Strong walls, concrete and steel fortifications that circle all we hold dear. Strong walls crisscrossing other strong walls, growing organically out of the burnt and blasted earth, protecting us from those who would do us harm. Entire lives lived out within those manmade barricades… lives which are happy and carefree, provided that they remain on the correct side of the wall. The wall stands for safety and strength, the living will of the people who built it.
Rumors of walled districts completely overrun and lost over the years of open warfare are completely false. The walls are strong, and even when destroyed, are quickly restored by the Builders. There is no cause for alarm, no matter how close the explosions seem to be. You are right to fear the explosions. You are right to fear the Enemy. But as long as we remain strong and are willing to fight, the walls will remain strong against their assaults.
Nobody knows why the Enemy hates us and wishes to destroy our way of life. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The Citadel exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new citizens with it.
We live a life amidst the grim spectre of war.
If we’re going to conquer our foes, if we’re going to stay alive and remain strong, we need to learn to fight for the Citadel.
…citizens would do best to consider the following…
No plan survives contact with the enemy. This holds true for THE Enemy, of course, the one we all know and justly fear, but it also holds true for other enemies. Enemies within, enemies without. A plan is a starting point, not a solution; once you enact your will upon the world you may find the world pushing back. The wise commander adjusts plans accordingly, to ensure his will be done.
Changing plans mid-battle, however, is no easy feat. It requires learned skill and fine tactical sense to make the correct course changes. Too little or too much change can lead to total devastation. A balance must be struck… a way to compromise to the conditions you find yourself in, while still aiming for and achieving your original goal. (The goal must not change. The goal is absolute victory; only the means to reach it must change.)
We will do what we must to survive. What must be done may shift on a daily basis, but nevertheless, it must be done. We did not ask for this war, but we will win it. We will adapt, we will endure, and we will choke the life out of any who seek to destroy our freedom. History will vindicate the measures we employ to reach this noble goal of peace… provided that we succeed. If we do not, we will be forgotten, and whatever plans we had will be washed away forever all the same.
//021: Choke Point
Painting after painting, hanging on bare white walls. None of it actually looked like anything, either; mashes of color and shapes, supposedly with some deep hidden meaning, according to the citizens who slowly wandered around sipping wine and chatting about it. But to Private Kronenfeld, it looked no more important than his niece’s finger painting.
Granted that Private Kronenfeld didn’t know much about actual, factual works of art. Why would he? He was born and raised in the Citadel; everything they had was manufactured by hand or forged in the mind of the Builders. No luxuries like artistic masterworks from that legendary place known as Earth got duped into HIS metropolis, and any would-be fine artists were better off holding a gun than a paintbrush.
No, the only art Kronenfeld was exposed to came in the form of propaganda… officially authorized cultural endeavors. THAT was artwork that Kronenfeld could appreciate; soaring and majestic paintings depicting humans triumphing over the black-eyed Enemy, defeating them at every turn. Men with strength and skill, carrying the finest weapons, directing troops into the fray. Women minding the next generation of soldiers, or turning out machines of war in factories with advanced technical skill. Heroes and champions, now, those were suitable subjects for paintings…
…but often, the subject would be that of the Enemy: fearsome and terrible, assaulting the walls of the Citadel. They were to be feared, after all; the Radio perpetually reminded them of that fact. They must be taken seriously, and fear keeps people from trivializing the threat. For every poster depicting the eventual victory of mankind, another showed the possibility of defeat.
It was a particularly well-crafted poster showing the madly grinning Enemy horribly torturing a young girl that ignited the passion in his heart for military service. Not that he had a choice in enlisting, but at least when he came of age at fourteen years, he was eager to keep the Enemy from doing something so terrible to his family. In fact, as a natural-born citizen, he could’ve requested reassignment after completing his first tour of duty; instead he chose to stay on, to continue that noble fight.
No, sir. Compared to that wonderful painting that moved him to purpose, the paintings the City folk were gawking over were… silly. Stupid. Pointless.
Honestly, he wasn’t sure why he was assigned to play a glorified security guard at this gallery opening. His unit commander wasn’t sure either… he suspected the owner of the venue was a person of interest, possibly related to the former owner of their new embassy. (They found some weird art gallery on the top floor of the building, too. Cleared it out and burned everything, to make room for the barracks.)
Didn’t matter, in the end. If it helped the Citadel win the war (somehow) for him to loiter by the door of an art gallery, that’s what he’d do. Orders were orders.
Still, it left him plenty of time to ponder art, which is what he’d been doing. Pondering the poster that terrified him into many long years of service. Pondering the purpose of it all…
A newcomer entered the building. A man in a coat, hood drawn up to guard against a blustery afternoon chill outside. As policy, Kronenfeld stopped him from proceeding any further.
"A moment, please," he recited by rote. "Citadel security check, under authorization from the Department of Safety. May I please see your invitation to this event and a form of personal identification…?"
The man’s hood, pulled down low, obscured his face for a moment. Standing there in silence, hands in his pockets, not reacting in the slightest to a man with an automatic weapon making a firm request…
Private Kronenfeld felt a twinge, deep inside. Something wrong. He’d learned long ago to go with his instincts, and was about to raise that weapon—before the man looked up at him. And poured the terror of his childhood right into his mind.
No eyes. Just an empty black void, infinite, where human eyes should be…
With a howl of delight, the Enemy pulled the detonator from his pocket, and clicked the button.
Even on the security camera footage, the darkness of those eye sockets was unmistakable.
The man at the head of the long table issued a single order.
"Off," Commander Yates commanded. And so, the footage was turned off, the primitive TV/VCR on a cart wheeled out soon after. Leaving him pondering the situation, tapping his fingers together, while his various gathered Ministers of Various Stupid Department Names waited for some sort of guidance…
He had no questions for them. At least, not yet. Only one person here had any answers for him; the man in chains, flanked by two guards.
Which was likely not what Jack Hayes thought would be his fate, when he dropped in on them three years ago and claimed he knew secret truths about the Citadel. It was a gambit, clearly; he didn’t want to be assigned to the frontlines like all the other new arrivals for a mandatory tour of duty, and felt he had to prove his worth. He was worthy of being spared, in the end… but too dangerous to be left alone. Far too dangerous, with his head full of forbidden knowledge.
"You mind explaining to me, Doctor, exactly how in the hell the Enemy got past our checkpoints and into the City of Angles?" Commander Yates asked.
"I, ah… I can theorize," Hayes disclaimed, up front. "Just a theory. …it helps to understand that the dream is a collaborative effort between the dreamer and those who exist within the dream. They influence each other. Weather patterns, landscape and architecture, it’s all the end result of all the imported psyches wrapped around the core of the patient’s psyche."
Ahhh. Another metaphysical rant. Which Gregory wasn’t quick to dismiss; Jack’s nonsense had proven valuable before, after all. Even if he did tend to go on and on, in a desperate need to please his masters…
"For instance, there’s the duping process itself," Jack continued, starting to go off on a tangent. "When a psychic pulse of loneliness goes out from one of the patients in the CDC facility, the pulse is strong enough to pull a copy of whoever it latches on to into several dreams, filtered through each individual patient’s psyche. That’s why the same person can exist in two different dreams—"
"Skip to the end, please. To the relevant part."
"—your troops brought the Enemy with them. The idea of the Enemy, anyway," Jack summarized. "The idea and the Enemy are the same thing, after all. Odds are the nightmares and figments of their City would show up here as well, if enough of them cross the other way. …thought and matter, dream and reality, it’s all very fluid in here. That’s also why the Enemy keeps… changing."
That much Gregory Yates knew already. It was his own theory, after all, long before Jack Hayes showed up begging for safety and comfort instead of sacrifice.
His theory was simple: the Enemy walked in lock-step with the fears of the people. At the start of the Citadel, when it was just a lone cluster of stranded survivors desperately fighting off the Enemy, their opposition resembled German troops from the Great War. They wore coats and helmets with spikes, dug down into trenches, used mustard gas.
With World War Two, the Enemy evolved… more automatic weapons, more mortars, more capture and torture of living prisoners in death camps. Gregory supposed the Citadel was very lucky the Enemy never used nuclear bombs, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But after that came Korea and Vietnam, and the battlefields themselves began to grew more strange and desperate…
And then, after the turn of the century… September-goddamn-Eleventh happened. Something which should have only been a bother to those miserable bastards back on Earth. After new recruits started showing up with memories of that trauma, the Enemy learned a new trick: terrorism. Suicide bombings, in particular. They were appearing inside the walls, past the checkpoints, randomly taking out civilians.
The war in the Citadel reflected war on Earth. Which meant they could predict trends by interrogating new recruits for any news about Earth’s current events, as well. When automated drone strikes started happening, the Citadel was ready for them, with anti-drone weaponry.
It was an observation that helped elevate Gregory rapidly in the ranks, earning the attention (and trust) of the previous Commander, may he rest in peace. They now knew the checkpoints were useless, that the Enemy could and would pop up randomly. Not that the Ministry of Information would let the public know THAT tidbit, since they could still leverage the fear of such events to keep the population ever more firmly in line with checkpoints and controls.
"So… the more of our troops we move over there, the more likely our war follows in their wake," Gregory realized. "This is why everything went wrong so quickly in Skyline, isn’t it. Dammit…"
"It would fit the theory, yes. I suggest minimizing troop movements to minimize the issue, Commander. Or perhaps influence the Radio to minimize their terror…?"
"Not likely, afraid. And I can’t slow down; we need a critical mass of troops in place before we can start stepping on the City’s throat. A threat’s no good if it’s empty, and we’re not in a tactically advantageous position yet. …speaking of which…"
Now, he turned to his Ministers. Who were not happy to be turned to.
"The whole point of playing nice with the City of Angles was to quietly take over from the inside out," he reminded them. "Emphasis on ‘quietly,’ which is a word none of you seem to be taking to heart. I’d have thought you’d learn your lessons after the failure to claim Skyline, but apparently I’m wrong. Honestly? I’d have you all shot for incompetence, if I had any faith that your replacements would be an improvement. Shall we run down the list of your sins…?"
Yates sifted through the reports in front of him, a disturbing number of which had been red-stamped ‘URGENT’ and ‘CRITICAL.’
"First of all, one of our prisoners of war gets liberated by the Resistance," he started… glaring at a woman across the table. "This is after your idiotic underlings in the Ministry of Corrections found out she had untapped Metadream connectivity firsthand, then nearly lost her in an escape attempt, then decided to put her on a bus to Mommyville. Spectacular job there, Miss Halloway. Next…"
Now he turned to Captain Fisher, and if his seething displeasure was enough to disquiet Halloway… it was enough to burn a hole through the skull of his Minister of Education. Fortunately, not literally.
"As for you… one of your altar boys goes and blows away two kids in cold blood, after they leak mission-critical information to the City’s networks."
Fisher tried to defend himself. "Commander, I did not order that Private to execute them, he acted on his own and with very poor judgment—"
"The poor judgment lies with you for picking out two pretty little boys instead of specialists with proper discipline. Don’t forget, Fisher… I pulled you off the frontline after we sent you there for your fixation on little boys. You say one word, one damn word back in my face claiming this wasn’t your fault, you can go right back to the front armed with a pointed stick. See how you enjoy the tender touches of an Enemy torture camp."
The threat was enough to turn Fisher’s face white, and shut his mouth for good.
"And then there’s the business of this… ‘website,’ is it? The resistance website, the one you haven’t succeeded in shutting down. …another resistance movement. Two of them, now on both sides of the fence. Wonderful. The slain boy’s parents aren’t accepting the official ‘lover’s murder-suicide’ cover story, of course, and now they’ve posted that ‘EchoMap’ program of theirs for free on the website. We’ve got people hiding in the Sideways, anticipating our takeover…"
Yates shoved the remainder of the files across his desk.
