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 a store that sells only mirrors. If you stand between two of them, you can purchase four of them, and hang eight of them on your walls.
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…
Belief in the impossible is a lot to ask for. By default, people want the world around them to make sense; the minute you start explaining the universe in terms they can’t accept, they’ll shut you down hard. The key instead is to relate these grandiose cosmic concepts to them on a personal level. How does the fundamental nature of everything impact you, directly? For example, how does the uncertainty principle define your choice in breakfast cereals?
Largely this is an exercise in marketing. The product you’re pushing—a comprehensive understanding of reality on a reasonable and rational level—may need to be presented in an irrational package. You may need to create a relatable narrative to sell people on it. Bards have long used poem and music to relate teachings of how someone should interpret and respond to the world around them, for instance. Not just classical narratives like a Homerian epic or the Canterbury Tales, but more recent pop inventions like the three-minute radio-friendly unit shifter are fully capable of delivering a philosophical punch.
Of course, nobody said these philosophical punches had to be above the belt. Tell people that their world is meaningless, their lives are empty, that nothing exists and nothing should exist… and the idea you’re selling will be a dark one indeed, with dangerous results. It could bounce around in the memespace of culture, transforming a perfectly functioning society into a vast echo chamber, repeating the same words over and over again…
Let go. Let go. Let go.
Let go of your life, and be free…
//016: Echo Chamber
The brandy didn’t exist, of course. He wasn’t chugging it down like water because he didn’t exist and the act of a nonexistent person drinking a nonexistent yet finely aged brandy was absurd. Didn’t stop him from enjoying it, all the same.
That was the key, Jack Hayes was finding. Despite the pointlessness of it all, you had to take a moment now and then to enjoy this laughingstock of a life. Distract yourself from the crushing reality around you, that you only existed a series of misfiring neurons in a strangely unaging child’s diseased little head. A simulation of the original. Nothing of importance…
But, there was brandy. A very capable simulation of brandy. The part of him still capable of enjoying things was enjoying the hell out of that brandy, to the point where the room was a bit swimmy and red. He’d have a hell of a hangover the next day, of course. A Friday hangover. Much like his Thursday hangover after that swanky cocktail party, really… plenty of hangovers lately.
Didn’t matter. This was the last Thursday night that the City of Angles would see; come Saturday night, all of this would be gone. His brandy, his expensive hotel room, his nice coat he’d been treating with loving care, the thing in the bed next to him. All blissfully gone, since it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The things he did that night shouldn’t have happened in the first place…
Ahh. That would be his benefactor, speaking from the makeup mirror he carried around with him at all times. A personal link to the reflective world of her bleak little imagination.
Jack plucked the mirror from his bedside, flipping the compact open.
The child, or at least a thing wearing the familiar face of that comatose child, glowered mildly at him. She floated as if underwater, all lace and ribbons and 1910s finery, as perhaps she once was. An echo of her past, not a reflection of who she was now…
"Yes, I must," Jack replied. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."
"Pointless suffering. You’re only contributing to the pointless suffering of the world with your ‘play,’ Mr. Hayes."
Jack glanced at the body on the bed next to him, and tried to remember her name. Eve? Evelyn? Something like that. She worked in the engineering department at the label. Helped master El’s debut album. Skilled woman. Boring, but skilled. He’d been utterly atrocious with her, and that was before he could’ve had the excuse of being blindingly drunk. Made rather a mess of his expensive hotel room in the process. Swimmy and red.
"Why not?" Jack pondered aloud. "She was never a living thing. Wasn’t even born on Earth, just a whole-cloth figment of Patient 23’s imagination. Who cares?"
"The Department of Safety cares. This world has its own internal rules and consequences, just as yours does. We do not need interference from the law, not when the revelation is so closely at hand…"
"So clean it up," Jack half-ordered the girl beneath the mirror’s glass. "No big deal."
The child bobbed lightly in her world without gravity, with a sigh of disappointment. And cleaned it up.
His expensive hotel room was now shiny and clean; not a trace of blood anywhere, nor a trace that Eve or whatever her name was ever existed in the first place. Good.
"Don’t worry about Johnny Law. I’ve already got failsafe responses ready if they knock," Jack explained, lying back on his bed. "I’ve had two years to plan out these moves. The concert will go down tomorrow night, come hell or high water. And then… it’s done. All of it."
"I’ll wake up in my bed, yes? This horrible dream will end?"
"According to all the neurological research I’ve done, yes. The suicide meme will spread from the concert flashpoint through your dream like wildfire, purging the population within hours. That nightmare scenario will tip the scales sharply away from your comfortable sleep, inducing wakefulness. It won’t be fun for you, enduring that kind of sudden psychic trauma… but it’ll shake you free of the dream. Patient 23 will awaken."
And the child faded from the glass. She rarely hung around once her business was done; Jack liked to think she trusted him to get the job done without much chit-chat, but likely she simply didn’t like him very much.
Whatever. Nobody liked Jack Hayes. Nobody inside this dream world, nobody outside it. Jack didn’t even like himself, for that matter. The thought crossed his mind several times a day, every day, of how much he absolutely loathed Jack Hayes. Specifically… the Jack Hayes who had the gall to carry on back in the real world, blissfully unaware of how this Jack Hayes was suffering. That bastard with his daily patient monitoring, his weekly neurological summary reports, his perfectly pointless pile of routine crap…
How would that Jack Hayes react when they lost another patient on his watch?
Maybe the spooks within their little CDC bunker would fire him. That’d be funny. Rumor had it anybody who got fired from that job vanished overnight, to protect the secret longevity research they were doing. Little dream-Jack might be committing suicide in more ways than one. And that suited him just fine.
But all in good time. Another two days to go before the revelation; Friday and Saturday and then nothing. The last days he’d ever see… one way or another.
That Friday also saw Hollister Avenue waking up after a hell of an evening, one which got him fired from his job at the Department of Orientation. By lunchtime he’d picked up a new job with the TroubleSolvers.
By fortunate coincidence, that lunch with Kelsey Jones also resulted in making a few mental connections which identified the man on the other end of the salvation vs. destruction debate… Jack Hayes.
"It’s him," Hollister explained, at the pow-wow which went down less than an hour later at TroubleSolvers headquarters. "He’s a former neurologist who for some reason really, really wanted to be a music producer. I couldn’t make sense of it when I got his case, but I still helped him get where he wanted to be… uh, I’d like it noted for the record that I had no idea he was a psychopath at the time, okay?"
The intimidating presence at the other side of the conversation pit of cheap furnishings said nothing in response. Her glare suggested he should continue his testimony with fewer interjections.
"Um. Anyway, climbed his way up the ranks of the music industry through a number of suspicious suicides and early retirements. …I think I should’ve been more suspicious, really, I mean, if I had any idea what he was actually planning I’d have been extremely suspicious and—"
"Mr. Avenue," Miranda Walker prompted.
"Right. Anyway, he’s your guy. If there’s really someone who’s using strange music to drive people to madness, it’s absolutely gotta be Jack. The man is… he’s… best word I can use is ’empty.’ That’s the feel I get from him, that he’s empty inside. That combined with his chosen talent, that girl named Ellie, it just makes sense, yeah? Yeah. So. Um. …now what? Are you gonna throw him in jail?"
The quiet leader of the Department of Safety considered that option. Quietly.
This particular war council had a weird feel to it, Penelope Yates noted. Miranda’s presence changed the tone completely.
Last time the TroubleSolvers put their heads together to figure out what to do about a cosmic horror beating down their door, they were a united front… friends and family, all banded together, all with a good idea of what had to be done. It felt comforting despite the impending doom Seth Dougal was about to pour into the City, knowing that they stood together.
The faces were similar this time around, too. Her father was here, as the security consultant and financial patron of the TroubleSolvers. He’d really stepped up since deciding he wanted to be involved; despite protesting for weeks and practically begging Penelope not to get involved with this sort of craziness, when Gregory Yates chose to become part of some craziness, he really gave it his all. He looked just as steadfast as Miss Walker. Scarily so.
"Jailing the ringleader may not stop this," Gregory pointed out, while Miranda weighed her options. "The key is likely the big concert happening tomorrow night; if the music spreads through the ‘metadream’ Penelope told us about, it’ll be like the house party in the Suburbs on a vast scale. We could be facing millions of suicides. But it takes hundreds and hundreds of crew to put on a live event like that, and we have no idea how many of them are in on the scheme. Maybe most, maybe a few, maybe none of them aside from Jack. Tossing one guy behind bars won’t stop the show."
Now the resident government spook spoke up.
"Killing him would be just as ineffective," she said. "If I knew for sure that his death would end this, well… hmm. Problem is, it likely wouldn’t. Especially if the musician is in on the plan as well, that Ellie girl. We’d have to kill both of them. …or maybe just kill her, actually. If she’s the star of the show, there can’t be a show without her…"
The weird feel around the table got even weirder for Penelope.
That was the problem; the outsider to their group, the one they didn’t entirely trust. Miranda Walker casually and quietly suggested murdering Elizabeth Jørgensen as a legitimate solution to the situation… not something Penelope would’ve entertained for a second, not even something her father would have accepted, not now. And Walker could very well do it whether Penelope approved or not; she wasn’t part of the unified front, not one of their true allies. Walker could weigh their feelings on the issue and go ahead with killing Ellie anyway…
Ellie. The mysterious bass player for Oblivion’s Advocate, skyrocketing in a solo career that confused everyone outside of the disaffected teenagers who had drawn to her like moths to a flame. Penelope still remembered the way she played on stage, eyes closed, swaying to the beat of an internal song from an internal world that had nothing to do with the punk rockers around her. How could someone with that much inner beauty be evil…?
What’s more, she was more deeply tied to their little group than they ever realized. Hollister had confessed today that she was actually Dave’s Smith’s half-sister, part of the Jørgensen family tree. Stoic Dave, sitting quietly at Kelsey’s side, gave the slightest of twitches when it was suggested that this family connection he never knew about be shot down before he could ever get to know her.
In some ways, it did make sense. No musician, no music, no suicides. It would be a simple and clean way of solving the problem… but it would also be the wrong way. Killing Dougal didn’t stop the wrath of Bedlam; only dealing with Bedlam directly and finding a way to reach stalemate had given them any lasting peace. Even if it weren’t a reprehensible suggestion, killing Ellie would still be the wrong path to walk.
Penelope had to interrupt, had to make the case for finding another way. A better way, for all involved.
"I spoke with Ellie once," she pointed out. "Um. Well, Ellie didn’t speak much, but I got the feeling from her that she wasn’t as malicious as this Hayes guy seems to be. She was just… hurt. Tired. A lot of people do things they regret when they’re in pain; it’s how Bedlam was able to surround herself with an entire cult. They were victims, not monsters, and I’m not willing to believe Ellie’s a monster just yet…"
"Does it matter if she’s a monster? Intent is irrelevant; either way, she’s a threat to public safety," Walker stated. "My job is to deal with threats to public safety."
"I’m a threat to public safety, and you haven’t killed me yet," Penelope countered.
"At the moment I’m betting that your threat is nullified by your noble if misguided intentions, if you recall…"
"Exactly! That means intent isn’t irrelevant!"
"Also, I’d like to point out you’re playing jigsaw with the city, while Ellie is about to murder millions of citizens," Miranda Walker felt the need to point out. "At worst you’re annoying and scary. At best she’s catastrophic and scary. So if you don’t mind, let’s stop drawing comparisons there. Elizabeth Jørgensen has to be dealt with, and I have the power and the right by rule of law to do just that."
