Strong walls, concrete and steel fortifications that circle all we hold dear. Strong walls crisscrossing other strong walls, growing organically out of the burnt and blasted earth, protecting us from those who would do us harm. Entire lives lived out within those manmade barricades… lives which are happy and carefree, provided that they remain on the correct side of the wall. The wall stands for safety and strength, the living will of the people who built it.
Rumors of walled districts completely overrun and lost over the years of open warfare are completely false. The walls are strong, and even when destroyed, are quickly restored by the Builders. There is no cause for alarm, no matter how close the explosions seem to be. You are right to fear the explosions. You are right to fear the Enemy. But as long as we remain strong and are willing to fight, the walls will remain strong against their assaults.
Nobody knows why the Enemy hates us and wishes to destroy our way of life. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The Citadel exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new citizens with it.
We live a life amidst the grim spectre of war.
If we’re going to conquer our foes, if we’re going to stay alive and remain strong, we need to learn to fight for the Citadel.
…citizens would do best to consider the following…
Life would be so much simpler if we could all accept the face of war. There are two sides to it; all free men, and the Enemy. Humanity against the inhumane monsters which threaten our lives. If all of humanity could come together against that menace, if we were truly united in lock-step, nothing could defeat us. The indomitable spirit of mankind once conquered every corner of the planet Earth, that world from which our ancestors hail. The pride of America followed us to the Citadel, giving us the might we needed to conquer any foe…
But despite a full century of war, the Enemy remains at our gates. They beat uselessly against our walls, mocking our efforts. Why is this? How can they possibly challenge a people with such a legendary origin?
The answer is simple: there are some among us who cannot accept the simple truth of this war. They don’t see two sides, they see three, and they choose willingly to join that third side. They rebel against humanity, despite being a part of humanity.
They could be anarchists, socialists, or democratic reformists. The ideology doesn’t actually matter, if they’re willing to embrace their politics more than they’re willing to embrace the spirit of life itself. Others are hedonists, greedy misers, or sexual deviants who put their own petty self-interest above the primary goal of survival. Universally, they shun common sense in favor of twisted agendas. They turn their back on the Citadel.
Weep not for these cowards and traitors. They are no better than the mindless Enemy that plagues us. And like the Enemy… they will be purged, in time. Each in their own way, a true punishment befitting the truth of their treason…
They didn’t build the structure with their own two hands, but with those two hands they repurposed it into something wonderful.
That’s how the City of Angles worked. You were given something, and then adapted it to your needs. Tearing down and rebuilding was an insult to the bricks around you—an insult that caused an entire district to go cubist back in the Thirties. If you worked with the City instead of against it, though, you could accomplish anything…
Seventh Street was once an economic black hole. It wasn’t always that way; it started out as an affluent section of the city, one of the few beacons of prosperity far removed from the central drag of the Zag. But insertions and shuffles changed up the landscape, dropping more and more crumbling old buildings of questionable use into the mixture. Soon, those who could move out were moving out in droves, and with them went the supporting area businesses.
Eventually, it became a dumping ground for those newly arriving unfortunates who couldn’t schmooze the Department of Orientation into superior housing. Then the gangs moved in. Some were rowdy punks like the Seventh Street Scavengers, harmless except for the general aura of trouble that followed them around. Others fed on the locals, mugging and stealing and running wild… driving away the few who were willing to hang on to the district, in hopes things would turn around.
And then there was the Greasemonkey.
This was the key, Cass felt. This was a place they bought for a few beads and a song, and proceeded to rally an entire community around. They were hipsters… a derogatory term, but one they had chosen to embrace in an ironic fashion. College-educated brats with too much free time and too much money. Exactly the sort of audience which could revitalize Seventh Street, maybe even eventually planting stakes in the ground here themselves. With the Greasemonkey at the core, other businesses might take root, maybe young and daring families would move in alongside them…
A year and a half later, and the dream was starting to become a reality. First a bar, then a bar and an art gallery, and now there was a barber shop next door. Serge could have been a high-end stylist to the stars, but he believed in Reg’s dream enough to follow him to Seventh Street and hang a shingle here. Now, if you wanted the kind of hairdo that turned heads, you had to come down to the middle of nowhere.
Little by little, they were twisting this forgotten part of the City into something beautiful.
Which is why when Cass suspected someone was routinely breaking into the Greasemonkey, she took it quite personally.
This was her home away from home. Moreso than the open road she crawled while delivering packages, moreso than Melba’s Diner where her other family of social outcasts hung their trucker hats. The Greasemonkey was her heart. Someone was stepping on her heart, and she wanted to know why.
At best it was some local kid, sneaking in to prank them. Nothing of value had been stolen yet, despite what Cass felt certain were multiple break-ins. But that was the strangest part; even if nothing of value was really here to steal in the first place, surely SOMETHING would be stolen. Why bust in, otherwise? For that matter, why bust in repeatedly? What was the point?
Only one way to find out—catch the culprit red-handed. Easy enough to do, just play stakeout. Sit and wait for the weirdo to swing by, then ask him why he insisted on being so weird. (He or she. Plenty of female weirdoes out there. Like Cass, for example.)
So, as the bar was shutting down for the night, Cass settled in for a long bout of spying. Except she wasn’t alone.
"Gonna lock up for the night," Paulie the janitor declared.
