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 the place where hope goes to die. The overhead lights are surprisingly bright, blindingly so, so you shouldn’t look up.
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…
Some say life is by its very nature a cruel and random affair. There have been attempts to attribute the flow of events to various divine influences, or to karmic retribution, or just to some invisible force of luck. In the end, many give up trying to put sense to the senseless. They collapse inward and lose hope that what they’re enduring will have some greater, nobler purpose. The struggle of life is simply a struggle, without point. A struggle which you can end any time you want… and many choose to do just that.
Sometimes—just sometimes, you understand—a tiny voice in the darkness calls out to you. It speaks in calm tones, reassuring you during your darkest hour. It’s a welcome friend in the cold and black, someone who understands your woes and sympathizes. Someone who has the answers you’ve been desperately searching for. Her words ring in your ears loud and true like the notes of the finest music you’ve ever heard, and suddenly… it all makes sense.
There are many who will struggle through life at your side, becoming that tiny voice in the darkness. They consider themselves saviors, friends, lovers, or simply strangers walking a similar path.
But take warning, for in the City of Angles, not all those voices will guide you to the light of day. Many will lead you deeper and deeper into the dark, all while promising that peace you seek can be found within that darkness. By the time you’ve touched that void and known its face, it may be too late… because the horrible revelation of truth rarely comes to those who believe they’ve actually found what they’re looking for.
//014: Generation Zero
Every morning, her chart gained another row of data: blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature, sleep amount and quality index, nutrient intake, weight. Every morning, this chart was the determining factor for how her day was going to go.
While Milly Frisk brushed her teeth and awaited judgment, she hoped against hope that the latest tiny fluctuation in her temperature wasn’t going to torpedo her chances of going to school today. Not that she particularly wanted to go to school, but at this point she wanted some semblance of a normal life back after missing out on so much. Four days of this was getting her down, down further than a prolonged time out usually did.
She missed last Thursday and Friday due to a weird double whammy of congestion and constipation, which continued on to torpedo her entire weekend. Worst of all, despite clearly being on the mend yesterday, it torpedoed her chance at attending Clark’s house party last night.
Not that Milly particularly liked rubbing elbows with what passed for a ruling elite at Clinton Public High School (our motto, "There is a $100 reward for information leading to the identity of whoever keeps stealing the L in Public"). Honestly, she always felt like a pretender when the popular kids invited her to things like this. But Lucas Flynn was going too, and being with him at events always made them a bit less uncomfortable. A bit more fun. A bit more like a date…
Alas, too many sniffles and not enough poops. No weekend. No party. No Lucas, no date. And if today’s data reporting went badly, there’d be no new school week, either. Just another restless day around the house ingesting hot soup and various over-the-counter chemical elixirs, in vain hopes that she could get her high score of continuous days without illness back up to the high double digits.
No sense worrying about it now. Finish brushing the teeth. Antiseptic rinse followed by fluoride rinse. Flossing. Ponder makeup choices. Worry about whether you’re using too much because you’re a celebrity now, or too little because you’re insecure and don’t want to stand out. Apply some makeup and push down worry. And finally, be judged.
Her judge studied the data chart on her tablet computer with one hand, while sipping coffee with the other.
"99.0," she recited.
"It’s only a little higher than average, and I haven’t had a cough once this morning," Milly insisted. "And I moved my bowels just fine. Everything’s fine. …please?"
Sip the coffee. Consider the numbers.
"Bundle up, it’s going to be colder than average for this time of year," her mother decided. "And if you feel the coughs coming back I want you to put on a paper breathing mask right away. I know you get strange looks and don’t like wearing one, but it’s for your safety and the safety of others around you. It’s the considerate thing to do."
Milly would’ve offered a huge hug in thanks, but the threat of spilled coffee and the general aversion to physical contact in their family discouraged that. So she offered a huge smile instead, one which was returned in kind.
"Looks like I won’t be working night shift at the hospital tonight, so I’ll be back in time for dinner," her mother promised. "You wanted to invite Lucas over at some point, right? His parents being out of town all week. Could be a good time for it."
"Ahh… yeah, but…"
The grumpy non-presence in the room made itself felt, despite already being untold miles away in another layer of reality. He worked the early shift at his office in the City, while his wife typically worked late shift in an Outlands hospital. The distance in time and space actually helped their marriage quite a bit, even if Milly had to deal with one or the other at both ends.
"I’m sure your father will be considerate as well," her mother insisted. "I’ll make his favorite meatloaf. That’ll help. Now hurry along to school, and remember, mask on if you start coughing. Come home if your temp goes over 99.5."
Supplies loaded, jacket on, second jacket on, scarf wound, backpack on, gloves on, out the door and running. And finally, finally back to having a normal life.
All Milly Frisk really wanted was a normal life. She didn’t need the highs or the lows. Didn’t need the semi-fame that came with being an online video darling, didn’t need to be perpetually in and out of a sick bed. She didn’t want to be exceptional or forgotten. She just wanted what everybody else seemed to have… an existence. School. Family. Friends. And, if you’re lucky, love.
Fortunately, Milly Frisk was extremely lucky. She’d had love for eight years now… and had known about it for two of them. A little bit of that could help smooth out the bumps and valleys along the way. And even if they lived in different worlds—him in a private online academy with the affluent upper-middle class, her in a free public school with the sketchy lower-middle class—they’d always have each other. And that was enough.
Clinton Pub ic High School ("Seriously, if someone doesn’t step up and return the L from the sign, we’re going have to involve the authorities") existed on its own little layer of Hell. Probably somewhere between the first and second layers; it had more of a "limbo" feel to it than a "City of Dis" feel, but Hell nonetheless.
The speckled cardboard ceiling panels were water-stained and rotting. Fire sprinklers were rusted, likely rusted all the way shut, which would be high comedy if an actual fire ever broke out rather than just a bored senior yanking the fire alarm. Smoothly painted brick walls had chipped here than there over the years, no longer presenting a unified white front but more of a ratty and mottled texture. And despite the security cameras all over the place (for student safety, after the wave of gang fights in the halls five years ago) there existed a locker bank in a camera blind spot.
Milly Frisk’s locker was in that blind spot. And the trolls knew it. One specific troll, really.
Trolls had plagued their CityTube.com channel ever since the breakout viral video that got them on the map two years ago ("CRAZY BICYCLE CHASE.avi"). Months ago, Milly forced herself to install a browser plugin that would cut all CityTube comments from her life. For every "awesome!!" she read, there were a dozen along the lines of "ur retarded and gay," "you should kill yourself," and the oddly recurring "milly is a fat slut."
Lucas didn’t pay the trolls any heed, and recommended Milly do the same. "It’s just a bunch of idiots, so who cares?" he’d explained so simply. But the words bounced around in Milly’s head anyway, refusing to be ignored. Fat. Kill yourself. Slut. Fat…
One day, against even her own better judgment, Milly posted a video response to the trolls. A vlog entry, right on the Flynn/Frisk Funnies video channel. Her heartfelt pleas for peace with her haters, right down to a few moments of tearing up in her eyes… well, the trolls loved her tears. They went viral. There was a dubstep remix, at one point.
Eventually the only way she could purge the words was to purge ALL the words, to shun any communication with their alleged fans for her own sanity’s sake. Lucas managed all public relations after that, with Milly perfectly happy to stick to voice acting in their little comedy skits and nothing more.
So, one of those trolls decided to take it to the real world. Now, her locker was the new CityTube comments section.
This Monday, she was greeted with the following scrawled on her thin metal locker door in permanent ink:
Naturally, because this was high school and as noted existed on its own little layer of Hell, a small crowd had gathered to enjoy the suffering. They were waiting for Milly’s arrival, to try and catch her reaction to the latest salvo fired at the newly popular online video girl. Not that they made it obvious; little clusters of friends chatting, pretending not to watch, despite the sneaky glances out the corner of their eyes.
At least one of the looky-loos had some sympathy.
"Good penmanship, at least," Jenna suggested, leaning against a nearby locker. "Morning, Milly. Feeling better?"
Jenna. Junior varsity in MOBA, for the school’s eSports team, the Fighting Beavers. One of the cool girls, idolized / loathed by many, friends with few. She’d jammed Milly into her circles more or less by force, wanting in on that indirect video fame, but beyond that naked social climbing she actually wasn’t a bad person. Not all popular kids were cast rejects from Mean Girls. This one in particular, despite her snark about the graffiti, had true sympathy in her eyes.
"Feeling better," Milly confirmed, as she unslung her backpack to rest her shoulder some. "It was just some sneezing and stuff. How was Clark’s party?"
"I dunno, couldn’t go. Coach was insisting on weekend practice before the finals. I can’t say no, either—the track jacket fatso is considering bumping me from Carry, can you believe it? No way is Jenna playing Support! Late game gankers get the scholarships. Ward bitches get nothing!"
(Not that Milly could follow any of this online jock terminology, but she did admire Jenna’s passion for sports. Some days, Milly had to work to feel passion for her own acting craft.)
"You think your troll filled it with shaving cream again?" Jenna asked, trying to peer into the horizontal ventilation slats at the top of the locker door. "I think there’s something in there, but I can’t tell… feh. I can’t believe those useless bastards won’t reassign your locker to another bank, especially after all these problems."
"The principal said that’d be preferential treatment."
"Fah. You deserve preferential treatment. You’re one of the stars of this school!"
Funny, Milly thought. I wasn’t a star until I came to this school. I was a nobody in middle school, before the videos went big…
"Hey, what happened with your candid camera, anyway?"
"Didn’t you say you were gonna put one of Lucas’ GoPros in there, to peep on your bully bastard through the vent? Did you get around to that? If you found out who’s doing it, you should rat ’em out. Me and the team will back you up if there’s some stupid reprisal. You’re one of us, you know…"
"Yeah, I did that a few weeks ago," Milly mumbled absently as she spun the combination into her lock.
"Yeah…? And? Who was it?"
Ignoring the words. And ignoring the bystanders, or at least trying to. Ignoring the troll who accused her of being a camwhore. Just a bunch of idiots, who cares. Maybe those words would stick, instead of the one currently stuck to the metal of her door…
The hinges squeaked as the door swung open, emptying its payload all over the slightly warped linoleum floor.
Dozens of copies, all of the same image. Dozens and dozens. The troll must’ve jammed them all through the slots, piled high, just waiting for this moment when they’d spill out… freshly printed color pictures, the same naked flesh on each one.
A photoshop job, and an obvious one. The woman’s body was only vaguely like Milly’s. But the face… that was Milly’s face. Very specifically, it was her face with tears in her eyes, from that vblog appealing for compassion and sanity that she’d posted weeks ago. Milly’s crying face, on the body of some porn star in the middle of a very tough day on the job…
Ignore the trolls. Ignore the trolls.
A snickering laugh, from the bystanding crowd.
Hopefully, Jenna would clean up the mess, maybe even yell at the rubberneckers on her behalf. Jenna was good for that, very loyal. But Milly couldn’t face them, couldn’t face anything right now. She ran and ran, leaving her books behind, and didn’t stop pounding feet against the floor until she was in the ladies washroom and safely positioned behind a locked stall door.
There, she could cry quietly, and nobody would really know who was sobbing.
The bell for first period came and went. Milly would be absent, but it wouldn’t matter. Nobody wanted to be here. The students didn’t want to be here, but the teachers didn’t want to be here, either. Public school was where you went when you had no better alternatives, for teenagers or adults. Maybe her tardiness would be reported, but it wasn’t likely.
The bell for her phone rang, echoing off the walls of the empty washroom. The number wasn’t recognized, though, which was odd… she had an extensive contacts list, including every department where her mother worked. Who else would be ringing her, with that cheesy default ringtone of an old-timey phone?
Steadying her shaking hands, she swiped the ANSWER button.
"H-Hello?" she offered, swallowing the earlier nervous shakeup down.
And like that, all the jittering nerves washed away. His voice had that effect.
"Lucas!" she exclaimed. "Hey! What’s up? I don’t recognize your number. Did something happen to your phone?"
"It’s kind of a long story," Lucas spoke. "I can’t stay on the line too long. Something’s going on…"
Something was up. Something outside the washroom.
A great many feet in the hall, despite first period having started. What was going on? How hadn’t she noticed the noise? Too wrapped up in her own little miseries, maybe…
"Hang on, something’s wrong," she said, keeping the phone to her ear, as she pushed her way out of the stall, out of the washroom, into the hall. "I think maybe it’s a fire drill or something…"
Awfully crowded out there. Milly was at the de facto rear of the crowd, as it gathered around one of the cheap old LCD television sets they’d positioned in each hallway, for displaying an endlessly cycling PowerPoint slide of upcoming cafeteria lunch menus and school dances. Only now, it seemed to be showing a news feed…
"Milly, you there?" Lucas asked, as she tried to listen to two things at once. "Milly…?"
The face on the broadcast wasn’t recognizable. Some woman in a dark suit, with dark skin to match, and a serious expression. Even her podium was dark.