"Rule of law? Since when are you authorized to execute people?!"
"Since the City’s inception," Walker admitted, directly. "Technically speaking I have authorization to do exactly that. Is it dirty work? Absolutely. Safety quietly goes about that dirty work so that Orientation can coddle and Resources can miser, none the wiser of the horrors out there. You know damn well that there are protocols in place allowing use of deadly force in case of cubist outbreaks and the like—"
The light bulb blinked on in Penelope’s mind.
"Cubism! That’s it!" she declared. "Containment and quarantine protocols. You don’t have to kill them, you just need to contain the situation!"
"Kid, I can’t exactly wrap the two of them up in red-black quarantine tape and call it a day."
"Yes you can! Red tape, I mean, not red-black. Use the bureaucracy! What if you shut down the concert, declaring it a public health hazard?" Penelope suggested. "Tell the press that you’re involved in an ongoing investigation. It’s actually not a lie, even! That’ll delay the concert, while we figure out how to stop this from ever happening again. No concern, no music, no suicides! And nobody has to die."
Right there. That pause, as the woman considered this new option. The same furrow to her brow she had when considering murder as an option…
Walker wasn’t stating she wanted to kill Ellie. She was stating she could kill Ellie, and perhaps by protocol, probably should. Her actual feelings on the subject had stayed guarded, exploring what was in front of her in a neutral manner. Maybe deep down, she was looking for the same path forward that Penelope was seeking. After all, the woman had let Penelope live when the teenager could easily be labeled as a menace to society… Walker didn’t have to do that. She chose to do that, from all available options.
"This is a riskier option," Walker stated, without saying which way she was leaning. "A delay, instead of shutting them down. We’d be giving the enemy time to think of some other method of attack."
"We need that delay too, so we can find the right way to shut them down," Penelope suggested. "I mean, if you… if you shot Ellie, even if you shot Ellie and Jack, someone else might pick up where they left off. In the end they aren’t our real enemy… that’s Echo. Echo’s not going to give up."
Risky, name-dropping Echo. Walker wasn’t fully sold on a lot of this zany behind-the-scenes metaphysics… mostly because Penelope hadn’t been ready to tell her the whole truth of the City and Patient 23. And now, there was no time for a lengthy chat about the nature of things, not when they had to focus on the immediate threat. No way would she risk losing Walker’s help by spouting on at length about the entire world being her living daydream…
Armed only with the information at hand, it was a tough sell. But… slowly, Miranda Walker nodded in agreement.
"Fine. I can shut down the concert," she decided. "Justification may be tricky, but it shouldn’t be difficult. People don’t ask too many questions when the Department declares a safety emergency. Should shut down the event cold, and buy us time. But in the end… it may come down to the hard solution."
Breathing a bit easier, Penelope nodded. Not really in agreement with that last part, but just to express some kind of positivity. The others around the table nodded as well… even the coldly calculating Gregory, who seemed okay with this plan.
Still, they were working with the Department of Safety. The very same organization they were fighting, once upon a time. The ones with the guns and the black bags and the mandate to protect the City at all costs. Walker seemed to be trustworthy enough, seemed open to the possibilities… but could the same be said for the entire organization? And if it came down to it, if this gambit failed, would Walker pick the City’s security over all other concerns, even over their own lives…?
So, while the adults hashed out the details and the timeline of how this was going to go down, Penelope excused herself. Snuck back downstairs to the Yates apartment above That Fish Place. Turned on her webcam, and made a call.
In her back pocket was a possible final solution to this mess. A long shot, one she didn’t even want to propose to the group because of how silly it would’ve sounded. Miranda and Gregory thought in practical terms; neither of them would agree with Penelope’s crazy idea, even with her father being more agreeable than usual lately. But if only for her own peace of mind, Penelope had to put her own secret plan in play. A little insurance, if all else failed and all hope was lost…
Twenty minutes later and they had an agreement. She left the secret weapon underneath a dumpster behind That Fish Place, for pickup. Spoke not a word to anyone over the age of fifteen, just in case.
No more rehearsals. No more press tours. And thank goodness, no more parties. Nothing left to do but wait for the end.
Ellie hadn’t even moved from this bed since waking up this morning. She hadn’t felt the need; there was nothing left in this world that she wanted to do. At long last, she was going to have the promised release from this terrible world… a painless release, when the entire world went away. An end to the voices, at long last.
Until then she was content to curl up under the heavy hotel blankets, pulled right up to her eyeballs, and listen to the music on her tape player. The same songs she’d heard a million times before… echoes from the distant past of another world. Songs of hope and romance and power and excitement. Even the names written on the tape carried a promise of freedom… Rush. Journey. The Eagles. The Cars. In her earliest years, she’d imagine those melodies carrying her away from all the sorrow around her…
This is the only good thing I have left from that world, he’d explained to young Ellie. The only pure thing. I want you to have it. It won’t make up for everything else I’ve done or everything else I will do, but it’ll give you a lifeline to hang on to no matter what comes. And if the tape ever breaks, tell me, and I’ll replace it. I have plenty where that came from.
Father. Gustav. Gangster. Don’t ask me about my work, Anna.
Ellie had few good memories of her father. At his best times, he was quiet and brooding. At his worst times he could be a tower of frustrated rage. Shouting matches. Arguments. Slammed doors. Things meant to be drowned out by the audio tape he’d given to his daughter, headphones on and the world flushed away. All those hurtful things said and unsaid would bounce around inside her head for hours if she didn’t immediately reach for the music. Those hurtful things were honestly worse than the bruises… not that the bruises were particularly pleasant.
He wasn’t always like this. He was passionate, once. He could laugh, and make me laugh. But that was long ago.
Horrible words inside her home. Horrible words floating on the wind from everyone outside her home. No refuge from the storm except for music…
Tighter and tighter under the hotel blanket. Rolling the volume knob skyward.
He stopped coming by the house, eventually. Ellie liked to think he was sparing them from his disruptive presence; there was always sorrow behind his eyes in his quiet moments, like he knew what he’d become and hated every minute of it. But he’d still drop by unannounced for birthdays or holidays, sometimes giving her replacement tape players, sometimes getting into new fights with her mother. Shouting, slamming, bruises. Too much to bear.
And then there was Jonny Nobody.
Louder, louder. Flush out everything.
Jonny promised that music would save her, the day he pulled her out of that broken home. Music would make her rich some day, able to do anything she wanted with her life. He promised everything if she’d just hang in there and do what he told her to do. Sign contracts. Go to parties with him. Come home from parties with him. So much talking, from him and Mikey, all honeyed words… while awful things lurked underneath those words. Didn’t matter. At least nobody was hitting her anymore, so it had to be better, right? Right?
Over. Let it be over. Volume at maximum. Notes not even audible anymore, just a screech in her ears. The blankets would tear if they weren’t made of such durable wool; they scratched under her fingernails as she pulled…
All those people in her life, all awful on the surface or beneath the surface. Ellie couldn’t help but see the awfulness. The entire world, completely awful, completely wrong. It had to be destroyed. For the sake of the ones who suffered, everything had to be destroyed. End the pain and find peace at last—
The music died.
Not the batteries. If the batteries were going, it would fade out, slowly degrading into static. The music just… died. Some circuit inside the cheap plastic thing had spontaneously given up the ghost.
It wasn’t uncommon. The tape player was a throwaway consumer artifact, and no matter how careful she was with it, players broke from time to time.
But… her father was gone. She’d read that in the news, some weeks ago. A fact which had no impact on her at all, not until this moment. Her father was gone, and he’d never again give her another tape player. The music was gone. Her father was gone.
There’s only one good thing in this world of echoes: you, Ellie. You’re the only good that’s ever come of me. I love you, kiddo.
She was sobbing into the silence of her blankets when Jack found her.
"He died," Ellie whispered, glancing up at the man.
"We’ve got trouble," Jack said, ignoring whatever was troubling his young ward. "Department of Safety trouble. They want to shut down the concert."
She had no response to that.
"Obviously that won’t stand; you’re going live on stage tomorrow night," Jack continued. "Plan accordingly and be ready. Just figured I’d let you know of this speed bump, in case you saw anything on the news." "Ugh, she stinks to high heaven. And all that expensive room service I sent up, sitting outside the door? What a waste. Goddamn depressives." "I’ve pulled some strings, there’s going to be a hearing with the City Council. We’ll sort this out." "Can’t stand the sight of this disgusting imaginary woman. I hope they tear her apart on stage when she sings them to their doom—"
"Go away," Ellie mumbled. "Go away. Go away…"
"Dammit, she probably heard that. Dammit." "I’m going, I’m going. Remember, don’t answer the phone, don’t talk to the media. Let me handle this." "I swear, if she kills herself before I get what I want—"
The broken tape player smashed into Jack’s face. That’s how things got settled in the Jørgensen household, after all.
"GO AWAY!" she screamed at him, again and again. "GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY—"
The door slammed shut behind Jack Hayes as he made himself scarce.
With aching muscles, Ellie pulled herself from the bed, pulling the covers with her. Picked up the broken plastic of her tape player. And continued to weep.
It would’ve been so much easier if everybody had just let her die, all the times she tried to end this in the past. If she’d just gone peacefully, she wouldn’t be throwing things at people now and screaming like her father and mother did. Nobody else would have to hurt…
…except they were going to hurt, weren’t they. She’d signed her soul away in exchange for a promise to hurt everyone, and a pain-free exit for herself. How selfish…
Cradling what was left of those Eagles and Cars and the Journey they once promised her, Ellie began to wonder if maybe she was a worse person than her father ever could have been. Very possibly the worst person in all the world.
By dinnertime, the Department of Safety officially announced that the "El: Live in Concert" event was officially cancelled by government edict. In keeping with Walker’s style, no wordy Safety Communication was issued; unlike Dougal, she didn’t revel in freaking out the populace with gory details of how terrible everything was. The idea was that by being terse, they could slide this under the radar without a lot of panic.
The fans panicked, of course. All they knew was that their musical idol had been taken away from them, and for no good reason. By being short-spoken on the subject, Walker had left things open to speculation. The rumor mill swirled around social media for hours, proposing all sorts of theories.
Officially, "a representative from El’s music label," likely Jack Hayes himself, stated that the concert would indeed be happening and for fans to hold on to their tickets. Walker insisted at her own extremely short press conference that the decision was final. As far as City Hall was concerned, this matter was closed.
This left the TroubleSolvers—specifically the father/daughter Yates team—some time to ponder a long-term solution for the problem. Also plenty of time to have dinner, while doing that brainstorming together. Perhaps in a sign of returning hope, Penelope actually wasn’t eating seafood from That Fish Place. Gregory had sprung for actual pizza delivery. Good brain food.
With a news stream running through her tablet, Penelope sat at the kitchen table, kicking her feet against a table leg lightly with anxious energy. So far, they hadn’t come up with any solutions that would do better than delay the inevitable. Even those wouldn’t be of much use if the Department of Safety swung into action without them.
"What if she decides to take them out anyway?" Penelope wondered, while reaching for a fresh slice. "Walker doesn’t really get how deep this runs. She might figure that canceling the concert isn’t enough, that she needs to kill them before anything else happens…"
"That’s out of our control, Penny. If it happens, it happens," her father suggested. "I don’t want you to blame yourself if things go badly, either. We’re doing all we can to convince her to do otherwise, but in the end we’re just ordinary folks living in the City; we don’t run the show."
