city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //017: A Rival

Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to a hardware store that sells only hammers. No screwdrivers, no chisels, not even any nails—just hammers. You’d be surprised how many problems you can solve with a hammer if you really put your mind to it.

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…

Everybody likes to plan for their future. Graduate in this many years, pay off your student loan in that many years, get married and have kids in the meanwhile, things like that. It’s easy to think you know what’s coming around the corner when you’ve been focused on it like a laser for much of your early life.

But in the City of Angles, the corners are both obtuse and acute. You can walk down its sidewalks and end up somewhere wildly different from where you started, after only a few short steps. If you’re especially unlucky, you can step in an open manhole and have your entire world fall away, replaced by something terrifying and alien. Things like student loans, careers, and family become lesser concerns when facing down a whirling ball of madness that can strip flesh from bone at best, and the very sanity from your mind at worst.

Even for those who resolve to ride out the waves of chaos, embracing the wild nature of the City, there exists a darker menace than the City itself. A menace beyond the City, an external thing which lies beyond the shores of daydream and nightmare. It gnaws at the edges, jealous and hungry, waiting for the perfect moment to strike… because no matter how unpleasant you think your life may be in the City of Angles, it’s paradise compared to the living hells that lurk beyond a shadow’s width. Even demons want to crawl out from the pit and find something better, in the end.

When that primeval force comes into contact with everything you know and hold dear, it’s even more difficult to say where the road will take you. The best you can do is hold on to what you have, and fight for what you believe in… without losing who you are along the way. Because there’s a distinct difference between fighting for a belief, and fighting to survive. It’s very possible to win one fight and not the other. As you gaze into the eyes of a demon and find something very familiar within them, will your ideals fall away? Or will you find a way to stand true?

gregory yates
//017: A Rival

---

Speeding along on two square wheels, down a path that didn’t exist towards a house that wanted to exist. Rose-red cape and hood flapping behind her, as the plastic motor chugged away with a crackly little putt-putt noise.

The hood felt appropriate, considering her destination and her cargo. She held a basket of goodies under one arm, in the form of fond memories of tea cookies she’d snacked during a particularly lengthy Sideways crawl. Those memories became a rainbow-sprinkled array of shortbread inside this place, just as tasty as the day she ate them more than three years previous.

…three years. Those cookies were from a time shortly before finding Dave Smith, actually. They were tracking down rumors of a room deep within the Sideways where you could pick up an infinite supply of cookies, a sunken repeating bakery. Didn’t turn out to be true, but the delights at the end of that rainbow were plenty delicious, and promptly devoured in the name of science.

Those were halcyon days, indeed… every day a new adventure into the depths of the City of Angles. Even the darkest and grimmest corners held a mysterious beauty, discarded dreams of Earth cities she’d never visited directly. By setting foot in those silent corridors, she could walk through the hopes of a thousand and one architects, and never, ever get bored of what she saw…

Three years since she last seriously explored the Sideways. Three years since the Heart of the City, the culmination of her journey. After that discovery, well, the Sideways didn’t hold as much appeal, did they? Penelope Yates had found what she was always searching for: the hidden truth behind the nonsense of the City. Having retrieved the hospital bracelet of Patient 23, the sleeper who wore her face, it was then time to focus on the surface world. Time to put aside childish things, grow up, make something of her life… even at the semi-tender age of sixteen she felt the responsibility of adulthood bearing down on her.

Arguably, making something of her life was the reasoning behind today’s journey, riding a moped made of plastic building bricks down the long and winding forest trail. Understanding herself and her City in a new light was her goal, now. Every time she visited Grandmother’s house, she felt a bit closer to some realization regarding the nature of this world and her place within it. Only fair to offer up a sacrifice of tea cookies in exchange for that forbidden research, yes? And the little red riding hood she decided to wear felt, as noted, very appropriate.

The motorized scooter rolled to a halt in front of the hazy candy-house, little pegged building bricks falling away as she dismounted. She could rebuild it for the ride back… maybe make a bicycle this time, or a car. Penelope was hoping to get a driver’s license soon, actually, maybe even a car. It was a point of contention in the Yates house, given how risky driving was. No matter how much of an understanding they’d come to over the years, they were still father and daughter, and that meant some things would require debate.

Knocking on the door, using one of the three knockers available. Sometimes there were two, sometimes only one. Penelope didn’t mind using a door knocker which was or was not there. Everything was or was not here, after all. It only solidified properly when she focused on it, like the building-block moped. Like the tea cookies; pulled from her memories, made real.

Thought and reality, one and the same. Life is but a dream…

Of course, that described the entire City of Angles. That was the grand mystery she found in its Heart; everything she knew to be real was actually a dream. Although "actually" wasn’t right, it was real, AND it was a dream. Being a dream didn’t make it any less real. As terrifying as the idea may be that the world is imaginary, that didn’t negate the fact that the world was the world, people lived here, and people died here. It was what it was, and the more Penelope learned to live with that fact, the happier she was. The happier she hoped everybody could be.

But while the City shifted and moved at the whims of what was likely Patient 23’s subconscious… this particular spot in the middle of the City worked under even looser rules. A little over one year ago today, a concert was held here. One year ago, thousands and thousands of people gathered and united their minds as one, to ask the question: What if this world could be whatever we wanted it to be?

Granted, the original question was supposed to be what if this world went away. With the goal being to make the world, well, go away. But when the question changed, so did the results. Something Penelope couldn’t have predicted, not in a million years, transformed this pocket of her City in very strange and beautiful ways.

Thousands of minds, linked into the same dream, the same thought. Instantly, Memorial Stadium became a place which could be whatever you wanted it to be…

…and then everybody ran away screaming. The Department of Safety immediately locked the building down, to keep people from ever coming back. The City wasn’t quite ready for that sort of revelation, not yet. But Penelope hoped that one day, they would be ready to embrace it. If there was going to be an end to suffering, it would come from accepting the true nature of the dreamlike City, rather than trying to force it to be something it was not.

Each time she came here, it was for research purposes. To better understand her city, to better understand herself. It helped that she had a good friend to visit, someone who had chosen the infinite possibilities of this patch of dream as her retirement home.

The door to Grandmother’s house swung open on its own. Why would anybody need to open it? Why would there need to be a door at all, for that matter? So there was no door, and that counted as being open.

"Come in, come in," Grandma Scarlett spoke, offering a warm smile to her visitor. "Ohhh my, you’ve grown! How long has it been…?"

"Just two months," Penelope said, hanging her riding hood on a coat rack by the door, before stepping into the living room proper. "Longer than I planned, though. I’d be coming by more often, but there’s this whole ridiculous process I gotta go through now to get authorization… Doctor Kit and Carl are insisting on a full medical work-up before and after exiting the structure. Seems Department of Safety’s been clamping down harder and harder, even on my visits…"

"Ah yes, the ‘Memorial Stadium Exclusionary Zone,’" Scarlett recalled, musing the silly name while a cup brimming over with tea hovered in place before her. "It’s really a shame that they won’t let anyone else in. Well. People manage to find a way in, all the same. I had a lovely couple over for dinner a week ago, before those nasty men wearing sensory filters stormed my front door and pulled them out—"

"You are out of biscuits, Miss Scarlett."

The familiar voice made Penelope’s skin crawl. Fortunately not in a literal sense, given that a literal crawling of skin was entirely possible here. Familiar because it was her own voice, but as coming from a distant land and across a vast ocean…

The young lady in 1910s finery floated in from the kitchen, sipping at her own teacup. She didn’t need to walk, so she didn’t. Settled into a chair all the same, because it’s polite to sit in chairs when taking tea with your host. Gazed coolly over the top of her cup at the other guest, the one who wore her face…

"The Lucid child," Echo recognized.

"Tch, hardly a child anymore, is she?" Scarlett spoke, with a smile. "And neither are you, Echo dear. All three of you are growing alongside her. Blossoming into lovely young women, all of you…"

"A matter of reflective self-image, and nothing more. We are as old as this City itself," Echo corrected. "That Bedlam and I should pattern ourselves after this living incarnation of our third is only an extension of that illusion. An extension of the illusion that is the City of Angles, for that matter. All part of my dream, nothing more…"

"Part of our dream, you mean," Penelope grumbled.

"Let’s not argue about who dreamed whom. Ultimately, the true dreamer will be the one who wins our conflict of wills. I haven’t given up on helping this City and all the poor souls trapped within it find peace."

"Why does it have to be a matter of winning and losing, though?" Penelope asked, directly addressing her counterpart. "This isn’t a war, Echo. As long as everybody in the City can live happily ever after, all three of us ‘win.’"

"I fail to grasp how we are not at odds over this. You want them to live, to struggle and suffer. I want them to find their just and rightful rest. There is no common ground."

"Look at this place," Penelope offered. "Grandmother’s house, Memorial Stadium, the Exclusionary Zone, whatever you wanna call it. It’s… anything. Anything and everything! There wouldn’t have to be struggling and suffering, if the City was more like this. People could live anywhere they wanted to live, have all the food and water they needed, do anything they wanted to do. It’d be perfect!"

"And yet, they won’t accept this. You can, I can, Grandma Scarlett can. They are not us, they don’t stand where we stand—"

Sip.

Somehow, that tiny slurping noise was louder than a thunder crack. A very polite thunder crack.

"Mmmm. Finest blend I’ve ever had," Scarlett spoke, before reaching to sample one of Penelope’s cookies. Took her time to enjoy the sugary treat, before continuing. "There’s really no need to debate, girls. It’s a pleasant day, one of hope and promise for the future. Why can’t you enjoy it for what it is? It’s been so long since I saw your sister, Echo, I’d really like to play catch-up before we bring politics to the table. Focus on humanity, not philosophy. …I know! Why don’t we change the scenery a bit, to freshen things up?"

A fluffy white and blue dress, almost cartoony in its simplicity. Her chair was a finely wrought thing of iron, Victorian in style. Still a tea party, of course, but now in the open air amidst the trees and flowers and mushrooms. A kettle, dancing about in the center near that little plastic box of cookie-memories Penelope had bought… now fetched up by the elderly woman with the top hat, to pour a cup for Echo the Dormouse.

"Much better," Scarlett the Hatter suggested. "It’s quite a silly City, therefore it’s only appropriate for my particular corner of it to be equally silly. Silly, and still very mysterious. If we’re very good, perhaps Bedlam will play the Cheshire Cat. …now then, little Alice. The time has come to talk of many things, of shoes, and ships, and… and… well, I’m afraid the rest of the quote’s quite slipped my memory. Many memories slip when you’re a living memory yourself, I find…"

Penelope settled into her chair, fetching a fresh cookie for herself. Actually quite thankful to get away from the philosophical debate for a moment. Even if Grandma Scarlett’s continued existence represented a philosophical debate in and of itself.

"Tell me of the outside world," Scarlett requested. "Let’s connect what could be to what is. How fare my still-living friends? Since settling in here to enjoy my golden time with the other notions and ideas, I’ve drifted quite far from mortal concerns. It’s nice to know how my dears are getting on. How is our Dave, for example?"