Only a caption at the bottom of the screen identified her. MIRANDA WALKER, DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY HEAD OFFICER.
"…completely cubist," Walker was explaining. "We believe the incident occurred last night during a party held at the home of Clark Jackson, of Clinton Public High School. The house has been quarantined red-black while we investigate the incident. At this time we do not believe there is any risk to the surrounding houses in the neighborhood, but we’re evacuating until we finalize that determination. Unfortunately, we can confirm all attending the event were lost in the cubism incident…"
The woman on the screen continued moving her mouth, but whatever she was saying was immediately drowned out by a few shrieks, some cries, and a lot of heated discussion.
Which meant none of them noticed Milly, covering her mouth to hide her own muffled cry. And slipping back into the washroom, to hide.
"L… Lucas, the… on the news just now," she tried to say. "They said, they said that—"
"They’re lying. They’re saying the house went cubist, aren’t they? I figured they’d say that," Lucas spoke quickly, over the line. "But it’s not true. There was no cubism! I’m still alive, Milly. I’m not a Picasso. Something… something else happened at that party, last night. It’s hard to explain, but… they’re covering it up. I’ve got the truth. I filmed the whole thing!"
"I don’t understand, the, what, what?" she babbled. "Lucas, they just said you died in there! It’s on the news and everything!"
"Yeah, well… I’m not dead yet," he said… likely with a wry smirk, from the way he said it. "I’m pretty sure they’re looking for me, though. Maybe they want me dead, because I know the truth. My phone’s not working anymore, it’s jammed or hacked or something, so I can’t upload the video I made. I’m calling from a pay phone, can you believe that? I actually found one of those old things. I think it’s from, like, the sixties or some other ancient time… look. Milly. I can’t stay here long. Honestly, I could really use your help."
Having exactly two minutes for your world to shift from one in which badly photoshopped pornography is the worst thing to happen to you to one where the entire City government was locked in a conspiracy to kill your boyfriend is not easy. Milly had not traditionally been very good with wild leaps into danger; even when she made up her mind to follow Lucas and Penelope Yates into the Sideways once upon a time, she’d been quaking in her boots the whole way. Now, despite two years of maturity and a newer and more quake-resilient pair of boots, quaking was absolutely happening all over again.
Of course… the Department of Safety was secretly evil, right? Penelope told them they were really responsible for Picasso Friday. That event wasn’t isolated to the City itself, it also hit the Suburbs. Milly remembered hiding under the bed, while hearing screams outside from some thing tearing its way down her street, some thing that was once her neighbor Betty who made pumpkin pie every October… and if the government caused that, then killing a house full of teenagers and hunting down the one that got away would be child’s play.
"No. No, this can’t be happening," Milly protested. "It’s insane. It’s crazy. It’s… it’s crazy insane…"
"Milly… deep breaths. It’s going to be okay—"
"That Walker woman wants you dead! How is this going to be okay?!"
"We’ve been in trouble before. We can get through this. I’m not scared, Milly. I’m not scared of anything, now. Deep breaths. Let’s think this through. Uh, but I shouldn’t stay on this pay phone long, so let’s think through it kinda quickly if possible…"
"I could, I could call my mother. Maybe she can help—"
"No way. I’m officially flagged as cubist, even though I’m totally not. If we go to a hospital, they’ll have to report me, right? No. Gotta think. Think. …okay. I can hide out for now. Hiding’s good. But I also need a working wireless so I can upload my video. It has to get out, Milly. People have to see. They have to hear what I heard, last night. You need to hear this. It’s important, Milly, even more important than my survival…"
Her mind, moving at eleventy billion miles an hour. It wasn’t the first time she’d been dipped headfirst into a crisis… two years ago, when Penelope Yates entered their life, they went spelunking in a haunted toy store. Face to face with Picassos. Face to face with Bedlam—
"The toy store," she realized.
"You can hide in the toy store," Milly spoke. "Nobody knows about it except us. It’s safe enough in there, right? Just avoid the, uh, cubist toys. If you can hide there… I’ll… I’ll try to sneak away. I might not be able to do it until later today, but… I’ll bring my phone to you for that upload, my wireless works fine. And then, ummm… I don’t know. We’ll have to think of what to do after that…."
"Right. Toy store. That’s perfect," he spoke, softly through the digital line. "…did your bully come back today?"
"What? Y… yeah," she admitted, not happy to dig that memory up after burying it so quickly.
"I know it hurts you. You’ve been hurt a lot lately, haven’t you? But that’s over, as of today," he spoke. "I promise you, Milly, everything’s going to be fine from now on. I’ve got the answers, all of ’em we’ll ever need. Be careful, be safe. Don’t rush to meet me; may be good to wait until after school, when things quiet down. I’ll see you when I see you. I love you, Milly."
Silence. Then boop boop boop, end of call.
I love you.
She slid against the washroom wall, sinking to the slightly dirty tiles.
Lucas had said I love you plenty of times, true. Each time he did, her heart did a weird little fluttery loop-de-loop.
But… he’d never just said it before. He’d always couched it in a joke, or a little winking nod to how silly it all felt. Two years ago, when he first confessed his love—when he’d actually proposed to her, for that matter—it had been with a knowing little bit of snark about how absurd it was for two thirteen-year-olds to become betrothed. Genuine, but couched in whimsy.
No. Never just I love you, plain and simple. Not ever. Even if that’s what Milly wanted to hear, had wanted to hear ever since she opened herself to the possibility that her old childhood friend could be something more. It didn’t feel… safe, somehow, to say something that powerful directly. It was always safer for both of them to treat their relationship as a friendly inside joke…
Knocking her head against the tiled wall once, to clear it. Whatever. Romance didn’t matter right now; Lucas was in danger. The kind of danger you couldn’t go running to the principal to fix, not when the principal was likely to roast you alive with flamethrowers for being a cubist menace.
Milly had to stand up, ignore her fear, her terror at going to that awful toy store again where she nearly became a Picasso and they were nearly killed by Bedlam, and make this work. For Lucas.
Times like this, she wished she could share that part of her life with her friends. Even semi-friends like Jenna. A friend who understood…
So boring. So completely and totally borrrr-ing.
Mr. Hacksworth wasn’t really much of a teacher. He was more like some unique species of parrot, capable of speaking only in PowerPoint. She’d figured that out months ago, that her history teacher simply repeated the words printed down in thirty-six-point font with colorful bullets and list formatting, with little to nothing of interest added for flavor. One hour of her six-hour school day was spent listening to the same text in her class notes read slowly and clearly.
On the plus side, this meant Penelope Yates got an extra hour to goof off each day. Play some match-three games, catch up on her social networks, maybe virtually scout out locations for her next swap using the independent mapper archives. Things like that. Useful things. After all, she could plow through the same set of slides reading quietly to herself in ten minutes each day, so why blow the extra fifty on redundant readings?
Although, honestly… lately her extra fifty minutes had been sucked up entirely by email. That’s what happens when your blog becomes the toast of the town.
It was entirely by accident. She’d gone to a punk rock show, accidentally broke up the band, indirectly launched El’s solo career… ever since then she’d been in the limelight. All Penelope wanted to do was not get booted out of the Journalism Club, but now people were actually paying attention to her various ramblings about the social structure of the City and the possibilities it held.
She’d been interviewed for a couple podcasts, and even some of the more mainstream news shows. Mostly they wanted to know her theory about what happened to Oblivion’s Advocate ("I think they’re back to quietly living anonymous lives and you guys should stop trying to find and harass them") and her opinions on El’s music ("Kinda gothy, kinda pop, kinda sad, kinda bright, don’t know, not really my thing"). Apparently Penelope’s honesty was refreshing, according to a few blog review sites, and her "potential" as the voice of the new generation was high.
Only potential, of course. Penelope knew she had a long way to go before she could explain herself properly to people. Her faith was one which didn’t make much sense when you translated it into English. She knew, knew in her heart and her dreams that the City could become something… something… more. Something perfect for everyone. No idea how to do it, no idea how even to describe it, but…
Honestly, she found interfacing with the media tiresome. She couldn’t explain herself properly, and they couldn’t ask the right questions anyway. So today, as Mr. Hackworth droned on about the Vietnam War (which happened in some place called "Indo-China" or something) Penelope was busy politely turning down requests. Freeing up more time for the next shuffle.
Between interviews, blog writing, her work with the "TroubleSolvers," and Gus Zero’s charity gang, well… the shuffles had taken a low priority. Initially she’d hoped that her dad would be happy about that, but he didn’t like the TroubleSolvers any better.
In fact, they’d gotten into a beefy argument just that morning over breakfast about it.
Tapping her SHIFT key aimlessly, a few times. The memory of that fight temporarily deadlocking her brain, keeping it from recalling what she wanted to write in this email.
Problem was… he had a point. Despite shuffling the store to a hidden little corner of the City, they were sitting on pure gold. If desperation could drive people to kill each other over a crust of bread, how many would die to get their hands on an infinitely replenishing store-sized cache of groceries? How long could they go without having that happen?
Shouldn’t happen that way. Didn’t have to happen that way. The City could be so much more, it could be perfect for everyone, nobody would ever have to go hungry or kill to avoid going hungry, but…
…no. She had to believe in this. Dad always assumed the worst in people, that they would drop each other at the drop of a hat. Penelope had to believe in the better part of human nature. If it didn’t exist, well… none of this would matter, anyway—
A light rumble against her bedroom desk with accompanying melody distracted her. Fortunately the microphone on her laptop was muted (and the camera playing a looping image of an attentive little studious Penelope) so Mr. Hackworth failed to notice. Without a thought, she slid her finger against the touchscreen to accept the call.
"Hallo?" she greeted.
"Penelope, hi, it’s Milly, long time no talk, how are you."
"I’m… good?" Penelope hazarded, not quite sure why Milly was talking at such a fast clip. "What’s up? Are you between classes right now? —man, you actually can get UP from your desk and go somewhere else between classes. Don’t know how lucky you have it going to a pub—"
"I’d… um… I’d… Iiiiii’d… —like to invite you over for dinner!!" Milly stumbled and then spurted. "Today. Right now. I’m out of classes, the school let out early due to an, um, uh, emergency. Can you come over for dinner? Maybe… stay the night? Sleepover. We’re a bit old for a sleepover but you’re always saying you never got to have a normal childhood and that’s a normal childhood thing and I never had one because of the infection risks but I’m not currently infected and in fact my chest is quite clear without a single cough so you don’t have to worry so how about it?"
It took Penelope several moments to dig backwards through that pile of words to recall exactly what Milly was asking of her. And a few moments more to sit in stunned shock at how bewildering this all was.
She’d visited Lucas and Milly a few times since their initial semi-disastrous encounter. Only an hour away by taxi cab, after all. And Lucas, he attended the Maslow Academy online, same as Penelope… they’d been in near constant contact. So it wasn’t WEIRD to go visit the two of them, even if the invitation was rather sudden. Then… why did this FEEL weird?
Penelope hit on it while trying to sort through the verbal onslaught.
"An emergency…?" she asked.
"I really think you should come over for dinner as soon as you possibly can," Milly emphasized, avoiding the question like a dodged spitball. "Please? It’d mean a lot to me. Mom’s making meatloaf. She makes really good meatloaf. She’s a nurse, so she’s got good attention to detail when it comes to meat and meat byproducts."
Normally, Penelope would’ve insisted on digging a bit deeper. She had time to do so; Hackworth would be ranting onward for another half hour. But…
Dinner. Dinner. Right now, dinner was going to be delivered by Johnny the Icepick, which meant fish from the restaurant below. Fish again. And fish alone, since her father was too busy (and likely too uncomfortable) to eat with her. In fact when he eventually DID get out of that little office behind the restaurant kitchen, well, that would be a post-fight reunion Penelope wasn’t looking forward to it, was it…?
"Dinner it is," she agreed. "My classes are over at three. I’ll sneak out, hop a cab, and be there around four. ‘kay?"
The exhale of absolute relief was loud enough to be audible over the phone.
"’kay. Very ‘kay," Milly agreed. "Four will work great. Thanks, Penelope. You’re a lifesaver. See you."
And like that, Penelope had a dinner date.
In hindsight, she forgot to ask if Lucas would be joining them. Presumably he would.
After signing off for the day, Penelope packed up her laundry hamper, and handed it off to Johnny.
"That’s all my socks and stuff. Uh, when Dad’s back from work, tell him I’m heading out for the night," he requested. "A sleepover at a friend’s house in the Suburbs. I’ll be back in the morning."
The Maître d’ expressed confusion. Difficult to tell, since his eyebrows were so thick that moving them did little to nothing.
"Going out all night?" Johnny asked. "I know you like to wander the city, but… I mean, okay, if you want. You’re the boss’s kid. Shouldn’t you just tell Gregory yourself…?"
Out the door before she had to answer that question. The answer was probably "yes."
