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 pawn shop. Who exactly has deposited their hopes and dreams here for a quick cash infusion is unknown—and what they may do if you buy away escrowed dreams could be the stuff of nightmares.
There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—we’ve got streets which lead to dead ends, roads which criss-cross and loop back around, highways which go nowhere. Literally nowhere, as in "anybody going down that road is not coming back." This is not a good place to wander off unless you like wandering off forever…
Nobody knows where the city came from. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The city exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new people with it.
We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.
If we’re going to survive this, if we’re going to stay alive and thrive, we need to learn to live in the City of Angles.
…here’s an angle to consider…
There’s a thin line between an all-encompassing philosophical revelation about the nature of human existence and pure insanity. One man’s clarity is another man’s confusion, and attempts to explain what makes perfect sense to you may drive another quite batty. If reality is subjective, if life is but a dream, how can there be any one objective definition of existence? Anybody who tells you otherwise is crazy.
Unless there is in fact one simple explanation to everything, a grand unifying theory. In that case, the one who puts the pieces together will be blessed with a revelation that can in fact bring clarity and purpose to the aimless lives of thousands. Assuming, of course, they are not mistaken for a madman and thrown in a padded cell forever.
Or, in the case of Kelsey Trouble Jones, mistaken for a madwoman and thrown in a padded cell forever. Or shot on sight by Department of Safety officers with zero tolerance for cubism. Or consumed from within by the bombardment of pink laser beams from a satellite broadcasting disinhibiting stimuli. Or any number of other horrible fates that befit those who reach for the center of the City of Angles, in a desperate attempt to put sense to the senseless…
Only 94.4% of grand revelations are truly purposeful misinformation. The key is in sorting out the signal from the noise.
//011: Signal Boost
I’ve seen every film Hollywood’s ever produced about computers. I saw WOPR play chess with thermonuclear warheads. I saw Neo download Kung Fu into his brain and jump into a guy’s torso to blow him up. I saw a fourteen-year-old girl fight dinosaurs with her knowledge of UNIX. I saw people somehow put at fatal risk by strapping on head-mounted displays. I saw file transfers that were already 95% complete get cut off and somehow this saved the day. I saw all manner of terrible CG portrayed as the finest technology man will ever achieve.
I saw Zero Cool hack the Gibson.
Hacking doesn’t work like that on Earth. Not at all, no. You don’t mash your keys on the keyboard while sweating bullets with a spray of face-illuminating green hexadecimal characters lighting up your high cheekbones. Hacking is more a matter of tools, scripts, known exploits, bad system patching discipline, brute force dictionary matching, and social engineering. It’s actually fantastically boring to watch. Really boring.
And truth be told, hacking ordinary websites over the makeshift spray of networks that cover this world is very similar. In fact, it’s a lot easier to find some poor slob with a low-level security clearance who can be tricked into coughing up the root password to a website than to somehow crack security with nothing but math and cleverness. This is a city ruled by fear and with so many people working from home, putting a name to a face to a voice is impossible—the angry person on the other end of the phone line may actually fire you if you don’t hand over the digital keys right now.
Except I don’t do that. I’m after something far more dangerous than some password database. Something far more pure and beautiful than defacing a website. I’m more on the hacking-the-Gibson end of the scale, because the City of Angles actually does have a Hollywood producer’s wet dream version of hacking.
It’s called the Sideways Signals, and I live there.
Well. I live in the Plaza Arms, actually. I mean, that’s where I keep my stuff. That’s where I get my food delivered. But that’s not where I feel the most comfortable. I’m actually very uncomfortable in this apartment, despite years of living in it, despite adjusting it to my liking. Not comfy. Not in my own skin in my own apartment in my own clothes. Even less so lately.
Girl interrupted. Getting distracted. Yes. Sideways Signals. Hollywood. Wet dreams.
They’re wonders to behold, if you can see them with the right eyes. A mysterious world of digital information with a curiously analog flavor. The absolute ordered chaos normally only found in the ripple of wind through trees, or waves on a lake. Data archives filled with impossible artifacts. Channels outside the cable spectrums that show sights no cathode ray tube could contain. Websites that reflect your soul and read you as you read them…
I’m one of very few people capable of really dipping into the Sideways Signals and understanding them. I can type in IP addresses that don’t exist in numerical space, and navigate their impossible file structures. The things I find there are very valuable—I pirate movies that don’t actually exist, or news reports of events that never happened.
Last month, I found a cable broadcast consisting of looping images of birds. I saw music playing in the beating of their wings. You can sell that stuff for a heck of a lot of money. In fact I’m responsible for two of the current top twenty pop hits. Parts of them, anyway. The melodies. Very catchy. I sold one just yesterday to a nice man who’s going to use it for a rising starlet. Money money money.
The one downside of seeking this beautiful otherworld is that it’s driving me insane and I’m completely losing touch with reality.
I’m cubist. People who get infected with cubist thoughts inevitably bubble over with madness and space-warping distortion effects, going completely around the bend, never to return. I’m a little better than that—I can touch the surface of the Sideways Signals in ways nobody else can and then pull my hand back without losing any fingers. The frame of mind I need to enter to actually do that is, um, kind of dangerous. But I can do that. I’m good at it. It’s the one thing I’m really good at.
My name is Kelsey Jones, and online I’m called the Troublemaker. I think it’s meant to be ironic because I really don’t like trouble but it follows me around more often than not.
Also my middle name is Trouble. I think that’s meant to be ironic too. My father was very much into irony.
Today I am only in a little bit of trouble.
Today I am chasing down a bird, but not one that makes music. This bird has one hundred and forty characters trailing behind it and tweets a lot. I’m chasing Twitter, basically.
A lot of web services from Earth have been duplicated in the City of Angles, right down to their trademarks. Legal salvage, those trademarks. There’s actually two slightly different copycat versions of Twitter running around here, but they aren’t the ones I’m chasing today. I’m chasing what may very well be a copy of Earth’s Twitter.
I heard rumors about a complete archive of Twitter from Earth floating around on some Sideways website. It’d be a gold mine for a digital salvager like me—the data could be infinitely mined to get a better idea of what’s going on back on Earth, beyond the standard exit interviews new immigrants get. Media moguls and trend analysts and anthropologists would pay huge for it, if it exists, if I can dredge it up through the jellied morass of cubism that surrounds the Sideways Signals. Of course… it could be a possible Twitter, a dream Twitter, like the mysterious Revenge of the Jedi workprint. Even that would be valuable.
…dreams of Twitter. Possible Twitters. Like possible Jedi. Where do they come from? Who tweets the tweets that were never written? Are they lost dreams from Earth? Are they figments of the imaginations that lurk here in the City? I know the truth at the Heart of the City; my friends discovered it, told me what they found. It’s unsettling. It’s strange. It may explain everything. I’m still trying to understand the dream itself, in the same way my best friend understands it. She wants me to see with her eyes…
Twitter. Focus. Hard to focus with blurry fingers on blurry characters, typing in IP addresses to websites that don’t exist.
A mix of standard cracking tools and intuition guides my path. I reach an administrative module and somehow I know that there is no password, but that thinking of a small child named Janey will get me where I need to go. Whose dream was that? Are these the tweets of children? I don’t know. But I’m in. I can’t find the data yet, but I’m in. There has to be something here; the structure feels like Twitter, like the hollowed-out husk of Twitter’s corpse. This has to be it. It…
No. It’s empty. Just a shell. Firewalls and security systems and a complete web server and the Twitter API, but no tweets. Like walking into a vast warehouse that should contain row after row after row of crates, but instead contain nothing but empty shelves.
Do I need to look at them from a different angle? The crates may be there, I may be able to listen to the tweets if I have better ears. I approach from another port, I set up a new firewall rule on their end, connecting my computer to theirs. I hack the Gibson. I melt the screen until the plastic and the liquid crystal are part of my skin. I don’t actually do that, it just feels like it, maybe. Maybe I am actually doing that. Some days it’s hard to tell. Did I do it? Am I doing it? Is this now or before?
Nothing. Still nothing. This is an eggshell with no baby chick inside, its potential tweets silenced. The rumors were wrong.
Fine. Dead end. We can still afford the rent. Time to back out.
Time to leave.
I won’t keep exploring in here, going deeper and deeper, like zooming into a fractal. There’s nothing here worth looting and I came here to loot things, so I’ll be leaving. I have to leave. I can’t lose myself, can’t become one with the liquid crystal forever. It’s so perfect and so right and even in the void of blank hard drive sectors (where is the drive, does it even exist) I can see a perfect beauty. On a clear disk you can seek forever—
Pizza. Cheese. Sauce. Hungry.
Pulling away, spiraling back out. Away from what could have been Twitter, if only it hadn’t been stillborn. Floating back towards the sharp smell of artificial cheese…
Back to my apartment at the Plaza Arms. Back to my own skin.
"Did you find it?" he’s asking, pulling the scratch-and-sniff sticker away from my nose.
"It never woke up…" I mumbled, the faint odor of the sticker still in my pores. "It… no. There’s nothing there I can sell."
And he hugs me. I’m hugged. I’m loved. And that, more than the scented safeword of my pizza sticker, is the reason I keep coming back instead of sinking into the Sideways forever.
Two years ago Danger followed me home. That’s Dave Danger Smith (Danger is his middle name) and he’s one of the few people I’m not afraid of in this city. Not actually very dangerous. Very kind and understanding and patient. Very patient considering this awful person he’s living with now. The awful person is me. We’re saving rent this way. It made sense. I feel less alone now. Also he’s my boyfriend. I love him and he loves me.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to ever want a boyfriend. I never thought I’d be okay with being that close to someone in an emotional and physical sense. It came as a surprise to find I actually felt comfortable in my skin while I’m sitting with him and cuddling and stuff—I never thought I’d enjoy something like that based on past experiences.
For instance my last suitor was a guy who claimed he loved me but really just wanted to blackmail me into becoming his gangsta trophy girlfriend. He terrified me to the point where I nearly lost myself. I’m pretty sure that guy would’ve demanded sex all the time and I would really not have been comfortable with that.
I’m not very comfortable talking about these things at all, so I’m not good at talking about them. Sorry. The point I’m making—a very roundabout point—is that I’m trouble and he’s danger and through him I met Penny, who was dangerous trouble personified and was now asking for my help.
I put out a bag of cookies, because that’s what you do as a gracious hostess when someone’s visiting your apartment to ask you to get into some seriously dangerous trouble. She really likes cookies, so that’s good.
"I wanted to look into it myself, believe me," Penny insisted. "But… I think Dad’s right. I need to cool it a bit. I mean, just last month I did a favor for Marcy out in District 19, and I think I got spotted by the D-o-S. Not good. Plus with that article about Oblivion’s Advocate still out there I’ve got soooo many people flooding my inbox and looking at my blog and reading all my rants with a fine-toothed comb. —wait, no, you can’t read with a comb. But they’re reading and reading lots and that’s not good if I wanna keep a low profile…"
Two years ago I helped Penny and her dad defeat my best friend’s plans to sink the entire city into madness and hysteria. I don’t actually remember very much about it because at the time I was screaming and trying to hold my shape together. A very nice old lady helped keep me sane as the world went insane.
