Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to the center of your youthful memories. A home, a school, a bedroom, or a darkened hallway where everything changed.. whatever that center may be, there it is, plain as day. Run if you wish, but it’ll always be there.
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…
We live within the camera’s eye. Photographs are testimony from the past, video captures the present, and the future comes in the form of a thousand bits of metadata flowing in from all corners of the social network known as civilization. Oral tradition isn’t good enough; ocular tradition must back it up. "Pix or it didn’t happen," as it were.
This is true in reality television, broadcast news streams, and personal journalism. Until it can be seen, it may as well not exist. It’s easy to say something crazy, like "the Citadel is planning to enslave us all," but that’s just tinfoil hat ranting, isn’t it? There’s no proof to back it up, nothing to tickle your sense of reason. Without that evidence, it’s easy to dismiss a truth you don’t want to be true.
Not that it makes it any less true. With or without the judging view of a lens, there is a truth which exists. And ignoring it simply because nobody’s made a supercut of clips about it with some pop song in the background means running the risk of remaining ignorant until the day they come for you…
//019: Final Cut
Everything changed, and nothing changed for Lucas Flynn.
It was the same with Memorial Stadium, and his brief dip into the waters of the "Blue-Eyed Plague." Everything changed, and nothing changed. He went into that situation as a young student filmmaker with a high school sweetheart… and exited the situation as a young student filmmaker with a high school sweetheart. Nothing different. Everything different…
Try to put it behind you, Penelope recommended. It’s over now.
So, Lucas did exactly that. Filmed more comedy sketches for their video channel. Attended classes. Let the days slip by, largely as they had before…
Trying to ignore the gnawing in his head, the little toothed thing that said: You almost killed yourself. Something dark in the City got a hold of you, and you almost killed yourself and the woman you love. There’s so much out there in this world you don’t understand. Penelope knows, but thinks she’s protecting you by saying nothing…
And now? Now the Citadel was here. Had been here for a week, in fact. Yet another pile of huge unknowns to deal with, and again, nothing had really changed.
Still had online classes to attend. Still had club meetings and chats with his friends. Still had weekend shoots to plan out, shot by shot, in storyboard form. Still had lessons upon lessons; some the standard high school stuff, some special online courses he was taking of his own volition. It all filled the hours perfectly, an end-to-end series of events that marched forward even if the City around him was changing.
Out here in the Suburbs, the secondary layer of the City’s existence, there weren’t any men with guns and sharp-looking military uniforms. Nobody had been going door to door yanking people out into the street and executing them. (That wasn’t happening in the City proper, for that matter. Online rumor mills swirled, but that was what they were for; collections of nuts and trolls that congealed stupidity into safe, ignorable clumps.) Despite the brief appearance Commander Yates on all the news streams a week ago, nothing really changed.
…Yates. Commander Yates. He’d asked Penelope about it that afternoon; the two of them had a few classes in common at Maslow Academy, the expensive online high school they both attended. Lucas had long since mastered the art of passing digital notes in class, perfect for getting an inside scoop. Even if there wasn’t much scoop to get.
THX1138: So what’s up with that guy who has your dad’s face?
The delay before Penelope texted him back was telling.
PennyLane: You saw the stuff they posted about the Commander’s dinner at my restaurant, right? It’s all there.
THX1138: Yeah, they said that people were echoed into the Citadel just like here. Same people, same faces.
THX1138: But what’s UP with him? Like, what do you know that nobody else knows?
THX1138: You gotta know something. You always know something about what’s going on with stuff like this.
PennyLane: Really shouldn’t talk about it.
THX1138: C’mon, spill. I want to help. You know that.
Again, a delay. Lucas continued to ignore the rambling of his math professor in another window, and hammered out more messages, whether Penelope chose to reply to them or not.
THX1138: Is this going to end up like the Memorial Stadium showdown? Are you and your dad planning something?
THX1138: Half the people I talk to think there’s gonna be a war. Half think the war’s already over. Half say it’s all on the level and there’s nothing to freak out about
THX1138: that’s 3 halves
THX1138: I mean
THX1138: Look, I just want to know what’s happening. Ok?
Finally, a reply.
PennyLane: I’ve got to focus on class. Sry
So, nothing new. Nothing different.
He wasn’t expecting anything else. Penelope had been distant all year; friendly, but always with a hint of shame over what happened back then. Milly unable to look anyone in the eye, to avoid sharing herself too deeply with them. Lucas driven to madness and forced to bear witness to a mass suicide. They were her friends, and whether Penelope was directly responsible for these woes or not, they still got sucked into her weird life and came out the other side wounded.
Try to put it behind you, it’s over now.
Yeah. As if.
But it wasn’t really the trauma eating away at him. No, the real issue was something else, something he couldn’t deny any longer, seen in himself through Milly’s eyes…
And distracted, by a knock at the door.
"Delivery!" his father announced, with a chipper tone. He held forth a large cardboard box, nicely taped up for transit. "It’s the new tripod and mount, isn’t it?"
Plenty of good things left in life, even alongside all the concerningly unanswered questions. Finally, something Lucas could smile about.
"Yesssss," he replied, snatching the box away. "JUST in time. I was hoping to use this for the weekend shoot…"
"You know, if you want to duck out of classes for a day to re-do the lighting rig downstairs, you can," his dad offered. "All those extra film school lessons you’re taking really eat up your free time, sport. You’ve got to make time to practice what they preach."
More things change, more they stay the same… the world’s best parents, letting him get away with any transgression in the name of his craft. They’d supported his filmmaking since his earliest days goofing off with Lego and stop motion cameras. Even when he’d first met Penelope, an incident which led to crashing into a food court at a local shopping mall… all his parents cared about was whether he got the shots he needed or not.
(Funny thing was that it obliged him to actually film some crazy bike chase action sequence, to make his cover story make sense. That short video launched Flynn-Frisk Funnies into overnight viral fame. Another thing to thank Penelope for.)
"I can just take my laptop downstairs on Friday and listen to the lessons while I do the rigging," Lucas offered. "Or record them for later. I always record the school’s streams, just in case. Don’t worry."
For instance… once his father was back in his own office, where he teleworked every day alongside his mother at their mom-and-pop programming shop, Lucas started multitasking. Volume down on his lessons from Maslow Academy, letting them quietly spool to disk while he set up a webcam for his newest unboxing video.
[NOTE: Distortion compensation incomplete]
[Hand covering lens gives way to view of BROWN SHIPPING BOX on BEDSPREAD. Autofocus tightens on the SHIPPING LABEL, which has been visually distorted. Voiceover narrator identified as LUCAS FLYNN, age 16, student at Maslow Online Academy, currently residing at The Glades in the Suburbs.]
[LUCAS] Okay, so this is the tripod we were talking about in my last vlog post. This is the professional gear, the kind of mount they use on big budget digital shoots. It’s overkill for the stuff I’m doing now, but… okay, so let’s get this open.
