective manner, hopefully.

"Yo man, whazzap?" Jonny greeted, waving an empty bottle of… well, it wasn’t of anything, not anymore. At one point it had been a bottle of something blindingly alcoholic.

Three of them, of course, in those brown jump suits. Safety, Resources, Orientation. The holy triumvirate of almost-effective City governance. You could tell which one was the Safety dude because he was armed.

The armed one (with a nametag of GILT) responded. "Nothing to concern yourself with, sir," he spoke up, polite-yet-firm. "The situation is under control. Please return to your home."

"Don’t live around here. Just at a motel for the night," Jonny stated, as if this guy cared. "Why aren’t you in there doing FARTy stuff?"

"It’s not an insert, it’s a shuffle," the guy who was possibly from Orientation (with a nametag of SMITH) filled in. "Someone called it anyway, but this place is actually from District 5. So, nothing for us to do."

"Huh," Jonny Nobody said, because he had nothing better to say.

Shuffles.

Strange things, shuffles.

Everybody knew how the City of Angles worked. It grew, wild and uncontrolled, as buildings from Earth randomly copied themselves over… inserting between existing buildings, pushing everything around, changing up the urban topography at whim. The newcomers freaked out, the locals had another city block to traverse in their morning commute, the road maps changed, eventually everybody settled down and got back to business. Inserts happened quite often, and the City had entire swaths of government designed to cope with that.

But shuffles… shuffles were once a rare beast. Shuffles happened when existing parts of the City of Angles decided to up stakes and migrate somewhere else. You’d be sitting there minding your own biz, when WHOOP! your home was now fifty blocks away and in the bad part of town. Which was exactly what happened to these poor rich bastards, having their upscale locale transposed over to the crap factory that was District 23, on the outer edges of the City.

Normally you’d only get a few shuffles a year, and even then, they’d never impact your life directly. Maybe some chunk of forest out in the rural Outlands would switch places with a retirement home, or some gated community in the Suburbs would square dance with a strip mall. It happened way out in the middle of nowhere, on the outer layers of existence that represented the overall City of Angles… not in the City itself, where Jonny spent his whole life.

But just as the last two years had been a time of change for Jonny, they’d been a time of change for the City of Angles as well.

Shuffles abounded. Almost as many shuffles as inserts, these days. Nobody knew what to make of that, in the same way nobody knew why the City of Angles existed in the first place or why it did what it did. The unknowable mystery of existence, better lyricists than Jonny had written. Although they’d have a hard time rhyming existence and fitting it into a catchy three minutes of pop-punk music, like he did.

Hmmm. Resistance. Subsistence. Six pence. Yeah, no go.

Honestly, in the end… Jonny didn’t pay much attention to it all. Shuffles, inserts, confusion, theories, crazy conspiracies, religious nutballs, Echo Revelation cranks… despite his band arguably being founded atop that pile of uncertainty, Jonny didn’t care. He preferred what he could hold in his hand to some nebulous idea. And hopefully that thing in his hand would be a pile of money.

And so, Jonny left the shuffled apartment building in his wake, resuming a more-or-less straight line shuffle back to the motel. Somewhere along the way, he ditched the empty bottle of nothing. Probably threw it. Maybe broke something. Who cared?

What a crappy motel, he thought, as he wound his way up the external stairs to the third floor. Can’t believe we’ve been selling so well and we still don’t warrant somewhere nicer. Soon. We’ll be bigger than cheeses, soon enough…

Key in keyhole, room 36. Attempting to get the key in the keyhole. Wasn’t quite working as planned.

A glance at the key showed the reason why; he’d been using the 37 key, for the next room over.

Little thought, floating across his addled brain. 37. Why not? Maybe she’d want company. He could go for company right now. Why stop partying? He shouldn’t have to ever stop partying. He was a goddamn rock star.

Shuffle twelve feet to the right, key in the keyhole. Twist and turn. Enter that room like a boss.

"ELLIE!" he called out. "Celebration! Celebration times are now. Ellie? You awake?"

Had to be awake, the shower was running. Door to the bathroom was open, even. Minor concern.

Major concern, as he pushed her shower curtain aside.

A few minutes later, after applying a little drunken basic first aid, Jonny was pounding on the door to room 35. His bleary-eyed drummer answered, grumbling something about the time, which Jonny ignored.

"Ellie’s suiciding out again," Jonny said. "You got the phone number for that doctor? She’s gonna need stitches."

No matter how much the City changes out from under you, some things stay the same, a tiny and sober part of Jonny’s mind grumbled.

---

"Twisted" was the usual adjective applied when people tried to describe the city. Penelope Yates never felt it was appropriate.

Twisted implied some sort of disagreeable change. Mutation, alteration, distortion, and so on. But the City of Angles was what it wanted to be… a dream of a city, a dream of what a city could be. In a quite literal sense, actually. It wasn’t twisted, it just wasn’t what people from Earth were used to.

Now, that didn’t mean that the shape of the City was perfect. Dreams can be lovely things, full of wonder and delight, but they’re also the result of randomly firing neurons and synapses and… and things in the brain that Penelope didn’t quite understand, since she wasn’t a brain surgeon. It could be improved upon, without resorting to "untwisting" it…

Tonight, Penelope had improved upon the City. Because nobody else could. She was, for lack of a better term, the City’s patron goddess.

She’d learned of her role in things two years ago, when the culmination of her Sideways explorations led her to the Heart of the City, the source of the entire world. She’d been exploring the Sideways for years… the depths of reality, where the City became a network of random rooms and hallways. Washed-up detritus of the urban growth process, out of view and quite dangerous to visit. There, at the center of it all, she learned some very uncomfortable truths.

The most uncomfortable thing about them was how little they actually explained anything, honestly, but what little they did explain wasn’t particularly fun either.

The practical upshot of that little encounter was a deeper understanding of her nature within the dream. Some part of her wasn’t just Penelope Yates, it was also "Lucid," an ill-fitting name assigned to the nebulous spirit of those who wish to live and survive within the City. It gave her strange connections to people. It gave her strange dreams. And it gave her the VERY strange ability to change the City at will.

At first, she did it on instinct. Giant reality-warping Picasso menacing you, threatening to turn you just as insane and broken as it was? Drop a parking garage on him. Being chased through a toy store by her sister-goddess Bedlam, patron saint of chaos and madness? Open up your own exit and get the hell outta there. Simple and direct tweaks, and done without even realizing she was doing them.

But making a change on purpose… a large-scale change, something with design and intent… that took more effort.

Currently she had it down to eighteen hours of effort. Used to take a full day. Hopefully, she’d get to the point where she could do it during a single good night’s sleep. Again, quite literally, as she could only make a large-scale change in her sleep.

It had been exhausting (despite being, y’know, asleep at the time) but tonight’s shuffle worked perfectly. One high society residential cluster, plopped down in a largely forgotten and neglected district of the City. She’d scouted out the locations for weeks, studying them in detail, trying to memorize every single view of the two locations. Doing a shuffle without prep work could result in… well, nothing would explode or anything, but no shuffle would happen and Penelope would be left with a blinding headache. Better to be prepared.

The shuffle only took most of the night. For the rest of the night (and deep into the morning) she rested, unconscious and recuperating from the toll it took on her.

Here, in this private dreamscape, she sat at a bus stop next to a warped and bent street lamp. The City was always a bit more surreal in her dreams, a bit more raw and strange. A dream of a dream…

…improvements. // you’re making improvements. //

Dream-Penelope / Lucid didn’t need to turn around to know who was talking to her.

"Hi, Bedlam," she greeted.

The shadow-slick chaos version of herself sat next to her, at the bus stop. It didn’t transpose between wherever it was before and the bench; it just appeared there. Bedlam could do whatever she pleased, free from the constraints of a physically human body. Penelope, on the other hand, had to crash-rest for hours after doing anything goddess-y because she had a physically human body. (Being human was her entire point, after all.)

we talked // we agreed // there was an understanding, Bedlam "spoke," in her broken and overlapping way. the City is not broken. // the city is wonderful // chaotic // pure // perfect //

"Nothing’s perfect. Not me, not you, not the City," Penelope pointed out.

I love this city. // I love my friends. // you’re changing the thing I love // warping it // twisting it // into something // something // else. // Earthlike. // you mimic that pathetic and dull place // not what we agreed to // not at all // you are making it easier // safer // simpler //

"What makes you say that?"

Bedlam gestured with six hands which were then three hands and then one, to an image in the distance. Off in the wilds of this strange dream, farther than Penelope had ever dared to explore beyond the bus stop…

An abandoned crack house. A high-society condo complex. One switching places with the other.

people next to people next to // people // proximity // community // so simple and clean // Earthlike // safe—

She couldn’t help but giggle.

(If you told Penelope two years ago that she’d feel perfectly comfortable giggling next to the legendary icon of insanity that had tormented the city several times over the decades with cults of murder and mayhem, she’d never have believed you. But she was finding it easier to believe in a wide array of impossible things, these days.)

"You think this is going to be easy on them?" she asked. "You’re just looking at the surface, Bedlam. The buildings. Look at the people. I took a bunch of people who felt safe and comfortable in their high-end neighborhood, surrounded by the rich and powerful… and I moved them out to a place that has been neglected and ignored by everyone. It’s going to be crazypants out there. Culture clash like you wouldn’t believe."

The inky twin of Penelope blinked with three eyes, then two. Curious.

explain. //

"Well… this can go two different ways," Penelope said. "I just tore up those guys by the roots and put them next to those they fear the most… the poor. Now, they’ve got a choice. Do they run away, and find somewhere safely familiar to live? Or do they stand their ground, and elevate those around them to make life better for themselves and others? The City abhors a static community. It needs a living community, one that can move smoothly with change. That’s what you wanted, right? A world that’s constantly in motion, and people who can live alongside it?"

It was a broad interpretation, definitely. Bedlam had, initially, wanted to soak the world in absolute nightmare and horror so that nobody would have to be afraid again—theorizing that the best way to live with the monster under the bed was to climb down and become a monster yourself.

Penelope had talked her down from that stand, arguing that people could learn to live with the City instead of against it without having to lose their sanity along the way. Bedlam allowed her a chance to prove this was possible, mostly because she didn’t believe it was possible and that once Penelope failed, Bedlam could sweep in and get her midnight funzone anyway. But so far, Penelope had stuck to her crazy plan, and doing her best to justify it all.

The shadow child (now a shadow teenager, aging alongside her human twin) pondered this.

maybe. // possibly. // hrrmm. // don’t like it // wish for something // something absolute // pure // chaotic // but but // but very well. // for now.

And gone. As if she was never there.

Which Penelope was thankful for, honestly. Even if she could giggle at madness incarnate these days, it didn’t make that giggle any less risky. The less contact she had with her darker self, the better… which was one of the three reasons she didn’t go into the Sideways anymore.

The other two reasons being:

One, she’d finished what she went there to do. Originally, Penelope was mapping out the Sideways to get a feeling for the "shape" of the city, to know its heart. Unexpectedly she’d learned that heart inside and out, and now there wasn’t any point in a return trip.