"…and it’s really becoming a problem. A lot of kids are in danger and the Department of Safety’s not even speaking up against it, like they can’t be bothered. So my editor said I should write a column about it, that it looked like it was right up my alley. In my wheelhouse. My neighborhood. —sorry, I’m practicing my metaphors, because I’m trying to be this really meaningful writer who people will listen to when the time comes…"
My best friend is not happy with Penny. Not happy with me talking to Penny. Or talking to Dave, for that matter. But she understands I need friends who aren’t personifications of chaos, and tolerates me dating one of them. (Dating Dave. Not dating Penny.) My best friend knows how things are and is actually a lot more kind and caring than people give her credit for. Bedlam just wants what’s best for everyone. I’m not sure I agree with what she thinks is best for everyone, which is why I agreed to help them stop her, but I understand why she feels that way.
"…and do something about it. Whaddya think? Can we do something about it?"
Wasn’t paying attention. So many things to think about.
"About the what are we doing the thing about?" I think I replied.
"The Mood Channels," Penelope repeated. (Very patient. Very understanding. Like the nice man sitting next to me on my couch, his hand on my shoulder, his mind on my worries.) "Specifically the one broadcasting on channel 879z."
I knew about them. I’d watched them. I’d recorded their broadcasts, studying the mechanics. Channel 8001 filled you with the taste of bread. Channel AA9 made you think it was raining outside and instilled a peaceful sense of melancholy…
Channel 879z. That was a new one.
"That’s a new one," I repeated from my brain.
"It popped up about a year ago," Penny explained. She might’ve explained it before. I can’t recall. "Doesn’t always work, but when it does… it gets you high. Like, super high. And sometimes you, um, this is kinda gross but sometimes you orgasm. And it’s really, really popular with kids my age because it’s like being on drugs and having sex without actually being on drugs or having sex. You can hide it from your parents and pass any drug test."
"But it’s addictive," I spoke, memories from two minutes ago finally coming back.
"Right. I mean, rumor has it that it’s addictive. People zoning out in front of their TVs, getting high for hours or days at a time by watching the white noise—"
"Not white noise."
"It’s never white noise," I explained. "White noise is patternless chaos. There’s always something behind it, in the Sideways Signals. It only looks like noise but really it’s something completely different and that’s what digs into you and won’t let go, tapping into you and pouring something in, and— and that’s not white noise. Um. Channel 879z. …you want me to shut it down?"
"It’d be best for everyone if that channel goes offline," Penelope agreed. "It’s hurting too many people, and the Department of Safety’s not doing anything to stop it. For all I know, they could be responsible for it. I mean Seth’s gone, Dad… saw to that, but can we really trust them?"
"No signal from them. Nothing at all," I considered. "Very quiet, the Department of Safety. Used to be a beacon blasting fear into the night, all day all night. Now it’s silent. They’re looking inward. Or looking outward when nobody else is looking. Or both. —Channel 879z. I’ll need time. I need to study it. I’ve studied other Mood Channels, but… not to disable them. If I can disable them. I don’t know if I can do that…"
"Anything you can try would help. Thanks, Kelsey. I can’t get too involved, I’m trying to lead an ordinary teenage life over here," Penelope protested. "I can’t really pay you, I blew this month’s allowance already, but…."
"We can still afford the rent," I said, because I was thinking it earlier and it was a good statement to make. "Don’t worry. I owe you. You told me about the Heart of the City. About the dreamer, and the dream. I owe you…"
All of it, everything, in the mind of Patient 23. The icon sitting at the bottom of the well, representing the source. I was brought into this City along with my family at an early age, a baby which grew up inside her mind. I’m an echo that exists inside her dreamworld. Penelope Yates told me that and it’s opened my eyes to so many things, so many new ideas. It cross-connects everything. The verge. On the verge of understanding—
Danger talking to Penny. When did they end up on the other side of the apartment? Sometimes I move instantaneously, when I’m not paying attention to things like space and physics. But I was still sitting on the couch, cookie in hand. They were talking near the door.
I lost a few seconds. Maybe a minute. Dave had the sheet of scratch-and-sniff pizza stickers, to wake me if I didn’t come out of it on my own.
He’s scared. He’s telling Penny how scared he is. But he’s not scared for himself; he’s scared for me. He’s never scared for himself, not Dave—driven so deep into himself with anxiety that he can’t be scared anymore. But now he loves me and I love him and that brings a new kind of fear, one that can reach him by tangent.
"I’m okay," I speak up, to interrupt them. "I’m okay."
I don’t think they believed me. That’s fine; I don’t think I believed it, either.
Dave tries not to get in the way of my passions, no matter how much he worries. In return, I try not to worry him too much. He claims he can’t really worry about anything anymore, that’s he’s incapable of anxiety, but I know better. He’s whispered his secrets in the dark to me.
Things are especially worrisome for Dave Smith because we’re coming up on the anniversary of his mother’s death.
From his whispers, I know her to have been a lively and wonderful woman, always encouraging, always smiling. And at the height of young Dave’s worst year, with the family being kicked out of their home and his father losing his job and his grades sinking and all his friends turning their backs on him and the bullies being especially fierce, the cancer came down and Mom went down with it. It was the breakpoint of his life, and it’s a miracle he recovered at all, even if he never really recovered. The echoes of that event hit him every year, making him wordlessly sullen on the day everything went down.
I just agreed to a salvaging job which will push even more worry onto Dave Smith, right as he’s headed into his nadir. I’m a horrible person.
Love should be more than balancing worries, though. Love should be uplifting. And so I counterbalance, by putting off the deep dive into the Sideways Signals for a day, so I can arrange a special night for Dave.
Typically our special nights involve staying in, watching movies, having takeout. Which… well, that’s actually a lot like our non-special nights, just with a bit more planning to them. To mix things up I decided to take him out to a concert. Of course neither of us have a pile of money, but the audio engineer I sold that birdwing-melody to comped me free tickets to some pop concert, so why not?
(Of course, we also know a club owner who would give us free tickets whenever we want. But this felt more like my thing, like my gift to Dave, because I earned these tickets through hard work. It meant more. Sacrifice of resources, proof of skill, symbols of devotion. Being the breadwinner of the household means I gotta provide for my man. His job sure doesn’t pay much, after all. Which has been a worry of his, lately…)
So, that was the evening—dressing up nicer than the usual pajamas and casuals we wear around the apartment. Not that I knew how to dress up nice, but I did have one ensemble Vivi made for me ages ago, and I could pull it out of mothballs whenever I had to be respectable.
Next, riding the subway in relatively nice clothes. In relative silence.
There was smalltalk, of course.
"I’m enjoying that book you loaned me. I never read it in school. Never saw the movie, either," I smalltalked.
"Gatsby? Yeah, it’s pretty good. The movie was just okay," Dave smalltalked in return.
"We should get more books. I feel like our bookshelves aren’t shelving enough books. Having a lot of books is a good way to make a home feel more homey, right?"
But he was onto a different thought.
"Polk’s got a new assignment," Dave noted. "He left the FARTs some time ago, but likes to stay in touch with old friends. Got promoted a few more ranks to some upper echelon department in Resources. He’s having a potluck party next week. I’m thinking I’ll take some out of the coffee can to pay for a cake, okay?"
"Sure. Fine. Not a problem. …better job? Makes sense. He seemed ambitious. Ladder-climber."
"He keeps telling me I need to get to know more people in Orientation; that I’m not going to move up like he did if I don’t shake the right butts and kiss the right hands," Dave spoke. "I kept trying to explain I was happy where I was and didn’t really want to move up. I mean, it’s not a great job being a FART, but I’m good at it…"
"You like to help people. It’s in your nature. Nothing wrong with that."
"Right, Right. Still. More money would be nice…"
"We’re doing okay," I insisted, because it was almost true. "We’ve got everything we need. Things are great. Things are great, right? Okay, at least…?"
"Yeah. Things are okay," he almost agreed.
But not okay enough.
Money wasn’t something he liked to talk about. It’s not because of manly pride giving him a driving need to be my sole provider or anything like that; Dave didn’t spin things that way. But… he wanted more for us. More than a crummy apartment in District 23. More than only being able to go out for a night on the town with comped tickets and spent favors. More nice clothes for his girl than a single blouse-and-skirt combo worn every time we walked out the door.
But beyond envy of the finer things in life, or naked avarice… I think I knew why he was so keen on ramping up our life’s momentum. After all, there was a logical leap to make. The next step. Two years in the making…
I wanted to tell him yes. I wanted to tell him yes, absolutely, and the money doesn’t matter. I don’t need a shiny rock and a white picket fence and a dog and a two-car garage. I don’t need anything more than I already have. It’s already more than my parents ever had. More than I ever thought I’d have. More than I ever deserved.
Instead, I sat quietly as the subway rolled on. I sat quietly as we watched the rising young starlet named El go through her new song list (including the melody I’d sold her producer just last week). And I sat quietly on the way back home. Lying quietly in bed, while Dave slept.
If I could’ve taken the initiative, I would’ve done it by now. Fear. Terror. Doubt. Keep things as they are, keep them from possibly falling apart.
Maybe he hasn’t asked yet because he doesn’t want what I already have. Maybe I’m not enough for him. If I push he may leave. Dave is a nice guy, that doesn’t feel like something he’d do—but I was never very good at understanding people before, why would things be any different now? No. Can’t risk it. He has a plan and a dream and he wants to see them through; don’t rush him or he may go away and then I’d be alone again, alone like I always thought I’d always be. Stay quiet. Stay put. The water is dark but it swirls so comfortably…
Dark water. Deep end of the ocean. The ocean has no ends, an endless rolling deep dark green, but I’m in the deep end.
Ever since the night I dialed Bedlam’s telephone number, my head has been under the water. The swirling chaos of the ocean’s rocking waves are my guide; I’m pushed and pulled by the eddies. Her madness guides me towards an enlightenment I’ve always craved and feared.
She swims with me, always swims with me. My guide through the infinite dark of her waters. She loves me so, because I’m willing to brave her love. Others scream and turn away, misbegotten child, madgirl, terrible little thing. I look Bedlam square in her green eyes and I see the compassion she has for all of us.
Why suffer? Go beyond suffering. Why worry? Let go of worry. Why struggle? Embrace madness. Why be afraid? You can be a thing others fear. Becoming horror is a simple and perfect solution to living in a world of horrors. Because what is horror, anyway, but a thing you shy away from because you don’t understand? I understand. I understand and I’m understanding more every day, with her guidance. I see her face in the Sideways, in my dreams, in the dreams of the dreamer, there’s connections here I want to make, if only I could—
"You’ll tear her apart. You’re going to hurt her."
She’s my friend // mine // my friend // not yours. Leave us // alone.
My left hand, pulled down into the deep by Bedlam. But now, someone grasping my right hand. Pulling up, towards the unseeable surface… the interface between the air and water. I don’t want to surface. I want to know what’s on the bottom…
"If you love her, you’ll let her find her own way. She can be so much more than this."
MY friend // MY MY MY // not yours! // go play with yours // killed mine // killed my friend Seth // leave my herald alone!
"But we have to work together. There’s so much we could accomplish if you accepted me! I’m willing to accept you, can’t you meet me halfway?"
// Hah // acceptance. // like you could accept me // if you could // if it was possible // capable // so long ago // never split in the first place.
…who is this other voice? It’s unfamiliar. I’ve never dreamt the other voice. Even if it sounds just like my friend. Just like my friend in the waking world, Penelope…
"I was wrong to shun you. I know that now. Please, we need to be together. You know what’s coming—"
Together // together forever // of course not. // not me. //
you’d never accept me. // and // and // you’d never accept
// HER— //
No water. No air. Nothing. Just the crushing blue-white of absolute void.