[A BOX CUTTER is produced from out of frame, and cuts through the shipping label and the PACKING TAPE. Flaps are opened and STYROFOAM PEANUTS are scattered. INSTRUCTIONS and a RECEIPT are produced. Note: Distortion over receipt is likely intentional based on following statement.]
[LUCAS] So there’s the details on how to assemble it… multiple languages, nice and pro, and whoop, you don’t need to see the receipt… I’ll just blur that out, if you don’t mind. I know no true fan of Flynn/Frisk Funnies would jack my credit card, but lotta whackos out there, so… yeah. Okay, let’s get to the real show…
[More styrofoam is pushed aside, and a BLACK PLASTIC TRIPOD LEG is removed. Followed by another leg. There is no third one.]
[LUCAS] …oh, for… no. No, no, no. You have GOT to be kidding…
[Subject leaves camera running while the sound of a mobile phone being unlocked is heard from offscreen. Shortly after, a SPEAKERPHONE is audible. The person on the other end is an UNKNOWN EMPLOYEE at an UNKNOWN MANUFACTURING COMPANY. Vocal distortions are believed to be applied in post-processing by Lucas Flynn.]
[UNKNOWN] [on phone] [company name distorted], sales department. [name distorted] speaking, how may I help you?
[LUCAS] [name distorted]. What the hell, man. What the hell.
[UNKNOWN] [audible sigh] Okay, look, I know it’s not exactly the part you ordered…
[LUCAS] It’s a cheap plastic knockoff, [name distorted]. And it’s only got two legs.
[UNKNOWN] I was hoping it’d work for you. It’s all I’ve got to offer, Lucas. Sorry.
[LUCAS] All you’ve got to offer? You had like eighty sets in stock!
[UNKNOWN] Had eighty sets in stock. They’re gone now. …look, I’m not supposed to talk about this, but… between you, me, and the wall? The Citadel’s got them now.
[UNKNOWN] Serious! Some bigwig from Resources came through here early this week with a few Safety officers and soldiers from the Citadel, and they issued an annexation declaration. Took the entire stock, even the raw materials we make them from. Something about the metal tubes and alloys we’re using being more valuable put to other uses. I’m supposed to get a shipment of more of the plastic junk soon, salvaged from a photo studio some independent mapper found. That’s their idea of compensating us for the loss.
[LUCAS] So… the Citadel just flat out stole eighty camera tripods? For the METAL?
[UNKNOWN] Annexed. Not stole. It’s legal if the Department of Resources says it’s not stealing. Look, I’m just as angry as you. This is happening all over the place; local manufacturers are getting their swag annexed left and right. All the City original brands are getting hit one way or another.
[LUCAS] Seriously? Wow. Okay… you’re forgiven for shipping me this P-O-S. But why haven’t I heard anything in the news about the annexations?
[UNKNOWN] You really think anybody wants to publicly complain about a bunch of heavily armed jackoffs? Or the Department of Resources, for that matter? Businesses like ours live and die by D-o-R paperwork and approvals. Nobody’s gonna rock that boat. Official word from the front office is to grin and bear it. Uh. You didn’t hear any of this from me, though, got it?
[LUCAS] …uh… okay, in the interests of fairness, I should note I may have been accidentally recording this conversation.
[LUCAS] It’s cool, it’s cool. I can mute your name and screw up your voice before I post it.
[UNKNOWN] Don’t. Lucas, man, just don’t.
[LUCAS] Nobody will know it was you, it’s—
[UNKNOWN] —that’s not the point—
[LUCAS] —thought something was going on, had to be something going on, and—
[UNKNOWN] —you don’t want this kind of trouble. Lucas, I’m not saying this to cover my own ass, okay? If you post this, hell, I don’t know what’ll happen to you. These guys rolled in here like a Counterstrike team, not like accountants. Just… keep your head down. You’ve got talent, I love your videos, I’d hate to see anything bad happen to you…
[LUCAS] I’m not saying I WILL post it. Just… I don’t know, [name distorted]. I don’t know yet. I’ll think about it. Thanks for the heads up.
[UNKNOWN] Anytime, man. Hey, you gonna be online later for our match with [distorted]? We’re starting at eight. I wanna run engy this time if you’re gonna go heavy again.
[LUCAS] …I gotta call you back. Something’s up.
[LUCAS] I don’t know, my school stream just got interrupted by a guy in a stupid hat. I’ll text you later.
[File is a screen capture of a prerecorded message sent to all Maslow Academy students. Subject is CAPTAIN FISHER, with the Citadel Education Bureau, in full military dress.]
[FISHER] Good day, students of Maslow Academy! My name is Captain Daniel Fisher, of the Citadel Education Bureau. I’d like to speak to you today regarding our upcoming evaluations of the City’s educational system. Starting tomorrow, in conjunction with the Department of Orientation, evaluators will be visiting various schools both online and offline to learn as much as they can about you wonderful students and how you learn.
[Stock photo slides of Citadel classrooms; chalkboards, wooden desks, students in basic uniforms. Photos of 1990s-era computer labs and chemistry labs.]
[FISHER] As you can see, we value education greatly in the Citadel; children of today are the leaders of tomorrow. Our teachers and instructors are revered, as keepers of the flame of knowledge. In the Citadel, all youth have a basic human right to an education. A number of public and private academies are in place to ensure that the future generation learns what it needs to learn to prosper and survive. The Citadel teaches many children just like you, the fine students of Maslow Academy.
[Back to CAPTAIN FISHER, who is smiling.]
[FISHER] Normally, we’d be pulling students aside for one-on-one evaluations, as we’ll be doing at a number of public schools tomorrow. But for you, the elite, the finest the City of Angles has to offer… we don’t believe this will be required. Any one of you would make a fine cadet in our Command Schools, and believe me, that is the highest praise I can offer. Only the best of the best would make it to that point in our Citadel.
[Leaning forward now, more serious in tone.]
[FISHER] However… let me be clear. This is a fact-finding mission only. We are not transferring you to a new school. Maslow Academy is a private institution and your tuition is paid by your parents; you’re happy here, and we have no intention to interfere with that. We wish to learn from your unique approaches to home schooling, in hopes we can improve our own schools based on the lessons learned here.
[Slow dissolve to a flying flag, red white and blue, with an icon of a castle tower in the center.]
[FISHER] Together, the City and the Citadel will march into the future. I’ve no doubt that both our worlds can benefit from this cultural exchange. Thank you for your time, and remain strong.
Lucas rewatched the entire thing, to make sure he’d captured it correctly.
Then, as a way to keep his hands busy while he pondered the situation, he opened up his day-long spool of video capture and clipped out just the speech. Saved it as 002.mp4, alongside a dump from his webcam of the failed unboxing video. Two files, side by side, in an unnamed directory. Both concerning the Citadel…
This felt… big.
He’d felt this way before. At a local party, he patiently sat back and filmed a dozen teenagers killing themselves. Under the influence of that dark music, he thought: This feels big. This feels important. He wanted to get that video out there, to spread some truth to all who saw it…
Of course, at the time, he wasn’t in his right mind. And now, that desire was rising again.