She hadn’t filled Paulie in on the plan, only Reg. Paulie faded into the background most of the time, hired on to help Reg keep the spacious and largely unused building from falling apart more than it already was. It’d be easy enough to tell him what the deal was, why Cass would be staying behind after he locked the door…
But the words changed her mind.
They hovered around his head, a halo of jittering monotype font. Each letter slightly dirty, a tiny carved piece of metal slamming down onto paper through an inky black ribbon. …inky WHITE ribbon, floating with contrast over the darkness of the bar after closing time. Glowing and strange and completely normal to her.
he cleans up after his masters.
"I’ll lock up for you," Cass spoke. "Gotta hit the crapper first."
Good enough for Paulie, who walked out without a second thought.
After years of literary hallucinations, Cass had learned to trust her mental illness and the truths it spoke. After all, it was an alleged gift from the alleged gods, wasn’t it?
The Metadream, Penelope had called it. You’re connected to the Metadream, which lets you see what’s going on behind the scenes. Grandma Scarlett had her own connection, although you both saw the Metadream in different ways. Yours come to you as words. Same thing in the end, though.
Always good to know that your oracular schizophrenia had a perfectly reasonable explanation. Although being a psychic connected to an imaginary layer of an imaginary world was infinitely scarier than having a chemical imbalance in your brainmeats.
Paulie had never triggered a vision before. Why tonight? Why that vision? Sure would be nice if her ‘gift’ wasn’t so damn cryptic, but it sure would be nice to have a pony and a little red wagon, too. As is, she had no ponies, no wagons, and no clear marching instructions from God. All she had was this mess, and she’d have to make do with it.
Still… he cleans up after his masters. Masters, plural. If singular, it could just mean Reg, his employer. Something about that plurality was troubling enough to make Cass lie right to Paulie’s face, telling him that she would be right out the door in a moment. Probably nothing, hopefully nothing, but…
In the end, Cass locked the door with herself on the inside. Took up her position hiding behind the bar, pulled out a notepad to jot some free verse on, and waited to see what she could see.
Nothing should be going thump in the night. The building was on lockdown, and aside from the scratch of pencil on paper, there wasn’t a sound to hear. No thumps, no bumps, not even the creak of the old building settling. And yet, a thump. A very distinct thump from somewhere in the back hallways of the Greasemonkey…
Curious. Made sense, though; if someone was repeatedly busting into the building, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be through the front door. It didn’t show any signs that the lock had been tampered with. There had to be a hole in the wall or a loose window somewhere behind the building, and what was clearly heavy footfalls in the back proved that.
Hrm. Footfalls, many. More than one intruder? Multiple people, invading her home.
…at once, Cass realized how completely stupid this was. She was planning to hide out behind the bar, and when the intruder showed up… what, exactly? Jump out and go ‘ooga booga’? And likely get beaten into the ground with a crowbar, if she did. One young poet against what was clearly a small group of criminals? Not good odds.
Call the Department of Safety? Get some cops down here? Sensible, but response times in the ass end of nowhere were pathetic indeed. Call the TroubleSolvers? Gregory Yates would hop to in an instant… particularly knowing that this building had seen some weirdness a year ago, weirdness both of them were witness to… but he was on the Zag right now. At best, a twenty-minute jaunt. Twenty fine minutes for a gang of thugs to beat the living hell out of her.
Stupid, stupid. Playing amateur private eye when she should’ve been thinking smart. Fortunately, whoever was back there wasn’t bumrushing her, probably had no idea she was here at all. Just sneak out around the bar, unlock the front door, slip out, and call Gregory… maybe they’d stick around long enough for him to catch them in the act—
Front door unlocking, and opening. Except she wasn’t the one doing it.
Someone coming in from the front, someone coming in through the back. And Cass pinned in the middle. Apparently, things could get worse.
She’d arranged herself a primitive submarine scope, a hand mirror on a stick. Planning to use it to spot whoever was coming in, without being spotted herself. No time like the present, if only to confirm when this new intruder was out of eyesight. Make her break when the opportunity presented itself…
Except the intruder was Paulie.
…who felt… different. Same work uniform, same scruffy moustache. But no slouch from a day of mopping, no bored and disinterested expression. This version of Paulie was… sharp. Alert. And walking in a firm and decisive manner right across the room, through the door into the back hallway. Within a few seconds of arriving, he was out of sight.
A perfect moment for Cass to escape.
Instead, she walked the other direction. Towards the back room.
That was the point, wasn’t it? To figure out who was breaking in, but also why they were breaking in. Paulie… he wasn’t here to mop the floors. He moved with purpose, and the timing couldn’t have been a coincidence. Was he working with whoever was violating these sacred halls of irony? What exactly was the deal here…?
Creeping through the hallway. Towards an open door, light streaming in from the overheads. All lights were turned off at night in the building, no exceptions. Saved on electricity bills.
One peek. One peek…
…men in military garb. Green camo, stars and stripes, name patches. Unreal, like they stepped off a movie set. Of all the sights Cass was expecting to see, that was the least—
GET OUT GET OUT
—stumbling over her own two feet, as the enormous letters of blinding white light slammed themselves into her eyes.
Her body worked on muscle memory, scrambling back to a solid footing. Short-distance sprinting wasn’t exactly her bag, but it was damn well going to have to be her bag tonight. Because the last time she saw words that large and that direct was when she had to TURN LEFT, words which once saved her life…
The main bar room. Thirty feet from the door. Run. Run, and don’t look back.
