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 third exit on the left, a subway station to double glass doors, a ballroom at the end of a hallway, walking downward. And that’s when you know you’re truly lost.
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…
People react differently to isolation. Some thrive on it, enjoying the quiet moments between the hectic press of daily living. They dislike groups and gatherings, preferring to recharge emotional batteries between forced interactions with the outside world. Such people get along quite well in the City of Angles, as the natural tendency to stay indoors drives them deeper and deeper into their own little world. Presumably, they won’t get lost in there.
But then there are people who THINK they thrive on isolation, who seek isolation at every turn, only to wallow in it and grind away at themselves with no thoughts but the ones in their own head to listen to. Strength and independence are virtues in the society that feeds the City of Angles… strong-headed individuality is supposedly rewarded, after all. But when you paint yourself into a corner, back to the wall, whom can you turn to? What angles can you see when you’re tucked away within ninety degrees of your own making?
No. In that situation, you need more than one perspective in order to have any perspective at all. And hopefully, the ones providing those perspectives have your best intentions at heart….
//020: Lost Girl
Make it happen. Do what you do, and be awesome doing it.
The video file popped up in her inbox one hour after the news report did. Terrified confusion replaced with anger replaced with sadness replaced with… nothing. Nothing at all but mute horror.
Initially, Penelope Yates had been bewildered with the official statement issued through various news outlets:
Troubled Teenager Shoots Self, Girlfriend in Suburban Public School
Lucas Flynn, amateur online filmmaker and survivor of the Clark "cubism" house party incident one year ago, visited his girlfriend Milly Frisk’s school during a Citadel visit, smuggling an unregistered firearm in with him. After pulling her aside in an isolated classroom for a private discussion, he shot Milly in the neck before turning the gun on himself.
The official explanation given involved long-lasting psychological trauma and possible latent cubism from his earlier brush with death. Immediately, the Citadel suggested armed security guards and metal detectors at all public schools to prevent future tragedies… and the Department of Orientation agreed.
Then a dead man’s switch triggered, and Penelope learned the truth.
The Citadel killed her best friends.
It was all right there, in the numbered video uploads. Every little bit of their scheme, right up to and including the deadly confession by Private Foss. The button spycam Lucas was wearing caught the real killer on film, getting a good picture of him… right before being dropped by gunfire from that Citadel soldier.
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.
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.
But Penelope did blame herself.
At first, she’d tried to keep Lucas out of this mess, shrugging off his attempts to dig for more information. For starters, she had no plans. The TroubleSolvers were still trying to get a grip on the situation with the Citadel; there was no bold revolution in the works for Lucas to latch on to. Plus… he didn’t HAVE to latch onto anything. He could’ve lived happily without being involved in this mess. He could’ve lived…
But he was involved. This was his City, too. Penelope refused to see that, and now…
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.
Now, she didn’t have time to cry. She had to be awesome. It’s what they would’ve wanted her to do.
The Citadel were murderers. They killed Milly and Lucas. They kidnapped Cass, and Vivi. …they probably killed Cass and Vivi, for that matter. Others had gone missing, as well…
Everybody she knew falling away one by one, yet she still had to be awesome. Everybody was counting on her. Getting the truth out was key, she knew that; one teenager alone couldn’t overthrow the Citadel’s encroaching control over the City. It would take a City to save a City.
Couldn’t just upload the videos to CityTube, though. Any video leaks of Citadel activities were being actively censored; CityTube denied it wholeheartedly, but the proof was out there, constant reposts and yanks of uploaded content. Entire websites going dark, just for speaking up. No, she needed something… awesomer.
And that led her out here, to… a truck stop full of truckers wearing trucker hats and jeans dipping low enough that she could see five trucker asscracks.
The place was called "Melba’s Diner" and it presumably was owned and operated by a woman named Melba. It served as a friendly meeting ground, well away from the Citadel’s peeping eyes. TroubleSolvers HQ and That Fish Place were heavily bugged at this point, and there was nothing they could do about it—disabling or even acknowledging the hidden microphones and cameras would mean they had something to hide, and Gregory insisted they play this cool. That meant alternative locations for meetups, burner phones, and heavy online encryption.
That meant operating mostly out of Gus’s family grocery store… unless they needed an Internet connection, since signals didn’t reach into the Sideways. No, for this particular meeting, Penelope had to go above ground. That meant Melba’s.
Ever since Cass vanished, the truckers who were instrumental in finding the Cult of Bedlam’s outposts in the Outlands came back into the fold. They were the quiet second half of Cass’s life… by day she rolled down these highways in a truck inherited from Grandma Scarlett, checking in at the diner for new jobs on the call board. Somehow, the "redneck yahoos" as her father put it had adopted this hipster as one of their own. During the Bedlam incident, they adopted those who would become the TroubleSolvers as allies as well.
So, when a teenage kid walked in through the front door… nobody took notice. Well. A few did, but they got a sharp elbow before they could crack wise. Folks who knew what was what also knew Penelope was coming in today.
Not that she was here to chat with tobacco-chewing truckers, no. Her lunchtime companion was sitting at a large booth in the back, by herself. Tapping away on a laptop keyboard, focused entirely on her work.
Penelope took a seat opposite. Soon, a woman in an apron, likely the eponymous Melba, was pouring coffee for both of them. With a firm nod to both of them, she made herself scarce soon after.
"Thanks for coming. It’s good here. WiFi’s good here," Kelsey Jones explained, still typing. "Melba’s on a fiber trunk. Good bandwidth, and very out of the way. Good for launching the site. Nobody will notice this way."
"So you finished coding it?" Penelope asked, pulling a USB thumbdrive from her pocket. "I’ve got the files here…"
"All finished. Hit a few coffee shops, a fast food restaurant, two bus terminals. Did a little work everywhere, keeps the Citadel from tracing. Not that they can likely trace my work, being a bunch of backward Luddites. Especially can’t trace websites in the Sideways Signals. Still. S’better than working from home, where…"
She trailed off, and Penelope knew why. It was why they were in the Outlands; too much to lose back home, if trouble came their way. Friends, loved ones… family. Little Riley, their baby, being cared for by Dave Smith while she was out and about working on the new website.
Kelsey plugged the USB keychain into place, proving her supreme mastery over technology by sticking it in right-side-up on the first try, and transferred the files.
"I’ve already loaded all the files we’ve got about Cass and Vivi’s disappearances," Kelsey explained, while they uploaded. "With these, we should have a good starting seed. Any more data we get, we can upload from the field using the burner phones. Didn’t want to upload big video over the cellular, though. Better over the fiber. And the coffee’s good. Um. There’s… still that one big problem with the design."
"Accessing it," Penelope recalled.
"Yeah. It’s a Sideways Signal website. That means you can’t type the address in on a normal keyboard. I mean, I can type it, but my computer’s a little cubist and so am I. Banging out http://ЯΕЅIЅт.city is easy for me, but for normal people…"
The sound of it scratched at Penelope’s eardrums. It was the word "resist," yes, but… it also wasn’t that word. It had the same letters but they weren’t really the same letters, they flowed into each other in funny ways. Kelsey could pronounce it easily, but anyone else…
"Do we really have to use a cubist URL, though?" Penelope asked. "I mean, the goal’s to get this information out to the public. People have to know about the Citadel’s true motives, the terrible things they’ve done and will do. We can’t spread the truth if nobody can get to the site… shouldn’t we use a normal address instead?"