This was the problem. Not the horrors he was forced to watch, not the secrets he was forced to keep. It was what he saw of himself in Milly’s eyes… ambition. A yearning need to do something more than wacky weekly sketch comedy.
It’s why he was jamming his brain with film school classes, sacrificing every moment of free time to hone his craft. He wanted more out of life, wasn’t content anymore to take the easy route to video hits and ad impressions by posting some wacky three-minute animation every week. He wanted to do something important. That’s the hidden urge that the Blue-Eyed Plague used, exploiting his ambition in an effort to infect the world.
But ambition needed perspective. It needed perspective back then, and it needed it now.
He needed his muse.
One phone call. One half-hour wait, since she was busy walking home from school. And then, much to his relief, she was here with him.
(Lately, they’d been meeting at his house, not hers. Easier than dealing with the presence of Mr. Frisk, filled with silent disappointment and disapproval. No matter how much of a Nice Young Man he tried to be, Lucas just couldn’t satisfy the old man’s expectations for his daughter’s would-be boyfriend.)
Soon enough Milly Frisk sat at the end of his bed, watching the two video files. Lucas insisted on playing them back before he explained his crazy plan.
As always, she’d dressed warmly; two or three layers, to avoid catching cold. Of course, colds didn’t work that way and Milly knew it… a learned state of eternal hypochondria was a difficult thing to shrug, even if you knew on a rational level how silly it was. Despite her layers, despite the warmth of the room… she had to hug herself a bit, for comfort, after watching the video.
"They’re coming to Clinton Public High tomorrow," she told him. "We got an announcement… sort of like that one. Not nearly as nice as that one, though…"
[File is a screen capture of a prerecorded message sent to all public high school students. Subject is CAPTAIN FISHER, with the Citadel Education Bureau, in full military dress.]
[FISHER] Good day, students of [bad audio voiceover "Clinton Public High School"]. My name is Captain Daniel Fisher, of the Citadel Education Bureau. I’d like to speak to you today regarding our upcoming evaluations of the City’s educational system. Tomorrow, in conjunction with the Department of Orientation, evaluators will be visiting your school to perform a series of tests which are designed to measure your school’s overall performance and your individual progression as members of your society.
[Stock photo slides of Citadel training grounds; students in basic uniforms going through obstacle courses, laboring in wood and metal workshops, performing in organized group exercise sessions.]
[FISHER] Training is critical for shaping the youth of today into the soldiers of tomorrow. As you can see, we value training greatly in the Citadel; our instructors are the best of the best when it comes to making sure every member of society is productive and contributing their fair share.
[Back to CAPTAIN FISHER, who is not smiling.]
[FISHER] Tomorrow, we will be evaluating you on a personal basis; organized interviews with each student will be arranged. Report to school at normal time and await further instructions in the gymnasium. Your performance during these interviews will determine what changes if any need to be made by the Department of Orientation to bring your education up to Citadel standards. Our goal is to offer our expertise as educators, to improve upon your existing structures.
[Slow dissolve to a flying flag, red white and blue, with an icon of a castle tower in the center.]
[FISHER] Together, the City and the Citadel will march into the future. Good day, and remain strong.
It took a few minutes to find a smuggled copy of that recording online.
It wasn’t technically illegal to share a copy of it, not like pirating music, but for some reason it had been yanked offline and reposted several times, with no indication as to why it got censored. Lucas only found a copy through a few buddies of his; he saved a copy to disk as 003.mp4, just to be safe, in case it got yanked again.
And afterward watching it with Milly, even Lucas felt a bit chilly.
"Okay, that IS worse," he realized. "Ours at least came with a pile of back-patting and reassurances. This one sounds like they’re going to completely revamp your school… or maybe send everybody off to boot camp."
"But they can’t do that, right?" Milly insisted. "That’d be just… stupid. Impossible. They can’t force us to join their army, we’re citizens of the City. And we’re only sixteen, for crying out loud!"
"Yeah, that’s pretty far-fetched. No way it’d ever happen. But… clearly they’re planning something, right? And the Department of Orientation’s going along with it…"
"D-of-O pays the bills," Milly said, shorthanding the lengthy governmental office name. "The teachers at Clinton are freaked out. My drama club coach thinks they’re all gonna get fired and replaced with cigar-chomping drill instructors or something."
"Everybody’s freaked out," Lucas agreed, closing the video window. "Are the Citadel really here for diplomatic reasons, or are they sizing up a potential victim? I mean, why are they looting businesses? Why are they ‘evaluating’ schools? Nobody knows for sure."
"It’s not like we can do anything about it. We can’t just walk up to some guy from the Citadel, like that fake Mr. Yates, and say ‘Excuse me, are you evil?’"
"Well, no, but… we can still get the facts out. Like that leaked video," Lucas suggested. "Yanked and reposted three times today? Streisand Effect in action. I heard a rumor there’s no Internet in the Citadel; you saw how crappy the computers were in that stock footage. They’re gonna have to learn the hard way that you can’t keep speech down so easily online…"
Now, Milly was looking at him directly. Not in the eye, of course; that kind of soul-searching was something they reserved for quieter moments. Whenever possible they preferred to communicate like ordinary people do, through the fumbling and bumbling of language.
"You’ve got some kind of scheme in mind, don’t you?" she asked.
"Well… yeah. I was getting to that," Lucas admitted. "See, someone’s trying to keep the information from spreading, and that’s not right. We could… I dunno, sneak our own copy of that video out there. And the video I’ve got from Maslow, and a call I got earlier, and… and we can get more. More facts about the Citadel and their plans. I bet you we can get more, and I think I know how."
"Us? Seriously? I thought Penelope was the one in the Journalism Club, not you…"
"And she’s not doing anything, is she? Keeping us out of it, and hasn’t even updated her blog since they arrived. It’s not so much that I want to make hard-hitting documentaries for a living, but… this idea’s been digging at me all afternoon, and… you know. You know."
She did know.
Lucas was one of the few people in this world that Milly trusted enough to look directly in the eye, to open herself up like that. Ever since the Memorial Stadium incident, they’d shared that experience several times… when all else failed it was a good way to cut through all the fumbling and bumbling of language, to see the heart of another.
In Lucas… Milly had seen that ambition to make something great, something well beyond their adorable little efforts at video production. She’d seen his hesitation to commit to anything large-scale… even to their own relationship. Fear of getting it wrong and ruining everything, despite his yearnings. Being able to see that had helped their relationship quite a bit, actually. …to the point where they needed secret and safe places to meet, to avoid worrying her parents about after school activities which didn’t involve cameras and stop-motion action figures.
In Milly… Lucas had seen a perfectly perpetual wave of worry and self-doubt. A father who resented his daughter sticking her face out in public on the Internet, who saw her as promiscuous and vapid. A mother who loved her but controlled her every move, in an effort to keep her safe from the dangers of the world. Lucas gave Milly the strength to break free of that, to respect herself and push past the fear… but they still had to keep some of their lives secret, to avoid trouble.
