city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //010: Cleanup on Aisle Ten

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 furniture store. The sofas are designed to accommodate far more butts than humans actually have and any change you lose between the cushions, well… you probably don’t want to go hunting for it, lest you never return.

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…

Human perception passes through the filter known as "present day." This filter transitions life from hazy possibility to hard concrete.

On one side of the filter, the past is known—everything that was once happening to you has now happened to you, and is rendered immutable. Granted that memory can be fuzzy and it’s perfectly possible to live entirely in a state of denial, but there is still a hard truth lurking behind what has happened before. It can be known with certainty.

But on the other side of the filter, the future is unknown—you can speculate on what can come to pass, and make predictions within a reasonable degree of accuracy ("I will have toast for breakfast") but ultimately, what path you’re set upon depends on factors that are outside your perception. Even someone with drive and ambition towards a clear and understandable goal such as the consumption of toast can get hit by a falling meteorite on Thursday and never reach Friday’s breakfast.

But for those who have no clear goal and are merely running forwards towards the inevitable whatever, that inability to control the factors isn’t quite a dealbreaker. For someone content with vague ambitions, the future is truly wild and free…

Except for those whose futures have already happened. People who bypass the laws of space and time, breaking all common sense to find themselves in unsettling situations man wasn’t designed to deal with.

The City of Angles is not known for being kind to those who rely on common sense.

gus zero
//010: Cleanup on Aisle Ten

---

We built this city.

We built this city on rock and roll,

Built this city.

We built this city on rock, and, roooooolllllll….

Cue drum roll and synth bass.

Gus slid his mop along the floor in time with the steady roll of the drums, as this awesome anthem of modern urban youth pumped through his headphones. The wire leading down to his Sony Walkman swayed with the motion of his arms, while cloth strips swiped away the day’s accumulated filth.

It felt fantastically appropriate to be listening to such an upbeat and celebratory tribute to the modern megalopolis while tidying up the store. It carried a sense of youth and renewal that was just perfect for the work at hand… just the right drip-feed of energy he needed to attack what would otherwise be a soul-crushingly mundane task. What would otherwise be a long series of soul-crushingly mundane tasks, done in complete isolation in the dead of night. Easily hated, without the right musical accompaniment.

"It builds character" was the overall reason why he had to do this, of course. That was his father’s explanation for all the crappy busywork that Gus had to endure—building character was apparently the greatest pursuit one could have in life.

Honestly, Gus always assumed it was an ongoing punishment. The unspoken and likely true reason was: "You took my hard-earned money and squandered it, wandering from major to major in that expensive college until you eventually dropped out. If you’re not going to have any direction in life, you are damn well going to pay me back by working a job you hate in your family’s grocery store until you sort your mess out, you slacker."

True, he’d gone to college to avoid becoming heir to the family business… to try to figure out where his true passions lie. It must’ve seemed an appropriate punishment to drag him back in here after he couldn’t decide on a particular passion after three years. But the joke was on the old man; Gus didn’t object to the mindless grocery busywork. He didn’t enjoy it, and it certainly took up a lot of hours that could be spent partying or cruising around with Stuart experiencing life to the fullest… but it wasn’t really offensive work. It was just work, take it or leave it. Gus could endure it and come out the other side ready to have some fun. Like tonight.

Once he finished tidying up the grocery store (alone, of course) he was going out joyriding with Stuart. Maybe Kim, if she was around. Hopefully Kim. They could hit the clubs, or just go get some pizza and talk, or drive out beyond the city limits and look up at the stars, or… well, just about anything. He was young. There was time enough to figure out where his life would eventually lead. There was time enough for everything.

With the mopping done, so was his busywork. All that remained was to change into his civvies (a nice denim vest like a proper guitar hero would wear, took some time to pick just the right one) and wait for Stuart to show up. Eleven o’clock sharp for pickup… quite a few minutes to go. Jefferson Starship had indeed put a spring in his step and sped up the work. That meant time to kill.

So, with headphones on and now the Eurhythmics pulsing through his brain off magnetic tape, he dropped a quarter into the Q*Bert machine and started hopping around a pyramid of strange perspectives, claiming territory and avoiding bad guys. He wasn’t particularly good at the game, but he had a key to the coin box, so it wasn’t like it’d eat into his salary…

A few minutes to kill, at any rate. No more obligations. A world of opportunity in front of him. A weird little fuzzy orange guy hopping from cube to cube. Synthesizers flowing like a siren song in his ears. Life didn’t get much better than that.

Gus in fact would not learn if life got much better than that, as the blood-spattered bullet hole in the arcade monitor in front of him testified. One hand still clutched the joystick long after he’d sagged to the nice clean floor, dragging Q*Bert down to the bottom of the pyramid and leaping dramatically to his digital death.

---

Some of them want to use you.

Some of them want to get used by you.

Some of them want to abuse you.

Some of them want to be abused…

Leaping from cube to cube, changing colors. Eventually he’d end up on the levels where you had to touch each cube twice—those were brutal. You could easily head to the bottom and zig-zag back and forth, then work your way up and around to the center… but doing that pattern TWICE, all while crazy mutant things gnawed at your heels? Not easy. Death was inevitable, really.

Still, with the music in his ears and the promise of a quick escape by jumping dramatically onto a spinning disk keeping his worries down, Gus plowed through the game level as best he could. Even if he screwed up, it didn’t matter—he had the key to the coin box, so it wasn’t like it’d eat into his salary…

The pattern he usually followed would have to do. Down the side, zig-zag, up and around through the center. Good music, good games, good times ahead. Life was looking up for him.

Except for the moment where the bullet entered the back of his head, then exited through the front. As he slumped to the floor, his digital avatar committed digital suicide, and that was all she wrote for young Gus.

---

I travel the world and the seven seas.

Everybody’s looking for something…

It didn’t really matter that he possessed very little Pac-Man Fever to speak of, and generally stunk on ice at video games. He who held the key to the coin box held the key to eternal life, after all. No matter how many times he died horribly at the bottom of a bottomless pit, Gus could come back for more. No worries there.

Down the side, zig-zag across the base of the pyramid. Up and around to the center. Nasty dudes closing in on him. Gus could only grin at it all; not just the game, but his evening to come, his life to come. He didn’t exactly have a game plan for the game or his life, but so what? A night of infinite possibility stretched out ahead of him…

Except for the 1:1 possibility of being executed, which had followed him right up to this point, over and over again. With music in his ears and pixels in his eyes, he had no notice of the gunman calmly standing behind him, pistol less than an inch away from the back of his head.

Again and again, the thread of Gus’s fate had been snipped clean. Tonight would’ve been no exception.

Except for two things:

One, a flicker across the glass of the arcade bezel. Some sort of motion, reflected in the flat and shiny surface between him and the CRT tube.

Two, a grey blur that had just smashed into the assassin standing behind him. The bullet which normally slipped through his brains like a knife through butter instead went wide, smashing into a nearby gumball machine.

The visual cue plus the noise of gunfire, glass shattering, shelves being smashed into by a pair of bodies… well, no matter how wrapped up in himself, all that combined was impossible to ignore.

Headphones yanked down, violently. Twisting to see what the hell was going on…

It came in like a Polaroid snapshot. Visual details, frozen in time, despite the immediacy of craziness around him.

Snap. An old man, maybe in his fifties, in a ratty old brown overcoat. He’d smashed awkwardly into a shelf of pickles, jars going everywhere. Blood on his forehead, eyes closed. Hopefully not dead, Gus remembered thinking, despite the gun still in his hand which had nearly been involved in his own homicide. A duffel bag, also ratty and brown, had been dropped in the resulting pile-up of bodies.

Snap. The other body in question, the one which saved his life, belonged to figure in a grey hoodie. Unlike the old man, she hadn’t been summarily K.O.’ed by the impact, and was now carefully getting back on her feet. Wobbly and unstable.

Gus immediately moved to help her, since, well, that’s the least you can do for someone who just Action Movie Hero’d right in front of you.

"You okay?" Gus asked. Not what the hell was that, or who’s that guy, or Jesus Christ is that a gun?

With a yank, the girl pulled back her hoodie. A loose cut of black hair pulled away from the fleece as she looked around rapidly, checking if anybody else was approaching with weapons. Also checking to see if the old guy was moving (he was not, being quite Out Cold). First things first, after all. She could catch her breath and not freak out after determining if they were about to get blown to bits.

"You okay?" she repeated… turning to face him, to look for any obviously bleeding holes in his body. With none visible, and no more gunmen pouring out of every orifice the grocery store had to offer… she could finally inhale. "Jeez… can’t believe I just did that. Just, y’know, saw a guy about to shoot a guy, and… and… damn! Did you see that? I mean, what? What the hell was that…? And who the hell was that?"

"I’m… not really sure myself," Gus admitted. "Maybe he was robbing the place? Whoa. Way to go all Princess Leia on his ass, dudette! You just up and bodychecked that guy! Radical. …uh. Okay, so, think we better call the cops before he wakes up…"

Four bold strides later and Gus was at the payphone. He hadn’t spent his last quarter on the video game; instead it went into the slot, as he awaited the dial tone—

Two fingers jammed the cradle hook down, cutting off his call before he could make it.

"We need to GTFO," she declared, spelling the perplexing acronym out. "Didn’t you see the tape? If we get snagged in here by the Department of Safety, we are boned. Let’s go."

"Go?" he asked, since that was the only part he truly understood. "No way. This is my parents’ grocery store, they’d kill me if I abandon ship. Look, it’s not a problem, we just gotta tie him up or something and ring up 911—"

"Wait, what? This is your store?" she asked, as if that was relevant. And as if it was unbelievable, given the weird look she was offering in return.

"Yes…? Yes, it is."

"And… what city do you think you’re in right now?"

Maybe smashing into shelf after shelf of pickle jars had done a number on her. So, playing along, Gus told her what she should’ve obviously already known.

"Cleveland," he spoke. Nice and slowly, with a pause in the middle, Cleve-Land. "Like, y’know? Land of cleves? You okay, dudette? What’s your damage?"

From her reaction, Gus had just presented her with a whole mess of problems on top of the well-armed old dude problem they already had on their hands. She looked ready to say something… and stopped. Thought about it, shifted the weight of the messenger bag full of what sounded like tin cans off her hip, was about to gesture and begin a big speech and… stopped. And gave up.

"Dammit, no time," she decided. "Okay. I’m Marcy Wei, and you are—"

"Gus Zero, but—"

"Wacky name. Okay, Gus Zero, we need to leave immediately, or we will be arrested and thrown in jail. Red-black means we’re not supposed to be in here. You do know what ‘jail’ is, right? They have jails in your Cleve-Land, yes? Yes? Good. Okay. Grab the old guy’s bag and I’ll keep his gun—"

"Wait, what? We’re robbing him?"