One hour of a taxi ride, using her allowance and a slight discount from hiring a friend of a friend of Cass. Slightly greasy feeling, as the City off-ramp shifted to a Suburb highway. Some boredom, checking her social feeds as she rolled onwards towards the sleepy little community that housed Milly and Lucas. (And Kut-ya-up Karla, too. Should stop by and say hello. Although last time she did that unannounced, Karla was in the middle of romantic fun times with her husband and it got real awkward real fast.) Out the door, pay the cab, step on the driveway and—
—dragged off by the wrist, by some blur of pink yarn sweaters and yellow undershirts moving at ridiculous speed.
The best she could do was try not to trip over her own two feet. Briefly, she wished she’d been wearing the kneepads and protective gear her father made her wear while doing Sideways spelunking.
The front door opened and slammed shut with great speed. Briefly Penelope wondered if she’d gone blind, but no… the curtains were drawn tight and no lights were on. Bad lighting plus all the hand-me-down grandma-class furnishings that the Frisk family had been hoarding over the years made the living room look a bit like a funeral home.
After briefly peeking out between the curtains… Milly pressed her against the back against the wall, finally exhaled, and centered herself. Before looking Penelope square in the eye.
"Were you followed?" Milly asked. "Black helicopters? Black vans? Anything like that?"
Because she was too puzzled by this to react properly, she noticed the wrong thing.
"You dyed your hair red?" Penelope observed. "Err… reddish orange? Rusty? Strawberry?"
"What? Oh. Uh," her friend said, tugging absently at a lock. "Well… yes. I mean… I was just thinking… it… no! Not important right now. Stay focused, Penelope! Were you followed on the way here? Does anybody know where you are other than your father?"
"No…?" Penelope guessed… and once the initial shock of the ‘greeting’ wore off, decided to get down to what was bugging her about all this. "Milly, okay, sheesh. I’m here, like you wanted. No, I wasn’t followed. The only other guy who knows where I am used to shove an icepick in guys for asking too many questions, so I don’t think he’ll be an issue. Now, why does it matter? What exactly is going on? Is this seriously just about meatloaf? Is your mom making, like, secret meatloaf or something?"
"Uh… no. What’s secret meatloaf? Why would meatloaf be a secret?"
"I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you!"
"How would I know about—okay, no, now I’m confusing myself, too. Sorry. But… I couldn’t tell you anything over the phone. They might have bugged the line. I mean, didn’t you say that they monitored your email once?"
"The Department of Safety. The bad guys responsible for Picasso Friday. They’re trying to kill Lucas!" Milly explained. "They’ve might’ve killed a whole lot of my schoolmates, covered it all up, and now they want to kill Lucas, and there’s something scary going on here and I need to meet with him and I was scared and I’m sorry I was too scared to go alone and I had to call you because you know how to do this sort of thing I’m so sorry…!"
Unsure what to say, Penelope had no response.
Except for a rumbling stomach. Which honestly was rather looking forward to secret meatloaf.
It took a few stops and starts, with plenty of backtracking along the way. Eventually, Penelope got the full story out of Milly. Every detail her friend could remember.
A quick check of the news sites on her phone confirmed it all. CUBISM STRIKES HIGH SCHOOL POOL PARTY! complete with an exclamation mark, because there’s nothing the media liked more than a good shock-and-awe Picasso monster story. All involved declared missing, presumed dead; nothing new about that, it was the default designation for anyone caught at ground zero in a cubism outbreak. Beyond that, the actual details on the "cubism" were incredibly light… but one detail stuck out.
"In this photo, they completely wrapped the building in red-black tarps," Penelope realized. "There’s also a perimeter and everything. But it’s still just a house. That’s not normal. If the building’s so warped that it’s structurally unsound they’d go this far, but it wouldn’t LOOK like a house covered in tarps, it’d be lumpy and screwed up. If it’s just messed up on the inside and the shell’s fine, they’d have tape over all the entrances and that’s it. I mean… it MIGHT still be cubism, but—"
Milly remained steadfast. "Lucas said it’s not cubism, that it’s a cover-up," she reiterated. "I believe him. And he has proof and everything! We need to let the world know. You run a popular blog, right? Maybe you can help!"
"I… suppose. I want to know more about what he saw, though. Something’s really weird about this…"
"I know! The Department of Safety’s staying quiet about it. They must be hiding something!"
"Actually, that’s the part that isn’t weird," Penelope said, putting her phone away on a belt-loop holster. (Despite her spelunking days being quite behind her, she maintained that stuff attached to your belt was handier than stuff in a purse or anything silly like that.) "The Department of Safety’s been quiet in general since Seth Dougal disappeared. The woman in charge now, Miranda Walker, she never does interviews and rarely issues safety communications of any sort. …I’ve had a feeling they’re up to something, maybe even following me around—"
"You said you weren’t followed!"
"I mean when I go out researching the City for… reasons," she finished awkwardly. "It’s not important. So they MIGHT be hiding something, or they MIGHT be playing it quiet, or… I don’t know. Okay. So Lucas is hiding in the Sideways toy store? Not exactly a safe place to chill out for the afternoon…"
Milly tugged at her hair again, nervous. "It was… it’s my idea. I told him to hide there. It’s stupid, I know, and now we have to go back to that awful place and if he got hurt I’ll never forgive myself, and, and… ooogh. This is all so screwed up. It’s insane. I knew a lot of those kids, and now they’re all… and Lucas is… I know I should’ve just gone to the toy store right away, but, but…!"
…but she’s reacting like a normal girl would, Penelope realized. Because she IS a normal girl. Unlike me.
Was Penelope really that jaded to the weirdness of the City? Her first reaction to the news wasn’t horror, but curiosity. Dozens of teenagers likely dead and gone? Government cover up? Friend on the run and being hunted? All Penelope wanted to know about was the protocols of putting up a red-black tarp. THAT was what concerned her.
Damned lucky her friend didn’t seem to notice how callous she was about it all. People her age dying, a mass murder of some sort… it didn’t even hit her the same. That’s the sort of reaction she’d expect out of… well, Dave Smith, really. Was Penelope so far gone that she’d come around the other side, like him…?
Maybe it was just shock. Shock, and distance from the epicenter of the event. These were people from Milly’s school who died, and now the one closest to her was under the gun. She needed help. She needed the support of a friend, a shoulder to cry on.
Which is exactly what happened, when Penelope reached out to embrace her friend.
"It’s going to be okay," she promised, letting Milly let it all out. "Let’s… take a few minutes here, then we’ll go see Lucas. It’s going to be okay."
Not that it really was going to be okay, of course. If those kids were actually dead, if things were as bad as the news claimed, Penelope couldn’t bring them back to life or anything like that. For all her power, she wasn’t capable of that sort of thing.
…even if once upon a time—and it took a LONG time to even acknowledge that this happened—she’d… changed things, to save her father’s life. But he wasn’t actually killed when she pulled him back from the brink. Presumably. Just very close to it.
Half past four, and two sneaky rebels were sneaking around the suburbs, preparing to expose the evil lies of the Department of Safety. Which, much to Milly’s surprise, involved buying lots of granola bars.
"I don’t think we have time for this," Milly spoke. "It’s getting later and later, and he’s waiting for us…"
"Later means the trail’s going cold; harder for the D-o-S to notice us. Plus, the rule is that you never go into the Sideways without at least two days’ worth of supplies," Penelope explained, picking out some high-calorie, high-nutrient bars from the shelves of a local convenience store. "You never know if you’re going to walk through a one-way door and need to find an alternative exit route. Be prepared. Flashlight, bottled water, food, batteries…"
"I don’t know if my backpack’s going to hold all of this," Milly said, looking at the rapidly filling shopping basket. "Do we really need to buy out half the store? We’re just meeting up with Lucas. He’ll probably be waiting just inside the entrance, since the whole building’s invisible if you don’t know the trick to getting in…"
"Last time we only got out because… of reasons," Penelope finished awkwardly (again). "We can’t rely on, uh, reasons. They’re unreliable."
Also inexplicable and scary, Penelope didn’t add.
She’d told very few people the truth about the Heart of the City, or the truth about herself. Sometimes it just leaked out, from some desperate need to relate the harsh reality she was facing; it wasn’t like her father was much comfort lately. But Milly and Lucas, those two she kept in the dark about it. Why spoil their innocence? Better for them not to know…
A flash of color tugged at her attention, distracting her from dark thoughts while Milly loaded up on more batteries than they probably needed.
"You dyed your hair," Penelope recalled, that being the first thing she’d noticed on arriving in the Suburbs.
"Hmm? Oh… uh. You like it?" Milly asked, fluffing her strawberry-red waves a bit. "Wasn’t too hard to do, not too expensive either. I figured I’d dye it because of… uh, reasons. Like, there’s too many blondes in my social circles these days. Although a lot of the online video girls are redheads, so I guess that sort of cancels out, but… well, uh… you like it?"
"It’s a cute red, definitely. I take it Lucas likes it, too…?"
And then skin matched hair, as a cartoonish blush flared up in Milly’s cheeks.
Penelope had to giggle at the silliness of it all. A mundane little romance sub-plot in the chaos of their lives was quite refreshing, honestly—
This made two redheads in the room. One of which had, at one point, considered Penelope to be a romantic rival. Lucas had been entranced by the tales of adventurous derring-do from Penelope’s life, leading Milly to insist on going into the Sideways with them despite being absolutely terrified by the prospect. And lately… Penelope had been talking online with Lucas almost every day, hadn’t she? With Milly, considerably less often…
Now, a little hair color swapperoo took on a greener shade. Not something to giggle at. So, she stopped giggling, and focused on resource gathering. No need to complicate the complications, after all. If anything, she wanted to directly address it—something along the lines of "Hey, Milly, I’m not trying to steal your boyfriend," maybe—but that meant bringing the topic up at all. Scary stuff. Scarier even than waltzing into the Sideways to find a wanted fugitive. How to do it, how to do it…
The truth, of course. But she could still come at it, well, sideways. Avoid hitting her target dead on.
"I’ve always been kind of envious of you, Milly," Penelope stated.
A candy bar dropped into the shopping basket with a clatter.
"Wh-what?" her friend asked, 23% shocked.
"You’ve got a normal life. You go to a normal school. You’ve got a normal boyfriend," Penelope explained. "I wouldn’t even know what to do with a boyfriend if I had one. My life’s far, far from normal. I’m too busy with my projects, most of which you’d rather not know about… and that means I can’t really have what you have. So… I haven’t bothered looking for a boyfriend at all. A boy wouldn’t fit anywhere in my life. But you’ve got Lucas, and I’m so happy for you! I know you two are happy together, and if you DO actually go through with getting married, I’m totally going to be your best lady. Err. Best bridesmaid? How’s that work? I haven’t been to a wedding before… there’s a wad of flowers involved and you throw your underwear or something, right?"
Okay, maybe a bit TOO honest. Milly’s new blush made her previous one look anemic.
"Th-thank you, I think?" she replied, glancing askew to a shelf full of discount toothpaste. "Um."
"Sorry, sorry," Penelope said, waving it off with a smile. "Bit much, I know. Point is… I think Lucas is super lucky to have a girl like you. You’re awesome. I just hope you know that."
"It’s not all that normal of a life. And it’s sure not easy. Especially not with Lucas."
The words weighed the fluffy tone of the discussion down quite heavily. Heavier than is recommended for the middle of a nearly empty quickie-mart in late afternoon, with terrible adult contemporary music playing over the public address system.
"…having a boyfriend is weird. Having a boyfriend who was your childhood friend? Super weird," Milly continued. "Y’know what it’s like to go through puberty as a pair? It’s crazy. For years we had the video shoots to distract us, but then, then… there was the toy store. And that ended up okay, yeah, but everything changed. We still can’t directly talk about it. Lucas always cracks jokes, instead. …having a mom who insisted on a seventy-five-minute PowerPoint presentation about the birds and the bees and the various diseases they can contract didn’t help me feel comfortable, either."
"Oh," Penelope spoke.
"Um," she added.
Milly shifted her grip on the now-weighty shopping basket, uncomfortable standing around here.
"I… I do love him. And I think he loves me; but he’s a boy, and that means he’s kind of stupid about it," Milly suggested. "It makes sense that he wouldn’t know how to handle it. I mean… unless he’s more interested in, um…"
"Lucas is a great guy but I don’t want to steal your boyfriend!!"
…which completely shot to hell any attempt at not directly addressing the topic at hand, Penelope realized too late. But, if it was too late, she may as well go for the throat.
"I really, really don’t. I told you, I’m not in the market. And I can tell he’s not interested in me, either," Penelope insisted. "We talk online a lot, but hey, we’re in the same school! And we have similar interests. And… stuff. But he loves you. I just know he does. You don’t even have to worry, okay? Don’t worry! Stop worrying!"
"This isn’t something you should be thinking about! We’ve got black helicopters and red-black tarps and missing boyfriends to worry about! There’s no stupid love triangle here so put that right out of your head, and I’m sure whatever problems you’re having will pass, and everything is going to be fine—"
"Penelope!" Milly interrupted…
…and held up the shopping basket.
"Do we have enough granola bars and stuff yet?" she asked.