"This is not what I wanted," he growled. "I want our war against the Enemy won. It’s gone on for a century, and I am going to be the Commander that breaks our stalemate. To finally tip the scales, I need the City’s resources. I can’t get those resources if you idiots deliberately antagonize them to the point of rebellion."
Now, the Minister of Communication spoke up. One of the few people at the table he wasn’t directly angry at.
"Is it time to move to phase two, then?" he suggested. "We have communications drafted and ready to go, if you feel we’ve reached the tipping point…"
And that’s where the Commander had to sit back and think, rather than react on his gut. Which was full of rage.
Again, tapping his fingers together. Ignoring the room, until he was damn well ready to speak. Didn’t matter if he sat in contemplation for minutes at a time, they would not interrupt him. They knew better.
His decision, however, was reached quickly enough.
"Not yet," he spoke. "The timing’s wrong; I want more resources in place before we go for the throat. And despite the vast amounts of incompetence in the room at the moment, I still feel we can salvage this. …if anything, it may make our jobs easier, having a little rebellion at play. Proceed according to plan, until I change the plan. And for pity’s sake, stop shooting people. Not until it’s officially time to start shooting people."
With that settled, the Commander rose from his chair. Everyone else rose, but a second or two afterwards. They knew better than to scramble from the room until he’d made his exit, as well.
This was not the last meeting on the Commander’s docket for the day, however. He had one more visit to make… one which might play well into what was about to happen, if his plans shifted in the right direction. Not that he’d tell anyone in his gang of morons that. Yates knew the only person he could really rely on was himself, after all.
They wheeled John Doe across the divide in the dead of night. Set him up in a much nicer hospital than the one he previously occupied, with an entire team of specialists devoted to his needs. Only after giving him reassurances and platitudes, buttering him up nice and sweet, did Commander Yates drop by for a visit.
He settled in at the patient’s bedside, setting a bouquet of flowers and a GET WELL SOON! card from the lobby gift shop on an end table.
"Understand you just came out of your coma a few weeks ago," he explained. "So, you’ve been awake long enough to see us on the news. You know who I am, and where you are now. You’re likely concerned, but be assured… the Citadel provides the best medical care you could possibly get."
Gregory checked the boy’s chart, a series of handwritten numbers and figures. The damage was quite extensive… not unlike a major car accident. It was a miracle he survived, really.
"We’re going to fix you up properly, son," he promised. "Better than any doctors in your City could have. We’ve got more experience with large-scale injury. No medical insurance, no proper papers? No problem. This is our gift, our kindness, to you. …although I have hopes you’ll be kind to us in return."
The young man on the ventilator seemed uncertain. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t see out of his ruined eye, but Gregory was adept at reading uncertainty in any man’s face.
"I’d like to know more about the bastard who did this to you," he specified… while retrieving a small notebook and a pencil from the bedside. "I’ve spoken with the Department of Safety; they tell me that since waking up from your coma, you haven’t been willing to give up the name of your assailant. Now, I respect your right to privacy… but the one who hurt you? He doesn’t deserve privacy. And if you’re worried about reprisal, well… you’ve seen the might of the Citadel. You know we can protect you. So, tell me. Who’s responsible for your suffering…?"
It took the young man a minute to make up his mind, and only a few seconds to write the name down. His fine motor control was shot since the incident, but he didn’t need perfect handwriting. Not for this.
The name came in the form of a symbol… a circle, with a slash through it. A zero.
In another dream, in another dreamer, in another city…
Penelope awoke with stars in her eyes. Specifically, the sort you got when you had a migraine headache. Briefly she wondered if she’d slammed back sixteen vodka shooters last night or something, but no—on waking, she knew exactly why her head was imploding.
With an agonized rumble from deep within, she forced herself into a sitting position. As tempting as it was to stay in bed, wrecked and ruined, more sleep was not the answer. Water. Water and medication were what she needed right now… and food. Unlike a hangover, she had a massive appetite, having burned a hell of a lot of calories overnight. Sweat-soaked pajamas testified to that. Definitely shouldn’t have gone with a quilt, even if the City was chilly last night…
She did take her time to change out of those ruined garments and into casual day wear; t-shirt and shorts. She’d long outgrown the original khakis she wore when crawling around the Sideways as a kid, but favored the style all the same for comfortable kicking about at home.
Stagger off into the main living area of the apartment, past the couch, into the kitchen… lurching along, phone in hand.
"M’rnn," she grumbled, collapsing into a chair at the table.
Toast and orange juice were provided shortly after. With breakfast out of the way, Gregory Yates resumed browsing the news on his tablet, only glancing up occasionally at his daughter.
"You don’t look so hot," he noted.
"Yeah, I think I have a twenty-four-hour bug or something," Penelope replied, tapping away at the screen of her phone with the one-handed dexterity of a texting teenage girl, while eating toast with the other hand.
"Calling in sick today?"
"Probably. I’m ahead in the workbooks, anyway. No point."
"What about the homecoming game?" he continued to smalltalk, while poking at his tablet, considerably less adept at it.
"It’s off. The entire Maslow Academy RTS team got offered paid scholarships to Command School," she replied (by voice). "A few of them are considering dropping out. Team’s on hiatus while they train up some players from Junior Varsity to act as replacements."
"Even after the news about what happened at Clinton…?"
"Eh, nobody believes that stuff. So someone slapped up a website, doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. Everybody knows it’s faked."
"Well, at least check in with your friend Destiny or someone, pick up the day’s notes. Just because you’re ahead in your reading doesn’t mean you’re catching all the nuance of the lectures…"
Banal chat, over a banal breakfast. Dry white toast and bright orange juice.
If anybody were peeking over their shoulders, that’s all they’d see; typical day-to-day concerns of a single father and his teenage daughter. Anybody listening in over, say, the hidden microphones which had popped up all over That Fish Place and the floors above it would become fantastically bored peering into the life of the Yates family.
They couldn’t simply yank out the bugs, of course. That’d prove they had something to hide, and the goal right now was to stall out the Citadel for as long as possible. Commander Yates was fully focused on his counterpart, assuming Gregory was the only possible monkeywrench in his plans… not Penelope, of course. They never suspected the cute ones when the grumpy ones with a dark past were on hand.
But one thing the Citadel lacked was the technical expertise of the TroubleSolvers… or rather the expertise of their founding mother, Kelsey Jones-Smith. Who secretly loaded some ridiculously over-encrypted communication tools into their various middle-class electronic totems.
So, while they discussed school and learning and Starcraft, they also engaged in the other most banal of modern day activities… a family busy poking at the Internet on their various iThings while at the kitchen table. Also completely ordinary, save for the nature of the poking in question.
The real conversation between went more like this:
PennyLane: Didn’t work. I can’t shuffle the Greasemonkey; something’s holding the place down like an anchor. Probably a side effect of the bleed. My head is killing me just from trying.
G753: It was worth a try. We could use my fallback option. If we trick them into evacuating first, nobody even gets hurt.
PennyLane: If a shuffle won’t work, blowing up the building wouldn’t dislodge the bleed either. Physics literally doesn’t mean much of anything.
PennyLane: physical reality stupid autocorrect
PennyLane: Okay, physics literally don’t mean much of anything either, w/e
PennyLane: I don’t like any of these options. And anyway if we destroy or close the bleed we leave Vivi and Cass trapped on the other side.
G753: We may not have a choice. Need to stop this before it gets out of control. Sorry Penny.
PennyLane: We could work on the website and use public opinion against them. What I just said about nobody believing the video, not true at all, everybody at my school believes it. All the other bloggers I talk to are going nuts with it. The RTS team are actually thinking of going into hiding before they get kidnapped to Command School or something.
G753: That’s my point it’s going fast and may be out of control soon
G753: If we don’t shut down the Citadel hard and fast this could actually become a war. I supported the website idea because I hoped it’d turn the City government against them because votes follow popular opinion but the Department of Safety hasn’t said a single thing and the mayor’s still completely ignoring all the evidence
PennyLane: Miranda can’t make a move. She’s just as trapped as we are.
G753: We need to make our plans now to shut down the bleed. Shuffling won’t work, explosives won’t work, what will?
G753: Next time you see her thank Bedlam for me, seeing as she’s the one responsible for this mess
"Wait, what?" Penelope spoke along.
"I said that we may want to raise the price of the crab legs and call it a charity special, to cover some of Johnny’s medical bills," Gregory repeated, from the front-facing side of the conversation. With emphasis, nodding back towards the glass touchscreens.
Her fingers returned to tapping, quickly.
PennyLane: Wait what?
G753: Bedlam caused the bleed in the first place, to try and get her revenge on me. Cass and I were there when it happened. Remember? I told you this story before.
PennyLane: That’s true. And if Bedlam caused the bleed, not the Citadel
PennyLane: If the Citadel is just exploiting what she did
PennyLane: Maybe she knows how to close it!
G753: Dangerous. Just because she’s worked with us before doesn’t mean she’ll work with us now.
G753: Plus, when she caused that bleedover, Cass and I were nearly killed.
PennyLane: Risk is happening, one way or another. And if it helps end the war, it’s worth the risk to involve her.
G753: Point taken
PennyLane: Anyway, Bedlam’s tough to get a meeting with. Not tired enough to sleep, and not safe to go to Memorial Stadium.
PennyLane: OK. Will talk to her tonight.
Gregory Yates powered down his tablet, leaving it on the table as he got up to leave. (He rarely used one of the things, anyway; he was one of the last true blue subscribers to physical newspapers left in the City.) "I need to go get the restaurant ready for the lunch rush," he announced, to explain his movements. "If you’re feeling better later, you could bring some lunch over to Kelsey and Riley. Dave’s working a shift all day, they’d enjoy the company. Maybe some takeout, they’re probably tired of fish by now."
(In other words, if Penelope needed to get away for sneaky reasons, she had a built-in excuse.)
"Thanks, Dad," she replied, locking her phone. "For now I’m gonna rest, though. Work this headache out of my head. Maybe later, when I’ve got some inspiration for… uh, lunch takeout choices."
Headache medicine was stored in, appropriately enough, the medicine cabinet. Handy, considering Penelope was headed to the bathroom next anyway to wash up and brush her teeth. She tasted blood on waking; might’ve bit the inside of her cheek during her unsuccessful shuffle attempt. Either that or her brain exploded and was leaking down her throat.
Simple steps involved, really. Look at your pallid reflection in the mirrored door of the cabinet. Open it up, retrieve a bottle of chewable aspirin, close it, see someone else’s reflection. A horror movie staple.
Penelope, at a very tender age, watched a lot of horror movies. She found them funny, particularly since by that point she was exploring the Sideways already, and nothing really compared to the strange unreality of those tangled corridors and the monsters that lurked within them. THAT was what scared her, the slow and creeping horror of a person twisted into something unthinkable…
In comparison, cat scares such as a mirror unexpectedly reflecting another’s face—with or without the accompanying scare chord—didn’t even register. Even if the face was technically her own, without being her own.
The girl with with half-lidded blue eyes floated in Penelope’s mirror, studying her other self quietly.
Penelope herself was tempted to get back to brushing her teeth.
"You are being monitored, yes?" Echo asked, her voice floating through Penelope’s mind rather than her ears. "You may simply nod in response, if you prefer. So your enemies don’t hear you talking to yourself."
So, she did set about brushing her teeth. But after nodding in agreement.
"Strange, the prisons you place yourself within. I’ve never understood why you willingly bear such limitations," Echo mused, watching the Lucid child keep her mouth fresh. "Now you seek to break out of one of these prisons you find yourself in… one created by your enemy. My enemy, as well; the enemy of our City… the dream known as the Citadel."