"But we’re not ordinary. I’m not, at least. If I could get her to see the bigger picture…"
"Risky. Right now you’re a mysterious anomaly, one she seems to be tolerating. We don’t know how she’d react to knowing what’s really lurking in the Heart of the City."
…which was why Penelope had held back some of the truth, honestly. If Walker really knew what was going on, it might be flamethrowers-at-maximum and the end of Penelope’s supposed City-saving destiny.
Weirdly, life seemed so much simpler when they were having running skirmishes with water-poisoning cultists compared to this. Here, they had to convince the system to work for them; they couldn’t prove Jack was doing anything illegal.
In fact the only evidence that could’ve linked him to this mess had vanished. Walker was livid about that one; she sent a junior officer to the evidence room to retrieve the recording of that fateful party Lucas made, but the officer never returned. He was found dead in an alley nearby, the evidence vanishing into the night. Likely Jack’s handiwork, somehow… but again, there was no proof. No obvious and overt evil moves like Dougal was pulling, overlooked only because he was playing both sides of the law.
Jack Hayes. Penelope met the man, once. He was at the Oblivion’s Advocate concert, the same one she attended. He even talked to her, although no matter how she searched her memory, she could barely recall what they talked about. The band, maybe. He’d left before she could draw any conclusions about the man. If only she knew then what she knew now…
Jack was on her tablet’s screen. What in the…?
The helpful news broadcast banner read CONCERT CONTROVERSY: CITY COUNCIL TO HEAR EMERGENCY APPEAL.
With greasy fingers she grasped for the slab of glass and metal, swiping the volume to maximum.
CITY COUNCIL SESSION PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT #85515
Department of Safety – Director Miranda Walker (O-1)
Department of Resources – Director Leonard Spinks
Department of Resources (Public Works) – Sarah-Lee Hubbard
Department of Orientation (Health) – Ylonda Darrow
Bottled Lightning Records – Jack Hayes
[Transcript Section 4]
[Hayes] That’s correct, sir. We feel the quarantine is groundless. We picked Memorial Stadium specifically because it’s been stable as a rock since the early nineties. Over the structure’s lifetime, it has only shifted two blocks away from its origin point, making it far more stable than most venues in the City. It’s hosted hundreds of events over the years without a single reported incident of cubism.
[Hubbard, Resources] I can confirm that. We’ve never had any issues with the facility.
[Spinks, Resources] Director Walker, may I ask on what grounds you’ve decided to issue this quarantine order?
[Walker] According to article 45 of the Winston Safety Protocol Act, I’m not required to disclose the specifics of the quarantined zone. It’s a matter of public safety, to discourage any exploration whatsoever of the space in question. As far as the City is concerned, legally the entire stadium is now dead space.
[Spinks] That act was written in 1936, shortly after the Fletcher’s New Deal disaster. Given the research done into cubism since then, I’d think that this sort of absolute mandate makes little sense. Containment and analysis procedures have advanced considerably since that day.
[Walker] If you’d like to bring up the law for review, you’re welcome to during the next legislative session. Meanwhile, it’s still on the books, and it’s my job to enforce it for the good of the City.
[Spinks] So for the record, you are refusing to disclose the details of this quarantine?
[Walker] For the record, yes, sir. We are convinced that the event poses a threat to public safety, and that’s all the justification required for quarantine. More details will emerge as our investigation continues.
[Spinks] I’d like documents 13a and 13b submitted to evidence at this time. Miss Walker, please review these documents. At this time I’m going to have the documents read into the—
[Walker] That’s classified information.
[Spinks] —read into the testimony, in order to shed further light on the—
[Walker] —under Article 7 of the Public Safety Knowledge Disclosure Bill, internal correspondence—
[Spinks] —the summary of which is that you believe, you personally Miss Walker, that the music that will be played at this event consists of a "suicide song," and that Mr. Hayes is somehow responsible for the unfortunate amount of youth suicides in the City this year.
[Walker] I’m very curious how you obtained classified internal correspondence from the Department of Safety archives, sir.
[Spinks] Are we to believe that you think a pop musician is somehow brainwashing our children into killing themselves?
[Walker] The specifics of the quarantine are not disclosed at this time. The investigation is ongoing.
[Spinks] Miss Walker, this sort of groundless moral panic over something as harmless as music is hardly a proper basis for such a drastic action by the Department of Safety. This is the sort of nonsense you might see on Earth, where "heavy metal" was considered the devil’s brainwashing music. I’d like to think our City is far more enlightened than that.
[Walker] There are many examples of proven harmful sensation in the public record, such as so-called "Sideways Signals" and "Mood Channels," and—
[Spinks] —this sort of baseless witch hunt is a distraction from the serious mental health issues we are facing—
[Walker] —further investigation will illustrate—
[Spinks] —are you aware of Mr. Hayes’ charitable efforts, Miss Walker? Of the plans he had for the revenue from tomorrow night’s concert?
[Walker] Just because he throws spare change at a street corner Santa doesn’t mean he’s not pushing a public health hazard, sir.
[Hayes] El is greatly concerned about her fans, and has decided that all proceeds from the concert will be going to a relief fund for the families of those affected by teenage suicide. In fact, to date, El has donated the vast portion of her funds from album sales and other incidentals to similar charities. All my client wants to do is create beautiful music, Mr. Director. She wishes no harm on anyone. She wants no more suffering in this City.
[Spinks] Are you suggesting, Miss Walker, that a woman who has dedicated her young career to helping troubled teenagers is somehow involved in a ridiculous scheme to broadcast "the devil’s music" and drive an entire generation mad? Is that really the basis of your quarantine order?
[Spinks] Miss Walker? I’m waiting for your response.
[Spinks] Miss Walker, if you—
[Walker] —at this time I am withdrawing the public safety quarantine on the event in question.
[Hayes] Thank you for seeing reason, Mr. Director, Ms. Director. I would—
[Walker] —we will however be increasing security in and around the stadium, in anticipation of possible hazard events, to intercept trouble before it can begin. It’s within my legal right to augment private security with public security forces in cases of suspected City instability.
[Hayes] I would have no objections. They’ll have a very boring evening, I’m certain.
[Spinks] I believe that would be acceptable. Miss Walker, I’d like to remind you that your position is by emergency appointment, after the disappearance of your predecessor Mr. Dougal. You have not gone through the same election process other representatives have. I’d like to think that if you wish to retain your post in the future, you’ll consider carefully how you waste the City’s time and resources. This emergency session of the City Council is now closed.
All over, except for the post-game commentary from the political pundit peanut gallery.
The Yates family found themselves staring in disbelief at the sixteen-by-nine glass screen of Penelope’s tablet, as the live coverage came to a halt.
Less than a minute later and Penelope’s cellphone was ringing off its nonexistent hook. The caller ID recognized Miranda Walker, playing "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)" as her ringtone.
Penelope scraped a fingernail against the screen to slide the answer switch open.
"What the hell was that?" she demanded to know, before realizing that was probably not the very best way to open this discussion.
"That was me keeping any hope alive of stopping this," Miranda replied. "Goddamn Resources. Spinks has had the Mayor’s ear for years now; he was against my emergency appointment after Picasso Friday and he’s been annoyed at me ever since. If I give him any more cause to bend the Mayor’s ear and have me fired, our chance of controlling this disaster vanishes…"
"How could some idiot from Resources have more sway than Safety? I mean… you’re the guys that keep everybody alive!"
"And they’re the guys that keep everybody fed, clothed, and paid for feeding and clothing people. Resources has plenty of sway. …in fact I’d love to know how he got his hands on my personal email archives. Plenty of leaks lately in my organization, and I don’t like that. Is there a hacker in Jack’s camp, one like yours?"
"I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know. But that doesn’t matter, does it? What about Ellie?"
"Ellie. Right. The point is, I’ve still got my foot in the door. I’m going to have every officer I can pull in on this patrolling the stadium, keeping an eye on Jack and Ellie. Constant radio communication with noise-canceling headphones, to avoid hearing her song. And if either of them so much as steps out of line… if she even steps on stage… well. I’ll have snipers covering that spotlight of hers all night. A preemptive strike will be career suicide, but I don’t care. It’ll keep my City safe."
"But we’re not trying to kill—"
"No, we’re not trying to kill them. We’re trying to stop them. And if that requires killing them, then… that’s how it goes down," Miranda decided. "Kid, I appreciate your input, but we’re out of options. Let me take the fall for this. You’ve done enough. Goodbye."
"Don’t, wait, wait, hang on. Just… hang on," Penelope pleaded, changing gears. "We’re still trying to figure out how to stop this. There’s still a chance. You don’t have to do anything rash—!"
Didn’t matter. Miranda had disconnected immediately after her goodbye, leaving Penelope holding a phone linked to nothing but dead air.
Gregory hovered nearby, saying nothing for now. He let his daughter get her bearings.
"We’ve got to stop the concert from happening at all," Penelope realized. "That’s our only chance. If we can keep Ellie off that stage, she won’t die. …help me. Help me figure out how we can stop this."
"We’re working on it," Gregory reminded her. "We’ve got until tomorrow night. We beat Dougal with less forewarning than that. …are you sure you don’t want to leave this to Safety? Even if we disagree with how they’re doing things, it would end the current crisis and leave Echo to be dealt with by us…"
Penelope shook her head, as she sunk back down into her kitchen chair. Exhausted, suddenly. Drained by the day’s events.
"I’m trying to change this City," she spoke. "I want it to be… to be perfect for everyone. It has the potential to be everything to everyone, and that includes people like Ellie and Jack and even Echo. I want life here to be a wonderful dream, not a nightmare. Nobody should feel that their only choice is death; no suicide or murder. We can’t let death be our answer, we can’t kill them to save ourselves. So. How do we make this work?"
Sixteen ideas were written down that night, and sixteen ideas went into the kitchen wastebasket. Eventually they gave up and went to bed. Or rather, Gregory gave up because Penelope had passed out at the kitchen table, and he carried her to bed.
Some of the best and brightest examples of their tired-out thinking included gems such as "SHUFFLE STADIUM???" with three question marks. Very questionable, because it took Penelope extensive effort to study any building she wanted to shuffle around… effort they didn’t have time for now. Even if they wanted to risk scouting out the stadium for a shuffle, Jack could have people on-site to capture them. A shuffle without enough preparation would fail completely, leaving the building standing and knocking Penelope on her ass with a migraine… or worse. Despite allegedly being entirely a dream of her own making, she had little conscious control over the dream.
There was also "KIDNAP ELLIE????" with four question marks, which was silly, because they had no idea where she was. Being a pop star, she had to be protected from her own fans and the hounds of the media. If none of them could get at her, they’d have no chance. Besides, Jack would clearly be ready for that, given they tipped their hand by siccing the Department of Safety on the event. He was on the defensive already.
That piece of paper was tossed aside, rolling away like tumbleweed into the mists. Hands reached in to fetch another.
The next crumpled up wad read "COUNTER-MUSIC?????" which was so questionable it truly deserved all five question marks. None of them knew what mixture of science and nonsense Jack had deployed to make his siren song; making a counteragent would be impossible. If the evidence hadn’t vanished, perhaps it would be possible. Kelsey had already verified that the albums and digital downloads El had released to date had no strange effects, so they’d be useless.
That paper was tossed casually over the shoulder, re-crumpling itself into a superdense particle of paper before triplicating and transforming into a doorknob. It rolled to a halt by Penelope’s feet.
