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 tiny padded cell from which there is no escape. Assuming you were ever outside that cell in the first place, of course; how could you really tell?
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…
A lock has a singular purpose—to keep certain people out, and allow certain people in. That lock can be a simple deadbolt or a crazy complicated array of biometric readers, but in the end, all locks hold to that core concept. Those who are acceptable get in; those who are unacceptable stay out. Locks promise a measure of peace and security that people put great faith in.
What happens when a lock fails? What happens when those who are excluded cross the line the lock was defending against? A lock that fails is considered broken. It hasn’t done its job, and the end result is disaster. Crisis. Unthinkable change. No, a lock must remain steadfast and absolute.
A lock is a steadfast soldier, with no room for compromise. A self-selected champion with pride in the ability to hold the world at arm’s length. Comfortable and safe behind a wall of one’s own making, unaware of the world changing beyond the barrier...
//013: Inside Man
Officially, it was all Archie’s idea.
"You actually want to manage my restaurant?" was his actual reaction to the suggestion.
"It’s not exactly my dream job, no. But I’m good at coordinating teams and crisis management, if our fight against Dougal is any indication," Gregory Yates explained. "From what you’ve been telling me over the years, it’s basically the same thing. —okay, it’s not quite the same as a madman targeting your family for endless harassment by an over-the-edge nutball cop or dealing with a chaos goddess trying to destroy the city. But it’s… you know… the same skill set."
Probably a bit too much detail on that particular comparison, in hindsight. Archie’s moments of pause when thinking about the incident at the Heart of the City had been getting longer and longer. The man had been scarred.
It wasn’t something anyone else would’ve picked up on, but Gregory Yates knew Archibald Tully inside and out. Archie had run the Seventh Street Scavengers for its entire brief-but-crazy moment in the sun, had pulled together a group of outcasts and orphans, made them into a family. He’d protected them against other gangs and the long arm of the law, had trusted and confided in them, and earned their trust in return. When Archie seemed lost in thought, Gregory knew that the unflappable jolly old fat man was actually quite flapped.
The revelation at the Heart of the City… the truth about the dreamer and the dream… it was a lot to swallow. It seemed to confirm the Echo Revelation, that nothing was real and nobody actually existed. Penelope denied that wholeheartedly, felt there had to be something more going on under the surface, but… Gregory did his best not to even think about it. And Archie was having trouble not thinking about it.
"I know you’ve been seriously considering retirement. Or at the very least, an extended vacation," Gregory reminded, to keep Archie on track. "So, go for it. Take as much time as you want. Plenty to get your head back in the game. —don’t bother denying it, you know I know you too well for that. I’ve spoken to Johnny, and he agrees that the stress of the Fish Place gig is not helping. Let me take over for a bit, Archie. You’ve stood for me in the past; let me stand for you now."
Starting to get there. Almost at the tipping point. So, Gregory swallowed his pride, and offered one final push.
"Also, to be frank, I could use the money. Because… you know."
"Because of Bedlam," Archie filled in. "No more mapping the Sideways, or she’ll whack you. Right. Damn, Greg, you sure do know how to make enemies. And this ain’t one we can brawl with in a parking lot, is it?"
"Not particularly, no. Only consolation prize is she seems to have given Penelope a pass, even if I’m Picasso Enemy Number One. So. How about it? It’d be good for Penelope, honestly. A simple and stable life, nice and routine. She can focus on her classes. Have a real home."
And like that, Gregory Yates was the new manager of That Fish Place, the Zag’s finest (and only) seafood restaurant.
A bit manipulative of him, honestly—pulling every card he had, up to and including the ‘better life for your niece’ card—but the end result was good for everyone. A good life for the Yates family. A good way to support Gregory’s other family, the old gang.
Above all… good for Penelope. No more aimless wandering in her weird quest to understand the City. That was behind her. Maybe she’d even leave the strangeness of the Heart of the City behind, and settle into a safe and happy life. Just what a caring father would want for his daughter.
Two years of a stable, safe, happy little home life.
Outwardly, everything was going according to plan. Gregory had gone from being a thrill-a-minute gang banger to being a thrill-a-minute bodyguard to being a thrill-every-few-weeks restaurant manager. Penelope had settled down and abandoned the deadly Sideways in favor of attending online classes and playing video games. For the first time in ages, the two of them had something resembling a normal life.
Then she started moving bits of the City around like chess pieces.
He objected, of course. His daughter slipping into a full-day comatose state as she manipulated the fabric of reality was hardly a comforting thought. But, much like her initial quest to explore the Sideways… he couldn’t really stop her, could he? She had a plan and was sticking to it, and he either had to support her or get out of the way.
The arguments they had early on were fierce, but ultimately useless. He couldn’t stop her from this crazy messiah complex. (Assuming she wasn’t in fact a messiah. Which was… unthinkable. As in "not something Gregory liked to think about.") He had no real way to stop her from practicing her newfound skills at manipulating the City—what could he do, ground her?
So, he tried guidance. Specifically guiding her away from doing anything even slightly risky, away from wandering out into the City to study its structure all day. Avoiding notice and attention. She gave lip service to the idea, and after her blog accidentally got her famous overnight she did put a lid on her paranormal hobbies for a time. But then… but then…
Then that damnable Wei girl happened, the one he had to be cajoled into saving when they ran into her stupidly traipsing about the Defined Tower. Marcy Wei and her crazy new boyfriend happened. Some teenage vandal had gotten his daughter mixed up with the remnants of one of the City’s most bloodthirsty Salvager gangs—one the Seventh Street Scavengers knew never to cross, never even to call by name.
And now, one week after Grandma Scarlett had passed on, Penelope was talking up how her work with Marcy was like passing the torch of goodwill from one generation to the next and Gregory had had enough.
"No goodwill can come of this mess," Gregory declared, over their morning toast and eggs.
"What? It’s all goodwill. It’s a charity operation," Penny explained. "They’re giving all the groceries away, every month—"
"Which is adorable, but how exactly do you think this guy is gonna defend his amazing goodwill, Penny?" Gregory asked, over morning toast and eggs. "It’s going to need defending. You had to move his grocery store to the middle of nowhere—into the Sideways, for crying out loud—because what he’s doing is spectacularly dangerous. It’s not just the Department of Resources targeting him for squatting on what is by all rights legal salvage. All the gangs are going to be targeting him, too. This is the Alphas all over again. There’s going to be murders over who gets to enjoy that food."
"There doesn’t have to be…"
"Of course there does. Hungry people will do anything to feed their families, up to and including killing. As much as the D-o-R thinks they’re keeping the City afloat, there’s a reason the Salvagers exist: there’s not enough. And your friends are going to learn that the hard way."
"Okay, let me put it like this," Penny offered. "There shouldn’t have to be any… any killings. This City could be wonderful, Dad. It’s capable of being anything and everything to everyone, even Bedlam knows that. If people could just look beyond what they see in front of them, it could be a paradise. Marcy and Gus are taking a risk, yes, but it’s because they believe the City can be something beyond what it’s become!"
"Again: adorable, but the reality of it is that there’s going to be blood. You can’t hide them well enough to avoid that. If you were smart about this you wouldn’t get involved in their mess, either. This could splash back on you—"
"I’m doing what I think is right! I’m trying to help the City!"
"Penny, be practical. You should be helping yourself, first and foremost. Staying safe. If you want to shuffle the City quietly, fine, but you can’t take risks like these. If the City knew what you were, that you were behind the shuffles, they’d be terrified. Department of Safety would do what they do best in the name of public security, and that’d be all she wrote. I’m not trying to antagonize you here, Penny, just keep you aware of the reality of your situation…"
"Reality? Dad, who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t? The answer is us! No other answer makes sense."
Which earned her a confused raising of the eyebrow.
"What idiot gave you that gem of philosophical nonsense?" he asked.
Scrape of a chair on the tile of their apartment kitchen, as Penelope rose to her feet.
"That idiot would be Grandma Scarlett," she spoke. "And she was the kindest, smartest person I’ve ever known. She didn’t see people the way you do, that everybody’s… that everybody’s just some selfish rat at heart only doing what’s best for themselves. And you can’t stop me from helping Gus with his dreams! I mean, what’re you gonna do, Dad? Shoot him?!"
The soft ticking of the clock got to enjoy a few moments to itself, as words miserably failed the pair of kitchen occupants. Penny’s mouth moved up and down slightly, as if trying to swallow what she just said or say something else to replace them or both. Gregory, meanwhile, sat in neutral silence.
"I. Dad. I. Uh," she tried on for size. "I mean, I don’t seriously think that you’d… okay, that was way too far and I’m sorry, okay, it’s not like I think you’re, I’m just saying, I don’t know what I’m saying, I… just…"
A hand raised, to silence her. But not coldly. Gregory, trying to keep her from feeling worse than she already did, accepting the intent even if the expression wasn’t working out as Penelope had hoped.
"Your morning classes are about to start," he reminded her. "And I need to get the restaurant ready for the lunch rush. It’s fine. It’s payroll paperwork day, so I’ll be back up sometime after dinner. Don’t forget to put all your clothes in the hamper; Johnny’s bringing it to the laundromat tonight."
"It’s fine, Penny. Let’s just get on with our day. Okay?"
She said okay, even if it wasn’t. Which was good enough for now.
Receipts to go over. Paychecks to issue. Numbers to tally. Minor problems on the floor and in the kitchens to sort out. Same thing every day for the last two years—difficult work which required focus, but still quite routine stuff. Hardly the stuff of high adventure in the Sideways.
Young Gregory would’ve hated this level of mundane routine; Old Gregory took considerable comfort in it. But that contrast between young and old was never more stark than on this particular day, in wake of a generation gap blow-up between himself and Penny.