"Would you rather he wake up and have weapons with which he can shoot at us with bullets?" she asked, spelling it out in very clear terms. All while walking over and scooping up the guy’s firearm, popping out the clip and the round in the chamber, rendering it safe to stuff in her own bag. "Double time it, newbie. I’ll explain once we’re clear."

---

Marcy ducked down while passing through the back door of the grocer’s. Gus did not, and ended up walking into a swath of red tape as a result.

It wasn’t red tape of the bureaucratic type, but of the literal type. Someone had strung up row after row of red cellophane tape across the doorway, at chest height. After flailing his arms ineffectively, trying to free himself from the sticky web, he staggered away from the building and into the rear parking lot… turning to see what he’d just plowed through.

Red-and-black striped tape, all over the building. It coated every door, a criss-crossed weave like that stuff you saw around crime scenes on TV taken up to eleven. Even the bricks of the grocery store had been wrapped up in the stuff… someone walked around the perimeter of the building a few zillion times, making sure the thick red lines were plainly visible from any angle you approached the store.

When had that happened? True, Gus had lowered the metal shutters behind each window earlier; maybe some prankster came up and did it while he was busy mopping up. But… there was just too much of the red tape for that to be true. This was hours and hours of work. And it wasn’t exactly a classic prank, like a bucket of water over a door or putting a whoopie cushion on the teacher’s chair. What were they trying to accomplish?

He didn’t have much time to ponder it. With a growl, Marcy grasped the strands of tape still stuck to his rad vest and yanked it off… then returned to the doorway, trying to fix up the damage Gus did on his way out. She re-strung the tape, making it an approximate match to its pre-ruined state.

"Don’t want anyone knowing we came out this way," she explained. "You see this, newbie? Red-black. Verboten. Illegal to cross. We weren’t supposed to be in there, and if the cops you wanted to ring found us, we’d be making our one phone call to try and get bail money about now."

"I… the… what?" Gus managed, confused by it all. "Illegal? Since when? I had customers wandering around in there just a few hours ago buying Tab and tangerines and stuff, dudette. Either the cops here work like super-fast when someone pops by to rob a grocery store, or—"

"Huh? That tape’s been up for years and years, how could you have… look, this doesn’t make a lot of sense and honestly it’s not making a lot of sense to me either, not yet, but just work with me on this," she insisted. "You’re not in Cleve-Land anymore. Surprise. Your family store got forcibly relocated. You’re not dreaming, you’re not insane, you’re not in an episode of Fringe or Lost or—"

"Huh? Lost fringes? What?"

"—Twilight Zone. You have seen the Twilight Zone, right? Scary door, dude with nice hair?"

"Oh, yeah!" Gus spoke, latching onto one of the only things that made sense. "Saw the movie at the mall multiplex two years ago. Dan Akyroyd and John Lithgow, decent stuff. They just made a new TV show based on it, too!"

"What? Yes, fine, whatever," she said, deciding to go with it. "Okay. It’s like that but it’s for realsies and you’re just gonna have to cope with that, because I am not with the Department of Orientation and I do not have time for this. …in fact, why am I sitting around here explaining the facts of life to you? I should be dragging you off to Orientation or something. Maybe call up Hollister, he’d know what to do…"

While Marcy rambled aloud about her predicament… Gus was examining his own predicament. Because it seemed he indeed was not in Kansas anymore. Or Cleveland, for that matter.

The squat two-story building of his family’s grocery store looked the same, despite being wrapped up in scary red tape. But all the buildings were different. Even in the dark of night he could tell something was wrong; the back parking lot was half the size it should be, terminating into the side of an unfamiliar building, making more of a wide two-ended alleyway instead of a loading lot. The crazy part was an elevated train track which ran THROUGH the adjoining building and over the top of his grocery, as if someone had really screwed up in the urban planning department and just ran with it. There was no way someone could’ve built that in the last few hours, so… he had to accept that he’d indeed been dropped into a new city.

Into the Twilight Zone.

Actually, that didn’t worry Gus too much. He was very much a roll-with-the-punches sort of dude, wandering from one life event to another. Unlike his parents, who got anxious at the slightest bit of change ("I don’t like the looks of that new colored family that moved in down the street") Gus enjoyed change. Change was good, nice and challenging. Especially now that he was deadlocked into the grocery job for the foreseeable future. …of course, if the grocery store really got teleported to the other side of the world—the girl looked Vietnamese or something, so maybe it did?—his dad was not going to cope with that change very well.

A tiny bright light distracted him.

"What’s that?" he asked, walking a bit closer to study the object in Marcy’s hand. It looked like a pack of playing cards or something, but the surface was bright and colorful, with little pictures that moved around as she tapped and swiped a finger against them…

"My phone," she said, distracted. "I texted Hollister, but he’s not replying. Dammit. Maybe I should call my sister, see if he’s over th—wait. Shhh."

"That’s a phone? I don’t get it, where’s the cord or the—"

"SHHH! I think I hear… crap. Get down!"

Owing to his disorientation, Gus Zero briefly wondered if Marcy wanted him to start breakdancing or something. Then he realized she meant the "hide because otherwise you may die" sort of getting down, and so he followed the grey hoodie’d blur as it sprinted for cover behind a dumpster on the far side of the alley.

As he crouched in a puddle of what he desperately hoped was cat urine (because that was actually the most pleasant alternative coming to mind) behind a dumpster full of what smelled like old fish, in a back alley which was not here a few hours ago, in the Magical Land of Oz that supposedly his family store had been tornado’d off to, very briefly Gus wondered how things could get weirder. Or worse.

The answer came in the form of a dumpy old bastard with grey hair who brushed aside Marcy’s carefully rearranged red tape in an angry fit, looking around for the kid he was trying to murder a few minutes ago.

It also came in the form of approaching engines and headlights, coming in from both sides of the alley. Which meant no escape route for them, of course. Fortunately the glare from the lights didn’t reach the shadow behind this dumpster—his new Hiding Friend had chosen their spot well…

Low roar on those engines. Cargo trucks of some sort, not coupes or sports cars or anything. Doors slamming nice and hard and weighty, too…

Deciding to keep completely out of sight rather than peek out and watch, he kept his ears open.

"Something wrong, G?" A younger voice. Not the old man.

"I want H, K, and L in there packing up the product," the gruff voice of the old man replied. (Oddly sounded like Gus’s father. Definitely not a match in the face department, though. Or in the murder department, despite how angry Pop could get.) "No slowdown in the load. In and out in three hours with the tape replaced, or I’m taking twenty out of your cut. But I want B, P, and Q with me. We’ve got a manhunt situation."

"Eyewitness?" the younger one replied.

"Something like that. Deal with the store, I’ll deal with the brat. …brats. Two of them. Nevermind. My problem, not yours. Get to work. B, P, Q, with me."

And so the gang split up, with half attending to robbing his family grocery store blind, and the other half doing the whole Find Them And Kill Them thing. And given they were hidden behind a dumpster rather than a Star Trek cloaking device of some sort, the Find Them portion would probably not take very long.

Marcy clearly was thinking the same thing. But she seemed to have a plan in the works… glancing up at a window above their heads, one they could reach by standing on top of the dumpster. Kindly pointed it out to Gus, too, by way of silent hand signal. Very James Bond.

Of course, doing so would be like inviting a few zillion bullets in their direction… a fact Gus wanted to point out, despite speaking up being hazardous to his hiding health. Fortunately, Marcy had a plan there, too… tugging up the hood of her jacket and pulling a bandanna over her mouth.

She tugged at the front of Gus’s t-shirt, indicating it’d make a good mask as well… not just for identity concealment, but because she’d just pulled out a grenade from her messenger bag. An honest-to-God grenade, like you’d see in war movies. Hopefully a smoke grenade rather than the explodey kind—that’d make sense if she was suggesting he control his breathing.

More hand signals. Hold breath. Three. Two. One. Pin out, toss lightly over the top of the dumpster. Pray it was not explodey…

It sure SOUNDED explodey. But the instant ninja smoke cloud suggested he had guessed right, that this was a conceal-and-distract sort of grenade. Perfect for a getaway. Also perfect for drawing wild, panicked gunfire… but Marcy was already up on top of the dumpster and sliding open the window, heedless of the bullet barrage. So too was Gus, keen on not being left behind.

By the time the smoke cleared, the Non-Teenage Non-Mutant Ninja Non-Turtles were already gone. And with the window closed behind them, there was no sign of where they could’ve disappeared to.

---

She called it "District 19." Gus called it intensely bogus.

Marcy knew all the nooks and crannies, the back alleys and abandoned derelicts. Apparently a big fire in the seventies had done a serious number on this part of the city, rendering most of it uninhabitable. (Why they didn’t just tear down the buildings and start over, Marcy declined to say.) Since each structure was little more than a skeleton of a living building, traveling without touching the pavement was entirely possible. In fact, to put some distance between them and the alphabet crew that was chasing them, they were doing exactly that.

They’d cross from building to building using a network of bridges, made by draping some plywood planks across two open window frames. Gus, for his part, didn’t wanna look uncool in front of the amazingly street savvy chick, so he did his best to keep up as she moved through burnt-out structure after burnt-out structure. And not look down. Because looking down reminded him of how crazy this was…

…and that they were being chased. He could see figures moving in the shadows down there, figures hunting them and fortunately not looking up. One of them was the old bastard, the man they called G, directing the rest of his single-letter gangsters to split up and search the buildings they were leaving in their wake.

He’d heard words, floating up from street level, as they crossed one particularly rickety makeshift bridge.

"You see the brat, shoot on sight," G instructed. "Don’t wait around for me, don’t call it in, just shoot to kill. Let’s keep this clean."

At least Gus could be happy he was being hunted down by a professional.

Because fleeing for his life wasn’t stressful enough, Marcy also decided this’d be a great time to give him the rundown on his new home: the City of Angles.

It was insane, of course. Copied from Earth, into the Twilight Zone? Never to return to his family or his friends? Possibly not actually himself, but a clone of himself, or a cyber-robot megaduplicate or some other scifi thing? Hard to swallow. But Marcy wasn’t having any non-swallowing tonight; she made it clear she was laying this down and expecting him to accept it, or… well, she didn’t supply the or. Maybe she’d just ditch him in the middle of nowhere and make a run for it without him. Not a fun prospect.

Fortunately, by taking the high road, they were evading the search crew. After a few blocks of cross-building traversal, the gang was nowhere in sight. Getting out alive was looking like a better prospect—and that meant they had time to stop and take a much needed breather.

After putting seven blocks between themselves and the grocery store, the pair took that moment to rest in the sooty and rickety ruins of a multi-floor department store. Fried dressing window dummies stood in judgment, as Gus Zero had a seat on warped floor tiles and tried to come to terms with things.