And now? Lucas wanted to get them into considerable trouble, didn’t he? She saw the fear in him, even without needing to look in his eyes. Fear he was dragging Milly along on a wild goose chase, or worse, that all the dark rumors surrounding the Citadel were true… and they could end up with a bullet in the head.
"What exactly do you want to do?" Milly asked, carefully, to get more information before deciding.
Right. The plan. Lucas pulled over a box, with a number of bits of A/V gear he’d collected up while waiting for Milly to come over.
"I was thinking I go with you to school tomorrow," he said. "We’ll take the van. I’ll have our wireless recording rig in there, and you can wear a buttoncam and hidden mic during your ‘evaluation.’ If they slip up, if they admit anything, we can catch them in the act. If not, it’s still more video evidence of how the Citadel does things, and could have value. It’s a long shot, but… this is one of the few times the Citadel will intersect directly with our lives. …of course, if they do figure out that you’re wearing a wire…"
Years ago, there’d be no way skittish and risk-averse Milly would go for a plan as gonzo as this.
"We should go for it," the Milly of the here-and-now decided, in the end. "If the Citadel’s as bad as we think they are… someone has to blow the whistle. People have to know. And if they’re not the bad guys, no harm done. All we waste is our time."
"Whoa, whoa. Hold up. Think this through first, Milly," Lucas pointed out. "This is just some wild idea of mine. I nearly made a fatal mistake last time I got this excited about a project. You sure I’m not making one again? And frankly… we don’t have to be the ones to expose them. I mean, eventually someone’s going to sort this out, right…?"
"So we keep our heads down, avoid the whole thing? …that’s not how Penelope would do it."
"Uh. That’s how she’s doing it, right now. I’m sure she has good reasons, but…"
"Okay, that’s not how Penelope should do it, then. And that’s not how we did it, when she came to us to help at Memorial Stadium. You want to do this, I know you want to—you need to do this, even. And I’m ready to help. So… okay. Sure. Let’s do it."
Funny thing, Milly giving him strength to push through his hesitation and doubt. Used to be the other way around, didn’t it.
And she was right; this is how Penelope would do it. She wouldn’t be afraid to confront the bad guys. If Penelope was cutting them out of the loop again, well… they’d get back in some other way.
[Handheld camera perspective. Initial pan across a school parking lot; Clinton Public High School visible in the background. The L in Public is missing. Camera walks its way from the driver’s side door to the back of brown family minivan. The back door is opened, revealing audio/video equipment inside.]
[LUCAS] [narrating from behind camera] Okay, so. Way I’ve got this rigged, both our buttoncams and my handheld link by bluetooth to our phones, which relay to an encrypted wireless access point out of the back of the van. We’ve also got a wireless mike hidden in a pencil case you can drop in the room, to collect more data after you meet with them. I’ve got all of the stuff coming into this hub set for automatic cloud upload from all networked sources, for as long as the van is parked here.
[Entering from out of frame is MILLY FRISK, age 16, student at Clinton Public High School, member of the school’s Drama Club. She’s busy affixing a tiny spy camera in place of one of the buttons on her pink sweater.]
[MILLY] You look kinda… exhausted.
[LUCAS] Yeah, I pulled close to an all-nighter setting things up. Making sure everything was… yeah. Busy night.
[MILLY] What if they, uh, sense the signal from our cameras or something?
[LUCAS] It’s a school full of bored kids. There’s gonna be a zillion signals flying around all day. Besides, the Citadel guys don’t seem to be very tech-savvy; I doubt they could trace it back to us, specifically.
[MILLY] Okay, good. You sure we shouldn’t be getting my friends in on this? Jenna would probably be happy to help…
[LUCAS] No need for anyone else to stick their necks out on this one. We’ve got it. Plus, if you can plant the pencil case, we’ll get all the recordings we could possibly want… all the interviews after yours AND the bits in between, when they let their guard down.
[MILLY looks apprehensive, fiddling with the false button.]
[LUCAS] Hey. Hey, what’s wrong? It’s going to be fine. I’ve got this all planned out.
[MILLY] I know. I know. I’m just… I’m not a very good liar.
[LUCAS] What? You’re in drama club. You lie for a living. Heck, you lie to your dad all the time. Like about being a vir-
[MILLY] Lucas! Jeez!
[LUCAS] I’m just saying, you’ll do fine. I trust you.
[MILLY] And do you HAVE to be recording this entire conversation?
[LUCAS] Hey, documenting the process is very important. Anything we can get on camera might make good B-roll, so I can splice in some context in the final project.
[MILLY] [staring flatly into the camera] Lucas. How many ‘found footage’ horror movies have you seen where a bunch of teenagers are recording every little personal discussion they’re having for some contrived reason? Next thing you know there’s a bloody hook on the door handle and-
[LUCAS] Yeah, okay, point.
With the cameras ready to go, all that was left was to participate in the evaluation process and let the electric eyes do their thing.
Ultimately, Lucas decided to join Milly rather than send her into a hornet’s nest alone.
("But are you sure you want to come in too?" Milly had asked. "It’s not like you go to this school. Your name won’t be called for the interviews…")
("That’s the thing, there’ll be so many students that I’ll be easily overlooked," Lucas had insisted. "I can just mill around with the group when I gotta, pretend I’m lost, whatever. Maybe I can find a way to sneak myself into the interview rosters, too. I want to see this mess firsthand.")
The entire population of the school fit in the gymnasium, easily. Clinton Public High had been assembled from a number of school buildings that got rammed together on the spot by the City of Angles; a messy maze of classrooms and corridors, far more than were actually needed for the amount of kids living in the area. With the school already seemingly cubist, many parents in the area decided private school fees were worth the price compared to sending their kids to Clinton High. Only a few hundred students occupied a space designed for a thousand.
The fears were groundless, of course. There had been no actual cubism incidents at Clinton High, no documented Sideways entrances anywhere in the buildings. But fear was a powerful motivator, all the same.
While the kids hung out on the bleachers that morning—laughing, chatting, making light of this situation, happy to skip various pop quizzes and tests—the faculty took up a row of folding chairs at floor level. They were not making light of the situation. Lucas couldn’t read lips, and for that matter was sitting behind them so it wouldn’t have helped anyway… but he could tell from their body language that whatever they were discussing, it wasn’t particularly optimistic.
Five rows up in the bleachers, perfect for getting a nice overview of the (currently unoccupied) podium area, the pair of Lucas and Milly sat and waited for the main event to start.
"Kinda surprised more of the students aren’t as worried as the teachers," Lucas discussed quietly, to the woman at his side. "All the social justice blogs at Maslow are ablaze with Citadel panic right now. Missing person rumors and junk, but at least they seem to care. Not like your classmates…"
"Your school’s not my school, Lucas. You guys spend your lives online. All anybody around here cares about is getting through six hours of boring mandatory education a day, then going home so they don’t have to think about anything like City politics or elections or zoning laws."
"Only difference between a teenager and an adult is a number," Lucas mumbled. "We’re all in the same mess, eventually…"
Before he could play further rounds of Armchair Sociology, the lights flickered once, to signal for attention.