Back when the staredown with Bedlam was ramping up, he’d also had a falling-out with his daughter—one which his fellow former gang-banger Kut-ya-up Karla helped him sort through. How’d she put it…?
Would you have put up with this kind of treatment at her age? Hell no. We were wild and free and got into way worse trouble than she does, and we survived. Reason being that we stood by each other through the whole mess of it, open and clear about the crap we were in.
But wasn’t that what Gregory was doing? He wasn’t trying to stifle Penny, just be open and clear about the crap she was in. He’d been staying hands off—Karla was right, Young Gregory wouldn’t have tolerated otherwise—but Penny was getting involved in things she had no business getting involved in. Archie, the elder of the gang, would’ve pulled Young Gregory back and been honest about the situation.
In fact… one time, Gregory had an idea for a heist where he’d jack a beer truck and throw the most wicked kegger his poverty-stricken district had ever seen. Earn goodwill for the gang, have a hell of a time, be the hero of the day. But Archie pointed out (and rightfully so) that it would’ve put the Seventh Street Scavengers at risk of reprisal and retribution, way worse than they could handle. Gregory heeded the wisdom and backed down. So… why couldn’t Penny do the same?
Hah. Wild keggers. Been decades since "Kegstand Greg" last cut loose and partied. Partying was a default way for the Scavengers to put aside the garbage pile that was their lives for at least one evening. Good times, good times indeed…
…good times soaked in high-functioning alcoholism, intense denial, and the occasional nearly lethal knife fight in the streets with other gangs. All the bad craziness drummed out of him by Elizabeth Tully, the light of his life. She knew he was capable of more. Young Gregory evolved into Old Gregory, maturing and becoming a better person for it. The whole gang came along for that ride, becoming restaurateurs and housewives and so on. That was better, wasn’t it?
But Lizzie was gone. He’d killed her; a needless sacrifice. Old Gregory wasn’t any less bloody than Young Gregory, in the end. And this night, counting up the receipts after a very quiet dinner with his daughter, Old Gregory wasn’t feeling like a better person at all.
He paused in his number crunching, in the silence of the tiny office in back of That Fish Place. The still of evening around him. Penny was waiting upstairs for him to finish his work day… hopefully doing something healthy, like playing video games for hours. Hopefully not dreaming up crazy gangland schemes with her new crazy gangland friends.
How would Young Gregory deal with the intolerably unfixable circumstances of his life?
Easy answer, actually. He’d go out and get drunk. The sort of behavior Lizzie would’ve hated. Except Lizzie wasn’t around anymore, was she? All his fault.
He bumped into Johnny the Icepick (returning with the laundry) on his way out the door. Good timing.
"Seen Penny?" he asked.
"Yeah, she said she was heading out to see a friend in the ‘burbs, then gave me her laundry hamper," Johnny spoke, hefting the basket. "Why? Something up?"
A slight twitch flicked behind his eyes. His daughter, wandering off into the City again. Maybe to see a friend, maybe to scout out her next shuffle… impossible to control that girl anymore. Inadvisable to control that girl anymore, who knew for sure. Likely doing it to get back at him for this morning’s outburst.
Normally he’d worry, but he’d already chosen his course, hadn’t he? He’d just add this worry on top of his existing worries and drown them all.
"Well, when Penny gets back, tell her I’m heading out for the night," he requested. "I’ll be back in late."
His Maître d’ expressed confusion. Difficult to tell, since his eyebrows were so thick that moving them did little to nothing.
"You? Going out?" Johnny asked. "You? —I mean, okay, if you want. You’re the boss. Shouldn’t you just tell Penny yourself…?"
Out the door before he had to answer that question. The answer was probably "yes."
Once committed to a plan of action, Gregory Yates was by tradition incredibly steadfast. Tonight he’d decided quite firmly to relive his wild youthful spirit, and no force in the City could stop him from achieving this goal. True that his body was not capable of soaking up alcohol like a sponge anymore (was it ever?) and he’d clearly live to regret this, but… that was part of the point, wasn’t it? Cap off a day of regrets with an evening of regrets…
Finding a suitable watering hole was the key. And if he was truly going to relieve the heyday of the Seventh Street Scavengers… that meant going to the Greasemonkey. If it still existed.
The Greasemonkey was the only bar on Seventh Street, out in District 7. As a result it was the de facto headquarters of the Scavengers, the place where they wiled away the evening hours and laughed and partied and occasionally got into a fistfight that sent half of them to the hospital and the other half to a holding cell. The owner wasn’t thrilled to have a bunch of suicidal Sideways divers squatting in his bar, most of them being quite underage… but they were a semi-benevolent pack of thugs. They chased out the other gangs and didn’t shake down the locals, which made them damn near saints compared to other salvagers.
District 7, despite being an economic black hole, was a short subway ride from That Fish Place on the hot and happening Zag. The subway routes kept changing year to year, of course, so he had to double-check the map… but even with an unexpected line transfer or two, he was there in twenty minutes.
And lo and behold, the Greasemonkey still stood. Same broken neon sign, purposeless glass tubes showing an oiled wrench in a beer mug. Which was both a whimsical expression of branding and a dire warning of the beverage quality you were about to consume.
At the threshold to an evening of self-abusive debauchery. He didn’t have his mates with him, either… no camaraderie to mask the depression they were collectively drinking away. The original bartender was likely dead at this point, being teetering on the edge already back in the day. This would be a straight up solo mission, a singular drowning of sorrows.
Ready for what lie ahead, Gregory Yates grasped the brass door handle, and pushed.
And briefly wondered if he’d stepped into the Sideways.
When lost in the twisted warrens of repurposed rooms, it was common to walk through a shop front door and end up in a living room, or have an airport checkpoint lead you to a swimming pool. So, it’d be normal for a seedy, run-down bar front to lead to the bastard child of an Applebees and TGI Fridays, with a splash of Starbucks on the side. But with no tape around the entrance, be it yellow-black or red-black, the truth expressed itself plainly… the Greasemonkey was under VERY new management.
Someone had redecorated with all sorts of whimsical tidbits of pop culture gone by, glued up on the walls at strange angles. Posters advertising cigarettes to war veterans. A Norman Rockwell Santa Claus encouraging you to buy bottled pop. Concert posters for psychedelic bands next to mass-produced silk screen prints of soup cans. Bubblegum machines. Countertop jukeboxes. Chrome 50’s napkin dispensers. Ashtrays made from beat-up hubcaps yanked off old taxis…
If not for the nicotine haze and the familiar clink of glass bottles, he’d have assumed the Greasemonkey was now a family restaurant. But no, these were adults… well. Young adults. Wearing what looked like the combined inventories of six thrift shops. Hats and jackets and shoes from a wide spectrum of decades, all of them quite out of fashion, but worn in fashionable ways.
Oh. Oh, wonderful. Hipsters.
The Greasemonkey had been taken over by hipsters.
After this twenty second scan of the bar, he turned one-eighty and prepared to resume searching for an appropriate saloon.
The familiar voice stopped him.
He could’ve kept on walking. It wasn’t like the voice belonged to anybody he really knew, not really. They’d thrown their hats in together on the whole Bedlam thing, but it was more of a mutual-enemy scenario than any sort of friendship. Gregory had stayed cool and professional through that entire mess, because someone had to be. No sense wasting time getting close to their designated driver when he was busy trying to keep his daughter from being sniped by a psychotic Safety czar.
But… it was a familiar voice. And when it came to drinking with someone at least slightly familiar versus finding somewhere else to drink alone, Gregory found himself unwilling to just walk out. Much to his own surprise.
Cass. Cassandra? Cassie? Cassiopeia? Gregory didn’t honestly know, didn’t even know her last name; she always presented herself as plain and simple Cass. Nothing more, nothing less. He hadn’t bothered digging any deeper.
What he did know read like an executive summary. She’d styled herself after the beat poets of the fifties, embracing a retro style that had fallen so far out of favor that it’d come back around as hip and cool again. Also, she drove a truck for Grandma Scarlett. And… that was all he knew.
Oh. And, she could stare at you and write your entire life story on her typewriter, because she had some weird connection to his daughter. To Lucid. To something he didn’t want to think about very much.
Despite this shaky personal connection, she invited him in to her little world of cultural appropriation. Introduced him to the new owner of the bar, named Reg. Introduced him to her inscrutably dainty little beatnik friend, Fi. And bought the first round.
"I can pay for my own drinks," Gregory had insisted.
"And I run a semi-successful indie shipping business. I can pay for your drinks and my own drinks," Cass had double-insisted. "Besides, ‘he needs this, or thinks he does.’"
"—nevermind. Anyway, Pabst okay with you?"
Right. This was the girl who could read people like a book. No wonder she’d insisted on dragging him in and watering him down… she knew exactly what was going on in there. Unnerving, knowing someone could know your little secret thoughts that easily. And despite knowing them, the young woman actually wanted to get involved in the mess that was Gregory’s life.
So… whatever. Gregory wanted a drink, and a drink was being offered. Despite feeling like an outsider twenty years out of step with the rest of her compatriots, he’d take that drink. And another. And maybe another for good measure, just because.
The nice thing was that he didn’t feel forced to talk. Cass didn’t push him to relate his sad, sad story. The little group at the bar had been chatting away before he even got there, and after a few confirming glances with Cass, were ready to resume discussions despite the old man in their midst. He didn’t have to say a word; she just kept him mixed into the discussion they were already having. Specifically, about the decor.
Apparently the Greasemonkey was a recent acquisition of Reggie’s—one day he’d decided to buy the whole building, since he already owned an art gallery space upstairs. Having a social dive within arm’s reach of the gallery made sense, so he and his friends set about rebuilding the bar in their own image.