Two, if her father Gregory (who insisted on accompanying her on these jaunts) went into the Sideways again, Bedlam would murder him. Bedlam hadn’t even implied it, she directly stated it. He killed my friend // killed my friend // Seth // I’ll kill him // kill him if I ever see him again, she’d promised.

Fortunately, this was a new phase in Penelope’s life. Fifteen years old, maturing up nicely like a fine wine. Exploring the surface of the City instead of its windy little back-passages. New quest, new era, new Penelope.

Who was still going to have to deal with an irate father figure when she woke up, so she’d better spend the rest of this time genuinely sleeping instead of lucid dreaming.

Penelope drifted off into absolute unconsciousness. Almost comatose. Except it wasn’t really almost.

---

A familiar ceiling greeted her, on rousing from her state. Also familiar: an end table with an alarm clock that had blared and been shut off long ago. Likely shut off by her father, who had left some energy bars and a glass of water at her bedside.

Without even getting out of bed, Penelope wolfed down the snacks. Doing these overnight shuffles was a draining experience… the earliest ones she’d done took nearly a full day of sleep, and left her dehydrated and starving. She’d gotten it down considerably since, but after eighteen hours of sleep she still woke up famished and dried out. Fortunately, her Dad was good at preparing for eventualities. Even if he disliked them.

She hadn’t made much noise, but somehow Gregory Yates knew his daughter was up and running. He came knocking at her door before she was finished with the last granola bar.

Despite being just a nudge past forty, despite no longer climbing and crawling and running through the Sideways regularly… her father seemed far older these days. As if exhaustion set in a perpetual loop. It added to the overall look of consigned displeasure he bore, today.

"Your school was wondering why you didn’t log in today. I made up a sick day excuse for you," he said. "But I’m expecting you to attend classes tomorrow, even if your sleep schedule’s messed up for a few days. For now, dinnertime. And lunchtime, I guess. I’ll bring you up some tuna sandwiches."

Penelope hated tuna sandwiches. She’d had a perpetual stream of them, since fish was readily on hand. But she decided not to protest; call it penance for doing something she knew her father hated.

He also produced the daily newspaper, knowing she’d want to read it. Of course, the "paper" was automatically delivered to her smart tablet. She’d never read an actual, factual newspaper in her life. Penny accepted her tablet computer, unlocking it and loading up the corresponding app.

"Page three," he announced. "I don’t like this, Penelope. That was too noticeable a shuffle. Every so-called expert is crawling out of the woodwork to be interviewed about this. They’re starting to wonder if the City’s become sentient…"

"It’s always been sentient. It just never had a voice until now. Well, a voice not actively trying to destroy it," she corrected. "Look, Dad, I know you’re worried, but—"

"I’ve given up trying to convince you not to do this. You’re fifteen now, Penny. Legally three years away from being an adult, but frankly, you deal with enough craziness that you’re functionally an adult already. Even if I’d like you to stop, I’m not telling you to stop. I’m just saying you need to think about counterintelligence here."

Penelope swallowed the last of the energy bars, flicking to the article in question. It indeed was a pile of interviewed experts, each with their own pet theory about how the spree of shuffles may have design and intent.

"Counterintelligence?" she asked.

"You need to stay covert. You’re like a secret agent civil engineer, at this point," he said. "Nobody’s made the connection yet because they don’t have the facts. But that can’t last forever. If you’re too overt, if you leave traces, someone will figure out what’s going on. You scout out the two locations before you do a shuffle, right? You leave a trail. Surveillance cameras, eyewitnesses. Not good for long term work."

Stretching out, once. Joints cracking. Sitting behind a desk most of the day was not helping Gregory’s body, which had grown used to a more active and/or life-threatening lifestyle.

"Just something to think about," he said. "Should get dressed. I’ll go get your lunch-dinner."

And he left, so she could have some privacy. Both to change for the evening ahead, and to ponder her situation.

---

Nothingness. Comfortable, peaceful nothingness.

And then something.

She came out of it slowly, fuzzily. Slow enough that inevitable consciousness came as no surprise; she’d gone through the initial dismay at waking up from what was supposed to be an eternal rest, and had settled into a grim acceptance by the time she was able to speak again.

"Water…?" she requested, in the loudest, largest voice she could manage. Which was very small. Not that her voice was particularly big even when she wasn’t pulled back from the brink of death.

The blur in white, which had indeed been that familiar doctor she was expecting to see, provided an old-school styrofoam cup with some water and ice chips. She couldn’t help but stare a moment at the heavy bandages around her forearms, when she raised one hand to take the cup. An arm on fire, even through the haze of drugs swimming through what remained of her bloodstream…

"Gave us all a bit of a scare there, Ellie," Doctor Hoshi said, with that fake and comforting smile she remembered from the last time. "You’re lucky your friends found you in time. I managed to close the wounds; you’ll be back on your feet soon!"

"And just like last time, they’re paying me to keep my mouth shut. And just like last time, I’m taking the money. God. Ellie, you should be in a real hospital, getting real help. Not this," he didn’t add.

A shiver. She was cold, true. But it was the unspoken words that gave her the chills… words she never really got used to hearing. Despite hearing them for years and years…

Never talk about it. Try to ignore it. Don’t let it define you. Those were the obvious answers to the perpetual problem she faced, but knowing the answer factually didn’t mean she could make it happen. When every person she met fed her a constant stream of unspoken regrets and sorrows, that negativity bled over into every part of her life. Drowning it out helped for a time, but it never stopped, never ceased. At least, never ceased except for the few blissful moments where she’d almost ceased herself…

"Want to go," she mumbled. Trying to sit up, despite clearly being too weak to manage even that. "Want to go away…"

The doctor moved to gently ease her back into her bed. "Easy, easy," he insisted. "You’re in no shape to go anywhere. But give it a day, day or two… you’ll be ready to get back on stage. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine. I’m just going to keep you here at my clinic for… observation, until you’re healthy enough. Would you like something special for dinner? You slept a long time."

"How many gang-bangers, murderers, and rapists are walking the streets now because of me?" Doctor Hoshi didn’t speak aloud. "All because I’m willing to take their money, stitch them up, and cut them loose without any Department of Safety oversight. I hate what I’ve become. I was supposed to heal the world. But this world would be better off without me. If I was smart, I’d do what she tried to do—"

"Walkman," Ellie croaked, the shivers getting beyond her control.

"Pardon? Do you need something?" "She’s just going to do it again. Poor thing. And they’ll make me ‘save’ her again. Again and again—"

"Walkman!" she repeated. "My cassette player. He would’ve brought it with me. Please, please, don’t say anything, just give it to me, hurry…"

Soon the lumpy bit of plastic and metal was in her hand, one finger comfortingly tracing over the embossed Japanese corporate logo, the other jamming on PLAY. And then the music came in through her ears, drowning out everything. The beeps of medical machines, the drip of a blood transfusion… and the unspoken sorrows of everyone around her. All of it flooded out by the sound of screaming guitar and poetry on magnetic tape, with nothing more to say to her than what it already said.

---

In the waiting room of a slightly shady free clinic in a tenth floor walk-up at the edge of town sat a row of hard plastic seats. In these seats sat two men, waiting for the doctor’s verdict.

They said nothing to each other. The one in punk-style leathers and dark glasses to cover his perpetual hangover pretended to be too busy reading a copy of Highlights for Children to talk, anyway. The other just didn’t feel like talking, stewing in his chair, slumped down and arms crossed. He dressed the part of an ordinary joe… jeans, t-shirt, nothing slightly interesting or fashionable about him. Someone who probably didn’t have a lot to say.

Eventually he decided to speak his mind.

"We’re canceling the tour," he declared.

"Screw that, we are not canceling the tour," his punk-draped companion declared. "Mikey, it’s just a bump in the road, man. We don’t stop for a bump in the road—"

"Third time. Third time she’s tried to kill herself, Jonny."

"I think the first one was more of a cry-for-help kind of thing. She didn’t get very far into it."

"Ellie needs serious help. You’ve got her so strung out with this perpetual cycle of touring and recording that she can’t get a moment’s peace," Mikey said. "Hell, I can’t get a moment’s peace. We have to stop. I don’t know, take a year off, get her enrolled in some programs—"

"Really? You want her in programs? Group-hug love-ins, big public circuses?" Jonny asked, tossing his children’s magazine down on the waiting room table. "Because no matter how private a clinic we roll her in, the paparazzi’s gonna find her. We’re damned lucky they haven’t clued in that her emo style is more than a style. You think we need that kind of bad press right now, Mikey?"

"Bad press—?! It’s her life, man!"

"One which will be destroyed once we voluntarily give our critics more ammo to use against us. How’s it gonna look if Oblivion’s Advocate—the premiere Echo Revelation-themed quasi-nihilistic party-hardy #YOLO pop-punk band—has a drowning Ophelia for a bass player? That’s bad press from hell. Concerned mothers. Media critics. City council representatives all up in our area, complaining about our music being a dangerous influence. ‘Why, they can’t even keep from destroying themselves! How can we allow them to twist our children?’ is what they’ll say…"

Mikey sank lower in his uncomfortable chair. "They already say that. I’m sick of being rolled in with Hitler and Darth Vader thanks to your stupid Echo gimmick…"

"And imagine how much louder the uproar will get if they find out about this. News channels, turning our dear Ellie into a spectacle. She deserves better than that, don’t you think? And better than riding the poverty line with that old whore she calls mom, like she was before we pulled her into Oblivion’s Advocate. Look, this is a good thing for her. A hot, rising band. One which is on the verge of breaking huge."

Jonny Nobody got to his feet, joints creaking from the lousy posture he had been assuming. Even if his posture was lousy in general.

"Mikey… I’m not a complete monster," he insisted. "I get it. Ellie is not well. But she wasn’t well before we met her either, was she? And she’s not gonna get well without money. Nobody gets anything without money in this town. We just need to keep rolling a bit longer… then we can talk about replacing her in the band. Or taking time off. Or breaking up. I don’t know. But not until we run this bitch called Oblivion’s Advocate straight into the ground, in an explosion of cash. Understood?"

We need to run for the hills, Mikey thought. I need to run for the hills. Grab her and bail, get far away from Jonny’s crazy nightmare. It’s not like he’s passionate about the music—he doesn’t even believe in the crap he spouts on stage. I’m a drummer in the fakest band imaginable, one which is tearing someone’s life apart, and… and…

And it made a lot of money.

Like, a LOT of money.

He hated it, yes. He spoke out at every turn about the directions Oblivion’s Advocate had been going in. He protested Jonny’s drinking and drugs and crazy parties. He fretted for Ellie’s health.

But in the end… Mikey, who’d floated from band to band for years without having any success whatsoever, who had no job skills to speak of, who had no future of his own… he couldn’t look away from the simple fact that they were going to make it big. Big enough that all the pointless flailing about in his life might actually look like it was worthwhile, in the end. That maybe Mikey would be worthwhile, in the end.

"How many more stops are on this tour?" he asked.