The Citadel contingent didn’t march in with fife and drum. Not enough of them to really put on a good show, anyway… and aside from an honor guard of two young privates, none of them were frontline soldiering types. Mostly they looked like… well, teachers. Middle-aged and quite boring. If they weren’t wearing prim and proper Citadel uniforms, Lucas would be wondering what all the fuss was about.
Still… the age difference between the dozen-or-so Citadel educators and the two guards that came with them was striking. In fact… the one on the left couldn’t possibly be much older than eighteen. Young, with high cheekbones and well-styled hair. He had to be eighteen, of course. Nobody joined the army back on Earth until they were eighteen; Lucas vaguely remembered reading that somewhere…
"Wow, check out Private Hottie there," Milly added.
"What? He’s hot. That’s a simple analytical statement of fact," she defended. "We’re on a fact-finding mission, right?"
"Yeah, but… you didn’t have to emphasize THAT particular data point…"
Briefly Lucas felt a pang of jealous rage. Until he realized he was feeling a pang of jealous rage, which is an incredibly stupid feeling given there was like zero chance of Milly cheating on him with this guy, so he dropped it immediately. Besides… he had work to do.
Checking his phone’s video preview window discreetly, he aimed his chest at the podium, and tried to hold very still so the buttoncam would get a nicely framed shot.
[Scene is the Clinton Public High School gymnasium. At the podium is CAPTAIN DANIEL FISHER, age 45, Citadel Education Bureau. Flanking him are PVT. ZACHARY FOSS and PVT. LEWIS DUNT.]
[FISHER] Greetings, students of Clinton Public High School. I’m glad so many of you were able to come today, to support this joint effort between the City and the Citadel. The information we gather today will help improve the quality of your education, your school, and your community. This is an historic occasion; let us mark it in the spirit of friendship and camaraderie. Please rise, for the Citadel National Anthem.
[The ANTHEM begins to play. Shot rises slightly as LUCAS FLYNN stands. About half the students rise; others look at each other in confusion. The faculty at floor level all rise.]
[LUCAS] [quietly] Does the City have a national anthem…?
[MILLY] [offscreen, quietly] I don’t think we’re even a nation…
[After the song ends, LUCAS sits, and re-frames the shot. FISHER continues. A whiteboard behind him is drawn on by one of the Citadel educators, listing out letters and room numbers.]
[FISHER] Today, you will be divided into groups by last name and biological sex. There will be sixteen groups total; please consult the chart behind me for your assignment. In your room you will wait until your name is called for your interview. Aside from your regularly scheduled lunch hour, you are to wait for your interview. However, once your interview is complete, you may head home, if you have the means. Buses will arrive at three for the remainder of students who require transportation. Thank you, and I look forward to meeting you. Remain strong.
Secretly, Milly was hoping that they’d get paired together. Having dual "F" surnames was handy that way… but splitting boy/girl made things trickier. She didn’t even get to have Jenna or Isra or any of her other friends around, spread too far apart in the alphabet… leaving her sitting uncomfortably alone in a classroom, waiting for her name to be called.
Lucas saw her all the way to the door, but that was as far as he could go. Afterwards he did his best to mingle and get lost, avoid authority figures, and wait for Milly to text him when her interview was done so they could regroup.
He’d be waiting some time. As "Frisk," the timing worked out that she’d be later in rotation, shortly before the lunch break. She’d be sitting here all morning, bored. Bored and waiting. Sitting, waiting, worrying…
Honestly? This entire thing was terrifying.
She had to be strong, of course. She agreed to do it, and agreed despite her fears because she knew it was the right thing to do. But that didn’t negate those fears. Best she could do was suppress them… and try not to catch Lucas’s eye, knowing if he saw into her and saw the worry, he’d consider calling a halt to the project.
But really… what was the worst that could happen? Even if the Citadel was scheming, they’d hardly blab about it in front of a kid. They wouldn’t drag some teen out into the hall and shoot her in the head, either. If they were wearing a mask of decency it still meant they had to act with decency. At worst, nothing would come of this. Nothing to be afraid of. Not afraid of guns. Not afraid of soldiers. Not afraid…
Her knees banged under the desk when her name was called, jumping to her feet in panic.
Acting. Maybe it’s like acting, she had to tell herself, marching off with the Citadel private who called for her. You act every week in front of a camera or behind a microphone. Now you’re literally a camera and microphone, but it’s still acting…
At least she had a nice co-star.
Private Hottie, as she’d called him, didn’t seem as fierce or unpleasant as the others. Almost her age, really. He didn’t hold a candle to Lucas’s ginger cuteness, but he could easily grace the front page of one of the terrible gossip blogs that Jenna read. And he did have an actual name beyond ‘Hottie’… the tag on his uniform read PVT. FOSS.
"Is that pronounced like ‘boss’ or ‘pose’?" Milly wondered aloud.
The boy didn’t stop the march down the hall, but did glance her way. Milly quickly averted her eyes, to avoid an accidental peek.
"What? Oh. It’s like boss," he replied, in a tired-sounding voice. "Foss. Foss."
"Right. Um. Anything I should know about this evaluation, Mr. Foss?"
And… no reply. But Milly, who had studied her own facial expressions enough in a mirror while trying to learn how to actually act rather than just yell into a laptop every weekend, knew what he wasn’t saying: Yes. But I can’t tell you.
The actual interview was held in a nearby classroom, emptied out completely save for a student desk, a teacher desk, and three persons of interest. One evaluator, one student, and one private to oversee from near the chalkboard.
In this case, that meant Leftenant Gerhart, a grumpy looking woman with bifocals who was clearly tired of the tedium of grilling student after student. It also meant Milly Frisk, sitting at the tiny desk, feeling dwarfed by the larger desk. And of course Private Foss, monitoring the proceedings with detached disinterest.
The entire scene was caught by Milly’s hidden buttoncam. The file would end up being called 006.mp4, but Milly couldn’t see this situation as simply the setup of a movie, no matter how hard she tried. Acting? What acting? She was herself in this scene. It was too late to improvise and be anyone else…
Gerhart flipped through a folder with Milly’s name on it, browsing page after page, for a full minute before speaking.
"B average, with Cs in Math and Chemistry," she announced. "A in English and Drama. Hmm. An elective. Considering a path in the humanities, then?"
"Ah, yes, I’m hoping to take up theater and stage production in college," Milly spoke. If my family could afford college, she didn’t add.
"That’s assuming your family can afford college," the Leftenant spoke—leading to a mild freakout when Milly assumed she’d accidentally peeked into the woman’s eyes or not. Fortunately, the evaluator missed it. "Curious. I take it the City offers private acting lessons outside of organized institutional education? Could be an alternative."
"Ahhh… um… yes. Yes, uh, I’ve looked into that," the student replied. "It’s… possible."