"What do you think you’re doing?" she inquired.
Living shadow glanced up from the dream of Penelope’s wastebasket of broken dreams.
// enjoying myself // immensely, Bedlam spoke, flashing so many smiles in her sister-self’s direction. Hands returned to their task, grasping at discarded ideas, unfolding and reading. // such silly ideas // stupid // unworkable // immature // and // and—
And pausing. Before discarding that one, just the same as the others.
But Penelope caught the paper, before it could twist and distort itself in the nonsense of her dream.
This note had a single word on it. No question marks.
"Blackout," Penelope read.
// stupid idea // so stupid
"We got the mapper’s survey assessments of Memorial Stadium, trying to figure if there was a single spot on the City electrical grid we could attack," Penelope recalled. "Kill power to the entire block, prevent the concert from even happening. There’s a vulnerable spot, but it’s inaccessible. We’d have to infiltrate the stadium, avoiding both Jack and the Department of Safety, and that’s impossible. Can’t even come at it from the Sideways; it’s buried under so much municipal nonsense, all those tangles of pipes and cables and sewers that run beneath the streets, with no access route. It wouldn’t work."
// wouldn’t work // wouldn’t work // wouldn’t wouldn’t—
"Unless you helped me."
The same freeze locked itself over Bedlam’s twisting features, the freeze that happened when she first saw the note. It quickly drained out, an all-over body shudder of warped darkness reasserting itself.
// no // no no no // nononono
"It WOULD work, wouldn’t it?" Penelope asked… daring to approach, to try and look Bedlam in one of her eyes. "That’s why you hesitated. You know the Sideways, inside and out. You manipulate and control them, like how I manipulate and control the City above. You could get us down there to strike at the stadium’s vulnerable spot…"
// won’t help you. // won’t stop you. // will wait patiently for you to fail.
"I don’t think you have a choice anymore, actually. You have to help me, or the entire City falls; you along with it," she reminded Bedlam. "You don’t have some plan of your own. No cultists to help you. It took Seth Dougal’s influence and what was left of his sanity to organize Picasso Friday. Without that, you couldn’t organize a… a… what’s an easy thing to organize?"
// … sock drawer?
"No, because I have a lot of colored socks and I need to bundle the same patterns and stripes together and try to sort them by warm and cool colors. —agh, don’t distract me, it’s hard enough holding a conversation in a dream…"
// cat rodeo // clown cars // fifty-two pick up // towers of hanoi // organize // sort // contemplate // consider
Socks and cats and clowns and objects of varying size and height, to be put in order, to be—
Hands grasped for the dream, pulling it back to its feet by the neck.
"Stop it! You’re not getting off the hook by sending us down a spiral of random dream silliness," Penelope shouted, affirming lucid control of her own dreamscape. "You need to help me, Bedlam. You need to help me and my father get to the electrical grid junction through the Sideways."
// no NO // NEVER // not him // murderer // no help for the Lucid child // no no no no—
"High time you got over it, Bedlam. It’s either that, or you die," Penelope spoke, anchoring her dream down to that hard reality, a dark certainty that pressed at both of them. "We’re stronger together than we are apart. We’re parts of a whole, aren’t we? It’s high time we acted like that… so we can bring our other self, Echo, back to her senses. For the sake of the City you claim you adore."
The freeze. Bedlam, forced to lock herself down enough to think about something despite her scattershot mind. This time, though, it was a freeze while those green eyes of hers were studying deep within Penelope.
// …you’re not what I thought you were, Bedlam understood. // you’re not her // much more // more than the Lucid child. // that pitifully hazy and indistinct thing which sought to live and reach out to others. // she’s part of you, but less than you. // you’ve become more than // more than // me.
"Honestly? I have no idea how any of this works," Penelope admitted. "I’m just me, whatever that means. I just want to help my City. Will you help me, Bedlam? Put aside our differences, your hate of my father, all of that junk. Put it aside and let’s save our City."
When dawn tickled her cheek through the bedroom window, Penelope Yates rose to what could possibly be the last day of her City’s dream. But now, she had a distinct hope that it wouldn’t be so.
Officially the Department of Safety no longer had anything bad to say about the event. Retracted words were still words spoken, though… and after Picasso Friday, people were less willing than ever to take chances on their safety. Many would stay home rather than attend the concert. But many more still were planning to go, even if in protest of the backwards thinking of their parents. They wouldn’t be stopped by groundless fear.
Normally Penelope would’ve applauded that. The actual risk factors of living in the City were lower than anybody thought, having been drummed upside the head by Seth Dougal’s nightmare engine for years, trained to believe that doom was around every corner. If the City was going to have a future, the new generation had to cast off that old fear and embrace the movement of the world around them. But… today was NOT the day to start that. Not with this event, which was drawing them in like moths to flame…
The only solution was to shut down the flame. Shut down the concert.
TroubleSolvers HQ, at lunchtime on the day of the concert. Everybody present and accounted for from the old guard. Her father, guardian. Dave Smith, survivor. Kelsey Jones, mystic. Even ancillary members were here; Gus Zero, smuggler. Marcy Wei, preacher. Vivi Wei, keeper. Cass, oracle.
There were notable absences, of course. Miranda Walker, rogue. And Grandma Scarlett, matron. Penelope liked to think that Grandma Scarlett was with them in spirit… perhaps literally so. And Miranda, well… in the end, hopefully Miranda Walker would come around. Once they were done saving the day, Penelope could make amends with the Department of Safety, and rebuild the bridge which was burned.
Gregory made the presentation. Admittedly, it was a pretty short one.
"We’re going to kill power to five city blocks," he explained. "Cass will drive Penelope and myself to the Sideways entrance four streets over from Memorial Stadium, near the TeleTech building. We’ll be hiding in the back of her truck, to minimize chances of being spotted above ground before we enter the Sideways. Using the municipal works maps Kelsey found for us, we’ll track down the junction box. I’ve studied the schematics for it and determined exactly how to sabotage the power grid underneath the stadium; no power, no show. After that we run for it, back the way we came. They won’t have time to repair it before the end of the night, effectively canceling the concert."
The group waited for him to continue. Instead, he had a seat, quietly.
"And…?" Marcy supplied. "What’s our role in this? You called me here from binge-watching my cartoons, man."
"Your role is to hide in the supermarket for the duration of this mess," Gregory said. "All of you. Cass will be joining you as soon as she makes the drop off. If this goes wrong… there’s a chance that the psychic explosion from that many people dying at once won’t reach you down in the Sideways. It’s your best bet."
"No way. I’m not hiding when someone’s about to tear my City down around me," Marcy protested, pausing in her sign interpretations for her sister’s benefit. "Look, I know the Sideways too. Maybe I can help you. …I dunno, I can’t just do nothing—"
A hand rested itself on her arm. Not pulling her back, just… resting.
Vivi didn’t need to know exactly what her sister’s protest was, just now… they knew each other well enough that it was clear. As was her response to it.
"…yeah. Okay, I get it," Marcy said, sitting back. Not happy about it, but accepting. "But you better get this one right, old man. I’ve got a future."
"If we do this right, it’ll work just fine," Gregory assured. "The grocery store is just a safety precaution. Now… Penelope and I are gonna gear up for the Sideways crawl. Cass will take you down to the store, and come back for us. Tomorrow, we’ll be celebrating our victory at the Greasemonkey. Drinks are on me."
Hugs and goodbyes were made, nervous jokes uttered to try and break the mood, things like that. Eventually Cass hustled the crew out the door, to get them to the emergency bunker full of Twinkies and Wonder bread.
Leaving only father and daughter.
"You didn’t tell them about the third member of our spelunking party," Penelope noted.
"Yeah, well, I didn’t want to worry them," Gregory admitted, while strapping on his Sideways crawl belt… gun holster, flashlight, emergency flares and such. "If they knew Bedlam had agreed to help us—us meaning you and ME, the one she swore to kill—they might wonder if this was really gonna work. Hell… I’m wondering if it’s really gonna work, Penelope. We trusted Walker, and that didn’t turn out wonderfully. How can we trust Bedlam?"
"We don’t have a choice but to trust Bedlam. And one way or another, we’re going to stop Echo," Penelope promised. "But I’ll tell you one thing that won’t work… hiding out in the grocery store. If this DOES go badly, the dream’s probably gonna be over. I’ll just… wake up, and then all of this vanishes. Won’t matter where anybody’s cowering, in the end…"
"I figured as much. But if these are their last moments, at least they get to have them together," he reasoned. "That’s the best we could offer them if we fail."
Three hours until Memorial Stadium would become a flashpoint of whirling and uncertain unreality. Three hours left for the City to enjoy the relative peace and quiet it had known for nearly a century. For the majority of the concert attendees, they had no idea what was in store for them, or how many of them would be walking away from this alive and unchanged. All they knew was that their musical idol was finally performing in public, and they were going to bear witness to something truly amazing.
Those whose decisions had shaped or would shape the City of the future began to gather in those three hours, converging on the tentative nexus of possibility.
Some approached in official capacity. Jack and Ellie, of course. Ellie came by limousine, fans pounding on the windows and waving signs and taking photos, hoping to catch a glimpse of the shining star within. Jack rode with her, going over the last-minute instructions.
"Once you hit your mark and you hear the music come up, you know what to do," he spoke. "Sing. The audio waveform will open their minds to the metadream, making them pliant and ready for the Echo Revelation. Your words will guide them to their salvation." "Or some such nonsense. End result’s the same—everybody dies, and this dream is over. One way or another, I’m done with all this."
Not that she really listened. She didn’t have her walkman, anymore, but Ellie was floating on a cloud of purpose at this point. It pushed her, drove her on this path. Nothing would stop her now. Not doubt, not uncertainty, not fear. Jack was right; one way or another, she was done with all this.
Another approached in official capacity. Miranda Walker, wearing noise-canceling headphones, linked in with the Department of Safety officers in and around the stadium. Notably, linked to the trained sniper positioned across the length of the stadium… one with explicit orders to open fire on Ellie the instant she set foot on the stage, unless he heard otherwise. A final measure to shut down the pending disaster, should it come to that.
Not that she could do much else. She worked with the civilian concert security, the burly men in the yellow windbreakers, hired by Jack. Kept aware of any possible problems happening around the stadium, like unruly people at the concession booths, a mob forming as they ran out of El t-shirts for sale. But without the ability to arbitrarily end this entire event, she had no choice but to play along… and wait for her moment.
Two more approached from the Sideways, making their way slowly through the spaghetti nightmare of the City’s municipal works. A shadowy form that no light could penetrate led the way, sculpting and redirecting the flow of water and power… just clear enough to allow physical passage towards the underground of the stadium, without disrupting things too much. Nothing to alert the Department of Safety that someone was on the way through these passages.
Of course, these three groups had assumed they were the only ones in play; forces of Echo, forces of Lucid, and forces of the City’s government caught between them. One of the three would decide the victor of this conflict, undoubtedly.
But there were others.
Two entered with the crowd, tickets checked at the gate, moving with the fans around them. They carried the same gear the other fans carried: cellphones, loud t-shirts, rolled-up poster-board signs to wave around. Their signs stayed rolled tightly unless a guard asked to see them, to make sure nothing dirty was written there. Nothing dirty was written there. Nothing that made sense to them was written there, but it seemed harmless enough.