"—what? Oh. Uh. Yes. Yes, we do," the seasoned explorer noted, looking at the embarrassingly large pile of stuff they probably wouldn’t even need. "Yes. Let’s go. It’s getting late and Lucas needs our help. No time for shopping! Off we go!"
If that little scenario turned out to be the ugliest business Penelope got involved in today, she could call it an absolute smashing victory. They were about to sneak into the Sideways, while being stalked by alleged government black ops, to uncover a vast conspiracy of death and disaster. Fortunately, the closer they got to the phantom toy store, the less the thought of romantic entanglements stayed on their minds. Bigger problems afoot.
They couldn’t just walk right up to the secret spot on the sidewalk that led to the toy store; they’d been taking back roads and alleys, trying to avoid detection in case someone WAS snooping around for them. That also meant waiting until it seemed like nobody was looking, and dashing up to the crack on the sidewalk that led to the Sideways.
The sight of the toy store itself—wedged impossibly between two buildings, appearing out of thin air when you walked backwards towards it through a gap in reality—that brought up some painful memories, enough to flush out the last of the convenience store snafu. Here, they’d come face to face with Bedlam. Here, Penelope first learned that the patron saint of desperate insanity wore her own face…
Breathing in the stale air of the Sideways, the two girls walked through the front door of the ancient retail chain outlet. Unsure of what they were about to face. Not sure if Lucas would even be here, if they would be walking into a trap, if Picassos had flooded the place and turned Milly’s boyfriend inside out, or who knows what.
Instead they saw Lucas, with no monsters or threats of any sort around him.
He was kneeling in front of a portable television, in the entrance aisles of the store. Playing with A/V wires and power adapters and things like that. Didn’t even notice when they entered; he was too busy humming some strange little melody to himself, a song Penelope had never heard before. Not that she knew much about popular music, despite her blog rocketing to fame on the back of a concert review.
If there was any danger, Milly didn’t care. She rushed headlong into the store, right up to Lucas, practically attaching herself to him. Leaving Penelope to jog along behind, catching up.
"LucasIwasSOWORRIEDareyouokaywhatsgoingonareyouokay?" Milly inquired.
In response, the young man laughed gently, trying to get to his feet. Tough to do with a pile of fluffy jackets and shirts and girlfriend attached to his person.
"I’m fine," he replied, with a bright smile. "Absolutely fine. Sorry I didn’t see you coming, was busy setting up something for you… oh, Penelope’s here too? Hello. It’s good to see you in the flesh, for a change."
Ginger-haired and chipper, Lucas the boy wonder. Stop-motion animator. Internet cinematographer. Gatherer of website hits and spreader of social media memes. Penelope had been interacting with him primarily by his online messenger handle, THX1138… it had been months since she physically saw him. Still just as handsome as always. Maybe moreso. In fact so much moreso that she decided to stop thinking about it right there and then.
"…hi?" Penelope returned, with a little wave. Unsure if she should be smiling in response. Odd, how cheerful he was despite the circumstances.
Carefully, Lucas disentangled himself, to stand next to the ancient CRT television tube. He plucked his camera from a nearby shelf, loaded down with creepy plastic Halloween toy junk.
"Milly, did you bring your cellphone and the camera adapter?" Lucas asked. "I’ll need them so I can upload this, once I’m clear of the Sideways. No signals reach down here."
From the smallest pocket on her backpack, Milly produced a tangly little rubber wire with square dongle things in either end.
"All set!" she said, with cheer. "Let’s get out of here and upload that video. It’s creepy and dangerous and creepy in the Sideways…"
But Lucas shook his head, while taking the wire from her offered hand.
"Not yet," he spoke. "No. You need to see this, first. You and Penelope. See, and hear. It’s so important, Milly, the most important thing in the world… took me all day to wire up this old TV in a way that would take a feed from my modern camera. We’re going to watch, then you’ll understand…"
"We can watch back at my house," Milly suggested. "They won’t be looking for you there. Come on. It’s dangerous in here…"
Lucas glanced around the flickering lights of the toy store, with its looming high ceilings and rows of toys which may or may not pop to twisted life at any moment. "Really? I’m not scared," he said. "I’m not scared of anything, now…"
…which was enough to push Penelope’s This Is Weird button, over and over. She knew weird from weird, given how much of her life was weird by default. And this met the criteria.
"Lucas… what exactly happened last night at that party?" Penelope asked. "The Department of Safety says all those kids died, you included. What really happened? Just… tell us."
"Everybody died," Lucas spoke, still wearing that distant smile he wore when they first got here. "All of them. Sixteen total dead. Everybody’s dead, except me."
The worst case scenario. And, oddly enough, exactly what the Department of Safety had been saying all along. No mass kidnapping, no secret cover up. Just… death. Dozens of people Penelope’s age, all dead…
Milly’s classmates, gone. The horror of it was just sinking in; she’d been told they were dead, but held out some hope, despite her fears. Lucas was going to tell her the truth, the real truth about what happened, which meant they couldn’t be dead. She’d had friends at that party. Had.
…but while Milly was paralyzed with the shock of it, Penelope was so used to disaster that she was able to call Lucas out.
"Why are you smiling," she asked, so quietly that it didn’t sound like a question.
In response, Lucas pressed the PLAY button on his camera.
"Because I know why they died," he spoke, flashing his eyes in Penelope’s direction. Brilliant and blue, deep as the seas she’d never actually seen…
Except Lucas wasn’t born with blue eyes. He had green eyes… at least, the last time they’d met.
The music was soft, but made its presence felt. Even through the thick of the conversation, the laughter and the partying, the music could be heard.
The sixteen-by-nine view wasn’t quite smooth, bumping around as a handheld camera naturally would. Its owner was seated in the living room, with a few of the teens from Milly’s school. They were talking about something, in the middle of talking about something, when the recording started. Off in the background, other groups were talking, some were tapping a keg. In the distance the swimming pool could be seen through glass doors, with a few of them going skinny dipping. All in all, a basic house party with the parents out of town.
"…it all started to make perfect sense," Clark was saying, talking to someone on the couch, just out of frame. "All of it. Nobody likes to talk about it, how we don’t actually exist. They think it’s depressing. But I don’t think it’s depressing at all. See, you have to… okay. You have to look at it like this. If you don’t exist, you are free, aren’t you? You’re free. All your troubles, all your problems, they aren’t real. Anxiety? Fear? Doubts? Not real. Trivial…"
"Yeah," the offscreen voice agreed. "Yeah. Man… years and years of it, you know? All of that hell we’ve gone through…"
"I know! And it WAS hell. Everybody talks about how the cool kids, the safe little Suburbanites, we got it made. But we’ve got the same problems everybody else has. We’re all in the same hell together," Clark agreed. "Someone once said, I dunno who, but someone wise, they said insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That’s what life is. We keep running headfirst at it over and over, expecting it to mean something, and it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean anything. But we’re free! We’re free to leave whenever we want. …I’m happy. I’m just so happy right now, knowing that. I’m just so happy."
Clark’s blue eyes glimmered in the dim lighting of the party, bright like his smile, as he pressed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
The camera view didn’t even bob slightly. It stayed focused on its subject, unwavering. Then, moved on to the next subject, as the previously offscreen teen picked up Clark’s smoking gun, put it to his own head with a grin, and pulled the trigger.
In the background someone had found steak knives in the kitchen, and was putting them to good use. Little by little, the chatter was replaced with the gurgling of throats. No screams, no cries. Not a single pain response as they slit each other’s arteries, or carved up their own arms. One by one the party guests fell to the carpet, bleeding their last.
One teenage girl ran directly through the glass doors leading to the back patio. When that didn’t work, she picked up a piece of shattered glass and finished herself that way.
The happy splashing of swimmers in the pool had stopped. They were now sinking to the bottom, taking in great lungfuls of water.
Soon the scene was absolutely still and quiet. Quiet, save for the music playing in the background… and the wail of distant sirens, as reports of shots fired finally reached the Department of Safety.
Finally, the cameraman rose from his seat. First, he turned off the music. Got a nicely wide, sweeping and silent shot of the aftermath. With his work complete, Lucas walked in an orderly fashion for the door. He was out of the house and down the street before the squad cars were pulling up.
Blue eyes, searching for their response. Curious eyes that were clearly expecting something other than the mute horror that they were getting in return.
"You understand, right?" Lucas asked. "I needed to get this video out there. Show the whole world the truth. …show you the truth, Milly. Once I can finally upload this to the net, we’ll be ready to both die together. Everybody can die together. We’ll be free. The nightmare can end, Milly! No more bullying, no more overprotective parents, no more uncertainty and doubt. Everything will be just as it should be—"
The sound of retching filled the air, as Milly doubled over and threw up what little she had in her stomach, tearing her eyes away from the blood-soaked image on the ancient television screen.
Slowly… Penelope positioned herself in front of Milly, arms outstretched, guarding. Because now she could see that while the camera remained in Lucas’ left hand… he’d produced a box cutter in his right hand, no doubt nicked from the storage rooms in the back.
"Don’t you move a muscle, Lucas Flynn," Penelope warned. "Don’t. Move."
He moved anyway, cocking his head, trying to peer at Milly’s trembling body despite her living blockade.
"I don’t understand. You should both be feeling the way I do," he said. "I thought for sure if you saw the video, you’d feel the same truth. Everybody at the party felt it. I guess it doesn’t have the same effect when it’s recorded… that’s a shame. Because it’s time to go. This is for the best, Penelope. All echoes eventually fade—"
So she kicked him in the crotch.
Truthfully, she was aiming for the gut. A basic "get away from me" self-defense move, as the boy had begun to swoop in on her with the knife in hand. Her sneaker planting itself firmly between his legs had a more impressive effect, enough that even Penelope winced in sympathy as Lucas’ eyes rolled back in his head and he staggered away, crashing into the old television. Fortunately not shattering the glass, since she’d inflicted more than enough injury for one round.
Milly looked up, wiping at her mouth with a pink and fuzzy jacket sleeve. "L-Lucas!" she declared, instinctively moving to help—and getting blocked by Penelope’s outstretched arm.
"Wait! Something’s wrong with him," Penelope reminded her. "Cubism, maybe, I don’t know, but stay away from him… it’s not safe. —rope. Cord. Find something we can tie him up with, quick, before he recovers."
"But… but he, but…" Milly babbled, unable to come to grips with this so soon after being shown video testimonial of a mass suicide. Unable to differentiate between the boy she’d come to rescue and the boy who wanted her death. Her eyes darted nervously between Penelope and Lucas, body unwilling to move a muscle to help either just yet. "Penelope, he, what, I don’t understand…!"
Looking around at the shelves… Penelope spotted an orange-and-black jump rope on sale for $2.99. She tore it free from its plastic baggie. "I don’t understand it either," she admitted. "But if we don’t restrain him he could hurt us, or himself—"
The beam of an industrial strength flashlight blinded her for a few seconds. When the spots went away… she found several assault rifles and two flamethrowers aimed in their general direction. And not toy ones, either.
Behind the firing line stood a woman in black, arms folded. Mouth a tight horizontal line of displeasure.
"You’re all under arrest for breaking Sideways quarantine," Miranda Walker, head of the Department of Safety declared. "Come quietly or get tazed and then come quietly. Your choice."
So, this was how Penelope Yates was going to die.
Failing to help her friends. Lost and alone, without her father knowing where to find her. And whatever crazy and vague dreams she had for the future of the City, well, those just went out the window. Nothing left but to sit in an isolation cell somewhere in the bowels of the Department of Safety, with two empty hours to ponder her shortcomings.
Presumably they were busy shining up a nice array of rifles for her firing squad. That’s what this had to be; the Department had likely been following her for months now, always just out of sight while she investigated city blocks for later shuffling. Eventually, they caught on to what she was. A powerful entity, like Bedlam. A danger. A freak…
The worst part of it was that she’d pulled Milly and Lucas down with her. Whatever happened to Lucas, some new form of cubism or whatever it was, the Department would figure it out at the sharpened end of a scalpel. Milly would at best get some jail time for breaking quarantine laws and lose her love along the way… at worst, well, if the Department was still acting like Seth Dougal’s crazy regime, maybe she’d vanish just like Penelope. No witnesses.
Oh, she’d tried to escape this fate; maybe tear open an exit like she’d done when escaping that toy store the first time they visited, or change the building like the night she dumped a garage on top of a Picasso’s head. The only times she’d ever consciously used her power were instinctive, not premeditated. No matter how desperate, she couldn’t figure out where to even begin to do it while awake.
So, she’d tried to sleep on the hard bench provided in her cell. In her dreams, she was able to do so much… shuffle the City around, notably. Maybe shuffle a way out…? But, sleep wouldn’t come. Too scared, too anxious. Too self-aware of the need to fall asleep to actually fall asleep. Lousy day to get insomnia.