"So… I’m not dead, on drugs, dreaming, or anything else that’d easily explain all this," he wanted to make sure.

"Yes. I mean, no, you aren’t any of those things, yes. You know what I mean," she fumbled, not having the easiest time explaining all of this. She crouched down next to him, to maintain eye level. "Christ. I should’ve just dragged you off to a Department of Orientation office and let them deal with this. …I should’ve minded my own business in the first place. I shouldn’t have been IN that building in the first place! I was just looking for a good place for a burner, you know?"

"What, you were going to write a piece on my mom and pop’s grocery store?"

Which gave Marcy pause.

"You know about burners?" she asked, curious.

"I live in Cleveland. …lived in Cleveland. Some of the streets have more graffiti tags than they have sidewalk cracks," Gus said, with a shrug. "Even my university was in a city, hot and happening. I’m familiar with how things move and groove, yeah? So… you broke into my store to write something?"

"Yeah. Across the windows on the second floor," she said, scripting out the gestures of spraypainting in the air. "I came in through the roof. Everybody says that old red-black buildings are cubist as hell—uh, let’s say ‘radioactive,’ that’s a word you’d know, right?—that you’d die instantly if you set foot in it. I wanted to challenge that claim, you know? I don’t trust the Department of Safety not to lie to us. I didn’t believe for a minute that place was innately dangerous…"

"Sure as hell was dangerous for me," Gus said with a mild grumble.

"I wasn’t expecting to find an assassination in progress," Marcy pointed out. "Hardly a day-to-day occurrence."

"So, I take it your City of Angels—"

"—Angles—"

"—isn’t normally swarming with random hitmen looking to ice stock boys?"

Marcy glanced around at the fire-stricken building. The dust had long since settled, leaving only creaking floor beams to threaten your life… but there were actually worse threats around here than collapsing buildings.

"Not normally, but… District 19’s gang turf. It’s been in the hands of one gang or another ever since the fire, and they’re constantly fighting each other," she admitted. "It was crazy for me to come here. My sister’d have a fit if she knew was alone, but I don’t have a tag team partner anymore to watch my back. I know how to sneak in and out, though—and once we get out of here it’ll be harder for them to follow us. Civilization awaits, with shiny streetlights and cops and other things to dissuade roving gangs of murderers. Assuming we get there alive…"

In other words, Gus was now trapped in Escape From New York. And he was no Kurt Russell. He was barely Harry Dean Stanton.

If not for being the focal point of a manhunt, he’d actually think this was kinda rad. Isn’t this what Hollywood had been training him for? Everybody knew after the Russkies dropped the big one, we’d be living in a cyborg-infested neon blasted warscape, shooting at each other with laser guns to claim the last stashes of Soylent Green. He was now living twenty minutes into the future. Surely movies had prepared him for this eventuality… like, if he tied a bandanna around his head and oiled up his chest, things were bound to turn out okay. Right?

Except, no. This wasn’t a movie. A killer wanted his head, for whatever reason, and that was a cold hard reality. Maybe they could reach a less apocalyptic part of the city with skin intact, but in realistic terms, a guy who wants another guy dead is gonna find a way no matter how far he runs.

Maybe he’d never see Cleveland again. Maybe he’d lost his family, leaving them behind. All of that could be dealt with later. Right now, Gus Zero very much wanted to live—and that meant dealing with the immediate problem.

The universe had been telling Gus he was a shiftless loser for quite some time. His father certainly felt that way, that Gus couldn’t find his ass with his own hands. A drifting free spirit like him should’ve gone totally unhinged in the face of not only a radical shift in scenery, but a murderer with intention to do harm. Most people would fold under that kind of pressure.

The universe didn’t quite understand Gus. True, he partied hard and drank harder and went wild with his friends on a regular basis. He had no value to society. He was the embodiment of the Big 80’s, the material generation, the MTV generation… producing nothing, consuming everything

But what he consumed most of all was life. He was very driven to experience life, and thus too alive to allow this situation to crush him outright. He enjoyed life too much to let go of it. That meant no fluttering around in a panic when things went sour. It wasn’t that Gus lacked conviction, motivation, ambition, or any other word ending in -tion… he simply focused his ambitions on the things that actually appealed to him. Friendship. Music. Intense moments of revelry. Quiet moments of peace. Tonight, his focus was pure survival, and nothing would stop him from that goal.

"We gotta stop these guys," he realized. "But I’m not gonna be able to Rambo ’em. Somehow we’ve gotta appease them enough to leave me alone. That means figuring out why they want me dead, and then convincing them not to do it. Otherwise they’ll eventually run me down, game over. Any ideas?"

"Uh. One, no clue. Two, what’s this ‘we’ stuff?" Marcy asked. "I’m with you because I need to extract myself from District 19. We just happen to be moving in the same direction. Once we reach civilization I’m dumping you with the cops and you can sort it out from there."

Gus shook his head, refusing to accept that. "You’re the local expert here, girl, not me," he admitted. "It’s your city. You know how things work. Like, you called those guys a ‘salvager’ gang—what does that mean? I don’t know. No clue. If there’s an answer to this mess, if I’m gonna keep breathing, I’ll need someone as awesome as you to help me. …y’want me on my knees and begging? ‘kay. Here, this is me, on knees and begging. Help me. Please…?"

And… he was doing it. Literally shifting from sitting to kneeling, hands clasped. It wasn’t a jokey sort of pleading, but an authentic one. This little idiot was being as genuine…

He certainly couldn’t get out of District 19 alive on his own. She had to do that for him. It likely wouldn’t involve her taking a bullet for him or getting on some gang’s bad side. So, as long as nothing splashed back on her personally—or on her sister, since gangs tended to carry grudges down family trees—what could it hurt to go a little further?

At the very least, she could set him up with the tools he needed. In her youth she’d amble out into the night with nothing more than a few paint cans and some markers, but that was before learning how corrupt and twisted this city could get. These days Marcy never left home without a toolkit of useful objects (such as smoke grenades) and plenty of spare copies of those useful objects. Just in case.

For instance, she pulled a spare phone from her messenger bag, to give her new ward.

"In case we get split up, I can probably talk you out of here," she offered, without promises. "I’ve got plenty of spare Crackers. Here, have one."

The dude fingered this surprisingly weighty black rectangle of metal and glass with suspicion.

"What’s this thing?" he asked. "Do I throw it at them or something?"

"It’s a phone, duh. It’s from a Repeater—a place in the City which for some crazy reason provides an infinite supply of phones. Take one, another appears in its place. All of them have the same crack in the corner of the screen because they’re all copies of the same phone, from the same point in time. Yeah, yeah, it’s weird, deal with it. They’re cheap as hell to buy, so I like to carry spares."

"O… kay. First off, you can’t have an infinite supply of anything. That’d imply a post-scarcity economy and probably break a few laws of thermodynamics. …what? I paid attention in college," Gus replied, on seeing the weird look he was getting. "Once you start cheating on the whole supply-and-demand thing the effects on society become unpredictable."

"Not the time to ponder the philosophy of phones, man," Marcy reminded him. "We need to get moving."

"That’s the other thing that I’m not getting. How is this a ‘phone’?" Gus wondered, before pushing the button at the bottom… and getting a crazy spray of tiny glowing images across the glass screen. He would’ve dropped it in surprise, if not for seeing Marcy use one of these earlier. "I was trying to ask you about that before. What end do I talk to? Where’s the dial? This looks like a video game or something…"

Ignoring his stupid question, Marcy continued dividing up resources. No sense leaving him completely empty handed, even if she intended to save the best stuff for herself. She opened her messenger bag, setting it down on the floor next to the duffel bag they stole from the mysterious G, and sorted through her supply kit.

At first she pondered handing over G’s stolen gun—if they got caught by the Department of Safety she’d rather not have a repeat minor offender like herself get moved up a weight class. But considering she was hoping to ditch the thing ASAP, no sense shifting it over to him. Next up, some money that she could part with… a spare cigarette lighter, okay… a few energy bars, fine… and one of her smoke grenades could go with him. She had plenty of them, great at distracting the Department of Safety whenever they caught up with the "Ghostwriter" that scribbled all over their buildings.

Next, she unzipped G’s duffel bag. Marcy had stolen it on a whim—if it was full of guns, she didn’t want it in the hands of some psycho hunting her down. Hopefully, it wasn’t full of guns. Or human heads. Or anything horrific in general…

Instead, the bag was full of Sony Walkmen.

It took a few seconds for her to realize that. She’d seen "cassette players" in old movies, but only in old movies. Never in person.

Carefully… Marcy sifted through the bag. No guns. No heads. Just Walkmen. Not even headphones or anything like that, just the Walkmen. Over a dozen of them, in fact.

Through tiny transparent windows, each of them bore a tape with a handwritten label. MIXTAPE GØ. No variation whatsoever on the labels; the same sloppy handwriting on each, identically sloppy, every twist and tweak of the felt tip pen twisted and tweaked flawlessly.

Just like the Walkman currently on the belt of one Gus Zero. MIXTAPE GØ, it proudly announced through the plastic mechanism.

When she looked up from his belt, her eyes locked with his. And they shared a look of alarm.

There’s only so much Twilight Zone that could be swallowed in one evening before Gus started demanding better answers. This was his official limit, as he held up two of the Walkmen, studying them in the light.

"These… these are mine," he recognize. "All of them. They’re literally mine, the same as mine. What’s… Marcy, what’s going on here? Why did that crazy old man have… fifteen copies of my Walkman? How could he have fifteen copies of my Walkman?"

Finally, all the little observations Marcy had been shoving aside in her efforts not to care about this guy came crashing down at once. Maybe that’s why she’d decided to yammer on about her Cracker, why it seemed to matter at that moment… it was relevant. It was similar.

"Gus… what year is it?" Marcy asked, in seriousness.

"What do you mean?"

"What year is it. Just… just tell me what year you think it is."

"It’s 1985," Gus Zero replied… getting more and more unsure by the fourth word. "It’s 1985. Right…? It’s… not 1985, is it."

"Off by thirty years. This is 2015," Marcy told him. "It should be impossible, and I could be wrong about this, but… I think you’ve been repeating, just like the phones. Copied into the City of Angles, over and over, from that one moment in time in 1985. Reason there aren’t dozens of you running around is because that old guy keeps killing you every time you show up, taking your tape player as a… trophy."

Distancing herself from this mess was the smart play. She shouldn’t have cared about this crazy mixed up situation, this boy who seemed to be a human Repeater, a thing which was unheard of and unthinkable. Marcy should have run for it, right there, in case she was dancing with a soon-to-be Picasso. A reality-warping breakpoint in common sense. The look of realization and horror on his face suggested maybe he’d pop, right there and then…

But… soon it settled down. He became focused. Hardened, onto a single thought.