"Nope. Nope, nope. Important. Very important. Can’t do this on a normal site, not the way you want," Kelsey insisted. "Gotta be a Sideways site. Totally anonymous, even for visitors. Sort of an auto-Tor. User-submission friendly. Hackproof. Censorship free. Anywhere else, the Citadel can take it down; already a buncha websites going down left and right that are critical of the Citadel. Like the Great Firewall of China, or Putin going bonkers on his online opposition…"
"Um. Point is, it won’t work if we just stick this online. Gotta be sneaky and weird. Very weird. Dangerously weird. In fact… Bedlam worked with me on the core design. If someone from the Citadel tries to look at the site, it’ll… well, she wanted it to make their brains explode but we compromised on migraines and nosebleeds. So, yeah, cubist URL, has to be, it’s a side effect of the security."
It made Penelope wince. Not knowing that Bedlam was involved; that was actually a relief, knowing that her darker third was more and more keen to work with her little group rather than spite them. But intentionally hurting the people from the Citadel…
…who completely deserved it, didn’t they? Fascists. Kidnappers. Murderers, killing Lucas and Milly. An awful thing to think, but that’s all she COULD think right now. A headache and a bloody nose? They deserved more. So, fine, let them suffer if they come knocking on her little secret project’s door.
"Okay, so how do we get people onto the website?" Penelope asked. "Upvote it on social media or something?"
"Possible. Not optimally effective, though. Censorable. We need a combination approach; technology and social engineering. A promotional branding push. This is a propaganda war, after all… and we really could use someone who specializes in that," Kelsey said. "I mean… if we had Marcy on board, well…"
An uncomfortable silence hung over the table.
They hadn’t even officially gone to war, yet the casualties were racking up. The Citadel hadn’t made any overt moves, but they’d been knocking Penelope’s support out from under her, little by little. Everyone she knew and cared about…
"Cass, Vivi, Lucas, Milly… and now Marcy, all gone," Penelope whispered.
Maybe the cost of being awesome was too high.
Maybe it was time to back down, before the Citadel came for anyone else.
And then, a commotion at the front door of the diner… as newcomers burst in through the doors. Intently looking for Penelope Yates.
A lot can happen in a week. A lot had in fact happened, starting one week previous to that fateful meeting in a greasy spoon…
A lot can happen in a single evening, for example. You might take a shower, strap up with a backpack full of paint cans, and head off to finish up a burner in the subway… then come home to find your front door kicked in, and your sister missing. That’s a thing that can happen. Did happen, in fact, to Marcy Wei.
Door locks smashed to bits. Furniture knocked aside. Spray paint cans stacked near Marcy’s art supplies scattered… a can of hot pink she had been saving for just the right project was stepped on, leaving behind what looked like a boot print, outlined by the localized blast of riotous color. The sheets of their queen-sized bed had been torn loose, pillows strewn… all signs that her sister WAS in fact here, and was taken by force. Vivi Wei, gone…
Panic and rage. Not fear, no; panic and rage grabbed on and wouldn’t let go, when she saw the mess left behind by the ones who took her sister. Immediately she called 911, to report the break-in… and waited for a squad car to show up, to assess the damage and start looking for clues. And waited. And waited.
The Department of Safety never showed up.
She called 911 again, and this time, they didn’t answer her call. Again, and again, just ringing off the hook. The only acceptable answer would be if the apocalypse broke out and they were too busy to deal with the troubles of the Wei sisters; nothing less than Ragnarok would be a reasonable reason to ignore her pleas. And yet, they went ignored.
Didn’t sleep a wink. Too angry to sleep. Everybody else sadly was asleep; she left messages and texts, but even Hollister was crashed out too hard from a party or something to answer his phone. All alone…
At eight in the morning sharp, Marcy was at her local Department of Safety police station to ask what the hell was going on.
At eight fifty-seven she was at the central dispatch station at the heart of the Department, because the local station kept giving her the runaround.
"What the hell is going on?" she demanded of the front desk receptionist, heedless of the armed security guards nearby. "My sister gets kidnapped and you guys don’t give a damn!"
"Miss, please, calm down—"
"That’s sixteen times people have ordered me to calm down today, and as you can see, it hasn’t worked once yet," Marcy supplied. "Now. I want to know why nobody is lifting a finger to even LOOK at the crime scene. I want officers out at my apartment. I want a freaking City-wide manhunt if that’s what it takes! My sister is GONE, and I want justice—"
The presence of the woman in charge silenced all arguing.
Miranda Walker. Natural enemy of all graffiti artists, with her "Anti-Defacement Policy" enacted shortly after taking the office from her predecessor. Marcy had been chased all over the city by Walker’s task force, in her role as the semi-anonymous "Ghostwriter," masked vigilante artist. She even came face to face with Walker on the night Gus Zero rolled into town, as something of a side show to his personal crisis. Reportedly Walker was friendly to the TroubleSolvers, but that didn’t mean Marcy wanted to run into her again anytime soon…
Especially not when she was flanked by two armed Citadel soldiers. An honor guard, for the highest ranking military-type person the City had to offer.
"I could practically hear the shouting all the way from my office on floor twenty," Walker commented. "Is there a problem?"
Big boss or not, something of an indirect nemesis or not… Marcy wanted results. And now, an opportunity presented itself, if she could bend the ear of Walker.
"Damn right there is a problem!" Marcy spoke up. "My name’s Marcy Wei. I live in an apartment in District 9. My apartment was broken into last night and my sister was kidnapped. And nobody in your Department seems to be doing anything about it!"
"Officially missing persons are not considered missing until twenty-four hours have passed," Walker recited from memory. "There’s always the possibility she left of her own accord and isn’t returning your calls. Nevertheless, I promise we’ll look into it as time and resources permit."
"Time and resources—?!"
"As you know, the Citadel’s arrival yesterday has shuffled priorities around considerably. A number of my officers are being re-allocated to security details at the new embassy, and are providing consulting services in the Citadel itself. I’m afraid one missing persons case isn’t my priority right now."
"Really. Even if it’s a pretty little white girl who got kidnapped? I’m sure the media would LOVE to look into it, if you won’t."
Immediately, Marcy knew that wasn’t the right card to play… not with the highest ranking person of color in the City staring her down.
"I said we’d look into it as time and resources permit, and that’s going to have to do," Walker declared. "Good day, Miss Wei. …soldier, what’s that mess on your boot?"
Ready to launch into another tirade, Marcy stepped forward to let the screaming start… until she instinctively spared a glance at the boot in question, attention drawn to it by the command of Miranda Walker. Most in the room were looking at it now, after all.
Neon pink paint. Not much of it, but enough.
Marcy bought that shade on a whim. She didn’t work with too many "eighties" colors, preferring darker tones or monochromes… the pink was actually Vivi’s idea. [You never know how beautiful it could be until you try using it,] she’d suggested. The same can which lay crushed under a boot print on the floor of her apartment…
Sheepish, the soldier leaned down to try and rub the dried aerosolized paint off his boot. Tried and failed, since it wasn’t designed to come off so easily.
"Honestly, if this is the caliber of guard the Citadel’s going to assign me, they shouldn’t bother," Walker continued, dressing down the man. "I told the Commander I didn’t need nor want any of his men in my office. Unfortunately… decisions are coming down from a higher office than mine. Good day, Miss Wei."
A lingering, hard gaze from the director into Marcy’s eyes… before Miranda Walker turned and marched away, her business complete.
The Citadel kidnapped Vivi.
Not the Department of Safety, no. Walker wasn’t in charge of this mess; she was along for the ride, just like everybody else in the City. The least she could do, the only thing she could do for that matter, was point out the facts of the situation on the sly to Marcy Wei. To warn her of what was really going on…
The Department would never look into this matter. Poking them with a stick would only anger the Citadel, for that matter. Nobody was going to help her. Vivi was gone, and nobody was going to help her…
Nobody except one person.
That one person couldn’t take her meeting until the next day.
Twenty-four more hours with Vivi lost somewhere within the Citadel, suffering lord knows what. And why? Because he was too busy. Too busy to help when his supposed "soulmate" was being held prisoner by those fascist thugs…
Eventually, Hollister Avenue managed to squeeze Marcy in. He had to meet her at an out-of-the-way coffee house, somewhere halfway between a mass franchise and a mom ‘n pop. They had three locations in and around the City, making them noteworthy without really being that noteworthy. Anonymous. Which was very much the point.