Muffled voices flowed in through the tiny metal viewing slat on her cell door. Miranda Walker, the seldom-seen head of the Department, talking with some guy. Talking about Penelope… and yes, the word shuffle was in there, confirming her worst fears. They knew. Wouldn’t be long now, would it…
The hinges on the heavy iron door creaked mightily as it swung open. But instead of a whole firing squad, only two armed officers entered, decked out in riot gear and carrying shotguns. Of course, that’d be more than enough to paint the back wall of her cell with cherry pie, so hey. Same deal.
After they took up flanking positions on either side of the door, securing the prisoner at gunpoint… their boss walked in.
Miranda Walker. Six feet of zero nonsense, living up to the stereotype of a dark-suited government agent. Her short and braided hair also refuses nonsense, bound back in a sensible way. Dark eyes tracked Penelope with pinpoint accuracy, assessing her as a threat, waiting for some sort of reaction…
The teenager in the room wasn’t sure what would be a properly snappy comeback to this situation. "Can I order room service?" maybe. Or "I’m afraid I’m only giving this place three stars on Yelp" or somesuch. She could also go for the obvious, like demanding some information… "Where’s Milly?" or "I want to see my father" or maybe even "I want a lawyer." Although it’d likely be a futile effort, asking—
"You’re a variable I can’t calculate for, Ms. Yates," the woman spoke, denying the opportunity for a one-liner. "An agent of change beyond all human control. Don’t deny it; we know you’re the mysterious shuffler. All rational thought and unwritten departmental policy says I should be eliminating you, for the safety my City. I’d like you to give me one good reason I shouldn’t have my men put you down, right here."
"Uh," Penelope spoke in a non-snappy way. "I… I’d say you shouldn’t kill me because—"
Hand into her business casual jacket, going for a gun.
Drawing out a smart tablet, instead.
"I said I’d like you to give me one good reason," Walker spoke. "In fact I have a good reason in mind already, provided you agree with it. Watch. And save your questions for after the presentation, please."
Her friend was probably used to people with shotguns menacing her. In fact, right now Penelope Yates was probably standing up to these bullies, maybe even with some snappy one-liners. The best Milly Frisk had managed was a mute sort of horror at what was happening to her.
The isolation cell was bad enough, but being marched wordlessly down hallways deep beneath some creepy facility of unknown purpose, well… she’d almost rather have the Sideways. It was so quiet down here, like the emptiness of the Sideways. More likely, everybody knew better than to peek out of their offices when a political prisoner was being led at gunpoint… somewhere. The guard hadn’t specified. Presumably somewhere bad. It’s not as if they had, like, a candy room or a ball pit in the Department of Safety and wanted her to go have some fun.
The destination, oddly enough, was Lucas.
One of the many unmarked doors led to what looked like the world’s smallest emergency room. Medical equipment, medicine cabinets, weird machines that go ‘beep’ on poles with wheels, stuff like that. But all of it was devoted to a single patient… Lucas Flynn, bound tightly with leather restraints to an actually very comfortable-looking hospital bed.
His smile, despite the creepy factor of it, was a welcome relief as Milly was escorted into this room.
"Hi," Lucas said, offering her his best comforting look. "Are you okay? Did they hurt you?"
"Lucas!" was all Milly could say, rushing forward—
And stopped, pulled back by a strong hand.
"Whoaaa there, watch it," the owner of that hand warned, tugging on Milly’s pink sweater. "We haven’t completely ruled out physical contact as a means of transmission. Wouldn’t want you catching whatever bug he’s got, would we?"
Memories of her boyfriend with a box cutter in his hand, declaring cheerful intent to kill her… that plus the tug at her sweater were enough to plant her feet firmly on the floor. And then to face the one who pulled her back.
An older woman, with graying hair around the sides, and a surprisingly kindly expression for being part of a malevolent oppression engine determine to crush the truth and scare little girls who dared to stand up against them. Her pristine white lab coat screamed "I’m a doctor!" despite lack of a telltale stethoscope or reflective mirror on her forehead. Briefly Milly wondered if her mother knew this woman, except of course her mom worked at an actual hospital rather than a secret underground lair of evil.
"I’m Kit Hearth. Like ‘Health,’ so you know I’m good for you," the woman greeted, extending a hand to shake. "But for simplicity’s sake you can call me Kit. Hello! Milly Frisk, yes? I’m glad to meet you. After we lost track of Lucas, we started tracking you. He’s your beau, yes? Quite a merry chase you put us through. Then your cellphone signal vanished at the same spot his did, and, well, the rest is history. Now you’re here, in my lab! Welcome!"
"T-Thanks?" Milly spoke, trying not to sound confused and failing. Looking back and forth, to the oddly peaceful boy in restraints, and the charming matron. …and the anonymous guard with the shotgun, which felt out of place, now. "Err. What’s going on? Are we under arrest? Wait, no, we’re under arrest. But… the… okay, what IS this?"
Kit Hearth settled in on a round stool with wheels, which squeaked merrily as she rolled it a bit closer to the hospital bed. Taking out a smart tablet, to jot down Lucas’ vitals from a monitor. Much like Milly’s vital checks, each morning.
"You’re less ‘under arrest’ and more ‘in protective custody,’ I believe," she explained. "For his protection and your protection from him. Although I was curious what his reaction would be to seeing you, so I had you brought here. This is my research lab, where I’m trying to determine what’s causing his condition. Technically my full title is Medical Research Officer O-2 Kit Hearth. I specialize in physically impossible diseases. Much like the one Lucas Flynn has caught… isn’t that right, Lucas?"
The boy smiled at her, nodding. "Everybody should know the truth," he burbled. "Everybody should realize they’re free. Everybody should die. That’s the only way the suffering will end…"
"Yes, well m’boy, that’s why we’ve got you all tied up, isn’t it?" Kit spoke, with a wide grin. "Wouldn’t want you breaking loose and finding a sharp object, now. It’s so hard to get my hands on a living subject infected by B.E.P… I’d hate to lose you. And I’m sure your very nice girl would hate to lose you too, yes?"
"She wouldn’t lose me. We’d be going into the nothing together, if you hadn’t interrupted," Lucas told the doctor… before turning to Milly. "I know you can’t see things the way I do now, not yet. But you will. You don’t have to be afraid, Milly. I love you. I love you and we’ll be together soon…"
A shiver touched her spine. Didn’t run up and down it… just the lightest of touches. Those words she always wanted to hear from him without being lashed to the back of some joking quip. Words that now chilled her as much as they caressed…
"The doctor thinks I’m sick. Called it B.E.P., right? She’s wrong, but that’s okay. She’ll understand too, in time," he promised, turning his grin now to the older woman. "Everybody will understand…"
Dr. Hearth smiled right back at the boy. "Quite right! I’ll understand, and use that understanding to find a cure. Well. That’s the plan, anyway. B.E.P. is a weird little thing, you see…"
"What’s… beep? " Milly asked, a little weirded out by all the smiles. "What do you mean, sick? He’s sick? Like measles sick?"
"What’s B.E.P., what’s B.E.P…? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it dear? Blue-Eyed Plague, I’ve taken to calling it. We know what it does: it induces a state of perpetual euphoria, along with suicidal delusions. The plague strikes in waves, with dozens infected in one go… sometimes in close proximity, sometimes miles apart. You’ve seen the news, yes? An unusually high suicide rate in the population lately…?"
"Well, yeah, but—wait. There’s a plague causing that?!" Milly exclaimed. "Everybody was blaming cyberbullying, or economic depression, or rock music, or… I mean, why didn’t you guys say anything? The Department of Safety never said anything to us about a plague!"
"Mmm. Well, why would we?" Kit asked, tucking her tablet away for now. "What good would it do to run through the streets screaming about a deadly disease we barely understand and have no means of stopping? All that would accomplish is City-wide panic and fear, and… well. We have recent hard evidence that fear is unhealthy for the City, as a whole. So why say anything? Better to study it quietly. If possible, also eliminate the threat quietly. That’s how Miss Walker handles things. And in return, you get to sleep happy and unknowing. Well. Not you personally, dear, so sorry…"
Milly wanted to yell something in protest. Some sort of indignant rage.
But… she could only imagine how her mother would react to the news. Milly would be lucky if she ever saw light of day again. And Milly herself, no stranger to germophobia, well… she might welcome being locked in her room for the rest of her life, if she knew she could catch a bug that made her suicidal…
In fact, she was standing in a room right now with someone infected by that very disease.
Immediately, her empty stomach turned. Aversion to infection drove much of her life… wearing extra layers to stay warm, using cough masks, disinfecting her hands any chance she got, things like that. When Penelope told her about exploring the Sideways, Milly’s first reaction was oh no oh no I’m going to get cubism from this girl. And with this doctor admitting they had no idea how it spread…
"Are you okay? Looking a bit green. Your cheeks, I mean, not your eyes. Open your eyes wider, please," the doctor spoke, peering at them. "Hmm, deep blue. But your files say you were born with blue eyes thanks to that rich Scandinavian heritage of yours, so maybe it’s nothing. Hard to say, really…"
Had to hold it together, had to. Lucas’ life on the line. No time to panic, despite this doctor’s delighted ignorance of the menace they were facing. Milly had to be strong, just like Penelope would be…
"I’m fine. I’m fine," she announced. "I don’t want to kill myself. Absolutely do not want to kill myself…"
"Good to hear, good to hear. Let me know if that changes, I’ll get you a bed next to his. Have ourselves a little slumber party!"
"I’m fine," Milly emphasized. "And Lucas will be fine after you can study him and develop the cure, right?"
Here, Kit’s smile wavered a bit. Scratching at her chin, in thought.
"That’s my intent, yes, but… I’m afraid I’ve been hitting a bit of a brick wall," she admitted. "I specialize in impossible conditions, but this one’s quite impossible. Beyond impossible. It’s almost like it doesn’t exist, except it does. There’s no physiological cause for the eye color shift or the delusions. No virus or bacterial colony or parasite I can identify. No traceable infection vector. Honestly, this may ultimately be beyond the realm of physical science… and I’m afraid I didn’t major in metaphysics. Without a little bug I can cure, a cure is beyond me. All I can do at the moment is study the results."
What little hope Milly had built up went out the window, right there.
"Can’t we do anything for him?" she mumbled, a quiet plea.
"I’ll keep trying, of course. But I’m told there may be someone who can assist us in a more immediate fashion," Dr. Hearth spoke…
…turning to face the security camera in the corner, with its bright red light.
"Did you get all that, ma’am?" she asked of it.
Miranda Walker turned off the security feed app, and passed her tablet over to the slightly nervous-looking man behind her. Another Man-in-Black, although he looked way too photogenic to work as a faceless government stooge. More like a TV weatherman or something.
"So. Now you know what we know. All thanks to the good doctor and Carl Matthews here; he’s my in-house statistician," Ms. Walker explained, nodding briefly to her companion. "Carl, fill Miss Yates in on what we know of the infection vector. Executive summary, please."
…no wonder. He WAS a former weatherman. Penelope recalled seeing a Carl Matthews on television a few times. Very good at predicting the weather, too. Then he lost his marbles and vanished. Apparently vanished into the ranks of the Department of Safety, judging from the ID badge pinned to his lapel…
"I’ve… uh… well, next to nothing, honestly," Carl admitted. "I’ve crossed the data back and forth on every victim of the plague. Sometimes it impacts people in nearby proximity when a wave hits, as it did during that party. But we’ve also had people in entirely different districts with no history of depression or mental illness suddenly commit suicide more or less simultaneously. I’ve checked dietary intake, I’ve checked daily habits, I even cross referenced reading material and musical interests. There’s commonalities, but no one thing in common between them all."
"Thank you, Carl," Walker acknowledged. "Now then, Miss Yates. You’re an undefinable metaphysical menace to my City. I happen to be facing another undefinable metaphysical menace to my City. My intent is to crash one head-on into the other and see what happens. If you want to earn my trust rather than a bullet in the brain… I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on this matter."
The teenage prisoner stared at the woman, dumbfounded.
"I said you could hold your questions until after the presentation," Walker reminded her. "That would be this part."
"I don’t know anything about diseaseology. Uh. Virology," Penelope Yates corrected. "I can’t cure a plague."
"Fortunately for you, this is not a plague. It’s just acting like one. It’s something far weirder, and weird is what you and your… what are you calling yourselves now? ‘TroubleSolvers’? Them. What they specialize in. The ones who ended Picasso Friday. You did a good job covering your tracks during that mess, but the evidence was there for those willing to look. I was."
"How… how did you…?"
For this, Miranda counted off the evidence on her fingers. "Let’s see. One, reports of magical teddy bears that cure cubism. Two, an orphanage owned by a nice old lady who bought a night club with cash. Three, a night club owned by someone connected to a graffiti artist that painted ‘Department of Bedlam’ on my roof. Four, Picasso Friday, simultaneous with Seth Dougal’s vanishing. Five, a number of municipal water processing plants where gunfights and sabotage took place. I’m running out of fingers and we’re running out of time so let’s just say I’m a smart person and move on."
"So… you knew about me all along? You knew I’ve been shuffling city blocks around, too?"