"I’m not going to figure out any of this if that dweebazoid turns me into Swiss cheese," Gus Zero stated. "Let’s solve that particular Rubik’s Cube first. We’ll get out of District 19 and then figure out how to shake him for good. Everything else can wait. Everything."

---

Two blocks away from the edge of District 19. Streetlights in the distance, sounds of traffic on the wind. So close…

But the network of catwalks had ended. Finally they came to a gap across the buildings where the plywood boards had fallen between the buildings, crashing down in the alley below. No way to know if it was simply bad luck, or part of a trap by the hunters who surely had figured out the trick by now.

"We’re going to have to head downstairs and cross on foot," Marcy announced, leaning away from the dangerous and uncrossable gap. "Haven’t seen those creeps lately, though. Maybe they’re searching somewhere else…? Or maybe they gave up?"

"Dude seemed pretty intent on killerating me," Gus stated. "I don’t think he’s gonna fold."

"Either way, we need to get down to the street and make a break for it. Head that-a-way," she said, pointing to the lights in the distance. "All else fails, there’s an all-night Chinese restaurant at the join between District 19 and District 7. We blend into a crowd, they’ll be less likely to open fire. I hope."

Slowly they descended—because the other option was a quick and extremely vertical descent, one which was actually quite likely given the way the soft and rotting wood creaked under Gus’s hightops. Speed was an issue not just to avoid stomping straight through the stairwell, but to avoid making a racket. Even if the gunmen were poking around elsewhere, no sense pushing their luck…

When they reached ground floor of some ruined sweatshop, full of sewing machines and desks and half-packed crates, things were looking good. No sign of danger, aside from row after row of chains and pulleys on tracks overhead—just the sort of thing for a big Hollywood fight scene, admittedly, but really the only risk was accidentally walking into a hook and putting your eye out. Easily avoided. The open doorway to the street was only fifty feet away…

And then the flashlights came.

This time, Gus pulled Marcy into cover rather than the other way around. They crouched behind a stack of crates, the best possible cover… but unfortunately leaving them quite cornered.

Footsteps echoing around the sweatshop, the sway of flashlight beams on the walls… G and his AlphaBits crew were here. Marcy peered around the crate, not to look for them, but to look for some way to sneak around and out…

Naturally, there was no way to sneak around and out.

She started to finger one of her smoke grenades, hoping the same trick would work twice. Thumb in the ring on the tall cylinder, waiting—

"I know you’re in here. We spotted you coming downstairs through one of the windows. …you three, wait outside. Just in case he gets past me. I want to talk to him alone."

The old man. Same voice they’d heard from before. Impossible to get a fix on exactly where, though, or she’d have lobbed the grenade already…

"G, you sure about that?"

"This is my business, Q, not yours. Go cover the exits."

"You’re making this harder than it has to be, Mr. Zero," G continued… maybe moving around, maybe searching, hard to say. "I could’ve ended things for you before you even knew they were over. You didn’t have to know that you’ve been torn away from your family, your home, and everything you hold dear…"

Gus was tempted to bark a reply back. This was the part of the movie where the villain and the hero exchange banter, right? But he wisely kept his trap shut.

"There’s so much about this city you don’t know. So much about you that you don’t know," the villain continued. "You aren’t you. You’re nobody. Just a copy of a copy of a copy. An echo of an echo. You may think you’re clinging to life by running away from me, but you’re only prolonging an existence that’s miserable to the core. If it helps… the real you is still alive, back on Earth. The real you has no idea you’re here, and doesn’t care in the slightest. If you die here, tonight… you won’t really die. In fact, nothing of value will be lost…"

…Marcy HAD told him that he was a copy. Presumably the "real" Gus led a decent life, back in 1985, and grew up. The old man sort of had a point.

And he was sort of insane, because this Gus had no intention of rolling over and ceasing to exist. But backed into a corner, well… he didn’t have many options for a clean escape, did he?

Correction. They didn’t have many options for a clean escape. Because Marcy was cowering next to him behind that crate, the girl who’d saved his life, now sucked into this mess thanks to his bad luck. Gus getting blown away by this highly specific serial killer was bad enough, but if they both ate a bullet…

Maybe it was time for a Hollywood moment.

He didn’t ask for permission. In fact, he relied on Marcy being distracted by the old man’s rantings… so he could slip a hand in her messenger bag, and pull out the stolen gun. True, no magazine in it, but that didn’t matter.

With gun in one hand and the other hand in his jacket pocket, Gus stepped out from behind the crate. Again, before Marcy could object.

The old man, the one with a single letter name. G.

He was a sorry-looking bastard, like life had stepped on him repeatedly with heavy iron boots. He wore a brown jacket with zero style and multiple patches where the fabric had worn through, over a generic-looking shirt and tie. If Gus had seen him slumped over on a city bus looking like that he’d assume this was some harmless sad-sack business man on his way home from a salary job.

Except, of course, for the gun pointed at him. Guns pointed at guns. True, Gus’s wasn’t loaded, but he held it with fake confidence in its deadliness.

Gus didn’t glance back at the panicking Marcy. Nothing to confirm to the old man that she was hiding there. In fact he strode away from the crate, trying to maneuver the standoff away from it.

"You think you’re doing me a favor, huh?" Gus asked, through a grimace which hopefully suggested he was a tough guy. "You think I’m better off dead?"

"I know you’re better off dead, because you aren’t really a living individual," G replied dispassionately, keeping his gun nice and level with Gus’s unloaded sidearm. "You’ve got my bag, yes? Odds are, you and the girl figured out the truth. And if not, I’ll tell you right now—every single month, there’s another one of you. You repeat. I’ve killed you every single time. And why? Because your life is cheap and meaningless. The City’s made sure of that. You deserve better than that."

"Maybe that’s not your decision to make."

"Maybe you’re stalling for time, pretending to be a tough guy with an unloaded gun," G recognized. "Have you really thought this through, Gus? What are you trying to achieve?"

Nuts.

Plan B.

"A deal," Gus offered. "You want me dead? Want to add another Walkman to your collection? Fine. But let her go. She’s not involved in our mess. Sure, I want to live, but not if it means she dies."

The old gangster considered it. For all of three seconds.

"I wish I could, honestly… but I can’t," he spoke. "She’s seen inside the grocery store. All that valuable stock belongs to me. It’s a post-scarcity economy, and I’m leveraging it in my favor. Only way to do that? No witnesses. I’m truly sorry, Gus, but you both have to g—"

Gus still wasn’t convinced it was a "phone." Sure didn’t look like one, with no buttons or cord or even anything to talk into. The thing was a black slab of glass and metal, weighty in the hand as it slipped perfectly into his palm. Slipped perfectly out of his pocket. Sailed perfectly through the darkened room, black metal and glass, impacting directly into the old man’s face.

The bullet went wide.

Seconds later and smoke was pouring out of the building, as every single one of Marcy’s smoke grenades went off at once. Gunmen with single letter names fired wildly, trying to hit anyone attempting to flee the building.

After the smoke cleared, G emerged, an ugly-looking bruise over his eye.

"Fall back for now," he ordered. "Back to the store to finish the load. No doubt they’re in the next District over by now."

"No witnesses, boss," Q reminded him. "Just say the word and we’ll go out there and track them down. May be outside our turf in civvie territory, but we can take care of this quietly…"

"No need. I know how the boy thinks… and I’ll be able to put him to rest soon enough. If we have patience, he’ll come to us."

---

The hottest tip he’d gotten in weeks, hands down. The hottest music industry insider party and he had to excuse himself in the middle of it, all because Marcy was in some kind of fix.

She’d claimed it was a matter of life or death in her text messages, but you had to run anything Marcy sent you through a filter—if she got outraged over some trivial matter, it could become inflated and twisted around like a balloon animal at a kid’s birthday party. Sorting out what was a minor infraction versus a major injustice could be tricky when dealing with her.

Still… Marcy rarely actually asked Hollister for a favor. Despite having something of an understanding after their initial social fumbles, an enforced social distance had been maintained during the two years they’d known each other. Hollister was in the camp of "Vivi’s Friends," and Marcy generally wanted nothing to do with Vivi’s friends. (It always struck Hollister as odd; Vivi was friends with lots of artists, and Marcy was an artist, but she seemed to regard them with contempt.)

When Marcy did reach across the great divide and ask for help rather than asking for someone to vent her frustrations to, that meant the situation was probably worth Hollister’s time. Even if it meant losing out on a possibly enormous scoop on the skullduggery of the music scene.

After making his exits and excuses, he’d asked Marcy to meet up at his apartment. And on returning home, found two people sitting on the stoop of his semi-luxury apartment.

One he knew, the other he didn’t. Presumably some hipster, given the crazy 80s threads and the Walkman on his belt. (Although it wasn’t the first Walkman he’d seen that night. Still, better to put that party behind him and focus on the now.)

"Can we come in?" Marcy asked. "There’s a gangster actively trying to murder us."

Which meant that the twisted balloon animal of Marcy’s problems was actually more like a zeppelin. Hollister had indeed made the right call.

Once inside his swanky and showy apartment, he insisted they use coasters if they were going to drink all his beer. No sense leaving little rings all over his designer coffee table. After all, if a bunch of armed gunmen burst in here and started spraying hot lead and blood everywhere, table stains would mean a slightly larger mess for the cleaning lady to deal with later this week.

Introductions were made. Adventures were summarized. Alcohol was consumed to numb the nerves after a highly nervous night. Vivid descriptions were given of rooftop chases, sinister gunmen, boys lost in time, and particularly loving detail given to the elder statesman of a gang of thieves.

In the end, Hollister gave his scholarly analysis of the situation at hand.

"You are screwed," he decided. "Go to the cops. Go to the cops now."

"We go to the cops, and Gus here probably vanishes into some crazy government spook’s research lab," Marcy theorized. "I don’t trust the Department of Safety after they nearly destroyed the city on Picasso Friday. He’s a repeater, Hollister! There’s never been a human repeater before. First instinct’ll be to tie him down to a table and bust out the scalpels to see what makes him tick. And when they’re done with him? Should be a fresh copy around in a month for slicing up all over again."

"That’s baseless paranoia. Besides, better a government spook’s lab than a morgue. Let’s just call the cops and be done with it. They can keep him safe. probably…"

"What was that?"

"I said they can keep him safe. Witness protection, you know?"

"No, what you said after. You said ‘probably.’ As in probably keep him safe."

"Look, don’t worry. I know a guy in the Department of Safety, used to be on TV, has a good inside scoop on things," Hollister suggested. "I’m sure he can hook Gus here up with the right kind of people. I mean, these are the Alphas, you don’t wanna hide out too long if they’re on your ass—"

"The who?"