"Just a few. Next one’s up in two days, at the Lucid Dreamer," Jonny said, pleased to see Mikey come back into the fold. "It’s a nice place, despite being in Crossway Points. Got the gig through the Avenue. Hot as hell chick owns the place. Good crowd, nice and hot for any music you put in front of them, you’ll dig it. Maybe Ellie’ll dig it, too. You know a good vibe calms her."

---

Six hours of school a day felt like too much. Granted that she actually had six hours to spend, these days—having some actual roots in the community without wandering through the Sideways regularly meant Gregory could get a higher grade of online school for his daughter. Instead of just reading textbooks in her own time, there were actual sit-down classes to attend. An actual teacher stood in front of a web cam, broadcasting to dozens of students who likewise had webcams… connected to software that determined if they were being truants or not.

Of course, software written by adults could be easily beaten by clever teenagers. Penelope had a series of multi-hour recordings of herself, sitting and listening attentively, which could be piped into her webcam feed. That freed her up to wander around her bedroom, bouncing a ball off a wall or pondering the city maps she’d been drafting, while listening to the teacher drone on. Honestly, she learned better this way; having a few things floating through her mind while overhearing a higher education clicked nicely for her.

Plus, while Mrs. Butters was yammering on about cosines and arcs and tangents (there being a "City of Angles" pun somewhere in there, Penelope just knew it) she could reply to messages from her friends.

THX1138: Hey hey! Geometry is boring as hell.

A smirk across her lips. This was one of the upsides to a more traditional and expensive online school… she could attend alongside friends. Friends like Lucas Flynn, whose parents had also insisted on an upscale schooling experience. He’d been the one who got her hooked up with the webcam trick software, actually.

Penny’s thumbs played across her smartphone screen with the practiced ease and speed only a teenage girl can achieve.

PennyLane: Hey hey! I read ahead in the book so yeah, this is boring as hell. What’s up?

THX1138: So a little birdie tells me you’ll have free time soon.
THX1138: Have you reconsidered? The media club could really suit you.
THX1138: This way you could record dialogue for Flynn-Frisk Funnies and get after school credit for it.

Odd. Penny had already turned him down; as fun as it might be to virtually hang out with an old friend, she had an important use of her obligatory after school club slot already. Everybody joined one club, and only one club… joining more would take more money, since they were a semi-not-really optional part of the school’s programs.

PennyLane: I’m already in Journalism Club. Sorry, Lucas.

THX1138: Weren’t you kicked out?
THX1138: Oh
THX1138: Oh crap
THX1138: Sorry, I thought they already told you. I mean, if I’d heard it already, surely she told you…

Two thoughts crashed into each other head on, one with a sigh and one with a grumble. Guess I should’ve seen that coming, and oh come on! I wasn’t THAT bad at it!

She typed up a quick "AFK" to Lucas, then jumped back to her laptop computer, for some serious communication outreach type efforts. The virtual pre-recorded Penelope continued attending math class, while the real one tried to get a web chat through to her "boss." Who, fortunately, was between classes at the moment.

A familiar bedroom popped up on her screen. Band posters in the background, shelves with stuffed animals, shelves with various trophies. Accomplishments and comforts and cultural statements, likely arranged just-so for web chats such as these. It was a bedroom Penelope had seen quite a bit, but only on an LCD screen… she’d rarely actually met any of her classmates, and never went to their houses. Another thing to envy of her friends living in the Suburbs and going to public schools.

"Penelope," the editor-in-chief and head of the Journalism Club replied, as digital compression smeared her briefly, before keyframing back to normal. "You need something? Kinda busy here…"

"Am I out?" Penelope asked, bolstering what confidence she could. "Seriously, just tell me straight up if I’m out. I can take it."

Immediately clear, even over the 720p video stream, was Destiny’s hesitation.

Editor-in-chief ever since her freshman year, Destiny claimed the post easily with the weight of her credentials from earlier private online academies. Honestly, Penelope admired the other girl… to the point of feeling a bit insecure in her own self, every time she saw this confident and ambitious woman on the other end of a web chat.

Destiny had been aptly named by her parents because she clearly had one, in journalism or any other field she chose to apply herself to. Straight-A student, praised to the heavens by her teachers, staggeringly beautiful and only getting shinier with each passing teenage year. Despite being a tele-student, she even took time to dress nicely and apply makeup every morning that highlighted her dark cheekbones just so perfectly that Penelope felt kind of dumpy and plain in comparison.

The two of them had a rocky relationship, ever since Penelope joined the ranks of the school newspaper. (Again, website-based, without physical paper.) Destiny liked Penelope’s pluck and ambition… but Penelope wasn’t really keen on the kind of plain and traditional reporting that was expected of a student newspaper. She had other goals, and chased them down whether anyone else approved.

"If it was up to me, Penelope, I’d keep you on board," Destiny said at last, simultaneously confirming the bad news and trying to support her apprentice. "Your writing style’s developing right before my eyes, and I like what I see."

"I’ve been getting style tips from Cass. I mean, she only writes poetry, but… you like it, right?"

"Yeah, it’s pretty out there, and I like that. But that’s also the problem," Destiny interrupted. "It’s too out there. You write op-ed columns, Penelope, and ones that soar waaaay over the heads of our readers… I mean, City politics are one thing, but philosophical tracts about the structure of the City… that’s dissertation stuff. It’s not newspaper stuff, girl. And we run a newspaper. The other editors think it’s time for you to go."

Penelope sank an inch or so in her chair. She didn’t realize she was doing it, until the autotracking software on her webcam tilted down to follow her.

"Maybe you should join the Debate Club," Destiny suggested, leaning forward to enter Penelope’s virtual personal space as a comforting gesture. "I think you could do well there… you seem to be trying to sway folks to a point of view. What that point of view is, I’m not totally sure, but…"

To that, Penelope had no defense. Because she wasn’t totally sure what her own point of view was, either.

This was the part she hadn’t explained to Destiny, the true purpose behind being in the Journalism Club. Penelope was training herself. One day, if her long-term plans worked out… she might need to be a leader. Someone guiding the City towards a genuinely stable future, living in harmony with itself. For that, she needed practice convincing people that her vision was the way to go.

Of course, to explain that to a classmate would mean explaining the whole perplexingly weird living-goddess thing, and… yeah, no. Better to keep it vague.

"I thought about Debate Club," Penelope admitted. "I could get what I need to get out of it, maybe. But, see, the thing is, I can’t talk very well. I mean I run at the mouth a lot and I just sort of open up and say what’s on my mind even if it’s not too organized, but I figured if I could take a few moments to sit down and put it on paper that it’d make more sense, right? Right. I mean, each of those columns I send you takes me a lot of time… I know they’re rough, I know I need practice, but if you could just give me another shot…"

"How about the student government? Speechmaking seems to be your thing. Elections are coming up, you could—"

"No way. Thought about that and shot it down immediately," she interjected. "All the student government does is plan dances and other offline meet-ups, and backstab each other for popularity points on social networks. That’s boring and stupid and I’m not interested. Destiny, please… let me keep trying. I can make something that’ll sing with people, I just know it!"

Her editor sat back, no… one hand to her chin, swiveling back and forth in the chair at her desk. In thought.

"Pitch me something," Destiny suggested, after a time. "Something normal. Something that’ll appeal to our demographic, and bring eyeballs to the paper."

…which left Penelope coming up empty. Because normality for her demographic was something she never could quite grasp.

Normality was the life led by Milly and Lucas. Friendship, hangouts, consumer goods, media, growing up, learning life lessons, all the normal bits and pieces of youth. But Penelope had spent much of her few years of life crawling around the Sideways, leading a decidedly abnormal life. They hadn’t even had a true home to take root in until recently, when Archie retired and left his seafood restaurant to her father… before that it was a series of rented apartments or makeshift camps in the warped hallways beneath the City.

Penelope had vague ideas of what girls her age should be doing, largely involving boys—looking at them, talking about them, dating them. Ideas which exclusively came from media leveled at girls her age like a military salvo of indoctrination, teaching her to make babies and/or food. Despite the force of impact, those salvos never really stuck to her. Beyond that… she had no idea what would fly for a newspaper column.

She looked up from staring at her toes, to explain her problem… and glanced just above and to the left of Destiny’s face on her screen.

Band posters, tacked up on the wall opposite Destiny’s webcam. They were announcements of fandom allegiance, positioned to declare self-identify visually to those who chat with you online. She’d selected and positioned them with intent, much as other teenagers her age likely did. And one stuck out above the others… not for having a better design, or even for having more square inches of wall space covered than the rest. Instead, the name it presented was familiar to her.

"What if I could get an interview with Oblivion’s Advocate?" Penelope suggested.

It took a few moments for it to sink in. Destiny glanced over her shoulder, recognizing where the idea came from, then back to her apprentice.

"You can’t get an interview with Oblivion’s Advocate," Destiny pointed out. "They’re nearly top-twenty material. You work for a school newspaper. Get real, girl."

"I am getting real. They’re playing at the Lucid Dreamer soon, and I know the owner of that club personally," she said, with a big smile of actual confidence. "Vivi messaged me this morning asking if I wanted a free ticket. I was gonna pass it up, since… well, uh, I don’t actually know anything about the band, but I know they’re big and I know if I push I can get an interview! Trust me. I know a guy who knows a guy. I can make this happen."

Her editor-in-chief remained skeptical… but could see the value in it.

"Get me an interview. And a good one, one that pokes at ’em—do your homework before talking to them, research the band so you know what to ask," Destiny suggested. "You do that and I’ll print it. It’s good enough, you may make front page. And that’ll keep you in the club. …you seriously know nothing about Oblivion’s Advocate? Nothing at all?"

"I know they’re popular…?" Penelope offered, unsure even of that.

The smirk on her editor’s lips was promising.

"Personally I like their sound, even if their attitude is… well. I think you two will get along in an… interesting way, with your point of view and theirs," she offered. "They resonate with our age group something fierce, so be ready for that. Even if you don’t like what you find there."

---

A taxi pulled up to a motel in District 23, disgorging a trio of sullen-looking punk rockers into the night. (One of them decidedly less sullen than the others; Jonny was just bored.)

Up they went to the third floor, to the trio of rooms that the label had rented out for them. Except this time, Mikey accompanied Ellie—two in one room. He very specifically closed the door behind them before Jonny could interject any sort of comment, leaving their frontman wordless in the overlook behind them. Even moved to immediately close the window blinds, so he couldn’t tap on the glass or make funny faces or anything. Zero contact. Better for Ellie, and honestly, better for Mikey.

"It’s just for the night," Mikey explained. "I’ll take the chair, you can have the bed. We just want to make sure if you need anything… anything at all, I’m within reach." "I’m not letting you kill yourself again. I can pretend it’s because I care about you, but I need you for the show tomorrow. I hate the fact that I need you for that."

…strange, the way Ellie always took a little longer to reply when you talked to her. Like she was listening to something in the wind, something unpleasant. Mikey never quite understood that. Never quite understood anything about their bass player, honestly.