"…I’m saying it’s a good start, but it’s not ironically ironic enough," the young man said, while pulling another beer for Gregory. "If we’re really going for the post-ironic snark on hipster culture—ripping on the very concept of the hipster, a pure media construct—I think we aren’t taking it far enough. We need more. Make it look like all the cultural detritus this City has to offer imploded in here, all at once…"
Fi, who was already onto her second long-filtered cigarette, spoke with a dragon’s breath.
"Patron, not a poet," she reminded.
"Hey, now. I may occasionally mistake Van Goghs for Monets and sex toys for modern art, but I know corporate branding," Reg replied. "Ours is all over the map. That’s by design, but it doesn’t feel like a unified brand of chaos. Just feels… unfinished. We need to take it further. Really turn the Greasemonkey into a temple to every disposable fashion trend of the last hundred years…"
Now Gregory had to speak his mind. Maybe his first serious alcohol in years had loosened his lips just enough.
"Then why’s it still called the Greasemonkey?"
Quiet for too long; they’d almost forgotten the man with graying hair was sitting in their midst. After a belch to lock in their attention, he continued.
"That name made sense, back when District 7 was more industrial. But this isn’t a machinist’s dive anymore. You gutted the place and made it into this… thing. Why not change the sign, too?"
This guy was Cass’s guest, and her responsibility. After furtive glances, Reg and Fi opted to leave this job for her.
"Can’t change the sign," the poet spoke, tracing a finger along the rim of her own beer glass. "Wouldn’t be right. It’s a temple to the madness of the City, yes, but that City also gave us this building. Gave us the sign, with it. So we repurpose what it gives us, while showing respect to what came before. Old things, even things people buy intending to discard one day… they exist, they’re real. They can be rearranged to have new meaning. You can write new verses using the same old words dreamed up by Anglo-Saxon monks in the middle ages. That’s poetry. So’s this."
"Shuffling things around," Gregory recognized, with surprisingly bitter inflection.
Reg coughed uncomfortably, unsure if his new customer was approving or disapproving. "Uh… right. Shuffling. Like how the City’s been shuffling lately, you know? Nobody knows why it’s happening, but it knows what it wants to be. Look, I’m a rich boy with too much free time, so I am very likely talking out my ass here… but… I want the Greasemonkey to reflect the times. And the era we’re in is one of change without change. So, we’re keeping the sign as-is."
Bloody stupid, Gregory grumbled inwardly.
The bar was what it was. He’d never have set foot in here if they’d made it look the same, inside and out. He’d know this wasn’t the comfortable and familiar little hole in the wall he once wasted many an evening within. The City should make sense, should be consistent… they were embracing the same kind of idealistic silliness his daughter seemed to want them to embrace. Nothing as it should be. Everything as it could be…
Fine, then. Time to educate the younger generation. If his daughter wouldn’t listen, maybe these young adults would.
"You wanna know what I see? I see a dent over there, where I ran a guy’s head into the wall for calling me a sissy," Gregory stated, gesturing towards the indentation near a rack of fine hand-selected vintages. "And over there, Karla sliced a guy’s pinky off for hitting on her while she was playing darts. Right over there where you have that… what is that thing? That thing. That’s where Lenny lost his ear. THAT is the Greasemonkey. This place was a filthy little hole in the wall, but it was a consistently filthy little hole in the wall. Knew where you stood, here. This is… it’s… nonsense. Can’t stand here. I can’t…"
…how many beers did he have in him? And when was the last time ‘too many’ was a legitimate amount of beer, anyway? Beer passed like water for young Kegstand Greg. When he really wanted to get screwed up, he did the kind of shots that would’ve stripped paint off the walls. How could Gregory Yates actually get drunk off a few beers…?
I don’t like it when you drink. You act too wild, just like my brother.
Laughter. Archibald Tully, wild? That dumpy fiftysomething restaurateur? Craziness. But he was wild once, wasn’t he? All of them were wild. It was a crazy city in a crazy time. You had to go a little crazy just to endure it all…
"What’s so funny?" one of the young people asked.
He was laughing, wasn’t he. And his glass was empty.
But the tinge of that laughter wasn’t as familiar as the taste of the beer. High spirits while drowning in spirits, that fit the Seventh Street Scavengers. This giggle of his, it wasn’t born from good cheer.
This was his bar, but it wasn’t his bar. This was his street, but it wasn’t his street. This was his body, but it wasn’t his body. Nothing was quite the way it was supposed to be, back when things made sense. And boozing it up wasn’t magically restoring the past… all it did was make a sad old man look even sadder. His laughter was aimed at himself, not at everything else. He didn’t have his insular little group of comrades with which to mock the world. All he had was… this. And this was pathetic.
So, he downed one more drink, carefully got off his bar stool, and decided to call it an evening. Head out, shamble back to the subway, crawl into bed and die…
Except his balance and coordination were probably not up to the task of getting on a subway. Fine. Taxi ride.
Three steps in three different directions confirmed that he may not even be up to the task of getting out of the bar. Well. That was going to be a problem, wasn’t it.
In fact, standing right there was proving to be a bit too much for him. So he decided to lie down, instead. Which kind of hurt.
Now the swirls gathered around him. A cloud of hipsters, coming to the aid of the guy whose alcohol tolerance had apparently gone into steep decline when he wasn’t looking. How adorable, the way those faces bore concern for his well being.
One wrinkled old face, who had shown concern for the gangster sobbing into her tissues. I’d make a lousy father, he’d protested. She deserves better than me. That face looking at him now, through the thickness of a shadow, with the same worry also born behind the thick plastic rims of hipster spectacles. Which was absurd. The best person he’d ever known, someone he barely really knew at all, was dead and buried. The world didn’t allow such kindhearted people to endure…
Why should any of these strangers care about Gregory Yates, anyway? He wasn’t one of them, not anymore. The new Seventh Street gang was alien to him. He was just some old bastard desperate to rekindle lost youth. Something to be pitied.
"Wouldn’t blame you if you did, either," he mumbled before the black took him.
Unfortunately for Gregory, one of those faces looming above and beyond him was not quite as caring. But she was smiling, for her own reasons.
Lightning arcing from building to building. Electrical pulses firing from synapse to synapse. Brief bursts of life energy, too short to be seen with the human eye—but he wasn’t seeing it with the human eye, was he? He was seeing it with other eyes.
Copper rods can draw lightning away, keeping its deadly current from dealing any harm to humanity. But something darker was trying to catch the wrath of these outsider gods, this morning. Something dancing between the buildings, a twisting shadow, taunting those probing pulses. come and get me // come and get me, the shadow laughed merrily, leading it around and around, towards…
No. Not paying attention. Not even going to remember on waking. If he did, he’d be accepting the unacceptable.
Honestly, even if he did want to remember yet another strange dream (having them every night, ever since the Heart of the City, Penelope insists they’re more than dreams, can’t accept that, can’t see) the blinding headache would’ve shoved those dream visions away instantly.
At least he was somewhere soft. Better than he’d managed with hangovers long past, sometimes waking up in a dingy alley or on the floor with a pile of fellow squatters. Soft and… leathery?
Leather couch. Okay. Good. Gregory chose to stay lying down, eyes shut, letting the rest of the world trickle in a little at a time. No need to rush things, the morning after a binge. All the time in the world.
Soft blow of an air conditioner on his cheek… no, an electric fan. Noisy and irritating, every sound echoing deep into his brainmeat like a hammer. He could appreciate the cool air even if the motor that drove it was scraping his spine.
Soft clacks, repeated. Keystrokes, but louder than you’d get on a laptop or even some expensive mechanical keyboard. Familiar, though. —ah, okay. Typewriter.
"Clark Nova," he recognized, mumbling it.
A blur joined him, couchside. It presented a glass of water, which was accepted gratefully and wisely not chugged in an instant.
"Figured I’d get some writing in while waiting for you," Cass acknowledged. "Sorry, noise bugging you? I can stop for now…"
"Where’mi?" he mumbled, daring to focus his eyes despite the harsh horizontal slats of light pouring into them…
Being someone used to visually grasping a situation quickly (since potential threats had a good chance of taking you down before you noticed them, otherwise) meant even in this pitiful shape, Gregory Yates could get a good survey of his surroundings once he felt good and ready. An open-air office, of some sort. Old-timey, with a smoked glass window partition much of the space beyond. Venetian blinds, mostly closed, letting in stripes of the morning sun. Wooden desk with a fine finish. Even a desk lamp with a green-colored shade. Impressively anachronistic.
And in the distance beyond this semi-enclosed space… well, the lighting was off, since the gallery wasn’t open for business. But he could see the weirdness that passed for modern art. Rather than delicate watercolors of flowers or cherubs, the locals had embraced a melange of cultural theft. Dressing window mannequins done up like 50s housewives, armed with bullwhips. Geometric shapes painted on canvas in strange patterns that vaguely resembled inverted corporate logos. Kinetic sculptures of scrap metal from old street signs and discarded plastic from name-brand household products. Lovely. Presumably meaningful.
Of course, that suited the poet and her followers, didn’t it? Yesteryear’s sense of style, brought back in line with the modern age. Right down to the replica movie-prop portable typewriter that Cass carried around with her.
Still, right now Gregory was more focused on re-hydrating and trying to resist the urge to throw up. He could critique the decor some other time.
"You’re on the fifth floor of Reg’s art gallery," Cass explained. Using a soft voice, thankfully. "Above the bar. We were going to call you a cab and send you home, but… well, nobody knows where you live. Never came up last time I talked with Penelope, either. ‘sides, someone had to watch out and make sure you didn’t choke to death on your own sick."
Sick. Not a fun word to swallow, in this state.