For someone adept at striking deals of a semi-legal nature, Hollister found himself doing a lousy job at keeping secret thoughts to himself. This hit too close to home—someone he knew in major trouble. Not just because it could splash back on him, but because this was Marcy Wei, dammit. He had to suggest she do the smart thing, push hard for it, without giving her any reason to do otherwise… no dangerously easy exits from a hard situation.

Problem was, he’d already hinted at how much he really knew about this. She spotted the loose thread and yanked, nice and hard. He could try to lie, but… lying to a Wei wasn’t a skill he’d mastered. Couldn’t lie to Vivi’s sweet face, couldn’t lie to Marcy’s staunch defiance.

"That’s the gang after you. The Alphas," he decided to explain. "I got the scoop on them from… a resource I don’t like working with. He bought expensive food brands for his shindigs directly from the Alphas. Not that they’re officially called ‘The Alphas’… I don’t think they have a name, not like some other tough-sounding crew of Salvager punks. That’s because they aren’t punks. They have a racket on food distribution, specializing in brands that went out of circulation years ago. Alphas defend their turf with equal parts secrecy and violence. You’ll never know their names, just code letters… better that you don’t learn anything beyond those letters. Anybody who sees too much of their operation vanishes."

A grumble, from the woman on the couch. Slinging back the last of her beer before coming up grimacing. "Old bastard did say I’d seen too much, and had to go. Great…"

"Honestly, if they knew I’d been talking to you, I’d be right next to you two on the hit list," Hollister said—clearly not thrilled at the prospect. "I should probably be going to the cops along with you, just to be safe. I try to avoid dealing with Salvagers because they’re dangerous and crazy… but these guys are dangerous and sane. That’s a lot worse. Doesn’t matter how far you run; you’ll vanish before you can tell anyone about the hidden repeating grocery store they’re exploiting. …okay? You get the picture now? This is what you’re up against. You need to get with the cops and fast, before G gets to you."

With that on the table, Hollister pulled his high-end smartphone from his pocket. Ready to dial the Department of Safety, and get this mess taken care of—

"Hold up."

From the Repeater Boy, who had been very quiet during this discussion of doom. Honestly, Hollister thought he’d fallen asleep; Gus had slumped down into the fine leather couch cushions, looking at nobody, just soaking it all in. Well, he had been doing that. Now, he was sitting upright.

"We are dealing with some highly bogus dudes," Gus Zero summarized, from earlier vivid descriptions of gangland horror. "Fine. We can deal with highly bogus dudes. They wanna exploit my mom and pop’s grocery store like that? You know, I don’t have much love for that place. He can have it. I can’t say I’m thrilled that my family’s legacy is in some dork’s grubby hands, but at least that gives us a chance to survive. I mean, the problem’s one of playing stool pigeon, right? He wants us dead before we sing."

"That is the gist of what I was saying, yes," Hollister pressed.

"Okay, cool. Means we got leverage to the max," Gus realized. "He needs us dead ASAP because we could easily destroy him with the right word to the right person. If the government would freak out over a repeating dude like me, imagine how they’d react to a repeating store filled with food. It’s a trick of post-scarcity economy, just like he said. Right now we have MOST awesome blackmail material to hold over his head, don’t we…? And we have a trump card—they don’t know Hollister’s in on this. So we leave him with orders to sing to the media, the cops, the men in black, like, whoever… unless we come back alive. It’s life insurance."

The man who had overseen a thousand and one slightly sketchy deals was clearly not on board with this one. He tried to measure if the throwback was kidding… and decided no, he likely was not.

"I just finished explaining that you’re dealing with one of the most ruthless sons of bitches in the City of Angles, and you think it’d be ‘cool’ to blackmail him. This is seriously your go-to plan," Hollister stated. "You’re insane and you’re going to get us all killed. Even if I didn’t think this was balls-out stupid, didn’t you say he gave his gang orders to shoot you on sight? How do you plan to reach the bargaining table alive?"

"An intermediary," Gus explained… not really looking at Hollister, more at a point over his shoulder. Focused and intense, letting the thoughts come together. "We need someone in G’s corner, but not in his gang. Someone G will listen to, like maybe the contact who told you about them in the first place, or someone like that. We find the right third party, we can make this work. We’re the scrappy underdog heroes in this flick, man. We’re gonna win."

"This is not an eighties feel-good buddy comedy, goddammit!"

"Point stands," Gus said, with a shrug. "And so will we, if we convince G to drop his crusade. Marcy? You with me on this?"

"Obviously she isn’t—"

"I’m with you on this," Marcy declared.

Briefly, Hollister wondered if maybe he should’ve stayed at El’s big debut party. True, he was surrounded by cokehead recording agents and pop starlets with fake smiles and faker breasts, but that was still less gonzo than this.

But Marcy wasn’t kidding. And she looked as determined as… well, as Marcy Wei. A very determined woman, once she’d picked a path to follow. Whether that was journeying to some distant and deadly corner of the city just to scribble on the walls or following an echo-clone into the jaws of death, she was not going to be denied.

"I don’t see us having an option here," she told Hollister. "I mean, what else can we do? Go to the Department of Safety? I don’t care if Dougal is deader than a doornail, there’s something new and dangerous lurking behind those walls. You haven’t been out in places like District 19, or the New Deal Quarantine Zone, or the Undefined Spaces… I have. Maybe they don’t wear uniforms, but I know a Safety goon when I see one. They’re searching the city for something, or… someone. Someone we both know. I’m not risking getting stuck in one of their interrogation rooms. I’ve been dodging cops all my life, and now I’ve got a better reason than avoiding a fine for vandalism. We’ve got to keep what we know about Penny’s swaps a secret—"

Hollister whitened. "Marcy, ixnay on the appingsways," he said, jerking his head towards Gus. "Ixnay on the Ennypay…!"

"A mess is a mess is a mess, whether it’s mine or Gus’s," she defended. "I’d rather deal with any mess myself than let the Department of Bedlam ‘solve’ my problems. So yes, I’m with him on the blackmail plan."

He could warn Vivi Wei. Maybe Vivi could convince her to drop this little bastard and run to the cops…

Of course, that would bring Vivi into this fresh mess. Yet more people to know about G’s schemes, yet more people to get whacked. It was dangerous to even talk about the Alphas if you didn’t have to. Hollister only knew them before tonight in the ‘avoid these guys’ sense, a hushed whisper through black market circles. Not enough details to get you killed, not until now.

…well. Maybe one detail that could’ve gotten him killed. And sadly, it was exactly the detail that Gus was looking for, which meant Hollister would have to cough it up. Either that, or let Marcy walk into death.

"I know of a possible intermediary," Hollister admitted. "A former member of the gang. Old as dirt and living in retirement. He was G’s mentor, once upon a time, and may still have connections to the Alphas. Not dangerous on his own… if you approach him, he’s unlikely to put a bullet in you. And you could probably kick his walker out from under him if he tried."

Gus’s exclamation was loud enough to punch through Hollister’s tension like a bullet.

"HAH! Now we’re talking!" he called, assuming far more enthusiasm on the other side of the table than existed. "You and me and Marcy, buddy, we’re gonna do this. So! Who’s the old fart? Where’s he live? Details. Let’s do this. I’m totally stoked—"

"He lives in a luxury apartment high-rise right on the Zag. Crime does pay, y’know, provided you survive it. The lobby has security guards and doormen aplenty, and no unscheduled visitors are allowed past ground floor. Normally you’d never get in to see him, unless… umm… "

"Spill it, spill it. Anything that can help."

This part was not going to go over well.

"Remember the resource who told me about the Alphas in the first place? He was… actually more of a private party organizer. Um. Okay, he’s kind of a part-time pimp. And he routinely arranged for high-end call girls to be sent up to that old mentor’s apartment," Hollister said. "As far as I know, that arrangement is still in place. So, if you’re going to meet this intermediary… uh… you’re going to have to pretend to be one of his regulars. I mean, not you, Gus. I mean—pleasedon’tkillmeMarcy."

Maybe that’d be enough to dissuade her. She sure did NOT look thrilled at the suggestion. Maybe it’d be enough…

Through a grimace like iron… Marcy gave a curt nod. "Fine," she agreed. "But… ugh. I’m… this is… ugh. I’m going to need a favor. Because I doubt looking like a street rat’s gonna get me into the bastard’s personal Viagraville…"

---

The best possible thing to do was to focus on her anger. Anger was a good motivator; it kept her sharp and focused. Normally it took a few minutes online reading comments sections to work up some proper anger at society (which helped inspire her writing tremendously). Fortunately, being actively hunted by a madman was proving just as useful for stoking the fire… as was knowing what she was about to get into. Literally get into, as she’d sent Hollister off to raid her sister’s closet.

Marcy had seriously never dressed for sexytimes before. In fact, she could count on one hand the number of times she’d worn a dress, period—and those were all family-enforced moments, like attending her cousin’s wedding or something. Hardly sexytimes. Even so, tonight called for sexytimes. Thank god she (hopefully) remembered how to walk in heels, or this truly would be a wacky 80s buddy comedy.

Her own personal 80s buddy, thankfully, was too busy being very confused by the broadcast television offerings on Hollister’s spectacularly large HDTV. Because Marcy was finding that the head of disgruntled steam she’d been building plus a few beers in her bloodstream plus the pending naughtiness was putting her in a very boyfriendy mood. And she did not want to be in a boyfriendy mood.

She’d had two boyfriends since dumping Slyck a few years ago, neither of which lasted very long, both of which existed solely for her own stress relief. One was a bouncer at Vivi’s club, which made things twice as awkward when Marcy broke it off later. The other… honestly, she couldn’t even remember his name. It lasted exactly twenty-seven intensely continuous hours and then she never saw him again. Couldn’t even be called a boyfriend.

In the end she couldn’t say the experiences made her any happier, just momentarily less horny. That plus the unspoken worry in her sister’s eyes regarding these unhealthy relationships was enough for Marcy to decide celibacy might be a good change of pace. She’d been boyfriend-free for months now… and if she wanted to keep her high score going, that meant NOT jumping Gus Zero just because they were alone, slightly drunk, and in a tense spot together.

He wasn’t exactly a stunning looker. Honestly, even Hollister would’ve been a superior pick, due to superior personal grooming and certainly superior dress sense. But Gus had this weird underlying intensity, something that had emerged back in District 19, when he shifted from goofy weirdo to survivalist. And when he laid out his plan, his crazy plan, there was something intense in there which Marcy was not honestly expecting from a bon-vivant slacker…

No. Bad thoughts. Death around every corner tonight. Better to think about that and stay angry.

"Kent State," Gus spoke, unprompted.

That snapped her out of her moment of indecision.