Cass’s hand was on the door handle when she blacked out. Never did see what took her down, wasn’t willing to cast a look back, as if fleeing from the underworld with a loved one in tow. Didn’t help. The darkness grasped her and pulled her down immediately… and away from the door to freedom.
The brief glance through glass at the darkened buildings of Seventh Street would be the last memory she ever had of the City of Angles.
Climbing out of the darkness took every ounce of strength she had. It was a sheer cliff, one she had to scale handhold by handhold. After untold hours, she managed to rouse enough to at least open her eyes.
This wasn’t a gentle beauty rest; someone had drugged her, Cass was certain of it. The hazy afterimages of typewriter letters floated in her eyes like glaucoma spots, scrambled words trying to make sense of things that made no sense. Blurry shapes and lights. Unclear sounds…
Sleep took her for another hour, before she managed to climb her way back up again. This time she forced herself to sit up rather than lie down and take it. Gripping the edge of… something she was lying on, something hard and uncomfortable, gripping it hard enough to go white-knuckled. To tense up those muscles and give her some pain to focus on, pain enough to rise out of the fog…
It had to be a cell. The bed was a metal fixture attached to the wall, with a mattress that could only laughably be called bedding. Nearby was what likely was supposed to be a toilet, a metal bowl with a flush handle… perfect for someone who isn’t expected to wander around looking for a powder room. Beyond the bed and the toilet, no other furniture had been provided.
Most of all, though, it was the door that convinced Cass she’d been thrown in a jail cell. It was a thing of thickly bolted iron, unnecessarily strong and intimidating. Honestly, all you’d need to keep a renegade poet under control is a normal door with a normal lock, not something imported from your finer battleships. But normal doors didn’t have bars over a tiny viewing window at eye height, nor did they have thin slots at waist height to slide dinner trays through.
A few minutes, to catch her breath and push away the rest of the drugged-out mess in her brain. Enough to focus, and look for the words.
limbo, the typewriter of her mind’s eye offered. Hovering there in the center of the room, large print for the vision impaired. And beyond that, they offered nothing.
"That’s all you have for me?" Cass asked. "Seriously? Couldn’t you actually be helpful for once?"
For lack of any other option, Cass decided to get some answers the old fashioned way—by grabbing the bars of that tiny window, poking her face against them, and yelling for a guard.
Even against the bars, she had no better clue of her whereabouts. A narrow hallway, with an identical cell door on the other side, other cells left and right. Presumably dozens of them, all packed in like sardines… but no way to see who was in each cell, not with the terrible lighting within each. Assuming there was anyone in them. Nobody replied when she shouted bloody murder. Prisoners would probably have shouted back, right? They wouldn’t just sit there in silence without saying hello, or who’s there, or even just shut up dammit…
Nothing. No reply.
Opting to save her vocal chords, Cass went back to sitting on the cot. Figured she’d estimate a half hour, then try again. And again, and again, until someone took notice…
Twenty-nine minutes later, someone took notice.
They burst into the room without warning, but without speed as well. The heavy iron door swinging open with a heavy clang, enough to cause Cass to jump a few inches. Two armed guards, wearing similar military garb to the weirdoes who were in the Greasemonkey… standing watch, as more guards carried in a folding card table and a pair of folding chairs. Briefly, Cass wondered if this was the world’s strangest poker tournament or something…
Finally, the guest of honor made his presence known.
His uniform was the fanciest of the bunch. He got a hat, for starters. A proper hat with a proper brim and a proper insignia on it, some sort of stylized castle tower. Like the rook on a chess board. Unlike the guards, he wore a huge smile, dancing along with his bright green eyes… and he stepped right up to Cass, hand extended to shake.
The typewriter words immediately identified him.
minos, judge of the damned.
"Miss Cassandra, it’s an honor and a privilege to meet you," he spoke, in a voice surprisingly soft.
He did quickly raise his other hand to the guards, palm out, blocking them before they could raise their weapons to cover their boss’s unusually friendly gesture.
"It’s fine, it’s fine," he told them quickly. "As you were. We’ve nothing to fear from our guest. This isn’t some marauding thug we’re dealing with; this is a woman of culture and taste. There’s no need for violence here. We’re all friends, after all."
"…can’t say I remember you at the last book club meeting, friend," Cass spoke, accepting the handshake very, very tentatively. Even with her caution, his grasp wasn’t particularly firm. In fact, she could swear he used a hand lotion with moisturizer or something, from how soft it felt. "And my friends call me Cass, at any rate. Your name being…?"
"Leftenant Grayson, at your service," he spoke… turning away, to wander back to the card table. Pulling out a chair, having a seat before gesturing to the chair opposite. "If you please…?"
She didn’t please. But figuring there was no point in being stubborn about her seating arrangements, Cass opted to take the other folding chair. Turned it around to straddle and lean against the back of it, at least, as a mild show of rebellion. Surprisingly, it was more comfortable than the cot.
"I want my lawyer," she immediately requested. "Or better, a ride home. Seeing as you’re at my service, and all. Sure you can arrange it. I know my rights; wasn’t properly Mirandized under Department of Safety regs. You guys are in for a hell of a lawsuit."
"Regretfully, this is not the Department of Safety," Grayson spoke, folding his hands in front of him on the table. "You’re quite a distance from home, young Cassandra. This may come as something of a shock, but… I feel honesty is the best policy, and that means being the bearer of strange news when need be. You’re not in the City of Angles anymore. You’re in the Citadel. Similar concept, but a different world entirely. Our worlds have recently become connected, and you’ve crossed through that connection."