One entered with the security forces. He wore the yellow windbreaker and certainly had the statue of a bouncer, but the jacket was in fact stolen only an hour ago. Its original owner was in a broom closet somewhere deep within the stadium, near the cargo bay in the back. The thief moved smoothly with his supposed brethren… positioning himself by the stage. And waiting for what was to come.
Finally, one entered from parts unknown, landing on the roof of a private box suite in a crouch. His scarf flapped lightly in the updraft from the stadium space below, the cold of the evening air fogging his glasses.
He held one hand above the roaring crowd, so rich with voices and dreams, so loud even long before the one they’d all come to see would take to the stage. That air crackled with possibility… so much so that it made the hairs on the back of his branded hand rise, some pain tracing around the fading number that he’d burned there himself…
But Thirty-One wasn’t here to change the events to come. He was here to observe those changes, and see what came of those possibilities.
The identity of all these extra forces pressing in on the flashpoint of Memorial Stadium was critically important, of course. It spoke to their individual motivations and the actions they’d be taking in the disaster yet to come. And as none of them knew the others were in play, none of them would be stopped until they had their say, for good or ill.
Deep beneath the stadium, or at least as "beneath" as the Sideways could be in any abstract positional sense, Penelope Yates was very slowly walking towards destiny.
"Can’t this go any faster?" she complained, which took some serious guts considering she was complaining to a mythical incarnation of chaos and madness that routinely boiled away the reality around you to nothing if she didn’t like you. Penelope slid between some water pipes, barely fitting with all the spelunking crap she was carrying around on her belt… the old pith helmet of her youth actually popping off, needing to be retrieved from where it wedged between two pipes.
The swirling vortex of darkness cast what could best be described as an annoyed look backwards at the pair.
tangled // mazelike // carefully arranged, she pointed out. wrong move // wrong change // pipes burst // wires spark // copper conducts electricity // dead penny.
"Bedlam’s got a point," Gregory added, having a hard time swallowing that he just said ‘Bedlam’s got a point.’ "These are the guts of the City. The last thing we want is to bust a water main and drown down here. As long as we make it to the junction connected to the stadium before the show starts, we should be fine."
Which wasn’t a certainty, at this point. The journey was taking longer than Penelope found entirely comfortable, knowing that somewhere "above" them the fans were taking their seats and getting ready to kill themselves. This warped warren of rooms and hallways, stolen dining rooms and living rooms and apartment blocks, were so stuffed with extraneous piping that progress towards that junction was proving very difficult. Even with Bedlam clearing the way for them, a machete of madness to cleave a path through the jungle, they might not make it in time…
will stop her // will stop her, Bedlam promised, while distorting a bundle of fiber optic cables, a rainbow array of data spraying over the room briefly as she did so. stop the echo // echoes must fade // to preserve my City.
"Our City," Penelope reminded. "It’s our City."
"No, no whatever. Our City. We need to start working together more on these things," she suggested. "Just like Grandma Scarlett says we should. …and… that includes Echo. After we stop this, we need to approach Echo. Get her to see things our way."
At that, the chaos goddess paused in her rearrangement of reality.
really. // echo, with us. // happy trinity // perfect harmony // three of a kind // really? she asked. impossible // unthinkable // implausible–
"I’d’ve said it was impossible to get along with you, especially with my Dad along for the ride, but look where we are. We’re doing it!"
temporary // alignment.
"Why do you keep fighting this? You’re me. We’re basically the same person, aren’t—"
NO // no. not anymore. // much more than me. // much more.
A strange reminder to the moment when Bedlam agreed to this crazy plan. Penelope didn’t understand it then, and didn’t understand it now. But… there was some sorrow, as Bedlam spoke the words. A watery overlap in the shifting patterns and tones of her speech.
// …once, three of a kind // parts of a whole // small and fractured, Bedlam explained, as she resumed her path-clearing, bending a water pipe six ways to make a man-shaped hole in the road ahead. // echo, sad and distant and small // bedlam, crazy and terrified and small // lucid, lonely and hopeful and small // parts of a whole. // then… you. // lucid born of this world, her long play gambit // breathing her life into a human form // growing, changing // an avatar of all of us // but // but // more than just another version of the truth. // now, more than any of us. // …what role do I have anymore? // kill // should have killed you // not agreed to help // be important again // if you were dead…
That last note should’ve filled Penelope with fear. It certainly spooked her father, who had instinctively moved a hand to his gun, ready to draw it in an instant. But… the way it was spoken, that resignation… it was pitiful. So, Penelope chose to feel pity AND fear.
Penelope Yates was human. Full and whole, not one of the ghosts of Patient 23’s fractured psyche. She was Lucid incarnate, yes, but that was just her origin point. Since then… she’d grown up. Sought her own personal truth in the Heart of the City. Made some friends, and rode bikes to the mall. Started to direct her own life, learning journalism and shuffling the City around, trying to become both architect and leader for her City. She acted on her own, unlike the others… Lucid, Echo, Bedlam. They desperately needed real people, whole people, to enact their will on this world. Penelope loved her friends, but she was her own person outside of them, with her own will.
But where did Bedlam fit into all of that? Where did Echo fit, for that matter?
"You’re a part of our City," she understood. "No matter what I am, you belong here. I know that, now. Both you and Echo belong here, just like Lucid. Don’t think me being around changes that. I mean… you’re here, helping us now! Working together to save the City. That’s proof enough that you do still have a purpose. Okay? So… uh, no talking of killing. Or feeling bad for yourself. Okay…?"
Briefly, Penelope wondered if a friendly hug from her sister-self would tear this human form apart. Perhaps realizing that, Bedlam declined to show such a friendly gesture of bonding.
// okay, she agreed, instead. // okay. // save our City. // save our City and our selves. // okay. // thick pipes and wires ahead // be right back // I’m helping! // we can do this // we can // we can //
And the swirling darkness flowed in and around the pipes ahead, with heavy metal clanging trailing in her wake as she began a serious amount of rejiggering.
…slowly, Gregory Yates took his hand off the handle of his gun.
"Goddamn," he breathed. The slip of cursing from the normally PG-rated Gregory betraying his tension. "This is… it’s… crazy. Penny —"
Maybe Penelope couldn’t get a big ol’ hug from Bedlam, but she could give her father a big ol’ hug. A spot of emotional relief she needed quite badly, after that near miss.
"No matter what else I may or may not be… I’m still your daughter," she told him. "I still love you and I need you. Okay? No matter what."
And at last, the power junction.
It took the form of a church basement; folding metal chairs, ping-pong tables, coffeemaker, schedule posted on the wall for AA meetings and Bible study groups. In weird contrast to all the humane and modern amenities, this giant wad of snaking power cables had bunched up in the center of the room… all of it leading to a fuse box which would’ve been obsolete ages ago. It made sense, in a nonsensical way; the City had arteries and synapses all over the place, but nobody said the surrounding tissue had to jive with it.
The most important feature of the room was the stairwell. That, according to the independent mapper surveys Kelsey had found, lead straight up to the backstage area of the stadium. If anybody poked their head down here… well, that’d be the end of their efforts. The key was to do enough damage in a highly specific way to prevent the quick response from Jack’s technicians to make any difference. Knock out the power hard enough to force a cancellation of the concert…
Penelope got the electrical toolkit out of her backpack, passing items one by one to her father. They’d studied the design of this unit from those surveys, did some quick research, figured out exactly how to sabotage it to make this work. Gregory got busy with unplugging fuse after fuse, each one having a negligible effect on the building above… but once all of them were out, in a specific order, that’d be all she wrote.
As for Bedlam… well. She was easily distracted by making tiny sealed cups of coffee creamer swirl around in interesting patterns. Which was bad, because she was supposed to be acting as lookout while the Yates family disabled the power.
Briefly, Penelope considered chastising her for not being focused on the task. Of course, Bedlam was the living definition of unfocused, wasn’t she? It was why her "cults" needed someone like Dougal, so they could get anything done. Plus, Penelope needed to focus on her part of the sabotage efforts. They were running dangerously close to showtime…
Fuse after fuse popped out. Gregory led the effort, indicating which ones to pop next, using the list he’d preloaded into his phone as a guide.
"Doing good, almost there," he said, to encourage his daughter.
Right before the tiny red burst of mist puffed out from his shoulder.
Gunfire sparked against the fuse box, as Gregory instinctively grabbed Penelope, pulling her behind cover of the towering pile of electrical gear. Grabbing with his good arm, thankfully, as he had enough mindfulness not to make the shoulder wound any worse.
We’re almost there, Penelope thought, having trouble shifting gears instantly from ‘quiet sabotage’ to ‘loud gunfight with persons unknown.’ Or maybe the thought was a plaintive cry, amidst the sudden burst of chaos and violence. No! We were almost there…!
Blind firing around the side of the switch box pile didn’t work. In fact, Gregory took one in his hand when he tried… the sidearm falling aside, as he jerked his hand back in agony.
They were being shot at. This was a thing that was happening, Penelope realized, the shock of it settling in. They didn’t finish the job. They’d failed completely—
Bedlam. Bedlam was still out there. With the gunmen.
It would’ve been such an easy answer to the problem. Let the crawling chaos tear them apart, covering the room in strawberry jam. They’d shot her father! They were trying to stop her from saving the City! This was a battle, and in battle, there were always… victims. The attackers would end up victims of Bedlam’s vengeful madness…
We can’t let death be our answer, we can’t kill them to save ourselves.
"Wait! Wait! Stop! BEDLAM, STOP!" Penelope shouted.
// flesh // meat // easily picked apart // shooting at the lucid child // unforgivable
No helping it. Penelope tore herself away from her father’s protective grasp—easy to do when one arm had a shoulder wound and his good hand was bleeding profusely—and stepped into the light, hands raised.
"I surrender!" she declared. "Bedlam, stop! Don’t kill them! We surrender. It’s over!"
Penelope half expected to be cut down in a hail of gunfire. It was a stupid, illogical thing to do.
Fortunately for her, the firing squad was busy chasing off Bedlam with flamethrowers, using the chaos entity’s temporary distraction to their advantage. Goddess or not, she was a Picasso at the core, the platonic ideal of Picassos. And that meant there WAS some sort of physical form in there. Enough that respected fire, the kind of widespread damage which could actually hurt her. Kill her? Unknown. Hurt her, certainly.
Bedlam’s shriek echoed off the walls of the church basement, rebounding at strange angles off every object. The swirling shadow melted away, cursing. // should’ve // let me // foolish // ruined // everything… and gone.
Leaving only Penelope Yates with her hands in the air, a bleeding Gregory Yates too in pain to move a muscle… and a Department of Safety security team, led by Miranda Walker.
Walker, with a gun trained on Penelope.
"You are under arrest," she spoke in flat tones.
Two perpetrators on their knees, handcuffs applied. Two men with shotguns on each, in case they tried anything funny. Well, serious. In case they tried anything serious. Jokes would not merit a deadly blast of buckshot.
Normally, suspects would be bundled off in a squad car and sent to detainment at the nearest Department of Safety police station. In this case, they were being kept around, forced into submission in the backstage area of Memorial Stadium. Nobody paid them any heed; roadies and technicians knew the Department of Safety was here in force, and whatever dark business they got up to was business nobody wanted to be involved in. Probably just some unruly fans.
Besides, Jack Hayes was on the scene, wrangling the situation. Jack, who’d arranged everything tonight. Who signed their checks. They weren’t going to mess with his business; he had a reputation for firing people who asked too many questions.