"The TroubleSolvers office is bugged to hell and back," Hollister explained. "We don’t even know WHEN the bugs were put in. Kelsey thinks they might’ve been around for a week. Any longer and the Citadel may have learned the truth about… the kid. They’d have acted by now against her…"
"No names, not even out here, please," he interrupted. "Just in case. Right now the kid’s off anyone’s radar and we’d like to keep it that way."
Marcy tightened her grip on the cardboard coffee cup in her hand. Not enough to crush it, of course.
"Look, let’s make this simple. I want to know what ‘the kid’ has in mind when it comes to getting my sister back," she explained. "This is what you guys do, right? Solve trouble? Vivi is in a lot of goddamn trouble right now."
"So’s Cass. They both vanished that day, remember?"
"Yeah, fine, okay. What’s the rescue plan? For both of them."
"The plan is… that there is no plan yet. ‘The kid’ and the… not-kid are trying to get a firm grip on the situation before they make any moves. Look, this isn’t like dealing with a crazy cult or a murderous music producer. This is an entire world at war, a war nobody even knows is going on. We have to be careful and take our time. No moves until they say so."
"…that’s it? Seriously?"
Blown off for a full day, and now when she finally had a quaint little chat with the man over coffee, he showed as much concern for Vivi as he did over the size of his drink order. Marcy’s reaction was… well, a very Marcy reaction. Quick and emotional and without much thought.
"So you people are just going to let Vivi hang out to dry in a Citadel torture camp?" she accused. "Sit back and think about it a little while they’re doing who knows what to her?"
"But hey, you’ve got that comfy and swank bachelor pad, you can just chill while she rots in a cell, right?"
"Dammit, Marcy, that’s not what’s going on here!"
Loud enough to get strange looks from the other customers, as Hollister’s white knuckles gripped the table, to keep himself seated. He forced himself to close his eyes, stay quiet, and recover from that outburst.
"…do you know why it took me this long to meet with you?" he asked, at a whisper’s level. "Because there’s trouble to solve. Lots of trouble. The Department of Resources… no. The Citadel has issued annexation orders all over the City. Safety officers are being conscripted to Citadel frontlines as ‘consultants,’ and some of them are turning to us for help. People everywhere are turning to the TroubleSolvers for help…"
Rubbing at his bloodshot eyes. Drinking from his coffee cup, wetting a dry throat, before continuing.
"I’m fighting for our clients with paperwork and legalese and dealmaking as best I can, and it’s got me running all over town. I’ve had no sleep in my ‘comfy and swank’ bachelor pad, so pardon if I’m having trouble working up the proper outrage. I’m too tired to feel the level of outrage I want to feel right now. This’ll have to do."
Marcy remained unconvinced.
"Why are you worrying about clients for Kelsey’s crazy freelance social work project at a time like this?" she asked. "Priorities, man. My sister doesn’t rank in your book?"
"I’m too useless to help your sister," he spoke… exhaustion keeping his voice low now, that tiny flare-up draining what energy he had. "I’m just the guy who knows a guy, Marcy. I’m… nothing. I can’t do anything myself to help her. She ranks in our books, believe me, and this is how I can help the TroubleSolvers save Vivi’s life. I bear the burdens I know I can carry, so they can focus on what they do best."
"…fine. But the thing is, you said there wasn’t a plan. That means they aren’t doing anything, either."
"No plan yet. You just need patience. It’s hard to ask under the circumstances, but it’ll pay off. I’m… sure they’ll figure out something. I mean… we’ve faced worse, right?"
That damnable pause.
Marcy knew what it meant. He’d implied it, earlier… this isn’t like dealing with a silly little cult or a lone nutball with a pop star in his pocket. They had not, in fact, faced worse before now.
This was war, potentially escalating into thousands versus thousands in a fight to the death. The plague that haunted Earth through the entire twentieth century. A tiny group of randomly strange individuals could deal with some weird psychic villain menace, but something as huge and gritty and real as the horror of war, well…
That was writing on the wall, right there. Clear as the paint she sprayed across the bricks every night. The TroubleSolvers could plot and scheme, but in the end, they weren’t going to win.
Vivi would be trapped on the other side, forever.
The Department of Safety wouldn’t save her. The TroubleSolvers couldn’t save her.
By the next day, Marcy’s mind was made up. Hollister wasn’t the only person who knew a guy who knew a guy. Marcy knew a guy who knew a guy who could get her what she needed.
The gun felt strange in her hand. Not the first time she’d held a piece, of course… a year ago she’d packed a firearm that weighed a ton, and held it aimed at an old man’s head while Gus Zero tried an ultimately unsuccessful gambit against him. At the time that gun wasn’t actually loaded, and they weren’t planning to actually kill anyone. Tonight, neither condition held true.
She approached the Greasemonkey at night, after its occupying guards had retreated inside for the night to get out of the rain. Lurking in shadow, hoodie up, bandanna tight over her face. The Ghostwriter, familiar with the bricks and concrete of this City… and tonight, ready to fight for it with more than colorful words.
Not that she had any idea how to do this. "Get inside, cross over to the Citadel, find Vivi, escape." That was the plan. Sorely lacking in details, but… what else could she do? Wait around forever and a day for the Yates family to realize they were in over their head? No. Not one day more. Vivi, trapped over there, with those monsters. Those bastards. No, no more, no…
One step, and she’d be out of the shadow and into the street. More steps and she’d be kicking in the door, making a mad dash for the back room. She’d wormed some details about where the bridge between worlds might be out of Kelsey, the poor girl unused to subterfuge, not realizing Marcy was interrogating her rather than having a friendly chat.
The back room, where they store the liquor in wooden crates… that’s where the janitor vanished. That’s where she had to go. Whatever was on the other side, well… Marcy would deal with it.
Or she’d die. That was also an option.
Either way, Marcy was ready to take that step. She pressed forward, hands in the pockets in front of her hoodie, where the uncomfortable steel remained hidden. Leaning into the step, and—
—was pulled back, by an arm on her shoulder.
If she were as coordinated as Gregory Yates, she probably would’ve instinctively turned, drawn, and fired. Instead she stumbled and thankfully did not shoot herself in the stomach.
When she saw who was holding her back, part of her wanted to draw and fire anyway.
"The hell do you want?" Marcy growled, behind her bandanna.
The man with the slashed scar across his cheek pulled her deeper into the shadow… but then let go, once they were clear. Not wanting to keep his hands on her any longer than he had to.
"I want to stop you from doing something suicidal," Gus Zero explained. "Marcy, what the hell do you think you’re doing with that gun?"
"How do you—"
"I know a badly concealed weapon when I see one. …plus, Six saw you buying it yesterday."
As a woman who knows her color spectrum, she didn’t see red. She saw deep burgundy.
A year ago, she was sitting in that bar just across the street, laughing and celebrating at the side of one Gus Jørgensen. He still knew how to party, back then… trying to be the carefree twenty-something from the Eighties that unwillingly and repeatedly landed into this City. They had some good times, in the aftermath of Echo’s downfall.
Tonight, however, Marcy had nothing but snarling scorn. Especially when she realized how he’d tracked her down.
"You’ve had your little clones following me," she realized.
"Ever since Hollister told me how pissed off you were, yeah," Gus admitted. "…look, I know I’m the last person you want to see right now—"
"I think the last words I said to you were ‘I never want to see you again, you bastard,’ so… yeah. You are in fact the last person I want to see right now. …assuming you even are who you say you are. Maybe you’re Six, or Three. Any of your little sheep could add a decorative cheekbone cut to their ensemble…"
For his part… Gus Jørgensen wasn’t angry at all. His expression was more… down. Knowing he wasn’t wanted here, knowing all the bad blood and pain that existed between them now, and knowing he had to be here all the same. Wanting to minimize that continuing pain, as best he could, while keeping Marcy alive.