I couldn’t swim here, and I couldn’t breathe. I was beyond both my friend and her enemy.
This, this was fear—I didn’t fear Bedlam, but this terrified me. How do you exist in a place where nothing can exist? Where nothing should exist? No chaos, no order. Not even the order of zero. Just… nothing.
Nothing, and a song. A familiar song, because I’d heard it a little over eight hours ago, and eight days before that in the wingbeats of a video’s pulse. That lovely melody had been flipped upside down, the waveform transformed into an elegy. The death knell for all, sounding out from the heart of the void…
Five words made it through the haze of the song: even echoes must fade away.
Dave was late for work that morning, because I wouldn’t let go of him. I held him so tightly that it probably left bruises. I held him and wept and on waking, I couldn’t even remember why.
Danger works out in the wild yonder of District 23. Trouble stays home and gets tangled up in webs. They only intersect in the evenings.
There had to be trust. I’ve been having trouble lately, but there had to be trust that I didn’t need constant supervision to keep from killing myself. I got by for years all alone, I could get by for years all alone still. (I didn’t want to be all alone.) Anyway, the pizza sticker was a weapon of last resort; as long as I saved the deepest of dives for nocturnal hours, I wouldn’t need him around. So while Dave was busy trying to catch new arrivals as they plummeted into the city before they hit pavement, I was figuring out how to safely watch a narcotic television channel.
My video wall was ready to go. I’d been gradually assembling a monstrous pile of televisions over the years… big ones, small ones, flatscreens, CRT tubes, a little bit of everything. VHS and Betamax. Video CD recorders. DVD burners. DVRs. I could watch and capture signals up and down the spectrum of quality—sometimes signals didn’t resonate properly in HD, and you had to step it down a notch. Old technology has personality to it, quirks much like humans have. I understand technology better than I understand humans, which helps in cases like these.
The only way to safely view a mood channel is through incredibly indirect means. You need the purest possible capture of the signal, but that capture can’t be looked at head-on—the light at the end of the tunnel often being the headlight of an oncoming monster full of teeth and tongues waiting to eat your brain. So after I tuned my incredibly hacked and very illegal cable box to channel 879z, I fired up every single recording device I had and started dumping the data. But I didn’t watch. No sir.
Phone. Someone calling me. A fellow hacker, probably; I’d sent out some feelers, to see if anybody else who explored the Sideways Signals knew anything about 879z. Normally I’d play this close to the vest, since digital salvage was only valuable if you held exclusive access to it, but 879z was a different case entirely. I wasn’t chasing value. I was solving a problem.
Slide the virtual switch open, unlocking the phone. I wasn’t riding the copper wires that carried terrible legacy analog voice; this was a face-to-face digital video call. Technology marches on.
"Troublemaker here," I greeted. Because I purposefully did not tell him my real name at any time.
"Banner here," he returned. Which was not his real name; his handle was Banner Sherbet, because of some long forgotten running joke.
The unflattering angle provided by a phone’s front-facing camera didn’t help him. He wasn’t a particularly attractive man—tubby and greasy, rarely shaven. Still, Banner had one of the most tangled and devious brains I’d ever encountered. You’d be underestimating him to write him off as some neckbearded loser. Truthfully, he was a close rival of mine, an up-and-comer who’d beaten me to a few major finds in recent years. I was more productive since this was my day job and he was a hobbyist, but I could respect his skills and he certainly respected mine. Maybe hated them. I don’t know. I’m bad at reading people, like I said.
"You saw my post?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.
"I know the Zed," he replied, calling the channel by obligatory shorthand. "Never watched it myself, but I’ve been selling highlight reels of it on the side. Gets right to the action, filtered for which experience you want. Turns a few pennies. What do you need to know about it?"
"That’s a good start. I was wondering how many layers I needed to put between myself and the image to watch safely. Safety first. Very much. When you say tapes, do you mean—?"
"VHS. Archival quality, though. Just as good as watching live, weirdly. Digital recordings lose something along the way, the signal’s not nearly as strong. Doesn’t make much sense, but…"
But. But but but. But very little made sense about the Sideways, be they Signals or otherwise. Even to me, to the one who had secret insider knowledge about the Heart of the City and a BFF status with Bedlam, they made little sense. Not yet. Not yet…
"So what’s the safest way to study the signal?" I asked.
"Trying to figure out what makes it tick? Good luck. Nobody knows. It’s physically impossible for a channel to get you high, and yet here we are, aren’t we?" he said, with a grin. "Well. If I had to hazard a guess… I think short analog sequences would be safe and still have enough effect to analyze. Maybe watch sequences out of order, to be sure. Not that you’ll see much, it’s all white noise… but we both know you’ve got a keen eye for noise, right?"
He’s always wondered how I can see things nobody else can see in chaos. I’ve never told him the truth. Partly because I don’t entirely understand it myself… partly because if anybody outside those I implicitly trust knew I had the corruption of cubism, I could end up roasted by a Department of Safety flamethrower.
"Single frames. Desequencing. Okay. Okay. I think I can take it from here," I replied. "Thanks. Appreciated."
"Hey, I want in on whatever it is you’re digging up. Fair’s fair. If you’re salvaging something big out of Channel Z, replicating the effect or something…"
"I’m trying to turn it off. Gotta get back to work. Bye," I mumbled, before closing the call.
That was the smart thing to say, right? Point out that there’s no money to be made, so he’ll leave me alone. He cares about money. He doesn’t care about the beauty in the chaos, not like I do. The money’s a side effect, an upside, but not the reason why I do it. So if there’s no money to be made he won’t be bugging me while I’m trying to work. That seemed to make sense.
Three hours of data dumping would be enough. After that I’d grab a representative sample of short recordings, and run them through some image processing software. Not that it’d find any patterns. I’d find those. But, couldn’t hurt to try hammering at them the usual way before resorting to something that I might get lost inside. Danger was away, and Trouble should stay safe. Don’t worry Danger.
The Great Gatsby called to me. Very short book. I’d read it three times, trying to understand why everybody did the things they did. Soon I’d give up and ask Dave what was going on. Because I couldn’t figure why Gatsby’s dreams didn’t come true. He seemed to have everything worked out, right? He understood people. And yet, it didn’t work. Strange.
879z streamed to tape while I turned pages. Somewhere out there in the City, people were getting high off someone else’s dreams. Maybe someone else’s nightmares. Good that I was planning to shut the channel down, really. Didn’t feel right to me. Nightmares should only be shared with those you love.
Sun going down soon. Danger on his way home. Trouble pondering getting into some.
My software picked out a couple key clips, ones which might have enough pattern in them to be recognizable. I could watch them. The channel wasn’t fatal, just detrimental, right? A small and unsequenced sample would be safe to screen. I didn’t need Dave around to catch me all the time; I was a strong and independent woman who worked well alone. (I didn’t want to be all alone.) I’d analyze a few samples and if nothing came of them, I could dive the deeper ones later tonight when the pizza was in range.
The key was self-recognition. I had to notice when I was losing myself, and pull back fast. Recently I bought a USB fingertip oximeter, which alerted me when my pulse was going screwy. A good enough alarm for solo work. I could do this. I would do this.
Spool up the sampled recordings on my VHS. Software controlled the motors to cue up a likely section. Monitor on. And play.
Immediate beeping brought me back down. I’d tied a macro script in to stop the tape as well, just in case.
Trouble had never done drugs before. Not my style. Real life was scary enough already without going on some Wonderland voyage into the unknown. I couldn’t even conceive of why anybody would want to do drugs; escapism only worked if you were escaping to something better, and what lies on the other side is not actually better. Even that brief flash of narcotic high was enough to convince me to continue staying off the dopes, or the hooty stank, or whatever they called it.
Besides, I didn’t see anything in the video worth note. So. Next sample. Motors whirling to fast forward, then stopping and restarting precisely—
Yes, this would be the "sex" part of the trifecta of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.
I’ve never been comfortable with sex as a concept. No obvious childhood trauma or anything, it’s just always felt so… alien. Unsettling. Like that artist who draws spaceship doors that look like giant shiny black vulvae, it terrifies more than allures. It’s all fleshy bits and slime and confusion. I know that’s an abnormal view—the one time I got the courage to talk to Vivi Wei about my issues she seemed to indicate that when done properly I was supposed to experience spiritual harmony, but even armed with her philosophy I couldn’t get past my perceptions.
I’ve only engaged in strange copulations with my boyfriend a handful of times. An awkward experience for us both. Thankfully he’s content to cuddle and I love to cuddle so very much and I could spend a whole night cuddling and be content and warm and happy so things work out anyway, but…
But this… Channel 879z was that "sex" thing without any of the fleshy bits and slime and confusion. Like drugs without doing drugs, arousal without any actual physical stimulation.
I should’ve expected that. Maybe I did expect that. I hit the Play button, after all. It was a conscious choice. I even did it when nobody was looking, in case it was horribly embarrassing. Which it was. I’m very sure I was moaning. Horribly embarrassing.
My vision remained sharp, despite the sudden onslaught from literal nowhere. And there was a pattern, I could feel it, a pattern emerging from the spray of white snow across the screen…
The oximeter would trip the Stop button any second now. Yes. Very advisable to let the thing turn itself off. Of course… that would kill the pattern, the thing I was starting to see in the chaos. The only clue I’d dug up so far. Yes. Very advisable to take off the oximeter and ride it out, so I could help Penelope and shut down Channel 879z. That was exactly the reason why I was going to take the oximeter off. I took the oximeter off.
This prolonged investigation yielded two results.
One, I found the pattern. I could feel a shape, bobbing horizontally across the screen. Circular. Words, printed in two arcs. Lines. Having identified the exact time index where I felt the shape, I was able to clean up the image using post-processing software, and much to my astonishment I found the image of a clock in the white noise. A novelty wall clock, on which was printed "What Time Is It?" and "Shots O’Clock!" with a crude drawing of a neat whiskey in the middle.
Two, when Danger got back home, Trouble was waiting for him. Despite the fleshy bits and slime and confusion.
No wonder Banner was making a mint selling highlights. No wonder Penelope wanted the channel destroyed. There was power there… but it was stolen power, lifted from someone else’s life. Their likely very miserable life. Riding all that sensation with few of the consequences was dangerous. Intense. Frightening. And very, very attractive.
Mundane hacking. Social engineering. How boring.
With the discovery of that novelty clock, I didn’t need to study the fascinatingly terrible Sideways Signal of Channel 879z any longer. This was the clue I needed to track down the source of the Mood Channel—and that tracking process would unfortunately be completely ordinary hacker legwork. Safe and sound and disappointing.
One bright spot? My hypothesis was proven true. I always felt that Mood Channels were stolen dreams, which tied them down to an individual. The brain hooked up to Channel Z belonged to someone engaging in lots of sex and drugs and owning of novelty clocks found on the Internet. Find that person, find the source, and maybe find a way to shut down 879z for good.
But even if I could find the source, I had no honest idea how to shut down the channel. I mean, I guessed murder would work. That’d turn the channel off. I don’t think that’s what Penelope had in mind and I’m definitely not a violent person even if I nearly tore a guy apart when I lost control two years ago after he threatened to make me his girl. So, no killing. Nope. No. Figure it out later. One step at a time.