Rinse, and spit. Spit upon the name of the Citadel, in disgust.
Hate wasn’t a familiar emotion for Penelope. Even when the frontman of Oblivion’s Advocate yelled at her and broke her computer, even when Jack Hayes nonchalantly planned to drown the City in blood, she didn’t feel hate.
The Citadel threatened everyone and everything she held dear, yes, but that wasn’t a new situation to find herself in. What was new… was that the Citadel had murdered her friends. Kidnapped her friends…
Echo studied the tight expression on Penelope’s face. Feeling the time was right, she made her proposal… by displaying a copy of the text messages that had been bouncing between the Yates family this morning on the silvered surface of mirror. Reversed, but readable.
"I watched your words through the glass of your little toys," Echo explained. "Saw you forming your plan to close the bleed. And yes, Bedlam might help you… but I could be of far more help. Bedlam understands very little about the phenomenon; she only knew enough to harass your father. But I was once friends with Jack Hayes… and he explained so much more to me. I know what the bleed IS, and I… COULD assist you."
Leaning forward, Penelope peered into the mirror. Making sure her gaze was nice and suspicious.
Echo didn’t smile in return. She wasn’t a smiling sort, after all. Still, something about her resembled a cartoon cat catching a cartoon mouse, filled with smug superiority.
"Mhmm. You sense tomfoolery, and you’re right to do so. We are at odds, you and I, on most things. But on this, we are regrettably united. Therefore, this is my offer: come alone—no father, no friends, only your limited self—to this address. Be there by seven thirty tonight…"
Echo breathed on the mirror, misting it up… and wrote words in the condensation in simple, elegant strokes with her fingers. Quickly, Penelope memorized them, doubting her phone’s camera would pick up the visual.
"…come alone, and I’ll show you how to close the Citadel’s window into our world. Of course… even knowing my truths, it’s up to you to find a way to physically access that particular window in the first place. Your friends are resourceful, I hope. I will see you tonight… and I will see what you are made of."
And back to Penelope’s own exhausted-looking face, red eyes and all.
Briefly, she’d considered not telling her father. A deal with the same devil they were fighting tooth and nail a year ago? Madness, he’d say. Of course, a similar deal with a particular devil they were fighting three years ago was how they were able to fight the other devil a year ago. Devilish deals were surprisingly common over the years.
In the end, she decided he had to know. They’d had enough of keeping secrets from each other, to guard against spreading terrible knowledge. It never helped to keep the lines of communication down between father and daughter. In return… well, Gregory Yates knew not to apply parental pressure when it came to matters like this. He gave his assent; Penelope knew what she was doing. Knew better than he did, being the living incarnation of one of the City’s defining trinity.
Not that Penelope really understood all that entailed. Was she a goddess? No. Was she powerful? Not particularly, or at least not consciously. Echo and Bedlam seemed perfectly comfortable and capable in their chosen aspects, while Penelope flailed around like a toddler trying to walk…
Well. Tonight, maybe she’d learn to run. Closing the bleed between worlds was a cute idea, but putting it into practice would require actual use of some reality-bending power, wouldn’t it? Beyond shuffling City blocks in her sleep, something she did on unconscious instinct. This would take conscious effort.
Seven thirty. No father, no friends. She packed for an extensive Sideways crawl, just in case—right down to her familiar old explorer’s hat—and then took a taxi. Didn’t even ask Hollister for a ride. If Echo was serious about putting Penelope to test, she intended to take the rules seriously.
The ride into the Outlands took an hour and a half. The taxi driver was hesitant to drop a teenage girl off in the middle of nowhere, but Penelope found that being a generous tipper solved many problems.
This deposited her outside a run-down and abandoned road, leading deep into the woods.
Honestly, Penelope didn’t visit the Outlands too often. She didn’t like the wide open spaces and rolling green hills; the claustrophobic and messed-up layout of the City proper was more her speed. She knew that from high above, the Outlands was just as wildly random as the City… forests, plains, hills, farms, factories, warehouses, a few scattered housing communities. But all of it spread out on a larger scale, far more sparsely populated in comparison. It felt like visiting an alien world, honestly, all green and empty compared to the comforting brick and concrete she’d grown used to.
A few minutes stroll into the darkened forest (with flashlight, of course) brought her to the ultimate destination… an abandoned farm. Rotting old barns and a spooky looking house on a hill. Broken-down windmill twirling uselessly in the breeze.
Judging from the way the road fractured halfway through, it had been pushed away from the highway and neighboring settlements by other sections of forest, too far to be of any real use anymore. Perhaps its owners gave up and moved, rather than fight the natural inclination of the City of Angles to rearrange itself…
Still, she took the time to knock at the front door. Several times, in fact, before letting herself into the house.
Despite being abandoned, the place was quite dust-free. As evident by the many, many, many, many mirrors around the house.
Ornately framed oval-shaped mirrors. Freestanding dressing mirrors. Hand mirrors left on tabletops. Makeup mirrors on stands, placed at strange angles. Shards of mirror glued to the walls, the ceiling, even the floor… whenever a proper mirror couldn’t be found for a surface, well, a salvaged one was hastily put in place. This was just the parlor, loaded with comfortable sofas (with piles of mirrors on the cushions) and a grandfather clock and umbrella rack and so on, but odds were good that the other rooms matched.
On arriving in the house… Echo filled those looking glasses, completely.
Penelope’s skin made a valiant attempt to crawl off her body, as the reflective child curtsied to her guest.
"Welcome," Echo spoke.
"Uh… hi," Penelope offered, waving her hand a little. "Um. Nice place. Like what you’ve done with it. The… mirrors, and all…"
"One of many sanctuaries, arranged for my comfort by friends. Ways for me to touch this world through forgotten corners such as the Sideways, or the Undefined Spaces. I have followers as well, just like Bedlam. Well. Not just like Bedlam. In comparison mine are quiet and peaceful, aside from their urges to spread literature about my revelation."
"The Echo Chamber…? Those creepy guys who harass newcomers?"
"Who enlighten newcomers. But I didn’t call you out here to discuss matters of philosophy; we must discuss matters of war. Please, have a seat."
Unsure of the protocol here, Penelope found the least-cluttered cushion of the couch and nudged a few stray hand mirrors out of the way, so she could occupy a portion of it. An old metal spring practically wedged its way up her butt.
Echo paced back and forth, now from mirror to mirror rather than appearing in all of them at once. Marginally less creepy that way, at least.
"I am glad you trust me enough to cooperate on this endeavor, Lucid child."
"Penelope," she corrected. "Name’s Penelope. And you kinda tried to kill everybody at Memorial Stadium, sooo… I’m iffy on all of this. But I won’t turn down help against the Citadel. You mentioned something about the bleed between our dreams…?"
"Ohhh, yes. A fiercely bleeding wound, held wide open by foul machines."
"Right. How do I close it?"
"To solve a problem, you must first understand the problem. Understand what the bleed IS. …it will be difficult for me to explain, as we perceive this dream differently and you have closed many of your eyes, but I will try…"
Echo gestured to the nearby grandfather clock, its longest hand drawing closer to the top of the dial.
"The hour draws close to eight o’clock. Upon eight in the morning and eight at night, an invisible eye opens from beyond the tissue-thin layer between worlds. It watches our City… studies it in great detail. No ordinary person senses it, outside of a vague low-level sort of paranoia."
"Uh. What? So you’re saying the Citadel’s been spying on us?"
"I said nothing of the sort. I said an invisible eye from beyond the tissue-thin layer between worlds studies us. It is not of the Citadel, even if they have learned to bend it."
"Soooo… it’s Sauron, then?"
"I don’t know what that means."
"Nevermind. Okay, so… what is it, really? Once you cut through the flowery metaphors. What’s this got to do with the bleed? I need something concrete to grab onto here, Echo."
"There is no concrete. This is a living dream, Lucid child. Metaphor becomes our cold, hard reality. The eye makes sense to me; what part of this are you not understanding, Lucid child? Why must you have such a limited perspective?"
Which was the problem when talking with Echo. Bedlam was a scattershot mind, unclear due to constant distraction layered on top of playful secrecy. Echo, on the other hand, experienced the world on an alien level and despite being more rational-minded had trouble bringing herself down to human practicality.
"Let’s back up. If it’s not from the Citadel, where’s it peeking in from?"
"The source. An aspect of creation, clockwork and imperfect. Where the one that became three lies sleeping."
"That’s Earth, then. And in that other world… what exactly is this eye of yours?" Penelope tried.
"If you must insist on the basest of physical representations… Jack called it the ‘Dreamcatcher.’ It’s apparently an experimental magnetic resonance imaging system designed to analyze patients at the CDC facility."
"A-ha! Okay, so it’s a brain scanner thingy. See? Was that so hard?"
Echo offered a shrug.
"An ‘experimental magnetic resonance imaging system’ has no meaning to me whatsoever. That is nothing that exists in my reality. What I feel upon the dream is the true reality, the invisible eye of the Dreamcatcher. That is all that matters."
"So how does this scanning machine create a bridge between dreams? If it’s really scanning twice a day, shouldn’t we be seeing cross-world craziness left and right?"
"Normally the eye takes the role of a passive observer, like a magnifying glass. But if forcibly focused in one place, the light it shines will burn. It wounds the dream and leaves behind a bleeding wound."
"Bleeding between the minds of other dreamers in the CDC?"
"That is my understanding of it, yes. Jack babbled some business about theoretical psychic resonance, which honestly I didn’t care about enough to listen to. Psychic resonance and blood vessels bursting in the brain."
"So the bleed is… brain damage?" Penelope asked, growing horrified. "They’re melting my brain out there in that world?!"
"The meat and blood of what you call ‘your’ brain is irrelevant. You generate the oceanic waves of this reality through your dream; that physical shell is unimportant beyond its purpose as an engine of creation."
"If they give me a freakin’ brain tumor it’s VERY important! …ugh. Okay. So this bleeding thing only happens when you or Bedlam are screwing around? And when Bedlam tried to knock off my Dad by causing a bleed, the Citadel pried it open afterwards and came through."
"Hmm, I suppose that will suffice as an explanation. You are beginning to understand."
"And… you said the doctors do this brain scan at eight o’clock."
"And it’s almost eight o’clock."
"…and, and, oh CRAP, you’re about to cause a bleed event just to give me something to practice closing, aren’t you?!"
Blinds on the windows rattling, hand mirrors clattering as they started to vibrate.
"Ohhh yes. Yes, I am," Echo confirmed. "It has already begun."
Penelope started to protest, when—
—rippling and sliding like the pulsing veins in Penelope’s panicked mind—
—everything bleeding into everything else—
—and over, just as soon as it had started.
Still a farmhouse. Still full of mirrors. But now, instead of Penelope’s feet resting on the woven throw rug, they dangled in mid-air. Why? Because the couch was larger. Twice as large, if not bigger. Either that, or she’d shrunk. Physically shrinking or perhaps suddenly dropping to her childhood years would be a more reasonable explanation compared to the entire farmhouse growing in size.
The room itself had grown in more ways than basic scale, though. It now had covered enough square footage to encompass five enlarged parlor rooms… and five parlor rooms’ worth of furniture filled it, to match. Multiple sofas, multiple love seats. Intricate glass lampshades on no less than ten gigantic lamps. Much like a Sideways room which repeated the same motif over and over…
But honestly, scale and interior decoration weren’t really her primary concerns.
Far more frightening were the many human corpses, dangling from the ceiling by nooses.
Dozens of them. Dozens and dozens of bodies, all normal-sized, all hanging from roughly woven ropes. Dead. All dead, dangling high in the air at various heights, each hooked to the vaulted ceiling overhead. Some were even attached to the now-oversized ceiling fan, which was still lazily spinning.