He didn’t even know how Jonny found her in the first place. She didn’t have any formal bass guitar training; no semi-disappointed middle-class suburban parents like Mikey, willing to buy their kid a drum set and devote garage space to his mindless banging. According to Jonny, who was hardly a reputable source of truth, she just picked up the instrument and started crafting melodic sounds by instinct.

Ellie, poor raven-haired Ellie, the girl with eyes as blue as the oceans Mikey had never actually seen… she just showed up one day, dragged along by Jonny, introduced as their new bass player. What little Mikey knew about her past, that she came from a broken home with a gang kingpin father and a mother routinely soaked in drugs and/or cheap sex, it was no wonder the girl had troubles. Exactly what those troubles were, he didn’t know. She didn’t want to say. He didn’t want to pry. Partly out of respect to her… partly because he didn’t want to be troubled with her troubles. Even if he hated that about himself.

The pale woman settled on her bed. Sitting, at first. Then laying back, her long hair scattered around her. Headphones in her ears, pressing PLAY on the archaic plastic box she kept at all times. If she were going to talk, this wouldn’t be the night, he reasoned.

Except she did talk.

"Shouldn’t blame yourself," she spoke. "I don’t."

Eyes closed, to sleep. With blasting music in her ears.

Mikey, who was only vaguely tired, pulled out his cheap cloned smartphone with a cracked screen. Flicked it unlocked, checked his social networks, his messages. Looking for something resembling good news to brighten his day…

TheAvenue: Hey, you around?
TheAvenue: Hit me up when you get this man

Curious. Hollister Avenue wanted to talk to him, and not Jonny…?

Everybody knew Hollister, even if nobody knew quite why they knew him. You just knew him. He had no official capacity outside of some charity work for the Department of Orientation (because at that pay grade, it practically WAS charity) and yet he managed to interject himself in the middle of quite a few deals in this town, particularly in the entertainment sector. Mikey knew he was somehow attached to the Lucid Dreamer, the club they were hitting tomorrow night… that Jonny had agreed to the gig after a night of heavy drinking with Hollister, which for both men was how many deals were made. But Mikey wasn’t involved in that. Didn’t even think Hollister Avenue had his messenger handle.

MikeyLikesIt: what?

TheAvenue: Good, glad I caught you. I’ve got a proposition to make.
TheAvenue: Didn’t think Jonny would even hear me out, but I thought maybe you would. I’ve heard you’re a standup guy. You interested in a little good PR?
TheAvenue: Friend of mine, teenage kid, she wants to interview you guys for her school paper. I know that kind of thing is beneath rock stars like you but it’d mean the world to her and I bet you’d get some positive press buzz from it.
TheAvenue:
How about it? I can set it up for right after the gig. Quick and easy, no big, OK?

Good PR being something the band could certainly use, Mikey recalled. He thumbed in a reply.

MikeyLikesIt: OK. ill talk to Jonny. ill convince him, don’t worry. see u tomorrow

Flick the phone shut, as the screen was blurry by now. Sleep had rushed up on Mikey while he was pondering the offer.

The timing was perfect. Some softball interview with a groupie? If he spoke up, interrupting Jonny before he could spout his usual drivel, maybe they’d get some ammo to use against the critics. Do something worthwhile. Mikey hadn’t done a single worthwhile thing in his life… it’d be nice to turn that particular losing streak around…

Minutes after he drifted off, Ellie opened her eyes. Glanced over to make sure he was down for the count… then pushed the STOP button.

Quiet. The still, peaceful quiet of night. And she didn’t have to be alone tonight to enjoy it, either; with Mikey unconscious, his other voice had silenced itself as well.

Nice, to not be alone. Nice, to be alone in her head. Two things she rarely got to experience at the same time. So, instead of sneaking off to see if they’d removed all sharp objects from the motel room, she decided to stay up a bit longer to listen to nothing. And then truly rest.

---

Here, in this private dreamscape, she sat at a bus stop next to a warped and bent street lamp. The City was always a bit more surreal in her dreams, a bit more raw and strange. A dream of a dream…

ah, this again, floated through her sleeping mind. Neutral ground, where she could meet with her new friend. Old enemy. Frenemy would probably be the best word for it.

But what did Bedlam want this time? Penelope was too busy working on this journalism assignment to start on her next shuffle. She hadn’t done anything to offend the sensibilities of chaos. Maybe Bedlam didn’t like the tuna fish sandwich she ate recently either?

"I really need my sleep," Penelope protested, uncomfortable on the hard bench of the bus stop. "What do you want this time?"

It’d either be complaints, or taunts. Bedlam loved both of them, sometimes heaping both on at the same time. She regarded Penelope’s path as a fool’s errand, one doomed to failure in the long run. Still, little verbal jabs in her sleep were preferable to Bedlam trying to ensure that failure came about.

This time, though… the shapeless shadow to her left simply sat there. Smiling. Silent.

"Cat that swallowed the canary, over there," Penelope said. "What’s so funny?"

Nothing.

"If you’re just trying to waste my time, fine. I can sit here all night," she offered. "Not like the bus is ever going to come. This street corner of ours is just a silly dream, after all…"

don’t know // don’t even know what this is // do you? Bedlam asked, breaking her silence. Think you dreamed it up yourself // figment of your imagination // yours // yours //

"Well, it’s my dream, isn’t it?" Lucid/Penny asked. "Stands to reason that it’s a figment of my imagination."

yours // yours // whose? // yours? Bedlam asked… head rotating ninety degrees, turning her impossibly bright multi-smile upon Penelope. mine? // hers? // yours? // ours? // hours and hours. // that’s adorable. // just like you, just like how you don’t even know yourself // selves // purpose // point of view // I know // I know // but I won’t make things easy for you. // not with this. // not with what you’re walking into…

This was the problem with their semi-alliance. Bedlam wasn’t in Penelope’s corner, even if she wasn’t actively trying to warp the City into a perpetual nightmare anymore. The shadow self loved to tease, offering half-explanations at best, in an effort to throw Penelope off her game.

"If you mean the shuffles and my grand design, I’m already plenty insecure about my future, thanks," Penelope replied. "I’ll do my best to help the City move forward, and my best is going to have to do—"

Seven overlapping giggles.

grand design? // design by Penelope. // design by Lucid. // points of view expressed through plans // schemes // ideals? // no. // that’s not what I meant // expressed to you. // walking into trouble. // waltzing into danger. // skipping along into the arms of this City’s doom…

The usual pile of nonsense, of course. But… the way that last point trailed off, reverberating into the false night… that felt important. Bedlam rarely talked about others, not when she could poke and prod at Penelope.

"Whose arms?" Penelope asked, not expecting an answer.

But Bedlam shook her head side to side, at a wobbly angle, likely negative. already told you at the Heart // Heart of the City // loud and clear, she emitted. // the nadir of our trinity, sorrow’s Echo. // the distant threat of the bleed. // far worse things than me. // won’t help you. // won’t stop you. // will wait patiently for you to fail.

"…riiiight. Okay. I’ll worry about distant threats when they become less distant, thanks," Penelope grumbled. "Whatever those threats are. Still not interested in explaining what you mean, huh? feh. I’ve got enough going on that’s got nothing to do with apocalypses. I have a life beyond being some kinda savior, you know. Responsibilities. Things I want for myself."

// Journalism Club? //

…which gave Penelope the chills, briefly. The extent to which Bedlam was omniscient seemed to ebb and flow, ill-defined. For that matter the extent to which Penelope was omniscient had been up for internal debate quite a bit. Their connection to the City as a whole granted new perspectives, but unlike Penelope, Bedlam was far less human. That might’ve given her a leg up in the perception department.

"Are… are you seriously hinting that the concert tomorrow is going to destroy the City or something?" Penelope asked, putting things together. "How? It’s just music, it can’t hurt anyone."

More giggles that couldn’t have come from a single throat… and then three voices, like recorded playback from Penelope’s own mouth:

"It’s just a silly dream." // "It’s just a figment of my imagination." // "It’s just music, it can’t hurt anyone."

And with that, Bedlam rose from her seat on the bench, and began to walk away. Vaguely hand-like extensions of her shadow in vaguely pocket-like sections of her vaguely clothing-like shape. Whistling away a children’s tune… row, row, row your boat.

Penelope turned to watch her go, although it was hard to see Bedlam’s ill-defined form through the reflection of Penelope’s own face in the smooth glass of the covered bus stop. A reflection with oddly blue eyes—

Alarm clock. Of course.

No excuse today; she had to get herself out of bed and online in the next ten minutes, or be marked as late again. She could snatch some toaster pastries after getting counted for morning class attendance. And whatever the hell Bedlam was going on about, well… she’d have to figure it out later. Life didn’t go on pause for Penelope just because she needed time to think.

---

Penelope was expecting more resistance to her proposal.

"Yeah, go and have fun," was all that Gregory Yates offered in response.

Which was odd. Not that she succeeded in getting his approval, but that it was so easy. His darling fifteen-year-old daughter, going out to a concert in the Crossway Points all by herself? Success at that would take finesse and timing. She’d picked the evening dinner rush at That Fish Place for the request—he’d been manager of the restaurant for a year now but still didn’t quite have the hang of the business. He’d be harried and busy, and have no time to seriously consider her request. Perfect for blindsiding her father. But… he didn’t even protest the short notice of it (the concert was tonight) or bugging him when he was busy. He just… dismissed her.

But that was the new normal, wasn’t it? Before, Penelope could barely sneeze without her father’s permission. Now, she could wander around the City as much as she liked, with or without him. Did the old man seriously mellow out that much? Had he given up trying to control her life? Was he going through some midlife crisis? What, exactly, was up with that?

No time to ponder, though. She had a concert to go to.

Penelope had never actually been to a concert before. This was presumably a thing teenagers did, but she’d never had time before. It wasn’t like she didn’t enjoy music—she had a plethora of it loaded to her smartphone, mostly City-original bands rather than cheaply pirated Earth salvage. But concerts were a thing that simply didn’t mesh with a lifestyle of constant relocation and delving into the dark corners of the world. What was she supposed to wear? Penelope didn’t own any nice clothes. She owned functional clothes. Hopefully functional for this too, although she probably didn’t need all the belt loops and holsters for flashlights and emergency battery supplies and first aid kits.

Similarly, she’d never done traditional journalism before. How did she dress like a journalist, AND a concert attendee? Her wardrobe distinctly lacked businesslike clothes, too…

In the end, she settled on some basics—t-shirt and jeans, inoffensive and simple. Owing to her role as a serious reporter, she did however take her old-timey explorer’s pith helm and stick a card in the brim reading "PRESS." She’d seen that once in a movie, and hoped it held true to real life.

One subway ride later, and she was at the Crossway Points. Famed for its strip clubs and… well, very little else worth note, except for the Lucid Dreamer.

The Dreamer stood out as an isle of welcoming delights in a sea of lurid delights. Vivi Wei had really built the place up over the last two years; originally it was merely a hideout to plan anti-Bedlam operations from, but the club was more than a front to her. It was a chance to prove she could fly on her own, running a social venue using all the knowledge she’d gathered in her young life. And being indirectly responsible for its origin… even if Penelope rarely visited, she was always welcome there.