"I understand you’re upset. You’ve got every right to be," he prefaced. "Hate me all you want, I’m okay with that, but at least listen to my words: Do. Not. Do this. A one-woman war against the Citadel? You’d be dead or captured the instant you set foot in that place."
"Neither of which is any of your business. I don’t want or need you fighting my battles, not anymore. I’ve seen the way you fight, remember? Compared to that, I’d rather handle this on my own."
"Marcy, becoming a martyr for your sister doesn’t help anyone!" he insisted. "The TroubleSolvers are on this, okay? They’ll figure it out. You don’t want to do something you’ll regret—"
Shadows were terrific at hiding sneaky people aiming to misbehave. They were awful at hiding loud people yelling at each other.
Marcy didn’t get a good look at the man emerging from the ‘Citadel Embassy.’ He would be in green, he would be heavily armed, and that’s all she needed to know. Despite her earlier urges to burst in there gun drawn and storm the entire Citadel by herself… pure instinct took control when an actual threat presented itself. She ran.
All Marcy had to do was keep going, then hang a left. She knew ways to dodge the Department of Safety when they were after her for nocturnal art crimes; dodging the Citadel would be very similar. It was all about territory control and knowledge, in the end. She had both.
The district around Seventh Street was a run-down haven for graffiti artists, after all; she knew the routes. Knew them better than Gus Zero did, anyway. Who was running alongside her, also having the instinctive need not to stand around while a guy with a gun chases you.
Escaping a gunman, with Gus at her side. Familiar situation. Too familiar. Unnervingly familiar.
Just like the decision to arm herself and charge off to war, Marcy Wei firmly decided to make the wrong call because it felt right at the time. Satisfyingly right.
So, instead of waiting until she could duck down a safe alley with a handy fire escape and rooftop access to an abandoned building which led to a tunnel which could get her out of the district… Marcy took the first available open door. She went right, when Gus went left. Right into unknown territory, instead of the safe path.
And why? Well… spite, honestly. Wherever that smug bastard was going, she didn’t want to follow. Even if she had to walk a crooked mile in the process.
She caught a surprised look, eyes flashing over that scarred cheek of his, when they parted ways. Too late for him to follow, as the man with the rifle was hot on his heels… and chose to follow the dangerous-looking dude instead of the girl in a skirt. Patriarchy had its advantages, sometimes.
In the dark of this unfamiliar building, Marcy was finally left alone to her own devices. There’d be a back way out of the place; always was, in the tangled warrens of Seventh Street. True, she didn’t know this particular run-down pile of rooms and halls the way she knew the others, but instinct could guide her. She knew the vague dimensions of the building based on how it had stood against the skyline, which meant that if she kept walking down the main hallway she could eventually find a back stairwell. Easy as pie.
Just keep walking.
Down, and down that hallway. Past door after door.
When she passed the twentieth door… she stopped. And turned. Walked back the way she came, calmly at first. Then, not so calmly…
The open doorway she’d sprinted through was gone, and instead… Marcy found herself skidding to a halt on a linoleum floor.
Ovens and fridges, over and over. Paired in twos, tall and short, tall and short. Not a showroom, not a sales floor… a kitchen that kept spinning out of control, skewing ten degrees each time it repeated. A hallway made out of the same segment of kitchen, copied and pasted repeatedly.
Fear set in slowly, creeping up with a smug smile.
Trying to fight the pounding in her chest, she tried to retrace her steps again. Even tried walking backwards, knowing that sometimes made a difference. Rather than finding herself back on Seventh Street, Marcy ended up standing in the middle of a doctor’s waiting room, with eye testing charts covering every available surface. All those blocky "E"s staring her down…
Somewhere in the dark of that building she’d brazenly jumped into, she’d marched right through a one-way door into the Sideways. There was no way out. There were only ways in…
I’m going to die down here, she realized, far too late to do anything about it.
It was the nightmare which kept citizens of the City of Angles awake at night:
"What if I take a wrong turn and end up lost forever?"
Honestly, that didn’t happen very often. Penelope had blogged about it quite a bit, the way fear of such a rare event left people paralyzed and unwilling to set foot outside their homes. You were just as likely to die in a car crash or drop dead from cancer, so why spent your life terrified of something like that?
One way to reduce risk was not to go poking around a dark district looking for trouble.
The Department of Safety had to prioritize their work. Out in the districts where shuffles and insertions had indirectly led to economic collapse, their populations retreating to higher ground… the Department was often a bit lax in their duties. Marking off Sideways entrances with quarantine tape was exhaustive and dangerous work; if nobody lived there anymore, why bother?
For example, the Zag—spinal column of the City, its oldest and most affluent district—had been fully documented by the Department for some time now. The last major find there was a repeating storage room filled with seafood, uncovered by Penelope Yates many years ago. Since then, no new entrances had been found.
In comparison, Seventh Street was Swiss cheese. Despite being the stomping ground for diehard locals like the Salvager gang that named themselves after the place, there were still plenty of holes to fall through that went unnoticed by the Department. Poke around a dark district like this one for some stupid reason, and your risk factors went up.
Marcy had been stupid for extremely stupid reasons, and as a result her risk factors skyrocketed. Now, she’d joined the ranks of the lost.
For the first evening…
She sat. Found an armchair in someone’s disconnected living room, and sat. An old fashioned telephone bell ringer had been sounding off the entire time, very disquieting, but at that point she was too scared to go looking around for the source of the noise. And too scared to dig this hole she’d climbed in any deeper, and find somewhere else to hide.
Marcy had no idea how to deal with this situation, on any emotional level. Despite crawling all over the City’s dangerous places during her twenty-five years of existence, she’d felt almost… immortal. This City was her friend. Stranger danger? Cops and robbers? Dirtbags who saw a woman alone at night as an opportunity? Marcy was invincible in the face of all that, because the City loved her. It wouldn’t turn on her and bite her; she rewarded its kindness with works of art, for all to enjoy. She wouldn’t get lost, couldn’t get lost, it wasn’t possible for someone as streetwise as her, no, no…
The City turned its back on her when she turned her back on common sense. Was she seriously going to end her inglorious career in art crime as a lonely ghost, haunting unknown hallways until dropping dead of starvation…?
Vivi. Marcy. Both lost.
It was crazy. Things like that didn’t happen to them, shouldn’t happen to them.
"Someone’s going to come looking for me," Marcy said aloud, despite knowing that talking to yourself is probably not a good thing. At least it helped fill the air with something other than a periodic jangly bell. "They always tell kids who get lost to stay put and wait for an adult. Anyway, Penelope knows the Sideways, and if I stay near the spot where I came in, it’ll be easier for her to find me. Bet you she’ll be by any minute now."
And so Marcy sat very still for three hours, and was not promptly rescued.
Which made sense. At last check she’d run pell-mell into some random building while being chased by a Citadel guard… shortly after telling Gus off and saying she didn’t want to see him again. Maybe he was respecting her wishes and giving her space? And of course she wouldn’t answer her phone, not if she was cheesed off at him and the other TroubleSolvers.
"Nobody’s going to come looking for me," she replied to herself. "I’m always playing lone wolf, so going off the grid is perfectly in character. They don’t know I’m here. Besides… they’ve got bigger things to worry about, like Vivi. …they shouldn’t come looking for me. They should be focusing on that. I can get myself out of here."
Made sense. She was a City kid, wasn’t she? Not afraid of anything. Penelope was only ten years old when she started wandering in and out of the Sideways. Surely Marcy Wei could find her own way out…
In the morning, she’d explore. Look for signs of passing, others like her, who might’ve found their way out. She’d beat this. She’d survive.