A quick web search brought me to the self-publishing novelty goods site, Your
Mundane mundane mundane backdoor access to the e-merchant side of the site, because whoever slapped this business together from pasteboard and apathy didn’t care to patch their software properly. Download the last few years of order information and run. Usernames and passwords were actually reasonably well protected, but I wasn’t after that data—on the right market it’d sell nicely, but I had a mission to accomplish.
Sort through the data. Find every person who ordered one of the "Shots O’Clock!" clocks. Prioritize possible targets. Make some calls. The pitch:
"Hello, I’m Catherine with Your
One answering machine. One person whose clock stopped working weeks ago, chewing my ear off about how low-quality my low-quality novelty clocks were. One person who sold theirs at a garage sale.
And one person ready and willing to yammer on at length.
"Wuh-oh, that sounds bad. What sort of electrical issue?" she asked. "Is it dangerous?"
"Possibly, ma’am. There’s a short in the wiring in the timing unit of the base circuitry," I bluffed, hoping she knew as little about clocks as I did. "A potential for shock when touched. We’re issuing this recall at no cost to you, in the interests of public safety. If I could just confirm the clock’s status, and your current address…?"
"Oh, it’s not my clock. I gave it away over a year ago as a birthday gift," the gifter explained. "Hmm. I suppose you’ll need to get in touch with her. Which… may be difficult."
Patterns in noise. Could still be the person with the answering machine. Or, could be the person who’s difficult to reach. Standing out by trying to vanish into nothingness.
"As this poses a safety issue, I think I’ll need to get in touch with your friend," I offered. "She could be at risk."
"Well, see, here’s the thing. Annabell is… she has some problems. And she’s been very reclusive this year. Not even answering her phone, so I don’t know if giving you her number would help. I mean, we used to go out drinking a few nights a week, but she doesn’t even reply to me now, and… well, this is all personal business, sorry to bother you with it. Would her home address help? Assuming she still lives there, but…"
"Anything would help, ma’am. What’s the address?" I asked, opening a text file to jot the information down.
Annabell Jørgensen. Lots of vowels in that name; one even had a slash through it. Weird. Living out in District 32, only ten blocks from here… a mirror image of District 23 in the sense that holding up a mirror to a pile of crap gives you a mirrored pile of crap.
Online research and gross violations of personal privacy confirmed a few things, leading me to suspect this was the source of Channel 879z. Her husband died in a gang-related shootout two months ago; probably depressed about that one. Also, she had a profile up on CityHookups.com, a semi-obscure website for desperate folks keen on one-night stands rather than meaningful relationships. The photo looked pretty old, obviously made by holding a cellphone camera up to a photo taken years ago—a 90s hairdo. A heavy drug user probably wouldn’t look that great in the here and now, after all… and she was quite middle-aged at this point, as well.
A sad, sad digital story of one’s life. Snapshots in time. Pleas for the world’s oldest hired service. Drowning out your life in narcotics. Perpetual streams of sensation flying out into the night over fiber optic cable, broadcasting a physical link without the depressing context it was tied to…
Last night, I rode that broadcast into bed with my boyfriend. I’d gotten high off this woman’s downward spiral of a life. The reason that clock was in view of the ‘camera’ and rocking back and forth slightly? Maybe because she was watching her time tick away, even as she was supposedly enjoying herself. That unfortunate mess is what I was getting off to. Immediately I felt the need to take a shower, despite having taken one hours ago.
I’ve heard people drink heavily when faced with a major decision. I’d been drinking diet soda heavily but doubled it helped with my decision making process. In fact all the caffeine I’d been ingesting only made me jittery with a perpetual need to pee.
Fortunately for me, Dave was home from his nine-to-five at seven. (His nine-to-five varies wildly, depending on shift hours and emergency incidents and so on.) Dave was better with people than me. He’d know what to do.
"I don’t know what to do," he admitted.
"So… we can’t just walk up to her door and ask her to knock it off with the sex and drugs?" I asked, trying to work through the problem. "I mean, okay, we’re total strangers. ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Jørgensen’—unless it’s Ms. Jørgensen now, what with the dead husband, I don’t know what the protocol is there, do you?—’Could you stop being addicted to drugs because it’s addicting others to your addiction and that’s bad’? That won’t work? I mean… wouldn’t she want to get off drugs?"
"It’s not as easy as that. I don’t know this Anna Jørgensen, I can only take a guess, but… she’s probably in a very dark place right now. She needs help but needing and wanting are two different things. If we were family, I could maybe see her entertaining the notion, but… we’re not. And even if we offered to arrange for the rehab through Hollister, she probably won’t go just because we asked politely."
"Then… Plan B, I guess?" I pondered. "The other thing I suggested. The core problem isn’t her, it’s the Mood Channel. I’m supposed to shut it down. We can ‘shut it down’ by shutting down her problems, making her life better and making the channel boring so people stop watching it, yes. That’s right. But the channel is still there, isn’t it? Still online. Risky risky. Right? So bypass her completely, and turn off the channel. …it means leaving Anna to twist in the wind, but…"
"Right, but can you actually turn off the broadcast…? Did you figure out what’s making it happen? Is she doing it on purpose? Or could she be cubist, like you?"
"Y… no? Yes? I don’t know," I admitted, soda in my veins making me start and stop thoughts. "Lots of unknowns. More work to do, to figure out what’s really causing this to happen. I’d need to keep investigating. Try to trace the signal. Tough to do when the City’s fiber optics and electrics and plumbing and so on is a tangled and looping mess, but I could do it. More deep dives. More time. More things to poke around inside and explore…"
Clearly, Dave didn’t like that idea. He didn’t want to say he didn’t like that idea, in the same way you didn’t want to tell a fireman that you didn’t like him standing around in a fire, or I didn’t want to tell Dave I didn’t like him running headfirst into situations with salvager gangs over and over.
Life is risk. You risk and you get rewarded (or die). If you don’t risk anything, a safe little pile of nothing happens. That’s the City of Angles in a nutshell. Most people choose the latter, they stay indoors with the locks tight and the lights on and wait to die of old age. But Danger and Trouble don’t swing that way—we swing headfirst into the action because even if it’s terrifying and dangerous it’s the only way to actually be alive. We don’t enjoy it, of course, not like crazy people who jump off buildings with parachutes… part of us wants to hide in a locked room forever, cozy and safe. We have to embrace the part that doesn’t want to hide. Embrace it in each other. To do otherwise is madness.
Of course, that doesn’t mean being stupid about it. If there was a safer option which got the same results, you took it.
"Plan A’s the better way to go. It’s crazy, but playing Good Samaritan is still worth a try," Dave decided. "Even if you do find and deactivate the channel, Anna Jørgensen would still be suffering. We can’t just leave that be. So, before you start running down the broadcast source, let’s go pay her a visit and see if anything comes of it."
And I hugged him.
My boyfriend helps people. He’s found what he wants to do with his life, and that’s help total strangers in peril. Total strangers like me. He’s the best man in the whole world and I love him for that.
The big day of the long shot of the distant odds of the least likely outcome. I dressed nicely for the occasion, in my going-out outfit. If I wore my usual clothes she’d probably think I was chasing the dragon too, or something. First impressions were important; first impressions were why I let Dave in my door, when he came knocking during my hour of need. For his part, Dave was also best dressed, in his least awful clothes. …maybe we overdid it, looking slightly business casual. But it fit our roles.
We decided that a pair of complete strangers walking up to the door and offering a fabulous all-expenses-paid vacation to a rehab clinic would only work if we seemed legit. To give this the best possible chance, I went all out on that.
Now, instead of being two random yahoos, we were representatives of the "TroubleSolvers" organization—dedicated to lending a helping hand to those who were slipping away.
"…TroubleSolvers?" was Dave’s reaction. "Not problem solvers? Or trouble shooters?"
"No. We solve trouble," I explained. "Trouble is what we solve. Makes sense, right? Makes sense to me. …is that a bad name? Will she see right through us? Oh. Oh no. What should—"
"It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine. It’s just to get us in the door, anyway," he decided in the end.
The cover story was that we were door-to-door charity workers who had been dispatched by friends who were very worried about her. I even spent an hour or so putting together a basic website, working from a template I pulled from my archives of looted sites—and then decided "Well, why not?" and went ahead and forged us some paperwork with City Hall to illegitimately legitimize the whole operation. Even posted some classified for new hires to make absolutely positively sure everything looked totally above board.
At no point would we discuss a cable channel tapping into her brain because we did not want to look crazy.
The literature pamphlets were coming fresh off the printer as we headed out the door and off to District 32. It was within walking distance, but this being the butt end of the city, walking was not advisable. Especially not in nice clothes which cost actual money.
As the elevator to her apartment ascended, I was feeling more confident in this particular stripe of insanity we’d chosen to embrace. I’d memorized a five-page backstory for my fictional outreach organization; any question she threw at us, I’d have an answer to. I wasn’t going to be lost for words, not this time. I would be smooth and in control and working the problem like Dave worked the problem on his day job. It would work. It would work.
Knock on the door. Door opens.
Just a crack. Like how I used to answer the door. Like how I answered the door when Danger first walked into my life. Darkness inside, a haggard look across the woman’s features, all the telltale signs because I’d posted those signs all over the place once upon a time. I’d save her, like Dave saved me. Cool customer Dave. Unflappable. Courageous in the face of danger. Ready and willing to do what it takes…
And then Dave fell apart.
"Mom?!" he blurted out, instead of the line ‘Hello, we’re from TroubleSolvers, may we have a minute of your time’ like we’d planned.
Anna. Annabell. His mother’s name was Annabell, wasn’t it. Oh no. Oh no…
Middle-aged, just as his mother would be if she’d lived through the cancer which took her. Brown hair, just as Dave had described to me. No bright and beaming smile he’d always talked about, though. Looking quite worse for wear. Because this wasn’t Annabell Smith, happily married and destined for motherhood—this was Anna Jørgensen, widower and on her way down. Not that he’d be able to swallow that difference right away.
Had to save this. Had to recover. Be cool.
"H-Hi. Hi. Hello. We’re from TroubleSolvers, m-may we have a—"
"Mom, it’s me! It’s Dave!" he continued. "What’re you doing here? When did you…? I thought you died! What…"
"I don’t know who you are but I’m not selling and I’m not in trade right now," Annabell replied through the crack in the door. "Go away."
"TroubleSolvers!!" I blurted, trying to interrupt. "We… we’re an organization devoted to… to outreach for people in trouble, and… we’d like to offer you free rehabilitation. Drug rehab. You—"
"You a cop? You’re a cop. Screw you, I’m not carrying right now," Annabell declared, gripping the edge of the door tightly. Skin and bones, white knuckles.
Desperately I looked to Dave, to help with this. But Dave… he was scared. Jacklighted like a deer on a highway.
I’d never seen Dave legitimately terrified to the point where he couldn’t act. Never, not ever. He claimed he was incapable of it, that nothing to to him anymore—he’d punched through anxiety and out the other side long ago. …specifically, during the year in which he lost his mother…
I had to carry the ball here. If he did say anything, it’d just make things worse.
"No, no, we’re not with the Department of Safety," I insisted. "We’re a charity organization dedicated to—"
"If you’re not the cops then beat it before I call the cops," Annabell threatened. "And it’s none of your damn business if I’m using, anyway! Who the hell do you think you are? Who are you? —you’re with them, aren’t you. With them. Don’t look at me. I said don’t look at me!"