"Thanks," he rasped, setting the half-drained glass of water aside. "What time is it…?" he inquired, while patting down his pockets in search of his phone. (Still had his gun in the concealed holster at the small of his back. Might be the hipster crowd didn’t notice while moving him…)
"Little after seven in the morning. We’re the only people here. Gallery doesn’t draw a daytime crowd."
"Did you call Penelope?"
"Wasn’t answering. Figured the kid was in bed."
Phone in his hand, lock code in, dialing away. And ringing. And ringing.
"She… might not want to talk to me," Gregory realized. "Ugh. Well. Johnny said she’s at a friend’s house in the burbs, which means Milly or Lucas. They’re ordinary and safe enough, so there’s that, at least…"
Cass pulled over an office chair on squeaky little wheels (squeaky squeaky, oww, head) and straddled it backwards, her preferred posture. Hugged the back, while peering at the older man sitting up on the couch.
"What’s going on with you?" she asked. "Seriously. You show up, don’t talk much, down enough beer to drown a frat party and then pass out after rambling about the good old days. Is this a midlife crisis? I’ve heard of those. Do you need to buy a sports car and a hot trophy wife now?"
"No. I mean, no, no car or trophy wife. Maybe to midlife crisis. …I don’t know, to be honest," Gregory admitted. "Something’s been off, especially between me and my daughter. I thought—quite stupidly, I now realize—that I could deal with it how I used to deal with things, back in the day. …whatever. It’s not really your problem. You’ve done your civic duty looking out for me, but I don’t want to dump this in your lap. S’not fair to you. I’ll just clear out quietly and we can pretend this never happened."
"’cept it did, yeah?" Cass spoke, tapping a finger on the back of her chair. "It happened. And here you are. You got something better to be doing right now? Something you’d rather be doing?"
Receipts to go over, lunch rush to arrange, menu issues to sort out…
"Not particularly," he realized. "But you probably do. You’re young and active and going places. Poems to write, even…"
"Uh-huh. Know what my plan was today?" she asked. "Scrape the crud out of my shower drain. That’s it. Got no shipments to make until Thursday, got no real inspiration to fuel the fire of creation. Life’s heavy and slow, ever since Scarlett waved out. You hitting the floorboards of my bar was the most interesting thing to crash into my life in a week. Good distraction from missing a particularly wrinkly and smiley part of my life, too. So hey, you wanna rush off, fine… I could go scrape the drain."
Not that rushing off was an option, not in this state. Rehydration was a start… but getting the blood flowing in general was the next step. Getting off the couch and onto his own two feet.
"Walk and talk," Gregory suggested, rising. "For now. It’s an art gallery, isn’t it? Show me your art so I may be confused by it."
The centerpiece of the gallery’s fifth floor belonged to Fi.
She’d recreated the set of a popular nineties sitcom, right down to the rows of licensed cereal boxes in the kitchen cabinets. Dressing window dummies had been arranged like the characters, including the neighbor across the hall who kept barging in randomly—he was halfway through the door, frozen in place, an awkward burst onto the scene. But that wasn’t the truly awkward part of it all.
The entire scene had been soaked in disaster. Some of the furniture had burned out, becoming fried husks of ash and soot. Blood covered the walls. Bullet holes had been punctured into the three walls, and presumably had the fourth wall been in place, it’d be riddled with scars as well. One of the characters had hanged himself. Another was nailed upside down to a bookcase.
The title of the piece? "A Diorama About Nothing."
"We’re not sure if she’s serious or not, but I’m putting money down on serious," Cass said. "Whether she’s serious about some hidden intent or serious that it actually means nothing, I don’t know. Fi’s… well, she plays cool and aloof, but her work’s fantastically dark. Think that’s why she gets along so well with Reg. He’s a bottomless black pit of unbridled optimism, she’s an infinitely bright singularity of negativity."
On the whole, Gregory would’ve rather been looking at delicate watercolors of flowers or cherubs. Or…
"Height of cultural taste in my time was a really cool tattoo," he mumbled.
"Huh. I’ve got a teddy bear on my ankle, if you wanna see it."
"Is this art what young people are into these days? Or just… you guys?" Gregory asked, honestly. "I could see Penny liking this. She’s constantly waxing poetic about the City’s weirdness. Doesn’t mean a thing to me. Same with this stuff, I guess. I see a bunch of junk tossed together in a pile, not a work of art."
"A bunch of junk tossed together in a pile with creative intent can be art. You put some thought to what junk you’re tossing and how you’re tossing it, you’re golden. Or intentionally putting no thought to it would be art too, I guess…"
"Yeah. I can’t relate. Can’t relate to any of this. Sorry."
"Don’t be," Cass said, slipping her hands in the pockets of her vest. "I know what it looks like. I know not everybody’s gonna dig it."
"Problem is, I need to start digging it. Or at least understanding the digging of it. Not this, I mean, just… ugh. I have no concept of how to say this…"
"Because of your daughter, you mean?"
That much he knew how to say. Or at least nod along to.
Cass studied the lighted and blood-spattered "APPLAUSE" sign hanging loosely over the sitcom diorama, pondering.
"Obviously I can’t speak to being a parent, but I was a kid at one point. My parents generally had no clue what to do with me, either," she spoke. "I was the weirdo who got her teachers all spooked with scary words. Damn lucky we had no Columbine here, or I’d have dug my own social grave with the things I put on paper. …and by some rights they had right to be freaked out. I freak myself out, quite often. But I’d like to think things turned out okay enough. Should be the same for Penelope. She can sort through her life without needing you to do that for her. Don’t feel obliged to connect if you can’t connect. Just support her as best you can, y’know?"
This simple and clear-cut truth wasn’t exactly new to Gregory. Karla had told him as much; they’d been hiding things from each other, unwilling to support each other. Bedlam almost won the day because Gregory was snooping around on his own while Penelope was having revelations she hadn’t spoken up about.
But in the end, they were aiming at a single goal: defeat a menace that was going to destroy the city. Us vs. them. Easy and straightforward. This felt… different. Penelope was chasing down a dream, and a silly one at that. Putting herself in incredible danger over a foolish notion. Taking risks in order to stop an obvious menace like Seth Dougal, fine, that was something Gregory understood. This wasn’t something he could understand. Not without help.
How to explain that to Cass? (Why was he explaining things to Cass? Who was Cass to him, anyway?) He didn’t have the words. It’d just sound like the trite worries of a parent, in the face of a child who knows with certainty what should be. Like a father complaining about his daughter’s alarming poetry.
Of course… in the same language of that alarming poetry, just maybe…
Language was the key, wasn’t it? In ages long past, Gregory was not the sort of person to openly chat about his feelings with actual words. But he didn’t have to; the Scavengers had their own language, one of unspoken things. They simply knew things about each other, and could lend the right support in the right moment as a result.
How was he going to deal with this new age, when he didn’t even have the language?
Of course… he was talking to a poet. Maybe she’d have better words he could make use of. A mix of the old and the new, in the true spirit of this age. The poet would have exactly the right words, wouldn’t she? Gregory glanced back to the office space, to the typewriter…
"Know what might help me sort this mess out? If you’d write my story," he requested. "Take a hard look at me and write down what you see, like you did for Cartwright. I can’t figure out what’s wrong with me, can’t put it into words. You could."
Tightness, underneath her skin. He could see it plain as day, even through the pain-curtain of the hangover.
"Uh. I… don’t think that’s a great idea," Cass protested. "My little parlor trick isn’t very kind to people."
"It helped us out in a pinch, two years ago. Why not try again? Could be enlightening."
"Pass. It’s not a therapy pillow, it’s a razor blade. You don’t want that."
"Not sure I follow."
Now, Cass snapped her fingers for attention, forced him to look her in the eyes. Grabbing that attention and not letting go, despite all the distracting artwork around them. It was important that he see the unspoken words in her eyes, as well.
"When I do… that, my words cut down to the bone, and I can’t do a thing to soften them," she explained. "It’s automatic writing. Grandma Scarlett did automatic writing in her sleep, to deliver her bears. Same deal, but far less kindly. I don’t see what I’m hammering out on the keys, not until I’m done. And the observations I channel from… from Lucid, or from my unconscious id, or whatever it is I’m hooked up to… they’re cruel."
Gregory offered a firm shrug. (Sort of a manly puffing up of the chest to express fortitude, while loosely gesturing that it wouldn’t matter.) "That’s fine. I can take it. Probably do with some cruel reality, honestly…"
"Yeah, well, I’m not comfortable with cruel reality. —look. The last time I tried writing someone’s story was this one time I fancied someone at a party," she reminisced, glancing above Gregory’s head a bit. "I don’t date much. Don’t even try, really. But this time I figured… amazing personality, wonderful smile, maybe a better person than I deserved… but this time, figured I’d go for it. Thought I’d be super impressive and really connect on an emotional level if I showed off what I could do on the old Clark Nova. …never actually saw what I wrote, after I handed it over. But the reaction was, well…"
Gregory winced, and not from the pulsing headache. They’d pulled Cartwright’s horrible life out of his head, to study through layers of merciless metaphors. Might’ve been an exception to the rule, given he was a revenge-powered lunatic, but if Cass’s people-poems were even half as harsh…
"Needless to say, she ran away in tears," Cass continued. "Ugly night. Lost a few friends in the aftermath. How could you be so heartless, they said. Couldn’t exactly explain myself as an oracle connected to the dream of dreams, could I? Haven’t even explained that bit to Fi and Reg. —wouldn’t matter, anyway. No excuse for abusing my gift-slash-curse in the first place just to impress someone. Pfeh. No excuse at all."
The man let her get it out. A rough memory, to be sure. No sense immediately stepping on it with his own words; he could let the dust settle before doing that.