"He’s heading up his FART team now," Penelope in Wonderland spoke, even though ‘FART Team’ was a tautology and didn’t need an extra ‘Team’ appended to the end. "The TroubleSolvers don’t really pull in a lot of money, so he’s hoping the promotion will help them finally move out of that old apartment of theirs. It’s not really a great place to raise little Risky. —Riley, I mean."

"Danger, Trouble, and Risk. Mmm. A very appropriate trinity," Scarlett suggested, tipping her own hat to the idea. "Still doing babysitting for them, then?"

"Yeah. I’m about the only person who can babysit that kid. …she’s figured out how to get out of her crib by phasing through it. It’s becoming kind of a problem."

"A new child for a new age. Seems very fitting. Let’s see, who else, who else… ah. I know Echo will want to know this, even if she’d never dare ask. Is my old orphanage continuing to thrive under new management? …and is Safety still unaware of its matriarch’s true nature?"

Penelope held up two fingers in promise. "Kept my word. Ellie’s… ah, Indigo, I mean… she’s doing fine. She gets along well with the children; it’s like she’s really found her true calling…"

Echo wiggled her mousy nose. "At least there is some peace in this world for my friend," she said. "Even if she turned her back on me in the end, I care for her well-being. I trust you will continue to look after her, Lucid child."

"Absolutely," Penelope agreed, thankful there was at least one thing the two of them could agree on.

Of course… if they were talking about friends, one topic would have to be breached. One Grandma Scarlett wouldn’t be happy to hear. Penelope almost abandoned this visit to Memorial Stadium in response, but given how difficult it had been to arrange the trip, they’d agreed she should go ahead with it despite the circumstances. And, well… no point putting it off any longer.

Penelope set her cookie down, uneaten. Even the tasty memory of sweets long past wouldn’t bring sweet relief on this day.

"As long as we’re catching up on current events… you’ll want to know about Cass," she said. "Although there’s not much to tell, not yet. Dad’s looking into things while I’m here today, but… well…"

"Mmm? Is something afoot with my young poet friend?" Scarlett asked, curious.

"That’s the thing. We don’t know," Penelope admitted. "She’s gone missing."

---

Seeing Gregory Yates on the job was a different experience from seeing him off the job. The distinction was clear to Reg, who had the advantage of both perspectives.

The Greasemonkey had played host to a few social get-togethers involving Gregory Yates—despite the middle-aged fellow’s inability to blend in with the hipster set, he’d been settling in nicely, making the Greasemonkey his preferred bar once more since the Seventh Street Scavengers originally abandoned it. Each time, he’d have a single beer… no more, no less. Moderation suits me in my old age, he’d once explained. Even with one pint in his system, he’d be a bit more free and open than he was by day… enchanting the younger folk with tales from the glory days, which universally ended in visits to the emergency room or the local police precinct or more often, both.

But by day, Gregory was another animal entirely. Lean and sharp, like a bayonet. No real menace or aggression to him, but there was a perpetual promise that if called upon to be aggressively menacing it would be very short and to the point. Someone you did not want to be at the business end of, but were thankful to do business with all the same.

Business like the business of where his best friend in the world had gone off to.

Often, folks mistook Reg and Cass for lovers. An easy mistake, given the amount of time they spent together, and the artistic spheres they orbited regularly. Really though, they couldn’t be any more different… man / woman, black / white, organized / sloppy, businesslike / creative, high society / lower middle class. Not to mention straight / gay, which put a rather large stake in the heart of any possible "Regcass" or "Cassreg" ship.

Those differences were the key to their friendship, Reg found; each could see what the other could not. She was a familiar and welcome sight at his latest fiasco, this renovated bar out in the middle of the slums. Except, well, she wasn’t visible here anymore. Because she was gone.

"Department of Safety says they won’t consider her officially missing until it’s been twenty-four hours," Reg explained. "And I know damn well how they treat missing person cases; nine times out of ten they do some poking around, presume the victim fell into the Sideways, and then close the case. Especially out here on Seventh Street, where nobody cares if you live or die…"

"Aren’t you rich?" Gregory asked, from his seat at the bar. (Just for momentary comfort. No single beer for him while on the job as a security consultant for the TroubleSolvers.) "Rich people tend to get priority, especially if they have pull with Resources…"

"My family is rich. I myself am… invested," Reg explained. "Invested in ventures like the Greasemonkey, the art gallery upstairs, a few zines and start-ups around town, and so on. Any money I make goes right back into the scene. I don’t have any pull worth note, except within that scene."

"Right. So, why do you think she’s missing?" Gregory asked. "I’m not doubting you, understand. I just need the facts."

"Because she said she was going to be here when I opened up for the morning," Reg explained. "Cass had suspected someone was breaking into the place recently. Little things, like missing items, or chairs out of place from where we left them after lockup. We changed the lock, but she still had suspicions someone was trespassing. I suggested installing a security camera, but she figured it’d be cheaper if she just staked the place out last night to see who popped by. …what? You got an idea?"

Of course, Gregory’s distant and thoughtful look very much resembled his usual vigilant look, so Reg couldn’t tell for sure. But it seemed confirmed, when the man paused a moment before responding. "Possibly," he said. "But go on. Particularly about your intruder. Did you think there was anything to it?"

"I don’t know. Maybe? Cass isn’t exactly a neat freak, but she’s got an eye for detail. If she says a table’s out of place or the door jamb’s draftier than usual, I believe her. …look, point is, she stayed after lock-up last night and should’ve been here this morning. She wasn’t. She’s not answering her phone, isn’t replying to texts, hasn’t read her email. We’ve got navigation tracking permissions on each other’s phones ever since that time I got lost in the Suburbs and she had to talk me through getting back to the City, and as far as the app’s concerned… she’s not even IN the City anymore."

There, again. That distant look, like he wasn’t really looking at Reg anymore. Reg craned his neck, trying to catch the glance…

"Look… be straight with me, okay?" Reg asked. "Is Cass trapped in the Sideways? I’ve had this building for a year and a half now, had it certified as clean the day I bought it; no gaps, no Sideways entrances. But then again… she told me that the night you first came here, something crazy went down. The whole building went Sideways, and then back to normal again an hour later. That’s why I thought to call you, honestly. Do you think it’s related…?"

Gregory came off his bar stool, ready to move.

"I’m going to need to explore a bit to know for sure," he said. "So, you were the last person to see her, right?"

"Me? No, I was busy at a gallery launch across town. Paulie saw her last."

"Paulie? Paulie who, exactly…?"

---

Gregory immediately did not like Paulie.

Not that there was anything objectionable about Paulie. He didn’t look like a cartoonish villain; just an ordinary guy with an ordinary job, keeping the numerous offices and storage rooms and unused spaces of the building relatively tidy. Average height, average looks, average facial expressions of averageness. Honestly, Reg mostly forgot about Paulie loitering around in the background, having hired him to specifically take care of the background. Seemed a simple enough fellow when he stepped up months ago, willing to do a lousy job for what little pay Reg could manage, which was enough to get hired on.

And yet, Gregory eyed him the way someone would eye a two-dollar steak. Didn’t matter how juicy it looked… you wanted to make absolutely sure it was edible before putting it in your mouth. Make sure there wasn’t a cockroach stuck to the bottom or anything like that.

"She was here when I locked up," Paulie said. "Like I told Reg, I dunno where she we went after that. When we opened up for the morning the door was still locked, but nobody was here. I’ve checked all the rooms, even the unused ones, but nobody’s around."

"I checked the rooms too," Reg spoke up. "It’s like he says. Cass is nowhere to be found."

"When did you take this job?" Gregory asked, shifting topics quickly.

"Six months and three weeks ago," Paulie responded immediately.

"Like this job, then?"

"Pays the bills."

"Where do you live?"

"The Buckles, outside Crossway Points."

"Bit of a commute to Seventh Street, isn’t it?"

"Had to get a place I could afford, and a job that’d pay for it."

"And this job would pay exactly enough for an apartment in the Buckles."

"It’s a decent living."

"You know Kerouac?"

"Can’t say I’ve met the man," Paulie spoke.

Now, Reg felt the need to step in, as the two rapidly and calmly exchanged information.

"Uh, look, Gregory, he’s not part of the poet crowd but trust me on this, he’s cool," Reg explained. "Paulie’s been reliable and really helped me keep this ship running, y’know? Folks like him."

"Making himself very useful around here," Gregory agreed… eyes glancing around, without moving his head in the slightest, then locking back on the janitor. "Very tidy. See, when you’ve got a storage room of boxes and crates like this with wooden rafters above in a creaky old building… it’s bound to get messy. Last time I was back here, there was dust everywhere. Now? Not a speck. Impressive. Normally, there’d be an obvious a track running between the shelves and the door—footprints in the dust. Handily enough, there’s no footprints, because there’s no dust."

"I do my best," Paulie spoke immediately.

"This building has dozens of rooms, but only a few on the top and bottom floors have any business purpose. Do you scour them all as efficiently as you scour this one?" Gregory asked. "I glanced in a few as I was passing by, even rooms currently in use, and I saw a few cobwebs. If you’re doing your best, why would you pay such special attention to THIS room, and not those…?"

"The Greasemonkey keeps its fine spirits and liquors back here," the janitor explained, having an answer at the ready. "Seems more important to keep this room clean compared to an unused back office—"

"Why are you carrying a gun?"

"Can’t say the Buckles are always the safest place to be."

"Wait, wait, whoa. What?" Reg interrupted. "Gregory, man, don’t be paranoid. Paulie doesn’t have a—"

"It’s in a concealed holster. Hard to tell with that baggy jumpsuit, but I know the outline by heart," Gregory stated. "Did you get a concealed carry permit for that from the Department of Safety, Paulie? I know when I put in the paperwork for mine, it was a heck of a thing to get them to approve it, especially since I’m not a native. You a native or an import, Paulie?"

"Import," he offered. "Just trying to make my way in the City."

"An import? I see. There’s a few wars going on over on Earth, right? Over in the Middle East. Did you learn to use that piece in the army? Or are you just something of a gun nut?"

And Reg put his foot down. Figuratively, since he was still standing upright.

"Okay, look, that’s enough of that," he protested. "Gregory? Can I bend your ear for a moment? Out in the hallway, if you please."

For a moment… Reg didn’t think Gregory would be moving from that spot, as the janitor and the bodyguard glared each other down. So, he walked right out of the room on his own, waiting for Gregory to join him. Fortunately, the elder Yates did finally break the staring contest, walking the twelve feet needed to join Reg.