Tonight, the front was pasted with concert flyers adorned with multiple logos. Lucid Dreamer, the venue. Crashfaster and Oblivion’s Advocate, the night’s double header of clashing musical styles. (The Dreamer hosted music, period. It didn’t specialize in EDM or rock or jazz or punk, but let all styles wash upon its shores. The regulars valued that variety greatly.) Penelope pushed through the flyer-laden doors, past the line that had wrapped around the block—the doorman knew her, knew she had VIP status and could waltz on in before the show even began.

Five steps into the door and she was nearly squeezed to death by the vivacious Vivi Wei, buried somewhere deep in her cleavage as a result.

Frantic signing followed, a bit too fast for her. Penelope had picked up ASL, since it was an easy second language course credit at school and useful for talking to her friend, but only scored a B- when all was said and done.

[so good to see you how have you been everything’s great looking forward to hello says Marcy can’t make it to the show band loves it] Vivi blurred, Penelope barely able to follow.

[Slower please!] Penelope managed, interrupting.

A bright smile, and a nod. Vivi couldn’t giggle in response, but Penelope felt a distinct giggle in the sparkle of her eyes.

[I’ve got a special table for you tonight,] Vivi replied, her hands flowing smoothly and slowly between the words. She used simple structures, easy for the student to follow. [We have a new VIP section. It’s up there.] A gesture. [Balcony. Tables and chairs. Do you want a drink? No alcohol or your father will kill me.]

He killed my friend // killed my friend // Seth // 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—

[A soda will be fine,] Penelope replied, pushing the memory aside. [Thanks for the tickets. And thanks for helping me with the…]

Freezing, as she didn’t know the sign for ‘interview.’ But Vivi understood all the same, graciously nodding and accepting the thanks.

[Your INTERVIEW will be after the concert,] she replied, carefully signing the word to help Penelope learn. [I hope you enjoy it. I don’t normally pay attention to P-U-N-K music, I can’t hear it very well, but this band is different. Also, I understand they’re very popular with kids your age…]

Another memory. Less quick to push it away, but also an unpleasant one. Words on a wiki page… her research, done the prior night, for hours. The implications were… well. Not good, if this band and their message was truly taking root…

But, that could wait. She had the very first concert of her life ahead of her, and intended to enjoy it to the fullest.

---

As two hundred people bounced and cheered on the dance floor below her, soaking in the digital sound like a sponge, Penelope focused on taking notes. Which was probably not the right way to enjoy her first concert, but she did have that "PRESS" card in her hat brim for a reason. She had to press the situation. Press it like a full-court presser.

Even though she was here for the interview, writing up her thoughts on the entire experience felt important as well. If anything, it’d help if the interview was a bust—having something to publish rather than nothing meant a fighting chance at staying in the Journalism Club. But for the umpteenth time today, she felt that disconnect between what she should be experiencing and what she was experiencing.

The first of tonight’s double-header of fun was a chiptune band called Crashfaster. Video game-styled music wasn’t something Penelope was used to, despite its wide mainstream popularity. It was energetic as hell and a fascinatingly intricate sound, but the nuance was totally lost on her due to her lack of a game-themed childhood.

(That was a curious disconnect in itself, one between the City of Angles and the Earth that spawned it. Back on Earth, chiptune music never made it to the top 40 radio hits—kids who grew up staying at home playing video games loved it, but parents kept pushing them to play outside. In the City, parents pushed kids to stay at home and play video games, because playing outside exposed them to all the risks that came with an ever-shifting landscape. Games and thus chiptunes were fantastically popular here, as opposed to being a hobby for outcasts.)

While the final number from this chiptune quartet poured their enthusiastic sound all over an enthusiastic audience, the best Penelope could jot down on her smartphone’s notepad app was "sounds neat?" with a question mark. The band said their goodbyes, thanked the audience, and hustled their gear off stage so the next act could get ready to launch…

"Not into it?"

It took her a few moments to realize someone was addressing her.

Wasn’t Vivi or Hollister. They had a table up here in the VIP balcony, but it was off to the side; they’d given up their usual central table so Penelope could have the best seat in the house. A few other record industry types had been in attendance, however… and likely one of them was the one who’d just scooted his chair over to join at her table.

Slightly unshaven, black hair trimmed short. Black suit, close to being appropriate for either a funeral director or a government spook, if not for the sharp blue tie. Eyes… droopy. He looked tired. Beaten down by something, exhausted, but dragging himself along anyway…

Penelope shook herself out of mapping mode. She had a tendency to size people up, analyzing visual details in the same way she’d analyze a section of the Sideways. Since the slowly decaying back hallways of the City only told the aftermath of a story, she’d developed a set of skills to read that story from the clues left behind. It was an instinct that popped up frequently when she met newcomers, even if it led her to harsh judgment calls.

Regardless, the man extended a hand to shake.

"Jack Hayes," he greeted. "I work in audio engineering, I suppose."

"Penelope. Um, Penelope Yates. I work in journalism," she offered, accepting the handshake.

"Yes, I could tell by the ‘PRESS’ card there," Jack pointed out, literally pointing it out. "Bit young for a reporter, aren’t you?"

"School newspaper. I’m here to interview Oblivion’s Advocate."

"Really," he responded… without too much sarcasm, or too much belief. "Interesting. I’d love to hear your take on them. I’m not sure which of these two bands I was sent here to focus on, honestly. I believed it was Crashfaster, since they have a very technical and programmed sound, but…"

"I don’t think it’s that programmed. I mean, yes, they used programming, but ‘programmed’ implies it’s robotic, going through the paces. I think there’s a lot of heartfelt energy out there," Penelope said… doing a better job at understanding it than her initial notes suggested. "There’s life there. Intensity. I like that. Not just that it makes you want to dance, but it makes you want to live. I’ve a keen interest in that point of view…"

…strange. It was the first time those interpretations had come to her. Where’d that come from? Wasn’t she pondering just the other day, while talking with Destiny, that she hadn’t quite figured out her own point of view? It was like she was just now recalling the words from somewhere else, or someone…

If the familiar unfamiliarity of her words was coming out through her voice, Jack didn’t pick up on it. He was largely ignoring her, in favor of watching the roadies scramble to replace intricately wired chiptune gear with a rougher pile of punk rock gear.

"I hope you don’t mind me dropping in on you like this," Jack spoke, switching topics. "Young girl all alone, strange man taking an interest. Stranger danger, and all. I can go if you’re not comfortable."

The idea hadn’t even occurred to her. If Gregory was here, he’d probably have menaced the man in the dark suit by this point… but Penelope was a people person. And people were people. (And Vivi and Hollister were a stone’s throw away, so hey.)

"I’m fine. I’m not afraid of this City, or anyone in it. And maybe it helps my writing, having someone to bounce ideas against," she suggested. "So, why are you here, Mr. Hayes?"

"At your table, or the concert?"

"Either? Both. Let’s go with both."

"Table, because I was bored. Ennui, pure and simple. I find it hard to take an interest in anything these days, and some kid reporter is vaguely interesting," Jack spoke, simply and directly. "Concert, because of work. Possibly. Maybe. My benefactor said I should be here tonight, that I could learn something. I was assuming she meant from the first band, since as far as I know, Oblivion’s Advocate is a basic three-piece punk outfit. Raw and pointless. But, who knows? Not me. Whatever."

Penelope opened her mouth to respond, and an ear-puncturing wail of feedback came out.

Not out of her mouth, even if it felt like it resonated through her stomach and out her throat. It came from the stage, forcing everybody to stand to attention—which they promptly did so, the roar from the audience overcoming the roar of the speaker malfunction.

Oblivion’s Advocate had taken to the stage.

She’d seen pictures of them, on the web. It wasn’t quite the same as seeing them in person, in their element. Penelope knew what to expect, of course; woman with long hair, in dark waves that often hid her face. Ordinary-looking guy in ordinary-looking clothes behind an ordinary-looking drum set. And the frontman, all mismatching clothes and metal studs and spiky dyed hair and attitude, hogging every promotional photo she’d seen.

But in the light of the stage, they had presence that went beyond the confines of a JPG. Jonny kept at the forefront, of course; he had his arms raised, hands waving in encouragement for the crowd to rise and continue rising, to shower him with praise. The spotlights shining down on him painted him as the icon of worship for the audience’s enjoyment. No such spotlights fell on Mikey the drummer, who was too busy settling into the drum kit to really care about playing to the crowd. No lights on the bass player, either…

And yet… something about her kept Penelope’s eyes from sliding right over and away from her. She stood, guitar hanging low, body drooping as if she was falling asleep on her feet. Not looking at the crowd, not really looking at anything. A flash of bright blue eyes behind hair like a shadow—

Finally her attention was torn away from Ellie, as Jonny grabbed the microphone and began his sermon.

"WHY NOT?" he shouted into the mike, the two echoing throughout the room.

"WHY NOT?!" the audience called in response—an echo on top of the reverberation from the house speakers.

"They give you plenty of reasons why not," Jonny replied… arm sweeping across the crowd. "They pour their reasons in your ears, every day of your lives. Parents, teachers, government creeps. All of them in denial of the simple reality of the situation. They can’t accept what we’ve accepted. They won’t see the truth. Well… we are Oblivion’s Advocate, and we are their wakeup call. Ladies and gentlemen of the Lucid Dreamer…"

…pause for a cheap "he said the name of this place!" cheer…

"…I am Jonny Nobody, and I say… why not?" he continued. "Why not rock harder than you’ve ever rocked before? Why not party past the break of dawn? Why not drink, and smoke, and screw, and run with scissors, and pet strange dogs, and pet strange people, and raise hell? Why not do whatever you feel like doing? Why not?"

"WHY NOT?!" in response, again. The true fans of the band knew the game; this was how all their concerts opened. It was a primal chant, a period at the end of Jonny’s sentences whenever he stopped to breathe.

"None of it matters. We’re dream people, pale shadows living in a sick parody of some distant world. We don’t exist," he spoke, emphasizing each syllable specifically. "When we die, we go to neither Heaven nor Hell—we are cast into oblivion. Hashtag YOLO, bitches. There’s no judgment waiting for us, no big beard in our sky, and you know what? That means we are truly free. We are heralds of the Echo Revelation. And we are here to kick down doors!"

One lone power chord on his guitar, and the crowd ate it up like candy. Wild cheers and applause, louder than any Penelope had heard before. Finally… they were ready to play some actual music.

"Think you know this one by now, it’s off the new album," Jonny described. "Little something we call Imaginary Friends. Hope you dig it."

And then a wall of the same three staple punk chords slammed into the VIP balcony, rattling drink glasses. You could’ve hooked up a paint mixer to Jonny Nobody’s guitar and gotten the same effect. Mikey’s drums rattled away, a basic high speed beat with little variation. And the lyrics…? Well, "all my friends are imaginary" certainly rhymed well with "all my friends are imaginary." That was a rhyme, indeed. Good enough to be repeated four times.