After a breakfast of dry cereal with artificial marshmallows (the only food left in the house she camped down in) she got to work at escaping this limbo. Used a methodical search pattern, following the wall on the left, only taking open doors. She didn’t have any way to make a map, but presumably following that rule rigidly would eventually get her where she needed to be…
"It’s just like mazes on kiddie placemats at restaurants," she reasoned aloud, feeling her way along the wall in a darkened hallway. (The lightbulbs were missing. Not broken, missing.) "You stick to your guns and you get out eventually. Stands to reason."
To be sure she wasn’t going in circles, she left a spraypainted arrow at each turn, indicating which way she went. So far she hadn’t come across one of her own arrows, which was promising. Making progress. Progress towards… well, presumably an exit.
Trodding along for a full day was tiring as hell, though. She was used to trekking across the City, but never more than six dark hours at a stretch, and always with pit stops to grab some chow at an all-night noodle stand or something. While the occasional water fountain kept her refreshed, soon enough her stomach was growling again.
As night came down—at least, according to the clock on her phone, as there was no sunlight in the Sideways—the only thing she’d found to eat came from a broken snack vending machine.
A few chocolate bars and one pastry were all that remained; someone else had come this way, smashed out the glass with a nearby trash can, and looted it all. These lone treasures had fallen down deep into the machine, and she had to risk slashing her arm open on the glass to get at them.
One full day of adventuring hadn’t gotten Marcy anywhere close to an exit. Odds were she’d already passed through a number of one-ways and ended up even further from the "surface," in fact. Just because she never crossed her own path didn’t mean she was getting anywhere…
Sitting against a wall, eating a chocolate bar she couldn’t enjoy one bit, Marcy thumbed at her phone. No signal. No tools to help her out…
EchoMap would’ve been useful. Penelope swore by it; she explained how she used it to scan every door, looking for places where the echolocation signal went dark… sure sign of a one-way door. But that software was expensive, and despite being a handy tool in every City-crawler’s toolkit… Marcy never felt like paying for it. All that sat on her phone were a few colorful match-three games and some social media tools.
She re-read all her tweets from the last time she was on the surface. Friends in the art scene, mostly. Except of course for Slyck, her off-and-on boyfriend from years past. He’d found someone new and cut all ties. Marcy could’ve kept following his account, learning what he was eating for lunch with his new bimbo, but opted not to.
"I should ring him up once I’m out of here," she muttered, into her chocolate bar. "Leave a tag down here, something really epic. Then come home and brag about it. Maybe he’d be impressed. Maybe…"
And then hours passed in the blink of an eye, on account of passing out from exhaustion.
By morning she was once again picking her way through kitchens and dining rooms and endless stairwells. So tired of marching up stairs and down hallways. No exit, nothing, just more crazy random rooms. Sometimes attached at skewed angles, sudden sloping floors making her lose her footing…
Her, the artist who scampered across rooftops like a parkour master, losing her footing. Sad. How very sad.
At the end of the third day, Marcy stopped walking. Her feet hurt like hell, and really… what was the point? There was no way out. None at all.
In fact… she’d finally come across one of her own arrows. The very first one, from a green can that had been running out. She recognized the specific drips of the paint. Two full days wandering around and she’d come full circle, just as she’d feared. No closer to an exit.
Vivi was gone. Marcy was gone. Both of them fell down different rabbit holes, but a fall is a fall.
Eventually, everybody would figure out she wasn’t just ignoring them and throwing a tantrum, she’d actually gotten lost. They’d all feel very sad, and then they’d move on. Maybe they already had; nobody was rescuing her, after all, and good for them not to. Very good.
Leave Marcy to die, die alone, because she was so spiteful over the past sins of Gustav Jørgensen that she let anger override her common sense. That was a fittingly stupid end for the stupid girl known as Marcy Wei.
When she passed out from exhaustion and hunger on that third day, she was lying on a bench in half of an empty bus terminal. Her hand went to the pocket in front of her hoodie for warmth… and cradled around the handle of her freshly obtained firearm, as she fell to unconsciousness.
From the shadows of the half-terminal, eyes watched her fade away.
One of them saw sorrow. The other saw opportunity.
// a friend, the dark child whispered, gleeful.
"A lost soul," the other corrected, with far more empathy.
// mine // MINE // my place of power // not yours. // you go away now.
"Yet she’s falling to despair, sister. That means she may fall into my arms. Her heart hasn’t yet chosen…"
The crooked smile of Bedlam twisted into a möbius strip of impish delight.
// …a game, then, the shadow suggested. // a game of you // a game of me // and how she will break. // we will see, in time // whose friend she will be // friends // ours // not the Lucid child’s. // yours, or mine. // either way we win. // except me. // I’ll just win.
With a heavy sigh… the floating girl in the fluid of the dream nodded in assent.
"A game, then," she agreed. "And her heart will decide, one way or the other."
The next morning, Marcy used the bus terminal restroom to wash up. Couldn’t take a proper shower, despite feeling sticky and gross, but that was fine. She lacked the energy to do much more than scrub her face and try to look less like death warmed over.
A gentle beep brought her attention to her phone.
And then… gone.
The phone was her only way of telling time down here. All the clocks were wrong, assuming they moved at all. That small black bit of metal and glass the last words of her friends, some distracting entertainment, and a few songs she’d been listening to on repeat. Now, it was dead. Maybe she could find an electronics shop down here and recharge it… but it wasn’t likely. Most of the stores she passed through seemed very old, relics from the Nineties and earlier. Chances of getting a USB adapter were low.
Besides, she’d be dead soon. Even if she kept finding snack machines, it was still inevitable. There were Picassos down here. Not that she’d run into one yet, but surely they were around… no scary trip to the Sideways was complete without running for your life from one of those monsters. Assuming she could still run…
The hallucinations weren’t helping.
Penelope was staring at her from a bathroom mirror. Well, some crazy dream-haze version of Penelope, likely induced by Marcy’s collapsing mental state. That would explain why she was wearing an old-timey dress. At least this doom vision was kind of adorable, which was nice.
"You don’t want to wander anymore, do you?" the girl asked.
"Not particularly, no," Marcy spoke, while rubbing down her face with scratchy paper towels. "What’s the point? It’s all just wasted effort."
"What do you want to do, then? What would make you happiest before you die?"
Marcy Wei gave it some thought… standing there, hands braced on either side of the cheap ceramic sink. She leaned in, to study the reflection closer. Deep blue eyes, unlike Penelope’s…
"I’d want to write the perfect piece," she decided. "Find a good canvas down here. An ideal wall, a subway car, something like that. Write out the finest word, styled perfectly. I’d want to leave something worth leaving behind. Something beautiful…"
"That sounds lovely. I’d like to read that word."
"…you’re not just a figment of my imagination, are you?" she asked. "There’s… something weirdly familiar about you…"
The floating child smiled softly.
"We’ve met before," she confirmed. "Long, long ago. You’d written a word atop the Defined Tower, but the water washed it all away. I was drawn by your sadness, watching your hard work melt in front of your eyes. You saw me, briefly… my eyes, instead of your own, in the reflection of that glass. You saw an echo of your own sorrows..."
Dread certainty pulled Marcy back to her sensible senses.
"Echo," she realized.
In the mirror which did not reflect Marcy Wei, the shimmering aspect of the trinity offered a polite curtsy, tugging at the sides of her fancy dress.
"I wanted to be friends with you that day, but I’m afraid my sisters interfered," Echo explained. "Bedlam’s foul friend chased you away; then Lucid repaired your artwork, painted in her own colors. I never got to meet you properly. I’m glad I have the chance to do so now, so close to your end…"
The one truly responsible for Memorial Stadium. This mirror vision of madness nearly killed the entire city, drowning it in blood and suicide…
Marcy backed away from the mirror. Backed away, until she bumped against the spine between two bathroom stalls.