"…Gregory, look, I called you in because you know how the Sideways works, and I suspected this was a Sideways thing," Reg explained. "I seriously doubt my janitor is some crazy kidnapper, okay? If he wanted to grab Cass he’s had months to do it. I mean, what makes you think he’s responsible? Because he has a gun? He’s right, the Buckles are a bad part of town. I wouldn’t blame him for wanting to defend himself—"

"Which is the reason why he lives there. It gives him the perfect excuse to take a job with exactly this salary, and carry a gun," Gregory explained, keeping his voice low so the janitor wouldn’t overhear. "Okay. I’ll admit, I don’t know for sure he’s involved in this. But… the weird Sideways-like thing that happened here last time, it had distinct military overtones. He’s got the feel of a soldier to me, someone trained to deal with interrogations, with exactly the right answers. Maybe Paulie’s not involved. But I don’t trust him, all the same."

"So what do you propose we do? Waterboard the guy?" Reg asked. "Work him over under the hot lights, film noir style? C’mon, Gregory."

"I’m not saying that we…"

Trailing off, as he looked back to where the janitor was standing. Where he wasn’t standing any longer. In fact, he had vanished completely.

Immediately Gregory stormed into the small storage room. Scanning for windows, other doors, air vents, any sort of exit. Nothing. No way in or out other than the door, the same door they had been loitering outside…

"Lock the building down," Gregory ordered. "This room in particular. Barricade the door, if you can. I’m calling in Johnny the Icepick to help guard the place. He’ll be here within ten minutes. And I’ll be back with Penelope within the hour; she might be able to figure out exactly what’s going on in here."

Ice down Reg’s spine, as he still instinctively looked around for the missing Paulie. "Oh, crap. Is… is it a Sideways entrance? Did Paulie fall into it? Or… did he drag Cass into it last night…?"

"I don’t know, exactly. Something’s going on, regardless," Gregory said. "Shut the place down, block off this hallway, wait for Johnny. I need to go pick up my daughter from Memorial Stadium… but I promise you, we’ll be back. And we’ll get to the bottom of this."

---

Much louder, on the other side of the bleed. The machinery keeping the bridge open was a noisy bastard of a beast, a strange array of sonic generators and electric coils and lord knows what else. The agent hadn’t bothered asking how it all worked, because only two people were allowed to know that… the man who built it, and the man who held his leash. The man with his hand on all the leashes. Even his own.

Granted, the agent wasn’t expecting to find that man waiting for him on the other side. Normally he stayed in his office at the Bulwark, busy directing the war efforts… not down here in the labs.

"Report," the Commander spoke.

Immediately, Agent Paulino snapped to attention, saluting sharply. Even if he was about to deliver bad news, he had to present it with formal professionalism.

"It’s as you predicted; taking the woman resulted in drawing the attention of your counterpart," Paulino spoke. "It was sloppy on our part to be seen traversing the bleed by her. I blame Sergeant Briggs, who insisted on moving through a full unit without—"

"You can spare me the ass-covering blame game, soldier. I’ve already dealt with Briggs," his Commander stated. "What exactly does Mr. Yates suspect?"

"He had suspicions about my cover story. Identified my weapon. He was about to convince the bar owner not to trust me."

"I see. And… you stepped right back through the bleed, confirming all his suspicions."

Paulino had a prepared excuse at the ready, but couldn’t offer it on account of the hole made in his head.

What a goddamn mess, Commander Gregory Yates thought, after holstering his sidearm. Not about the body or the rapidly spreading pool of blood; that could be easily cleaned up, and in fact was being cleaned up not less than ten seconds after Agent Paulino hit the floor. No, the real mess was his carefully planned timetable… one which was about to move up quite a bit.

Still, better early than never. He’d put it off for a year now… a full year of the Enemy growing in strength, growing bolder and bolder. The sooner the City of Angles started spilling blood on the Citadel’s behalf, the better.

---

Afterimages in her eyes, trailing colored weirdness. What a nuisance. Penelope wasn’t sure what medical value could be derived from shining a penlight in someone’s eyes, but presumably Doctor Kit Hearth was getting some sort of useful data out of it.

"Any strange lingering smells or tastes?" the Doctor asked. "Any continuing and sourceless sensations on your skin…?"

"I’m fine, doc," Penelope insisted. "Nothing weird is going on."

"Oh, lots of weird things are going on in there. The question is whether or not they continue to be weird out here," Doctor Kit stated, tapping a few virtual buttons on her tablet’s screen. "We’ve had to expand the Exclusion Zone to cover a few additional buildings, some of the new ones that arrived with the event. Miss Walker is concerned about the spread the effects may be undertaking…"

Penelope had to remind herself that while she wasn’t afraid of the dreamlike space within Memorial Stadium, plenty of people in the City would be. And why wouldn’t they be afraid? For a century they’d been desperately clinging to memories of that tired old planet Earth, hoping against hope for a stable and sensible life. When the only example you had of limitless possibility was a Picasso, someone completely lost inside that limitless possibility, any normal person would be terrified…

The Department of Safety had converted this franchised pizza restaurant to a makeshift research outpost, on the edge of the Exclusionary Zone. Staffed around the clock with specialists like Doctor Kit and Carl Matthews, people tuned into the weirdness of the city… as well as men with guns and sensory filters, who were deliberately tuned out of the weirdness. Each had their own purpose; one team to investigate the strange, another team to blow the strange away with shotguns and flamethrowers if it threatened to overtake normality.

"Did you meet with Anomaly Three while you were in there?" Kit wondered.

"She has a name, you know. It’s Scarlett."

"Yes, well, afraid for data tracking purposes I have to call her Anomaly Three. Much as I need to call you Anomaly One in my notes," Kit replied, setting her tablet aside for now. "Hmm. So curious. Someone dead, but alive. Living memories in the metadream! Fascinating! I have to wonder if anyone could do the same, willfully denying the mortal coil…? Not that I’d be willing to kill myself to check. …although… well, no, I suppose it’s still not worth the risk…"

The metadream. The other big revelation to come out of the ‘event’ as the good doctor put it.

It explained much about the City of Angles, the way it represented the collective unconscious of an entire nation. Ideas of buildings and people, trickling through into Patient 23, given new life within her dream. Within Penelope’s dream. A revelation that went well beyond the existential terror of the Echo Revelation; was anything really real here? If everything was a dream, what did life or death really mean here…?

Well. To Penelope, it didn’t make a lick of difference. The City was real to her, and the people here mattered greatly. But she couldn’t trust that everyone would see matters as she saw them. All she could do was speak truth to those she trusted with the truth.

In fact, once everything calmed down… she told Miranda Walker the big secret that lay at the Heart of the City. It was a calculated risk; Miranda walked the line between wanting to be an ethical leader and a ruthless pragmatist. If she knew the extent of Penelope’s importance to the City, it could mean the teenager spending the rest of her days in a padded cell, poked at by specialists like Doctor Kit. In the end, she decided that in the wake of Memorial Stadium, it was too important that Miranda Walker know the truth of what she was really facing.

Not that Penelope hadn’t taken precautions. She spoke her truth over the phone, while sitting in Cass’s box truck with her father… ready to put the pedal down and head to any number of safe houses should Miranda come after her. Fortunately Miranda ultimately decided that threatening one of the three primeval forces that controlled the City would be inadvisable. Instead… she allowed Penelope access to the Exclusionary Zone, in exchange for the useful data they’d get out of it. Data about Anomaly One, aka Penelope Yates. (Her best friend Milly had the dubious honor of being Anomaly Two.)

"This is all so silly," Penelope grumbled, a bit annoyed at the thought. "You can call me by my name, you know—"

"Nooo, no, we can’t," Kit interrupted… glancing to one of the helmeted men standing at the ready, shotgun loaded. A pair of tiny black squares were keeping him from looking directly at Penelope, with audio filters blocking out her voice. "I mean, I can, technically. Carl can. Miranda can. But otherwise, we need to keep any records regarding you scrubbed clean. I haven’t ruled out the possibility that you could pose a memetic hazard to the unprepared… and, well, after Resources started poking their nose in our files, we’d rather not have your name pop up in any City Council reports, yes? Got to scrub our files clean of any identifiers. Better this way. Better for you, better for us."

"But you guys can’t seriously think people will hide from the truth forever, right? I didn’t tell you guys about the dream so you could lock it away, I wanted your help exploring and understanding this!"

"And we are! And we’re getting SUCH interesting findings out of that exploration. But surely you realize the City isn’t quite prepared for another grand revelation. Carl’s concerned that another panic event could trigger a City-wide disaster… like that hurricane two years ago. Or like the one Jack Hayes tried to instigate. If thought and reality are one, truly one… we need to keep those thoughts nice and stable. No shocking truths, not yet! Baby steps, Little Miss Anomaly. Baby steps."

The young explorer was about to protest… but Kit had inadvertently wrapped around to her first thought. The City indeed wasn’t ready, and would be terrified. Youthful idealism was pleasant, but she had to be an adult about this.

Much like the adult who burst through the double doors of the gutted pizza restaurant, ignoring the security guards who were about to rebuke him. He had authorization to be in this checkpoint, even if he couldn’t enter the zone proper, but he was technically supposed to undergo a full body search before barging in.

"We’re leaving," Gregory Yates declared. "Penelope, grab your things. We’ve got to go; something’s wrong at the Greasemonkey."

Thankful for an end to the medical poking and prodding, Penelope retrieved her backpack from a nearby table—careful not to knock her tablet onto the floor in the process.

She’d left her tablet on and propped up against the backpack, livestreaming the FPS grand championships for Maslow Academy. Watching the game filled the empty moments in the Doctor’s examination; Penelope had friends on her online school’s team, and was quite hopeful for a victory. In fact, she’d decided to leave the stream rolling despite these rapid new developments, even as she got ready to leave.

"Yeah, got it, ready to go when you are," she replied quickly, after glancing at the screen. "Is it Cass? Did you find her?"

"No. But I’ve got a bad idea of where she might be," Gregory replied. "Doctor, this may interest your team as well. I may have issues with how Safety does things, but honestly, I think I want Safety along for this particular ride. There’s… some sort of invisible entrance to a place which might not be the Sideways, and—"

"Dad."

Something about the leaden way Penelope spoke brought Gregory’s attention around.

"The Greasemonkey. It’s… on the news," his daughter explained, turning her tablet around so he could see. "There’s an emergency broadcast. Broke in over my game stream. The… the building’s surrounded by guys with guns…"

Hard to make out the details, even over a high-definition transmission… but the multistory building at the corner of Seventh Street and Avenue Z indeed had men in green surrounding it. Taking cover behind newspaper dispensers, bus stops, trash cans. Carbines at the ready, helmets on… siege warfare, guarding the Greasemonkey. They looked like tiny toy soldiers from this perspective, courtesy of a liveblogger pointing their camera out a fourth story window one block away…

Soldiers. Armed soldiers with fully automatic weapons.

The City of Angles had no army. When you’re the only "nation" around, there’s no need for a standing army. They had cops, they had Picasso-control riot squads, but no army in any traditional sense. Not like the one entrenched in the building that used to be Gregory’s favorite watering hole…

---

It was all over in less than a minute.