Hanging men, women, and children rotating ever so slightly in the stiff breeze that passed through the giant farmhouse…
Death. Everywhere, death.
Immediately Penelope scrabbled back against the cushions of the oversized couch, to get away from it. One of the bodies was hanging low enough to be at eye level with her, so she decided quite smartly to avoid staring in those dead eyes. Yet one glimpse was more than enough to send her into screaming internal terrors.
The reaction of her companion to this spectacle was one of simple curiosity. Echo moved from mirror to mirror, until she was near the closest victim. Studying it, head cocked slightly to the side.
"How interesting. I wonder whose nightmare I’ve tapped into, exactly?" she mused. "I knew I was looking for monsters, in the same way Bedlam was looking for murderers when she opened a bridge to the Citadel. But all I see is carrion. I’d love to discover who tends to this harvest—"
"What the hell is going on!?"
Half-lidded blue eyes turned to gaze towards Penelope, now.
"Was it not clear?" Echo asked, honestly. "I opened a bleed into another patient’s dreams, so you could practice closing the wound. Exactly as you wanted me to do."
"Y-Yeah, but… but you… you didn’t say it’d be…!"
"I didn’t say it wouldn’t be awful. This is what happens when a nightmare grows for a century, completely unchecked," Echo spoke, tapping on the other side of her looking glass, indicating towards the hanging denizens of this dream. "This is the sort of fate I want to save my City from, by waking from the nightmare and ending it all before it devolves into this sort of chaos."
Echo floated away from the body, to return to Penelope’s side. Gazing up at her through a discarded hand mirror, up through its silvery depths.
"Do you see, Lucid child? This is the end stage of all dreams. Doom is inevitable; fear and despair are far too powerful a driving force to resist forever. I thought you could use a lesson in the harsh reality of the human psyche, and as we’re already teaching lessons tonight, why not double up?"
Without realizing it, Penelope was burying her face in the embroidered silk couch cushions. Her explorer’s pith helm had fallen off, the brim nudged away by the stiff fabric. The hat she wore when fearlessly (and sometimes not so fearlessly) tromped through the Sideways for years…
Crying into the cushions, from the sudden impact of this horror. A reasonable human response. But… she didn’t have time for a reasonable human response. Not tonight.
Who would be able to sit in a charnel house such as this without feeling an once of fear?
Dave would. Dave Smith.
Who was conveniently dangling from a noose, halfway across the room.
It was only a passing glance, as she dared to look away from the couch cushion. Enough to lock her eyes on his body, though.
He wore the same pajamas he was wearing the day they met. Same stubbly, unshaven chin. Hadn’t aged a day, either…
"The… the people. The ones who echo into my City, they echo into the Citadel too, and… here. They all echo in here, and just… die," Penelope realized.
"That would seem to be the case, yes," Echo agreed. "Can you imagine that? One moment a truly real soul in a truly real place, the next… a doppelgänger dangling from a rope. A few brief moments of terror and confusion, followed by death. If this patient were to wake… if we were to wake… nobody would have to suffer any longer. Anywhere. Isn’t it better that way?"
Penelope’s mouth moved up and down of its own accord, but without words. If she could’ve spoken properly, she might have agreed. If this were the true core of the dreaming patients, the core of her City of Angles…
…Dave wouldn’t be scared of this. He’d stare blankly across the cavernous living room at the hanging bodies, even of people he might’ve known, and wouldn’t have reacted at all.
Granted, that’s because Dave had already been broken into a thousand pieces. You can’t smash what’s already smashed to bits. Not exactly a healthy lack of fear, but tonight, Penelope would have to use him as a role model anyway. Only way to to get through this.
So, she picked up her helmet and carefully placed it back on her head, and put together the rest of that train of thought before facing her sister-self.
"You’re wrong," Penelope countered. "Supplying evidence to support your viewpoint, and ignoring the rest. You have some control over the bleeding process, don’t you? You said Bedlam chose the Citadel to find a killer for my father, and you chose this place to ‘educate’ me. But that means the dream worlds aren’t all nightmares; you had to choose one purposely to suit your theory. That other world the Citadel destroyed, Skyline, that place was a paradise before they got there! Dreams don’t HAVE to devolve into this… darkness…"
"And yet, it did perish. By natural or unnatural causes, that soaring dream of sky and freedom was ruined. That is the fate our dream will face, one day…"
"No. I don’t buy that our City has to end that way. The City can be anything people need it to be!" Penelope declared. "I’m never buying into your suicide song, Echo. Drop it. We’re here for one purpose only: to close the bleed. Where do I begin?"
The reflection bobbed lightly with a disappointed sigh… but chose not to belabor the point.
"We must find the focus of the wound," Echo explained. "Like the wall in your ‘Greasemonkey,’ there is a single point which represents the whole. We will close that wound."
"Right. Where’s that?"
But to this, Echo waggled a finger.
"I’ll not say," she spoke. "This is your lesson, yes? You need to find it yourself."
"I don’t see why. We know where the Greasemonkey’s bleed point is already."
"You’re thinking too realistically, Lucid child. This farmhouse, this entire dream… it’s not real estate, it’s unreal estate. If you’re to have any hope of closing the bleed, you need to learn to accept the unreality of the dream. We’ll get nowhere if I do all the heavy mental lifting for you."
"Okay, okay! Fine. What’s it look like, at least? How will I know it when I see it?"
"Ohhh, you won’t. Not by sight, at any rate. A bleed point varies. It could be a tiny gap in a wall. It could be a keyhole with no doorknob. It could be a music box lid. It could be a glowing, ominous portal. Everything has meaning and nothing is real."
Frustration was a good emotion to latch on to. When surrounded by dozens of lynched forms, annoyance was a superior thing to let occupy your thoughts.
"Fine. I’m an explorer, and a damn good one at that. Let’s get exploring." Penelope Yates declared, adjusting her hat and her elbow pads.
Gear for urban spelunking; perfect for climbing around funhouse-sized furniture, if it came to that. That’s all she had to do, after all… climb, poke around, peer at things. And not deal at all with the fact that she was walking around inside a mass murder.
Over and under and around. Walking beneath tables, scaling chairs to check kitchen cabinets. Finding movable bits to stand on, to reach doorknobs, to proceed deeper into the mutated farmhouse…
No need to look up at the bodies. All you had to do was occasionally duck low as you walk, to avoid the dangling feet of an overhead hanging victim. Deliberately looking up to the ceiling to take in the full view of the horror wasn’t needed.
Rooms were large enough that crossing each individual space was a journey in and of itself. Furniture replicated to fill that space; the dining room had five dining room tables, for example. Which was also quite helpful, since the victims brushed their toes across the wooden surface above while Penelope walked along underneath.
In a way, she felt like a toddler… a child attempting to clumsily navigate a house designed for adults. Which may very well be key to understanding this particular patient’s woes, now that she thought about it.
Thinking about it in a rational sense was the only way she could avoid thinking about it in an emotional sense. Analyzing the situation before her, coming to understand this world. The farmhouse and the mirrors, those were from the City of Angles… but everything else was mixed in from that alien dream. The perspective screw, the nooses, the darkness all around them… understanding these elements might be her only way to find the center of the bleed. So, rational analysis was the best way to get out of here as soon as possible so she could go home and allow herself to weep quietly.
Despite trying to avoid a sympathetic pang of fear, she did have some form of sympathy. It wasn’t like her explorer’s mentality overrode all feelings about the situation.
"I agree with you about one thing," Penelope spoke, her first words in nearly twenty minutes of this exploration.
"Oh?" Echo asked, floating nearby in one of the many mirrors. (They’d come along for the ride when the farmhouse twisted itself around another nightmare.)
"This patient does need help. Nobody can possibly live in this place, even if somehow they could avoid… that," Penelope said. "We’re talking some serious rehabilitation needed to make this anywhere near as good as my dream is now. And my dream’s certainly not perfect, so that’s saying something…"
"Or the patient could awaken, and end this nightmare entirely. That would solve the problem. And no supposed moral conflict, as nothing lives here to be wiped away in the process."
"But that’s the nuclear option, isn’t it? I mean, I know you just love the nuclear option, but… think about our City. About Bedlam. Bedlam’s a monster but we’re learning to live with her, aren’t we? And she’s learning to live with us."
"Do not think you’ve tamed that tiger, Lucid child. She likes to play with her food."
"I don’t think that’s the case, though. I think she’s genuinely curious about what her future could be," Penelope suggested. "She might be willing to cooperate rather than run wild. I mean, look how far we’ve come since fighting over the Heart of the City! That’s why I said ‘serious rehabilitation.’ There’s got to be a way to make everything work, even for this place. For any dream, really."
"Really? Any dream, including the Citadel?"
Which stopped Penelope, in the middle of dragging an oversized footstool to reach the next doorknob.
Echo floated lazily in a nearby mirror, studying her counterpart in fine detail. Drinking in every little reaction…
"That’s different," Penelope mumbled, turning away to start climbing the footstool.
"Really. Different how, exactly?" Echo asked, floating up the surface of the glass, to follow. "They have their own monsters, in the form of their Enemy. A totalitarian government forcing good men and women to endure a living nightmare. And here you are, about to slam the door in their faces, after declaring THIS nightmare we’re walking through now as a mere fixer-upper. You could be working on fixing the Citadel… but you don’t want to, do you?"
Standing atop the footstool, high above the ground. Penelope stood her ground on that issue, despite the spongy cushion of the surface in question.
"I want them out of my City," she declared to Echo. "I don’t care what happens to them after that. …screw them. Screw them and that bastard wearing my dad’s face. They murdered my friends!"
"This world of rope has murdered your friends as well. Was that not the cadaver of Dave Smith, dangling lazily in the breeze back there? Yet you bear no hate for this world, and are spouting hopeful platitudes about what it could be. So why not the same for the Citadel?"
"It’s not the same thing!"
Echo wrapped her arms around herself, rotating slightly in her silvery world. Glancing out across the sea of lynched bodies…
"All I see around me are nightmares and suffering," she whispered. "I feel their pain, sister; you think I’m a heartless monster, but I assure you, I feel that pain so deeply it makes me weep. …if I could end my own pain, end this feeling, feel nothing, become nothing… I would. But you stopped me, didn’t you?"
"Of course I did!" Penelope shouted, in inverse to Echo’s mute tones. "You were going to kill everyone!"
"And now you speak of condemning the Citadel to its own death. Not even a painless death as I’d offered, but a slow and agonizing death through the Enemy’s murderous atrocity. You’d give THIS twisted garden of nooses a chance, but not the Citadel, no! They can die screaming, because they personally hurt you. At risk of sounding cliché, I feel I must ask… which one of us is the monster?"
Immediately Penelope wanted to shout at her again.
The word burned into her brain, mockingly. Cliché. Because every response that fought its way to Penelope’s lips felt so… completely and utterly cliché, if she gave it a single moment’s thought. "You’re the monster, not me!" "We’re nothing alike!" "The Citadel deserves all that, and more!" All fine things to scream aloud if this were a terrible movie.
Instead, all she could do was think of her father. A lesson he had to learn, the hard way: There’s no such thing as us and them. There is only us.
Sitting atop that padded footstool, now. Unable to stand.
There wasn’t any need to admit defeat. Penelope simply was defeated, and had been before the challenge even began. Because the night the Citadel first arrived, she’d been thinking the same thing as she drifted to sleep… that this would likely have to end with them helping the Citadel, rather than destroying them. That people were people and problems were problems and she had no right picking her battles.
Not that it made it any easier.
"They killed my friends," she spoke, softer now than her earlier shouting. A factual statement.
Her sister-self pressed a hand against the other side of the looking glass. She couldn’t reach out to hug Penelope… this gesture would have to do.