"I understand," he started with. "But you don’t have to worry about hurting me. I know exactly what I’m getting into, here. And I know exactly who I am to you… nobody special. Not like your friends, and definitely not like Grandma Scarlett. We’re cordial, we’ve stood side by side in wartime, but you don’t have to feel antsy at the idea of bruising my ego. There’s nobody here to harm but me, and that shouldn’t matter to you the way it’d matter if one of them was at the business end of your typewriter. Okay? Just think of me as a perfect stranger. An interesting subject for poetic pondering, nothing more."
"But you’re still… that’s… ugh. Okay. Y’know what? On your head be it," Cass decided. "Back to the office, sit down. It’ll take me a few minutes to warm up the muse."
Clickety clack. The sound of it vaguely reminded Gregory of loading a gun.
It seemed a bit absurd, the need to use that authentic inauthentic movie prop to write her poetry. Wouldn’t a laptop computer or a tablet make more sense? Or if you had to be archaic, a decent ballpoint pen? But no, it had to be a typewriter, Cass had explained. Something something resonance, or whatever. If it worked, Gregory didn’t really care why it worked.
And honestly, he didn’t believe this’d be some kind of psychic nuclear bomb. For someone unsuspecting like a party guest it could be cruel, or for someone with years and years of pent-up horror like Cartwright it could be downright sinister. Gregory knew his past. Knew it wasn’t exactly rosy. At worst, he figured, the typewriter could say he was a killer. Old news.
The only moderately creepy thing about having someone write your portrait was the writing process itself. Cass claimed she didn’t even read the page as she was typing… which made sense, given her eyes were closed the whole time. Breathing nice and shallow. If Gregory didn’t know any better, he’d assume she was asleep. He hadn’t watched the last time she did this, back in the basement of the Lucid Dreamer—he was too focused on the murderous nutjob who was threatening his family. Did her eyes slide shut during that writing session, as well?
He cast an eye to the mechanical analog clock on Reg’s office desk. Almost eight in the morning. She’d been at this for seven minutes; not exactly a flurry of keystrokes, a few at a time, one word here and there. Oddly not MUCH motion, as if hitting only a few different letters, but what did Gregory really know about writing? Still, hopefully she wasn’t tapping out an opus, or this would take the rest of this morning—
Clack ding. Eyes front and open. Nicely coincidental that she ended at the stroke of eight in the morning.
"Finished," Cass announced, without much flourish. She leaned back in the rolling office chair, as she hand-wound the paper off its cylinder. "You want me to read it to you, or you wanna read quietly to yourself?"
"Don’t care," Gregory said, scratching at his neck. Sudden itch there, like hairs standing up. "What’s it called? This poem got a title?"
Adjusting her thick-rimmed spectacles, Cass studied the paper.
"Says ‘Inside Man,’" she read… but on second glance at the paper, seemed puzzled. "The hell…?"
"How long was I writing this? Is this some kinda joke?"
"Just a few minutes," he recounted. "Why? What’s it say?"
"Well, that’s the thing. It just says, over and over and over…"
Not that the paper said nothing—it was Cass who said nothing. She sat, eyes fixed on the unknown type, not quite reading, not quite staring… almost looking through the paper. Unblinking.
Which left Gregory quite uncomfortable. He didn’t fully understand how Cass’s parlor trick worked, wasn’t sure if he should walk up and nudge her, or even say something. It was a form of trance-like automatic writing, so maybe trance-like reading was part of the process—?
Thankfully, the writer shook herself out of it quickly enough, tearing her eyes away from the paper. Which was promptly jammed in a pocket of her jeans.
"No. Past my weirdness threshold," Cass announced. "Way past. Ugh, my head… forget it. Bad idea in the first place."
"To repeat: Why? What’s it say?" Gregory asked. "C’mon, I’ve dealt with weirdness before. I can deal with whatever’s written there. Cass… look. I need this. I don’t have any answers, and without them, I’m just floundering out here—"
Brief anger, in those green eyes. Sharp and quick with the reaction, rather than the slow and uncomfortable frustration Cass had been showing until now.
"You don’t even have the questions," she accused. "You couldn’t grasp ’em even if you tried, because you won’t even try to believe. She knows them. You…"
She’d had to ramp up a bit in intensity to the end there. Not because she was getting angrier, but so she could be heard over all the rattling. The clamor and the clattering…
Rattle. Her typewriter keys were shuddering, shaking on their tiny metal spokes. In fact, the typewriter itself had begun vibrating enough to shuffle an inch to the left.
The clock joined it, rattling against the solid wood of the desk. Its metal components complained and ground. A dull light within the green glass housing of the desk lamp flickered as the alternating current decided it didn’t feel like staying constant any longer…
Hairs on his neck, standing up. Wasn’t just the heebie-jeebies. Something was going down—
—rippling and sliding like the pulsing veins in Gregory’s hung over brain—
—everything bleeding into everything else—
—and over, just as soon as it had started. Typewriter contentedly sitting there without so much as a clack. Light strong and stable.
Gregory, who knew better than to trust his initial impressions, immediately scanned the room for changes.
Still mannequins and modern art. Still a gallery with venetian blinds that let in horizontal slats of light.
Except all the art had changed.
Dressing dummies in brown trenchcoats, with heavy gas masks; lenses made from discarded and shattered soda bottles. They carried toy rifles that fired foam darts, but with surprisingly sharp-looking combat-issue bayonets. Paintings on the walls depicted shadowy helmeted forces determined to crush the American way of life, war propaganda about buying bonds and starting victory gardens and collecting scrap metal or else the forces of evil will prevail.
The kinetic sculptures were no longer crafted out of discarded electronics and street signs… they were bomb casings and shrapnel, hanging on wires, twisting lightly in the breeze from the building’s air conditioning. Gregory had no way of knowing if some of those shells were live or not.
Also, the room was smaller than before. With more doors. And hallways beyond those doors, dimly visible from the light cast by overhead hanging lamps.
"The Sideways," Gregory determined.
His poet was on her feet as well, staring in confused terror at the sights before her eyes.
"What the… how… what?" she barely asked. "Oh. Oh crap. Did I do this? Mr. Yates, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you, I just… it’s just that… was it my power that did this, or—?"
"You’re connected to Lucid, not Bedlam. Lucid doesn’t… at least as far as I know, she doesn’t do things like this," he stated, without certainty. "I’ll call it coincidence until I know better. I’ll call this the Sideways until I know exactly what it is, for that matter…"
"We didn’t… I mean, don’t you normally end up in the Sideways by walking into it accidentally? It doesn’t just appear around you. What the hell is this?"
"Might be a building intersection," he figured. "New building from Earth, copied on top of this one. I’ve heard of that happening before. Rooms get jumbled up, sometimes so jumbled it’s like the Sideways, but… all the art changed, too. Wasn’t just pushed around or shuffled, it changed. I’ve never heard of that kind of thing happening before—"
Laughter bounced off the high ceiling of the art gallery. The overhead lamps flickered slightly in time with its timbre, rocking in the wind of that laugh…
His sidearm went from concealed to revealed in less than two seconds, a practiced two-handed grip keeping it aimed up at the gathering dark. Instinctively, he stepped in front of Cass, shielding her as much as possible between the corner office wall and his own body.
In other places, it would’ve been impossible for shadows to move on their own accord. Of course, this was the City, and more specifically it seemed to be the domain of the mistress of the Sideways… the one whose voice had giggled its way around the ceiling, drawing the dark with her.
On the plus side, this meant Cass or Lucid weren’t to blame for what happened here. On the negative side, the one who did it had dropped in to admire her handiwork.
found you // la la la // it found you // dee da dee // found you without your pro-tec-tor… the voice of Bedlam sang out from indeterminate location.
"Huh. I see how this is; couldn’t get me to go to the Sideways, so you brought them to me?" Gregory accused. "Dirty pool, Bedlam. Don’t think Penny would appreciate it—"
doesn’t need you // someone like you // only getting in her way.
you’re a bad man, gregory yates // in the way of her dreams
bad // bad // bad man // murderer // killer
no. // no need of you.
…no way to shoot the personification of chaos in the head. Hard enough to put a bullet in a normal Picasso, much less the mother of Picassos. She was toying with him, and Gregory knew it. A perfect trap.
"Leave Cass out of this," he requested. "It’s between you and me. I’m the one you hate. If you’re gonna shred me… fine. But then you’re gonna change the building back and let her walk—"
oh? // hee hee // not up to me. // you might die. // she might die. // you both might die. //
I’m not going to kill either of you, no no // no //
not me. // my hands clean // didn’t even do this by myself // you’ll see. //
so much effort, to redirect the ringed eye // to ground the lightning // the eight o’clock snoop //
but so worth it. //
when SHE asks me who killed you… // …I’ll be able to honestly say it wasn’t me.
And the shadows went still once more. Not that Gregory relaxed the grip on his gun any in response.
"We’re getting out of here," he declared. "Loot the room for any food you’ve got here. Fill any sealable container you can with fresh water. It can sometimes take days to find the path out of the Sideways. With any luck it’s no larger than the size of the building, and we can get out through what’s left of the Greasemonkey on the ground fl… Cass?"
The young woman was locked up tight with fear. This was her first time, wasn’t it? First time in the Sideways, and dealing directly with Bedlam. What seemed like old hat to a Sideways explorer like Gregory—and by extension, his unusually fearless daughter—wasn’t something normal people dealt with on a regular basis.
He adjusted his holster, swinging it around from back to side, and put the gun away. Hands on Cass’s shoulders.