"This whole mess reminds me of Kent State," Gus replied… clicking off the TV, for now. "I’ve been trying to put my finger on it all night, when I last felt like this. I grew up alongside Vietnam, you know… but my mom was as close to being hippie as you could get without actually eating granola and living in a commune. Never understood how she got along with my dad, that stick-up-the-buttinski. She always said that no matter how bad the war looked now, the world would eventually be won over by peace and love, that it was just… inevitable."

"Sounds like my sister. But what’s that got to do with the state of Kent?"

"No, Kent State. You know? …guess you wouldn’t know. It’s not a state, it’s a school in Ohio…"

"And you went there for college?"

Gus stopped her, before she could dig the hole any deeper.

"It happened when I’d turned eight years old," he said. "A war protest at Kent State. Armed troops got called in to deal with it. And… the next day, I saw photos in the newspaper of a bunch of hippies—just like my mom—all shot to pieces by the National Guard during what should’ve been a peaceful protest. …guess you didn’t have Vietnam here in your City, huh."

"I’ve… seen movies," Marcy offered weakly, knowing it didn’t come close.

"I kinda freaked out that day. Like, knowing this inevitable happy world my mother kept describing could fall to bits just like that," with a snap of the fingers, "That freaked me. But in the end, I chose to double down on being happy. Digging life, you know? ’cause now I knew it wouldn’t be easy if life could lob that kind of grenade at you… like it did tonight. Not easy, but still worth it. This sucks, and I’m gonna fight back with all I got—you gotta fight for your right to party, y’know. I’m gonna keep on… I dunno… I’m gonna keep on existing."

When Hollister got back from his errand, he found two twentysomethings making out on his couch.

It took not one, not two, but three clearings of the throat to get their attention.

With remarkable speed, Marcy was on her feet and straightening out her clothes as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Leaving a very confused (but pleasantly confused) Gus Zero sagging into the leather couch cushions, stepping over to deal with Hollister’s findings.

"I… uh… well, here you go," Hollister offered, passing a duffel bag over. "I wasn’t sure what you’d want, so… I got some dresses, and some shoes, and some panties, and some bras, and they’re all a bit frilly and see-through but that’s all I could—"

"Since I’m not planning to take the dress off at any point tonight, I’ll stick to the underwear I have on, thank you," she seethed at Hollister. (Anger. Anger was good for focusing herself.) "Gentlemen, I’m going to go get changed. If either of you peek I will tear your eyes out and eat them."

And gone, stomping off to Hollister’s adjoining bedroom in a huff. Door slamming shut behind her.

Neither of the two dudes left behind felt eager to speak of what just happened.

---

Walking with heels at your cousin’s wedding is one thing. Walking with heels all the way across the whole city was another thing—and it’d completely ruin her reputation if someone spotted her strolling around in this ensemble, cobbled together from pieces that her sister wore remarkably well and she was wearing terribly. Rather than save a few bucks and ride the subway, she insisted Hollister drive them straight to the Zag himself.

Normally, Marcy avoided the Zag. It was the ritzy section of town, a jagged road cutting right through the middle of the city… terrible for traffic, but the buildings had been largely lock-step stable for decades. No cubism, no additions, no shuffles. Plenty of cops to keep graffiti writers away. Rent was kept nice and high by those who rented there, to keep other undesirables out. True, Vivi once worked a club there, but it was an old club that got grandfathered in as the value of the neighborhood skyrocketed… and Marcy didn’t feel like she fit in there, either.

The one upside to going to the Zag was that nobody she actually knew would see her in a dress that seemed to be more composed of strategically placed gaps in the fabric than in actual fabric. Vivi looked drop dead gorgeous in this thing, true, but… well. It wasn’t like Marcy didn’t suit the dress, she was pretty fit despite lacking her sister’s dedication to yoga and exercise. Running from cops and climbing buildings did just as well. But wearing this thing… it didn’t feel like herself. Felt like she was faking being pretty. And being caught faking tonight could be fatal.

Gus had the same worry, although his solution was starting to get on her nerves.

"Okay, so after your family couldn’t afford the medicine for your little brother, your father turned to drinking and your mother hit the crack pipe," he continued. "This downward spiral meant you couldn’t focus on your studies, and eventually you dropped out of college. Your sponsor at your scholarship wanted to help, believing in the better part of human nature and its indomitable spirit, but by that point depression had set in and you had to support your family by any means possible, and—"

"You can’t seriously be expecting me to memorize all this crap," she complained, tugging down at her hemline.

"We’ve got to get by the door guards. If we aren’t totally convincing as a call girl and her bodyguard-slash-pimp, we’re hosed."

"I don’t need a six-page backstory!"

"What if they question us about the life decisions that brought us to this point in time? Huh? What then? Plus, it’s all about, like, acting. Like, Oscar-winning acting, like Shirley MacLaine-level acting. You’re Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. No, wait, Harvey Keitel. …hmm. Maybe I should’ve picked up a big pink hat with a feather boa. Do you think this suit Hollister loaned me will work? It doesn’t fit well…"

"Hollister rolls like a pimp twenty-four-seven—

("Hey!" came a protest from their chauffeur.)

"—and you’re going to be fine. And to use your vernacular, take a chill pill. We’re going to do just fine."

Slowly, the car rolled to a halt… in front of one of the fanciest buildings Marcy had ever seen.

It wasn’t modern fancy. That wasn’t how the Zag rolled; these were old buildings, retrofitted and fixed up on a perpetual basis to keep them up to code. It looked like an old hotel from the 1930s, all deco and style, the sort of place Al Capone might stay at. Living directly on the Zag was only possible for the most affluent… even if the buildings weren’t quite as spacious and lacked the most modern wiring and plumbing, the status you gained in residence here was worth it. Stepping in here was stepping in the old world. Old money.

Which made her feel TWICE as out of place, in her ridiculous dress. She kept trying to convince herself it wasn’t ridiculous, that Vivi somehow made this work without feeling skanky and so could she, but… no joy. Best to shuffle along on the heels and get this over with.

"I’m heading right to a midnight meeting with a guy who knows a guy in Resources," Hollister said, leaning out of his driver’s side window as the pair clambered out of his car. "If I don’t hear back from you in an hour, I’ll… well, I won’t assume the worst, but I’ll leak the address of the grocery store anyway. …be careful. Please be careful. Run for it if you have to run for it. Okay?"

A few nods later, and the mission was underway.

---

Being the dead of night, the only people in the ritzy lobby of the ritzy building were a guy in a ritzy doorman’s uniform and two guys in decidedly un-ritzy security uniforms. All of them looked tired and bored, rather than totally jazzed about working the graveyard shift in a building they couldn’t possibly afford to actually live in. With any luck, they were too bored to think twice about sending two strangers up the elevator to broker a blackmail deal.

In fact… Marcy decided maybe method acting wasn’t such a bad idea. Because no call girl would be totally jazzed about being passed off to a septuagenarian for the evening. In fact, she’d be just as annoyed and disinterested as these wage slaves would be. It suited her mood, too… it was easy to grumble, far easier than it was to fake enthusiasm. Easy to mask your increasing worry at the risks ahead of you with anger, too…

Gus, however, played the part of the swaggering pimp with gusto. Strollin’ in a way that lopped the letter G off the end of the word, as if the City’s gravitational pull was tilted at a funny angle. He stroll’d right on up to that front desk, all bravado, and said—

"Another girl for Morty?" the doorman supplied, before Gus could say a word.

Which threw the young man off his game.

"Uh… yes. Yeah. Yeah, my man, that’s the thing, you dig," he supplied, trying to get back into character.

Eyeing Gus. Not up and down, just his face. Although… through the doorman’s mask of boredom, it was hard to tell if there was any real reason behind the silent moment of consideration…

"Second one tonight from you guys, huh?" he pondered. "Old guy’s got some stamina."

"Yeah, well, some dudes gotta swing, you dig?" Gus tried.

…which passed whatever test the doorman was running. Because rather than being held at gunpoint by the two armed security guards, they were on their way to the elevator and up to the 17th floor.

The hard part was behind her. All that remained between Marcy and safety was blackmailing a criminal organization keen on killing her off. No problem. Really.

---

Having money and spending money are two different things. Hollister had money (more than a glorified high school guidance counselor should have) and spent it—his apartment was proof of that. The owner of this apartment clearly had money, given where he was living… but he certainly wasn’t spending it.

The furniture was a mash of thrift store reject items, spread across several decades. A couch straight out of the seventies. An arm chair with a tacky lime green plaid covering. A television from Gus’s era, with its gigantic cathode ray tube and metal channel dials… far from the wafer-thin behemoth that had stunned him earlier at Hollister’s pad. This was a man who was perfectly comfortable living in a pile of cultural trash, uncaring what anyone else thought of it.

That went double for the man himself, who had answered the door wearing a bathrobe and, thankfully, boxer shorts. Nothing else. Everything from his chest hair to his armpit hair to beard stubble to lack of hair on his actual scalp was unkempt and unappealing. Fortunately, they’d brought along someone highly kempt and appealing in the form of Marcy, or he might’ve just slammed the door shut in their faces.

"Huh," the retired gangster named Morty said, on seeing the pair of them.

"Figured you weren’t done partying tonight," Gus supplied. "Call it a little bonus. You interested…?"

Scratching at his spotty beard. Considering. Just like the earlier test with the doorman, taking his sweet time to make the decision…

"Okay, let’s see where this is going," he decided, stepping aside from the doorway. "Mi casa es su casa. Come on in."

Only once they were safely inside the apartment, door closed and locked behind them, did Marcy produce the gun from her purse. (No actual bullets, but with the empty magazine loaded just in case Morty was as sharp-eyed as G.) Despite having no real training or interest in guns, she kept a steady enough aim on the ragged old man.

For his part, Morty didn’t seem unpleasantly surprised. If anything, the eyebrow he raised indicated pleasant surprise.

"Smart," he said. "A single task to focus on—she keeps me covered, while leaving you free to talk and move about. It’s harder than you’d think to safely keep someone at gunpoint while holding a discussion. So. You want me to have a seat, yes?"

Before being prompted to do so, the old man had a seat in his lime green recliner. Hands in plain view, on the armrests. Just to be clear he wasn’t going for a weapon in the pockets of his bathrobe. And… silent, waiting for the pair to make their next move. Curious, even.

The boy settled into a chair opposite him, while the girl stayed hovering behind Gus, gun steady and level. A good plan, except for the obvious flaw… not that Morty would point it out. Not yet.

"You know who I am, then?" Gus Zero asked.

"Considering how many times I’ve killed you, certainly I do," Morty admitted. "And the only reason you could be here now is if you’ve learned I was in charge of the gang that controls your family store. It’s possible you’re here for revenge, but doubtful. My days of putting one in the back of your head are long behind me; that task has now fallen on my protégé. Your problem is with him, not me. The question then becomes… why are you here? I already know why you’re here, but I’d like to hear it from you."