"Why are you afraid?" Echo asked, floating closer to the surface of the glass. "I just want to help you. You’re suffering so much, lost in these forgotten fragments of the dream. You could still write that beautiful word, Marcy. Write the perfect word, and then let go. You wouldn’t feel a thing…"
"S-Stay back," she warned, holding the wet paper towel in her hands like a shield.
"But you’re going to die down here, one way or another. You know it’s true. Either you’ll be torn apart by my sister’s friends, or you’ll slowly expire in starving agony. Why endure that? Why not go gently into my arms? Finish your life’s work, and then float away with me…"
"I… I could still escape. I could still…"
"You can’t escape. You can’t do anything. All that’s left for you is death. Please… Marcy. It pains me to see you like this. Take my hand. Let me help you. Your sister wouldn’t want you to suffer like this, in fear and pain…"
Echo’s outstretched hand pressed against the surface of the glass, as the woman dashed from that bathroom, staggering through the heavy door. It swung closed behind her with a metallic slam.
Running and running and running. Running until she had no breath left in her lungs, no strength left in her legs. And then running more. Until finally her unsteady footing found purchase on an overturned lamp, and down went the Ghostwriter, sure-footed rooftop crawler extraordinaire.
A spill like that shouldn’t hurt as much as it did. It’s not like she broke a bone or anything, she just fell on her face. But… the combined effect of days of lousy eating, high anxiety, and terrible sleeping patterns finally caught up to her. It hurt. Everything hurt.
For the first time in ages, Marcy found herself in tears.
She was supposed to be the tough girl. Her sister was the compassionate and gentle soul, so Marcy had to be the tough girl that blocked the horrors of the world; all for Vivi’s sake. Not that it did Vivi much good, in the end… and now, Marcy had no toughness left. Not after all this.
Not after realizing that one of the reasons why she was running was because part of her wanted to take Echo’s offer.
In a way, she still could. She had the gun. Every bullet still in the chamber. She’d only need one.
Lying on the floor, Marcy didn’t move for the weighty metal thing in her pocket. Didn’t move at all, out of fear that she’d make the wrong move. Stayed perfectly still.
And that’s how the madgirl found her.
// crying // tears //
why so sad? //
// let // me help—
—and the Sideways changed around her. Now, she was sitting in a comfortable leather wingback chair, beside a fireplace. It roared with crackling, wild flames on an artificial chemical log designed to burn in novelty colors.
In a similar chair, albeit distorted and twisting around in space, sat the next aspect of the trinity.
"Bedlam," Marcy recognized, weakly.
Even if she wanted to run for it, her legs weren’t in the mood. They were perfectly happy to be resting in that lovely chair…
// ohh yes // we met once, didn’t we? Bedlam spoke, smiling. Always smiling. // so briefly // long long ago // yes // with doctor montgomery // and your sister…
"You turned my sister into a monster! If I wasn’t there to bring her back to her senses…"
// how unkind! // true, I was friends with her //
briefly // so briefly. // too briefly. //
but that was montgomery’s idea. // dougal’s idea. // they had games // playing // schemes //
which were fun! // such fun! //
but in the end nothing came of it.
shame // shame // shame // SHAME—
Clutching at her head, to keep the warped word from bouncing around between her eardrums. Soon, it passed, and Marcy dared to breathe again.
… // water under the bridge, Bedlam said, with a shrug of three shoulders. // here and now // you and me // yes // much more important. // you and me // yes // right where you need to be // right where you belong…
"You want to kill me, then?" Marcy guessed. "For keeping my sister from you? Eh. Hollow victory. It’s not like I can fight back against you…"
// what? // no! // nonononono // no. //
I want to help you // be friends with you // good friends //
make you better // stronger // capable of what you need to do //
silly thing, silly thing in your pocket // bullety thing // no, that won’t do //
you want true power // true strength // true revenge…?
And a Citadel helmet dropped into Bedlam’s outstretched hand. That distinctive gunmetal gray color, with an embossed logo of a chess rook. It hovered, spinning lightly… and then crumpled, the metal giving way like so much tinfoil, becoming a supercompressed wad of armor.
// …revenge // for your sister, Bedlam suggested. // with my power. // as one of my friends.
The reality of it set in slowly.
"You want me to become a Picasso," Marcy realized. "You’ll show me the way out of here if I become a Picasso."
// yesssssssssssss, Bedlam confirmed, eyes flaring green with delight. // become the beast that slays the beast // unleash yourself // explode upon the citadel, a guided missile of rage // yessssss. //
do it. // embrace it // be my friend // and throw yourself upon their swords //
burn them // twist them // tear them apart in your throes…
It was tempting. Far more tempting than Echo’s offer, since it fit with Marcy’s usual mindset. Lash out at the world when it lashes out at you. Wasn’t that her plan in the first place, after all? Go charging into the Citadel, guns blazing, and get her sister back? A stupid plan, to be sure, doomed to fail. One girl and a pistol versus an army. Versus…
"It wouldn’t work," Marcy realized. "Even as a Picasso. One Picasso isn’t enough. They’d kill me before I could reach Vivi."
Bedlam rotated her head ninety degrees, curious.
"…what do you mean, ‘so’? So what’s the point?"
// the point // the point // the point is to destroy them // punish them //
ruin them for what they did to you //
they hurt you // I KNOW you want this // want to hurt them //
to explode like a bomb // tearing everything apart—
"But it wouldn’t actually help Vivi…"
// it would avenge her.
// you’ll die anyway // everybody dies // you’d die down here // why not die well? //
why not scream and tear and shred on your way down? //
go gentle, bah // i say: go screaming // and making others scream in your wake // yessssss…
…and again, some tiny part of Marcy wanted to agree.
She was dead the instant she set foot in the Sideways. Choosing how she died was the only thing she had left, really. Quietly vanish, or show the Citadel the error of their ways. If those were really her only options, if escaping with her life was impossible, then… Marcy simply wasn’t the sort of person to quietly vanish, was she? If insanity was the only alternative…
But while some part of her reached for that power… the rest held back. Weakly, hungry and tired and sick of it all, but the rest held fast as best it could.
"I… I need time to think," she managed, weakly.
// take your time, Bedlam agreed. // not too much time // not much time // don’t waste your opportunities. // I’ll be around. // …and so will my friends.
Leaving Marcy sitting alone by the fire. With warmth and comfort provided by her would-be benefactor… Marcy passed out immediately. Despite sleeping the night before, she needed more. More, until she’d likely end up sleeping forever.
She awoke two hours later to the sound of shattering glass, and a man’s scream.
Watching horror movies had taught her not to investigate strange noises in spooky places. But being in complete isolation for days had taught her that any possible human contact was better than none… and having an ally of flesh and blood would be better than throwing in with Penny’s doppelgängers.
Besides, she had some strength back after that power nap, and felt like moving.
The living room Bedlam had hastily assembled for her adjoined a men’s room, which then opened up to the source of the noise.
Long ago when Marcy and Vivi were furnishing their newly-leased apartment, they visited a cheap furniture warehouse. It was all randomly salvaged stuff from Earth… no local brands, no stylish ones. Just finds brought back by independent mappers and Salvagers and Department of Resources scouts. You could find anything there: chairs, chaise lounges, coffee tables, china cabinets and other things which actually didn’t start with the letter C.
The furniture store she found herself in now, however, had none of that variety.
This was a store that exclusively sold mirrors. Hand mirrors, full-length dressing mirrors, wall mounted mirrors, mirrors with elaborate brass frames like you’d find in your grandmother’s house. Wall to wall mirrors, with some freestanding ones here and there to add some variety. All priced to go, with tags ending in ’99,’ done up in red ink. A going-out-of-business sale. Someone’s shattered dream business from Earth.