I looked at her. I couldn’t help it. The way she shifted from anger into fear and back into anger and around to fear again. Pupils contracting. Joints creaking as she gripped the door…
"Watching me, you’re always watching me, you don’t think I can tell but I can feel you there no matter how much I take to drown it all out," she babbled aloud. "You’re a watcher, aren’t you? Have to be. Not enough to stand behind me and watch, always behind me even if I turn around, now you have to be in front of me? Well, screw you! Calling the cops. Calling the cops. Stop watching me! LEAVE ME ALONE!"
Her cheap door knocker swung upward sharply when the door slammed shut, before clattering back down.
I had to pull Dave back, before he reached for that knocker.
"We, we have to help her," he protested, fingers scrabbling for the brass. "Kelsey, dammit, Kelsey, that’s my mother, that—"
"Department of Safety," I reminded him. "She’s calling the cops. We can’t be caught. You know what they’d do to me."
Thankfully, Danger still had some of his wits about him. We were long gone before the police ever showed up.
I tried to explain the facts of life to Dave Smith, but he already knew them. It just took a cup of tea and familiar surroundings to get him back on the level. A cup of tea and a dose of his Alprazolam.
He’d had the anti-anxiety medication sitting in our bathroom cabinet for quite some time, dusty and untouched. He got the bottle soon after arriving in the city, when the crushing quiet and loneliness were digging through even his toughened skin. The liquid was nearly expired, but had enough potency to bring him back down and calm the shakes. Still… it didn’t solve the problem. If you counted your mother not being dead as a problem.
"So, she came here before I was even born," he understood. "I’ve seen it before. Back in Orientation, a friend of mine met a family member who’d died in a car accident back on Earth. My mother… she… that woman came here before I was even born. Separated before birth…"
My own teacup had gone cold. Hadn’t even sipped it yet. My stomach was too sick to tolerate the calming broth.
"I’ve traced her entire life from city records and her web history. She’s had a rough time here," I added. "Arrived at age eleven, during the city’s nadir of the eighties. Landed in District 32, which didn’t help matters. Orientation barely recorded anything about her arrival; they clearly didn’t do a good job placing her with a family. Eventually she married a suspected crime lord and had a daughter, although it looks like she’s had a long and adulterous history… now she’s got neither of them. She’s crashing, hard."
"We have to do something," Dave declared. "That’s my mother. My mother."
"There’s nothing we can do. She won’t listen to us, now. And she’s not your mother—"
"I know that! I KNOW!"
…loud noises. Loud noises from Dave Smith. Dangerous noises.
Maybe I shrank, maybe he grew. But soon, we were the same size. And he looked humiliated.
"I’m… too close to this. Way too close," he recognized. "I know she’s not the same woman, but… I loved my mother so much, Kelsey. Losing her meant losing everything, and I just collapsed, and… I thought I’d come around on that, built my life back up into something stable. Sure doesn’t feel like it today…"
Everything ruined. Preventable. I could’ve researched Annabell more—could’ve dug up her full name, could’ve made the connections, avoided all of this. Instead I went for the quick and easy Plan A answer, so I wouldn’t have to risk myself any further on this assignment. Sensible? Yes. Correct? No. And Dave paid the price, as one of the pillars he’d built himself on got knocked out from under him.
I had to make this right.
Gradually I eased Dave through the rest of his day. No going to work for the evening shift; calling in sick. Comfortable blankets and a teddy bear given to him by Grandma Scarlett. He dropped like a rock into the deepest of sleeps after that.
Quietly, very quietly, I unplugged a sliced cable box and tucked it in a backpack. The subways wouldn’t be running this late, and cabs sure weren’t going to stop here. I’d walk. And anybody who wanted to stop me, well, they’d find more Trouble than they could handle.
Deliberately stayed away from the peephole after tapping the brass knocker a few times. Loud enough to wake her, hopefully. Unless she nodded off on something…
Door opening. Just a crack.
Didn’t give her a chance to scream at me or even slam the door wordlessly. I had to use my opening line.
"I know who’s been watching you, and I’m going to stop them," I promised up front.
That was enough to keep the door from closing. But Annabell said not a word. So, I continued.
"You aren’t crazy, and it’s not a hallucination. Someone’s tuned you into the Sideways Signals," I explained, pulling out the cable box. "Channel 879z. Search online for it, you’ll see what people are saying, you’ll know it’s true. I brought a hacked cable box so you can look for yourself if you want, although it may make a weird feedback loop."
Hold out the chunky metal box. Wait.
Thin fingers on the box, pulling it from me slowly.
"I’m not crazy," she repeated from my own words. "People are watching me."
"You’re not crazy. People are watching you," I agreed. "I don’t think it’s right, people constantly watching you like that. You deserve your privacy. …now, I don’t want you to think of this as leverage. I’m going to take the broadcast offline, one way or another. But when I do that, and you have proof that I’m good for my word… will you consider my offer? Drug rehab? You won’t need to hide in the high anymore, after your channel goes dark."
Cool customer Kelsey. Unflappable. Courageous in the face of danger. Ready and willing to do what it takes.
If Dave couldn’t be Dave, I had to be him. I had to be both Trouble and Danger. This was my moment to shine—put aside not understanding people, put aside being afraid of my own weird nature, put everything aside. No time for childishness. Only time to do what was right.
"Who was that boy?" she asked me, in the small voice I normally used at my weakest moments. "Was he really my son…? From my real self, I mean?"
"From Earth," I confirmed. "And even though you’re not really his mother here-and-now… he still cares. He wants you to be happy, and well."
Moment on a knife’s edge. Considering her options.
"I’ll think about it," she mumbled, before closing the door on me.
Hard part done.
Now, to stop the signal for good.
There’s a screensaver that comes with early computers, back when 3-D graphics were a hot new concept. It perpetually drew a series of pipes, like a plumber’s worst nightmare, constantly tangling up and twisting back on itself. If you let that thing run long enough it’d practically become an optical illusion, a network ostensibly for conveying water which had no real beginning or end.
Which is pretty much how plumbing, electrical wiring, and in this case cable television fiber works in the City of Angles. No beginning. No end. Just an eternal tangle which you can tap into for your water, power, and reality television shows. When new buildings show up, their internal network somehow gets connected to the larger network, and everybody’s happy. (Well. Everybody except the plumbers, electricians, and cable guys hired to fix breakdowns.)
That’s why artifacts like the Mood Channels and other Sideways Signals exist; they may or may not physically exist anywhere, but they ride the same network as all normal content, pumping out a surrealism data stream of unknown origin. Legally marketed cable boxes use a whitelist, filtering out all but the safest content—not that you could tune in anyway, as many of those signals require numbers that don’t exist on your pushbutton remote. There’s no ‘z’ key, or even any plausible physical reason why you could have a channel with a ‘z’ in it. And yet, 879z exists, all the same…
It’s like Banner said: It’s physically impossible for a channel to get you high, and yet here we are, aren’t we? You can protest how Sideways Signals make no sense all you like, but that doesn’t stop them from existing. The City itself made little sense, and yet here we are.
(Except it did make sense. It was a dream. It made perfect sense, and was making more sense every day. How far did that carry? Are the Sideways Signals part of the dream? How does it all connect? Need to know I need to know I need to…)
879z. Turning it off. Easier said than done.
I told Dave that Plan B was to try and trace the signal of 879z. If we couldn’t use Plan A and terminate the secondary effects of 879z by getting Annabell off drugs, then I’d use Plan B to encourage Plan A to happen anyway. Which meant finding the virtually unfindable.
It wasn’t impossible to find the origin points of Sideways Signals within the pipe nightmare, just very, very difficult. Very difficult. Much easier to tap into a server from afar than to find the actual physical representation of that server in this dream world; back door access was enough for salvaging hackers who raided them for valuable data, after all. If you wanted the source, it meant weeks and weeks of painstaking work… tracing the route between you and the origin point, testing signal strength, detangling the mess. Running down 879z—assuming there was a physical source at all, and not just some weird innate psychic power of Annabell’s—would take ages.
Fortunately, I had an advantage other digital salvagers did not. I had Bedlam’s telephone number.
I’d discovered it years and years ago, when I was a reclusive mixed-up teenager, instead of the reclusive mixed-up ‘adultolescent’ I am now. (Ugh, those years. Listening to Linkin Park. So much crawling-in-my-skin-with-wounds-that-will-not-heal.) A combination of forum posts and ancient UseNet articles helped me piece together not only the existence of the fabled 1980s chaos-cult goddess, but her connection to the Sideways Signals I had become obsessed with in my youth. Soon enough, I was in direct touch with her… and gradually became her BFF.
My best friend forever would help me find 879z. Hopefully I would not go insane in the process, but there was more at stake here than my marbles: Dave’s peace of mind. Annabell’s future. All the people hooked on the Mood Channel. If I backed away now, I’d be letting everyone down.
Still, I pondered backing down, my hand hovering over the green CALL button on the touchpad of my smartphone. Wired into the computer, with the dialing pattern for Bedlam’s line keyed in and ready to go. Could back down. Could let them down. Penny would understand, would forgive me. I asked too much of you and I’m sorry about that, she’d say. Dave would live, as he always had, closing off and refusing to acknowledge his pain. Things would work out.
Trouble pressed the green button.
Bedlam filled my world.
Contacting her wasn’t like dialing up the local pizza delivery joint. If you hit on the ever-shifting combination of digits and imaginary numbers and held the right image in your mind, you were engaging in a summoning ritual. You call upon the crawling chaos, and the chaos crawls into you. I’ve always found her presence in my brainmeat warm and comforting, but I’m kind of strange that way.
We hovered in the special private space she’d carved out of the nothing, a place with teacups full of not tea. An assembled legion of dolls watched us with black button eyes that sank into their plush flesh forever. And Bedlam herself, floating gently upside down on a cloud of screams, smiled at me with bright teeth.
There’d always been something playful and little-girly about her, which only added to the movie monster mythos rather than taking away from it. But truthfully… despite her ill-defined shadowy shape, she’d been aging over the last two years. As long as I knew her she seemed locked on the cusp of puberty, maybe twelve years old. But ever since the events in the Heart of the City… she’d been in lock-step with Penelope Yates.
Penelope had been open with me about her discoveries in the Heart of the City. Her inner circle knew the truth; the strange connection she had to Patient 23, to Bedlam, to the mysterious entity known as Lucid. Technically she was Bedlam’s enemy, but they’d reached a cruel truce. Bedlam would allow Penny to walk right into traps, would laugh as she flailed around in her ignorance, and not lift a finger to help.
…and if this task to run 879z into the ground came from Penelope / Lucid… would Bedlam be angry with me? Would she demand I leave it alone, like she tried to demand I abandon Dave, so long ago?
The mad tea party swirled in silence, as I hesitated to even say hello. Hadn’t thought this through. May have made a mistake. Never scared to invoke Bedlam before, though; why be afraid now? She was my friend. She wouldn’t hurt me. She’d hear me out…
Quiet for too long. Curious, now. Bedlam tilted sideways, eying me with her green eyes, all of them.
troubled? // worried // vexed // anxious // twitchy and anxious like her mapmaker // he seems anxious right now, too.
curious curious // not a social call? // what’s wrong? // are you sad? //
// let me help you // feel better // better //
No point in being anything other than direct. She knew me too well, would know if I was being evasive. And, well, I did need her help…
"Your, um, counterpart asked for my help," I spoke, accepting a teacup and sipping before continuing. It tasted like sweet tears. "I know you’re going out of your way not to help her, and I’d do the same, but… this is very personal for me. Dave’s close to breaking. This could help him."