They broke through the makeshift barricade Johnny the Icepick had made using unused office furniture. When Johnny came after one of them with his signature weapon, they put a hole in him. And then when he wouldn’t go down, they put another hole in him. That proved to be enough to piss the guy off and call a halt to his assault, but still not enough to put the man down.

Instead, he was forced to kneel with his hands behind his head, while bleeding from wounds to his leg and shoulder. Kneeling right next to Reg, who couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. Both of them held at gunpoint, while the armed forces in the green camo secured the Greasemonkey as their own turf.

"Look, this has got to be a mix-up," Reg tried to reason, despite having surrendered already. "I don’t know what, like, historical reenactment group you guys are with but—"

"Reg. Shh."

That from the surprisingly stylish older gentleman with the wispy moustache and two bullets in him. Given he seemed to know what he was doing, Reg decided to take the Icepick’s lead on this one and properly shh up.

On the plus side, they probably weren’t about to be executed by this bunch of crazy supercharged paintball enthusiasts. Even after coming at them with a shiv, they hadn’t flat out wasted the guy that Gregory sent along to protect him. Presumably the two were more valuable alive than dead. (Reg certainly was. He wasn’t too proud to play the rich boy card if it came to that.) But they weren’t important enough to merit more than a single guard while the rest of the platoon swept through the building, securing it.

This left Reg in a pickle. He chose not to embrace the pants-wetting terror of the moment, instead trying to figure out what the hell was going on, exactly. He wanted to speak up, but figured if he did, it’d just mean digging himself in deeper. He wanted to make a break for it when their one guard was distracted, but… well, bullets have a maximum range considerably farther than he could sprint in five seconds. He was, for all intents and purposes, quite stuck in this situation…

Salvation finally walked out of the back hallway.

"Gregory, man, I am glad to see you," Reg spoke, recognizing a familiar face. "What’s going on here? Is the Department of Safety on the way? …what the hell are you wearing, anyway?"

To add to his confusion, a man with an extensive radio kit on his back walked up to Gregory Yates… and snapped a firm salute.

"Report," Gregory demanded.

"Building secure, sir," he declared. "Communications established with City Hall. The director of the Department of Resources is making final arrangements. …uh, and I quote directly here, ‘You could have at least called ahead before barging in the door.’ His words, sir, not mine."

"At ease, soldier. Their ways aren’t ours; they don’t know proper protocols, or proper respect. But they’ll learn. Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do first—"

"Gregory? Gregory Yates? Hello! Over here? Yoohoo…?"

Ah, right. The civilians.

Commander Yates turned to face them… the one who was under various mistaken assumptions, notably. The other one had the look of a soldier about him, one who didn’t know what was going on but had enough of an idea not to assume anything. Good man. Strong.

"Reg, is it?" the Commander asked. "I’m commandeering your property to establish my new embassy. If you have a complaint, you can register it with the Department of Resources, who will undoubtedly be happy to provide legal annexation paperwork once they finish signing it. I understand my men had a bit of a scuffle with your… rather large friend. I’ve called for emergency medical help; an ambulance will be by shortly. You’ll be leaving on it as well. Do you have any personal effects in the building you’d like to take with you? Since you won’t be coming back here."

As the Commander really didn’t have time for lengthy stunned silences, he turned to his communications officer to finish up this little encounter.

"One way or another, put ’em both in the ambulance when it arrives," he ordered. "But no violence. Bad enough you idiots shot one of them, but at least you didn’t shoot the black guy. I don’t want our arrival to be marred by a hate crime all over their newspaper headlines. Now, I’ve got a date with City Hall."

His business done here, the Commander adjusted his lapels a bit, ensuring his formal military dress was perfectly arranged. There were going to be cameras out there, and he had to look his best for them. Striding towards the door, the soldiers made a hole for him, two taking up flanking positions to escort him to his destination.

Reg was about to finally protest, having gotten past the absolute confusion that blindsided him. Johnny cut him off.

"That wasn’t the Gregory we know," Johnny mumbled to him, a stage whisper. "Don’t screw with these guys. We’ll go to the hospital and then get in touch with our Gregory. Don’t panic. We’ll figure this out. …these guys are gonna regret moving on Seventh Street."

Honestly, it had slipped Reg’s mind that his little hipster hangout was in the middle of gang territory for a bunch of retired thugs. Retired, but still extremely dangerous thugs. Although… what good would a scrappy bunch of punks, particularly middle-aged punks, be against an army?

An army, in the City of Angles.

Even in his wildest imagination, Reg couldn’t let the word "war" float to the forefront of his mind. It was unthinkable. So, he didn’t think about it.

---

If there were other patients, at least twenty-two other patients, there might be other cities. It was a distinct possibility, according to the private think tank of Miranda Walker, head of the Department of Safety. And if there were other cities… there was no promise that they would be friendly, or that they would be forever separate from her own City.

That didn’t mean she’d planned for the inevitability of invasion, but when it did happen, she was ready to swing into action. Even if the media picked up on the event before her own eyes and ears within the City, Miranda had no intention of letting this escalate into a full-blown state of war. In fact, she had six anti-Picasso teams ready to go—closest thing she had to military units, unfortunately—when she was interrupted.

"Stand down," the man who barged into her City Hall office commanded. "Cancel any orders you’ve already issued. I’m guessing you’re in a state of panic, Miss Walker, but there’s no need. Stand down. Everything is under control."

Normally Miranda would cheerfully snap off something snarky and cruel at the person suggesting anything whatsoever was under control. Unfortunately, that person was higher than her on the food chain… specifically, this annoyance who stepped so boldly though her office doors happened to be Mayor Keys. Leader of the City Council, duly elected champion of the people.

The City followed a rigid hierarchy of command. The Mayor designed the overall policy for the City, established the vision by which it would proceed into the future. Then came the heads of Safety, Resources, and Orientation. Then heads of various departments within those departments, and so on, and so on. If any one person could unilaterally override Miranda’s order to combat this new enemy, it would be Jefferson Keys, man of the people. The smiling man who shook the right babies and kissed the right hands and got into office off his daddy’s trust fund war chest of campaign funds…

Not that Miranda would go down without a fight.

"Explain, in simple terms, how everything is in fact under control," Miranda Walker requested.

"Spinks and I have been working on treaty negotiations with the Citadel for several months now," Keys explained. "All the paperwork’s drawn up. We wanted to make sure things were squared away before revealing their existence to the public. It seems the timetable got pushed up, but really, there’s no need for alarm. We’ve known this was coming for some time."

…Leonard Spinks. The name made Miranda want to spit. Keys was a shell of a man, a politician’s politician, but Spinks was a legitimately greedy bastard. He rose through the ranks of the Department of Resources off the backs of a million shady deals. Miranda had been trying to dig up evidence on his dark past, before being sidetracked by the whole business with Penelope Yates, which immediately became a more critical focus… but the rivalry they held led to crapfests like the Memorial Stadium incident. Naturally, Spinks would work behind her back on something like this.

"The ‘Citadel’? It’s another world, isn’t it? A closed-off city like ours," Miranda predicted, without saying why she knew. "I’m failing to see why Safety wasn’t brought in on the negotiations. You’re talking about secret violations of our… let’s call them ‘borders’ for lack of a better term. That’s essentially an invasion."

"Nonsense. The Citadel means us no harm whatsoever; we’re neighbors. All they’re seeking is a free trade agreement, the sort of thing I felt Spinks could best handle. …listen. Miranda. There’s no need for any alarm. You’ll understand why when their Commander makes his speech," Keys promised. He waved her along, towards the door. "Come on, it’s in twenty minutes. He’s already on his way to City Hall. I’d like you on stage with the rest of the City Council. Unless… you’d rather we not present a united front on this momentous day?"

In the end, Miranda would be on that stage. She wouldn’t smile for the cameras, but that was fine; the cameras would’ve been a bit spooked if she had smiled.

Miranda didn’t have to like the situation. She just had to ride it out… work with this strange new world, until she could figure out where to stand within it. Because even if she universally stood for the safety of her City, sometimes you had to take strange steps to reach long-term safety.

---

Never before had Penelope be so thankful for the recent addition of free WiFi in all City subways.

This train car was acting as a mobile operations center, at the moment. Making tracks between the Memorial Stadium Exclusionary Zone, and the center of the City itself… the Zag, the oldest street in City history, home of That Fish Place. Home of the Yates family.

Originally they were going to go to the hospital to meet up with Johnny the Icepick, but Johnny himself vetoed that idea.

"You two need to make yourself scarce," he suggested, when they reached him by phone. (Doctors were busy patching up his gunshot wounds while he had a leisurely chat, but you’d never know it from his steady, gravelly voice.) "These guys have one of you, Gregory. A perfect echo of you. He’s running the entire show, from what I could tell. No idea what he intends to do when he finds out he’s not unique, but in case it ain’t good… you might wanna hit a safehouse. I left a getaway bag for you and Penny at the restaurant."

And so: the restaurant. And then, maybe the underground grocery store, maybe Karla’s place. Wherever they’d be safest until the dust settled.

One half-hour ride by subway. One transfer at the midpoint. Penelope stayed glued to her tablet screen; Gregory shared the white earbuds with her, each of them taking an ear’s worth.

On the screen… a man who was and was not her father was making a speech for the ages.

"We come to your City in the name of friendship," the one identified as COMMANDER GREGORY YATES, CITADEL HIGH COMMAND spoke. "I understand our arrival may have confused many. The honor guards around our new embassy are merely a formality; we have no ill intent towards you or your families. We are neighbors, City and Citadel. We are here to help you, to work with you, so that both our worlds may move towards a better future…"

"Embassy," the real Gregory grumbled. "Bullcrap. Resource annexations on that scale are only legal in the thinnest terms. They stole Reg’s place at gunpoint…"

"Dad, shh," Penelope hissed, trying to listen.

"…proud to say that with the help of bright individuals such as Mayor Keys and Director of Resources Spinks, we are able to establish a mutually beneficial trade agreement," the Commander continued. "Now, what does this mean for you? At first, very little. Understandably we’ve got a lot of work to do to determine each other’s needs, and how we can best help out each other as neighbors. In the coming weeks you’ll be hearing more from the Department of Resources about cultural and economic exchanges, to raise the quality of life of both cities. I’m looking forward to exploring your wonderful township, and learning more about my new friends. I thank you for your time today, and remember… the Citadel is here for our friends in the City of Angles. Good day, and remain strong."

A frenzy of questions followed from the media pulpit, camera flashes going off left and right… but apparently there would be no questions. The City Council filed out, one by one, off to do official business with the new ambassador to the Citadel.

And… that was that. Within such a short amount of time, the City of Angles went from being a dead-end destination in the middle of an isolating universe to being partners with a militarized city of unknown intent. This was the world they lived in, and denying that truth would be fruitless.

Still, at the start of it all, Penelope was willing to entertain a notion of hope.

"What if they aren’t actually here to wage war?" she wondered.

"What if they are? We need to prepare," her father countered.