"I can get you out of here alive," he promised. "Even with her around, I can get you out of here alive. This isn’t my first rodeo. If Bedlam was going to simply wipe us out, she’d have done that by now. That means we’ve got a chance. I’ll do everything I can to protect you, but you have to trust me, and listen to my instructions. You’re afraid, I know. Bravery isn’t absence of fear; it means acting despite fear. Can you do that, Cass? Can you act?"
Gradually… Cass’s breathing slowed. And she nodded, in agreement.
"I… I can do it," she agreed. "I’ve stared down a Picasso before. I just… that was really Bedlam, wasn’t it? It was. Christ. —right, I’ll get some supplies together…"
They were packed and ready to move within five minutes. Whatever snacks they could scrounge from Reg’s desk, as well as a few canteens from the newly twisted art exhibits.
Gregory had completely forgotten the poem. Whatever revelations it held, they were meaningless now. It was only the here and now that mattered—protecting Cass, and getting out alive. Above any other concern.
According to Cass, the normal structure of the building was as follows:
Top floor was the art gallery, a largely open-air space connected by the large scale cargo elevator and the stairwell. Next floor down had unused office space, which Reg was hoping to renovate into an independent music studio. Next floor was all storage at the moment, a series of identical unused apartments currently packed with crates and boxes and supply for the bar. Finally there was the ground floor, almost entirely filled with the Greasemonkey itself.
A pretty ordinary building for the City, all told. It wasn’t uncommon to have entire floors go unused, leaving only useful ground floors. It all depended on the needs of the community the building arrived in, and Seventh Street had little need of offices and apartments. Nobody wanted to work or live here, if they could at all avoid it. This wasn’t a district which had seen much in the way of municipal services, not even in the twenty-plus years since Gregory had last lived here.
If the building still had that structure, escaping would be a simple enough matter. One quick ride down the cargo elevator and they’d be out through the Greasemonkey and into the light of day. Unfortunately, the architecture had gotten… complicated.
Someone had detonated a hospital in here. An army hospital, from the looks of it.
In addition to the art exhibits getting a decidedly grotesque revamp of green uniforms and toy weaponry, a nest of hallways had been twisted around throughout the building’s structure. Supply closets alternatively stored unclean-looking medical gear and less clean-looking weapon racks. Briefly Gregory considered swapping out his faithful sidearm for something with more kick, but didn’t want to risk using one of these crummy-looking old rifles. The chance for a backfire or malfunction at just the wrong moment meant he was better off sticking to the smaller gun he kept clean and ready at all times.
In addition to the storage caches, they came across blood-stained operating rooms and patient ward rooms. Row after row of canvas stretchers, barely organized, all askew. All suggesting recent use and plenty of recent failures at saving patients… but thankfully, no patients to speak of. Living or otherwise.
As if that wasn’t bad enough… this was still the art gallery level, and that gallery had become mixed in with the mess. Stethoscopes had been arranged into mobile sculptures. A pile of bloody and shredded uniforms in the vague shape of a man suspended by wires had greeted them when they turned a blind corner, almost prompting Gregory to open fire before he noticed the light streaming through numerous holes and rips in the fabric.
He had to grit his teeth as he silently checked darkened corners, studied each room with quick glances before waving Cass to join him through each doorway. Of course they’d be in a hospital-themed Sideways. It was probably in the top five of creepy Sideways clichés… and throwing a madman’s art show on top of it had not improved matters. Or madgirl, as it were, if this really was all Bedlam’s idea of a sick joke…
Out of yet another sick ward, and into a hallway. Hallways were at least still just hallways. Good.
"Where are we in relation to the elevator?" Gregory asked quietly, keeping himself between Cass and his gun. The gun led the way.
"I… uh… we passed where it should’ve been two hallways ago," Cass admitted. "I don’t think it’s there anymore…"
"Okay. Plan B. The stairwell?"
"Maybe a hundred feet that-a-way?" she suggested, pointing a thumb. "It’s hard to say. I don’t recognize any of this. —wait, is that daylight?"
He tried to stop her before she pushed around him, heading towards the light. Not safe for her to stray from behind her designated human shield. Fortunately, nothing horrible happened on the way between her and the window.
The window itself was yellowed and distorted, as if made of fantastically old glass… but sunlight was indeed coming through it, or maybe an approximation. Gregory checked corners again to be sure, then joined her, to glance through.
Hard to tell through the glass, but he could make out the outline of a fire escape. Could hear the sound of traffic. If he didn’t know any better, it’d be easy to assume this was the way out to the City proper, but…
"Don’t know much about the Sideways, but isn’t it always nighttime in there?" she asked. "And the sky is fake, if you ever see it. Faker than the sky over the City, anyway. Like the guts of some dark ride at a theme park. Does that mean the sun’s fake, too?"
"Fake," he confirmed. "Can’t trust it. Sometimes the ‘outside’ in the Sideways just opens up to a bottomless void, or worse. We can’t get out that way. There’s no real City down here, just a honey pot for stupid Salvagers and the desperate."
"But there’s a fire escape…"
"Which won’t lead anywhere. We have to stay inside, until we can get to the ground floor and the designated exit we know connects to the real world. It’s safer that way."
"There’s people out there," Cass continued, pressing an ear to the glass. "It’s not the Sideways, there’s people! I can hear them. And I can hear… is that…? Look, if this works we could just climb out and—"
"Which one of us is the expert in crawling the Sideways here?" Gregory asked. "And which one of us writes flowery words? Look, I know what I’m doing here. Trust me. I’ll get us out alive. This is my turf."
"And what if this isn’t the Sideways? What if you’re wrong?"
"Darn it, there’s nothing else it COULD be! Bedlam’s here, don’t forget. We can’t keep loitering around arguing, we’ve got to move."
"I’m just going to peek, to be sure," Cass suggested, trying to tug up on a window that had rusted shut long ago. "Can’t hurt to—"
"We don’t have time for this, Penny!"
If Gregory could physically jam his foot in his mouth without losing his alert stance in the process, he probably would have. Even as the second syllable left his lips, he realized just how stupid a slip-up that was. How stupid and obvious. Having a hangover was not helping his mood, and adding such a ridiculous mistake on top of it all, one that Cass could call him out on…
But if she was going to call him out on it… she was taking her sweet time about it. Instead, the poet just shook her head at him in mild disappointment, while letting go of the window jamb.
"Sooner I’m out of here, the better," she agreed. Although she didn’t agree with the motivation.
The next floor down should have been unused office space. Plenty of places to hide, plenty of twists and turns. Ambush city for any Picassos that Bedlam wanted to dump on their heads, and not something Gregory was looking forward to.
Fortune had seen fit to change this floor completely. Now, it was some sort of open air surgery amphitheater, like you’d see in some old Victorian-era costume drama. Circular and sloping downwards, with rows of seats aplenty for the peanut gallery to watch as some poor bastard got cut open down in the central pit area. Sure, someone could be hiding behind a seat, but a Picasso wouldn’t likely fit back there. Good.
Not that this made the tableau any less creepy. Again, the art gallery had become mixed up with it all… one of the mannequins from upstairs had been placed on the central operating table, its fuzzy felt guts and organs pulled out and draped all over trays of instruments which might’ve been current as of the Spanish Inquisition. Meanwhile, oil paintings had been placed in some of the gallery seats, dour-looking old men staring down into the pit with brush stroked seriousness.
Cass ran a finger along the lumpy surface of one of these paintings, admiring the craftsmanship. A man in a military uniform stared impassively at her from the flat surface.
"Fi would love this place," she commented. "It’s grim enough to satisfy even her aesthetics…"
"You know this building’s going to be condemned, right?" Gregory asked. "Red-black, likely. We have to report it in once we’re free and we’ve got cellphone reception again. Sorry, but it’s the end of the line for the Greasemonkey."
"Yeah, I know. Guess we can set up shop somewhere else, but… it’s a damned shame. This building was starting to feel like home to us. Like we were building something important together, as a community…"
"Really. A bunch of sitcom grotesqueries counts as something important these days?"
It was the wrong thing to say, and he knew it even before saying it. Maybe it was the hangover talking, filling him with the need to antagonize her. Or how he’d mentally swapped the young woman for his daughter, minutes previous. They had a similar fixation on trivial things, but that was no excuse for him being rude.
Clearly, Cass wanted to tell him off. She’d wanted to say something before, but hadn’t. But… just as before, when she was trying to escape through the window, she held back. Hand in her pocket, swallowing down the urge.
"Think I see the emergency exit sign across the way," she spoke. "Should lead to the next stairwell d—dammit!"
This time, she’d pulled herself out of harms way without needing to be prompted. A harm that Gregory had spotted as well, but had the self control not to blurt out an expletive over.
They were not alone.
Across the way, moving amidst the oil paintings, was a figure. Barely a shadow in the terrible lighting, but… it didn’t move like a Picasso. Not yet, anyway. What little Gregory could see, hiding behind the painting, suggested a mere mortal man.
A mere mortal man with a rifle, identical to the cruddy old rifles he’d seen in storage one floor up. The assault weapon held at the ready, moving quietly along the circular rows, as if hunting. Moving towards them.
when SHE asks me who killed you… // …I’ll be able to honestly say it wasn’t me. That’s how Bedlam had phrased it.
Once upon a time—twice upon a time, really—Bedlam had somehow snookered a bunch of ordinary humans into being her minions. She’d taken men already driven to the edge, gave them a little extra nudge, and ended up with a legion of nutjobs like Seth Dougal and Cartwright to carry out her orders. She didn’t need to use a Picasso to kill Gregory Yates, not when she could give a madman a rifle and have him put three rounds in Gregory’s skull.
But if the hunter had seen or heard them, this would be over by now. Those rifles were mid-to-long range weapons, perfect for picking the two of them off cleanly at range. The fact that their predator was still searching and doing so in a slow and methodical way said Gregory and Cass were hidden, for now.