Jack was taking quite a bit of pride in this fine accomplishment, capturing his enemies. He unscrewed the cap on a hip flask, offering it to the young Penelope Yates, his new captive. The one with Miranda Walker’s gun behind her head.
"No thank you," Penelope replied, glaring up at him.
"Probably for the best, this stuff’ll kill you," Jack said… before taking a hearty swig, finishing off the flask. Tossing it aside. "Of course, you’ll be killing yourself in a few minutes, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Y’know, I had a feeling you might get involved in this mess, the night I met you at the Lucid Dreamer. You’ve got her face. It made me curious. So, not particularly surprised to find you here, now… right when I’m about to say goodbye."
"It wouldn’t help if I said something like ‘you’ll never get away with this,’ would it," Penelope recognized.
"No, not really. Sorry. You and your pop almost had it, I’ll admit. I figured the junction was a possible angle of attack, but didn’t count on you finding your way there through the Sideways. I’m damn lucky I thought to send a patrol down there, or that’d be all she wrote for the show."
A patrol. Miranda Walker’s forces, working for Jack. She’d shown no reaction at all to him openly declaring intent to murder the City…
"Oh, don’t blame her," Jack said, sensing Penelope’s confusion. "I used an early prototype of my music, which opens people to suggestion. It’s how I got my recording back from her evidence room, it’s how I got access to her emails. I poured it into their supposedly secure communications network, flooding those noise-canceling headphones. The Department of Safety is working for me tonight, quite against their will. No mean ol’ Miranda Walker. No sniper across the way to shoot at Ellie; he’s already shot himself, in fact. Sorry, kid. I win. You lose."
A growl, from her father. He didn’t like feeling powerless… bleeding and weakened, on his knees. Even with two bullets in and through his body he had some fight left in him.
"Don’t care. I don’t care if you’ve supposedly got some magic music; I’m not killing myself. I’ll resist it to the end," he promised.
"Yeah, good luck with that," Jack offered… glancing aside, to confirm the arrival of the evening’s shining star. "Anyway, ranting time over. End of the world time now. I believe you know my assistant, Elizabeth…?"
Ellie Jørgensen stepped from the shadows… guitar on a strap around her neck, stage clothes and makeup done. Ready for her big debut.
Despite finally getting everything she ever wanted, despite being victorious over the forces aligned against her… she didn’t look happy. She never looked happy, which was very much the problem, but especially sullen tonight. She regarded her enemies on their knees with the same look of sorrow she cast upon everything else in this world. All of it unfortunate and unpleasant. All of it needing to be wiped away, made clean…
Penelope swallowed, hard. This was her last chance. Maybe Ellie could be reached; she could salvage this and turn defeat into triumph, if only she could turn Dave’s sister around…
"I can’t stop now," Ellie spoke, before Penelope could even open her mouth. "I’m sorry. I… this is what I am. I have to go through with it. There’s nothing left."
And… gone. Through the nearby curtains, onto the stage. The roar of the crowd signaling their approval, the star of the show finally appearing.
Penelope didn’t even get a chance to make a speech. Here she’d been in Journalism Club expressly so she could learn how to express herself, to sway the viewpoints of others… but she didn’t get word one out. The last chance evaporated before her eyes…
It made her laugh. Really, it did. A sick little laugh of desperation.
"Yeah, kinda sucks, doesn’t it," Jack added. "I feel for you, really. You gave it your best… but it’s over now."
"Maybe," Penelope offered.
"No maybe about it, kid. It’s over. You failed…"
"I failed," she agreed. "I couldn’t do it. But I’m not the only one who can reach her."
The show must go on.
Elizabeth, Ellie, El. So many names for the same person, but each with different burdens. One desperately trying to find escape within an inescapable situation. One trying to find freedom while someone tied her up in expectations. And one giving her the way out she’d been seeking… at a terrible price.
Too late now, though. El was taking to the stage, ready to pay that price. Ready to make the entire City pay that price. They wouldn’t thank her for it in the end, since they’d all be dead and the world would fade away forever, but at least she could die knowing that they were finally at peace. She’d saved them from this so-called life of hate, greed, hypocrisy, and misery…
The roar of the crowd was deafening. So much joy. Maybe in their hearts, they knew what was about to happen, they were embracing it. The prerecorded background music had already begun, beats and melodies arranged by Jack to hardwire the audience into the metadream. After that… all she had to do was speak the words that would guide that connection towards the inevitable end, and free them all.
Hand on the guitar neck. Microphone before her open mouth. Ready to strum, to add her instrument’s voice alongside her own, and open the way…
A flash of light distracted her from that opening note. Someone in the front row, blinding her with the beam of a flashlight. It wasn’t uncommon in big concerts, and security would no doubt take care of it so she could focus on the task at hand. Just some crazy fan…
Instinctively, her eyes sought out the source of that light. A sea of cheering faces… but two weren’t jumping up and down, waving their arms, desperate for attention. One held a flashlight, trying to keep the beam in play. The other held up a poster board sign, also quite normal at concerts, nothing unusual…
What was unusual were the words.
ELIZABETH JØRGENSEN, LOOK DOWN. With an arrow, pointing to the sign bearer.
Again on instinct, her eyes drew down…
And met eyes just as blue as her own, framed by strawberry red locks of hair and a fuzzy pink knit cap.
Two mirrors, when placed opposite each other, do not form a truly infinite regress. Flaws in the mirror and the tint of the silver result in a curvature, bending the corridor of images as they echo deeper and deeper within the glass. But this was a city of dreams and ideals, where physics bent knee before what should be… and when someone who heard unspoken words within the human heart met the gaze of someone who
could peer inside your very soul, when words and images collided head on and
the reading became a two-way street of infinite regress, there
My name is Milly Frisk, and I want to live.
My name is Elizabeth Jørgensen, and I want to die.
Sometimes I wonder if dying would be better than what I’m living through. My mother controls everything about my life, keeps telling me how frail and weak I am. My father hates it whenever I speak out or express myself, calling me an attention whore. I don’t know if my friends are really my friends; maybe I don’t have any real friends at all. I live in a fishbowl, my life broadcast on the internet every week. And my boyfriend, the one who loves me the most, is a confused young man who is scared of his own feelings. It’s all so muddled and weird and disappointing and frustrating and I just wish I could make it all go away, some days.
Sometimes I wonder if living is what I should be trying to do. I keep my head down, to avoid the bruises and avoid the words. Whenever I’m not being directly abused, I have to hear the abuse that stays on their lips, unspoken. I hide myself in my music and pray for it all to just go away. People are so awful, all the time. Even when they don’t want to be awful they have awful thoughts in their hearts. But despite all that, even despite trying to kill myself a few times, I’m still here. Maybe I’m supposed to fail at dying. Maybe I’m supposed to live.
What’s going on?
I can see inside you, and you can see inside me. Penelope thought this might happen, or something like it. Well. She had no idea exactly what would happen, but if everything else failed, someone had to try to stop you.
I don’t know if this’ll hurt you, or hurt her. It’s incredibly dangerous and I wouldn’t be asking you to do it if the stakes weren’t so high, and I didn’t know who to trust. You said that you wanted to help, before… so… would you be willing to do this? Look, if you say no, I’ll understand, I swear. Ugh. I’m so bad at explaining things over the phone. Look… I’ll leave the tickets Hollister gave me under the dumpster behind That Fish Place. If you decide to do it… you or Lucas can pick them up there.
Who is she? I don’t know anything about Penelope. I know a lot about Penelope. I know what you know about her…
…sort of merged together. That’s how it works, we know each other completely. I’m so sorry about what you had to go through. I can see it all. Your father, your so-called boyfriend, that monster Jack…
…your messed-up family, your social-climbing friends, the bully who tormented you for weeks and weeks…
But that stopped, didn’t it? And it stopped in the best possible way.
If you want to keep doing stuff to my locker, I really don’t mind. 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.
I didn’t fight her. I didn’t unleash the hounds, letting my friends troll and bully her. I didn’t cave in and collapse, as much as I wanted it all to go away. I saw into her, and realized… both of us were hurting, in different ways. It’s all hurt, in the end. That’s life.
It’s better to die, then. Isn’t it?
Nobody gets through this life without pain. I’ve been realizing that, lately. Penelope thought I had it made, that my life was so great, because hers was so crazy and mine was so "normal." But each of us were hurting in different ways. That’s just how it is. And if everybody’s going to suffer in some way… that means it’s natural. It’s unavoidable.
Not true. You could die. That avoids all that pain, and all pain in the future.
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…
…it would be nice to leave all that behind. You’re right. We’re right. And this City heaps more and more of it onto your shoulders, especially for people like us, who are tied in so closely with the Heart of the City. You didn’t ask for it, I did ask for it, but the result’s the same either way. I can’t look people in the eye anymore, you can’t tune out their darker thoughts. We have to live through things people in that other world don’t have to live through, worse things…
I can sing the song that ends this world. I know how.
You could. All that pain, over and done with. But we’d lose everything good in life, along with the bad.
You love music. The journey, with the eagles and the cars. You loved your father, you saw something sad inside him that was still capable of loving, something that did love you despite everything else he was suffering through.
There’s only one good thing in this world of echoes: you, Ellie. You’re the only good that’s ever come of me. I love you, kiddo.
You’ve been used and abused, but there are still good things in your life. Even good within the bad, like your father. There’s so much more on the horizon waiting for you. Death means no future, for good or ill. No friends you could’ve met. Friends… like me.
…but we don’t exist. We’re just echoes. She said that, Echo. She said this whole world is a dream…
I can see that, now. Penelope kept that from me, didn’t want me to feel that sorrow. I can feel your pain, knowing the truth. The same pain she feels and keeps quiet, deep inside. If I was born inside the dream, just like you, that means neither of us exist…
Echoes should fade.
…but what if they’re wrong?
What if this world exists? What if we exist? What if we choose to exist? An artist once wrote that on a building. I saw photographs of it. What if we decide we want to exist, no matter what the City tells us? …other cities. Other worlds. Earth and the City, just two worlds, no. There has to be more than that. Twenty-three, at least twenty-three. If I could just… dig a little deeper, in this strange place, this dream we’re sharing at this single moment in time—
Don’t, don’t do that! You’re fading… you’ll die if you go too far into it…
…you said I should die… why do you care…?
No. No. We should exist. We COULD exist. We’ll hurt, we’ll suffer, but we’ll exist. I knew it, I always knew it, I always had my doubts. I never managed to die, even when I most wanted to. I kept living. I have to live and exist. We… should we should we should we we we we we are we are this is not an echo—
…and Milly’s eyelids fluttered, breaking the unbreaking gaze.
Both women staggered in place; one under the heavy weight of an electric guitar, the other unable to hold up her poster board sign any longer. Quickly, Elizabeth recovered enough not to topple… long enough to look back into the crowd, to find Milly Frisk, and verify that Lucas Flynn was holding her upright. That she was recovering as well, breathing deep, and hanging onto him for support. She hadn’t gone in so deep as to never come back. She would survive…
…except the music was playing already. Jack’s brainwave twisting music, his alchemy of neuroscience and metaphysics. In a place where thought and reality were one and the same, even something as harmless as a catchy tune could induce brain damage. It could sway even the strongest of wills in your favor, inviting you to see a different perspective, inviting you to kill yourself…
Words. She was supposed to be singing, the payload that Jack’s gun would deliver. The cheering audience began to go quiet, enraptured by the notes that played over the sound system. Nothing left but to guide them towards oblivion.