"Knew you were involved? Yes. Knew you were the shuffler? More or less. We were looking at a few candidates the data pointed to. I thought it might be the Wei girl, given her chosen hobby’s amount of cross-city traversal. Truthfully… I didn’t know for sure until you confirmed it tonight," Walker admitted.
…which sank Penelope’s heart, right there. Father would be furious to find out she’d fessed up for no reason at all. So much for counter-intelligence and covering her tracks.
There was no escaping this mess, not now. The Department had easily identified each member of her peculiar social circle. Which meant as distasteful as it was to be forced into this alliance, she didn’t have much choice… not if they could bring down reprisal on her friends.
But she didn’t have to LIKE it.
"I don’t like this," she spoke, in fact.
Rather than gloat… Miranda offered the closest she’d come to sympathy.
"It’s heavy-handed, I realize," she agreed. "Not how I would have chosen to approach you. But, you got tangled up in this case through your friends, and so I couldn’t ignore you any longer. Let’s agree to agree that this is not a good situation for any of us, and move on to the problem solving."
"What if I don’t want to help…?"
"There’s a zero chance possibility of that," Miranda stated simply. "I’ve read your blog. You love this City, just as much as I do. You’ve taken an inadvisably proactive and godlike approach to loving it, but that’s besides the point; you’ll want to help save the people who live here. So do I. We don’t have to be enemies, Miss Yates. The enemy is whoever’s driving our citizens to take their lives. So… the Blue-Eyed Plague. If it’s not a virus, what could it be? How does it really spread?"
A memory tugged at Penelope’s brain.
"Drinking water," she spoke. "Last time it was the drinking water. Seth Dougal was dumping Nightmare Fuel into it. Did you—"
"First thing I checked," Carl Matthews replied. "After what Ms. Walker deduced about the Picasso Friday incident from Doctor Montgomery’s captured notes, I figured that was the most obvious vector. We’ve locked down security on as many municipal plants as we could, and I’ve taken enough samples to determine there’s nothing in the pipes. Atmospheric checks say no airborne agents. No dietary matches either, remember."
"Drat. There has to be something common between the plague victims, if not the water or the air…"
"Nothing statistically noteworthy. Well. They’re all human beings, I guess. Not that it counts."
Penelope chewed on her lip for a bit as she chewed on that one. Human beings. Things all humans do…
Drink? Nothing in the water.
Breathe? No funny business in the air conditioning.
Eat? Everybody eats different things.
Love? Well, if this was an STD, that’d be pretty obvious.
"Life is but a dream," Penelope spoke, the thought rising to her lips from a distant memory.
"Pardon?" Miranda Walker asked.
"Dreams. Human beings have dreams," she replied. "That’s it, I KNOW that’s it. Don’t ask me how I know; if, and that’s a big IF, I can learn to trust you I might explain more. I know someone who can help me with this, but… well. I don’t sleep real well in an isolation cell, so if you could escort me somewhere more comfortable…? And I don’t mean a research lab, thank you. I’m not letting you hook me up to any creepy brain machines."
Now, the former weatherman felt the need to object.
"Bad idea. Very bad idea," Carl spoke. "The shuffles always happen at night, followed by Penelope missing school the next morning. I mean… Ms. Walker, she just flat out confirmed my dream shuffle theory! If we let her sleep tonight, well… who knows what she’ll do?"
Miranda Walker didn’t look at him. Kept her eyes on Penelope’s. The two of them testing each other, looking for the slightest flinch where each suspected they’d find none.
"I know what she’ll do. She’ll keep her word," Walker replied. "Isn’t that right, Penelope?"
"Of course. You could always shoot me if the building went screwy while I slept, right?"
"I see we have a mutual understanding. Fine. You can use my office. I’ve renovated since Dougal held it… including a very nice couch."
It was a very nice couch.
That alone wouldn’t do the job, so she asked to have Doctor Kit send up some melatonin. Just the thing for a nice, sleepy night… especially given she was sleeping under guard in the middle of the monolithic governmental entity that nearly destroyed the world once upon a time. She also asked for fuzzy pajamas and bunny slippers, but apparently that was pushing her luck too far, and the request was denied.
A few last details to settle, before settling in for the night.
One, send a text message to Johnny the Icepick, because her dad wasn’t answering his phone for some reason. Probably still uncomfortable from their fight early that day. Lousy timing, really…
PennyLane: hi johnny im at the department of safety. dont worry, im fine, but i have to save the city and stuff and itll take me until morning. bbl. please keep dad from freaking out and charging over here guns blazing kthx will xpln more later
…that would have to do. She put her phone on vibrate after that; being woken up by frantic ringing wouldn’t help her now.
"Once this is done, all three of us walk out of here. Me, Milly, Lucas," Penelope insisted, settling in on the very nice couch. "No funny business keeping me as your personal demiurge or anything like that. You know what my Dad is like when I’m threatened, and for his own sake I’d rather it not come to that."
"If you can cure B.E.P., I’d say you’ve more than earned some leeway. And if you don’t…"
"If it fails miserably… well. None of this is Milly’s fault. Lucas… do what you have to do to help him, but Milly gets to walk away no matter what. I know you like to keep things quiet and tidy, but those are my terms. Got it?"
"Reasonable," Walker agreed. "I’m posting a guard at the door. For your safety and ours. …still not in the mood to tell me what crazy stunt you’re about to try?"
"Not yet. You’ve got more dirt on me than I’m comfortable with already. If this works and you live up to your end of our bargain, maybe I’ll tell you one day."
Definitely not a good idea to tell the head of the Department of Safety who Penelope was about to go have a chat with. It could be taken the wrong way. As in, "set flamethrowers to broil" wrong way.
Closing her eyes, Penelope hugged a pillow she pretended was her old teddy bear, and tried very much not to think about anything at all. Clear the mind, let it wander to random thoughts, whatever it took to defocus on the situation and the need to sleep. Focus on anything else. Things. Places. Streets. The Zag, winding back and forth. Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned…
…a bus stop next to a warped and bent street lamp.
The City was always a bit more surreal in her dreams, a bit more raw and strange. Not that she ever wandered out into those wilds; the bus stop was as much as she needed. Functional. Normal. Safe.
Whether she’d forged this place without realizing it or whether it existed all along, this spot was terrific as neutral ground. Here, Lucid/Penelope could meet up with her other self: the nightmare child of Bedlam. Who was in fact sitting at the bus stop waiting for her, on arrival. Either that or waiting for a bus, but no bus had ever arrived at this metaphorical nexus, so that wasn’t likely.
What gave Penelope pause was Bedlam’s smile. Smiles. Smiles for miles and miles, coating her shadow-slick surface, dancing about in a jittery and soundless laugh.
// row, row, row your boat // merrily // merrily // merrily // so very merrily // I’m so very, very merry, Bedlam spoke, gesturing with one of her two arms for Penelope to have a seat on the bench. // merriment and mirth // passion and pain // joy upon joys. // waiting so long for this day…
"You know why I’m here, don’t you," Penelope didn’t need to ask, as she sat down next to herself.
"Was it you? Are you the one responsible for creating the Blue-Eyed Plague?"
// yessssssssswait // no // no. // yessss of satisfaction // no of no // no to the "plague" // that wasn’t me, Bedlam corrected. // satisfaction, so much // day I’ve been waiting for // so long. // finally.
"I’m not seeing what’s so great about today, Bedlam. A friend of mine is in serious danger. You know the word ‘friend,’ yes? Like Kelsey is your friend?"
// wanted to be friends with everyone // you stopped me. // stopped me from saving them. // but today // today // you finally get your comeuppance for interfering with my friendship. // today is the day you fail. // today is the day I am proven right...
The shadow poured from the bench, flaring up in front of Penelope… looming and overpowering. Not that it got a reaction from Penelope. After all, she knew that Bedlam liked to puff herself up whenever she felt angry. Or happy. Or both, which were sometimes the same thing to her.
// I warned you // WARNED you // that this day would come, Bedlam reminded her. // I warned // I wouldn’t help you // not when Echo’s sorrow came home to roost // nor when the bleed drips bricks through bricks // no help // no quarter // because you stopped me. // you stopped me before I could have perfected // twisted // this city into a shape that could fight her.
"Perfect?! You wanted to drive everybody insane and turn the whole world into the Sideways!"
// exactly. // perfection. // a perfect defense against her. // and when you fail // you have failed // I will resume my work.
"Don’t you dare—wait. Back up. Who were you trying to defend the City against…? Who’s ‘her’?" Penelope asked, finally catching on. "You know who created the plague, don’t you? Bedlam, come on, work with me. We can beat this; we’re stronger together than apart!"
This time, Bedlam had no mocking reply. Just a mocking smile, like a herd of Cheshire cats.
// no help for the lucid child // no hope, she mocked. // so lost here // so alone // because here, she is not who she is // has no access to her greater self // two things in the same place at the same time // no lucidity // just… penelope. // a failure.
Now, Penelope rose to her feet.
"I haven’t failed yet!" she declared. "The truce stands. I’ll beat this. I’ll beat ‘her,’ so don’t you think you can remake the City just yet. I’m not done!"
// so ignorant // so small // so afraid // even afraid of this dream of a dream // unable to set foot into it // while I walk it freely. // sit back down, Lucid child. // sit // cower // and wait for the end which—
"What do you mean, ‘dream of a dream’?"
—frozen smiles. Where they vibrated and chittered with overlapping laughter, now they stopped cold, like a video stuck in buffering.
"The dream of a dream. You mean this place, don’t you?" Penelope asked, sweeping an arm out across the twisted and nebulous cityscape. "So it’s not just some phantom bus stop in my dreams… it IS my dream. Patient 23’s dream. The metadream Kelsey was theorizing about—!"
// failure // failure // you will fail // you have failed // sit // cower // fail // FAIL //
And with enough speed to pull the air in her wake with a sickening pop, Bedlam drained away into the dead of this imaginary night. Gone from the mind’s eye.
…which left her with nothing but a bus stop in the middle of the untamed wilds of imagination.
The metadream, Kelsey Jones had said, last time they compared notes.
Literally compared notes, as she’d found a strange note in the wastebasket of a cubist cable station. The author was someone who had linked Dave’s mother to the metadream with a videotape, had her broadcasting her emotions across a television signal. That’s the word he wrote down, "metadream." Is that where you go when you sleep at night, Penelope…?
But there was more, wasn’t there? The name of a nemesis, someone who was working with the mystery note author. Bedlam was perfectly willing to help fight that nemesis when Kelsey was the one leading the charge, even as she was perfectly happy to leave Penelope hanging out to dry. A nemesis with a very familiar name…
"Echo," Penelope spoke aloud.
"Ohhhh, you don’t want to say that name so freely."
"Why not?" Penelope spoke aloud.
"Simple enough; she might hear you. And you’re not ready to face her. You could, however, speak my name. You may even learn something if you’ve no cotton in your ears, child…"
Someone else in the wilds of the metadream. Not Bedlam’s shadow and smile, but just as vague and blurry. A softer blur this time around… more gentle and less, well, gonzo nuts insane. Curious that someone else would be out here who was not Bedlam and presumably not Echo, which left…
"Is that you, Lucid…?" Penelope guessed.
"Now now, your friend just said you couldn’t talk to Lucid. You ARE Lucid, after all. No sense in interrogating yourself for answers you don’t already know," the figure spoke. "But maybe that IS what you’re doing. I could be the part of you that knows what’s what. Or I could be a part of the rest of this, which is also a part of you. Or I could be something else entirely. I’d say it’s a safe bet I’m all three at once. If that doesn’t bake your noodle, then I’d say we’re off to a good start…"
"I can’t see you very well. Shouldn’t you look like me? We’re the same person, right?"
"If you can’t see the lights of the City, how do you think you could see me? All you see is this bus stop. That’s all you want to see. Nice and safe, here. …so safe that I can’t stay, not if you’re going to root yourself here. Hard enough just getting this close… afraid my time is up, child. If you want to know more… it’s up to you to take the next step…"
The indistinct figure grew more indistinct, threatening to fade out entirely. Penelope focused as hard as she could on it… but from here, from the safe confines of the bus stop, she couldn’t reach out and grasp whatever this thing was…
And then, gone. Slipped away into the ever-shifting skyline on the horizon.
Bedlam, taunting and teasing, declared that she could walk freely here. If Bedlam could do it, why not Lucid…? Penelope had never really left the bus stop, not any of the times she came to this in-between dream in order to parlay with Bedlam. It felt… dangerous, out there. Like she could get lost. Wandering off at the speed of thought… but tonight, she’d risk it. She needed answers that badly.
Penelope got to her feet, daring to walk away from the bus stop and approach the figure directly. Right into the heart of the dream, if need be.
She took the next step.
At one point, Penelope had compared the City of Angles to a layered cake. Well, an upside-down layered cake. One huge layer on top representing the Outlands, sparse and spread out. A smaller layer but still quite roomy, for the Suburbs. A tighter and more compact sprawl of chaotic architecture for the City proper. And then, winding down and down and down, the Sideways… leading to the Heart of the City.