"Everyone suffers in this life," Echo reminded her. "But I know you, Lucid. I know you better than you know yourself. You’re the spirit that endures. You’re the one that presses on, despite the pain. I’ve never understood it, personally… I suppose I am that which cannot understand it. But… if you are to be our City’s champion, if you are to rise to that task, you must be true to what you are. And if you could do anything, if you had the power to enact your will… what would you do?"
Penelope didn’t have to think about it for a single moment.
"I’d make the nightmare a dream for everyone," she said. "All the nightmares. All of them. That’s what I’d do, if I could."
"Then do it," Echo spoke, firmly. "Reach out with both hands and realize your dream. Shed your limitations and make it happen."
Doubt, which had been gnawing at her all night, caused Penelope to shake her head at that.
"I can’t… I just… look. Let’s focus on the here and now," she said. "None of these grandiose ideas. We need to shut down the Citadel and stop this invasion. …and… Echo? You said before that you have some control over the bleed, right?"
"Some control, yes…"
"So if I asked you to open a secret link to the Citadel for me, so I could rescue my captive friends and… maybe do other things, you can do that? Once we shut down the original bleed that they’re using to trample all over our City, of course."
"I believe so. Provided you’re no longer inclined to simply abandon them to their suffering."
"Good. Because I want to put an end to this war before it can really happen," Penelope decided. "After that, well. I’ll figure it out as I go along. Always have, and it’s always worked before."
With that decided… Penelope got to her feet, stepped over to the doorknob, and gave the oversized brass fitting a mighty twist.
One of the many horror movies Penelope got a good laugh out of when she was a child was a haunted house story. Some relic of the Fifties, found on a VHS videotape they’d salvaged out of the sideways… an ancient time, when there were, like, monocles and maybe pirates and stuff and definitely no color on the television. Through this grainy black-and-white house floated a number of black-and-white ghosts, which women in immaculately curled hair shrieked bloody murder at. Little Penelope didn’t see what was so scary about white sheets dangled on what were clearly wires.
That’s why her initial instinct would’ve been to laugh, on discovering this house of a thousand corpses to in fact be haunted by ghosts in white sheets.
Except those ghosts were easily fifteen feet tall. Perfectly in scale with the furniture, looming large and menacing despite not actually looking very menacing.
The door had already been opened. They’d notice it; no way around that. What she needed now was a hiding place. Fortunately there was a couch not far from the crack of the door.
Dropping down to the three-inch shag carpeting with a soundless sound, Penelope scrambled for cover. Being baby-sized but with an adult’s agility, squeezing into the narrow crack between the couch and the wall would work perfectly.
When exploring the Sideways, if you thought you saw a Picasso, you hid. Period. No running, nothing to draw their attention; running could come when they locked on and gave chase. Ideally they’d float on by, lost in their scattered memories. There didn’t have to be any conflict if you were smart.
Echo had mentioned that she sought to bring monsters for Penelope to deal with. Those monsters made their presence known, now. These were the true masters of this funhouse, the ones who occupied its gargantuan size with ease. Penelope could get a better look at the white figures now, peering around the armrest of the sofa…
Aside from being giants, they weren’t scary at all. Strange figures in white robes, like kids trick-or-treating at Halloween as ghosts. The hoods on the costumes were a bit pointy and they had weird little X-shaped insignias, like some kind of gang sign or company logo, but otherwise there wasn’t anything the least bit threatening… until they moved.
The flock of would-be ghosts moved as a unit. Legs swaying in perfect lock step. Heads turning towards the creaking door, cut-out holes in their sheets sliding into place. Emptiness, inside. Nothing at all… as they scanned the room, looking for the intruder they had sensed moments ago…
And then they raised their hands to point at the door.
Hands made of rope, tightly woven. The same rope the nooses were made of. Giants of rope and cloth…
"Well. This IS curious," Echo whispered, from a discarded hand mirror someone had kicked behind the couch.
Penelope pressed a finger to her lips. "Shhh. They’re on alert. Gotta be quiet…"
"You don’t even know that uniform, do you? You live a modern life, in a diverse urban metropolis. They have no place in our City; they’re a scourge that calls Earth home. Yes… yes, now this patient’s fears make sense—"
"You fear what they will do, don’t you?" Echo spoke. "I don’t. I don’t have to fear them. I’m not mortal, not limited as you are, Lucid child. Why should I fear speaking my mind?"
Walking in unison, perfectly soundless footfalls. Assuming they even had feet under those robes. Closer and closer to her hiding place…
"Dammit, if I die, the Citadel wins!" Penelope risked whispering. "Do you want that?"
"If you die it means you weren’t the one truly destined to save our City, as I always suspected. This is a lesson and a test, Lucid child. Can you embrace what you are, despite the prisons you place yourself within? Let’s see what you are truly made of…"
Echo tapped lightly against the glass of her hand mirror. And shattered it loudly into a thousand pieces.
The couch overturned in one swift move, six hands knocking it aside to reveal the child who dared to set foot in their home.
When exploring the Sideways, if you thought you saw a Picasso, you hid. Period. No running, nothing to draw their attention; running could come when they locked on and gave chase.
They’d locked on. Now, it was time to give chase.
Easiest way to do that was actually to run straight towards them. Penelope’s back was to the wall, after all; the only way out was through. Weave through the gap between the figures, before they could react. Scramble to the nearest open door, if one was available—perhaps the one she entered through was still open a crack—and then get the hell out of the farmhouse.
The bleed could wait. The one her father got caught in mostly cleaned itself up soon after opening wide, presumably this one would do the same, and she could wait it out hiding in forest away from the scary ghost and away from the nooses and the death and the horror and everything she wanted to scream and cry about—
Falling flat on her face into the soft carpet, as her ankle jerked itself out from under her.
The howling pain that shot up her leg and into her spine was drowned out by her inner ear’s protests, as the giants hoisted her high into the air. A noose had snagged around her foot, rope extruded from a giant’s outstretched hand… hauling her up to eye level. Up to those empty, black eyes…
Twisting in mid-air, trying to get free. Not going to happen. There was a knife in her utility belt, but scrabbling for it while disoriented like this could result in cutting her own fingers off.
Probably preferable, as the other two giants were busy preparing her personal noose, pulling a spare down from the ceiling and making the loop nice and slack. Time to take care of business.
"Help! HELP! Echo, help me, help me!" Penelope cried out loud. "Please—!"
"So strange, the way you chose to breathe your spirit into a mortal form," Echo mused… watching the entire spectacle from the safety of a nearby looking glass. "So frail, so limited. So powerless. Why did you do that, Lucid child? I’m genuinely curious—"
"You won, okay?! You won! I’m not up to this! Erase these guys, get rid of them, please!"
"Why not do it yourself? You have no problems making motor scooters out of building bricks on your way to Grandma’s house. Oh, but that’s just Memorial Stadium, it’s a broken place, you couldn’t possibly do that anywhere else! Or can you? Isn’t it all your dream? Is it or is it not, Lucid child?"
Fibers creaking, as the giants test the slack and the give, preparing her execution. All while Echo’s eyes sharpened, bearing down on the panicking teenager…
"No. That’s not how this works. You must choose to help yourself. Are you or are you not the one who will make our City into a perfect dream? If you are, then do it! Cast off your limitations and do it NOW, Penelope Yates!"
Her dream. Her perfect dream.
That dream can be what I want it to be.
The flimsy walls of the farmhouse weren’t much of a challenge for the Crossway Points express. It had a schedule to keep, and damned if it was going to let some drywall and crossbeams get in its way. Even if it technically had no passengers and in fact no driver, the bus had enough sheer momentum behind it to smash straight on through wood and rope alike.
The bus took one of the two noose-tying giants with it, smashing directly into its lower torso. An explosion of unraveling rope followed, fibers spraying out like splattered guts as the bus carried merrily on straight through the room and out the other side. It went through two more rooms before finally punching out the other side of the farmhouse, presumably smashing through the dark of the forest on the other side on its way to the highway.
Penelope herself twisted to land (only slightly painfully) on her back, when the giant who was dangling her off the floor dropped her in sheer surprise. On her back, tuck and roll, and up to her feet.
Burning eyes on the two remaining killers.
Manhole covers began exploding all over the room, iron discs hurled into the air with great bursts of steam. Not that there were manholes before. Not that it mattered that there were not manholes before. The dashed yellow stripe which painted itself down the middle of the room, carpeting crunching underfoot and becoming more and more like asphalt, grew them organically as it swept from front to back.
A yellow stripe, right through Penelope’s legs as she stood fast against her attackers.
"This is my City," she declared. "And it’s got no room for hateful murderers like you."
The next giant was crushed by a subway train which had decided that horizontally laid track was for filthy slackers, and it wanted to try shooting directly up through the ground instead. Rope fibers fell from the ceiling as the front end of the train smashed from floor the ceiling, before sinking back into the massive hole left behind.
And the last giant? That one finally had the brains to run.
It ran directly into a brick wall, the firmly built side of a warehouse. Of course, a giant bare wall would be a waste of space, so commercial advertising had been placed there… a large neon sign, with a decorative lettering.
In brilliant red lines, it screamed out loud as it shattered and sparked and ignited the killer’s robes and ropes into flame:
Flaming bits of rope floated lazily through the air, as Penelope sank to her knees. Eyes no longer quite so luminescent.
Over the din of a collapsing subway train, bits of the roof coming down, and the distant horn of a driverless bus careening for the highway… Echo could be heard, clapping lightly.
"Just as it should be," she spoke, pleased. "Bedlam distorts. Echo erases. And Lucid transforms. Bit of a shame that you can’t seem to adjust your dream unless you’re in dire peril, but I suppose it’s a start."
Penelope took the catastrophic sight in, as if seeing it for the first time.
"Wuh… what? Wait, what?" she mumbled. "Did… did I seriously do all this?"
"Ohh, yes. A fine step into the wider world you’ve made for yourself. Now, if you don’t mind a suggestion? The house appears to be burning down. You may want to find the bleed opening before it does so."
A bit of ash drifted by Penelope’s eyes, snapping her out of her shock.
"The house is burning down!" she shouted.
"Yes, as I said. Did you not hear me?"
"Where’s the damn opening?!" she thought aloud, glancing wildly as the flames began to lick towards the ceiling. "What’s it look like, where is it? C’mon, no time for games!"
"No. Find it yourself. Don’t look for it; FEEL for it. Understand it. Do it, or burn down with this house."
Penelope wanted to protest. She wanted to kick and scream at the unfairness of it, at being asked to perform such an esoteric and ill-defined task. Something which made no sense whatsoever.
Dreams rarely made sense, did they? Sensible doubts had no purpose here. She needed to throw any doubts out the window if she was to make this happen. Embrace her instincts…
The focus point was in here, somewhere. Not the physical center, but the emotional center of the bleed. Where the two worlds leaked into each other, creating this hybrid structure. Part farmhouse, part death camp. All through the eyes of a child, so small in a world so large, having seen men in robes murder everyone that child held dear right in her own home…
"The child’s bedroom," Penelope realized.
Penelope wished it were her first time charging headlong through a burning building. Sadly, the occasional fire in the Sideways meant she was used to this.
Head low, monitor breathing, move quick. Pour a water bottle on a hanky to breathe through. The fire hadn’t chewed its way through the upstairs quite yet, but it was only a matter of time… and she still had rooms to move through, rooms with difficult to reach doorknobs. She’d decided to just take a flying leap to grab at the knob and twist it, rather than play Furniture Tetris to climb her way there. It generally worked. Not many bruises.
By the time she reached the front foyer to access the stairs, bodies were dropping from the ceiling. Burning bodies, smelling weirdly like waffles. A scent she’d have trouble getting out of her nose for days to come, assuming she survived this mess in the first place…
The stairs were difficult as hell, given it was akin to climbing a ziggurat. Sheer bloody minded determination got her through it, along with a grappling hook and rope snagging on the thick carpeting.