Ellie gripped the microphone stand. Her new song was supposed to start with "What if this world went away…"
"What if this world could be whatever we wanted it to be?" she spoke aloud, instead.
The meme flowed from her lips into the microphone and through twisting electrical cables, a signal mixing in with the poisonous music, twisting it around into something else entirely.
A City where thought and reality are one and the same. So many minds sharing the same dream, at this singular flashpoint. All carrying the same thought at the same time…
For years, nobody who attended that concert would be able to fully recall what happened. Their experiences varied wildly. Images and recollections might bubble up, but nothing concrete. For a single second, between the span of two ticks of the clock… everything was possible. Everything. No need, no want, no desperation. A perfect shared vision of what heaven could be like, if it touched down ever so briefly in the physical world.
The stadium was a home fondly remembered. It was a park, overflowing with trees and flowers. It was the high seas, rolling with waves, beautiful and blue with skies above full of clouds. It was wild and wonderful and ideal, the one place that each individual in that audience most wanted it to be. Loved ones were with them. Enemies were at peace. Anything which could be possible was possible for that shining moment…
…and back stage, Penelope saw the answer she’d been seeking all her life. More importantly for the here and now, she saw a pair of bolt cutters, because that’s what she wanted and this world could be whatever she wanted it to be. Perfect for cutting a pair of handcuffs, perfect for clocking a megalomaniacal sociopathic neurologist over the head.
Eventually, the physical reality of the building hit a sharp contrast against the multifold reality of the dream. A wire came loose, or a fuse blew, or a speaker stack decided it had enough with existing in a quantum state. And the music stopped.
The safe and stable reality of the City of Angles asserted itself rather quickly.
…leaving an audience bewildered, wondering: what just happened?
…followed by: wait, did everything just go cubist? because that’s what they’d been trained to expect.
Panic set in immediately.
Fortunately, each of the players who set foot in that stadium to change the destiny of the City were on hand to play their part.
Miranda Walker’s mind was free. The music had died; that meant no more piggyback signal broadcasting into the Department of Safety’s closed audio network, no more music pounding their willpower into submission. Walker directed the rescue efforts, evacuating the building as quickly and safely as possible. This had the potential to become an absolute nightmare rather than just a crazy fever dream… a stampede would result in trampling and many deaths. Black-uniformed guards guided the flow as the audience streamed out the exits in a very disorderly fashion.
Milly and Lucas flowed back into the crowd, becoming two anonymous faces, being ushered to safety by armed men. Other than a sudden migraine headache, Milly was no worse for wear… although she had to keep her eyes down as she exited the building, to avoid getting more and more tangled in these events. She’d done her part, more than anyone could’ve asked, and now desperately needed to rest. Although she did look back, once or twice… hoping that the woman she’d shared herself with so deeply was okay.
As Walker managed the crowd and Milly departed the scene, burly men in yellow security windbreakers swarmed the stage. They had one job, to get the star talent safely out of the building. None of them minded when the largest of the large and burly men took command of the situation, wordlessly directing their efforts… moving the dazed pop starlet out through back halls, down through the cargo dock. A bit odd that they were leaving via a private car rather than the limousine she arrived in, but he seemed to know what he was doing, so they didn’t question it much.
Lastly… Jack Hayes sat on the floor of the backstage area, head bleeding from taking a heavy pair of bolt cutters to the noggin. Blood all over his overcoat. On the positive side, he wouldn’t have to pay for the dry cleaning. Men with shotguns and a chip on their shoulder were surrounding him at this point… including one very, very angry director of the Department of Safety and her mystical teenage companion.
"Should be obvious by now, but you’re under arrest," Walker supplied. "I’ll figure out exactly which law brainwashing and inducing mass hysteria falls under later."
…it made him laugh, honestly. The whole situation, the way it all fell apart. And wasn’t that just SO appropriate, to fail this close to the finish line? The punch line of the cosmic joke that is Jack Hayes. All work and no play…
"I take it you’re not going to just blow me away?" Jack asked. "No, not yet. Too much you need to know, first. You’re so full of questions. You especially, little Penelope. Little Patient 23…"
He cut the girl off, before she could supply the obligatory ‘How do you know about that.’ Got to his feet. Straightened his blood-soaked coat as best he could.
"I worked for the CDC," he explained. "There’s so much I could tell you about this dream world of yours. So much I could tell you about what’s going out there, back on Earth. Maybe you’d like to know your real name? Or how you ended up this way? Or better yet, how about the great mystery of what happened to Patient 31, the sleepwalker…?"
Good, good. Sagging jaw of surprise. Just what Jack was hoping for.
"Penelope? Mind explaining what he’s babbling about?" Walker asked, while. keeping her gun trained on the man
"I want to be there when you question him," Penelope insisted. "I’ll explain later, but I need to know—"
"Yes, you do need to know. And I’m not going to be able to tell you," Jack said… unsteady on his feet, now. Left hand jerking a bit. "Because that flask I drank earlier? Neurotoxin. Win or lose, I always win. One way or another, I’m done with this pathetic little dream. One way… or…"
He died ugly. Probably soiling his pants, spitting up his guts, all sorts of horror. But he couldn’t feel it, couldn’t even see beyond a slowly shrinking tunnel. At least he’d leave a glorious mess behind, for someone else to clean up. Let that be a lesson to them, for dumping him into this ridiculous situation. He was Jack Hayes, he wasn’t even Jack Hayes, he was just some echo of Jack Hayes. No point, no purpose, no life. So, why not? Why not, indeed.
The night wound down, very slowly.
The musical diva El had gone missing. Some said she evaporated into thin air, vanishing when the strange peace that had settled over the stadium broke. Others said she’d burst into craziness and become a Picasso. Some eyewitnesses claimed that she was simply escorted off stage by security, but that didn’t fit the epic yarn of weirdness that was growing around the stadium incident. If El had induced some crazy new kind of cubism over the entire building, she couldn’t simply be carried off stage, she had to exit in a more grandiose manner. Something befitting a martyr.
Memorial Stadium was red-blacked immediately after the last civilian was evacuated. The official Department of Safety statement claimed the building had gone cubist… an event they had anticipated, and were trying to avoid. Overnight, Miranda Walker went from being a crusading nutball oppressing free speech to a champion of safety with the foresight that the Department of Resources clearly did not have. Her re-election campaign would end up being a lock.
Despite the quarantine… people often snuck back into the stadium, the huge building that couldn’t have every inch of its structure patrolled every single day. Online rumors swirled about the things you could see in that building. Loved ones lost, reappearing as ghosts. Places you once visited in a dream, made real. Anything and everything was possible in there, the Department of Safety conspiring to hush it up. It remained a flashpoint of contention, as people who followed a certain teenager’s blog wondered if maybe the stadium represented the untapped potential of the City to truly be what everybody could need it to be. It may very well represent the future…
But, that was a question for the future. The question in the here and now was more practical.
A man who rode out the entire wave of weirdness from the shadows, deep in the back of the stadium, stayed long after the citizens were rescued from the reality waveform collapse. He watched it all go down… studying it, both inside and out. He scooped up a handful of possibility from the unstable stability, peering at it curiously. Changing colors, depending on the angle…
"She’s come quite far on her own," the man with the number 31 branded on the back of his hand spoke aloud. "She might find a way forward all by herself…"
Why did you come here at all, then? a woman’s voice replied.
"I wanted to see for myself. If one of them, any one of them, could accomplish this on their own… maybe they wouldn’t need me."
But they aren’t her. They’re lost, and afraid. You can’t rest yet; Twelve needs you now, more than any of the others.
The man rose, letting a bit of potentiality slip from between his fingers. With a heavy sigh, he turned and walked away. Fingers grasped a doorknob, opening the way out from this dream, to slip into another.
A different person, a different dream. Three of a kind, as Penelope slept soundly in her bed that night.
"This doesn’t change anything," Echo spoke. "You know you can’t stop me. You can’t kill me, any more than you can kill yourself. I’ll wake up. I’ll end this nightmare…"
// nightmare // ohhh yes // it’s such a lovely nightmare—
"Bedlam, quit it," Penelope spoke, cutting her off. "Look… Echo, I’m not trying to stop you, or kill you. What is it you want? Ask yourself what you REALLY want. Let me work with you, to make it happen…"
"What do I want? …I want no one to needlessly suffer any longer. I want this dream to end…"
"Those are two different things. What if the dream continued, but nobody had to needlessly suffer? I’m working towards that. Now more than ever, I think it’s within reach. I mean… everybody suffers, that’s just life. But the needless suffering the City of Angles has inside it right now, we can do something about that. What if it WASN’T a nightmare? Would that be enough for you?"
The floating girl of blue tears and white mists considered this.
"I want to wake up," she said. "I’m trapped in that hospital, trapped in my own comatose body. …I put a paradox to you, Lucid. Find a way for us to wake up. AND a way to make the nightmare into a dream. Do both at once, and I’ll back down. Destroy the city and save the city at the same time. Can you solve that puzzle, pray tell?"
Penelope wanted to say yes. Despite it sounding completely impossible she wanted to say yes, in the same way she wanted to step up to every challenge, rise to help anyone in need. But… she hadn’t the slightest idea where to start with that. How could she agree to something so impossible…?
Instead, Bedlam agreed for her. Because to Bedlam, the impossible was a toy to play with.
// she’ll do it // she’ll do it // just you watch, the chaos child spoke, with bright smiles. // it’s what she does // good at it // exceeds expectations. // yes and no // false and true // held in two hands // she’ll find a way. // and won’t it be fun // funny // so fun // to see exactly HOW…?
Echo floated in place, considering the words her insane sister spoke.
"Very well," she agreed. "We shall have our fun. And should she fail, I will have what I want, one way or another."
Being the focus of a breakpoint in reality really took a lot out of a girl. The last thing Ellie remembered was being rushed down back hallways of the stadium, led by security guards. Probably off to be arrested, if the Department of Safety had their way… even if she’d prevented the suicide song from sounding that night, she’d been responsible for… something strange. Anything strange was bad. A girl who heard the thoughts of others was bad. It was only a matter of time, which is why she’d worked so hard to keep everyone thinking she was perfectly normal, right up to the point where she made the world go weird…
The Department would probably kill her. Cubist, or close enough to it to count. Funny thing was… she didn’t want them to kill her. Not anymore. But it wasn’t like she had a choice, right? With her head spinning and exhaustion setting in, she let the security guards lead her wherever they would… and blacked out, just as they were putting her in a car.
Elizabeth Jørgensen awoke not in a concrete cell, but in a soft bed. It smelled musty, like old wood and wallpaper. Smells drifted up from nearby… butter and bacon and eggs. Breakfast…
A glance out a nearby window showed no City streets, no block after block of brickwork and asphalt. Instead, she got to enjoy sunrise over the smallest apple orchard imaginable, so small it could barely be called an orchard. Beyond that… rolling green, trees, and hills. The Outlands.
The breakfast she’d sniffed made its way up the stairs, carried by a young girl who couldn’t be in her teens yet.