"But Dad, what if they’re not? Those other patients, the ones trapped in limbo at the CDC facility… they’re victims. Just like… me. They might need our help, legitimately! This could be a great opportunity to do just that, reaching out to one of the other patients! I could learn more about how we all ended up this way. How we could do something about our situation…"

"Penelope… I’ve touched a chocolate box sampler of their world," he reminded her. "The incident with Cass that I told you about. I think their world got mixed up with ours, and the parts that came over were not very promising. I saw what their world does to its soldiers; there’s something awful going on over there. Having a healthy amount of skepticism about their intents would be very, very advisable right now. If I’m wrong… then I’m wrong, and I’ll be quite happy to be proven wrong. But for now… we need to go to ground. Just until we know for certain."

With the video stream over, all Penelope had left to watch was the fluorescent tube lighting along the walls of the subway tunnel. Letting the lights flicker and wash over her, through the plexiglass windows. Quiet, and in thought.

Gregory saw everything as a threat, of course. Even after calming down a bit last year, realizing he couldn’t see the entire world as his enemy any longer… he wasn’t going to completely shake the need to see enemies lurking behind every corner. Penelope had higher hopes than that, believing in the essential decency of mankind. Whenever mankind was indecent, the root cause was fear, after all. Fear of losing what you love. Once you conquer that fear, there’s no longer any need to be cruel to each other…

But… if her father was prone to seeing newcomers as a threat rather than an opportunity, did the same hold true for his mysterious echo from another world? Would this Commander be just as paranoid? Or was this… like, a mirror universe Spock with a beard thing, where paranoia turns to love? He seemed to speak words of generosity at the press conference.

Maybe, just maybe, their Gregory didn’t grow up with a street gang. Didn’t learn hard lessons about who to love and who to hate. Maybe things weren’t going to be so bad, after all.

---

The smile on Jefferson Keys’ face was frozen. He wasn’t good at dropping a smile, even when given very bad news.

"What?" he asked, still smiling.

"My men have your family at gunpoint," Commander Yates explained… still puffing away on the cigar that the Mayor had offered him, as a token of friendship. "I’ve had operatives on this side of the bleed for a full year now. Before Spinks approached you, I approached him, made all the arrangements I needed to make. …well, most of the arrangements. The point is, from now on, you’re not involved in these discussions. You’ll sit in the same room with us, you’ll smile and nod your head, and you’ll agree to anything Spinks agrees to. If you make any moves I don’t approve of, your family will be executed. If you speak a word of this arrangement to anyone, your family will be executed. …was I clear enough, or do you need me to repeat it?"

The Mayor’s smile finally fell away. Muscle memory of countless smiles on the campaign trail kept it from falling very quickly, but fall it did.

Didn’t stop Leonard Spinks, director of the Department of Resources from grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. He kept a cigar between his teeth as well, greatly enjoying the emasculation of his beloved Mayor.

"It’s for the best, Jeff," Spinks promised. "The Commander explained everything to me from the very beginning. If we cooperate, it’ll minimize the bloodshed. Our families will come out just fine, in the end. We can make sure all the important families profit from this exchange! And if the rest of the City has to give up some resources… well, it’s better than being mugged outright, isn’t it?"

"What?" the Mayor repeated, from earlier. Unable to fully grasp the situation. "…what? What. Spinks. Are you out of your damn mind? And what’s this about a year of negotiation?! You said—"

"I lied. The key to any deal regarding exclusive rights is to control the disclosure," Spinks explained. "You simply didn’t need to know until we needed you to know. …this is how it has to be, Jeff. If they wanted to, the Citadel could easily invade and kill millions of our constituents. We’re not prepared for a true invasion, and you know it. Better to surrender than die, yes? We can still come out ahead, in the long game."

The Commander ground out his cigar on the armrest of the Mayor’s expensive office furniture. Rose to his feet.

"Unfortunately, since you’re still technically the Mayor, I need your assistance with a few tasks today," he explained. "A few odds and ends that I want taken care of before we get down to brass tacks. …you should be writing this down, errand boy. I don’t want any details missed."

The confused silence annoyed Commander Yates. He preferred men who were ready to jump to duty, regardless of any distractions around them. Such a useless man, really. Perhaps he’d have to move up the timetable regarding displacement of the Mayor and advancement of Spinks’ position. No doubt the greedy bastard would approve of such a move, even if it meant cleaning blood out of the office carpet… but that could wait.

Gregory counted both tasks off on his fingers.

"One, I need an arrest made," he stated. "Preferably in the dead of night, while she sleeps. It’s safer, that way. A particularly dangerous young lady, whom I need dealt with. I’m sure you can arrange it. We’re keeping Miranda Walker out of our negotiations for now, since I have doubts as to where she stands, but as Mayor you can no doubt push her to make the arrest. If not, family dead, et cetera et cetera."

Now, the Mayor swallowed hard. And nodded, in assent.

"And… the other request?" Keys asked.

The Commander allowed himself a little smile. A cruel one, compared to the Mayor’s typically empty one.

"I’m going to need dinner reservations," he spoke.

---

Honestly, Gregory was hoping he’d never have to use this bag.

They hadn’t genuinely been on the run since the Picasso Friday incident. Some close calls, some confusion about their shaky alliance with the new Department of Safety, things like that… but the idea of grabbing the getaway bag and running for the horizon was something he wanted to avoid. Not just because doing it meant incredible danger bearing down on his family, but because this was his place.

His fish restaurant. His home apartment. His stable life, the one he’d always wanted for Penelope. Some place where she could be safe, happy, and normal…

For much of his life, Gregory was none of those things. Since being jerked into the City against his will, he’d signed on with a gang to avoid the endless churn of foster care. He’d lived wild, drinking and fighting and exploring the Sideways. Even after getting married he couldn’t entirely settle down, eager to turn his wild life into a productive one through spelunking and finding rare salvage… a decision that cost Lizzie Yates her life. A decision he’d turned his back on when Penelope entered into the picture.

Since then, he’d been trying to stabilize and reach some level of ordinary living. True, for a few years there Penelope had insisted on taking up the calling of her mother, exploring the Sideways… but at least Gregory had been there to keep her safe, to keep her grounded. (Not grounded as in punishment, but grounded as in feet-on-the-ground. Occasionally involving the other sort of grounding.) Eventually she turned her back on that life as well, accepting the stable home life Gregory wanted for her… but weirdness followed them home, hadn’t it. It never really went away. It never would.

If the Citadel was truly an invading army rather than a friendly neighbor, if they somehow figured out Penny’s relationship to this City, they were in danger. That meant the getaway bag. That meant a life on the run. The end of any pretense of normalcy…

Penny wasn’t taking it well.

"We don’t have to run," she insisted. "Just because he looks like you doesn’t mean anything…"

"This is about more than my face," Gregory explained, while double-checking the inventory of the bag. (Emergency rations, burner phone, clothes, money…) "It’s the timing. We know they’re using the Greasemonkey to come over. We know that janitor I met this morning was working for them. They know us now, maybe even know about you, thanks to our contact with Reg. The very morning that I look into Cass’s disappearance, ‘Commander’ Yates pulls the trigger on their grand arrival…? No coincidence. I know him. I know me."

"So… if you were him, and you had bad intentions, you’d put the wheels in motion once your cover’s blown?"

"Absolutely," Gregory said, zipping up the bag. "Like the time my gang planted a sleeper in the Spindle Crew, to figure out if they were moving on Seventh Street. Our guy got found out, so we struck immediately. Don’t give the enemy any time to think, to plan. Counterpunch, and do it fast."

"And were they?"

"Were they what?"

"Were they actually moving on Seventh Street?" Penelope asked, wanting him to finish the story. "You went to war with another gang over the possibility they were going to encroach on your territory. Did you find out later that they were in fact plotting against you?"

"We don’t have time for this," Gregory decided to reply. "We’re going to the grocery store. It’ll be safe there; nobody knows how to safely get in or out except us and the Gus brigade—"

The jingling default ringtone of a cellphone interrupted him. Not the burner, which was still in its plastic packing. Not Penelope’s, because she was classier than using a random xylophone riff like some lame-o might use. Which meant someone was trying to reach Gregory.

Briefly… he considered not answering it. Smashing his phone on the kitchen table and walking away. The number wasn’t recognized, but he didn’t exactly have an extensive contact list. Could be TroubleSolvers business, could be a telemarketer, could be anything…

Figuring he could walk and talk, Gregory decided to answer the phone. While headed down the stairs, to the ground floor of the building. He put it on speakerphone, so Penelope could hear as well—Penelope, who was tagging along behind, carrying the getaway bag.

"Yates," he greeted curtly.

"Mr. Yates, this is City Hall calling," an unknown woman spoke. "We’d like to make reservations this evening for That Fish Place. The Mayor would like the entire dining area clear so that he can host a diplomatic event with the Citadel Ambassador."

Pausing, in the middle of the stairwell.

"We’re closed tonight," Gregory tried.

"The Mayor and the Ambassador would very much like to sample from the only seafood restaurant in town," the secretary continued. "You can expect the party to arrive at six tonight, with media and guests. Commander Yates has specifically requested your venue for this event, so he can apologize for the incident earlier this morning with your maître d’."

"This… is not really a good time. Like you said, I’m down my maître d’. We’re short-staffed…"

"I’ve been authorized by the Department of Resources to supply any additional short-time workers you require for this occasion. Can I tell the Commander to expect to meet with you and your daughter at six, then?"

Your daughter.

"Fine," Gregory agreed. "Six."

And hung up.

He paused, two feet on two different stairs. He could just keep going down, down to the ground floor, out the door, into the Sideways, vanishing to the safety of the grocery store. A life on the run. At best until things blow over. At worst, forever…

A hand on his arm stopped him, as he was leaning into the act, about to put one foot ahead of another and keep moving.

"Let’s hear him out," Penelope spoke.

"Penny…"

"Dad, listen. You heard her, the media will be there. That means it’s not going to be a grand secret that there’s someone in this City who shares a face with you. If he wanted to hush you up as a potential threat, he’d do it quietly, wouldn’t he? He’d take you in the night, with no witnesses. That’s… how you’d do it. He wants something else. We need to learn more about this before making a decision to run."

Frustration mounting at his teenaged daughter. "Look, Penny, we can’t predict that—"

"Exactly. We can’t predict anything. If he’s an enemy… I want to look him in the eyes and know that for myself," Penelope replied. "I know you’re just trying to keep me safe, and I respect that. But I’m… I’m becoming an adult now, Dad. I have to make my own decisions about my own life. …I won’t run away, not from him, not from anything. I’m learning more and more about who I am and what I need to do as time goes on. I can’t do that hiding in a hole, afraid of the dark."

Reason and passion. Of course.

That’s how Penelope convinced him to start taking her into the Sideways, back when she was only ten years old.

Reason. We need to make money and this is something you know how to do. Oh! Oh! And the more I learn about this City the safer I’ll be, right? This way we kill two birds with one stone!