…which gave the boy some pause. This wasn’t going according to the script inside his head. Not that it would stop him.

"I know the truth about the store," he began. "It’s a dangerous truth, one which could destroy your… protégé’s holdings. I’m prepared to exchange my silence on this matter in return for my life. He can keep looting the store every month, even keep killing me if that’s what he feels he has to do, as long as this version of me stays overlooked. You’re going to pass this message on to G, right here, right now. If I don’t have his word, if you or anyone attempt to or even succeed at killing us, the information gets leaked one hour from now. That’s the deal. Will you make the call?"

Morty picked at a loose bit of thread from the armrest of his recliner. Not to unravel it and pull a hidden gun from the stuffing or anything like that… just grooming his recliner, idly. Disinterested.

"G. One letter. He’s learned that lesson at least, back from the time when I called myself M," Morty replied, not bothering to follow up on the blackmail threat. "Compartmentalize, I said. Who you are on the job is not who you are off the job, not even your name should carry over. It’s the only way to lead anything resembling a normal life. And oh, he DID want a normal life, despite me not giving him that option, not really. He became the G you know gradually, step by step… and throwing away his name was the first step—"

"Are you going to make the call or not?" Gus pressed. "One hour, old man. One hour and the fuzz will be swarming all over that grocery store. G will be out of a job."

"It didn’t take long before he was ready to take over the monthly job of killing you," Morty continued. "Felt it would be more appropriate for him to do it, if it had to be done. And it had to be done. We can’t fill the world with you, kid. It’s cruel to the world and cruel to you as a unique individual. G saw things my way, in the long run. The futility of this echoed existence, the need to survive when the City’s madness kept laughing at you—"

"Look, we don’t have time for—"

"Yes, we do have time," Morty insisted, finally addressing him directly. "Because you miscalculated. Blackmail? Really? Do you think our hold has stood unmolested for thirty years just because I wrapped that building in fake red-black tape? Of course not. I made sure it was conveniently overlooked. Bribes. Arrangements. Falsified records. A network of misinformation and willing ignorance. G’s taken it even further than I ever did, knocking that store completely off the map. Doesn’t matter who you tell; nothing will come of it. You can’t blackmail someone who doesn’t exist over a thing which never existed and never will exist."

To his credit, Gus held his ground. Even as the scheme seemed to fall apart around his ears, he tried to poke holes in the story.

"Come on, nobody’s got THAT much power and sway," he reasoned. "G doesn’t run the entire city, he just loots a grocery store every month. It’s not exactly a grand master plan, either! Surely someone will listen when we tell them what’s going on. The cops, for instance…"

"You want to take your luck with the Department of Safety?" Morty asked, bemused. "Dougal’s out of the picture but don’t think for a minute that the stinking corruption he gladly let fester in his ranks is completely gone. Your woman there seems to know the score. I can read it in her face—"

"We gotta go," Marcy interrupted. The gun no longer quite so steady and level. "This isn’t working. We gotta double back and think of something else…"

"He doesn’t have to cover all the bases, anyway. Just the ones he knows you’ll run to," Morty spoke, not concerned with the gun pointed at his head. "Tell me, Mister ‘Zero’. Do you know how G can predict every move you’re making? Do you know why I tell the doorman and the guards to be on the lookout for a young man with your face, and to phone G up the minute you drop in? Because this isn’t the first time you’ve tried this. Others have slipped the noose over the years, and some of them even found me. He set this trap up for you. In the end… Gustav Jørgensen knows exactly what Gustav Jørgensen is going to do."

Even if she had a bullet in the gun, Marcy’s hand was shaking too much to hit any target smaller than a barn door. But she held the gun with menace, all the same.

"Who’s that? Gus, who’s… what’s he talking about?" she asked. "What the hell is going on here—?"

"Marcy, what would you do right now?" her companion asked.

"What do you mean? Wh—"

"We can’t do anything I’d do. He’s got a lock on me. He knows I’d run for it, so we can’t do that. You’re the wildcard here; what would you do right now?" he asked. "If you were in this situation alone. What would you do?"

Which is why when G showed up with several members of the Alphas in town, he found his mentor sitting calm and composed… with tacky yellow curtains drifting slightly in the breeze from an open window.

---

Her heels had dropped seventeen stories, to the sidewalk below. Hopefully not smacking anyone in the head on the way down. No way in hell she was going to try to flee wearing THOSE things, while traversing the city in her usual style. Running in bare feet on metal and concrete was bad enough, but at least she could keep her footing this way.

The smart thing to do would’ve been to skip out into the hallway and hit the stairwell down, try to dodge around the hit squad coming up. Instead, they did the Marcy thing… which was to climb out onto the fire escape, start heading upwards and make for the rooftops. She didn’t have her kit of climbing tools or smoke grenades or other evasion and escape tricks, but she had an innate sense of the city. She even knew a little bit about the Zag, after a few trips to her sister’s old club, so they weren’t on completely unfamiliar territory.

This meant some very risky jumps, as Marcy by rule of thumb put two buildings between herself and the cops—or in this case, gangsters—whenever making a break for it. Never head down to street level until you’ve wormed your way over and around and through two buildings, to act as a smokescreen. Gus ran alongside her, never questioning her insane parkour-esque exit strategy. Never saying a word. Just… thinking to himself, while following her instincts.

After crossing rooftops, heading down emergency stairwells, running down three hallways and two poorly lit staircases, climbing out a window and descending a fire escape did they finally stop and breathe. And wince. Because Marcy’s bare feet were NOT thrilled… and she was trying to hide the red from a nasty cut she’d taken somewhere along the way.

Didn’t work. Gus spotted it.

"We can’t run like this," he realized. "And we sure as hell can’t run forever. It’s like I said before… he’s gonna hunt me down, no matter what. He can’t allow another of me…"

"It’s just a scratch. Whatever. And I can run with the best of them," Marcy tried to plead. "I know people, good people. I’ve hidden myself away and worked underground-resistance style before. I can run however long I gotta—"

"No. This has to end," Gus decided, peering out of the mouth of the alley they’d dropped down into. "This is a high-end neighborhood. He won’t just shoot you down in public. We’re not far from the main drag and there’s a taxi across the way. Run for it. Hide out a few days. I’m staying here."

"He’s gonna catch up—"

"Good. I want him to. I want to have words with Mr. Jørgensen."

"Do you actually know this guy?" Marcy asked. "Why’s his name so important…?"

Maybe it was just the late hour and the terrible street lighting… but an extra shadow fell across Gus’s face, as he glared at nothing in particular.

"Because it’s my name," he answered. "Gustav Jørgensen. …I prefer Gus Zero. GØ. Circle with a slash, an awesome little number. It sounds way cooler, less square. …I had my suspicions when we found the tape players, but didn’t want to believe he was who he was. It’s crazy, it’s utterly bonkers that I’d ever become that monster, but… whatever. It’s done. And I’m gonna end it. …he’s caught up to us. Good. Stay here where he can’t see you, and scramble outta here if this goes south."

Before she could say another word, Gus Zero stepped out of the alley, and into the harsh lights of the Zag.

---

All told, it was the best possible place for a showdown. Even at this late hour, there were enough people traversing the main drag of the central city to act as eyewitnesses to any murders that would go down. If Gustav valued his secrecy so much, he wouldn’t open fire in the middle of even the spottiest of crowds—it’d cast an uncomfortable light on his monthly activities, even assuming he could get away with it. This wasn’t District 19, where he had complete control over the circumstances… it was the middle of civilization. Civilization frowned on brutal gangland punishments.

Gus Zero strode right onto the sidewalk, in front of the all-night laundromat they were hiding behind. Right onto the sidewalk, in front of G and three of his lettermen. Plain view of God and everyone. Unafraid and standing.

Despite the very public circumstances, the Alphas were ready to draw and fire; hands into coats and pockets. Only a raised hand from the fifty-four year old G-né-Gustav stopped them.

"Surrender?" he asked, in a voice that had been stepped on and chewed up for three decades compared to Gus’s youthful tones. "That’s unusual. I thought you enjoyed living."

"Aren’t you the one who says life is cheap and meaningless?" Gus asked. "What does it matter if you take me tonight? You’ve got me. Go for it. Right here, right now. Because I’m not moving from this spot. I’m not going to go anywhere convenient for you. I’m not even going to turn around; you have to look me in the eyes when you do it."

His arms wide, waiting for the bullet. Waiting for the older version of himself to make up his mind.

Gustav wasn’t ready to finish this, though. Not this way. Just like before, confronting Gus Zero in the ruins of District 19, he wanted to convince himself it was the right way to go.

"Think about this for a minute," Gustav pleaded. "A few hours ago you had no concern larger than where you’d hang out that night with your buddies. You had a good life… but it’s gone. You have to accept that it’s gone. Since then, you’ve been dumped headfirst into Blade Runner. You’re running for your life, for what little life you have considering you’re just a copy of a copy of a copy. A replicant, if you will. What’s the point of fighting for it? Let’s just… go somewhere quiet. And you won’t have to endure this any l—"

"You think if I endure this City as long as you have, I’ll end up like you. I’m right, aren’t I?" Gus wondered. "You’re saving me from becoming what you are. You know me? I know you. And I know I’d HATE to become the single-purpose drone you’ve become. All you know how to do is keep this criminal empire you got dunked into rolling, keep on surviving. Enduring. So you’re doing me a solid by keeping me from becoming what I hate."

A hand at the edge of his coat. Considering the draw, considering making a spectacle just to shut down the young Gus’s train of thought. It was rolling on rails of uncomfortable truth, far too uncomfortable for his liking…

"The freakiest part? I don’t honestly blame you for what you’ve become," young Gus spoke. "You’ve kept on going around the bend, yeah, but someone made you like that in the first place. Morty. The old fartknocker up in that building. He was the first person you met, when they looted the store. He pulled you in. And he kept killing your copies, until you were so freaked out that you decided you had to do it yourself. Had to save them from all this…"

"He taught me how to survive," Gustav said, quietly.

"In contrast, the first person I met was Marcy. She’s not interested in just surviving. She wants to live. To express herself and run wild and free, just like I do. Like you used to. You think what you are is inevitable? Totally wrong. She put me on a different path. And do you know what I’d do if I had what you had…?"

Looming figures, over the hunched shoulders of the old man. The gang, ready to end this if their boss wouldn’t…

"I’d take the food inside my store, my family’s store, and I’d give it to those who needed it," Gus Zero proposed. "Screw this gangster crap, I’d become a hero. Gus Zero, Robin Hood, Master of the Hippies. Mom would be proud. I’d become what you could have been if you didn’t tie your wagon to Morty’s doom and gloom. So go ahead and waste me if you value your scumbag empire so highly. Waste what could possibly be because of what you think must be. You’re wrong, old man, and you’ve been wrong all along. Now make your goddamn move."