"Of course, how many young actresses does one city need? Can’t think it’s exactly a seller’s market. Even if there wasn’t a talent glut, there’s a consideration to be made for resource allocation. For instance, did you know that extensive studies were done in the Citadel to determine exactly how many movies at year the average citizen needed to satisfy one’s need for recreational entertainment?"
"I… did not know that?" Milly offered. Because, well, she didn’t.
"Six," the Leftenant filled in. "That’s all. It averages out; some don’t care about movies, some care too much, but for most citizens six is the reasonable count. In fact, all a society really needs to create in order to keep its populace happy is six films, total. Everybody watches the same six movies. And on average, everyone is happy. Therefore, I could probably count the number of noteworthy Citadel actresses on two hands and one foot."
Not particularly sure where this was going, Milly had no response to that. So, the Leftenant continued.
"Scholarly study of the humanities and the creative arts can be useful to society, in limited amounts. However, I can’t honestly see a future in it for you," the older woman spoke. "You’re not nearly pretty enough and even if you were extremely talented, talent is a measurable skill which—once it meets the minimum required level—suffices just fine. Without higher scores in STEM or physical abilities, I’m not sure what exactly you plan to do to put food on your table. Are there many others like you in these ‘drama classes’ you seem to enjoy?"
At this point… most people would be angry. They’d go on the defensive, fight for what they believed in.
All Milly could do was fidget in her seat and offer a helpless shrug. Because she wasn’t the angry sort, not even when she was being cyberbullied. Her instinct was to collapse, to hide, and go cry it out in secret. This woman, this awful woman, was completely dismissing her… and she didn’t know how to defend against that.
The Leftenant considered the girl before her, tapping a pen against the folder a few times.
"One of the revisions we’re going to be making to your curriculum—and others like you—is to emphasize practical skills," she continued. "Creative arts have a place, if they’re practical. Metal shop, woodworking, auto shop, things like that. If you insist on public performance as a career path, perhaps take up debate—rational thinkers who can analyze policy and strategy are always useful. …although from your grades, I doubt you’d make much headway there. So, what I’m going to recommend for you in particular is extra physical education. Body training. That’s always useful. Always."
Now, Milly finally found the courage to speak.
"You can’t just… change my class schedule," she tried. "I’m allowed to take drama as an elective. You… you’re not in charge of the school, so—"
"Indeed. We’re here in an advisory role only to the Department of Orientation. …THEY are in charge of your school, as is the Department of Resources, which funds your education with the taxes your parents pay. We’ll be making recommendations, which they may or may not act on. But… and let me be frank here, Miss Frisk…"
To show how frank she was being, the woman pulled off her bifocals, folding them. Trying to meet Milly’s eyes. And failing. Not just because Milly was trying to avoid leaking secrets through her weird connection to the City, but because she was busy staring at her feet, and trembling a little.
"You have to think to your future," Leftenant Gerhart said, voice a bit softer. "I know what it’s like to be a young woman with dreams. I was young too, once. But eventually… it’s time to stop dreaming, and become an adult. Things are changing, both for the City and the Citadel alike. I want you to be able to change with them, to become the person your City needs you to be. Can you do that, Milly? Can you become a better person?"
Gerhart took the young lady’s stunned silence as assent.
"Good, good. You’re dismissed. Remain strong," she spoke, pushing the file aside after making a few final notes within it. Annotations about Milly, reduced to what the Citadel wanted her to be.
Milly rose to her feet mutely. She had enough sense about her to leave the bugged pencil case behind; she’d been slipping it down to the ground while staring at her feet, tucked just out of view behind a leg of the desk. At least she’d managed that much, even if she was ground down into emotional paste by the evaluator.
Up to her feet, over to the door, into the hall, away from there, find Lucas, maybe have a cry. He had a good shoulder for that—
"Miss Frisk! Miss Frisk!"
—turning in surprise, at the sound. Too shaken to keep her guard up.
Private Hottie, a.k.a. Private Foss, was waggling the discarded pencil case. "You dropped your—"
—the islands floated in the sky. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, especially at sunset. Hot air balloons gently wafting on the winds, moving from cloud to cloud. I could’ve stayed there forever. It was so perfect and so wonderful and I wish I could go back there I wish I could go anywhere anywhere at all but the Citadel now that I know other places exist there are better places I wish I could go back there—
—such an awful person, with such an awful view of life. There has to be room for the human heart. I love acting, I love my craft. I’m not very good at it yet but I’m getting better. Lucas wants to make a great movie one day, something far greater than the little cartoons we’ve been making. I want to help him realize his dream I want to realize my dream alongside him I want to be able to speak in a clear voice without mumbling I want my father to finally love me I want to be happy I’m scared the Citadel is going to take it all away from me—
—staggering back into a row of lockers.
And running. Sneakers squeaking on the cheap flooring, running into the darkness of the long hall. She didn’t care which way she ran, as long as she was running.
Milly didn’t stop running until she was safely tucked away in an unused classroom, somewhere deeper within the warrens of Clinton Pub ic High.
After extensive text messaging with Lucas to explain where she’d dashed off to, he managed to track her down. Over half of the students had left the building by this point; one boy randomly wandering the halls would be quite noticeable by now, but he had to risk it. Something had clearly gone wrong, which Milly wasn’t comfortable talking about over the phone or in public…
He found her hugging her knees, leaning against a chemistry lab table in a darkened room.
"Milly?" he asked… quietly, to make sure his arrival didn’t spook her. Walking around the table, kneeling down to join her. "What…?"
"Just… look," she said. Not convinced of her ability to speak the words.
So, he looked.
…and his fingers clenched involuntarily into a fist.
"She… had no right to say that to you. Any of that," Lucas declared. "And her opinion? Not worth a damn thing, anyway. The Citadel’s got no business telling you what your future should be…"
"It’s… it’s not just that. Maybe I can’t communicate it since it was so indirect, but… it’s what I saw in that other boy’s eyes," she explained. "I think I was able to keep our sneaky plans out of the link, so we should be safe, but I saw a lot of him in the process. He’s been… Lucas, he’s been to another world. Not the City, not the Citadel. It was beautiful, incomprehensibly beautiful, and… I don’t know why I know this, something of him leaking into me, but… I think he’s the key. If we can get his story, we can expose the Citadel!"
Puzzled, Lucas tried to follow the logic. "Uh. Milly? He’s an armed soldier of the Citadel. And you’re suggesting we waltz right up to him and ask him to dump state secrets on our heads…?"
"This is really hard to explain, but… yes. I think we need to do exactly that. There’s something in there, something he wants to get out. If we can find the right circumstances, get the story… we’ll have a recording of it. Better than any soul-squishing interview we could get!"
"Or he turns us in for treason and we get shot."
"Don’t be silly, they can’t shoot us. We aren’t in their army."
Gnawing. There it was again, the gnawing.
His protests weren’t his instincts. Instinctively he wanted to agree, to go along with her plan, track this guy down and get his confession on record. It would be huge, if he knew some secret they weren’t supposed to know. But… above leaking Fisher’s introductory video, above recording Milly’s interview, even above the pencil case gambit… this was dangerous.