Passion. I’m not afraid, and I’m not gonna sit in my room all day being afraid of Picassos. All the kids my age are afraid and I don’t want to be like them, Dad. I want to be better than that.

"Plenty of your mother in you," he mumbled under his breath.

"Huh?"

"We’ll play friendly with the Citadel for tonight," Gregory agreed. "Mighty suspicious if we bail, anyway. If we’d slipped away quietly, there’d be a chance of coming back. Escaping now would mark us. …but she said the Commander is expecting to meet not only me, but you as well. What if he knows about you, Penny? What then?"

To this, Penny offered a shrug.

"Once upon a time I upended a garage on top of a Picasso’s head," she reminded him. "It was pure survival instinct, nothing I’ve been able to repeat since then, but… I’d hate to be him tonight if he decided to poke that survival instinct with a stick."

---

That Fish Place could’ve sold lobster for three hundred dollars a pound and it’d still pack the house every night. The very fact that they HAD lobster was unthinkable—with no oceans, the City of Angles had to make do with river and lake fishing in the rural Outlands. Ocean delicacies were an impossibility… unless you happened to find a repeating freezer room in your basement echoing a copy of some Earth seafood restaurant every single day.

Gregory had to do some extremely creative legal finagling to avoid having the Department of Resources simply annex the thing and sell it off to the highest bidder. After considerable juggling of paperwork, he’d managed to secure this find for his buddies in the former Seventh Street Scavengers. His wife’s brother ran the biz until recently, keeping the old crew out of trouble and rolling in green… Archibald Tully somehow transitioning easily from gang leader to restaurant manager. (Not that it ended up being a difficult transition for Gregory himself, in the end.)

One rule Archie had set down from day one was the pricing. Despite the massive rarity of its goods, despite the prime real estate on the Zag, despite the ludicrous money they could have made… That Fish Place was going to be a family restaurant, not a swanky club for the one-percenters. They priced as if seafood restaurants were common, and were very selective about whom they took reservations for. Some family struggling to get by in Crossway Points would always get priority over a business luncheon.

Tonight, that went out the window. When the Mayor demanded you empty the place and take his reservation above all others, well… actually, Gregory would’ve told him to get stuffed, honestly. But circumstances change when men with AK-47s show up in town. Especially when they show up in your restaurant.

What a strange picture it painted, on the whole. A giant room of tables, completely empty, save for…

…a contingent from City government. Specifically, the duly elected Mayor of the City of Angles, Jefferson Keys, wearing his largest and fakest smile ever. With him were the heads of all three departments; a very uncomfortable and frustrated-looking Miranda Walker from Safety, a very comfortable and pleased-looking Leonard Spinks from Resources, and a very confused and awkward-looking Amy Watanabe from Orientation. (The latter of which Gregory didn’t recognize at all when she walked in the door; nobody really paid attention to Orientation when it came to intra-City politics. Being sixty years old and looking like someone’s decrepit old auntie didn’t help her much.)

…a security detail from the Department of Safety, men in dark suits with dark glasses who did not look happy to be here. Or angry to be here, really. They’d taken the art of becoming expressionless wallpaper to its fullest, fading into the background immediately on arrival… but never so much that they were more than two strides away from their counterparts from the Citadel.

…which consisted of two men in military dress with automatic rifles. Slung across their backs for now, of course, but still quite menacing. It was a hell of a thing to compare the two; the City’s personal guard made do with sidearms and well-tailored suits, while the Citadel favored looking like they were about to lay down white phosphorous on a Vietnamese village at a moment’s notice.

…in addition to all this, there were a number of photojournalists from all the major news outlets in the city. From failing cable channels and rising news websites, and from the one remaining newspaper still actively printing. They snapped photos, with flashbulbs at first, then after a sharp look from Miss Walker they opted for going flash-free.

…and finally, there was the Yates family.

Honestly, Gregory was starting to wonder if pushing two of the largest tables in the joint together was going to be enough to seat everyone. He was also regretting missing one of the placemats with a maze and word jumble on it hidden underneath a basket of salt shakers and artificial sweeteners.

Fortunately, the security details and journalists seemed keen on standing. So once hands were shaken and photo opportunities were done, in the end only seven chairs were needed in total.

"Mr. Yates, I’m pleased you could find some time to see us tonight," the Mayor spoke, as he settled into a chair. "I know this rather unique reservation was a bit of a surprise, but—"

"I’m guessing you’re surprised to see me," Commander Yates spoke directly to the man across the table, paying no attention whatsoever to the Mayor’s rambling. "At least, surprised to see my face."

"It… came as a bit of a shock when I saw it on the news this morning, yes," Gregory Yates admitted. He had to guard his words tonight, but whatever honesty he could offer would be wise to offer. He’d be here for the duration; no need for the manager to be on hand in the kitchen, when the chefs and busboys had things under control and food on the way.

"It was a bit of a shock to me as well to learn that a dupe of me existed over here," the Commander spoke. "That’s what we call them on my side, dupes. You call them echoes, right? As near as we can tell… anybody echoed into your City also gets duped into mine. Or vice versa. Something of a philosophical puzzle, but that’s life for you. When I learned my dupe on this side was running a restaurant, well… I knew what my first stop would be after settling things in City Hall. I wanted to see how the other half lives."

He wanted to evaluate me as a threat, Gregory assumed. He tried very, very hard not to narrow his eyes, to study this other man just as intently as the other man was studying him. Tried to present himself as a completely ordinary man, in every respect.

"My life isn’t nearly as exciting as yours must be," Gregory offered. "I run my restaurant, and I look after my daughter Penelope. That’s about all there is to this particular Gregory Yates."

"But that’s not all of it, yes?" the Commander asked. "You’re also a part-time security consultant for a charitable organization known as the TroubleSolvers. And before that, you were an independent mapper of your… Sideways, I believe they’re called? Seems you have more excitement in your life than frying up fish and chips."

Correction: He damn well knows I’m a threat, Gregory realized. Now he just needs to know if I’m in opposition to his goals.

"Honestly, all of that was just for the sake of my family," Gregory added. "Dangerous work, but it paid well, and helped me provide for Penelope. Lately I’ve transitioned more towards managing my old friend’s restaurant. Safer for us, and a good life overall."

Now, the military man turned his eyes to the teenager across the table.

"And this would be young Penelope," he said, with a semi-warm smile. "I’ve seen your blog, ‘Penny For Your Thoughts.’ You’re a very intelligent young girl, with some interesting thoughts regarding your City. I’ve no doubt you’ll be going places."

Penelope lacked her father’s coolness under pressure. "Um, thanks," she offered, and nothing else. Feeling very awkward amidst so many important (and potentially dangerous) people.

"I’m afraid I don’t have a family of my own. It’s one of my few regrets in life," the Commander said, turning immediately back to the father. "Never had the time, not with the well-being of my Citadel to focus on. My life is duty and service, in the name of public safety. It does my heart well to know that some version of me managed to settle in to a comfortable and happy family life."

Gregory nodded along with the words, swallowing and analyzing them. Settle. Comfortable. Happy. Exactly the image he was hoping to express… nothing out of the ordinary here, nothing strange or unusual. He was normal. Penelope was normal…

This was one time where he was thankful for the Department of Safety’s incredible levels of paranoia. Once Walker decided to work with Penelope, the woman-in-black made a decision to scrub Penny’s name from any official records. If this Commander Yates had access to the City’s information, even at the highest level, Penny would still remain a mystery to him. She’d been in the background of everything, known to few despite her central role. With any luck all that effort to keep her under the radar would pay off tonight.

With that topic running its course… silence settled over the table. And Gregory wasn’t about to introduce a new topic, not when he was playing it extremely cautious tonight. The Commander seemed content to sit and stare, which wasn’t helping…

And then dinner was served, breaking the moment of tension.

Soon, the table was excited conversation and smalltalk between politicians. Spinks talking up the prosperity of the City. The Commander asking about the Mayor’s family. Miranda saying absolutely nothing. And once she calmed down a little, even Penelope contributed; talking about her school and their pending e-sports championship win. Nothing important, really, just random discussion between strangers from out of town.

Gregory stayed out of it, for the most part. He answered questions when addressed directly, but was thankful to be out of the spotlight. The Commander commanded that spotlight; he was the one who initiated discussions, or swung them back around to a topic he wanted to cover. Careful never to say more than he had to, never to say anything of real substance. If he spoke volumes, they were empty ones.

In fact, the only time the discussion went to an uncomfortable place was when Miranda decided to ask a question.

"You keep saying our cities are similar, right down to the people," she interjected, when someone was discussing various unimportant celebrities that popped up on both sides. "What I’m wondering is if the problems our cities face are the same. Specifically… do you have Picassos?"

The reactions were telling.

Spinks looked distinctly uncomfortable. The Mayor’s smile stayed nice and fake. And the Commander… stayed flat, and even. Extremely so, to the point where it was clear he was making an effort at it.

"In a way… yes. Yes, we do," he said, knowing the nearby journalists would be picking up on this. "You have strange monsters that prey on your citizens, out on the fringes of society. So do we. Our monsters are more human-shaped, but are nonetheless dangerous abominations and we have our own ways of dealing with them."

"With your military forces," Miranda correctly assumed.

"Indeed. Our Citadel is under siege by these creatures," the Commander supplied. "We don’t have such a colorful name for them as ‘Picassos,’ of course. We simply call them the Enemy. We are at war with this Enemy, pushing back against them, keeping them out of our city walls. We’ve successfully held them at bay for a century, and will continue to do so until they are ultimately defeated. …it’s curious you should bring this up, Miss Walker. I’d hoped to discuss our mutual problem in private, but no sense to put it off…"

"Really. What mutual problem, exactly?" Miranda asked. Making her suspicious tone perfectly clear.

"I’ve been discussing the situation with Mr. Spinks, and we’ve decided that we may be able to kill two birds with two stones, so to speak. Your Picassos, our Enemy. Starting this week… we’re planning an exchange of human resources. A number of your safety officers will be assigned to the Citadel to help devise new methods of exterminating our Enemy, while our military advisors will join the Department of Safety to help control your Picasso menace."

"That’s not needed," she was quick to say. "The Picasso menace is highly overrated. My top analysts have published statistics proving that actual incidents with Picassos are extremely rare, and typically limited to situations in which citizens are breaking quarantine on the Sideways…"

"I’m surprised to hear you say that, considering not three years ago there was an explosion of cubism all over your City," the Commander noted. "The likes of which your predecessor had been warning you about for some time. How long until the next outbreak? I’ve discussed the issue with the Mayor, and we feel that it’d be best for both our cities if we collaborate on this issue. Isn’t that right, Jeff?"

Causing the mayor to momentarily choke on his water. He lowered the glass with a hand that very specifically was not shaking, no.

"That’s right," Mayor Jefferson Keys stated. "Exactly as he said. It’s the right thing to do. Right."