Guns drawn. Even the old man, drawing a pair of semiautomatics, ready to do what needed to be done.

Gus forced himself to watch. He wouldn’t take one behind the head, unseen, going peacefully. If he was going to die he’d die with his eyes open to this world.

This gave him a terrific view of Gustav Jørgensen putting round after round into his own henchmen. And his henchmen, putting round after round into him, once they realized what was going on.

Less than three seconds later, and none of the four bodies bleeding out on the sidewalk in front of a twenty-four hour laundromat belonged to Gus Zero. He didn’t have a scratch on him.

Sirens were already approaching by the time Marcy emerged from the alley, to see Gus crouching down by the fallen form of his elder self. She caught the last words the old man ever spoke, as well.

"She’ll need you," Gustav sputtered, fading fast. "Elizabeth. Ellie. Our daughter. She’ll…"

And then there was only one.

---

Yellow crime scene tape. Flashing lights. Chatter from C.B. radios. It was all very TV cop show drama. And he knew how to play an extra on a cop show drama—recount the facts, keep it simple, leave no quirks to define you as a person of interest. Conservation of characters meant that if you were memorable, odds are the buddy cops would eventually track you down and figure out you were part of the crime all along.

"We were out on a date," Gus explained, because it was the simplest and most believable explanation. "I think they wanted to mug us. My girl hid in the alley when we saw them approaching us. The old man kept asking me to hand over my wallet. Then for some reason they all shot each other. It was the strangest thing."

He repeated this story to another officer. Marcy repeated this story independently to another officer. And finally, a third officer showed up.

This was clearly an officer of officers. A government spook, maybe; a dark suit, formal and grim. A glare that could cut diamonds. And a badge identifying herself as Miranda Walker, head of the Department of Safety. Presumably that meant she was the cop of all cops.

"’The strangest thing,’" she repeated, not believing a word of it.

"The strangest thing," he agreed. "I can’t say I understand what happened, ma’am. But that’s how it happened."

"And you say you’ve never met this man before in your life?"

"That’s right, ma’am."

"Just out on a date. Then mugged. Then your mugger killed his own cohorts for no reason."

"Very strange, ma’am. I agree."

"Ever been to District 19?"

Caught himself before he could give any reaction one way or another. Not that it didn’t stop Ms. Walker from studying his face like a poker champion.

"Interesting girlfriend you’ve got there," Walker said, glancing aside at Marcy, who by this point was some distance away sitting in the back of an ambulance, getting her foot bandaged up by paramedics. "Nice dress. Wonder where her shoes went. Bet she’d prefer running shoes. Maybe a hoodie. Gets cold out here at night."

"I’ll have to suggest that, ma’am. If there’s nothing else…?"

In the end, Gus and Marcy walked away scot-free. Gustav was outed as a gang leader, killed in an apparent internal power struggle within his organization. The newspapers didn’t mention any bystanders.

Despite that, Gus had a feeling that somewhere deep within the bowels of the Department of Safety, there was a file with his self-chosen but nonetheless fictional name Gus Zero stamped all over it. He’d have to be careful, going into the future. Not that his future wasn’t going to need careful planning anyway…

---

Twinkies seemed to do the trick. The sugar high should’ve made him twitchy, but the comfort food aspect did wonders to calm him down.

"So that’s the plan," Gus Zero explained, sitting with Marcy across the aisle from the new guy. "It’ll take some time to ramp operations up, but we’re going to get some good done in this new City. Find the people most in need and get the food out to them. We’ll have to file off expiration dates, sometimes completely repackage it, make sure our deliveries are untraceable… but in the end we’re going to make things awesome and awesomer by the day. But… I’m not gonna force you, dude. It’s up to you if you want in on this."

The young man looked unsure.

"What happens if I’m not cool with it?"

"We know a guy who knows a guy," Marcy explained. "He’s going to slip you into the system with a new name. After that, if you don’t want to get involved with the plan, you don’t have to. It’s your own life to live."

"…y’know, Dad’s gonna freak if he ever finds out we’re giving away the company store."

"He’s not going to find out. Unfortunately, Mom’s not going to find out too, which sucks ’cause I think she’d have approved," Gus Zero joked. "Whaddya say, man? Let’s make this world make sense. One Twinkie at a time."

In the end, the new guy was tagged Gus One, for lack of a better callsign system. G1, for short. Next month they’d repeat the process, and hopefully score a G2. Then a G3. Spreading them out across the city, working up a network of contacts and agents, to find the best possible distribution pattern for the food. Not unlike Gustav’s old operation… but less gangster, more hippie. And far less murderous.

As Marcy and Hollister talked things over with Gus One, running him through as brief an orientation process as they could swing, Gus Zero hung back. Let the new guy feel like the only Gus in the room. It was going to get increasingly awkward, month by month, as he became less and less unique… there’d be challenges to overcome. Maybe things would get hairy in the future. For now, being able to give himself breathing room from himself was a luxury he could afford.

In fact, another luxury he could afford was a round of Q*Bert. It’d been a month since he last played the game, after all. He had the key to the coin box, so it wasn’t like it’d eat into his nonexistent salary…

A ringing phone distracted him. The jingle-jangle of the store’s payphone, rather than the digitized chimes of the smartphone that Marcy had given him.

Curious… he lifted the receiver. Didn’t say a word, not wanting to confirm that this was a working number, just curious…

"Enjoying your new clubhouse?"

Morty.

"Figured I’d catch you at this number, if I called one month after you met me. Be happy to know the rest of my old gang’s dispersed into the winds. Safe to do, when not even the rest of the gang knows your name. Compartmentalization, that’s the key," Morty explained. "I’m guessing you’re done shooting yourself in the head… for now. That means more of you around. Wonder what you’re going to call your new buddies. G2? G3?"

"What do you want, Morty?" Gus replied, finally. "If you’re wondering where the ‘clubhouse’ went, I’m not saying and you’ll never find it. It’s been shuffled, hidden away from prying eyes. It’s not your business anymore."

"Easy, easy, kid. I’m actually calling to offer my help," Morty spoke. "You’re going to need the network of bribes and fraud that kept the old place going. That colored girl, the new Safety bigwig, she’s far more cunning than Dougal ever was. Hidden away or not, you’re unleashing a swarm of Gustavs on this city, and that’s going to be hard to hide no matter how many friends you have. You really think you’re up the challenge? Things are going to get tricky as that herd grows, if you’re unwilling to cull it like you should. But I can help you. I helped you before, y’know—"

"I don’t need you. I never needed you," the youth replied. "Goodbye."

To be absolutely sure, he ripped the cord right out of the wall. No more phone calls. Besides, he had a smartphone now; the idea of dropping a quarter into a slot to make a call felt… backwards. Like what you’d do in that old city, Cleveland, not in his new city.

This was his new city, for certain. The City of Angles. His kind of town. Hot and happening, bursting with life… but in need of sorting out. Too much fear, too much need. Maybe they didn’t have a Vietnam to go through, but a struggle was struggle. He could live his life here, truly live it, and do something with himself to boot. He’d build this city. He’d build this city on rock ‘n roll, if need be.

One quarter in the slot, and Q*Bert was hopping across the cubes of his pyramid all over again. This time, he got past that tricky level with the double jumps.

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. > Gustav Jørgensen

    Wait a second

    > “She’ll need you,” Gustav sputtered, fading fast. “Elizabeth. Ellie. Our daughter. She’ll…”

    Oh damn. Finding out you’ve got a daughter who’s older than you is a pretty major shock, even for time-travelers.

  2. > Do you know how G can predict every move you’re making?

    … OH GODDAMMIT

    Okay, in hindsight maybe I should’ve seen that one. The initial. The whole problem of what happened to the first one, the one who appeared before they knew he was a repeater…

  3. Every time I read the intro to a chapter, I keep wondering if you are going to sneak in subtle changes, in addition to the obvious ones. More like the opening and closing voice-overs from the lead human in “How to Train Your Dragon”… but perhaps even subtler than that.

    I suspect you are saving that for the very final chapter, when, I suspect, the dreamer will become at peace with her dream, and if she wakes, it will only be to go get better materials for her dreams so that while they might be wondrous chaos, they will have better starting materials than disjoined and bewildered persons. The city is, at the end, a city. You might be able to shoot Cassablanca, The Matrix, Dark City, Judge Dredd, etc in it using only “found sets”, but you would still need digital wizardry to do Fantasia, The Flight of Dragons, Babylon 5, or My Little Pony. True chaos doesn’t confine itself to a certain genre. When new arrivals mount up with wings like dragon flies, when they run like AS a nuclear-powered locomotive, when they walk on clouds and spoken words and the memory of what they had for dinner a week ago Tuesday, then Bedlam will grow more powerful, and when people get to CHOOSE their dream, then Lucidity will grow along-side her…

    Of course, this probably isn’t where you are going, since you may not be master of enough genres and such (I know I don’t have the versatility to do it justice)… but it is one possibility.

    Just some insight into what is going on in the head of one of your readers.

    • Very creative, there. I won’t say how the series ends, but I will say the intro is actually a bit of an artifact; originally the series was going to be episodic, with very little continuity from story to story, in hopes it’d be easier for new readers to hop in anywhere they like. So, I wrote that intro to re-introduce the concept of the series again and again. Since then obviously it’s gone full serial and the intro isn’t needed anymore.

      One thing I do change is the ‘couch gag’, the “Down the hall you’ll find…” part near the top of the intro. That changes chapter to chapter. And the intro itself will be changing in… hmm… eight more stories from where you are now. For reasons.

  4. Very nice chapter! Just one minor nitpick:
    “By the time the smoke cleared, the Teenage Non-Mutant Ninja Not-Teenagers were already gone.”
    I think you meant Not-Turtles at the end there? :-) Although according to a comment later in the chapter they’re both twenty-somethings, so actually not teenage either… Teenage not-teenagers doesn’t really work though.

  5. I remember watching you write this. Finally got to read the whole thing- I like where you took the story. I didn’t see this coming, that’s for sure.

  6. “the back parking lot was half the side it should be”

    That’s “size”, not “side”.

  7. This was one of my favorite chapters. It’s always fun for me to see a well-written piece on various potentialities of the evolution of one character, choices he might make. Also, the idea of a replenishing store being in high demand, and what that may lead to in terms of competition for resources and power.

    Also, anyone who likes Q*Bert is okay in my book. Or should I say ANYONES?

    This one was a LOT of fun.

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Copyright 2014 by Stefan Gagne