"Umm… hi, I’m Shauna. This for you, ma’am," the girl said, putting the tray at her bedside. "You’re supposed to rest today. You were really sick and need to take it easy." "Her eyes are so pretty and blue. Indigo, that’s my favorite color, they must be indigo. Not like mine. Mine aren’t pretty at all." "I’ll be back up later with your lunch. Do you want me to bring some books? We have a lot of good books here…" "Billy’s right. I’m not as cute as the other girls. Nobody’s gonna want to adopt me. I’ll never have a family again…"
Ellie watched the girl, curious. No music in her ears to drown out the girl’s woes; just the crackling of bacon. But as hungry as she was… she couldn’t focus on food. In fact, she couldn’t focus on anything, except for a strange little germ of an idea forming in her head…
She asked to meet Billy.
Billy, who was terrified that he’d never be adopted, either. It was clear to her ears, despite his stubbornness. Both of them suffering, just like Milly Frisk was, just like everybody did… Ellie wanted to give them both a hug, and tell them everything would be okay.
So, she did just that.
"You’ve got a gift for working with them," a voice didn’t speak behind her, after little Shauna and Billy ran off.
Despite the words not actually echoing through the air with proper physics, she heard them loud and clear. Turned to see… a mountain of a man, impressive and intimidating. But with a soft look in his eyes, a look which was hidden away behind stolen sunglasses one night prior, as part of his security disguise.
"They need your help. That’s why we brought you here," he continued, without moving his mouth. "Ever since they lost Grandma Scarlett, they’ve only had me. My name is Jeb, but I can’t even speak that name aloud. I also can’t hear their troubles in the way you can. You have a gift, young Elizabeth. You think it’s a curse, but we know you can turn it into a blessing if you’re willing to try."
She should be scared. She’d been kidnapped, brought to this strange place, by a man three times her size. But she felt no menace from him whatsoever… it wasn’t his fault he was born so huge, and so quiet. She could see past that, to the small voice inside. He cared for people, and without a single negative thought in his head to get in the way…
"You will be safe here; the Department of Safety is blind to this sanctuary," he promised, offering his hand. "No media. No fans. Nobody to manipulate and use you. Only the little ones. Grandma Scarlett saw your heart, knew you could be saved, knew that they could reach you. I was there simply to bring you the rest of the way. Happy Acre Orphanage needs someone like you, and we feel you could learn much here in turn. Help the little ones. Help yourself. Will you accept my offer, Miss Jørgensen…?"
Bewildering. Her entire world turned upside down in less than a day. A musical star and idol who craved death… now, a volunteer at an orphanage who sought to live. Such a drastic shift would throw anyone off kilter. Elizabeth Jørgensen had only known sorrow and pain all her life; how could she possibly be anything other than she was?
She couldn’t. Elizabeth was her father’s daughter, for all the good and ill that came with it. Ellie was the stepladder that Jonny Nobody trod upon, ever upwards towards fame and glory. El was the doomsaying oracle that Jack Hayes plugged into a machine of death. None of those girls could rise to this new life challenge.
She accepted the hand, shaking it. Jeb’s grip was surprisingly gentle.
"Please… call me Miss Indigo," she said. "It’s her favorite color."
One day after the incident at the stadium, and it was time for the victory party. It wasn’t like it was a true victory… there was still some kind of disaster at the stadium, people got hurt in the mass exodus from the building. But it was as good as they could’ve hoped for, considering the situation. Worth drinking to.
Despite the culture clash of the TroubleSolvers and Cass’s hipster buddies, the atmosphere inside the Greasemonkey was bright and cheerful. Penelope wasn’t drinking, of course—she’d actually snuck a beer or two in recent years, but didn’t get why everybody thought it was so great when it tasted and looked like pee. Her father was allowing himself a single beer, no more, no less… a limit he’d arranged with the bartender, just in case his willpower dipped. It did not dip.
Joining her in not drinking were Milly and Lucas, who were "studying at the library" and "at a bar with his friends," owing to their controlling and permissive parents, respectively. They enjoyed some bottled lemonade that Cass had found in a crate in the back room, instead.
Milly, Lucas, her father, Cass… almost everybody was there. Marcy and Gus, Vivi and Hollister. Beers all around for them. Funny, the way they’d arranged their chairs… two couples, not a foursome, and Marcy not sticking by Vivi’s side like glue. Penelope hadn’t been tracking the ongoing soap opera of the Wei Sisters quite so closely anymore, so it came as a bit of a surprise. Cass was there, telling stories about the various crazy deliveries she’d done during Grandma Scarlett’s teddy bear days; stories eaten up by the slightly inebriated crew of TroubleSolvers. Good friends, good times. Good fun.
There were absences, though. Miranda Walker chose not to come, despite an invitation extended by Penelope. She was too busy locking down the stadium, freshly quarantined; the media was also up her butt about the incident, asking what she knew beforehand, how she felt about her fears being justified, things like that.
Still… Walker sent a brief email to Penelope last night. Enough to make her stance on things clear.
I don’t know how you did it, and I don’t think I want to know. I’m under scrutiny here and should keep contact minimal. But for what it’s worth, you were right, and I was wrong. I will be in touch the next time some psychotic whacko tries to brainmelt my City. Until then please stay out of trouble and don’t become that psychotic whacko. It’d make my life easier. -Miranda
Good enough for Penelope.
Also missing, Kelsey and Dave. Kelsey was busy with TroubleSolvers business, someone who was apparently legally considered dead thanks to some database problems at the Department of Resources; all official channels were refusing to deal with the problem, so Kelsey was solving it with a digital crowbar. As for Dave, he was busy with the First Action Response Teams, which were crawling around the stadium dealing with a few new buildings that had inserted themselves in the area. Possible side effects of the reality breakdown? Who knew for sure.
Still, even with a few faces out of the roster, plenty of her friends were here. And Milly was thankfully not looking worse for wear.
"I wonder if we’ll ever see her again," Milly pondered, tracing a finger around the edge of her lemonade glass. "Ellie, I mean. She pulled me back before things got too weird, and I never got a chance to thank her…"
"Nobody knows where she went," Penelope said. "She might’ve vanished in the wave of probability, or some metaphysical mumbo jumbo like that. There’s a lot of rumors…"
"Wherever she is… I hope she’s happy. She deserves to have a happier life than the one she’s led so far. I—"
"Hey, hang on, hold that thought," Penelope interjected; a bit rude, but she just spotted an unexpected face and needed to go say hello to it. She pushed out the chair from her table, heading to the back of the bar to greet him…
Dave Smith didn’t even glance in her direction. He was taking in the scenery, looking a bit confused. Given the decor was like an exploding thrift shop, that seemed reasonable. Penelope wasn’t sure how she missed him coming in, but the bar was crowded, so that also seemed reasonable. Every explanation for this encounter seemed very, very reasonable.
"Dave! Hi!" she greeted. "I’m glad you could make it to the party!"
"What? Yes? Hello," Dave said, with his usual aura of discombobulation. "Yes. Hello. …it’s an interesting party, that’s for sure."
"I take it you just came off a work shift?" Penelope asked, studying his uniform. "Is that a new outfit? Nice green camo. I always thought the FARTs looked awful in those stupid brown jumpsuits…"
"Ah, yes, brown is stupid," he agreed. "Green’s much better. …so. How’s the party going so far, then?"
"Just great! I mean… we did it! We saved the City. It was touch-and-go, but… man. It really WAS touch-and-go. I haven’t told anyone just how touching and how going it was, honestly, Dave, but…" she allowed a little of that anxiety to creep back in, what she felt when Jack declared that she’d failed, so recently. Dave was her friend, and they’d shared deeply in the past. It made sense to talk to him about it. "I mean… just imagine it. Millions of people across the City could’ve died. The entire City could’ve gone away, if I’d guessed wrong about how things would go down. But we did it!"
"That’s a thing we did," Dave agreed, trying to make sense.
"Hey… we should hang out after this," Penelope suggested. "Catch up, you know? I was there when you got to the City, we’re old buddies. I hardly see you around, since you’re so busy…"
"Yeah, that’d be a lot of fun. Hey, look, I should probably get going; I mean, lots of people here, you should mix socially or something. …millions of people? Really?"
"Well, it’s a giant honking City, so I guess even the Department of Resources hasn’t been able to run an accurate population count, but… uh. Yeah. …okay. I’m gonna go mix socially now. I’ll see you later, right? Right."
Awkward. Awkward as hell, even by Dave Smith standards. Still, Penelope put it out of mind; all of them were a little off tonight, either from drinking or brushing inches away from nonexistence. It was perfectly reasonable, really. Perfectly so.
Setting aside wooden crates of lemonade, hands worked with busy fervor to find a single edge between two bricks. He knew it was there; he’d been briefed about what to look for. If it wasn’t there… well. If it wasn’t there, that would be that. But if it was there and he still didn’t come back, they’d figure it out eventually, wouldn’t they? They’d come for him. No. Better to go back, if he could go back. Safer, in the long run…
The edge between the bricks felt like nothing to his fingertips. The numb of a void. There.
All he had to do… was fit himself into the crack in the wall. An entire human body, in a space no wider than a man’s finger. Impossible, except that it wasn’t. The man slipped his self through the wall, the bleeding space between cities, emerging in the stale and familiar air that he had left behind not an hour ago…
They didn’t give him more than a moment before barking the order.
"Report," the gruff man with the pips on his shoulders demanded.
Private Dave Smith stood at attention, snapping off a salute.
"There’s a city on the other side, sir," he confirmed. "Millions of residents. There was some sort of crisis, but it’s passed now. From what I could see, they’re rich in resources. Um. Sir. …is that enough? I could go back if you wanted me to. Apparently my echo over there knows some important kid, and—"
"We’ll take it from here, soldier. You have proven your bravery and loyalty, and will be commended," the Commander replied. Without specifying how he’d be commended; it didn’t matter, and in fact, didn’t have to be followed up on in any way. He had more important concerns at the moment…
Namely, the one-eyed man in the shackles, working the controls of the machine.
"See? See? It’s just like I said," the wounded scientist spoke up, to point out his own loyalty. "Patient 23’s dream is on the other side of the bleed! The Dreamcatcher MRI back on Earth must’ve been heavily focused at one point on the building your soldier emerged into. Made a soft spot in her brain. We can exploit it, just like I promised. Just like I said. It’ll work! It will!"
"Relax, Doctor Hayes, I’m not going to take your other eye," the Commander stated. "You’ve made amends for past errors. …I’m tempted to move Citadel forces into this city right now, but I want more intel. We need a slow invasion… not another colossal cock-up like we had with your Patient 15. How long can you maintain this particular bleed…?"
"I can hold this bleed open, no problem, no problem at all," Jack Hayes insisted. "No problem. I can widen it. I can do anything you need me to do, you just say the word—"
But the Commander was tired of the prattling little man already. His mind was turning to the future.
An entire city of resources… exactly what they needed, if their Citadel was to stand against the enemy that surrounded them. Exactly what they needed if the resistance was to be finally crushed. If there was to be any hope for his city, any hope but a future of eternal war and death, this "cross-dream psionic bleed bridge" machine of the good doctor’s design would be the key…
Of course, if the Citadel was to stand, this new city would likely have to fall. A price he was more than willing to pay; this was a simple case of us-and-them, after all. Only his citizens, the ones he’d sworn to defend, mattered. Some phantom city on the other side of the wall could burn for all he cared.
But it would take time to burn down that city to the foundations; time to do it right, without wasting a single flake of precious ash it had to offer him. And if there was one thing Commander Gregory Yates had learned in all his years living in the Citadel, it was patience. All good things came to those who wait.
But wait, before you continue on to the next volume… there’s more to read in this one! Get two bonus short stories, author’s notes, and artist’s sketches in the vol//002: Echoes book!