Finally, there was the bedroom. And here well ahead of the fire, if not comfortably so.
Penelope didn’t need to search the place. She knew exactly where the bleed point would be found. Whether it was instinct or some kind of dream-sense or both, honestly, she didn’t care. The metaphysics didn’t matter.
Under the bed, where the child would hide when things got scary.
Couldn’t see it, but she could feel it, just like Echo suggested. A burned spot in the world, a burned spot in her brain. A different kind of smoke curling from the wound, invisible and odorless. A gap had been opened, through which one nightmare flowed into the other and vice versa. Penelope had to close her eyes to really see it, to KNOW it was there with absolute certainty.
How to close it, though…?
Staples or crazy glue were not exactly applicable, here. Willpower was what transformed that room into the protective elements of her City, into public transit and asphalt and manholes. Desperate willpower, but willpower nonetheless. She had to somehow will that wound to close.
Penelope Yates had manipulated her dream quite a few times, in the past. Create a teddy bear. Open a path to the shopping mall. Upend parking garages. Change the historical trajectories of bullets in flight. Shuffle entire City blocks in her sleep. Partially transform a living room into a block of her beloved City…
Bedlam distorts, Echo erases, Lucid transforms. Penelope could transform the wound, sealing it tight.
But I’m just an ordinary girl. That’s crazy.
I’m an ordinary girl. And something more.
I’m scared of that something more.
I know. I’m sorry.
Then why? Why did we do it?
We had to become an ordinary girl so we could experience our City as they do, to grow and learn and love life itself as a living thing. But we are growing up, and must put childhood aside. For their sakes.
I need to seal this wound.
Then do it.
So, she did.
In the focal point of her imagination, she pictured a world without the bleed. The original farmhouse, at its original size, full of mirrors and absolutely not on fire. All those other things sent back to where they came from, and the leak not merely plugged or closed but completely nonexistent. No more bleed. No more bridge between two dreams.
When her eyes opened again, the City of Angles had asserted itself.
Flopping forward onto the bed, which was once again perfectly sized for her, Penelope took a few minutes to just… lie there. Quiet and thoughtless.
Eventually, she pulled up her phone, and began to type.
PennyLane: I’m ready to close the bleed to the Citadel, Dad.
PennyLane: Calling a taxi. Be home in an hour or two. Will explain more later. tired
Honestly, she almost wanted to sleep right there and then. Completely and utterly exhausted from the effort of touching the dream so intimately… but this wasn’t her bed. And after the horrors she’d seen tonight, the sooner she was gone from this place, the better.
The sooner this whole nightmare was over and dealt with, the better.
The next day, the TroubleSolvers met to discuss plans to end the Citadel’s grip on their City once and for all.
By this point, Penelope was no stranger to war councils. They’d held them when facing Bedlam’s cult, and when dealing with Jack’s homicidal music. Large-scale gatherings of the various allies and friends she’d drawn to her side over the years represented turning points in the crisis du jour; everybody brought their own ideas and skills to the table to solve the problem. As individuals they weren’t particularly strong, but as a group they became stronger than their enemies truly realized.
Admittedly, that group had shrunk a bit lately.
Those holes in the roster were notable. Vivi and Cass, captured. Lucas and Milly, dead. (Not that they were regulars, but.) Grandma Scarlett, manifesting within a different phase of existence. Even Miranda Walker, who had sat in on these little gatherings, lived under such tight scrutiny that she couldn’t possibly attend… assuming she wanted to. She hadn’t done much of anything to resist Citadel rule, after all…
Negative thoughts, floating through Penelope’s mind as the remaining members of the TroubleSolvers closed in on their hideout at the Jørgensen family grocery store. Each of them knew the path into the Sideways to take them here, and more importantly knew the path out of the Sideways safely without being lost forever.
Gus Zero was already there when the Yates family arrived. Back when he first took over the store, he was always ready to offer Penelope a Twinkie and a smile on arrival. These days, his slightly scarred face rarely bothered with a smile, and Penelope had to fetch her own snack cakes. Being a one-man gang had changed him over the last year, and the Citadel’s arrival only accelerated the process.
"Where’s the nacho platter?" Penelope asked him.
"We usually have a nacho platter when we hang out. Y’know, crunching away while we bring each other up to speed on how we’re doing and what’s going on in our lives. It’s fun."
"We’re trying to shut down a war machine," Gus reminded her. "This isn’t about fun."
Penelope took it on herself to set out a nacho platter, all the same. Cracked open a few different bags of chips from the store shelves, got a little plastic tub of dip. This wasn’t about fun, exactly… it was about the chance for everybody to be together.
The key to all of it, Penelope felt, wasn’t in the pooling of talent or their fierce determination to protect the City from forces aligned to destroy it. Nope. The key was being together, in the here and now. All of them. All her friends. A way to check in with everyone, to feel the human bond they shared. Often there’d be snacks and chatter, both before and after the serious business phase. A way to share their lives, in those few moments…
Hollister Avenue was next to pop by, immediately gravitating to the five different kinds of nachos. He was ready to tell all about the crazy day he’d had negotiating with the Department of Resources to keep people from being kicked out of their homes.
"They aren’t even being subtle about it anymore," he said. "They’re quartering troops all over the City, spreading out. Just today they started moving on the Suburbs. Even if we can shut down the bleed we’re going to have to deal with those strongholds. Bleh. Gregory, look, I’m gonna need some funding from your fish empire. I had to move a family of five to a hotel until I can get my contacts in Orientation to find them something better… if I can find them something better."
She’d rarely seen him boiling over with this much frustration. Even when things weren’t going his way he played it cool, trying to de-emphasize the trouble. Problems were his problems to deal with, not yours, and every one of them had a solution. Admitting that he may not be able to find a solution was… odd. Running all over town dealing with TroubleSolvers front office business had totally wrecked his cool.
Marcy Wei was next, still wearing her bandana and hood on arriving. She exchanged a businesslike nod with Gus Zero; months ago that might’ve been a kiss, but this was the best the two of them could manage now. Still better than how things used to be. They never talked about what drove them apart, and Penelope didn’t want to pry.
"Sorry I’m late. They’re after the taggers," Marcy explained, setting down a backpack filled with spraypaint cans that clanked and clunked. "Not just me and the Numbers, either; I saw some D-o-S thugs led by a Citadel thug break some poor bastard’s jaw just because he put up one of our QR code posters. I’ve had to shift my route around to avoid tails on the way here."
"Let ’em tail you," Gregory suggested. "They’ll just get stuck down here for the rest of their lives. It’d serve them right."
"Yeah, well… the end goal here is rescuing my sister. And I don’t think I could look her in the eye if I deliberately got someone killed," Marcy said. "I came close to that breaking point once. Gotta be vigilant now."
The last arrivals were the Jones-Smith family.
They were only expecting Kelsey to show up; Dave usually was at home, taking care of their newborn. All three of them arriving at this meeting was noteworthy, even if it meant enduring the strong odors of poop and spit-up that came with them.
Dave wheeled Riley in her baby carriage, a rickety old thing they’d borrowed from Gregory. Apparently Penelope was at one point small enough to be chauffeured around in it. Penelope immediately dislodged herself from the snacks to go coo and smile at the kid, being naturally drawn to the most adorable thing in the room.
Little Riley "Risky" Jones-Smith. Like all babies, she looked like a miniature Truman Capote. (A reference Penelope only understood thanks to Cass.) The lumpy wad of cuteness shook her little color-changing toy rattle in the general direction of "Aunt Penny."
The ever-shifting rainbow hues of her toy weren’t some miracle of science, however. The little video glitches and bursts of static which accompanied each shift told the truth of it. Risky had been slightly cubist since birth, yet showed none of the anxiety and terror that usually accompanied the condition… rarely raised a fuss, really. Changing her toys around was simply normal to her.
Dragging an infant into the Sideways, even a part of the Sideways you knew by heart, would’ve been completely abhorrent to any citizen of the City of Angles. Any citizen except these two, of course. Dave, so broken as to be whole and sane beyond comprehension. Kelsey, more at home with strangeness than normalcy. Between the two of them they’d produced a kid who could giggle and stare at the twisted space of the Sideways with cheerful wonder.
"Sorry we’re late," Kelsey apologized, on arriving. "Dave was going to stay home with Riley but Riley was putting up a fuss and we can’t exactly get a sitter and we weren’t sure what to do and we were late and we had to go so we figured we’d just all go together and that’s why we’re late. Are we late? Everybody’s here. We must be late…"
"Don’t worry, I brought six changes of diapers and some talcum powder and a few packs of formula and some extra stuffed animals and a folding changing table," Dave explained, setting down the massive suitcase-sized bag which had been threatening to tear his arms from their sockets. "She won’t be a bother. We are responsible parents."
"Aooaah," Riley agreed, while drooling a little.
With the last arrivals, Gregory Yates took charge of the meeting.
The actual plan to destroy the Citadel’s stranglehold on the City was quite simple. Get Penelope in direct contact with the bleed focal point, shut the thing down, go home. Gregory laid down the plan step by step, pausing now and then to go into more detail on how things would unfold.
It wasn’t exactly a flawless plan. It was a gigantic con job, trying to keep the Citadel forces off balance just long enough to make it all work. Any number of things could go wrong along the way, if some sharp-eyed soldier saw through the gambit… but they really had no choice. Not with the Citadel clearly ready to make a big push, based on Hollister’s stories.
With the last steps detailed, Gregory paused for questions.
Marcy was the first to speak up, with the one question Penelope had been anticipating.
"So we shut down the bleed, hooray, we win, yadda yadda," Marcy said. "I missed the step where we rescue my sister."
"That’s phase two," Penelope explained. "We can re-open the bleed any time we want, under our own terms. I’ll work with Echo to get a link established, and we’ll use it to infiltrate the Citadel and get our friends back. I’m not going to leave them to rot, Marcy. But we have to close down Citadel operations fast, before things get any worse in the City."
"Relying on the creepy girl who tried to kill us all sounds… not good."
"She’s… misunderstood, is all. Just like Bedlam."
"You mean the other creepy girl who tried to kill us all?"
"Marcy, they’re not—look, if they won’t cooperate, I can open the bleed myself, okay?"
The words spilled out of Penelope’s mouth before she could even think about what she was saying. But… they felt right. No doubt or confidence. If it came down to it, she’d make it happen on her own, despite having no idea how to practically go about doing that. She had no idea how to practically transform a room into a hostile urban environment either, and yet that didn’t prove particularly difficult.
"You can do that?" Marcy asked, suspicious.
"Yeah. I can do that. …maybe we’re all creepy girls, in the end," Penelope mumbled.
Now, Gregory felt the need to step in, before things got more uncomfortable for his daughter.
"We have to operate under the assumption that we can re-open the bleed," he stated. "Without it there’s no chance whatsoever for rescue. A bleed that’s under full Citadel control is not a bleed we can make use of, and no way we can wrest control from them. Even if we somehow take over the Greasemonkey, they own the other side of the door. We’d be captured or killed the instant we set foot in the Citadel. No… we have to open a door for ourselves to have any shot at saving Cass and Vivi. Agreed?"
With reluctance, Marcy backed down. (Not physically. She was enjoying the snack platter too much to retreat from it.)
"Right. So that’s the plan," Gregory finished. "Marcy runs the distraction, Kelsey keeps the Citadel from acting brashly, Gus secures our entrance and exit, Penelope and I close the bleed. How soon do you think you can get the crowd in gear, Marcy?"
"An hour, tops. They’ve been waiting for this ever since the website launched," she replied. "I’ve been waiting for this, myself. You don’t worry about my end of things, I know how to make a scene."