// better to break // break apart and drift into the wind // no suffering in the winds of madness… //
"That’s not how people work, remember? We talked about this," I said. (It was tough to keep Bedlam focused, or to get her to recall fine details like human speech. Very scattershot.) "That’s why I’m not ready to embrace madness. I wasn’t back when you tried to access to the Heart, and I’m not now. Dave sure as heck isn’t. I’m sorry… but the best way to help him is to help Lucid."
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that Bedlam does not like to take her medicine. Even if something’s good for her, if she dislikes the taste of it she’ll pout and throw a fit… which can be quite dangerous for mere mortals. She’s a broken child, literally broken away from her origin point, and reacts accordingly. But… she’ll listen to me, if I speak firmly enough. I trust her. I love her. She trusts and loves me and will accept my words, with enough prodding.
// mmmmmmmmm // mmmm // mmmaybe, she offered. // maybe will help. // curious about this // curiouser and curiouser // what’s the problem? // show me where it hurts.
And so I regaled her with the sad, sad story of Channel 879z. Ready to defend my decision to make the universe a little less chaotic by taking one of her cherished signals offline. That was the real worry here… she’d hate that idea, as much as she hates anyone trying to make the City of Angles less of a dream world. Lucid wanted to sort out her glorious mess, and this was an extension of that. No way Bedlam would just accept my proposal. No, no. She’d hate it. I’d have to push her.
// okay // let’s get started, she said, with a grin three grins deep.
"—wait, what? Really?"
// really really really // really. // Lucid’s enemy // my enemy // so much going on // but can’t tell you, can’t, she noted, taking her sudden burst of glee down a notch. // could leak back to her // she has to learn // that little flesh and blood messiah // has to suffer and burn and fail on her own merits // or soar, I guess // but probably fail. // sorry. // plus if you totally understood // parsed // grasped the dream // you could go mad. // you told me you didn’t want that.
"Uh. Right. Don’t want that," I agreed. "Okay, so… how do we track down the source of the broadcast? Without weeks and weeks of tapping wires and performing feats of electrical engineering, I mean. Without that."
Bedlam considered the problem. Considering her usual attention span, this took a lot of effort.
// connect to me. // like a client to a server. // cloud computing web service // door-to-door value-added // processing power multiplier, she suggested. // probably safe // definitely, yes // using my reach across the Sideways Signals // guiding it with your knowledge and skill // that’ll do it. // should // might do it. // go crazy? // go // go // let’s try it // might be fun! // ok // okay?
…tricky. For starters, it didn’t make sense; it was like asking if your Apple was compatible with Oranges. You can’t plug fruits together. (Or can you? Cranapple juice. Is a cranberry a fruit?) But… maybe I could. I understood her, and she understood me. In a way, we were already interfaced; the ‘phone call’ was shorthand for a sort of mental access to some layer beyond my comprehension. All she was asking as to dig a little deeper into that layer, into her…
How far did I want to push this? Push Danger’s trust and faith. He let me do what I needed to do, despite his worry. I let him do what he needed to do, despite his worry. But that was built on a foundation. I didn’t risk my life if I didn’t have to, because I wasn’t living alone anymore and someone would actually care if I faded away. I’d care if Dave faded away. I had to be careful.
I cared for him and he cared for his mother and I needed to do this.
So, I opened myself to Bedlam and kept the cloud computing metaphor firmly in mind. Clouds couldn’t kill you.
—everywhere and everyone //
Everyone was everywhere. All connected. Even if she // I couldn’t touch everything at once, couldn’t know everyone and everywhere at once, the vantage point let me see for miles. I could see the Sideways Signals, the tangled web of fiber optics and electrical pulses down copper cables. I could see the phone lines and the plumbing and the sidewalks and the streets and the people and the people and the people and their hopes and their dreams their dreams // their dreams // their—
// careful // careful // just connect, use the service // don’t lose the service // use. // use. // Kelsey. // You’re Kelsey. // careful
"Okay, I see, sorry, I got this," I assured her, shifting my gaze back to the signals. The signals. That’s where I needed to be, anyway. Even if the rest was so tantalizingly close and within my reach, the signals, yes, the signals were my focus. 879z. I was going to find 879z.
Cable television. Networks woven in and around the buildings of the City. Lines hammered into the dirt in the Suburbs. Towers broadcasting wirelessly across the Outlands. Whether you were a figment of the dreamer’s imagination // born here or whether you were an unfortunate echo // immigrant from Earth, you probably enjoyed television. Everybody enjoyed television, so it would be omnipresent. …does the supply exist before the demand? Does the demand cause the supply to exist? // focus. 879z.
The thin and dirty little line through fiber-to-the-curb was right there. I could tap into it. Annabell felt the viewers, like a living Nielsen ratings board, always peering over her shoulder. She was injecting something right now, trying to drown it out, but all that did was pump the filth down the cable with a stronger pulse. The viewers at home got to enjoy the high while she sank low. Unfair. Unkind. Has to stop. Find the source.
879z. 879z. Twined in and around and all over the place, watched by so many. But an origin… there had to be an origin… had to expand the scope of the search parameters, no other way—
// don’t do that, don’t // parsing that is dangerous // you have to be like me // or you’ll die //
"I need to see more," I pleaded. "It’s not enough. There’s just so much of it. Can’t filter it…"
// I don’t filter // can’t filter // I am the chaos everywhere // I am within and without
// that’s your line // from your book //
I’m inside you // you’re inside me // I think I went too far // you went too far //
Danger, I’m sorry
// now what // now what do I do
Red light, stop. Red light, live. And then I’m me again and Bedlam is Bedlam.
She’s disappointed, but understands.
"I warned you that might happen," the heartbeat-red child of light spoke. "You’re hurting her. Let her find her own way. She can be so much more than this."
Lucid. Penelope. One and the same, split apart, one is not the other, one came from the other. The holy ghost… and Bedlam’s sworn enemy.
Bedlam did not react well to this interruption.
// MY FRIEND // MINE // she insisted, with a snarl of shadow. // go away go away go //
"Stop and think. I know it’s hard, but you have to. 879z is the tool of our mutual enemy. She won’t let you find it. She won’t let YOU find it."
// know that // I know that! // but Kelsey // Kelsey can find it // if I help her // she’s the key // like your mapmaker using you // like you used your mapmaker // if she uses me // it’s not ME looking for it // it’s her // so she can find it // perfect sense // senseless sense //
"Not enough. Echo’s smarter than that, she’ll know it’s still you in charge. You’re too loud."
Echo. And then I knew something I hadn’t known before.
Bedlam and Lucid aren’t two halves of a whole, like I’d theorized. They’re two-thirds of a whole. Being in touch with Bedlam like this, being in Lucid’s presence… I could jump to that conclusion and know it to be true. And now they knew I knew and they knew I was thinking this and—
"We need to hurry, before Kelsey loses it completely," Lucid insisted. "Kelsey, focus. I believe you CAN find the channel with our help—Bedlam’s not entirely wrong about that. But her power alone isn’t enough. You need a filter, two viewpoints working in concert with your own… think of it like a technology problem. How would you solve this with the tools you’re familiar with?"
"I need Bedlam’s computing power and Lucid’s front-end software in order to perform the search," I spoke, the metaphor clicking into place like plastic bricks. "Yes. I can hack any security in my way if I’ve got access to both sets of middleware."
As for my BFF… she wasn’t happy about this. Never did enjoy taking her medicine, no. But in the end, she knew what had to be done. With arms folded, eight of them, then nine of them, she staunchly accepted the situation.
// let’s get on with it // hurry it up // less contact with YOU the better, with sneers at her counterpart. // Kelsey // EXE
The chaos of the Sideways Signals can be understood. You needed to study a wide spectrum, but you also had to focus in on the individual connections. They formed a chain. Patterns in chaos. Relishing in the chaos wasn’t enough, and rising above it wasn’t enough. Both were required in measured amounts to make it happen.
A filthy signal, down the fiber optic. Tapped into all over the place. Fed from Annabell Jørgensen, but someone connected her up to this mess. Someone was giving her a signal boost and relaying what they found within her. A symbolic link that existed somewhere in that network—
Flicker of scanlines. Analog. Banner did say VHS was the best way to see the signal, so I used Lucid to shift my focus, and used Bedlam to spray the data out in front of me.
Right there. Cross reference it. CableCentral Broadcasting Center, 1005 Central Avenue, District 89, Suburbia. Owned by CCBC Incorporated, trademark filed in the 1980s, riding the initial wave of cable television. Even the City of Angles wanted its MTV, or its local MTV substitute. And they got it… until the building went completely cubist, resulting in the deaths of dozens of employees and the effective destruction of the company. CCBC went dark that day, contaminated grounds sealed off with red-black tape forever.
Despite being dark, it was broadcasting. At first I assumed the signal was just passing through, looped around and through, but no… it went in weaker than it came out. This was the relay that linked and boosted Annabell’s signal.
"That’s enough. You have it."
People connected to technology. Their dreams sprayed out in the wild as broadcast entertainment, 24/7. Dreams on the wire. Sideways Signals. The Sideways. The dream of Patient 23. All of it connected together—how else could someone’s sensations become the sensational signal of Channel 879z? Yes. That made sense.
// stop // don’t get lost // I don’t want you to suffer //
Explorers entered the Sideways all the time. Why would this be any different? I didn’t have to be sitting in my apartment, my brain boiling over in fever, the revelation burning inside my eyes. I could just enter the Sideways Signals. I could enter, close the door behind me, and never look back. I’d be a part of the dream, just like my friend Bedlam, just like Lucid, just like Echo. I was connected; it was possible. Yes, yes, it was possible for any of us that the trinity had connected to the dream to simply—
—head hitting the floor hard enough to blur my vision.
My chair had tilted over backwards, rotating a nice ninety degrees until the shock of impact broke my connection. No more red child of life, no more green child of nightmare. They’d booted me out, to keep me from overstaying my welcome…
Moments later, I became aware of my cellphone’s ongoing jingle. It took some doing to get back up off the floor, grasp the rectangle of metal and plastic, and slide it open.
"Hi, um, Kelsey?" she spoke, before I had a chance to say hello. "Are you okay?"
"Penelope Yates," I recognized, blinking the stars away from my eyes.
"Uh, yeah, that’s me. Sorry, am I interrupting something? I just… it’s strange, but I got the feeling you were in trouble, and… is everything okay?"
(Penelope is Lucid is Penelope. Except they’re not the same person. She is within, and without…)
"I’m fine now, thanks," I replied, because it was true. I’d been grounded firmly in reality; all the visions fading, save for the address for the CCBC building, burned into my memory. "I’m fine. I just fell out of my chair. Could’ve been worse."
Could’ve been much worse. Could’ve lost my anchor and gone adrift in the sea of dreams. Could’ve could’ve would’ve could’ve. Because some part of me, even through the blinding pain of the sudden headache, desperately wanted to dive back in and never come back.
How far can you push boundaries before you push someone away?