The amphitheater was laid out in a circular fashion. If the stranger was searching counter-clockwise, they could creep along the same direction and the same speed, and never the two would meet. The hunter would never even know his prey had slipped free. Get to the emergency exit, then down two floors to street level. Out of the nightmare and into safety.
Gregory carefully, carefully aimed his handgun.
Or he could pick this bastard off right here and now. It was the easiest shot in the world to make, and would get easier by the moment as the hunter crept forward, nice and close.
Tugging at his coat sleeve, now. Cass ready to leave. Gregory ready to get this business done with. If Bedlam wanted to sic one of her sick freak cult members on them, fine. He wasn’t going to let her have her fun. Wasn’t going to let her hurt him or anyone he cared about, ever again.
Seeing clearly, now. Focusing in on the target. Someone in a military uniform identical to the ones upstairs… probably pulled it off an art exhibit, cloaking himself in the garb of a warrior. Good for boosting your confidence and sneaking through jungle undetected. Not so good for sneaking through art galleries undetected. Some kind of white headband, too, like a martial artist would wear, or… well, didn’t matter. The crazy guy would be dead in two seconds anyway.
Finger on the trigger.
Bullet missing wide, that insistent tug at his coat became a full body yank to stop him.
One bang, followed by a number of others. No time to curse, even if he hadn’t fallen out of the habit long ago. Just grab the girl and move clockwise, as fast as possible, ducking behind as many of the oil paintings and seats as they could.
Bullets tore through padded seat fabric just as easily as they tore through the flimsy canvases. None hit their marks, firing wide, all the way to the glowing emergency exit sign.
Next floor, boxes and storage. Thankfully, it was still boxes and storage. Granted, half of them had block stencil on them declaring them to be ammo caches and flak jacket storage, but it would still be perfect for hiding. Not that Gregory stopped to hide until he’d put a considerable distance between the pair of them and the one hell-bent on killing them.
Honestly, he was considering making a break for the next stairwell, so they could be out and gone… but he was winded as hell from the running and the previous night of drinking, his head pounding like a mortar shell burst. Cass was clearly not a long-distance sprinter, either. If they were going to survive they’d need a few moments’ rest, to make it through the last stretch. They needed to hide and catch their breath.
He picked one of the more out of the way rooms, a militarized and art-ified storage room. Crates of liquor and spirits and feather boas and a few molotov cocktails and some grenades. The latter were worrying, especially if the hunter caught up and a firefight ensued, but Gregory was determined not to let it come to that.
In here, he finally had the breath to (quietly) chastise his companion. Ducked down behind a wooden crate full of unused pool hall furniture, artifacts from the last incarnation of the Greasemonkey.
"What the heck are you doing?!" he spoke, in an angry whisper. "I had the drop on him!"
"And what the heck were you doing? You were going to kill that guy!" she retorted.
"Preemptively! He was going to kill us. Bedlam damn near said as much!"
"Really. And if he was, what sort of person would kill on Bedlam’s orders?"
"I dunno, psychopaths?" Gregory suggested, sarcastically. "Like the Cult of Bedlam, you know? The ones responsible for Picasso Friday? Like the one hunting for us right now? Screw them. Screw them all, right now this is about survival. —we need to get out of here. Moralize later."
"No, I’m moralizing here and now, before it’s too late. Bedlam favors the mentally ill and unsound, right?" Cass replied. "Like a soldier back from war on Earth, with a bandage around a head wound…? Did you even LOOK at the guy? He looks just as freaked out as I am right now! PTSD, man. Alan was right, war is hell. He’s just as much a victim as everyone in the Cult of Bedlam was…"
"Yes, it’s sad and terrible, and I don’t care. I’m trying to keep you alive here, Cass!"
Hand in her pocket. Biting back words.
But this time, coming to a decision.
"I know I’m risking not getting out of here alive," Cass admitted. "But I’m not going to risk you falling back into the same trap again and again, either. It wouldn’t be right. READ, Gregory Yates."
The crumpled up poem, pulled from her jeans pocket. Unfurled and spread, held aloft directly in front of Gregory’s eyes.
He motioned to bat her hands away, having no time for this stupidity. To push that ridiculous bit of typography away so they could make a swift exit, hopefully taking out their attacker on the way.
And then his eyes fell on the first word. And the second. And the third. And the first. And the second. And the third. And the first. And…
The Inside Man
Us and them
Us and them and us and them
Us and them and us and them and us and them
and us and themand us and them and us and themand us and Themand us and themandusandthem andusand themandusandthemandusandthem
Themusthemusthemust themust thus
what is this what’s going
…thus the world unfolds to one of destruction and death, purged in the fires of justice, all made clear and clean and safe in the absolute purity of zero.
who are you what is going on
Here stands the Inside Man, standing inside his circle. Do you see him? Tall and proud, resplendent in armor like a statue of absolute nobility. Who dares stand against him? Nobody. Nobody does, now. He’s struck them all down. Do you see?
Do you see, Gregory Yates?
i don’t understand where am i
This is your City. This is what you’ve made of it.
it’s… it’s ruined. everybody’s dead.
Oh, not all of it. Not ALL ruined, not ALL dead. Do you see the circle of fire? You drew a line in the sand, enclosing those you love, and then filled the trench with molten rage. A moat, to defend against the siege of the outside world.
No, they’re perfectly safe. See them? See how they cower in fear within their circle, isolated and alone. Johnathan DeLeon. Archibald Tully. Karla Berkowitz. Penelope Yates. Everyone you love and care about. They are alive, see? You saved them. You saved them all.
why am i afraid? what is this what’s going on i can’t see this i can’t grasp this i don’t want to see this
No, you never do. This is the world your daughter is starting to understand, the dream of the dream. You choose to ignore it. You choose to only deal with things in front of you, denying all else. Denying all others. Only protect what’s in arms reach. And see, you’re victorious in that effort! She’s protected.
You destroyed the entire world just to keep her protected. Anything that could possibly be a threat. Us and them. Us against the world. Screw them. Screw them all, this is about survival.
i’m not like that i just want to do what’s right to protect her to
You don’t care about what’s right. You never did. You just care about what’s right for you and yours.
"You’re a no-good thug, Gregory Yates, and I don’t like you at all!" Lizzie declared. "Just like the rest of my brother’s friends. And you smell awful!"
Good job protecting her. Elizabeth didn’t have to die. You were afraid of what she was becoming, an outsider, a freak, a danger, a risk. A hostile. She had to be put down, for your sake and her own. You "saved" her from that fate very effectively with a bullet.
You "saved" Seth Dougal, a victim since childhood of Bedlam’s madness. You saved him with a bullet. He wasn’t much of a threat, he was talking away and babbling and harmless compared to Bedlam herself… and you still put him down like a dog. It was the easy solution.
it was the right solution! he was a sociopathic madman. the bad guy. he was the bad guy!
Meanwhile, your daughter negotiated Bedlam down from destroying the City. She ended the greater threat, and without a single shot fired. She found the right solution. You found the easy solution. You always find the easy solution. It’s in your nature.
Us and them. Them and us. Us versus the world. Burn the world to save us. Screw them all. You’ve got you and yours, locked up and safe behind closed doors, just like everybody else in this City. Safe and isolated. Perpetually inside.
Inside your gang. Inside your family. And the outside can burn for all you care. That’s what your daughter hates about you. She’s saddened by it, frustrated by it, because she wants more from life than to only reach out to those inside the circle.
You know it’s true. These are the words Cass saw within you. Now she knows what your problem is, just as much as you know at heart what your problem is. They’re YOUR words, really. The only one condemning you here is yourself. You don’t want to accept these words, like you don’t want to accept Penelope’s dreams and ambitions. This is what you know is true, when you strip away all the bluster and pride.
Oh, look. The scene’s changed, now. Someone’s broken out of your little circle of protection. She’s running through the wall of fire you erected to keep her safe.
She’s burning, Gregory. Penelope is burning in your flames.
She’s burning because she wants to help the City you let fall to ruin, because that’s her destiny. She’s willing to burn so she can realize her dream. You’re willing to burn her dream.
no! no, i would never hurt her!
Why not? She’s not really your daughter. She’s a freak. An outsider. Some THING you found in the Sideways, a thing shaped like a baby. The only reason you didn’t abandon her right there and then, abandon her like you wanted to abandon Dave Smith or Marcy Wei, is because Lizzie wanted to save her. Lizzie had a heart willing to reach places yours would not. You tried to abandon her with Grandma Scarlett, but pulled back at the last minute. Out of love? Or weakness? Or had Penelope entered your circle at last?
This is what you are. You’re the Inside Man. You won’t change.
Take aim, Gregory. Hurry now, she’s getting away, through the ruins of the world you’ve made for her. Penelope’s an outsider now. She’s Lucid, scary and strange. You know what you have to do to keep your friends safe from those scary and strange outsiders. Aim the gun, Gregory. Two in the head. Better to be sure.
stop it! STOP IT STOP IT
Us and them. Us and them. Us and them and us and them and us and them and us and them usandthemusandthemusandthemusandthem—
…us and them. Three words, printed over and over, filling an entire page. That’s all there really was.
He’d caught his breath by stopping to rest, but somewhere along the way he lost it again. Heart racing, head pounding.
"Deep breaths. One, two. One, two," Cass spoke gently, guiding him. She pocketed the bizarre poem again, keeping it out of view. "Ease down. Little at a time. Ease down. …I’m sorry. That was a hell of a lot to put on you at once. I didn’t get an effect that strong when I looked at it earlier, it wasn’t really a poem for me, but… damn. This was a bad idea. Damn, damn. Okay. We’ll do it your way. We’ll make a run for the exit, and—"
"Won’t…?" Gregory finally spoke, when he had enough breath to speak with. "Won’t… or can’t?"