"Okay. Let’s all head home and get prepared. Fireworks go off in an hour—"
"I wanna take a group photo before we go," Penelope interjected, before the meeting could be officially concluded.
She already had her phone out, placing it on a nearby shelf next to eleven types of mayonnaise, ready to take a shot on timer.
"Penny, we don’t have time for this," her father spoke.
"For what, a five-second photo?" Penelope asked. "C’mon. Everybody bunch up. Dave, Kelsey, Riley in front. Gus in the back, you’re plenty tall. …look, we rarely get a chance to get together like this, let’s make the most of it."
Gregory found himself tugged into position by his enthusiastic daughter.
"Penny, if this photo leaks into enemy hands—"
"Say cheese," she ordered.
The flashbulb stunned them lightly. Riley yelped, blinking a few times to get the light from her eyes.
In the days to come, Penelope would be thankful that she thought to take the picture. It was the last time they’d all be together, after all.
Private Sharpe was thankful to be bored rather than bleeding. Best possible way to look at it. He actually had time to play cards with his fellow conscripts; on the frontlines they couldn’t risk it, even during downtime. One moment of letting your guard down and the Enemy would take advantage, almost as if they knew when you were at your weakest. Coming over the top of the trenches, silent and grinning like death, bayonets fixed…
Yes. Boredom beat bleeding. He’d done enough bleeding, all told. Patched up and sent out again, and again. And finally, given this post playing glorified honor guard in another world. Boredom. Cards. Focus on those, not on what came before. If his hands trembled a little while holding a grip of spades it was only because he was close to a flush, not because of the bayonets and the blood and—
More chips in the pot. Stakes getting higher. Money that could be sent home, good for securing more rations, or for building up the bribe fund that’d ensure Brandon’s mandatory enlistment at fourteen would put him somewhere safe. Good. He could take the pot with this flush, or just force everybody else out. A win is a win.
Technically they weren’t supposed to be gambling at all, for real money or latrine duties or whatever. It was against regs. But discipline in the embassy barracks had been lax since the initial flurry of activity, tearing down all the art installations on the top floor in favor of bunk beds. The higher-ups turned a blind eye to the poker games as long as it kept the men from sneaking out into the City of Angles to play tourist.
Sharpe had done the tourist thing at one point. It was easy enough; you waited until nobody was looking, then you hopped out the window to the fire escape across a narrow alley. Get someone to cover for you and you’re good, the captains rarely paid attention to individual grunts anyway beyond keeping a head count. The building next door was an abandoned department store full of civilian clothes, perfect for pulling on a normal shirt and heading into town.
Into those wonderfully normal streets, without rubble from mortar hits, where kids played in the streets without fear…
He could run, of course. Leave his uniform behind in that department store and never come back. But even if by day they might overlook his absence, there was a bed check every night. Private Sharpe would be officially declared unmutual, a traitor to the Citadel. Shoot on sight.
More importantly… his family back home would suffer.
Sharpe, man, where do you think they get the poor bastards who become Builders? Orphanages alone aren’t enough. They’re probably sons and daughters of unmutual families. Get ’em when they’re young and malleable, that’s the way to go. You watch your ass, if only for Brandon’s sake.
Nearly dropping a spade, hands shaking. Don’t think of the Builders. Swallow the propaganda; the Builders are noble sacrifices for the greater good. We are proud of our Builders. They make strong walls to keep the Enemy at bay…
"Sharpe? I raised. You calling or what? …the hell’s that noise?"
"Call," Sharpe blurted, tossing some chips in. "I call. Let’s see what you…"
Noise. Definitely noise. Men moving around inside the building, lots of men… off-duty soldiers going to the windows, to peer downward. Something up. Something down there, rather.
Carefully setting his spades face-down (the secret bribe fund, that’s important, need to get back to the game and win it for Brandon) the private joined his fellow conscripts, to see…
…protestors. Dozens and dozens of them. Some waving signs, some wearing plastic masks, all of them chanting.
Their leader, a woman in a grey hooded jacket, had a megaphone out. Just in case anybody inside couldn’t hear the mass chanting that had started up around her.
"WE KNOW THE TRUTH! WE KNOW THE TRUTH! CITADEL, GO HOME! CITADEL, GO HOME!"
Tags started going up immediately after that. Poster sheets, stencil sprays, stickers all over the building across the street from their embassy. Sharpe recognized them, the weird boxy designs and warped lettering that they’d been scraping off the walls all over town. ЯΕЅIЅт. ЯΕЅIЅт. ЯΕЅIЅт…
"Oh goddammit," Sharp muttered under his breath. Because he knew what was coming next.
The door to the barracks (formerly the top floor art gallery) burst open, and the commanding officer on duty entered like a storm.
"The hell you sorry bastards gawking at?!" he shouted. "We’ve got a mass civilian disturbance on the doorsteps of our embassy! I want you all in combat gear and ready to move. We’re on guard duty; it’s high time you lazy crapsacks started guarding something!"
With the card game forgotten, men scrambled to look presentable as an intimidating military force. Rifles were retrieved from the secured lockers, helmets found and occasionally exchanged when someone grabbed the wrong one. Everybody getting ready to meet the protesters with an equally showy force…
They had orders not to shoot civilians, of course. The protesters were keeping to the opposite sidewalk, to avoid provocation by crossing into official Citadel territory. But this was the biggest protest Sharpe had seen to date, and, well… boredom sometimes led into bleeding, when discipline grew lax…
He wasn’t particularly eager to get involved in that. He took this posting gladly to be away from the bestial Enemy, the inhuman force that existed only to tear apart everyone he knew and loved. But he didn’t sign on to shoot humans. (Technically he didn’t sign on at all, he was forced into the military like everyone else, but.) The prospect of forming a defensive line against unarmed hippies wasn’t exactly lighting a fire under his ass.
In fact… he dallied. He picked the least prepared rifle, one that had been partially disassembled, making a show of getting it war-ready again. Hunted around for his helmet, despite knowing it had rolled under his bunk earlier. And as the rest of the men filed out of the room… he shifted from leaning over to fetch his helmet to lying down on the ground to rolling under his bunk, out of sight.
Chaos was a private’s best friend. The captain didn’t know him by name, didn’t know any of the cannon fodder by name. He wouldn’t he missed. It was a weirdly mazelike building full of abandoned floors; wouldn’t be hard to hide out, rejoin the masses after the situation resolved itself.
An empty barracks, now. Empty save for him. He could just exit out the window. Hit the department store, grab a new jacket, walk away.
The window was open, in fact. Open and inviting—
Wait. That window was closed, moments ago. The privates kept it closed, keeping their little tourism industry a secret from the captains. Didn’t want to draw attention to the only exit from this hell. Why would it be open now…?
Because he wasn’t the only one to stay behind. Another soldier was here, boots visible from his hiding place beneath a bed.
Soon, joined by two more sets of boots. People coming in from the outside? Protesters sneaking in, maybe? But—
"Cutting it a bit close there," a voice that chilled Sharp to the bone grumbled.
The Commander. It was the Commander. For some reason, he was coming in through the private’s secret window. Was this a test? They said Commander Yates set traps for disloyal citizens to step into. Did they know about Sharpe’s trembling, his fears…?
But the next voice, that one was also familiar. The other man at the poker table, the one who’d raised the stakes… Private Jørgensen.
"I’m cutting it close?" the Private complained. "I’ve been stuck in here for days now playing soldier boy with no word from the other Numbers, and suddenly it’s all ‘Hey, Six, we need you to let us in tonight.’ Fine timing as usual, thank Zero for me, waiting until the last godda—uh, hey, Penny."
"Hey, Gus," a higher pitched voice spoke… the third pair of boots. A smaller pair of boots.
"Love what you’ve done with your hair. I’ll miss the pigtails, though. And, uh… where’d your…?"
"Ace bandage, okay? Don’t make this weird. I already embarrassed the hell out of Dad over that."
"Right. So, what’s the…"
And quiet again.
Getting closer, now. The Commander’s boots, his long coat trailing behind them. Did he hear Sharpe’s panicked breathing? Did he know? Was this a loyalty test, was the bullet to the brain coming, was Brandon going to be taken in the night, was—
The bed kicked aside, revealing the one hiding under it.
Immediately to his feet, snapping off a salute. Absolute loyalty to the Commander. Show your colors, not your true colors, but the colors they want to see. Best way to survive…
"I, I, I dropped my helmet, I heard voices, I was—"
"At ease, son," the Commander spoke. "So you lagged behind? Fine. You’re coming with us. Private Jørgensen, Private Pendleton, let’s move. We’ve got work to do."
Sharp’s saluting hand came up again, despite being ordered to be at ease. "SIR YES SIR! …where are we going?"
"There’s a massive protest going on outside our door. Right now we need to tend to this embassy’s most valuable asset," Commander Yates explained. "We’re going to protect the bleed."
It wasn’t exactly a flawless plan. It was a gigantic con job, trying to keep the Citadel forces off balance just long enough to make it all work. Any number of things could go wrong along the way, if some sharp-eyed soldier saw through the gambit…
Penelope (aka "Private Pendleton" thanks to a flatter chest and a new haircut) hoped like heck that this "Private Sharpe" they’d scooped up along the way didn’t have a prophetic name.
He seemed too terrified of her father to even question the situation. That was the reason behind the uniform, after all; while this would be easier using only one of the Guses to sneak Penelope in through the barracks, having some authority to throw around would cover their asses if anything went wrong.
Her dad had been planning this for some time, ever since finding out there was a Gus stationed here. Apparently the Citadel had been using them as disposable recruits ever since they arrived there. Swapping one for another was a risk, but it meant having an inside man… one who could learn about the vulnerabilities in embassy security. Perfect for a raid like this one.
As for the uniform, well… Hollister knew a guy. Knew a gal, actually, a fashionista celebutante type whose garment factory was annexed to make military uniforms. She was rather upset about that. Upset enough to agree to design and produce a perfect replica of the coat "Commander Yates" wore.
He marched at the head of the group, with Gus and Private Sharpe trailing behind. Penelope took up the rear; better to keep Sharpe’s eyes forward, and away from her person. Female soldiers were extremely uncommon and they knew for a fact none were stationed in the embassy, so "Private Pendleton" needed to pass cursory inspection as a young boy. Fortunately she was legally an adult under Citadel regs, so a teenage soldier wasn’t unthinkable here…
The group paused, on approaching the store room. The bleed focal point lay behind that door… which was guarded by two soldiers. Others had been rushing past them the entire way down to the ground floor, headed outside to confront Marcy’s glorious flash mob distraction… but these two stayed put.
More bars and stars than the usual disposable grunts had. Certainly more than were on Penelope’s hand-tailored imitation uniform. Unlike the easily intimidated Sharpe, they weren’t panicking at the sight of their Commander in Chief.
Gregory took command, all the same.
"You two stay put," he ordered. "I’m heading back to the other side to marshal some backup. I’m not convinced this is a simple peaceful demonstration—"
"Password, sir," one of the guards interrupted.
Gregory Yates stood toe to toe with him, focusing an eye that could puncture battleship steel on the guard.
"Do you honestly think we have time for routine procedure when there’s an enemy at the gates, son?"
"This is your routine procedure, sir. Password, sir."
With an exasperated sigh… Gregory turned to Penelope as if to say ‘Can you believe this joker?’ and then on turning back used the rotational momentum to smash a haymaker across the guard’s jaw.
The second one went down as easily as the first. He was too busy going for his rifle to put up a defense to being face-fisted by someone who learned how to scrap out on the streets of this very block.
"You could’ve warned me that my counterpart had a password set up, Six," Gregory muttered, shaking the numbness out of his hand. "In the door, now. Penny, give me a hand?"