At first, Penelope had no idea why anybody was actually into this mess. It wasn’t particularly great from any perspective; basic existential nihilism, which plenty of other bands across the City had exploited for financial gain over the years. And yet, the crowd was completely into it, just as into it as they had been for the popular chiptune band. What could they…

Something in her heart. A vibration, a little twang.

There.

She focused on it, tried to filter it out through the onslaught of chaos that was being dumped out of every speaker. You had to focus, otherwise it’d be felt but only on a subliminal level… something that pulled at the soul, even without realizing it was there…

The bass line. The woman on the bass guitar was playing a completely different song compared to what the boys were pumping out. Somehow it flowed in and out and around what they were producing, bolstering it, supporting it… but becoming something oddly beautiful on its own.

Did the audience even realize it? Penelope hadn’t caught on, not even when she listened to several Oblivion’s Advocate tracks during her research. She knew the guitar was simple and catchy, if dirty, but… she’d kept listening despite being turned off by the subject matter. On some level, she had to be feeling what Ellie was saying through her guitar.

Briefly, Penelope glanced over to her friends, two tables away.

Hollister Avenue was busy toying with his phone, bored with the show. But Vivi… she was feeling it, too. In fact that was likely the ONLY part of the music that Vivi could hear, in the special way she enjoyed music despite her deafness. No wonder she wanted Oblivion’s Advocate to play at her club; she could experience them on a different level than most.

Curious, she turned to ask her strange new companion Jack what he thought about it.

Jack couldn’t hear Penelope’s question, of course; the music was too loud. But even aside from that, he was intently staring into a pocket makeup mirror. Very weird, given the man wasn’t exactly wearing mascara or blush…

The compact snapped shut, and he left without a word. Didn’t even push in his chair. Just grabbed his overcoat and gloves and walked right out the door.

Penelope would’ve given thought to the strange encounter, if not for the distracting cheers from the crowd as Oblivion’s Advocate wrapped its first song. Just one of many they’d play tonight, all generally the same… and all with the same haunting melody tucked neatly away in the background. Beyond the #YOLO bravado and Echo Revelation-themed hijinks, that was the true secret of their success. And she couldn’t wait to ask them about it.

---

"Not doing it," Jonny Nobody declared. "Hell no. I am not being interviewed for a goddamn school newspaper."

The green room for the Lucid Dreamer was quite a bit nicer than the tiny one attached to the old Zig-Zag; Vivi had seen to that, when laying out her ideal club two years ago. But despite the spacious dressing area, the three members of Oblivion’s Advocate felt the walls closing in as Jonny’s angry ego expanded to fill all available space.

In response, Ellie had taken to sitting in the corner by the makeup desk, earphones in, ignoring the world around her. For his part, Mikey stood his ground against Jonny’s presence.

"I’m doing the interview, with or without you. I want at least ONE good thing to come from the last few days of hell," Mikey stated. "And before you snark off, let me point out this band is on the verge of exploding. If you stomp off in a huff I will do the interview alone, and I will crap all over you in front of the reporter. Your only choice here is whether you want to sit down and play nice, or I get to sit down and play nasty."

"You wouldn’t dare," Jonny gambled. "You’ve got the same taste for success I do. I KNOW you do…"

"Oh, I’ve thought about that. Nothing sells music news website hits—and actual albums—quite like internal band strife. Worked for Oasis, and it’d work for us. So which band do you want, Jonny? A unified one that’s totally cool with granting some kid reporter’s birthday wish, or one that slags off on our fans and then spits at each other in the press? People love to hate a Bad Guy… and I can play the Good Guy role if you make me do it."

Jonny’s eyes narrowed enough to barely allow visible light to pass through the iris. "You’re no Good Guy, Mikey. I know the real you. But fine—it’s just twenty minutes out of my day, probably answering questions like ‘What’s your favorite ice cream?’ Not a big deal at all, but…"

He passed a glance over at Ellie. Who stayed in her little corner, staring into the reflected space of the dressing room mirror, completely ignoring them. Jonny could hear the tinny noise of whatever extremely loud music was blaring through her white earbuds; a modern headset connected to her very archaic pocket tape recorder.

"…we don’t say word one about Ellie’s problems," Jonny added. "That’s my condition. I think you’ll agree if we’re gonna make it big we can’t shine a spotlight on our crazy girl."

"Fine," Mikey agreed, without needing to think about it. Because Jonny was right, as disgusted as he was to admit it. It’d ruin the band if word got out about her repeated nosedives.

With the issue settled, Mikey peeked out of the dressing room (signaling the cheers from fans who had crowded around after the show hoping for a glimpse) to signal Hollister that it was time.

The so-called kid reporter met some jeers and complaints from the piles of groupies, all remixes of the same concept of ‘Why does SHE get to go in and we don’t?’ It must’ve stunned her a bit, dealing with that gauntlet of fan envy, because it took her a few moments to even realize she’d been roughly pushed into the private backstage lair of Oblivion’s Advocate.

While Penelope Yates was getting used to her new surroundings, Mikey took the time to push STOP on Ellie’s tape player. Mild surprise passed quickly, as this was expected; even if she rarely spoke up during interviews, it was important that she be present for them and attentive. With a disappointed sigh, Ellie pulled out her earbuds, scooting her chair a little closer to the others.

"Penny, right?" Jonny Nobody greeted, extending a hand to shake, all smiles compared to the scowls he bore less than a minute ago. "With the Maslow Academy Herald? Great school. Hear you guys are fielding a hell of a sports team this year. On track to take the Starcraft championships again!"

(Which gave Mikey some pause. But, it’d stand to reason that Jonny would have studied their teen demographic down to the finest detail. It was the best way to completely snow them, after all.)

"Penelope Yates, yes, hello," the girl who was not just Penny replied, accepting the handshake. She eased herself into a folding chair, getting her smart tablet out for an audio recording. "Thanks for taking time out of your evening for this. I honestly wasn’t expecting it, although I was hoping, I mean, that it’d be really great if I could get a word with you because—ah, sorry, rambling, um…"

Jonny laughed it off, pleased to reinforce his idea that this was a starry-eyed fan. "Easy there, relax. We’re all just dudes and dudettes here. Guessing you know my bandmates already, Mikey here’s our drummer—a steadier beat you’ll never find—and of course there’s Ellie. So! Miss Penny Yates. What would you like to talk about tonight with Oblivion’s Advocate?"

She took a moment to tilt the tablet up a bit, allowing the tiny camera at the top to get the best view. Her recording app would take care of the audio and video for her, balancing levels and ensuring a decent quality sampling for later reference. With that done, Penelope began her questioning.

"Well, I know most interviews start out with basics like ‘who are you’ and probably ‘how’s the new album going’ but I think most people who read my article already know who you are and I’m guessing the new album’s going well, because if it wasn’t it’s not like you’d say it wasn’t going well, so I figured I’d go right ahead and ask why you seem to want people to kill themselves in really stupid ways?"

With a little lilt at the end, to make the question mark nice and clear.

For a moment, Jonny Nobody’s glitzy rock star smile froze in place.

"What?" he asked, smile still locked in.

Penelope let the recorder run in the background, while flipping over to her online research notes.

"Well, for example, there’s the thing at Martins University last year," she explained. "Two undergrads try surfing a couch down the stairwell in their dorm room. It catches on one of the steps, flips, and they go tumbling. One gets away okay, but the other’s paralyzed from the neck down now. I know your record label says it was a coincidence and there’s no direct causation that can be proven, but I mean, come on, they’d spraypainted #YOLO on the back of the couch. Everybody knows what really happened there."

"The… the court found there was no cause that—look, it’s not like we TOLD those idiots to do that," Jonny replied. "Come on, now. This is all old business. You really want to hash out this boring junk in your school paper? I’ve got some stories about the recording sessions for the upcoming album that’re super—"

"That’s not even the only incident. I only had a few hours last night to look into this stuff, but wow there’s a lot out there," Penelope continued. "Now obviously not everybody who listens to your music becomes the second coming of Jackass, but… okay, and I’m quoting from one of your songs here: ‘Live or die, live or die, die to live, living to die, why ask why, why not fly.’ It’s not a really great rhyme but that’s not the problem here, it’s the constant undercurrent of telling people that they’re leading pointless lives. Why’re you so fixated on that, anyway?"

…it seemed like a perfectly reasonable question to her. Shouldn’t a reporter try to get into her subject’s head and see what makes them tick? But to look at the three gathered, it was like she’d just danced the Watusi on top of their grandmother’s graves. Jonny’s smile was gone, with a look of dull surprise in its place. Mikey was nervously glancing to the door, as if trying to size up how quickly he could get to the nearest exit. And Ellie… odd. She didn’t seem upset. But she was paying VERY close attention to Penelope. As if listening even after the question was asked…

Finally, Jonny spoke up.

"Yeah, okay, no. This was clearly a bad idea," he decided. "You can go now. Thanks for attending the show, hope you had fun."

"What? What’s wrong?" Penelope asked, genuinely not getting it. "I mean, it’s a simple question, right? Why are you pushing so hard for people to throw their lives away? I read tons and tons of interviews and articles and I still don’t get it, so I was curious—"

"No. Fail. Hashtag fail. We want people to live," Jonny insisted—leaning forward, into Penelope’s personal space.

No more smiles; he was fierce now, even beyond the punk stylings he showed on stage. An angry fierce rather than a playful one.

"That’s the whole damn point, kid," he continued. "YOLO means ‘you only live once,’ and that means not letting fear hold you back from living that life. Not letting some pointless religion from a distant world keep you back, either. The City’s… it’s freedom. Freedom from everything. What’s so bad about that, huh? What’s so bad about living life to the fullest? You’re young, surely you get that, right?"

At this point, Mikey felt the need to add his two cents. "I’d agree, I mean, uh, it’s really important," he spoke. "I feel bad about those kids who got hurt and everything, but… we’re not telling anybody to kill themselves. We don’t want anybody to be, er, suicidal. Anybody. We just want to party and have fun. Good clean fun…"

Penelope’s confusion was clear. She wasn’t being confrontational just to play devil’s advocate, or to play the devil in any respect… not like the music critics or politicians who waggled fingers at the band and blamed it for society’s ills. After honest effort, she simply couldn’t understand where they were coming from, and wanted to know more.

"But those fears you say people should ignore, well, they’re just common sense, aren’t they?" Penelope offered. "Like ‘don’t surf a couch down the stairs,’ for instance. Or at the very least, I don’t know, wear a helmet when you do…? The key problem I’m seeing in your stuff is that you embraced the Echo Revelation as far as it’ll go. You don’t believe anyone or anything is real, that none of it matters. Sure, that’s freedom, but it’s freedom with a price. Right?"

"A price—? The hell you mean? Freedom. First four letters, free, it’s right there in the word!"

"Uh, sorry, I mean… the price is one’s self worth," Penelope clarified. "You’re saying ‘You’re not really alive so your life is worthless,’ not ‘Live is worth living, so live it to the fullest.’ Or is that what you’re trying to say…? I mean, if that’s what you’re going for you may wanna do some rewrites of these songs, because, yikes. Not coming across the way you wanted."

No sarcasm at all. The girl was actually offering what she thought of as a helpful critique, like suggesting someone would want to use white paint in their living room renovations to brighten the mood.