Standing up now, revealing himself to the world rather than cowering behind a crate. His weapon left behind, on the floor. He didn’t need it anymore.
The soldier stood ready, on the other side of the room. Rifle raised, if wavering slightly, muscles trembling too much to keep a steady shot lined up.
Gregory could see his enemy clearly, now. That uniform wasn’t stolen off some art exhibit… it was his uniform. ALVAREZ, the tag read. A low-ranking infantryman. A low-ranking infantryman, with a thick layer of white gauze around his head, aside from the spots where the red had continued to seep through.
Eyes that had seen more than their fair share of death met eyes that had seen similar.
Cass froze, staying behind Gregory. She pondered going for the gun, lying uselessly on the floor… but on some level, the level that had been able to experience a vague impression of the poem, she knew what the plan was. And that plan didn’t involve her. Best to let it play out in its own time…
The first to speak was their would-be hunter.
"You… you should be running," he said. "I’m going to kill you. Kill you both. I have to kill you both…"
"She told you to kill us, didn’t she," Gregory replied, quiet, steady. "The little girl whose whisper sounds… wrong."
The sound of a hard, dry swallow hung in the air as the soldier’s rifle wavered even more.
"I won’t go back," he insisted, locking the aim in again. "You can’t make me. Even if you’re the Commander, just like she said you were, you can’t make me go back. I did my tour. I put in my time. I was wounded in the line of duty, defending our people. I did my part. I won’t go back… I’ll… I’ll kill you before you make me go back—!"
"I’m not going to make you go back to the war," Gregory Yates spoke. He used the same comforting voice he’d use if Penelope was in tears, the one that wanted to reach out to someone he loved and make them whole again. Not a voice he’d used on anyone outside his family, not until today.
"But… but she said, the girl said…"
"She lied. I’m not your Commander," he insisted. "I’m not going to make you go back. You don’t have to go back to that world; you’re somewhere else entirely, now. You know that, right? This doesn’t look like the place you’re from. All those people you knew are gone. They won’t hurt you anymore. It’s just you and me and my friend here, in this new place. There’s no war here, I promise. It’s over. You don’t have to go back."
Halfway there, Gregory could tell. The muzzle of that deadly rifle lowering, tentatively. It could snap back up in an instant, but if he was going to shoot, really going to shoot… he would’ve shot earlier. You should be running, the soldier had said. He wanted them to run. Didn’t want to add more marks to his kill tally…
"Why are you doing this?" he asked. "You had a gun. You could’ve killed me. You tried to kill me, before. I should be killing you. Kill or be killed. The enemy shows no quarter…"
"I’m not your enemy. Truth be told, you’re a complete stranger to me… but that doesn’t mean I have to be an enemy," Gregory admitted. "So you’re outside the circle? So what. Let me help. Stand down, soldier. Let’s get out of here together. I know people who can help you set up a new life away from your war. How about it…?"
This time, Gregory’s was extended with an open palm, rather than closed around the handle of his gun.
The military rifle lowered. Lowered all the way, in fact, plastic and metal clattering to the storage room floor. He didn’t need it anymore.
"It’s over," the man repeated to himself, to let it sink in. "It’s over…"
Gregory didn’t have to let out a sigh of relief. He’d been calm through the entire thing.
"What’s your name, soldier?" he asked, curious.
"Pr-Private Carlos Alvarez," the infantryman declared. "Just… Carlos. Call me Carlos. Not a soldier anymore. And you…?"
"My friend here’s Cass," Gregory said, motioning for the young woman to stand up, as equals with the man who was trying to kill them. "She’s a poet. I’m… a restaurant manager, I guess. I manage things. Name’s Gregory Yates."
"—Gregory Yates?" he repeated, sharply. "But you said…"
The rattling of his rifle against the floor distracted them.
It clattered and danced, clattering like objects stuffed in the boxes and crates around them. Lights overhead, flickering in tune with the unsettled objects. Oddly familiar, that sound, that light strobing and—
—the nightmare scream of Carlos Alvarez fading sharply away—
—everything bleeding away from everything else, oil and water separating—
—and over, just as soon as it had started.
Crates of liquor and spirits. Spare pool hall parts. No grenades, no Molotov cocktails, no bright blue bicycles. All the art supplies and military gear, vanishing just as quickly as it had appeared.
When Cass regained her wits, she was able to confirm it.
"This… I know this stuff. These boxes," she declared. "It’s all back to normal. It’s… the cargo elevator! It’s back. Everything’s back to normal!"
Taking a moment to retrieve his gun and slide it back into the concealed holster, Gregory figured out what was missing.
"Everything normal, except Carlos is gone," he spoke.
Empty air, where the soldier had stood. His rifle had vanished as well. No sign of where he went.
—the nightmare scream of Private Carlos Alvarez, as he fell to his knees in the hallway.
Linoleum tile, a black and white checkerboard. Just like he remembered. No, no, no…
They were coming. Running feet, heavy boots on floorboards. The soft clack of a nurse’s white heels following. Back to his room he’d go, back to rest and recuperate, until it was time to return to the front.
Conveniently, he’d reappeared right in front of an ornately framed oil painting of a dour-looking middle-aged man, staring down at him with resolute sternness. He’d seen that painting in the strange operating theater, hadn’t thought much of it… but seeing it here, right back where it belonged, confirmed something.
Staring the familiar painted man in the eyes, as armed men charged at him.
"You lied to me," he told the Commander. "But I won’t go back."
And put the muzzle of his stolen rifle between his lips.
The Greasemonkey was exactly as they’d left it. Every bit of misappropriated cultural trash in its place, nicely organized in artistic form by Cass’s poet buddies. Not a single artifact from that strange incident remained.
The front door was welcoming, bringing with it the stale air of Seventh Street. They’d returned to the City of Angles, safe and sound.
For a few moments, Cass just sat there at the curb, trying to process everything that happened. Gregory busied himself with his cellphone, trying to regain signal and check any pending messages.
"You… probably should report this to the Department of Safety anyway," Gregory said. "The building did go cubist, even if it somehow stopped being cubist. It might not be safe anymore."
"It’s my home," Cass replied, quietly. "I won’t have them tape down my home. Nowhere’s totally safe, anyway. Besides… I… I don’t think that was the Sideways. I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t the Sideways, was it…?"
Despite his loathing of the unknown, Gregory had to acknowledge it with a nod.
"I don’t know what the hell that was," he spoke, letting the expletive slip in. Felt right. "I’m going to talk to Penelope about it. She understands the City in ways we don’t. …she’s still not answering her phone, of course. Ugh. I’ve got bridges to mend, don’t I. Arrangements to make. Things to get myself involved in that I was trying to push aside…"
"Y’know, she’s been busy working with… well, with everyone from the old gang," Cass added. "I’m not that involved, I just drive grocery deliveries around, but it feels like this huge big thing. I was surprised to hear that you didn’t want to get in on that."
"Things change. People change," Gregory said, with a shrug. "Think it’s time I accepted that and reached out."
Nine o’clock, on a not particularly beautiful morning in the City. Not a particularly beautiful spot to make a declaration like that, either. But it’d have to do.
The next step was to get in touch with Penelope. Who was presumably busy with her schoolwork and still a bit upset. Gregory looked up Johnny’s number, thinking he’d indirectly check in on her…
And damn near dropped his phone when he heard the news.
Staring through the slot in the door, at the figure pacing impatiently around in a tight circle on the floor. Could’ve watched through the camera, true, but this was something she wanted to see with her own eyes. Had to make a connection to the one inside the cell, something beyond the vague pile of variables that the girl represented at the moment. Something to help make this decision easier, or harder…
"You’re sure she’s the one?" Department of Safety head Miranda Walker asked, after letting the metal viewing slat drop shut on the cell door.
"I’m never completely sure," her statistician stated. He flicked through spreadsheets and calculations on his tablet screen, referencing the numbers. "The chances are pretty solid, though. 91%. Of the five candidates we were looking at, she matches the most criteria for potentially being the City shuffler. I can keep cross-referencing if you want, but…"
"Why isn’t she sedated? I thought I asked that she be sedated."
"To be honest, I think she’s a bigger danger to us asleep than she is awake," Carl Matthews, her personal safety analyst, suggested. "If my theory about her dreams is correct, then the last thing we want is for her to catch a few Z’s. A moody teenager with godlike powers? We push the wrong emotional buttons and Picasso Friday looks like Easter Sunday. Or… something. I don’t know, I’m a numbers guy, not a words guy."
Miranda rubbed at her forehead, feeling a fresh headache coming on.
This could be dealt with quietly, of course. The subject had been black-bagged quietly enough; nobody should know she’s here. The kid could simply… disappear. Seth Dougal did it all the time, after all. Granted, his goals were the polar opposite to hers, endangering the City rather than doing whatever it took to keep it safe, buuuut…
…but the ease of making Penelope Yates vanish forever didn’t make the decision any easier.
"It’s time to make the call on this one, Carl," Miranda decided. "Make the call on which way we wanna go with this. With or against the flow. You used to call the weather, you know how that is."
"Yeah, not particularly, no," Carl said. "If she’s really the shuffler, ma’am, she scares the hell out of me and I think I might be able to live with a bullet in her head. Not that I’m volunteering. Sooo… what’s your call, then?"
Another peek through the slot, at the captive Penelope Yates. Another moment to reconsider.
But, she’d made her mind up before even looking, hadn’t she? The Yates girl was a dangerous outsider, a variable she couldn’t truly calculate for, not with a dozen Carl Matthews in her secret employ. A strange unknown that could spell doom for the established order. An agent of change.
The Department of Safety did not like agents of change, as a rule.