Military uniforms. Army gear, mixed in with the art displays of the Greasemonkey gallery. One year ago, trapped in that nightmare blend of two different worlds with Gregory Yates…
He’d suspected something was going on there, and it might not have been related to the Sideways. The soldier that had chased them down at gunpoint didn’t seem to hail from the City. Cass had always assumed the poor bastard was from Earth, since there’s always a war or two going on there, but… another world? A similar world to the City? Possible. Unlikely, but possible. It’d certainly explain the repeated break-ins at the Greasemonkey, if they were popping between planes of reality in the middle of her home.
A strangely analytical way to think about the unthinkable. She should be having an emotional reaction, probably a negative one. Panic was certainly there, somewhere in the mess of her mind. Better to have it hit home later, once she had a quiet moment to herself. For now… she had this joker to deal with.
"My request stands," she spoke. "I want a ride home."
"Perhaps. In time. It depends on a lot of factors, some of which are in your control, some of which are not. Out of my control, even," her warden spoke. "You’re our first guest, you see. Quite unexpected. There’s no protocol in place for dealing with your situation; we’re working entirely off the Commander’s advice for how to proceed."
"Uh-huh. And that advice is…?"
"An interview. We’d like to know more about you," he suggested… unfolding his hands, palms up. "An honest and open exchange of information. There’s so much we need to learn about each other, City and Citadel alike. May as well start right here, right now. Wouldn’t you agree? …you look unconvinced."
Good. Cass was doing her best to express a complete lack of convincing.
"I talk better when there aren’t armed goons around," she suggested.
Without hesitation, the leftenant flicked a gesture at the men. They hesitated, of course, not keen on leaving their ranking officer alone with the prisoner… but obedience did follow, after that moment of pause. On the other side of the door, closing it behind them.
"I know you won’t leap across the desk and try to strangle me," Grayson stated. "I trust that you’re a civil person, just as I am. We don’t need armed guards to have a civil conversation, yes?"
Plus you can just give a shout and they’ll be back in here in an instant, Cass realized. Even if the door muffled most sound in the room, they’d know a ruckus when they heard one.
Cass tipped her chair back and forth a little, a few degrees either direction as she thought the situation over.
"What do you wanna know about the City?" she asked. "If you know who I am you probably already know plenty about where I came from… and you know I’m pretty much a nobody. Just some hipster poet chick, and not even a successful one at that. Drive a truck to make ends meet, all that jazz. You wanna know some good routes in and out of the Outlands? I know a few…"
"Actually, it’s less you and more your friends that we’re wondering about," Grayson spoke. "The TroubleSolvers, I believe they’re called…?"
Dammit. Cass bit her lip, then immediately regretted that little bite. An involuntary reaction, and one he’d no doubt read like a book. She’d have to be honest… to the point of omission, of course.
"Freelance social workers," she recited. "Whole thing was Kelsey’s idea. We’d already been helping folks out here and there, just a matter of making it official for tax purposes. I handle driving ’em around, on the side. Primary biz is still freelance delivery work. And poetry. That’s about my entire involvement with it: I’m only the wheelman."
"Kelsey Jones-Smith, correct? Curious. We were under the assumption Gregory Yates was the founder. He seemed to fall into the leadership position during the few incidents and situations we know of…"
"Look, I don’t know the particulars. I drive the truck," Cass insisted, adding mimed steering motions for emphasis. "I know some of ’em well, others I don’t know so well. Kinda doubt I know much of anything you’d find helpful. I’d rather not waste your time, so…"
"If you’d rather not waste our time you can go into more depth, yes? We need to know everything you know. Everything," he emphasized. "No matter how small or trivial. But… that’s a vague request, isn’t it? What we really need here are more specific questions. And, regretfully, I don’t have those questions yet. We’re still researching. So, how about we table this for now and come at it fresh another time? Guards!"
Seeing their exchange as complete, the leftenant rose to his feet. Cass rose as well—but to stop him from leaving. Not that it stopped the guards from coming in, packing up the table and chairs, pulling them out while the two confronting each other stood in the center of the room…
"Look, you wanna know about the TroubleSolvers, you gotta ask Kelsey. Or Gregory, I guess. Not me. I’m on the fringes of it, I don’t know much. It’s a waste of time keeping me here just to drill me for information I don’t have. You get me a ride back through whatever Sideways exit that links our cities together, I can put you through to the man in charge. How about it?"
At this… Leftenant Grayson offered another flashy smile. A bit tighter than the last one.
"Ahhh, but Cassandra… I believe you DO know more than you’re letting on," he told her. "I have a good sense for these things. You’re not the first prisoner I’ve interrogated who’s played deaf, dumb and blind…"
"So I’m a prisoner, then? Thought you said I was a guest."
"Yes, well, that largely depends on factors outside my control—with your own participation being one of those factors," he spoke. "Get some rest. We’ll talk again soon. …you’ll be provided with a uniform tonight, by the way. I suggest changing into it by morning and leaving your civilian clothes with the guards. It’s far preferable to the alternative. Good day, and remain strong."
And before she could protest any further, he was gone. The heavy iron door slamming shut behind him.
He never came back.
At least, that’s what it felt like. Time passed, but time had no meaning; the overhead lights stayed on all day and all night, behind a shield of strong clear plastic to keep them secure. Whatever light was visible through the tiny barred window in the door was likewise artificial, and perpetual.