"I’m a bit disappointed that I was not involved in a discussion about the City’s safety," Walker said, putting heavy emphasis on the words. "Considering I am responsible for making decisions regarding how to ensure that safety, in particular. Sir."

"Yes, well, the decision’s been made," the Mayor said, going for his water again. "Leonard will fill you in on the details."

Aiming to lower tensions at the table… the Commander rose to his feet. Motioning for quiet, before Miranda could unleash another highly leashed outburst of anger.

"Friends… I know it’s a lot to take in, but the world has changed. Our worlds have changed," he spoke. "And we must change with them. There’s a lot of opportunity here for both our cities to prosper, but only if we’re willing to work together. It’s going to be difficult at first, and we’re going to be asking a lot of you, including things which don’t seem at first to be in your best interests. But I assure you, the Mayor and I have been taking a long-term view of things. In the end… all of this will be for the best. Our cities will remain strong."

"You said that before."

The youngest voice at the table, speaking up on impulse. It drew a lot of attention her way… leaving Penelope realizing she probably shouldn’t have piped in.

"Uh… I mean… those words. ‘Remain strong,’" she highlighted. "When you ended your speech on the broadcast earlier, you said ‘remain strong.’ Why is that?"

"Is there a problem with remaining strong?" the Commander asked her. "Strength is the resolve to fight back against the world. It’s a thing we value in the Citadel. Don’t you value it here in your City as well?"

"Wait, but that sounds weird too. ‘Fight back against the world?’ Why do you have to fight the world?" Penelope asked. "You say you’ve read my blog, right? I keep saying people need to work with the world, not fight it. I guess it makes sense to say ‘remain strong’ if you guys are constantly under attack by this Enemy, the thing you can’t really defeat even with a huge army with guys with guns, and now you think you need to make our safety officers fight it too…? Um. I’m just saying… have you considered that maybe fighting against your world isn’t working out real well for you?"

There.

Penelope knew that expression. She recognized it in her own father’s face, whenever they had a fight about something. The urge to curse, to burst out in anger. Gregory Yates, the real Gregory Yates tempered it down because he loved his daughter and he preferred to be a man of reason above all else. But years in a gang, where arguments could and often would be settled with fists, that instinct bubbled up just underneath the skin every time…

If not for the media’s watchful eye, this Commander Yates probably would’ve shot her on the spot. Because he disliked her words, her tone, everything. And because he could solve his problems with a bullet if he chose to.

Instead, he used words. Carefully chosen words, not words he’d prefer to use, since a half-dozen media watchdogs were hanging off every speech he made.

"I’m afraid we have no room for cowardice in our Citadel," the Commander spoke. "Fighting against the world is preferable to the alternative: laying down arms and letting the Enemy kill us all. Make no mistake, child, they will lay waste to my Citadel if we don’t fight them. They’re inhuman monsters, and need to be destroyed. One way or another… I intend to see this century-long war’s end within my lifetime. And with the help of my friends in the City, we will make it happen. …tell me, Gregory. What do you think of your daughter’s words?"

And now, the entire room focused on the owner of the room. Journalists ready to write down whatever this humble restaurateur may wish to say…

Gregory Yates considered his statement with care.

"I think… I’m just a man, sir," he spoke. "I have my business. I have my family. I’ve never had to make the hard choices you have, and so I can’t judge them. But… I can understand the love you must feel for your Citadel. Your Citadel’s your family, and you’ll do what you must to protect it. I can’t fault you there, and I wish you the best of luck in the world."

The implication being:

I’m not on your level. All I have is what you see here. And as long as you don’t threaten me, I’m no threat to you.

Which the Commander nodded slowly in agreement with, the two men exchanging a silent bargain. He dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, before rising to his feet, extending a hand to shake.

"Thank you for the wonderful dinner, Mr. Yates," the Commander spoke. "I’m glad we have an understanding. Consider it symbolic of the understanding I want the City and the Citadel to reach, in time."

Hands shaken, smiles worn, photographs taken. And then the entourage was out the door and down the Zag, presumably on their way back to City Hall.

Leaving the Yates family alone in their empty restaurant.

"…okay, before you get angry, I admit I probably shouldn’t have poked him with a stick like that," Penelope began immediately, once the coast was clear. "It just struck me as weird the way he said it, and then, well, I got carried away—"

"You did the right thing," Gregory responded, starting to gather up the empty dishes. "Poking him with a stick needed to happen eventually. He wasn’t going to show his true face until someone made him show it. …not a doubt in my mind, now. He’s going to bleed the City dry if that’s what it takes to win his war. He’s got his own Citadel to protect… and I know what I’d do in his situation. I’d willingly damn some other world to save my own."

Penny bit her lip, in thought.

"We’ve got to stop him," she decided. "I’ve got no idea how, but if we don’t, a lot of people are gonna die. Dad… what’re we gonna do?"

"Right now… we’re going to clean up, get the restaurant closed down for the night, and catch some sleep," Gregory said, passing a stack of dishes to his daughter. Built character, carrying dishes instead of letting the busboys handle it. "Whatever’s going to happen is outside our control. For now. This is a long game, Penelope. Maybe we can play it, maybe we can’t, but we’re certainly not going to save the world tonight. And you’ve got school in the morning, don’t forget."

"But Dad—!"

"No buts. Life doesn’t stop because we’ve been invaded by jackbooted thugs. Life goes on," he replied. "Otherwise there’s no reason to fight for it."

---

Pink pajamas didn’t really suit her anymore. She was hardly a little kid, even when she was a little kid… and at sixteen years, they were completely wrong. But they were fuzzy, and cozy, and warm. Tonight she wasn’t going to complain about the color when they brought her some comfort, snuggled under her blanket.

Her blanket, her pajamas, her bed, her room. A home. Penelope didn’t have a real home for a good portion of her life, wandering the face of the City in search of a personal truth buried at the Heart of the City. Now… she had a place to call her own. One which could be taken away from her, if things went with the Citadel as feared…

Some part of her remained optimistic. Not about their designs for her City, no; that ship had sailed.

But Gregory was wrong. Both of them.

You didn’t have to fight the world, you had to learn to live in it. She’d been advocating that for a long time. If it was possible within the City of Angles, which was actively hostile against its inhabitants… surely it’d be possible in the Citadel. Granted that Penelope knew nothing about this "Enemy" they faced, but Picassos weren’t monsters, not truly. They were people who lost their way. They could be reached, if you knew how. Perhaps the Enemy could be reached as well…?

That meant her father was wrong, as well. It wasn’t just a matter of fighting the Citadel; they weren’t some alien other which needed to be defeated, even if they were in fact posing a menace to the City. From the other perspective, the City wasn’t someone for the Citadel to defeat, either. Both could stand, in the end. Penelope knew that in her heart… even if she had no clue how to make it happen.

Tomorrow would be another day. Life would go on. She could work the problem in her own time; had to, really, no matter who got hurt while she was sorting through the mess. Problems take exactly as long to solve as they take to solve, no more, no less.

On the plus side, they had an ally in the Department of Safety. No way Miranda Walker would stand by and do nothing while the Citadel ran roughshod over her City. Perhaps that would be the key, Penelope thought, as she started to drift off under the fuzzy pajamas and soft sheets. They had a friend in Safety, this time. An ally…

Fading now. Eyes closed, random thoughts piling on top of the structured ones. Fish dinners and men with guns on live webcasts. Competitions between schools for the championship trophy. All this chaos, whirling and frightening… and off to the side, the whirling chaos of the mad tea party, hosted by the smiling old woman who wrangled the trinity. The monsters of Penelope’s past seemed friendly now compared to the monsters yet to come.

Drifting away, while her would-be ally in Safety was closing in on sleeping prey.

---

Two in the morning and moving in relative silence, up the winding stairwell. Towards the unsuspecting young woman, dreaming the night away.

The Mayor called it a "Joint Task Force" even though Miranda Walker had no idea why the task was so important it required a force, much less a joint one. The fact that her joint-specific companions were loaded up with enough body armor and firepower to stop a tank was also extremely disconcerting… as was their choice of targets.

"She’s harmless," Miranda had insisted, when Spinks and his puppet Mayor laid down the details. "Completely harmless. She’s broken no laws, done no wrong. We can’t possibly agree to this request…"

"It’s not a request, it’s an order. This is a priority objective for our Citadel allies," the Mayor insisted, with heavy emphasis. "She poses a clear and present danger to their operations."

"No, this is complete garbage and I want no part of it," she’d countered. "Call the team off or I will."

"If you’re not interested in helping, then you can tender your resignation and the Mayor will be happy to accept," Spinks suggested, with a smile. "Same goes for any order coming down the pipeline that you disagree with. The future of two cities has no room for people who can’t follow orders."

Which meant Miranda was now leading a squadron of men into a private residence to arrest someone on no grounds whatsoever. Someone Miranda knew. Someone who, once she vanished into the dark of night and likely into a torture cell on the Citadel side of the fence, was going to kick up an incredible storm in response.

Not that the Citadel knew that… and Miranda wasn’t keen on telling them. The miniature network of allies and comrades that this young woman was tied into was responsible for saving the City twice over, and they would not stand for this. It would be like declaring war… and as a rule, Miranda did not like war in her City. She didn’t poke the TroubleSolvers with a stick for that reason, and didn’t like them poking with sticks either. In this case? She was going to make an exception.

Omitting that little detail from her reports was about all she could do to resist, anyway. Miranda couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it from actually happening in the first place. There wasn’t any time. Even if she wanted to alert the girl’s allies… it was far too late. Troops were deployed at the scene and simply waiting for Walker to get there before they kicked in the door. Once Miranda got on the scene, gun drawn… it was go time.

Door kicked down, the frame splintering and giving in an instant. Heavy boots stamping down on anything in their wake, wrecking and ruining a few stray items knocked to the living room floor by the charging soldiers. Bedroom door knocked aside like it was nothing. A black bag drawn about the victim’s head before she could even react. And gone, all in the span of less than a minute.

One hour later, and Marcy Wei was home from a graffiti-writing jaunt… finding her apartment door ruined, crushed spray paint cans littering the carpet, and her sister Vivi missing.

Not the first casualty of the war between the City and the Citadel. And not the last.

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. At the end of the last chapter I thought “the plot thickens”, but I never suspected things would escalate so very, very, VERY fast!

  2. Nice red herring, there! I was actually suspecting their target might be someone other than Penelope, but my guesses would have been Milly, Indigo or Kelsie due to their abilities. What threat could Vivi pose, of all people?

  3. Great story! Although I must admit while I was reading this part:

    We simply call them the Enemy. We are at war with this Enemy, pushing back against them, keeping them out of our city walls. We’ve successfully held them at bay for a century, and will continue to do so until they are ultimately defeated.

    all I could think of was Attack on Titan. All similarities are probably purely a coincidence, but it still made me picture the Enemy as Picasso-esque aberrant titans. Quite a terrifying image.
    Also, supposedly the Attack on Titan theme song goes with everything, or at least that’s what the meme says. I now proclaim it to be Commander Yates’ leitmotif.