Literally a shattered dream, because every single mirror had been broken. Marcy stayed by the door, to avoid walking into a field of broken glass. Also, to avoid drawing the attention of the one who smashed the mirrors.
Wasn’t Echo. Wasn’t Bedlam. Wasn’t another human being. No, no. This was the last hazard of the Sideways, the thing she’d been secretly expecting to find around every corner during her travels yet had miraculously avoided until now.
Specifically, a Picasso made of a man-shaped pile of silver-based reflective looking glass. Which made for one hell of a sight to see, honestly. The artsy side of Marcy appreciated that aesthetic, while the rest of her went into screaming panic, wondering why the hell she ever left that comfortable chair…
Because now, the man was turning to face her, having finished smashing and absorbing all the mirrors in the store.
Briefly, Marcy saw her own features reflected in the glass. Despite being made entirely of shards, there was enough there to function properly as a mirror…
into the visage of a Citadel soldier.
So, not a possible ally, some wanderer getting angry and smashing mirrors. Or maybe it was, and she showed up right as the poor bastard lost it and went cubist. No more reason to hang around here. Particularly not when the broken image of a man in uniform was turning its head towards her.
Running, again. Wonderful. How much longer could she run? For the rest of her life, very likely.
Marcy didn’t stop sprinting until she was back through the bus terminal, and into an empty restaurant. Not empty of furniture, but empty of patrons, of course. Plenty of neon signs advertising various draft beers and things, more signs than any one sports bar should have… also plenty of tables and chairs, with nice long tablecloths. Perfect.
She dove for cover under one, only daring to peek out through a rip in the cloth once she was in control of her breathing again.
Motion, from the corner of her eye. The Citadel soldier, or a silver imitation of one, stalking through the restaurant. Looking for prey.
Briefly, she fingered the gun in her pocket. Gregory Yates packed heat down here; he said that if you could hit the human core of a Picasso, somehow punch through the chaos and hit the person underneath, you could kill one. Of course, grenades were a much safer bet than tiny little bullets that nearly always missed or had their trajectories bent mid-flight… but Marcy was expecting to fight the Citadel, not a Citadel-Picasso. The wrong tool for the right job…
Slow the breathing. Easy to do despite her terror, thanks to a fresh wave of exhaustion. If she passed out here, she might never wake again; regulating herself between fear and calm without submitting to either was key…
And then, the silver soldier spoke.
"Come out with your // your hands up and you won’t be harmed," he promised, a rifle waving around the room, his broken form moving from table to table. "Not harmed at all // no. You’ll join your sister. Tortured // broken // ruined // prisoner of war…"
Breath catching in Marcy’s throat. A small rational voice asked: Wait, how does he know about that? while the rest of her remained deadlocked in naked horror.
"You couldn’t save her, could you?" the soldier called out to the room in general. "You were too busy writing // so selfish // out there in your playground at night. She’s gone now and never coming back // screaming and screaming in pain // like you should be. Surrender // surrender // SURRENDER—"
Covering her ears and squeezing her eyes shut, now. Blocking it out.
But she couldn’t block out the other voices.
// hurry // hurry // decide, Bedlam whispered in her left ear. // accept my gifts // become strong // fight the monster // aim your gun and fire // destroy the Citadel…
"You know that’s useless," Echo reminded her, whispering in the right ear. "You can’t actually win. There’s nothing you can do, except fade away. Painlessly, silently. It’s so easy. Take your gun, and place it to your head…"
The gun was in her hand, now. It wavered, the business end unsure of where it wanted to point.
Perhaps that’s why she paid attention to the monster again. Having a pair of monsters in your head, ones you were trying not to listen to, made you more inclined to go with the devil you knew. A Citadel Picasso, that’s something nearly normal compared to a pair of doomsayers…
Which is when she realized it wasn’t a Citadel soldier anymore.
The mirror Picasso bore a different reflection, now. One far less threatening, far more familiar… but in its own way, just as stomach-wrenching. So many bad memories there, regrets and failures…
It had reshaped itself into Slyck, the graffiti wannabe.
"All I wanted // just wanted a real relationship, yeah?" he called out in this new voice… still searching for Marcy. "You never wanted to commit // to take anything seriously at all. I was ready to propose, you know. Make a real life // together // but no, you just kept calling me up when you were horny, then abandoning me for weeks. You ignored // wouldn’t listen // kept pushing me away then pulling me back…"
Realization dawned quickly.
"It’s a Picasso that reflects my fears," she realized. "Not some Citadel flunky who wandered down here; it’s a mirror at the core. …you two made this thing, didn’t you? It’s a little bit of each of you. Mirrors and madness…"
"Perhaps. Perhaps," Echo teased. "But does that really change anything? You can’t defeat it. It can and will kill if you provoke it…"
// my friends fight, sometimes // you could be my friend // you could fight it //
"If it’s just a bad photocopy of Slyck, this will be a piece of cake," Marcy declared, with a gun. She pulled back the hammer on the gun, and grasped the edge of the tablecloth. "That sad little joker’s no match for me…"
// wait // wait // you—
"—don’t want to dooo that—"
With confidence, Marcy emerged from her hiding place to confront this metallic monster.
Which was no longer reflecting the image of her would-be one-time boyfriend. It was reflecting an entirely different would-be, one-time boyfriend. Or rather, a reflection of that reflection.
Because even if it wore the fractured face of Gus Zero, she knew for a fact that this one was Gus Four.
The gun nearly slipped from her fingers, as she backed up hard into the table.
"THERE // there you are," he spoke… in that awful whisper, the one he used before. Loud enough to be heard, soft enough to be alluring. A smile across a shard that represented his mouth…
Her weapon raised, but wavering, wobbling. Too scared to fire.
"I don’t see what the big deal // what’s the problem," Gus Four spoke. "We’re practically the same person // we are the same person. Every month the same person // I’m me, not the others, I’m me. His name is mine // his store is mine // his girlfriend is mine // because I’m myself…"
"S-Stay back," Marcy warned. As if it mattered.
"You weren’t telling me to stay back that night // were you? No. // No. // You laughed and had a good time // enjoyed yourself // you’re the one who came on to ME, in fact. // no idea I wasn’t him. // and I thought // well // why not? I’m just as good as him // better than zero. // you // you have no idea // no idea how hard it is not to be unique // not to be who I thought I am—"
All six bullets passed through the Picasso easily. Four of them broke larger mirrors into smaller mirrors. Otherwise, they had no effect at all, other than taking out one of the many neon beervertisement signs on the wall behind him.
Her gun clicked and clicked, empty.
"…you’re very ungrateful, aren’t you," Gus Four spoke, after glancing down at the floating shards of mirror. "Just like the zero // the bastard // who curbstomped me when you both realized what I’d done. // who slashed open his own face so it would never happen again. // not very grateful to him, either // dumping him // calling him a psychopath // running away // always running away, little Marcy Wei, always running away // away // away—"
Three voices, now. One to either side, one ahead. All of them closing in on poor little Marcy.
"I can take your pain away right now, before he slices you into a thousand pieces," Echo promised.
// I can make you able to destroy him // to destroy yourself // to destroy anyone and everyone, Bedlam promised.
Dying horribly and painfully, with the face of the man who abused her laughing all the while. Dying instantly and painlessly, giving up on any hope for her future. Or dying in a cataclysm of fire and rage, fruitlessly exploding upon her enemies…
All Marcy had left to do was choose how she died.
Or you could choose how to live.
…a fourth voice.
This one, from the flickering tubes of neon behind Gus Four. A single red square which encompassed other squares, an intricate pattern of light and shadow that looked like white snow across an old television set painted blood-bright.