Immediately, this screwed with Cass’s internal clock. She drove a truck for a living, a highly scheduled lifestyle; one punctuated regularly by a series of encounters with other people. That meant the dispatcher she worked with to arrange independent deliveries, visits to TroubleSolvers HQ, hours spent at the Greasemonkey with her friends. Each day had specific encounters which fell into specific patterns, all of which involved transit outdoors at some point or another. The sun rises, the sun sets, days begin and end. But here… but here…
She’d almost missed the deadline to get changed into her new dull gray prison duds. The guards were going to be by to take her personal effects in the morning, but taking a nap out of sheer boredom on that first day threw her completely. By the time they were banging on her door for the pickup, she had to hurry and change before the bastards barged in and… well, like Grayson suggested, they would likely offer an alternative she wouldn’t enjoy. Her hipster threads and cellphone went into the meal slot, pulled out by an unseen guard, never to be seen again.
The only items she kept for herself were her glasses, her commercial driver’s license she fought so hard to keep, and a slightly wrinkled photo of herself with Grandma Scarlett and Jeb. Those two items she kept under her rock-hard cot. The glasses she kept on her head, for the most part.
The Leftenant didn’t return for further questioning the next day. Or the day after that, or the day after that.
Meals arrived at random times, through the delivery slot. Maybe they weren’t random, but they FELT random, and the amount of hunger she felt between food drops varied quite a bit. The fact that she was eating the world’s worst military rations didn’t help matters; not deliberately rotten or moldy, but barely edible all the same. Her digestion, used to a steady diet of healthy organic food from the corner fair trade mart, wobbled between horrible extremes for days…
The boredom was the worst of it.
If she had a pencil and paper, she could keep herself entertained. In fact a few times on getting her meal she tried asking for such amenities… but she couldn’t even see the guard through the narrow frame of reference the window offered. Maybe there wasn’t a guard, maybe the meals were delivered by some automated robot.
Nobody had spoken a word to her in… how long? A week? Couldn’t be. That’s absurd. They wouldn’t sit on their asses for a week when they had a high-value prisoner just waiting to divulge secrets, would they? Not that she’d tell them anything, of course. Oh, the things she COULD say… about Penelope Yates, about the teddy bears and the Picassos, about the secret grocery store. Wouldn’t say, no. Wouldn’t say a word.
Eventually she started screaming for someone to come interrogate her and get it over with already. Nobody did.
Rockland and Greystone. Allen talked about them, once. The psychiatric institutions where his mother sought treatment, where his friend Carl Solomon was shocked into oblivion… not that this was an asylum. Not that Cass was losing her mind. She could hold it together, had to hold it together. It was just boring, that’s all, and she could certainly handle boring, right? Right?
And then the words had stopped coming. The phantom writer in her mind was so bored it had gone into hibernation. Her only possible companion in this dark and miserable place abandoned her. That special form of insanity was sanity for her, and the lack of it very well could drive her mad…
Without the words to bounce her ideas against, a loop started in her mind. It played on repeat, like a broken record. (Hipsters knew their records from their eight-tracks from their MP3s.) It spoke, over and over:
I should be tougher than this. This is nothing.
Nobody’s actively punching me in the face or anything.
Other people have it worse than this.
So why am I scared? Why am I freaking out?
This is so stupid. I’m being so stupid. I can’t be this weak.
I’m this weak. I’m scared and stupid.
I should be tougher than this. This is nothing…
When the door finally opened she was curled up on her cot and had been so for hours.
Guards arranged the portable table and chairs. Grayson settled into his seat, and patiently waited for Cass’s reaction to his presence.
Eventually, she came to the negotiation table.
"Sorry for the delay, but I wanted to be fully prepared for our next meeting," the Leftenant explained. "It’s very important to know what questions to ask, and… Cassandra? Cassandra, are you all right?"
It took a few moments to remember how to be sarcastic.
"Do I look all right to you," she muttered, too tired to add a question mark at the end.
"No. No, you do not," he admitted. "I think we’re going to need to put you on a different rotation. Perhaps add an exercise period to your daily routine. Would you like that? Get out, enjoy the sun a bit? Yes, of course you would. There’s no sense keeping you cooped up in here, honestly; you’re our guest, the first guest from your City, and I’d rather you had special treatment befitting that status."
"What do you want," she asked, again unable to muster the rise in pitch needed to make it a question.
"About my friends."
"Indeed. For instance…"
…and he produced the photo. The one which was supposedly still under her cot. How did he get it? Was someone in here? Was she asleep when they came? Had they taken it while she was awake, and she’d been so out of it that she didn’t even know…?
"This woman’s name is Scarlett, yes?" the Leftenant asked. "She seems to be popping up with unusual frequently in our investigations. Owner of the Happy Acre Orphanage, maker of teddy bears, employer of yours for a number of years. Bears which, according to online reports, seem to counteract the disease known as ‘cubism.’ Very curious. And then, sadly, she passed on… and yet, there are reports on your Internet that she’s still around."
In the Exclusionary Zone.
It was part of Penelope ‘coming out’ to her closest friends, getting them all on the same page with the revelations she’d learned over the course of this crazy point in history. Keeping track of who knew what had been difficult on the youngster, and so for those she trusted the most, she pulled them aside one by one and filled them in.