"We’ve got one chance to turn back," Lucas spoke, knowing it to be true. "This is it, Milly. If we do this… that’s it. We… might not be able to go home. We’d have to go into hiding afterwards; even with the redactions I’m doing to the videos it’ll be too easy to trace them back to us. So either we back down and go home right now, or… or we see it through as far as it goes."
He didn’t have to peer into her soul to know she wasn’t comfortable. Milly generally wasn’t comfortable regardless of the circumstances, but her discomfort ratcheted up several notches at that realization.
"…I’m ready to do this," she decided, however. "And before you ask, no: I’m not doing it just so you can chase your dream. …I think… once, Penelope asked me something. I had a choice like this one, and I chose to do something stupid because it would save people, in the end. Sometimes, the stupid choice is the best one you can make."
Pink and fuzzy, the warm arms of Milly Frisk. Lucas returned the hug tightly, thankful for every minute of his life in which she was there.
One day, they’d get married. He’d declared as much, during their journey into the Sideways. It was simply inevitable, especially now that he was ready to push past his doubts and embrace it. That meant they had to survive to see the sunset today. They had to win against the Citadel. It was destiny. And it was going to make one hell of a movie, too.
The best possible time to approach Private Foss was lunchtime.
That was the only time to approach him, really. Otherwise he was busy playing errand boy, fetching students from the classrooms to see the handful of Citadel evaluators. But they’d already declared that lunch would be a break time, and even soldiers needed to eat.
Half the students had bailed already; most local kids walked or drove to school. A few unfortunates had finished up their interviews but were waiting for school buses to arrive at the end of the day… they were obviously dejected and crushed by the experience, sitting in small pockets of one or two students, glumly eating from brown bags or plastic trays. The rest of the student body was still laughing and carrying on as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Which left the Citadel contingent, sitting by themselves near the door of the lunchroom. Not the most secure location, but this was about presence, not security. They wanted to make the students painfully aware of their presence.
Milly approached alone. She’d connected to Private Foss; even a brief glance would’ve been enough to exchange some sort of trust between them, even if he hadn’t figured out exactly what the strange experience was yet. Plus, a semi-cute girl in a pink sweater was completely unthreatening, compared to a young man approaching. Safer.
The two honor guards were sitting by themselves, while the evaluators took up a nearby table, discussing various matters of great import. In contrast, the guards were joking and laughing. Well. One of them was joking and laughing, while not noticing the other was sitting in thoughtful repose. Foss, quiet and nodding along to the jokes, but not really hearing them…
He did hear when his name was called.
"Umm. Mr. Foss…?"
It turned his head sharply.
"Miss… Frisk, right?" he asked. "Milly Frisk…? Can I help you with something…?"
"Ah, yes! I have some questions about the Citadel," she explained. "Y’know, about how folks our age live over there. I was curious. If you don’t mind…? I don’t want to interrupt your lunch…"
The next move was a risk… but one worth taking. She very, very briefly let her eyes pass over his deep, brown gaze—
—can’t stand his jokes, he thinks everything is a joke, it’s completely depressing wait what’s happening it’s happening again what is it with this girl—
—help, please, I need your help, trust me, come with me, I can explain it’s important I think you want to help me too—
An awkward pause, as she moved her eyes down to the floor, breaking it off.
Finally… the other private gave Foss a sharp elbow.
"G’wan, I’ll cover for you," he insisted, with a leering grin. "I know you go for that local color, man."
Curious, Milly was about to instinctively ask what the curly-haired boy meant by that—when Private Foss got to his feet quickly, to join her.
"Let’s go," he agreed.
And… easy as that, they were off. Ducking out of the lunchroom, into the hallway.
Lucas picked a nearby classroom, perpendicular to the wing where interviews were being performed. Turned off all the lights, making sure nobody would bother paying attention as they walked by.
After a few minutes passed, he considered going after Milly. Maybe something went wrong. Maybe—
And Milly was there. Pulling Foss in with him, closing the door behind them. The two joined Lucas in the middle of the classroom, well away from the tiny glass window embedded in the heavy metal door.
"Sorry, sorry. Had to wait until the hallway was clear," she explained.
"Right. Okay. Private Foss? My name is—"
"Lucas Flynn," Foss provided.
"…you already told him, Milly?"
"No, I… I just… know," he said. "From earlier. I don’t know how I know, but…"
Milly hustled things along. "We’re filmmakers," she explained. "Trying to understand the Citadel’s true goals. And we think you can help us. You know something nobody else does, right? The real reason the Citadel’s here. …you’ve seen them do this before, somewhere else. If you could tell us what you know, it would be, um… helpful. Very helpful…"
He could refuse and walk away, of course. Honestly, all of them could still walk away and pretend this never happened.
But… he wasn’t walking. He wasn’t speaking, either. But something in the way he studied Milly, curious, trying to understand why they had a connection where one didn’t exist… it suggested he might be willing.
"That operation was classified," Foss semi-explained. "I can’t talk about it. That’d be high treason…"
"Zachary, please. You know why you have to tell us," Milly insisted, pressing the issue, using a name she shouldn’t have known. "You know what the Citadel’s going to do. They’ve done it before, they’ll do it again. We can’t stop it unless we learn the truth."
The soldier leaned heavily against a desk, mind spinning from everything that had hit him today.
Rather than follow up with another heartfelt plea… Milly decided to step back, give him some space. Let him think it over. No need to hard sell it; either he’d agree, or he wouldn’t.
She knew he’d agree.
Not because he was dizzy and confused by this encounter. That was happening, yes, but… she saw it earlier, in his eyes. Saw the sorrow and loss. Living inside himself for so long, despite supposed camaraderie with his soldiers in arms, swallowing down all he’d had to bear witness to. All he needed to open up was someone willing to listen…
Eventually, Zachary Foss made the decision he’d made long ago, when he first heard he’d be heading to the City of Angles.
"If I do this… you help me escape," he insisted, though. "It’s a big school, and I bet Milly knows a way to sneak out without being seen. Just… help me get away, into your City of Angles, and in return I’ll tell you everything. …if this is a trap, if Commander Yates is testing my loyalty, well… maybe I’d rather step into that trap than go back to the front."
Lucas pulled the networked handheld camera out of his backpack, warming it up.
"I’d suggest we bail and then record this, but sooner we do it the better, I think," he warned. "Keep it short, then we’ll all go out the back door together. Got it?"
"Got it," Zachary Foss agreed. "And… thank you…"
[A darkened chemistry lab. Subject is PRIVATE ZACHARY FOSS, Citadel Education Bureau. Camera is a steady handheld shot.]
[ZACHARY] My name is Private Zachary Foss. I was born in the Citadel. …I wish I had a school like this, growing up. I was diagnosed early on with dyslexia, and the Education Bureau decided it wasn’t worth spending the resources on teaching me anything. I was sent to the Infantry School at age ten, while my friends went on to Command School or a Vocational School. They taught me to run, shoot, fight, things like that.