It was a cute metaphor, but completely wrong. That was just how the City of Angles was perceived; a nice, sensible perception of the situation. People liked sensibility. But the reality of it was… this.
This was the City, in its rawest and truest form. A collective unconsciousness, lurking in the mind of Patient 23. The dream of dreams. The metadream, as the note’s mystery author put it…
Everything was here. Everything. Heart, Sideways, City, Suburbs, Outlands, Buildings, Places, People, Things, Everything. It all had a representation somewhere in the totality of the dream. So much of it, all of it at once, all flooding in at once the moment she walked away from that stable little corner she’d carved out for her midnight meetings with Bedlam. Too much, too much even for the supposed God of this world to take in at once…
"Breathe easy, child. One, two. One, two."
She didn’t have lungs. She didn’t have a body. Just a mind, floating along with all the other minds. Awake or asleep, it didn’t matter, they were all here. All of them all of them all of them
"Focus on me. I’m real. I’m here. You can make me real, and use my reality as your anchor. Penelope? Penelope, look at me."
A wrinkly old smile. Wrinkly old eyes. And a kindness that wrapped around you like a fuzzy blanket…
When Penelope found her words, she spoke the name. It was enough to ground her feet on whatever passed for solid City turf.
"Grandma Scarlett!" she recognized.
"Hello again, dearie," Grandma Scarlett said, with a wrinkly old smile.
"But, but you, the, you died, I mean, you…"
"Oh, I died. Make no mistake about that," she replied, despite looking just as alive and well as Penelope. "Beyond that, well, I’m not entirely sure myself. Maybe what you see here is the part of me that’s still within you. Maybe I’m the face you wear so you can talk to yourself. Who knows? But we’re not here to talk about an old woman’s woes, are we? We’re here to talk about your friend, and how to save him from Echo’s sorrows."
With the familiar face as a reference, she slowly looked at the dream world around her. Let it all settle into place around Grandma Scarlett, seeing everything in relation to her companion. Forging images out of the dream, creating metaphors on the fly to depict what was happening…
It was her City, so it took the familiar shape of a City. Each window glowed from within, a solid and singular point of light behind the glass. Similar lights flowed along the sidewalks, up and down the incoming and outgoing lanes of streets. Even as the buildings shifted and slid about, the lights moved with them. They were constants. They were…
"The people," Penelope recognized. "Everybody in the City of Angles. Everybody’s connected to this place… Kelsey had rambled on about everything being connected, although I didn’t quite get what she meant…"
"Yes, well, some of us are a bit more tightly connected to the dream than others," Scarlett pointed out. "You and I, for example. Affords us a certain vantage point that others don’t get. Quite the show, isn’t it?"
The teenager could only mutely nod, taking it all in. Once the metaphor was slotted into place, the wild of the dream felt a bit less wild. It made sense, now. Overwhelming information replaced with a neat perceptual filter….
…which was very interesting and all, but she didn’t come here to understand the nature of the cosmos. She had a goal, after all.
"How do I cure the Blue-Eyed Plague?" she asked Grandma Scarlett. "I came here for answers. Bedlam couldn’t… well, no, she wouldn’t provide them. If you’re here on the same level as Lucid and Bedlam, then you know what I need to know!"
Scarlett shook her head, softly.
"Sorry, dear, but that’s not how it works," she said. "I don’t know anything about this plague of yours. The grand mysteries are just as mysterious to me as they are to you."
"But… come on, surely you have some idea. You know things!"
"I know things. You know things. We all know things, but that doesn’t mean much when they aren’t the right things to know, yes?"
Now, the pressure started to weigh down on Penelope. Time was ticking in the real world, and time while asleep worked in funny ways. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. If morning rolled around and she didn’t even have a clue where to begin, what would the Department of Safety do with her…?
Frantically, she looked around the city. Maybe the perceptive filter she’d come up with on the fly was obscuring the truth, masking some small detail that she could use to find the answer. Stripping it away would mean being swamped again by the entirety of the dream, but… but what could she do? Where did she start? What was she supposed to be doing here, exactly? Shouldn’t she just… know what to do?
"You seem a bit frustrated, dear," Grandma Scarlett pointed out.
"Of course I’m frustrated!" Penelope shouted back. "I’m Patient 23! I’m Lucid! I made this whole City, but it’s completely out of my control and I don’t understand half of what I need to understand about it! I don’t know who I am or what I’m supposed to do, and, and… and isn’t a God supposed to be all-knowing and all-powerful and I don’t know anything and what little power I have I can’t really use, and…"
And now God was feeling very, very small. Not at all omnipotent. Which likely meant that…
"I’m not really God, am I," Penelope said. "I keep tossing around words like ‘goddess’ but… I’m just me. I’m… just a sleepy girl in a CDC facility, who got a city stuck in her head. Something terrible happened to me and this is the end result. I’m not divine. I’m just as messed up as anybody else would be in this situation."
Maybe there was a comforting hand on her shoulder. Hard to say, when her companion was a nebulous entity which may or may not exist.
"You’re not all-knowing, nor all-powerful. Not God, no. But what you are is human," the grandmother-of-all reminded her. "And I know for certain that you believe humanity can be something great. You’ve been struggling to find a way into the future where humanity can be great… despite being ‘messed up.’ That’s noble, child. And that’s power enough to do what needs to be done."
"…but I don’t know what needs to be done. I don’t know anything."
"You know what you came here to do. Say it simply. Start there."
"I… came to cure Lucas," Penelope stated. "That’s all. I didn’t come to unravel the grand puzzle of reality, I came to help my friend. …I need to find Lucas. That’s where I have to start. He’s in here, isn’t he? Of course he is. All I have to do is find him…"
So many lights in this City. So many people. It’d be one of those needle / haystack scenarios… unless she decided, quite simply, that she was going to find Lucas and that was that. Not think about how to do it, just do it.
In the speed of a thought, she moved.
Couldn’t peer into his dreams, not exactly. But she could feel him here, a ghostly presence much like the one that indirectly lead her to this place. One of the lights amidst the many, this one uniquely him. This nebulous notion was Lucas Flynn, and…
…he was humming a tune.
None of the other lights made noise. They were just lights; symbolic links to the real thing, silent and unwavering. But this light which represented Lucas, it was pulsing with a strange song, humming away without need to pause or breathe. It was unique… and unique in how alone the light was.
There were lights all over this vague and imaginary City-of-a-City, warm and living. But for a good "distance" around Lucas, there was nothing. If lights once existed here, they’d all gone out, leaving only one remaining. One survivor of the impact. One who heard the same music, but was stopped before he could turn his own light out forever.
All this wailing and flailing about, and the answer was such a simple little thing. A simple little impossible thing, but hadn’t Dr. Hearth said this was an impossible disease…?
"It’s the music," Penelope recognized immediately, as her memory and perception continued to open. "From the party video. They were listening to this music, a song I didn’t recognize. It might be the cause of the Blue-Eyed Plague!"
"Really? Hah. And here they said all that rock and roll I listened to in the sixties would be the death of me…"
Forcing herself to look away from the welcome sight of Grandma Scarlett, she stared into the cold blue light that represented Lucas’ dream self. And did her best not to furrow her brow at it from the effort.
The trick, she was finding, was to just take the ball and run with it. Don’t think too hard about what was happening in this dream state; just let the thoughts come to her, from wherever they originated. Tapping into her Lucid self, maybe. She found Lucas simply by wanting to, without pondering the logistics of how she could traverse this dream realm… the human mind was powerful but easily distracted by anxiety and ignorance. She had to push that aside, and go with the first thoughts to enter her head. Trust they were steering her true.
Right now, those thoughts said that the humming was the key. This was an earworm of the highest order. What happened when you heard a really annoying commercial jingle in the middle of some video stream? You got it stuck in your head for days and days, and had trouble NOT thinking about it. Just like trying NOT to think about how crazy it was to be wandering the collective unconsciousness with the ghost of your semi-grandmother.
At the same time, she had to think about the situation from a rational, problem-solving perspective. That’s what got her here, keeping the hard facts of the problem in her mind. Embrace both the unreality of it and the reality of it. CSI: City of Angles, as it were.
"Let’s start by assuming the Blue-Eyed Plague is transmitted by audio," Penelope reasoned, studying that humming blue light. "So, everybody at the party was infected. Lucas tried to infect us—wanted to infect everybody, by uploading it to the Internet—but a secondhand copy didn’t have the same effect. Lucky for us. …but wait, this doesn’t make sense. Not if it comes in waves…"
"Carl said it strikes all over the City, in waves," Penelope explained. "He even said he checked musical tastes, and there weren’t any matches. The initial splash on anyone who hears it makes sense, but how is it reaching out for miles and miles to hit other people…?"
Scarlett tucked her hands in the pockets of her heavy knit coat. "Real-world distance isn’t a one-to-one concept in here," she pointed out. "I mean, look how far you traveled to find your friend, without actually traveling far at all. I can ‘be’ anywhere I want to be, within the confines of this place. Don’t think in terms of miles. Proximity has another meaning here."
"So… physical distance doesn’t matter. And he IS humming the song," Penelope continued. "I can hear it, but I can’t hear any other dreams. That might mean it can also leak out through the metadream and splash others ‘near’ Lucas, at least where their minds touch this place. That’s why his light’s all alone out here! …this is all guesswork, I know, but it would fit what I know about the plague and what I know about this ‘metadream.’ That’s got to be it! I’ve figured it out!"
"Good to know. But the damage is done, yes? Clearly it’s stopped spreading by now. Lucas is the only one left, and he’s only alive by virtue of an overriding need to reach out to Milly. Even if it was to drag her down…"
Penelope scratched at the problem, digging deeper. Staying focused on the crisis at hand.
"Right. We still need to cure him. How to do it, how to do it… how do you cure a song? How do you stop the music—"
She snapped her fingers. A nice, loud noise that distracted even herself. Perfect.
"A distraction. We need to distract him from it," Penelope decided. "He can’t hear anything other than the music right now. That’s the problem. It’s filling his head, so loudly that it feels like his own thoughts. …if he could hear some other voice, if we could reach him through that noise, maybe it’d be enough to shake him out of it!"
Cupping her hands to her mouth (not that volume or amplification meant anything here, unless they were metaphors and therefore would mean everything) Penelope began to shout.
"Lucas! It’s me, Penelope!" she called out. "Wake up! You don’t want to die! It’s just the music telling you to do it! LUCAS! HEY! LUCAS!!!"
But… for all her screaming, his humming never ceased.
So, she tried again. And again. And again until her lungs were bursting and her head hurt, which wasn’t possible since she didn’t have lungs or a head, but they hurt anyway.
"…he can hear me. I know he can," Penelope reasoned. "If others can hear his humming, he can hear me. But it’s not shaking him out of it. Why? Why can’t I can’t shake him out of it? Think, Penelope, think. Why can’t I… I can’t shake him out of it. That’s it. I’m not the voice he needs to hear…"
Now… Penelope looked across the shifting cityscape. The one she was seeking was physically close to Lucas right now in the real world, but that didn’t mean much here. Their dreams were light-years apart. Not that it took years to cross the distance between them…
A fuzzy pink light came into view, as Penelope pulled herself and the dream of Scarlett along with her towards their destination.
"The dream of Milly Frisk," Penelope announced. "If anyone can reach Lucas, it’s her. He’ll pay attention to her voice."
Scarlett considered it, studying the light. "A bit risky, yes?" she reasoned. "Even if you could pull them together, he might infect her…"
"Right. So… she’ll have to reach him some other way. An indirect way. And I know exactly how to do it…"
Flexing her fingers, metaphorical or otherwise… Penelope set to work. Didn’t know how she knew how to do the work, but that didn’t matter. She could make this work.
"My Dad once told me that Penelope means ‘dream weaver,’" Penelope explained… as she began to play cat’s cradle with the string she’d crafted from the world around her. "If my enemies are deeply connecting people to this dream, well, two can play that game. I connected you to the dream, didn’t I? I spoke in your sleep, telling you where my bears needed to be. I speak through the filter of Cass’s poetry, giving her insight. There are so many over the years that I’ve reached out to…"
Now, her companion looked concerned. Taken aback a few miles. "Child, what do you think you’re playing at…?"
"I’m going to connect Milly to the dream, giving her a gift that will let her speak true to Lucas in the waking world," Lucid/Penelope explained. "I’ve done it before. The bitter puppet of Echo plays at this with his videotapes and his digital recordings, making artificial oracles of suicide. I make true oracles, with true purpose. Their empathy is crafted with care, to help others in need. Now, Milly will join them."
Burning bright, the red pulsing light of a heartbeat as her fingers blurred through the weaving. Bright enough that what was once Grandma Scarlett had to raise her hand to block the light, to keep from being blinded.
"Penelope, slow down," she pleaded. "Think this through—"
"Bedlam and Echo have their own speakers, and so I have mine," Lucid declared. "Like Penelope, who I have become so that I can be directly involved in their lives. I am the part of myself that yearns to live, to be alive. Together, we can save the City from my own nightmares…"
"Didn’t you just say you weren’t God?"