Dave and Kelsey. Marcy and Gus. Vivi and Hollister. Eventually Miranda Walker, to build trust with her "frenemy." And of course, Cass. (Oddly, the two schoolmates that Penelope brought to the "victory party" at the Greasemonkey were not included in this particular jamboree.) All of them were told the ultimate truth of the City, and Penelope’s place within it.
…life is but a dream…
The Heart of the City. Patient 23. Bedlam, Echo, and Lucid. Penelope’s true origins. The real aftermath of Memorial Stadium, the things the Department of Safety wasn’t releasing to the public about who lived there… particularly about Grandma Scarlett, who hadn’t fully left their world…
Some of them dealt with the revelations better than others. Cass swallowed it all, and didn’t question it. She’d seen enough moving around under the skin of the City to know better than to question Penelope’s truths. They brought her no comfort, true, but there was no point in denying them.
And now… the Citadel wanted access to those truths that had been entrusted to Cass.
"Grandma Scarlett died. That’s all there is to it," Cass protested.
"You were close, yes? If rumors were swirling that she had evaded death, surely you’d want to follow up on them…"
"I don’t listen to rumors."
"I’m curious as to how she pulled it off. Was it some simple trick, faking her own death? Or something more… supernatural? Your City and my Citadel have both seen their share of impossible things, Cassandra. I’m an open-minded man, moreso than most. If she did cheat death… I’d be willing to believe."
Not a word. Don’t give him anything. Too close to sensitive truths… too close to breaking Penelope’s trust…
"How did she do it? Who aided her? Was it Gregory Yates?" Grayson wondered. "He’s been in your Sideways, he’s dealt with your Bedlam. He may know secrets. The TroubleSolvers, the organization he founded, they involve themselves in some very strange secrets, don’t they. Every month… you deliver food. A great deal of food to a great many charities. Where does it come from, Cassandra?"
Easier to focus on the table. It was a new object in her room, something fascinating to behold. Little tears in the cheap vinyl covering, each with their own ragged edge. Patterns, lines…
An open hand slamming down on the folding table, making it shift an inch.
"Cassandra. Focus, please," he requested. "This is important. This is the difference between having a chance at returning to your home, and… well. I suppose it is time we talked about the alternative, isn’t it. An alternative I know for certain you will not enjoy."
Those, Cass could get her mind around. Between veiled threats and stealing her beloved picture, it was enough to get long-held anger back in her mind… and focused where it belonged. On her captors, not herself. More. More of it, to bring her back from the brink…
"Go ahead," she spoke. "I can tell you’re just itching to tell me the alternative. If I don’t spill my guts, what happens to me?"
"You’re a lesbian, aren’t you?"
Not the follow-up she was expecting. Enough to stun her, a moment.
"…not that it’s any of your business, but yes. What’s your point?" she asked.
Oddly, despite exercising his terrible power and threatening might… Grayson didn’t wear his bright smile, not now. He explained the reason behind his question dispassionately.
"Community requires togetherness. All pulling for a common cause," he recited. "For instance, the Enemy is a singular, driving force. It has no splinters and no internal disagreement. Therefore, unity in the Citadel is a must… unity of purpose, unity of thought. We can’t afford to spend time on selfish thinking. Do you see where I’m going with this, Cassandra?"
The poet stared blankly, not following. Grayson leaned across the card table, to speak in a more subdued and personal tone.
"All are equal in the Citadel," he explained. "’If You Can Hold a Gun Or Bear a Son, You Are Needed.’ It’s all about soldiers, Cassandra. We always need more soldiers. Sadly, that means certain personal freedoms must be sacrificed in the name of population de-control. No contraceptives allowed. No abortions allowed. …and no homosexuality allowed. Nothing that will impede the development of a new generation of soldiers, and the inevitable defeat of our Enemy."
"…you people made it illegal to be gay?" Cass asked, unable to swallow the concept. "What. What the hell? I thought both the City and the Citadel had roots in America. How is that in any way American?"
"Sacrifices for the greater good, Cassandra. Petty personal interests have no place when you must do battle with monsters."
"So… if someone doesn’t want to marry a guy and settle down and produce more babies to be sent off to war, they get shot?"
"What? No! No. That would be a complete waste of precious resources," Grayson protested. "We aren’t beasts, Cassandra. Even the most selfish of our society have a place within it. For instance… women like you are sent to Camp Redemption."
"You’re kidding me. You send them to some stupid pray-the-gay-away camp?"
"Absolutely not. You are what you are; we understand and accept the biological roots of your condition," Greystone explained. "The camp isn’t rooted in homophobic hatred, under the name of God or any other moralistic ideology. This is a question of sheer pragmatic need. …and what we need, as I pointed out… is soldiers. And those who will produce them, by hook or by crook."
And like that, Cass didn’t need to dig any deeper on the subject of how women are redeemed at Camp Redemption.
"That’s… that’s inhuman," she declared.
"I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with it myself, Cassandra. But it’s how things have to be."
"A… breeding camp. You send ‘women like me’ to a breeding camp…"
"That doesn’t have to be your fate! I don’t want to send you to Redemption!" Grayson insisted. "My superiors are the ones who make the decision, but they act on the information I provide them during our sessions together. If I can prove to them that you’re a valuable asset… you could have a good life here. Nobody has to know what you are; the state has covered for others with your condition who proved useful to them. All I need from you… is the truth."
Leaving Cass sitting in her chair, floored by it all.