Clearly, the kiddie funtime school interview had gone completely off the rails by now. Mikey, ashen white, tried to interject before Jonny cut loose with a string of unprintable words.

"Okay, uh, everybody, let’s just cool it a minute," he suggested—getting to his feet, one hand up to block Jonny who looked ready to lunge at the poor girl. "Penelope, look… we’re just a rock ‘n roll band. We go out there, we try to put on a kick-ass show, make people happy. Now, you’ve clearly put a LOT of thought into our lyrics, but honestly, it’s just an act, okay? It’s for show."

Jonny’s teeth ground. "Michael—"

"You really want to keep your front up after all that?" Mikey asked. "Okay, so we love to party and we think it’s kinda awesome when people do dumb things, I mean, the Internet is practically founded on that principle. But we are not trying to encourage anybody to hurt themselves. And… and if we are, if anybody’s hurting themselves because of us, anyone at all… I want to say we’re sorry. —in a non legally-culpable way. Just that we’re sorry they misunderstood, and got hurt. We’re… I just hit the drums and I collect royalties. That’s as far as I want this to go."

"But I don’t think they misunderstood at all," Penelope insisted, not letting up. She wasn’t vicious about it, it was more about trying to explain that two plus two equaled four, when someone insisted it was five. "It’s really pretty clear that—"

And that’s when Jonny snatched the tablet from Penelope’s hands, and hurled it against the wall hard enough to shatter it.

The glass screen, coated in spiderwebs and dead pixels, blinked out a second or two after the ruined device hit the floor. Where it struck the wall, a black mark gave evidence of the deed.

"Interview over," Jonny declared. "And what a shame, you lost your recording. Nothing to print now, huh? …stupid goddamn kid, who do you think you are? We are ROCK STARS. We’re important, dammit. Now run along home to Momma."

Penelope… peered around him, at the ruins of her tablet. Not angry. Just annoyed.

"Actually, I was directly uploading the live recording to my cloud storage account," she said. "I can just load the file up when I get home. …guess I lost my high scores in Angry Birds, though. So, thanks for that."

The light slap sound of Mikey’s face hitting his palm (or the other way around) was audible over Jonny’s stunned silence. It wouldn’t have been audible over the sound of the band’s future success being torpedoed, if not for the explosion that obliterated Oblivion’s Advocate being metaphorical rather than literal.

Quietly, Penelope got up from her chair, picked up her fallen tablet, and turned to go. But paused, for a second.

"Can I get a quote from Ellie before I leave?" she asked. "I was hoping to ask about her music, which I really enjoyed a lot. Ellie? Anything you want to add?"

Perhaps the surprise of someone actually wanting to know Ellie’s thoughts—Ellie, who faded into the background during interviews, who wasn’t nearly as exciting and in-your-face as Jonny Nobody—was enough to stun the exciting and in-your-face Jonny Nobody into not reacting. Either way, he didn’t stop her from speaking her mind.

And without that overriding personality, drowning her voice out… she was able to speak her mind, if she wanted. On instinct Ellie was just going to shrug it off and retreat, a little scared by the sudden outburst of violence. It was the unspoken regrets and fears of the young teenager that encouraged her to actually talk. Because they were unlike any unspoken words she’d heard before.

In the chaos of overlapping words, of anger and horror and sadness, she’d heard Penelope’s true voice ring out.

"I don’t know if I’m up to this. It’s so huge, and so beyond me… I’m scared. I’m scared, every day. But I want to make this dream a good dream to have. I’ll do my best to help the City move forward, and my best is going to have to do."

A voice unaccustomed to being used spoke up within her.

"I love music," Ellie said, honestly. "It’s the only good thing in my life."

"Thanks," Penelope said, with a smile. "I hope you continue with your music, Ellie. I think in a less toxic environment, you could really find what you’re looking for. Gentlemen? Good evening to you."

With that, she left the smoking ruins of Oblivion’s Advocate behind, pushing her way through the amassed groupies on the other side of the dressing room door.

---

…there’s so many contradictions here, that I can’t even start to sort through them. That’s why I attached the complete recording, right up to the moment where Jonny Nobody destroyed my tablet. (See attached JPG.)

I didn’t feel I could do this interview justice by trimming it down to sound bites—I’ve included every last bit of it here, for you to draw your own conclusions from.

You’d think I’d have an axe to grind, after Jonny trashed a few hundred bucks of silicon and blew me off. It is kind of a jerk move, let’s be honest, but I don’t really bear the band any ill will. I didn’t even mean anything unkind when I asked them about the true intentions of their music. All I wanted was the truth, and that’s what I got. It’s an ugly truth, to be sure.

I’m not saying Oblivion’s Advocate is some kind of monster that needs to be destroyed. I’ve seen the pleading from citizen action groups for their censure, but free speech is the only way we’re going to get any sort of dialogue going about how to move forward as a society. No matter what speech they push, they have a right to push it.

In the end, they’re just people, and people are not perfect. There’s greed, there’s passion, there’s lies, there’s love, there’s ignorance, there’s joy… there’s a little bit of everything under there.

Jonny, who’s painted himself as an icon of self-destructive glee. Mikey, who just wants to play the drums and not hurt a living soul. And Ellie, who simply loves the music. You can hear it in her bass guitar, under the surface of the posturing and performance—a simple love of music, which may be the only thing keeping her afloat. (Listen closely next time you play Imaginary Friends, really listen closely, and you’ll see what I mean. I hope she can find peace one day and let that voice sing, because it’s buried under a messy pile here.)

Whether you agree with the band’s premise or not, whether you believe your life is only worth throwing away spectacularly or worth keeping, it’s important to see what lies underneath the mystique. Just like the mystique of the City, the mystery of the shuffles, and Seth Dougal’s culture of fear that nearly drowned us two years ago… you must apply critical thinking. It’s a survival trait, in the City of Angles. So, listen to their words, understand what’s being said, and decide for yourself.

Oblivion’s Advocate may advocate that we are cast into oblivion, purposelessly suffering the trials of this life. They’re welcome to have that opinion… but that’s all it is. An opinion, not fact. The Echo Revelation only defines you as far as you let it define you.

You are alive. This is your life, here and now. Make the most of it.

I’m Penelope Yates, and this has been Penny For Your Thoughts, appearing weekly in the Maslow Academy Herald.

Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t even change into her pajamas—she was too wired, writing up the article. When it was done, even then she couldn’t let go. Penelope had to buzz Destiny, wake her up, and show her the fruits of this particular labor.

The editor-in-chief (who was patient enough to sit there and read it, all while on webcam) looked up some minutes later, after watching the full video and reading the accompanying text. Despite being deathly tired… she was able to offer a proud smile for her apprentice.

"Damn, girl, you really hit below the belt with some of those," Destiny pointed out.

"It didn’t feel like too much at the time. I mean, I wanted to know how they felt about their own music, that’s all…"

"Don’t worry, I like it, I like it. It’s powerful as hell. Really shines a new light on the band, you know? Ellie, especially. I hadn’t even considered her potential as a solo act. Heh. It’s a shame we’re an academic site and don’t get paid by the hit, because I think we’re gonna be raking in the traffic tomorrow when this goes live. Be surprised if we don’t get knocked offline in the process…"

Penelope tried to puzzle through that. Difficult to do, through the haze of exhaustion. "Chief, we’ve only got like three thousand students enrolled. That’s three thousand hits, at best."

"You just wrote an exposé that blows one of the top acts in the City wide open. I’m pretty sure more than just the student body will be taking a keen interest," Destiny suggested. "I smell something that’s gonna go viral. Music industry types will be commenting on this for weeks. Who knows how far it can go? Hell, you got Jonny Nobody smashing some poor little girl’s computer in a fit of rage! Even if that’s all you got, that’s enough to wreck everything for him!"

Now, the creeping worries got to her. Penelope fidgeted in her seat. "I wasn’t really trying to ruin any careers…"

"Journalism’s a harsh light, girl. It’s gotta shine, and that’s that. Look, get some sleep. You’ve earned it. We’ll run this in the morning, and… heh. You’ll see. I got even money on this going big. See you after classes tomorrow."

The web chat closed down, Penelope’s screen going dark.

Dark room. Late hour. Too much energy poured into her writing, and into the evening in general. Penelope rose from her desk, took five steps, collapsed onto the bed, and slept. A dreamless sleep. No bus stops, no Bedlam, no strange girl with blue eyes. No crossroads within the dream of the dreamers. Just an inky blackness and the promise that eventually, everything would sort itself out.

---

Four in the morning and a knock on the motel room door sent Jonny Nobody into a string of waking expletives.

Couldn’t the label have waited until daybreak to give him the axe? Was it too much to ask that he not be publicly executed before he had a proper cup of Irish coffee? Hurriedly, he got on some manner of clothes before answering the door.

Definitely a record industry hatchet man of some kind. Long black overcoat, driver’s gloves.

"Hello, I’m your chauffeur," the man greeted, with a smile beneath tired eyes. "My employer has humbly requested that you attend a brief meeting to discuss your immediate future. I’ve already knocked for your bandmates, and they’ll be ready to go shortly."

Jonny Nobody was about to tell him where to stuff his brief meeting (likely down his briefs), when he glanced over the railing of the third floor motel walkup… and saw the long black limo in the parking lot, lights on, ready to go.

"You’re a limo driver?" he asked. "Last time the label wanted to talk to us they sent a taxi…"

"Perhaps you’re moving up in the world," the driver suggested. "I’ll be down in the motor pool, waiting for you. Please hurry. My employer is very eager to reward you for your hard work."

A bit odd, a limo in the dead of night. But… it was a limo. The City streets weren’t friendly to limos, being far too long for the occasionally dangerous twist or turn in the road, the end result of unpredictable urban devolution. If someone had a limo, just like a Humvee, it was a big ‘ol middle finger to sensible society in favor of showing how rich you were…

Of course. They were so close to the top already, after all—about to break huge. The label wouldn’t let some idiot kid’s interview torpedo their chances. This was damage control, yes, but it was also a sign of confidence. Oblivion’s Advocate was being given star treatment, at last!

Maybe it was just the lack of sleep, but Jonny felt a pleasant haze over his mind, as he suited up and wandered down the stairs to the motor pool. He could ignore the confused looks from Mikey and Ellie; they wouldn’t bring him down. The good times were clearly ahead.

---

Tinted windows and a post-concert crash headache meant Jonny couldn’t make out the buildings they passed. Street lights started out nice and bright, but… then grew sparser and sparser. Were they headed towards the fringes of the City? Maybe the label had an office out there…?

"You two, don’t blow this for us," Jonny warned, as the limo eventually rolled to a halt. "We’re about to go big. And I’d rather go big than go home."

"Whatever. Let’s just get on with it," Mikey grumbled away, first to exit the limo. Running shoe crunching on gravel…

…outside what was possibly a warehouse. It was hard to tell, actually. All visible signs had no actual text on them; they were just signs, nice and blank, with neat little metal bolts holding them in place. Windows were featureless rectangles of glass, without segmented panes of any sort. More the ideas of windows than actual windows, really. If a child was told to draw a warehouse, they’d probably draw this.