—which was enough to freeze Lucid’s fingers in mid-weaving, and make Penelope blink a few times in surprise.
"Huh?" Penny asked.
"Oracles. Hah. The oracles of legend were just poor young girls pumped full of drugs and abused routinely," Grandma Scarlett warned her… looking far more stern than Penelope had ever seen her before. "An oracle is not always a fine thing to be. My gift got me killed, you know. It was a threat to your enemies. Cass felt for the longest time that her ‘gift’ was undiagnosed schizophrenia. A gift can be a curse, child. Are you certain you wish to inflict that on your friend Milly…?"
Realization smashed Penelope upside the head. The tenuous, spiderweb-like thing that had been forming around the tiny point of soft light that was Milly Frisk wavered.
…what the hell was she doing? This was Milly Frisk she was about to screw up! Dave’s mother nearly had her life ruined from a similar connection, and Cass sure didn’t have a fun time of it either.
Milly had a perfectly ordinary life. A happy, normal life with a normal boyfriend and a normal school. What right did Penelope have to dump the weirdness that had soaked this City into Milly’s lap? Dragging another civilian into this conflict was unthinkable. She’d told Milly nothing of their struggles because she specifically didn’t WANT her friend to have to endure all that—
The soft pink light of Milly’s soul pulled on the other end of the woven rope, snapping Penelope out of her inner panic.
i want to help, Milly spoke. please. i love him. do it.
An unconscious thought bubbling through layers of dream, but one Penelope could hear loud and clear. It sang out from Milly’s heart.
"B-but… Milly, you don’t understand. If I do this, things could get bad for you…"
my life isn’t the happy, normal thing you think it is. penelope, nobody our age has that normal life you dream of.
…back at the convenience store, where Penelope sang praises of Milly’s ordinary life. Milly straight up told her that it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Relationship troubles, to start with. And… other things, she could feel them now in her friend’s dream. Bullying, a personal nemesis who humiliates her at every turn. The peer pressure of popularity, and all the tangled thorns that came with it. A controlling mother who monitors her every move. A disapproving father, decrying his girl putting herself out there on the web to gawk at, making her feel small and ashamed each time he talked down to her…
But Penelope clung to her well-crafted image of Milly still.
"You don’t know the kind of things I’ve had to go through, and I don’t want you to know," she insisted. "Terrible things. Your problems are normal in comparison! I mean, they’re just normal teenage problems…"
normal teenage problems? i saw sixteen normal teenagers die on videotape today. i follow the news. we’re dying left and right. our generation is zero; we’re vulnerable and fading away, and if you don’t do this, the next to go will be lucas. i bear troubles, normal or otherwise. i can bear this too, if it will save him. if it will save anyone. do it.
Hesitation kept her fingers from finishing the connections they had started.
Fear pushed Lucid to complete the work. Fear that if she didn’t, the City would truly be lost. And that if she didn’t, she’d lose her nerve and run away.
With the ordeal complete, a shining white web connecting that pink light far more solidly to the dream of dreams, Penelope sank back into her mundane self and back into a dreamless black sleep. A well-earned rest. Shuffling city blocks around was tiring work, and yet, this tiny little thing took far more out of her than juggling goliaths of steel and concrete.
The memory of Grandma Scarlett watched over Penelope’s silent and dreamless rest, standing vigil. Not that the child would be aware of it, but she did it all the same. And hoped for the best.
Dr. Hearth got no sleep that night. She was busy monitoring her patients; both the one strapped to the bed, and the one sleeping in a comfortable chair next to him. In fact she was quite tempted to hook up some monitors to Milly Frisk, but didn’t want to wake the poor dear.
Around eight in the morning, she decided to step out for a minute to fetch some coffee. Which meant she missed the awakening.
The voice roused the blue-eyed youth from his sleep. Eyes slowly opened, focusing on the pink and fuzzy sight at his side.
"Lucas, look at me," Milly begged. "Look at me. Please…"
Once his vision cleared, he did as asked.
Milly Frisk looked within Lucas Flynn, and Lucas Flynn looked within Milly Frisk.
For a singular moment which felt like a lifetime, they understood each other with absolute clarity. All of Milly’s woes and worries poured on through, clearly expressed without a single word. Hopes and dreams. Fears and nightmares. Love and devotion. All of that existed inside her, plain as day to Lucas’ eyes.
In return… she saw him true. His dreams for the future, visions of the movies he’d yet to dream of but would one day create. But also his nervousness about their relationship, his fear that expressing his heart would screw it all up and ruin the friendship he cherished so much. Uncertainty and doubt. Ambition and hope. Love and devotion…
When Kit Hearth returned to her post, she found the youngsters embracing, and crying silently. And, much to her surprise, Lucas’ eyes had reverted to a healthy and natural shade of green.
They weren’t calling it an interrogation. These were simply follow-up questions, nothing more.
Three teenagers sat across the table from three Department of Safety officials: Miranda Walker, Carl Matthews, and Dr. Kit Hearth. And of course the requisite guards with shotguns.
Answers were not forthcoming.
"I don’t know what cured him," Milly Frisk admitted. She was averting her eyes from Walker’s steel gaze, for reasons beyond the sheer intimidation factor of it. "I just… I had some strange dream I can’t remember, and when I woke up I knew I had to look into his eyes. It somehow worked; we could reach each other. …the creepy part was when I looked at the Doctor and the same thing happened…"
"It’s a curious phenomenon," Doctor Hearth agreed. "They say eyes are windows to the soul. Apparently our young Miss Frisk has the ability to take a peek through them. It was a bit… unnerving, but I would like to experience it again. For purely scientific reasons, of course—"
"That wasn’t the deal," Penelope interrupted. "The deal was I cure the plague, and then we walk. No being held in a cell for the rest of our lives while you poke and prod and study. I helped you, and that’s that."
Walker tapped a finger on the table, in thought. And in perfect cadence. Tap. Tap.
"It’s not much of a cure," she answered. "Anybody who gets infected kills themselves soon after. It’s not like we can drive all over town catching victims just in time for your little friend to stare them down."
"No, but you know the source of the plague now. I told you that it’s the music, which induces a suicide state that can spreads across the City’s collective unconsciousness. That’s why you couldn’t track it; it can hop to new hosts through dreams. You stop the music, you stop the plague. An ounce of prevention’s worth a pound of cure."
"Oh, believe me, we’re going to find the source of that music," Walker agreed. "I’ve sent an agent to retrieve the original and the recording from our evidence room. Analyzing it without dying will be tricky, but we’ll manage. We’d manage better if you’d explain exactly what the hell you did to Miss Frisk, and how she’s somehow able to cure someone by looking at them…"
"When I trust you more, maybe I’ll tell you," Penelope replied. "Letting us go free will be a great way to get started on that. …and frankly, it’d be safer for you in the long run. You know what my Dad did last time someone from the Department of Safety threatened me."
Tap. Tap. Tap. And stop.
"That I do," Walker agreed, pulling her hand from the table. "I’m not Dougal; we’re on the same side here, Miss Yates. I’ll keep to my word. The guard will escort you out of the building… but I will be in touch. We will be exchanging information as we investigate this. I say ‘we’ because no doubt you and your buddies will be investigating as well, and I know damn well I can’t stop you."
"Glad we have an understanding," Penelope agreed. "And if I could please have my phone? I need to call my Dad before he goes crazy and firebombs the place or something."
They had a moment’s peace, on the sidewalk outside the District 1 Department of Safety offices on the Zag. A single moment of peace before whatever craziness that would follow.
Starting, of course, with her father and Johnny the Icepick barreling this way at high speed in Cass’s delivery truck. Her father was quite surprised to hear her brief report on what happened… although he didn’t get into why he wasn’t available all night long. Some adventure of his own, no doubt. They’d sort it out later.
And they would sort it out later. Arguments may happen again, especially once Penelope explained how they’d sorta made an alliance with the Department of Safety, but… they would sort it out. They’d talk to each other like adults. No more room for sneaking around or lying or other shenanigans. Not that she was looking forward to it, but it had to be done, and she’d face it square.
As for Milly and Lucas, well…
Milly was avoiding looking at anyone. A side effect of the ‘gift’ of empathy that Penelope had bestowed upon her; she’d have to be very careful not to lock gazes with people from now on. Oddly, the girl seemed okay with this, even seemed okay with Penelope’s half-hearted explanation / apology for causing it in the first place.
"So now we’re on the same adventure you are, huh?" Milly asked, sitting on that bench outside the building, waiting for the likely-fantastically-speed-limit-breaking truck that would pick them up. "I knew you were getting up to all sorts of strange stuff, but… fighting some City-wide suicide plague…"
"I might need to call on you again," Penelope admitted. "You could be able to help us. …I didn’t want to drag you two into this mess, and I especially didn’t want to… change you the way I changed you."
"We saved Lucas," Milly said… looking at his eyes, unafraid. They’d been close to each other ever since this morning’s events, possibly moreso than ever before. "I can deal with being a little weird, if it means we’re going to be okay. …not that I’m gonna tell Mom. She’ll lock me up for the rest of my life if she knows I’ve gotten a little weird."
For his part, Lucas nodded in agreement with his companion. "I don’t get what’s going on here, and honestly, I barely remember any of it," he said. "But whatever’s up, I’m in. You need us to get word out, we can do that; we’ve got half a million subscribers. I can’t do much about crazy Sideways stuff or whatever this is, but video, that I can swing."
"We’ll see. For now, let’s just… I just wanna go home and rest," Penelope admitted. "The weird can wait. …heh. Department of Safety, on my side for a change. With any luck they’ll have this mess figured out and the problem fixed before anything gets weird at all."
Checking his watch for the umpteenth time. Ridiculous, honestly, completely ridiculous. He’d been waiting in this filthy alley for an hour longer than planned. Not that this worried him… what could anyone do to him, really? Nobody knew. Nobody was ever going to know, not for certain. And if they did know, well, he was even less than a dead man already. He was a nonexistent man.
Fortunately he wasn’t kept waiting much longer.
"Items, please?" he spoke, holding out a gloved hand.
A small camcorder and a portable MP3 player were passed over.
"Good," Jack Hayes said, without relief or satisfaction. "You can kill yourself now."
The man put a gun to his head, and fired. Thankfully he was polite enough to let the brain splatter against the alley wall, rather than against Jack’s nice overcoat. Dry cleaning fees to get nonexistent stains out of a nonexistent coat were murder.
It was, however, unsettling that this experiment had nearly leaked out into the open. It was his finest work yet… extreme local impact, great scattered effect across the metadream. Fifty dead, total. With further refinement and the right audio equipment, they’d be ready for her big debut… and ready for the final realization of the Echo Revelation.
And then finally, finally he could put an end to the lie that was his nonexistence. He could put an end to Patient 23’s dream entirely.
Almost a shame he wouldn’t be there to see the looks on their faces, back at the CDC. Of course, he would technically be there, since that bastard Jack Hayes still blithely lived on in the real world. Still poking around with the Dreamcatcher MRI each morning, still running useless scans and collecting useless data. If this Jack Hayes could spit in that man’s face, he would. Instead, he’d have to settle for waking up everybody’s favorite little victim.
Days later, and Milly Frisk was getting the hang of not looking anyone directly in the eye. Her friends found it a little odd, but given the locker incident and Lucas "barely escaping" that party-gone-cubist, they were giving her some leeway for feeling uncomfortable around people. Eventually she learned how to focus on a point slightly askew and fake it. A trick she’d have to do for the rest of her life…
She was special, now. Just like Penelope’s other friends, Cass and Scarlett. Penelope wanted to give Milly answers, to explain everything that was going on… but no matter how wild the stories she told were, no matter how honest she said she was being about it all, Milly could tell that her friend was holding some back. Trying to keep some ugly truths to herself. Little by little they were leaking out, but it might be that Milly would never fully know what was going on with this City.
Not that she had any burning desire for forbidden knowledge. Being a psychic teenager was proving hard enough. But it did have one advantage, one she didn’t tell anyone else about.
One day while riding her bike home from school, she decided to take a detour. She knew exactly where to go; she’d known for months, ever since planting a hidden camera in her locker and doing a little research. If Penelope had secrets, well, so did Milly. Secrets she kept from her new popular friends, so that they wouldn’t rise up in bloody and cruel reprisal against anyone. No bullying to fight bullying…
Milly parked her bike on the curb, and waited.
Eventually, another girl emerged from the house. Some angry shouting followed her out the door, angry shouting of a man and a woman fighting. Which would explain the bruise over her eye, one she hid as she sat on her front stoop, curled up tight.
But she did notice Milly. And they shared a moment, looking into each other.
When the moment passed, the girl’s swollen eye was as wide as possible.
"If you want to keep doing stuff to my locker, I really don’t mind," Milly spoke to her, from across the front lawn. "I won’t tell anyone. If it helps you feel better, go ahead. I understand. But if you ever do wanna talk… I wouldn’t mind that, either."
Pedaling away, Milly looked ahead with an unusual upswell of hope. Unusual for her, anyway.