  4. I realize this is no longer labeled as a draft, but I’m guessing it’s probably not beyond minor editing yet?

    – – – – – – – –

    All she could do was speak truth
    [to] those she trusted with the truth.

    I didn’t tell you guys about the dream so you could lock it away, I wanted you[r] help exploring and understanding this!”

    I can’t fault you there, and I wish you the best of luck in [the] world.”

    – – – – – – – –

    Also, sorry about my first comment cold-starting on some editing — I tend not to comment on things unless I feel I have something specifically constructive to say. >_>

    But! In the realm of opinion, your writing is awesome and you should feel awesome. :D

    • Yay! I do feel awesome.

      It’s not really final until it goes to print, and this one’s not in book form yet. So, I can make those edits. (I also send the ‘final’ stories to a professional editor before they publish, but more checks are always welcome.) Thanks! I appreciate it.

  5. Things like student loans, careers, and family become lesser concerns when facing down a whirling ball of madness that can strip flesh from bone at best, and the very sanity from your mind at worst. —- Great Line!
    The best you can do is hold on to what you have, and fight for what you believe in… without losing who you are along the way. Because there’s a distinct difference between fighting for a belief, and fighting to survive. It’s very possible to win one fight and not the other. –Also good
    Nice world building and re-orienting at the beginning, establishing how much time has passed and where we are at this point.
    Their ways aren’t ours; they don’t know proper protocols, or proper respect. But they’ll learn. —That statement is never followed by anything nice.
    They’ve been making arrangements for seven months! Already a seemingly lost cause, war won before it started.

    If the other world is another’s dream, then why would we even have any duplicates, why not totally different people? Curious.
    [attach pic of visitor friend poster]
    I like that the restaurant has a repeating freezer full of seafood. I could use one full of beef
    “Strength is the resolve to fight back against the world.” –There’s the theme again: Me and mine against everyone else vs seeking understanding hope and community. What Gregory could have become if not for his family…
    Penelope really does look at the big picture. Alternate Gregory sees it as us vs them within his world; our’s sees the same, but between his world and the other. Meanwhile, she values both.

    Nice leading up to kidnapping of Vivi. It seemed like it would be Penelope. Why Vivi, I wonder? And what’s going on with Cass?

  6. Okay, I’m way WAY behind in reading, so let’s start where I left off in //017…

    “Upending a garage” — oho, so she’s rather casually mentioning that now. Heheh.
    Amy Watanabe is sixty years old and “decrepit”? That’s amazingly young to get that descriptor.
    The automatic rifles remind me of the off-duty soldiers in Israel, no uniform, just casually walk around with military weapons while shopping etc. (or so I hear)
    Love our Gregory’s between-the-lines analysis of the Commander’s conclusions about him.
    Ah, mighty easy to point back at the Picasso-splosion of yesteryear for future fear-mongering. Very Seth-ish.
    Aaaaaa Penny you’re going to say something unfortunate aren’t you… I’m impressed your dad isn’t kicking you under the table.
    Subtle agreement there, Gregory(s) — and well written, 2F.
    Nice “oh, not Penny after all” twist. But Vivi?! Wut.

  7. ——————————
    FYI, everything below this line consists of comments on early draft versions of the story. (I’m going to start posting dividing lines like this after finalizing each chapter, to make it clear visually.) Thanks!
    ——————————

  8. “In fact, once everything calmed down… she’d decided to tell Miranda Walker the big secret that lie at the Heart of the City.”

    s/lie/lay

      • Thanks for the amazing story! I hope you don’t mind another nitpicking comment.

        There was more I had to rescan to find. I need to get into the habit of opening a text editor the first time I see something :).

        “I have to wonder if could anyone do the same,” -> “if anyone could” ?

        “One years ago” (oops, already spotted by Jen).

        • Nitpicking is fine! Especially typos like these, which wouldn’t be picked up by an automatic spellcheck. (I need to run spellcheck before every weekly posting, I think. Just laziness.)

          I have a professional editor give the entire book a once-over before publishing (hi, Chu!) but the less work he has to do, the better!

  9. Now I wonder what Citadel!Vivi is like, presuming she’s still around. Arriving as a child, scared and deaf, in a war zone? Must be crazy.

    Also, now (or at least this book) would probably be a decent time to know about the circumstances under which Gregory was echoed/duped.

    There was at least one missing word but I’m a bit too tired to go back and find it/them. As a rule of thumb, “[adjective]-looking” descriptions preceding people are generally hyphenated (introducing Spinks/Miranda/Watanabe).

    • Nope. Vivi was Picasso for all of three minutes, and then came back from it and did her best to put it behind her. Three years later and it’s completely out of her system. Kelsey on the other hand has become Bedlam’s chosen BFF and embraces it more openly, so she’s got some control over it.

    • Huzzah! I was trying VERY HARD to telegraph it as Penny and then make the switchup a surprise. As for WHY Vivi is public enemy number one for the Commander, well… that will be revealed in time.

      • Hmm.. All your conflicts thus far were conceptual as much as physical. And Citadel is ordered, regimented, militaristic society. So, maybe their Enemy are some sort of neo-Hippies with drum circles and whatnot. And Vivi is their leader!

  10. Hi! I’ve found one more typo I didn’t see here in comments yet: relaly.

    Stefan, thank you for your work, it’s a wonderful story, so full and rich of different aspects of a life!

  11. Keep up the good work!

    Typo note:

    “Reg decided to take the Icepick’s head”

    I’m assuming you mean “lead”

  12. A lot of the invasion reminds me of the Ascendancy, in the whole “we’re announcing ourselves to the world as equals even though we’ve already covertly dealt with potential threats in the existing government” sense.

    Since I was accessing the page through my Kindle at the time I didn’t make any notes of typos but I’ll pass through later anyway.

    • It’s definitely similar to the Ascendancy. I often return to themes explored in previous books, to explore them in different ways; see also the multiverse being a thing in UE and anachronauts. As time goes on the differences between the Ascendancy and the Citadel will be clear… the Citadel is coming from a position of desperation and horror, and are only the superior force in a limited respect compared to the high-tech of the Ascendancy.

  13. Was sent here from HPMOR and after two weeks am here! Just wanted to say that this is an amazing and awesome story.
    I’m surprised that I quite liked the short part from Miranda Walker’s POV- the fact that she was paranoid enough to create a contingency plan for this is hilarious. Hopefully between her and Gregory, the city’ll make it out of this.

    • Glad to have you on board! Hope you enjoy the weekly updates as much as you enjoyed the back catalog.

      I see Miranda as a bit of a prototype for the Frontliners, a PMC from my anachronauts series. They were able to defend America from an invasion by the Faerie Court because someone had drawn up a number of contingency plans for how to defend against ridiculous threats (zombie invasions, renegade angels, pandimensional sliding invasion fleets, things like that.) Just because it’s ridiculous doesn’t mean it might not one day be a threat, after all.

  14. I like the start of this chapter already–gets the ball rolling quickly. Few corrections:

    Penny was fifteen at the start of and, as far as we know, the end of book two, so I’d think she’d be sixteen at this point.

    “sacrifice of tea cookies” — Probably tea AND cookies, although you could make an argument for “tea biscuits.” I don’t think “tea cookies” exists like that.

    “One years ago”

    Hyphenate “middle aged.”

    “Seven Street Scavenegers” should be “Seventh Street Scanvengers.”

    “called uponto” is missing a space.

    While apparently “doorjam” is an acceptable term, it’s typically spelled “door jamb.”

    “liquers” – “liquors”

    “Sargeant” – “Sergeant”

    • Yeah, Penny’s 16 going on 17 at this point. I was considering a three year time gap to make her legally an adult, to fit the “growing up” arc she’s on, but in the end it seemed like too long of a jump. A reader pointed out some time ago that he felt the two year gap wasn’t believable because not enough changed and I didn’t have major changes planned here either, so I dropped it back to something sensible.

      • I point this out because you have a line “even at the semi-tender age of seventeen” that probably needs correcting in that case.

        • True; after the two year skip I moved her from 12 to 15, figuring a few months would slip so it’d make that work. But I think 17 would be a bit too far here. Plus, she can still be pondering a driver’s license at 16, so that works.

    • Some others:
      uponto — upon to
      tresspassing — trespassing
      glaring each other — glared each other

      Also, “tea cookies” are definitely a thing. A delicious, delicious thing.

  15. Huh. That was interesting. A few errors I noticed:

    one years -> should be one year
    tautology -> Hm. I’m pretty sure that’s not the riggt word to use here, but I am not sure what would be.
    trilogy -> Did you mean “trio” or was it intentional?
    uponto -> I suspect this should be “upon to”

    Now to the story:
    The mental image of Bedlam as the Cheshire Cat made me laugh out loud. In fact, it is curious that Bedlam did not make her appearance. The whole scene was rather interesting. It seems as if Lucid has become colder (more Echo-like), while Echo has become more… polite? In the second book, I felt she was a wandering incaranation of depression. In this scene, she seems more confident, more… following her ideology opposed to taking it because she sees no alternative. In a way, she is more Lucid. I wonder if you are turning this story in a parable for growing up.

    Dave and … sorry, the name is slipping my mind now.. have a cubist child? Interesting.
    Wait. They have a child at all? Did she get over her aversion to sex? Or did it get conceived that one time when she was on cubist porno braindrugs? :D If so, no wonder Riley turned out cubist.

    “RegCass ship”: teasing fans, aren’t you x) And please. When did mere Word Of God stop shippers?

    Oh, and also in a bout of Wild Mass Guessing: I predict Gregory of Bulwark is the Dreamer avatar from one world over and we will have a callback to Cass reading our Gregory.
    Hm… I wonder if Cass’ powers manifest over there? They are granted by Lucid, after all, and presumably Lucid has no power over there? On the other hand, P31 does have powers wherever he goes…
    I wonder if any people from the other world have powers.
    I wonder if the Commander has a daughter.

    This was written after the first draft. Looking forward to more.

    • Yup, little Riley was conceived that night. Crazy stuff. Plus, Kelsey DID have sex a few times experimentally before that, even if she never could quite get comfortable with the idea. In the end she’s definitely asexual but not completely, in the same way some people aren’t totally straight.

      (I actually adjusted the ‘one year’ timeskip down from my original projection of three years, so that event could be the start of little Riley Smith-Jones. Also because in the end it seemed silly that it’d take the Citadel three years to invade just so I could have Penelope be 18, I suppose.)

      All good WMG there. You shall see…

      • Sometimes finding out just who you are takes some trial and error. It’s not implausible that she could be fully asexual and still try it with someone she loved as a means of making sure. Either way works though.

    • “…‘First Action Response Team’ was a tautology and didn’t need an extra ‘Team’ appended to the end…”

      While “First Action Response Team Team,” or “FART Team,” would be a tautology, “First Action Response Team” is not one on its own. Just add the second “Team” to the quoted bit if you want to keep the line.

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