Didn’t matter how much heartfelt pleading the bastard poured into his voice; the threat was simple. Give up everything you know about the secrets of your City, or you’ll be given the traditional "fate worse than death." It turned her stomach. Being shot in the head for not betraying her people, that was sensible. Clean, almost, even if abhorrent. But this was just… unthinkably cruel.
Not that it changed her mind.
"I just drive a truck," she spoke, staying firm. "I’m not the one who has the answers you’re looking for."
"Impossible. Maybe you were on the fringes, but you were there each time things got strange in your City. You and your friends. This is not the time to play games, Cassandra—"
"My name is Cass," she spoke. "Not Cassandra. That’s the name of a woman who spoke the truth, and nobody believed her. They overlooked her, laughed at her, mocked her. When I choose to speak the truth… when I choose to speak the truth, you are damn well going to believe me. And I’ve got nothing to say to you right now. Pack up your little table and get out of my room."
She didn’t ask for her photo back. They wouldn’t give it back, of course. Wouldn’t give up an inch of control, and Cass would not be seen pleading uselessly.
If she was going to be sent off to a living hell, they were taking their sweet time getting around to it.
More useless days passed. This time, though, Cass kept her focus through it all. She had something to live for. Something to hate.
Honestly, Cass wasn’t a very hateful person. All her life she’d been pretty chill, laid back even as others were falling apart. She’d gone through some gnarly times, struggled with a personal form of Metadream-induced schizophrenia, and persisted through it all. By keeping herself open to the world rather than closing up into a little ball of fear and hate, she’d found wonderful people like Reg. Like Fi. Like Scarlett…
But here and now? Hate. It gave her strength, like a venomous well you wanted to drink deep from. Not that she liked having to use that dark feeling to keep herself going. She, well, hated it. But you did what you had to do, and right now, she had to hate.
Exercise kept her declining body in check. If she couldn’t eat properly, she could at least renew that gym membership she kept letting expire. Not much equipment around, but push-ups and pull-ups on her cot and jogging in place would make do. All with her eyes focused on the bars of her cell window, that tiny gap. The space between herself and freedom. Proof that there was a world beyond the door…
Days passed. She honestly didn’t care how many, at this point.
And one morning, after what was presumably breakfast… the words came back.
Head swimming, from the impact of that word. It burned in the air, hazy as always… but intense. As if screaming off a virtual typewritten page.
The words were always insistent… but not that insistent. They didn’t scream, not like that.
pandora. pandora. pandora.
The headache which followed was blinding. Cass groaned, sinking to her knees in the middle of a jogging routine, hands pulling at her hair. This wasn’t right; not like this, the words had never been like this. Something wrong…
Didn’t even see the door open. Only recognized Grayson by the shine on his boots.
"Feeling better today, Cassandra?" he asked, towering above her.
"What. What did you. What did you do," she asked, unable to take her eyes off the floor at the moment.
"I’m saving your life, young lady," he insisted. "My superiors are growing impatient… but I don’t want you to have to go to Redemption. So… I chose to douse your meal with the most powerful truth serum Citadel Intelligence can provide."
And the headache was gone. Simply because Cass chose not to have one.
As she rose to her feet… the words were there. They were everywhere. Every wall, every brick. So many stories to tell. Even the light bulb behind shatterproof plastic above her head had a story to tell, and she could see the truth behind it all. Behind…
"You really, really shouldn’t have done that," she spoke with absolute honesty, looking Grayson in the eye.
"It’s for your own good," he insisted.
"Yes. Yes, it is good for me," Cass agreed. "Do you remember what we talked about last time we were here? I said when I chose to speak the truth, you were going to believe me. It’s time."
And so, she spoke true.
It made sense to her, because she simply knew the simple reality of it all.
The Metadream is behind everything. It’s within the patient who created the City of Angles, and it’s within the patient who created the Citadel. My connection persists no matter where I stand; one dream world is as good as another. They’re all dream worlds on some level, and I am linked to them. As are we all.
A fine personal revelation for her own use… but not the one she spoke. No, instead, she spoke the story of Leftenant Wil Grayson. Her words transcended language, supercharged by the drug that was burning through her mind, empowered by the Metadream which wrapped around her like an oracular shroud…
The best English approximate would be: "This is where you are. This is where you stand. This is what you are. This is how small you are. This is the truth of everything that is you."
Grayson didn’t take his personal revelation well.
"Stop. Please stop," he begged.
"It’s for your own good," she quoted.
And Cass continued.
By the time she felt he’d learned enough, he was slumped against the wall in a tight defensive curl and sobbing openly. The guards who had accompanied him were likewise catatonic. One had wet himself; another had the business end of his rifle between his lips.
"I believe you were offering me my freedom in return for the truth," Cass reminded him.
"D-Down the hall," Wil Grayson replied, in the smallest voice. While offering an electronic key card from his belt. "Past the guard station and through the red gate. This will open the exit."
She pulled the rifle from the suicidal guard before he could shoot himself, and stepped out into the hallway.
Cass had to work fast.
Getting the mental drop on three unprepared fools was easy. They saw her as weak, a prisoner to break down and control. Safe inside her little containment cell. Out in the wild of the prison, on her own with a rifle she had no earthly idea how to actually shoot… that was another story. Out here, Cass would be seen as a direct threat and dealt with as such.