At age fourteen, I was officially old enough to fight in the war. I survived long enough to be noticed by Captain Fisher. He said I was too much of a ‘pretty boy’ to be wasted absorbing a bullet or two from the Enemy; instead, I was assigned to play honor guard for his team of specialists. Apparently I was photogenic enough to give the Citadel a good public face, and that’s what kept me alive.
A little over a year ago, I visited a scientific research facility. The man in charge of the machinery, some guy named Jack Hayes, had opened a… door. Some sort of door into another world. Captain Fisher was in charge of evaluating that world, and I was in charge of keeping him alive. We walked through the gap in the wall, and… and…
It was beautiful. So beautiful. They lived in the sky, on these… islands, like. Islands and floating buildings, all connected to each other by bridges. Hot air balloons, everywhere. I could see an ocean below, rolling forever in every direction. It was so beautiful…
I met a girl there. She didn’t even know what a "soldier" was. She’d heard some of the folks who "flew in" from Earth talk about wars, but she was born in Skyline… she’d never known war. She just liked the green of my uniform. Same as the green of her eyes…
I wanted to stay forever. But I was told, quite directly, that defectors would be shot. Our stay was going to be temporary; we had a war to win back home.
Fisher and his team determined changes that would need to be made. The idea was that our worlds would share resources, but I knew the real deal. The Citadel was there to evaluate how best Skyline could be changed; redirecting their efforts to produce soldiers and materials for our war. They were going to take over, little by little…
And then, soon after it started, the project was cancelled. I wasn’t over there when it all went wrong, but I heard rumors from the few soldiers that made it back through the gap. Islands were falling out of the sky. Nobody knew why, exactly… but somehow, the Citadel broke that world. We ruined that beautiful place. We killed all of them. Evelyn…
That’s what’s going to happen to your City of Angles. They’re taking over, little by little. Eventually you’ll all die in our war, or worse. Commander Yates, he’s… ruthless. He’s had ministers executed for cowardice. He’s hunted the Resistance movement and the woman who represents it in radio broadcasts nearly to extinction. And I know, I just KNOW that he’s planning to spill your blood if that’s what it takes to win his war. He’s going to feed the City of Angles into his war machine.
I can’t. I can’t be a part of it anymore. I never wanted to be a part of it in the first place, I… I just…
I’m sorry, I can’t talk anymore. I can’t.
Lucas lowered the handheld camera, slowly.
The lost private found himself embraced by Milly. A comforting hug, a very human gesture for a fellow human. Tears were welling in his eyes, falling into the yarn of her pink sweater.
This is it, Lucas realized, glancing down at his camera. This is big, this is the thing I’ve been wanting to do with my life. I’m going to make the movie that turns the fate of this City around. We have to fight them; we have to resist, or die. I don’t care what it costs, I’m going to get the word out. I’m going to help save my City…
"We’ll help you escape," Lucas decided. "You’re about my size; we can sneak back to my house, and get you some clothes. Wait for a new building to arrive, then slip you in. You can pretend to be an immigrant, and the Department of Orientation will pick you up from there. You don’t have to go back to the Citadel."
"What good will it do?" Zachary asked, after Milly let go, stepping away. "The Citadel’s still coming. It’s not safe here in your City. You can’t stop them—"
"The hell we can’t. We have friends, Zach… weird and powerful friends, the kind who step in when things like this go down. They won’t shut us out any longer; we’re all involved, now. It’s our City and we’ll fight for it."
The future was so clear to Lucas, now. He’d been yearning for this, needing to reach for something beyond himself and grasp it with two hands… not to play hero or get famous, no. What he wanted was to rise to that challenge. To become something more than what he was. If this was adulthood, this responsibility and risk, then so be it. He was ready.
Given the fire lit inside him urging him towards his future, when the bullet entered his heart it came as a complete surprise.
The shot pierced just below the buttoncam. His sweatshirt, once light gray, began to darken. Curious, he touched it… feeling something warm and sticky spreading, under the fabric. How strange. Screaming. Shooting. And…
By the door, the other private in the honor guard. The joker. Not smiling at all, with his gun drawn, cutting down the confessed traitor and his collaborators with three short bursts.
Lucas hit the floor, next to Milly. Milly, blood pouring from her neck. Zachary fell nearby, but out of view. What a shame; Lucas was hoping to get all the action in one continuous shot. This was his movie, and its cinematography meant quite a bit to him…
His hand, reaching, trying to find hers. Couldn’t. She’d fallen on her arm awkwardly. That just wasn’t fair; they couldn’t even hold hands, in the end…
But they could see each other. They could look into each other’s eyes.
Slipping away, now. But not up and out, no. Into her. Into her, deep within, and out the other side…
[Shot is taken from a webcam on top of LUCAS FLYNN’s laptop. His bedroom is in view. It is late at night; the timestamp on the file registers 2:30AM.]
[FLYNN] [rubbing eyes] Okay, so, I think I’ve got everything set up in the van for tomorrow’s escapade. I doubt they can trace this back to us, so we should be A-OK. …I don’t know if we’ll actually get anything good from our little spycams, but… I just…
I have to do something. I need to do something. And if you won’t let me help with whatever it is you’re planning, well, what else can I do? This is my only shot. I gotta take it.
Now. On the remote chance, the slim and outside chance that something goes wrong…
Okay. So. Here’s how I set it up.
If I don’t send a kill command to my home box by afternoon, I’ve got a script set up to lock down my cloud storage account completely. It’s rigged to email you the password automatically. All the files I’ve already edited and redacted, and all the raw footage we take from the school through our various cameras. Even if they, I dunno, lob a grenade into my van, it’s all out there in the cloud. I learned that trick from you, with that Oblivion’s Advocate interview thing.
IF this goes badly. IF it’s, like, the worst case scenario… dammit. I don’t blame you. You should know that, I don’t blame you at all for this. You always do what you think is right, whether in the end it’s the right or wrong call. How can I blame you for that? Everybody should do what they think is right. I went into this mess with my eyes open.
Just… I’m entrusting this to you. Find a way to get what Milly and I created together out there. Make it happen. Do what you do, and be awesome doing it.
Two lights, flickering in the darkness of the dream.
She considered them, curiously. They were weak, the slightest breeze could put them out, but… they persisted. They persisted, one keeping the other warm and bright, both now tied to the dream as to herself…
"Quite a resourceful girl, that one. Using her connection to fall deeper into the dream, instead of into the void," Scarlett spoke, impressed. "But… more will fall away, and they’ll have no safety net. You can’t save everyone should worse come to worst, even the ones close to you…"
I know. But thanks to my weavings, I can at least save my oracle and her beloved. …my friends. Too short a life to allow them to fade so unjustly. Please… take them in, nurture them. One day they’ll shine again, like angels.
"A lovely sentiment, child. But in the end, what good will that do? Two little lights like these, two small souls. Compared to what’s yet to come, all the lives that will be lost, what do they matter?"
And the child who pulsed red with the heartbeat of life throbbed… angrily.
They matter to ME, Lucid declared. And I will put this right, one way or another.