As I lay on my couch with a bag of frozen peas on my forehead, waiting for the pain to go away, I tumbled that puzzle over in my mind. I’d already pushed my luck quite a bit so far. Already pushed the trust that Dave had in me not to go to extremes. Now, I was pondering pushing it as far as I could… walking right into a cubist building in the middle of nowhere, to sever the symbolic link between Annabell and the Sideways Signals. Suicide mission. Suicide mission for a very good cause, and maybe not even suicide given I had a bit of cubism inside me, but…
Thoughts returning to the subway ride, days ago. Dave hovering on the edge of a marriage proposal, me unwilling to push him for fear he’d leave me. That I wasn’t what he wanted, that this life wasn’t what he wanted. Was that really Dave? Was that just my imagination? Don’t know. Don’t know people. Not willing to risk losing him. Trouble needs Danger in her life. But Danger may not like Trouble waltzing right into the CCBC building, twisting into an unrecognizable shape, and never coming back.
Bet. Risk it all. Good causes. Dave’s worry. Annabell’s future. Everybody dies. So much to learn. There’s a truth in the dream. Close the door behind you and never come back…
The peas were warm by the time Danger got home from work.
Risk it all. The right thing to do.
Tell him about the visit to Annabell’s, the tentative agreement to seek help if I can sever the link. Tell him about the Sideways Signals, about Bedlam and Lucid, and the CCBC building. Tell him my worries and hopes and dreams and fears. Tell everything…
So, I risked it all and did the right thing. I told him about everything. Up and down and side to side, everything and everything.
If he left me, that would be the end of it, at least. An end to the worry about whether or not he’d leave me.
Instead, when I finished my weird little tale… he hugged me. The forgotten bag of peas dropped to the floor. We’d need new peas.
Dave was never going to leave me. It was all in my head. The hard reality wasn’t hard at all—his arms around me, refusing to let go. All the worry in my head evaporated in an instant. Danger didn’t even have to say a word, I simply knew, knew things were going to be okay.
"I want to help her," I mumbled into his shoulder. "I want to help you. I want to help everyone. I can do this. Okay?"
"Okay," he mumbled in return.
"And I want you to come with me when I go to the cable station. I want to know you’re waiting for me outside."
"Of course. I’ll be there."
"And I want to marry you. I don’t care that we’re not rich and live in a hole. I love everything we have and I love you. Will you marry me, Dave Danger Smith?"
Tense pause. Tense muscles. But only one answer was ever considered.
"Sure," Dave whispered. "I’d like that a lot."
Wasn’t exactly a traditional proposal, but we weren’t traditional people. We were weak, we were troubled, we were in over our heads with alarming frequency. And none of that mattered at all, because we would always be together.
Breaking the law, breaking the law. I’m pretty sure there are other words to that song, but those are the only ones I remember. Breaking the law, breaking the law…
Breaking the law is both easy and dangerous. The Department of Safety doesn’t have eyes on every street corner, not even ones bound tightly in red-black tape—they rely on terrifying the populace into not getting itself needlessly killed in the Sideways or walking into cubist structures. That fear, by and large, controls affairs better than round-the-clock armed guards could.
But… sometimes you get people like me. People willing to set foot where we don’t belong. Three outcomes can occur:
One, the Department of Safety happens to catch you, and you’re either executed in the name of preventing the spread of cubist contamination or you get lucky and go to jail for a very long time. Doesn’t happen often, but it’s always a possibility, especially if you make a lot of noise and get noticed.
Two, you die horribly, and the Department of Safety (if they even know what became of you) gets to use you as a glorious example of What Not To Do. Everybody knows the story of little Bobby who thought it’d be "cool" to explore the Sideways and ended up bisected by a couch. They know because the educational filmstrips have all the gory details.
Three, you get away with it, and nobody’s any the wiser. That was the outcome I was looking for… but setting up the conditions in which you can go about breaking the law without dying or landing in jail can be tricky.
In order to reach the CCBC building, we’d need a ride. I couldn’t drive and Dave didn’t own a car. The subways didn’t roll all the way out to the Suburbs, and since we wanted to do this at the dead of night, commuter trains were out of the question. Taxis sure wouldn’t want to drive us out to the middle of nowhere and drop us off in front of a red-black building; becoming an accomplice to a crime wasn’t a good way to continue your career as a cabbie, and many would flat out refuse to take you to the bad places.
Honestly, I thought I had this problem solved—we knew someone who used to drive a taxi cab, and now worked as one of Lucid’s many agents in the waking world. (Sleeping world.) But… she wasn’t answering her phone. And I had no idea how to reach out to anyone who wasn’t answering their phone. She could be anywhere. She could be dead.
Ride still needed. Ride unavailable. What to do, what to do. Maybe not so easy to do, breaking the law, breaking the law… steal a car. Hijack a cab. Hack the bus transit routes online and change them. Find a map that shortcuts through the Sideways. Wear black pajamas and hang-glide into the zone from a nearby hill, ninja-style. Spontaneously develop teleportation powers. What to do what to do what to do—
"Why can’t we just get a cab to take us a few blocks away, then get out and walk?" Dave suggested.
"Or we could that," I agreed.
"Running thoughts. Doesn’t matter. I’ll call a cab company."
Hour and a half later and crime was easy again.
The Suburbs. I hated it here. Too sparse, too spread out. No tight little city blocks rammed up against each other at improbable angles. Unless you had a macro level view of the landscape, things almost seemed to make sense. Didn’t like that. Should be chaotic, should be clearly arrayed in disarray. (I was the sort of person who’d take a neat little row of perfectly aligned boxes and push one askew in order to feel comfortable. Sort of a reverse-OCD.)
The CableCentral Broadcasting Center (Defunct) was placed in a very sensible place, in a slightly more industrial section of the burbs, alongside storage facilities and auto mechanics. When eighties-era cable wiring had started appearing in the ground, carrying all the promise of a new television form with it, this spot lay on a perfect nexus of wires—one which would reach a majority of the known Suburbs in one swoop. It was perfect. True, they’d have to construct a brand new building rather than repurpose the gifts of the City of Angles, but so what? It wasn’t like ALL new buildings went cubist. Just some. Just this one, eventually…
It might have been three stories. Might have been two. Hard to say, now. If you looked at it from one angle the concrete and glass was tall and imposing… but walk a short distance away and it’ll be squat and intimidating. The building had been ruined, distorted, bent. At first glance it’d just look abandoned, but once you started moving around it the strange angles made themselves known.
This was the dream’s vengeance, punishing the hubris of the dreamers. The dream had structure—it had purpose. Few understood the purpose (wanted to, wanted to understand) but to defy that purpose was to risk doom. CableCentral risked doom, and doom was what they got.
Like the worst and weirdest of the Sideways, normal people setting foot on those grounds risked losing their feet. It wasn’t instantly fatal, and maybe cubism itself wasn’t actually infectious like the Department of Safety had hammered home for decades… but odds were not in your favor. Unless you were a little cubist, too…
Danger stopped alongside Trouble at the threshold of that stronghold of media madness.
"Stand back a bit; I’m going to have to tweak myself a bit to get in and out of there," I warned him. "But I will get out of there. I’m coming back to you. Don’t forget the promise we made tonight."
It was a command for his benefit, as well as mine. Don’t forget the promise we made here tonight. Don’t forget. Don’t lose yourself along the way, because you have so much to live for…
Nudge Danger away, so he’s out of your personal space. Time to lose yourself just a little. Just enough to mesh with the building, like a picking a lock. Water in the shape of a cup. Bruce Lee would be proud.
And… flowing in through what was presumably the front door.
Cable 24/7 365 I want my MTV operators are standing by it slices it dices // the promise of a thousand little wires, delivering everything you could possibly need right into your house, a feed like the water in your toilet doesn’t matter where it comes from where it goes you need it and it LOOKS clean enough and—
Focus. Well. Don’t totally focus. Just focus enough to move through the environment without becoming it.
Move fast. Move quickly. In and out. No time to enjoy the scenery. Shouldn’t be enjoying this scenery, anyway.
Office lobby. Plants. Seats. Coffee tables, trade magazines. A receptionist’s desk still warm and sticky with blood from where the sign sheared through her body. The sign’s back on the wall now, but the blood remains. The body is gone. Where did it go? Did the building consume it? Don’t know. Don’t really want to find out.
Channel 879z. Broadcasting from somewhere in this mess. Technical rooms, not office rooms, those hold the key—rooms full of levers and switches and buttons, where the signal is controlled. Flow from office to back rooms and find the signal…
I walked with many feet, covering many hallways. One advantage to being like this is being like this is being like this is being all over the place. I can be all over the place and snap right back to the center when I need to. The best part of me is there’s so many of me. In call centers, in mail rooms, in the break rooms, in the ladies restroom where many ran to as the building started twisting itself around them // no, don’t be there, that’s a bad place. Bad things happened there. Fearful things.
Control the fear. You are something to be afraid of, that’s what Bedlam always says. Nothing to fear // when you are fear itself.
Can’t stick around in any one place; determine if the room you’re in is the source of 879z and move on. Stable or unstable, check every room, but only a cursory glance. This isn’t like exploring the Sideways, where things change slowly. Things change quickly, shuffling back and forth between potential structures and layouts, as the building lost its mind so long ago. It’s an open, unhealing wound in the City, a place where it realized the dark secret of what it was and couldn’t come to terms with that fact.
Those poor people. I had it bad? No. They had it worse. Hopefully all of them died—no, wait. Hopefully some of them escaped before the building twisted itself too deeply. And then hopefully the rest of them died. Death is better than the alternative, after all…
Papers everywhere, books strewn. Wires hanging out of the walls where they were torn and twisted. Light from bulbs long shattered still flows across the floors, glaring up from the cheap linoleum. Looking looking // looking
help // do you need any // help me //
A break room. I’d passed it three times without realizing one of the screaming mouths frozen in silent horror wasn’t actually frozen. It stood at the coffee machine, patiently waiting for the drip to finish, while clawing at its face and pulling away thoughts. The mad, mad thoughts of a Picasso.
Someone survived this disaster. Well. For varying definitions of survival. And they found me, and I found them.
// mail room’s backed up today // so many calls to answer // help me // please will you // I always have to get the donuts, why do I // why is everything like this // help me
Should’ve passed him by. Poor bastard. No escape from this; once you’re cubist, well, that’s the end, right? …the end of Kelsey Trouble Jones, it would’ve been, when she decoded Bedlam’s phone number and the cubism started creeping in. Should’ve given up on me then. But I didn’t, did I? And Danger wasn’t giving up, either. He saved lives every day…
I explained with every word I had, overlapping: Picasso // cubist // building // disaster // danger
And his eyes widened, in realization. Enough of him was here-and-now to realize the situation—and unlike the immigrants that Danger pulls back from the brink, this was a native, someone who worked at CableCentral when it went under. He knew that a Picasso was more than a curious painting.
oh no // no // no // nononono
Waved hands, to distract.
focus // remember who you are // not who you were // not coffee donuts paperwork mail // may not be too late, I told him, whether it was true or not. // don’t believe what you know // know what you want to believe. // —broadcast // where is the broadcast controlled // please help me
A lot to ask of a Picasso, but I could be here all night without his help. I needed to know where to look. Danger was waiting for me.
More nonono echoed, but… the sounds of it were damping down, like someone running as fast as possible towards the horizon. His insanity was abandoning him, screaming off into the distance. Leaving behind someone terrified, but terrified enough to do whatever asked if it meant a hope of surviving this.
this // this way, he spoke. tape library // live broadcast taped material // all of it on tapes //
And my new friend led the way, through walls, through hallways, through ceilings. To the fifth floor, the heart of the signal.