Plus, there was the not-so-small matter of the words. With the drug supercharging her unique ability, the words were very distracting, almost impossible to filter out. The stories they told got in the way of her progress. They screamed truisms about men and women who came before her, of broken prisoners in cells she passed by, ones she couldn’t save. Every one of the Citadel’s ugliest sins coming to light and demanding her undivided attention—
The raised rifle was just to get his attention, keep him from firing immediately. And then she spoke to him of the one thing he’d never forgiven himself for.
It was enough to deal with the problem, leaving the man crying into his hands in shame. But one lone guard making the rounds down these hallways would be easy to deal with. If she ran into a whole squadron of them…
No. Focus. Focus on escape.
Down the hall, the long hall, row after row of cells. The guard station would be difficult to get past but she could figure something out. Past the station, through the red gate, and off to freedom—
Had to ignore it, couldn’t give it any attention. She couldn’t rescue anyone here.
help me please somebody
marcy hollister somebody please i’m scared
—which froze Cass in her tracks.
Immediately, she grasped the bars of the tiny window where those words hovered. Peering in, trying to make out the figure in the dim and flickering light…
Bound in heavy chains, blindfolded.
For some reason, the Citadel had kidnapped Vivi Wei.
On instinct, Cass called out to her for her attention. And felt stupid for doing it, knowing she wouldn’t be heard.
She also felt stupid for taking her eye off the hallway, and letting a guard slip up behind her with the butt of a rifle. Because it impacted against the back of her head perfectly, bouncing her face off the bars, and sending her down in the darkness of unconsciousness.
In the end, the bus ride to Camp Redemption was inevitable.
This time, they gagged Cass to keep her under control. Not that it mattered, since after she awoke, the truth serum had run its course.
Someone figured out she was able to talk several guards into nervous breakdowns; a humiliating thing to admit, so they chose not to admit it. The whole thing was going to be swept under the rug, with their prisoner sent off to Redemption for the rest of her life. Out of sight, out of mind, not their problem any longer.
Chained to her seat, alongside similarly grey-garbed prisoners. Other women, being sent to their Citadel-designed fate in a retrofitted school bus. Male guards at the wheel, and watching over them with rifles at the ready in case somehow the broken cargo they were hauling rose up in rebellion. Not that there was a chance of that.
"I heard it’s not so bad," the woman sitting next to Cass whispered. "It’s not so bad if you go along with the programs. You’re treated well if you cooperate. They won’t kill the mother of a new generation…"
Not that Cass paid any attention. She was busy looking out the windows. The first sunlight she’d had in countless days, and even under these circumstances, she was relishing in it.
They rolled on an open road, across a blasted wasteland. A great battle took place out here, leaving its scars across the world… but that battle had long since moved on, long enough that the paved road between the holding prison and the internment camp was pothole-free. One stretch of big empty, between two different flavors of Hell. And with two other flavors of Hell to the right and left.
To the left… the Citadel. Cass was the first of her kind to see it from the outside. Strong walls of solid concrete, twenty feet high or more, kept the thing wrapped up like a defensive scarf. Above those walls towered buildings of spartan design, built by the hands of man. Not randomized imports like the City of Angles enjoyed… these were made to purpose. Housing complexes, factories belching smoke into the sky, and vast billboards coated in propaganda or commercials or both.
All of it custom-designed for the Citadel’s needs, but no further than those needs. No excess allowed.
the city of dis, her typically symbolic words declared. they watch on from high while men bleed and die, far away…
With that ‘far away’ being the view out the right hand side of the bus.
In the distance, she could see the smoke. Could hear the explosions. The same explosions she heard in the distance when she listened at a window, long ago in the Greasemonkey, when the two worlds bled into each other for a few hours. Didn’t know what to make of them, at the time… but now she knew. She was hearing the distant drums of war.
the shores of pandemonium, where an eyeless enemy smiles as it kills, the words promised. it is the madness of nations, wrapped in cruel flesh.
Generations of men and women were being fed into that war machine, just beyond her sight. They were perishing screaming on the field of battle, falling before some mythical Enemy’s gunsights. In a way… Cass could understand the sheer terror that the Citadel felt, the fear that drove them to these extremes. It didn’t justify those extremes, but it certainly explained them. She didn’t have to see the Enemy face-to-face to know that they would drive men beyond terrible lengths.
Beyond the end of this particular terrible length, her new life as a victim of this society would begin. And she would spit at them in the eye every single minute of every single day, never giving in, never accepting it. Not that it would do any good whatsoever.
The wheezing old engine of the bus sputtered as they rolled along. Sputtered and wheezed… and then gave out.
Rolling to a slow stop, partway down the road to Redemption.
Apparently this was not a scheduled stop. The prisoners began whispering to each other in confusion, daring to make more than the smallest of squeaks… likely because the guards were distracted, trying to figure out the cause of the sudden engine trouble—
The tear gas grenade smashed in through the windshield.
After that, all Cass could hear over her own coughing was gunfire. Gunfire and shouting. By the time the gas cleared… so had the gunfire and shouting. And the guards were gone.
She found them later bleeding out at the side of the road. Put down like dogs, by other men with guns. Men and women wearing civilian clothes, with red neckerchiefs. They unlocked the shackles that kept the prisoners bound, one by one, helping them off the bus… providing water to splash in their eyes, to clear up the last of the gas.
As for the rebel woman who unlocked the gag from Cass’s mouth and pulled her out of that hell, well…
That angelic woman wore a face Cass certainly didn’t expect to see again.
On instinct, Cass called out her name. And felt stupid for doing it, knowing she wouldn’t be heard.