In fact, all the buildings looked like rudimentary scribbles. Oblong slabs of brick and steel and concrete, jutting awkwardly out of smooth and featureless sidewalks. The street they’d parked on didn’t even have a dashed yellow line… someone hadn’t bothered adding that particular detail.

Which meant only one thing. Something anyone who lived in the City long enough would’ve known.

The Undefined Spaces.

This lunatic had driven them all the way past the safe and defined sections of the City, into the parts where only the vague idea of an urban landscape existed.

Instantly, Jonny’s good feelings evaporated. The others didn’t fare much better; Mikey’s mouth kept moving up and down without making a sound, and Ellie… the poor thing was just trembling away, blurry from shaking.

The only one having no problems with the situation was the limo driver. Who gestured towards an open door, awkwardly fitted into the bricks of the warehouse exterior.

"In there, please," he requested.

"Screw that," Jonny blurted. "Get us the hell out of here, right now!"

"Mr. Nobody, do you really think I’m going to simply buckle up and drive you back to your motel?" the driver asked, calm and quiet. "If you’d like, you can run for it on foot. But you won’t know if you’re running toward the City, or toward the edge of realization. I’m not entirely sure what happens to people who wander out of the dreamer’s focus, but I can’t imagine it’s pleasant. So. I suggest that the best course of action would be to enter the building, and meet my employer. She’s very eager to meet you, as I’ve said."

"And… and if we don’t want to meet her?" Jonny asked.

With a sigh, the driver produced a gun from his pocket.

"Please don’t make me use this, little imaginary person," he requested. "Getting blood out of this coat at the dry cleaners is not cheap."

No amount of protesting was going to change the situation. With no small amount of doomed certainty… Oblivion’s Advocate slowly, very slowly, entered the spacious and empty warehouse.

Empty, save for a floodlight high above. It shone down on a large circular area of the interior. Within that circle of light, a variety of full-length mirrors had been set up… simple ones like you’d find in dressing rooms, fancy framed ones stolen from your grandma’s bedroom, or just slabs of silvered glass mounted awkwardly on poles.

Standing within the circle was probably not smart. But neither was being shot to death. Jonny could still get out of this crazy situation with his skin intact, if he could just put that mouth of his to good work with the crazy man…

Except the crazy man wasn’t the one who wanted to see him. The crazy man’s lord and master was the true hand at play here.

She appeared in all the mirrors, a single person reflected a dozen times. A teenage girl, one who looked oddly familiar to Jonny… as she should, given her face was all up in his face only a few hours ago.

The girl’s reflected image floated into place, bobbing lightly as if swimming underwater. White billowing dress floating about, moving as she did. White hair settling about her shoulders. Blue eyes, cold and blue like ice, studying the trio…

"Thank you, Mr. Hayes, that will be all," the child spoke—a voice coming from all the mirrors, simultaneously. "Jonathan Rye. Michael Pieters. Elizabeth Jørgensen. I am pleased to be able to meet you in person, at last. You may call me Echo, because that is the name of this trinity-aspect. You speak often of my revelation, I’m told."

The insanity of this night took a nosedive into a pool of crazy, at that moment.

"Oh god," Mikey breathed. "Oh god. Oh god. Oh god…"

Jonny looked around, trying to spot any exit, any way out of this situation. But Mr. Hayes still had his gun. And there was still only one door, far away enough that Hayes could line up a kill shot and still have time to count to twenty.

Echo. She was rumored to exist, of course. Just like the rumors of Bedlam, some lunatic chaos-goddess that was worshipped by a bunch of mentally ill hobos in the eighties. That so-called religious organization, the Echo Chamber, officially they had no opinion on the legend of "Echo," despite their fixation on speaking the revelation to anyone who would listen. But… always there were hints of something to it, that it wasn’t only the fever dreams of conspiracy theorists.

But if she existed, if she was a person (of some sort)… that meant she could be negotiated with, person to person. Jonny could indeed save his skin. Some confidence came back, after realizing that. Which was good, considering Mikey was damn near peeing his pants, and Ellie was just… staring. Staring into the blue eyes of Echo…

"Uh… hey," Jonny greeted, taking charge. "We’re really big fans of yours. I mean, really, really big fans—"

"You sing songs about the futility of this existence, encouraging others to end that existence through extreme action," Echo spoke… eyes narrowing slightly, despite the overall emotionless expression on her face. "Is this an accurate description, Jonathan?"

The same accusation tossed at him by that other girl, the one who looked surprisingly like this one. Were they one and the same…? That one didn’t live in the Undefined Spaces and wasn’t a mythical goddess of death, though…

"Y… yes?" he replied. "I mean… that’s what you want, right? For everybody to accept how empty and meaningless this world is, how none of us really exist, how we’re all just echoes? Just say the world, we’ll get right back out there and keep spreading your message, I promise—"

"You’re wrong. That’s not my message," Echo said. "I want this dream to end. I want the dreamer to wake. I want all the poor souls trapped here to be free, no longer endlessly and needlessly suffering through lives of pain they were never meant to have. What you want is for people to endanger themselves and others in some splashy and exciting exit. You’re making things worse for everyone. I’m afraid I can’t allow that. I’m afraid I can’t allow you."

Slowly… the girl raised one hand. A pointing finger, a series of them in a circle of reflections, all pointed right at Jonny.

And then Jonny Nobody was nobody. As if he never existed. No explosion, no combustion—not even the sharp inhale of the vacuum that he used to occupy pulling in air around it. Gone for good.

The accusing finger pointed next to Mikey. Who stepped back—not that it helped him, just stepping closer to the mirror child behind him.

Briefly, he glanced to Ellie. Poor terrified Ellie, who never seemed to find her place in this world.

"I’ve been looking for something worthwhile to do with my life for as long as I can remember," Mikey realized a bit too late, in words he didn’t speak. "I could have turned my back on all of this rock and roll insanity and saved her life. Saving her would’ve been worthwhile. And now I can’t. I’m so sorry, Ellie."

Much to his surprise, Ellie responded to his unspoken words.

"Don’t blame yourself," she said, in the tiniest of voices. "I didn’t want to be saved."

And then the would-be drummer from the suburbs who never found his way no longer existed.

Leaving only Ellie… slowly falling to her knees, tears down her cheek. Head low. Waiting for the end.

Instead, Echo floated down inside the mirror, to be at eye level. To catch Ellie’s attention, and speak with her.

"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…"

"D-do it," Ellie begged. "Please. Do it. All I’ve ever wanted was for it to be over, please…"

"…but I’m sorry. I can’t do it yet," Echo spoke. "Not yet. I need your help. The city needs your voice, to guide it out of the darkness. The dreamer must awaken and end this terrible nightmare forever. You can help me do that. Once this is done… all will be at peace in oblivion, including you. I promise this. Will you help me, Elizabeth…?"

She was ready to beg for Echo to end it. To plead, to whine, to bargain, to do whatever it took to have a painless exit from this life where she was the unwilling sponge for everyone else’s misery. But… if she was willing to do whatever it took, then… why not? Delaying her rest would hurt. She’d continue to hurt, as she always did. But in the end, she’d get what she needed. So, why not?

"Why not?" Ellie asked.

"Indeed," Jack Hayes agreed, hands folded in front of him. "Why not. There isn’t a good reason why not. So. Starting tomorrow, you and I are going to use the fame you’ve built up and the research I’ve done for the last two years, and we’re going to end it all. Simple, clean, and painless. Elizabeth… you’re going to sing the song that ends the world."

For the first time in years, Ellie felt… loved. Needed. And ready to smile again. Smile, until the end.

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. I’m definitely looking forward to learning about the “keeping the city of angles around” argument.

    (Editor’s note: Reported typo has now been fixed.)

    • Also, does anybody in this story ever recognize they’re being manipulated? Dave came the closest, due to his fear immunity, but it’s a bit weird to see people going along with legendary/mythical gods unquestioningly just because they asked.

  2. I really like Echo. And Ellie. And this may not be the proper chapter to express it but Vivi is a singularly great character. OTOH I think the two year hiatus was not done very well. Mainly, that Penelope is not showing enough growth. She has not mastered her Lucid persona enough. Also, despite giving up spelunking two years ago she still has not found something in her life to fill in its place, heck she has not even updated her wardrobe. So yeah, if it was me I would just omit the fast forward and have this stuff happen right after the events from before. It would also mean things we read right in the previous chapter would not have to be explained again like this is the first chapter of the 2nd installment in a book series trying to remind people of who’s who. Fast forwards are really hard. Wildbow couldn’t do it. G R R Martin was planning on doing it but had to scrap that and rewrite half of a book.

    Also, a nitpick: Was Seth Dougal’s involvement with the whole bedlam thing known or not? On the one hand, Penny says “Seth Dougal’s culture of terror” like it is a known thing. On the other hand, Jonny still thinkgs the cult of bedlam was only something from the 80s.

    • The two year jump was important — it moves Penelope into her teenage years, it gives time for other things I’ve set up during this volume, and gives a sense of progression to the world. I think a fully realized Penelope who can do the kind of crazy things she did before (summoning a parking garage) would be a BIT overpowered… baby steps. She’s setting herself up for a long game by learning how to become a leader and that will be paying off later this volume, even.

      Dougal’s involvement remains a secret to all, but his methods and techniques were pretty transparent. The Department of Safety during his regime did a LOT of fearmongering and it’s something that drew criticism, even if they didn’t know how deep the purpose ran.

    • The way wildblow did it, going forward like 20 years and barely explaining what happened, was crap, in my opinion, even if the rest of the story was pretty well done. It would’ve stretched it to an extremely long book and I think he was kinda tired of the story at that point but he skipped a lot of really important things. It felt like you were reading a summary of a missing novel in the series during the time skip.

      Here, however, the progression feels a lot more natural and there’s very little that we missed–as you said, it almost feels like the skip didn’t happen at all. The skip here doesn’t really impact my enjoyment of the story, so I don’t see any particular reason why it should be…well…skipped.

  3. An arm on fire, even through the haze of drugs swimming through what remained in her bloodstream…

    probably better as “remained of her bloodstream”

  4. Oh, hell no. I don’t know what Penny would do to the world if she ever wakes up – well, I’m assuming the combination of these three, or rather the person their part of could still be described as “Penny” – but I’d honestly rather not find out.

    No, I lie. I’d love to find out, even though it’d be painful to read. I’d just prefer not to live it. There’s no way a dream of this size is all she can do, not when she’s also unaging and probably immortal.

    Lucid dreaming, is it? Well, Penny and the dreamer are probably not /quite/ the same person, but I’d bet dollars to peanuts that she’d still be recognizably herself after waking up, and if she didn’t decide to do so herself (via the aspect known as Echo), there’ll be hell to pay. Lots to read, but I do get the impression we might discover something about these details in the third book.

    You know, I’ve been following your work for over a decade, and you just keep on getting better. There’ll be a proper hardcover version eventually, right?

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Copyright 2014 by Stefan Gagne