I knew old media by heart. VHS, Betamax, 8mm, reel-to-reel. The strangest of the strange existed on the analog spectrum—digital had hammered things down into neat little holes of zero and one, with artifacts locking the system up rather than being played alongside content. When the Picasso’d intern showed me to the broadcast heart, I could quickly parse the guts of it even if the guts of the guts would’ve taken a degree in electrical engineering.
A neat little array of tape players and monitors were splayed out above a switchboard. This is where the vast archive of cable television was pumped out across the wires… and immediately, I knew that one of these pairings of player-and-monitor was wrong. It was the askew square in a neat little row of lined up squares.
The crappy standard definition CRT tube had a fuzzy image on it… fuzzy but familiar. What Time Is It? It’s Shots O’Clock. And notably, this was the only tape player currently playing something. The rest were defunct… but this one whirred away, its machinery stable enough to pump out a broadcast.
Would destroying the scourge of Channel 879z be as simple as hitting the Eject button? Was it really that simple, in the end?
The Intern hovered, tentatively. Looked like he wanted to run or to stay. Wanted to know what was going on, too. Or… no. he knew what was going on. I got the feeling there was more he wanted to tell me, if only he could remember the specifics…
// danger // coming // can’t be here // scared // loop around // coffee // sorry
And vanished. Phased through a wall, fleeing. What was he fleeing? We were the most dangerous things in this building. Monsters don’t have to be afraid of anything.
Doesn’t matter. Focus. End this. Hit the Eject button.
A fresh tape popped out, and the monitor went dead. Signal boost destroyed, just like that.
The curious bit was the hand-lettered label on the tape. All the tapes racked up here had machine-printed labels, declaring them to be episodes of sitcoms or commercial reels or old movies… this one, though, simply said: "EXPERIMENT 32." Hastily scrawled magic marker on sticky paper label, someone who couldn’t be bothered to write Annabell’s name. An uncaring man, cruelly careless…
How did I know that? How did I feel the sloppy gestures of that marker, as I traced my finger along the label’s edge? This hard and real object amidst so much nonsense. The scrawl, the same scrawl in a wastebasket nearby… I could feel his writing, the data left behind. It linked from tape label to a crumpled up piece of paper left behind.
Paper in hand, unfolding. Reading.
Latest experiment. Linking between metadream and dream Success??
PROOF: neurological response to audio/video possible (eat it perkins!!! I was right!!!!)
Echo’s suggestion of using this disgusting woman pays off but Why her??
Who cares?? it works
ONE STEP CLOSER TO MORNING thank god so tired
all work and no play makes jack a dull boy
Real paper in my real hands, along with a real videotape. More questions than answers, but this felt important, for some reason. Metadream. A stupid term for something I was on the edge of understanding. Should be more poetic than that. I’d have to invent a better word for it later. Words on paper, intensely focused on them. Very much so. Real real real—
I was real. Not cubist. What?
A very real breath behind me.
Spin on two feet—nearly falling over, so used to gliding in multiples, only one now. Only Kelsey Jones. Intern gone, ran for it. All alone, with the gunman.
A gun. He had a gun pointed at me. I’d never seen his face in three dimensions, only the two of a video conference call, but I knew that scraggly quasi-beard by heart.
"Banner Sherbet," I recognized, more surprised by that than by him pointing a gun in my direction.
"Picked a good night to check in on my cash cow," he spoke, keeping a steady grip, knowing he could end me at any second and there was nothing I could do about it. With his other hand, he set down a backpack he was carrying, so he could then do a proper two-handed grip on the pistol. "That your boy waiting outside the building? I used the side entrance so he couldn’t warn you. Can’t let you shut down Channel Z, Troublemaker. This is my bread and butter."
I had a two-handed grip, too. A grip on the videotape, labeled so poorly.
"It’s not your handwriting," I knew, again focusing on the least important thing in the room.
"Correct. No idea who set this up, but whoever it was, I’ve got a lot to thank them for," he said. "So here’s what happens next. You’ll die, for starters. I’m sorry, but you know too much, and I can’t let you go—you’ll just come back later to finish what you started. Then I’m going to pull that tape out of your hands, and put it back in the VCR. 879z is going back on the air."
"You haven’t shot me yet," I recognized. "You should be getting on with that. Or I’ll go cubist and kill you."
"No, actually, you won’t. You can’t, can you?"
I couldn’t. I pushed and pushed, and despite the rising fear (I am a thing to be feared, no, I’m not, I’m just me, just small little me) I couldn’t tap into my quasi-cubist nature. Blocked…
The knapsack. Something in there.
"It’s amazing what you can find on the right auction sites," Banner said, with a grin. "Cubist computer equipment, artifacts from the Sideways… or the polar opposite. A teddy bear that negates cubism. It’s served me well, letting me get in and out of here alive—and finding this place at all using only wire traces was a bitch, believe me, took weeks. Damned if I was gonna be stopped so close to the finish line by something like cubism. Turns out it’s a great defense against freaks like you, too. I bet I could shoot you right now and you’d just die. No phasing, no teleporting, nothing. Bang. Dead."
Talking a lot. Maybe working himself up to it. I could see a bead of sweat; this wasn’t a man used to straight up murdering a dude. He wasn’t a gangster. He was a hacker, like me. If he was going to shoot it’d take a lot of self-reassurance… maybe this much, actually. As much as he’d already done.
In fact, his finger was ready to flex and squeeze that trigger. I could see it. No more time.
But I could see something else. Trouble wasn’t alone here. And even without any distortion ruining his features, I recognized him perfectly, sneaking up behind Banner Sherbet.
"What if someone stole that bag of yours?" I asked. "Stole it and ran as fast as they could. Then you’d be up the creek, ’cause I’d be cubist, and shooting a Picasso in the head’s harder than you think. What if that happened right now?"
"What’re you getting at?" the hacker asked, sensing something amiss. "What…"
The Intern snatched up Banner’s knapsack and bolted, on his own two feet.
My feet became many and the bullet passed through one of me, but that was fine, because I had enough of me now.
Still clutching the knapsack with white knuckles, as we exited the CCBC building together.
I don’t think Danger was expecting Trouble to bring more trouble with her, in the form of a twentysomething who fetched the pastries each morning for skimpy college credit.
"Dave, meet Scooter. Scooter, this is Dave, my fiancé," I introduced. "Dave, we need to leave right away because there’s a crazy hacker’s Picasso with a gun who’s lost himself in that building and is probably never going to come out again but he’s going to raise a bit of a ruckus and I’d like to be very far away when the Department of Safety notices. Also Scooter is cubist, but it’s okay, because he’s holding a teddy bear that’s helping him learn how to keep himself together. Do we have cab fare for three? Does cab fare work that way?"
The gofer from the eighties got the first real night of sleep he’d had since he lost himself, thirty years ago. Our bed would suffice, until we could figure out what to do with him. His teddy bear proved fine company, thankful to be free from that greasy hacker’s grip.
879z was dead. Annabell was free. One of the men exploiting her got what was coming to him. And, as an additional bonus, I’d freed a fellow victim of cubism from its grip. This was a grand ultra super extreme victory of mission accomplishment.
And yet, it didn’t feel like one. I’d heard that when one door closes, another opens. (If that was the case then the air pressure in your building is something terrifying and you have deeper problems than the status of doors.) In this case, one question answered simply posed another question. I’d done good today, but there was yet more to do…
"What exactly are we going to do with him?" Dave asked quietly, as we sat in my living room and pondered the situation.
"I have no idea," I admitted. "He’s like me—he’s got deep cubism in him. But Vivi was a Picasso too, once. A bear led her back to herself in time, and I think this one will want to help him out. I… hmm. Thinking. Thinking. …we can’t hand him over to Orientation, they’ll just hand him over to Safety and he’ll be put to death. No. I’ll hack Orientation’s records. Change his date of birth, give him a new life. Yes. I think we can do this. We can solve this trouble."
"Solve this problem, you mean?"
"No, he’s in trouble, and we’re solving it. TroubleSolvers. Right? I mean, that makes sense, right?"
"Uh. Wasn’t TroubleSolvers just a silly name for the fake company you made up…?"
"Maybe. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s something more," I thought, turning the word over and over in my brainmeats. "Like what you do. You save people with the government’s help, but the government won’t save Scooter. Instead, I can save him. I can help people who the government won’t help, like Annabell, like Scooter. Like myself. I could do that. I could…"
But, Scooter wasn’t the only trouble we were facing.
Annabell wasn’t solved trouble, not quite yet. I verified myself that Channel 879z was now nothing but snow, with no underlying effects, no noteworthy pattern in the chaos. She was off the grid. But wasn’t a tit-for-tat deal—she didn’t have to go into rehab just because I pulled her cable out of the wall. Maybe it’d help us get in with her… help Dave reconnect with someone who may-or-may-not be considered his mother. Lots of unknowns. Plenty of trouble still to sort through.
And even beyond that, there was the tape, and the note. The link which made 879z work, the ‘latest experiment,’ had been initiated with malicious intent. Someone deliberately hooked Annabell up to the Sideways Signals, for unknown purpose. Thirty-one experiments before her, all trying to prove something. Prove what…?
Two years ago I got pulled into the swirling cloud of darkness that culminated in Picasso Friday. Bedlam’s schemes, Dougal’s master plan, Penny’s resistance movement. The Lucid Dreamer, the night everything went crazy, Grandma Scarlett’s comfort keeping me from getting sucked into the madness.
That incident… well, I got involved at the very end, while everybody else had been fighting the good fight for weeks before I stumbled across it.
Another good fight was coming. They’d hinted at it, my BFF and my BFF’s enemy. Echo, the one who hid CableCentral away. Echo, who suggested that the unknown malefactor exploit Annabell’s misery. Something was coming, something like Picasso Friday, and this time I was at the start of it.
Hopefully at the start of it. The alternative being "too late."
Phone ringing. Enough to jerk me out of my ponderances. Who would be calling at this hour…? Slide to unlock, answer.
"Um, hi?" I offered.
"Miss Jones?" the man on the other end of the line asked. "CEO of the TroubleSolvers organization?"
…oh, right. I’d made that whole fake website, hadn’t I, with help-wanted ads and contact information and everything.
"We have a mutual friend," the man continued, before I could confirm. "One who assures me that your organization will be, uh, kinda hush-hush about things if I ask you to be. ’cause I’m sitting on this really big stockpile of food and I’m looking to offload it in a charity-sorta way, but I don’t want it traced back to me, and Marcy said that you were cool, so— hello? Are you there?"
"Yes, hello, I’m here," I spoke. "May I ask who’s calling?"
"Name’s Gus Zero."
No it isn’t.
"No it isn’t," I replied. "What’s your real name?"
"I… kinda don’t wanna use my real name on an unsecured line—"
"Dammit, Gus, I told you she was cool. Don’t be a douche."
"—right, right, Marcy. Uh. Name’s Gustav Jørgensen. So… you interested in my product or what?"
"Welcome to the start of it," I told him. "Things are about to get a lot weirder for all of us."
Sleeping on the couch alongside Danger was a bit difficult, what with Scooter taking up our queen-sized bed. But I needed Dave Smith close to me, especially tonight. Because this was indeed only the beginning of my troubles.