Marcy Wei spent much of her life scrawling tags all over the City. Often, these tags were obfuscated words, designs that suggested the shape of letters rather than being letters themselves. Decoding them was part of the process of the artwork; it was up to the reader to make an effort at understanding the message. There was a reason why graffiti writers didn’t use Helvetica… clear font choice was for fast food billboards and No Parking signs. Not for philosophical battles scrawled out in paint on concrete.
Even though to most the square-shaped neon sign would look like an incomprehensible mash of light, Marcy could read a single word within it. She could understand and appreciate the effort that went into encoding that challenge.
"You want to kill me. You want me to kill myself. And you just want everyone killed," Marcy understood, addressing each of the three monsters in turn. "Well… screw that. You want me to choose? Fine. I’m not choosing any one of you. I’ll choose myself."
And so, Marcy Wei closed her eyes.
Once upon a time, her sister became a Picasso. Only when Marcy dared to reach out and embrace her did Vivi come back from that abyss. If this particular Picasso was a reflection directed by Marcy’s emotions, well… she had emotions other than fear. She also had love.
The mirror could reflect Vivi Wei. She could embrace that image.
…no. Actually, no. Not Vivi. Someone else…
When Marcy opened her eyes, she found herself staring back into them.
"If I want to live, that means I won’t kill myself," she explained. "If the mirror reflects me, if I embrace it and survive… it’ll mean I genuinely want to live. Despite all the mistakes I’ve made, all the screw-ups, all the regrets, all the childishness… if I’m going to forgive myself for it all and live, this WILL work."
"I // agree," the shattered reflection of Marcy spoke. "Do it. // Hurry."
Throwing the empty gun aside, Marcy lunged forward into her own arms.
The two of them fell back to the floor, as two humans. Albeit different humans.
"…had a feeling it was you under there," Marcy mumbled, the wind knocked out of her from the impact. "Nobody else would freak out and go cubist immediately after walking into a room full of mirrors. …you idiot. You actually followed me into the Sideways? What the hell, man?"
The equally exhausted face of Gus Zero, cheekbone cut and all, cracked a weak smile.
"I’m an idiot," he agreed. "Running into the Sideways for someone who hates my guts. But… I’ve always been something of an idiot, so hey. At least I’m keeping in character."
With that business settled the two found souls retreated, through a doorway that opened itself up underneath the unique piece of neon artwork. It closed after them, sealing itself.
Leaving behind the two sisters, puzzled.
"…they always choose her, don’t they," Echo spoke, with a deflated sigh. "In the end, they always choose Lucid."
// I’m // I’m wondering // wondering if… // …if we should be choosing her as well, Bedlam admitted.
In the end, escaping the Sideways was as simple as following the lighted red EXIT signs. Of course, those signs hadn’t existed until now, but Marcy wasn’t going to complain.
Days ago she’d parted ways with Gus Zero, refusing to even escape the Citadel alongside him. Now, they walked together. Occasionally one had to support the other; their time down here had done a number on them both.
"I’m not getting back together with you," Marcy stated, up front.
"I’m not expecting you to," Gus agreed.
They didn’t need to go any deeper than that. Both knew exactly why.
It wasn’t even what Four did to her, not exactly. He passed himself off as Zero, and what happened did happen, and it became a nightmare in hindsight that Marcy would never truly forget. But that offense wasn’t on Zero’s rap sheet, no.
It was what came after that convinced Marcy it was time to get out of there. The screaming, the fury, the rage, and the blood. What became of Four, when Zero found out.
"I used to be a good guy," Gus Zero mused, as they approached the final exit. "Honestly, I was pretty okay. I’d hang out with my buddies, I’d play video games, I’d go out drinking, I’d party. I wasn’t always like this…"
"You could just let go of the grocery store," Marcy suggested. "That’s what’s turning you into that old bastard Gustav, hyperprotective of your territory, ready to do godawful things to protect it all. Just let go of it…"
But, Zero shook his head.
"The good outweighs the bad. We’re still able to feed a lot of hungry people, Marcy. Now especially, with the Citadel in town… they’re going to go after food stocks sooner or later. The TroubleSolvers need me. And I need to protect my gang and my legacy. …if that means beating down someone who abuses my trust, who hurts the ones I love, so be it."
"Yeah. Definitely not getting back together with you."
"I can respect that. I don’t think I’m very good boyfriend material."
And then… they were out. Back into the open air of Seventh Street, on a fresh and new morning. The Greasemonkey in the distance, surrounded by guards, unapproachable. Not that Marcy cared about approaching it, not anymore.
She took in a deep lungful of the City’s arguably fresh air, thankful for it. The low-entropy staleness of the Sideways made even the sickly air of Seventh Street sweet and succulent.
"I should phone in, let everybody know we’re okay," Gus said. "My battery ran down but I’ve got ways of getting word out…"
"Actually… I need to talk to Penelope," Marcy spoke, the image of the sign still burning in her mind. "And pronto. Find out where she is and get us over there, fast. Doesn’t matter what she’s doing, I need to speak with her before I lose my grip on this."
"Cass, Vivi, Lucas, Milly… and now Marcy, all gone," Penelope whispered.
Maybe the cost of being awesome was too high.
Maybe it was time to back down, before the Citadel came for anyone else.
And then, a commotion at the front door of the diner… as newcomers burst in through the doors. Intently looking for Penelope Yates.
Marcy Wei and Gus Zero, moving with speed through the diner. They raised a fuss, being complete strangers and showing up when the diner was playing host to important visitors already—but Penelope shook her head at a trucker who had moved to intercept, waving the two over.
Plenty of room at the booth for all four of them. Melba even dropped by, to get food orders. Marcy’s order took nearly a minute and a half to place.
With her first square meal in days squared away… she grabbed a white napkin, quickly, and began to sketch out the shape from her mind. Squares within squares, dots within squares…
When the design was complete, she slid it to the center of the table.
"…it’s a QR code," Kelsey recognized.
"I was stuck in the Sideways for days. That’s the symbol that led me to safety, in the end," Marcy explained. "Yeah, it’s a QR code. Don’t ask me how I was able to completely and perfectly memorize something like that, because I’m not sure I want to know that particular truth. I’d take a peek to see where it leads, but my phone’s dead. Anybody got some juice in theirs?"
Curious… Penelope raised her phone, and took a snapshot.
Immediately, her web browser pulled up http://ЯΕЅIЅт.city, the website Kelsey had just launched.
"It… goes to our new site," Penelope said. "The one where we’re gathering all our anti-Citadel evidence… but wait, I thought we couldn’t do a QR code to a Sideways Signal website. I mean… it shouldn’t be possible…"
"You’re going to need stencils," Marcy explained. "Making a stencil for a QR code can be difficult, but I’ve done it before. I’ll make you the basic designs, you can post them on the website. Then we need a street team to get the word out, to spray the tag up everywhere they can reach, all at once, overnight. Get it in front of as many people as you can…"
"On it," Gus declared, having found a nearby outlet to plug his phone into, charging it up. "I’ve got fourteen of me ready to go at a moment’s notice."
Marcy nodded in approval. "Good. I’ll work with your team and pick out the best spots for ’em. After that, it’ll go physically viral; people can print out their own flyers, posters, and stencils. Gus and I will keep the ball rolling. …I know I can’t save my sister on my own, Penelope. But this is something I can do for you. Let me organize the local resistance while you focus on how we ultimately kick the Citadel’s ass and rescue Vivi."
One week after the arrival of the Citadel…
One week after the arrival of the Citadel, the signs started to appear.
They were painted on the sides of buildings. They covered advertising billboards. They rolled by on the sides of subway cars. They appeared on public bulletin boards and telephone poles and anywhere you could paste a flyer.
Hours later, most of them were gone; scrubbed clean or torn down. But not all of them. And more went up the next day. And the day after…
It was too late to stop the message, in the end. The City had learned the truth of the Citadel.
It was time to