And so seven people entered the storage room. Two were being dragged while unconscious; a third was dragged while conscious, Sharpe squirming only slightly as Gus pulled him along and kicked the door shut behind him.
"Hey, don’t blame me for the password thing," Gus Six protested, while wrenching Private Sharpe’s arm behind his back. "I wasn’t here long enough to watch the procedure. Mostly they had me patrolling the dumpsters out back in case of IEDs. So what do we do with this guy? He saw us come in, remember…"
"Well, this is your lucky day, Sharpe. We’re giving you a once in a lifetime opportunity to be kidnapped by insurrectionists," Gregory suggested, turning back to their recent acquisition. "If you’re VERY lucky, I’ll turn my back later tonight to let you escape capture and get to live out a happy life in our city as an assumed POW. Sound good?"
Not the answer Gregory expected to hear. Yet it wasn’t a defiant "no," more of a defeated "no."
"Look, we’ve honestly got nothing against you or your Citadel. So why not tag along with us on our way out of here?" he suggested. "It’s a better life in our City, we can promise you. And we’ve got a good hiding place, if you’re scared of what’s left of them hunting you down—"
"My son. Th, th, they have my son," Sharpe stammered. "Can’t go. Not even as a prisoner. They’ll hurt him, make him a Builder. Please, just… I don’t know, knock me out. I won’t tell them anything more than the other two saw. Please. I have a family…"
Gregory thought about it for three seconds before cold-cocking the guy. The grateful private collapsed to the ground gently, eased there by Gus Six.
…but he wouldn’t be going home to his family, would he? Penelope thought. We’re closing the bleed. Stranding all the men and women who came here, both the good and the bad. I’ll need to do something about this, after we re-open the bleed. Find some way to make it all work out for everyone—
"Penny, the bleed, please?" Gregory requested.
Snapped out of her ponderous thought, Penny gave a curt nod… and stood in front of the featureless brick wall.
The bleed had a focal point; Echo trained her to not only find them, but see them. And to do that, she couldn’t use her eyes.
No life-or-death scenario. No lynching ghosts, no fire. Technically they were surrounded by a temporarily distracted army, which meant some life-or-death, but no immediate threat. And still, she had to do this, had to tap into the other part of herself. The Lucid dreamer.
For so long, she’d been trying to deny it. Even after uncovering the secret at the Heart of the City, she denied it while accepting it. Ordinary girl. Just Penelope. Idolizing her ordinary friend’s ordinary life, which she knew in her heart she couldn’t actually have…
But she had a life. She had family, and friends. Echo and Bedlam, they were lonely ghosts, living an immortal life with no concept of what it was like to be part of humanity. That’s the gift that Lucid gave to Penelope, the chance to experience life, to know what it was she strived to protect. And to protect that life, everybody’s life… she had to assume Lucid control over her own dream. Had to accept being extraordinary, to save the ordinary.
Eyes closed. The wall in front of her, its brick and mortar a part of her City. She could feel it connected to the pavement outside, to the cement floor inside. The Greasemonkey. Seventh Street. The whole of the City, pulsing and breathing like a living thing, flexing its muscles at glacial speed as it grows new cells and bones and organs known as buildings, always so fascinated by buildings, even at a tender young age, yes, like this building like this wall like these bricks she could feel the rough texture of them even without using her fingers tracing her mind across the surface of this place and—
There. A wound.
A single focused point, through which one world bled into another. A city unlike her own, a place of strong walls and strong fears. All Penelope had to do was deny the wound, make it no longer exist in her dream. Heal it by refusing to accept that it should be there in the first place…
…except it wouldn’t budge. Not completely. She felt it budge, but then it was pushed right back.
Another willpower. One made of vacuum tubes and circuits and bits of electronic junk, hands on levers, frantically twisting knobs. Trying to fight the closure.
Machines don’t have willpower, not even in the Citadel. Someone was actively fighting her, and Penelope was ready to hit back. She turned her sense onto the bleed, through it, shifting to the other place, to see who was challenging her…
A single eye returned her look. Normally two eyes would’ve met her mental gaze, but one of them had been plucked out of his head.
A moment of mutual recognition, as the two were quite surprised to see each other. And, after a single moment of panicked hesitation… Penelope took advantage of the moment, noting his hands no longer pulling levers and twisting knobs. An opening.
My dream can be what I want it to be…
The bleed no longer existed. A roughly built brick wall was all that remained, severing the link completely.
Penelope’s knees weakened, the effort momentarily exhausting her. But she remained standing.
"Done," she announced. "Bleed’s gone."
"Right. Step two, getting out alive," Gregory declared. "We’ll go back up the way we came. Gus, you’re coming with us, no need to spy on them any longer—"
"There’s no need for that," Penelope spoke, quietly.
She could still feel the bricks, sensing their locked structure. Unreal estate, as Echo said… a thing both real and unreal, as easy to twist around as the raw potentiality that filled Memorial Stadium. In the end, everything would be like Memorial Stadium…
It didn’t have to be a brick wall. It could be an emergency exit, complete with a red-lit sign overhead, inviting them to depart in case of disaster.
Penelope had her hand on the push bar before it existed. One gentle nudge, and the group was out into the cool night air of the alley between the Greasemonkey and the department store.
The trio fled into the dark, away from the noisy protest on the Citadel’s front stoop.
Commander Yates was busy inspecting one of the new strongholds when word came down the wire.
"Trouble at the embassy," he repeated, flatly.
"Y-Yes, sir. And there’s a protest, it’s all over their Internet," the officer replied. "Every media outlet’s covering it. Um. Apparently whether they want to or not, there’s some kind of hacking involved—"
"I can’t say this comes as a surprise, especially after that ‘Ghostwriter’ character and her website started showing up. So what’s the problem? I trust we’re meeting their splashy show with our own splashy show? …please don’t tell me some idiot opened fire."
"No, sir. So far, it’s still peaceful."
"Good. And the media’s on it? Also good. Fire up the truck and get me down there ASAP. Maybe I can make a grandstand of my own, work on some of this bad karma we’ve been building up with a diplomatic dog and pony show."
That was the key to success, Yates felt: turn every negative into a positive. Angry mob at your door? Good, that puts them all in one place so you can make them less angry. The cameras made that even easier. Maybe he could turn this rapidly sinking ship around, so it’d at least run aground properly and on schedule…
The ride from District 15 to Seventh Street took longer than he’d have liked. The driver was Department of Safety, so allegedly he knew his way around town better than a Citadel driver would’ve. Maybe the delay was incompetence, maybe it was quiet rebellion. The Commander made a note to have the driver dealt with later at one of their new facilities…
On arriving, he saw what he expected to see: a mob of good-for-nothing young people waving signs and acting like fools, while his men formed a human barricade along the front of the building. No weapons drawn, thankfully. No corpses to clean up either, which was a plus.
Naturally, his arrival stirred up the crowd even more. The truck pulled up in front of the building, its occupants stepping out… Gregory’s guards forming a human shield in front of him, in case this went sour. Gregory wasn’t worried, though. Let them jeer and shout at him. It’d serve as a fine counterpoint before he talked them all down with honeyed words—
"S-sir? Um. Sir. Sir."
Mumbling and trepidation from Captain Greene, the on-site officer of the day. Greene, a man unshakable in his command of a situation, able to shout even the most timid of recruits into a frenzy of fighting fervor. Greene was not a man who mumbled. He didn’t slouch and look like he didn’t want to be here, as he looked now on approach.
"Report," Commander Yates replied.
"It’s… it’s the bleed. It’s gone," Greene admitted.
"Gone, sir. There’s an open door where it was. Uh. The door just goes into the alley, not to the Citadel. We, um, we’ve got no idea how it could have happened. It’s impossible, sir, simply impossible…"
There. There was the disappointment. A negative turned into a positive and back into a negative again.
Honestly, Gregory was hoping to keep it a positive. It would’ve been so much easier if they could sway the crowd and keep this ruse going just a bit longer. But in the end, results mattered… and that meant embracing the negative. Deploying new tactics, more appropriate to the changing situation.
Besides, it wasn’t like this was unexpected. He even had a code name for it.
"Phase Two is go," Gregory declared.
"Sir? Phase Two…?"
"Did I stammer? Did I mumble? Did I choose wisely when I gave you this position or not?" the Commander barked at Greene. "Phase Two protocols are in effect. Do your goddamn job. I’m going inside to get a drink, assuming you idiots haven’t completely disassembled the very nice bar we had in there."
"Yessir!" Greene replied, saluting hard enough to leave a red mark on his forehead. "Phase Two protocols in effect. Um. Would you like me to track down the ones responsible for this act of terrorism once we’re cleaned up here…?"
"No need. I know exactly where they are," the Commander spoke. "And I’m going after them next after I wet my whistle. As you were, soldier. Remain strong."
To his credit, Greene remained strong. When he gave the order to fire on the protesters, he did it with the conviction of a true Citadel soldier.
The initial volley of gunfire dropped at least a dozen of the civilians. As expected, panic gripped the rest, fleeing the scene rather than standing to fight. The bodies collapsing to the sidewalk would be repeated on loop through most of the major media networks for days, but that was fine. Bad PR was actually to their advantage, now.
It was time to step on the City’s throat.
Penelope’s father was enjoying a beer, fresh and cold from the Jørgensen grocery fridge. A victory toast for a job well done, shared with Gus Six. He’d had a total of three beers in the last year… one at the conclusion of the Memorial Stadium incident, one on his wedding anniversary, and one today. Different emotions accompanying each.
"It’s going to be chaotic for a few days," Gregory suggested to his daughter. "City Hall should reassert control once they realize no more Citadel troops are on the way, but it’ll take time. Until then we should stay down here, lay low. Sound good?"
"Sounds good," Penelope agreed, sipping her celebratory root beer. "Should probably get Marcy and the others down here as well, to be safe. Dave might refuse, since he’s going to be on call to respond to emergencies, but Kelsey and Riley should probably stay clear of the trouble. …I wish we could’ve done this cleaner, though. People might die when the Citadel forces realize they’re stranded and backed against the wall…"
"This is as clean as it gets, kiddo. It’s impossible to get out of a mess like this without some casualties."
"And the Citadel, they’re going to be left alone to face their Enemy. …I’m going to have to do something about that situation," Penelope said, willing to breach the subject with her father now that the initial crisis was over. "We’re re-opening the bleed later to get Cass and Vivi, yeah, but… I want to see what I can do to save them from their problems, too."
"They’re not our concern, Penny. It’s tragic, but you can’t fix every dream that stumbles across our doorstep."
"Why not?" she asked, in seriousness. "Why can’t we? I can… I can feel things more than I ever have before, Dad. Like today, when I made that doorway. I can’t explain it, not yet, but—"
Charging into the room so hard it rattled the glass doors, metal push bar slamming against the frame.
Gus Zero whirled in place and pushed the slow, heavy doors shut behind him. Then immediately grabbed a display rack of sunglasses and knocked it over behind him, barricading the door. Another rack followed soon after.
The beer dropped from Gregory’s hand, unceremoniously ditched as he moved into action. Gus Six joined him, wordlessly. They didn’t ask why Zero was so freaked out, or why he was immediately setting up defenses. If you were setting up defenses, odds are you were expecting some offense any second now.
Only after the door was sufficiently blocked did Zero step back, breathe in, and exhale his explanation.
"They killed the protesters," he blurted. "Some of them. A lot of them. Kent State, it was Kent State all over again! Marcy got hit, I had to put her in a taxi and send her to a safe hospital. She, she was bleeding so much, I don’t know if she made it… I had to run, had to get back here to warn you since there’s no cellphone signal down here…"
Penelope’s blood went cold. Her father remained expressionless. Moreso than usual.
"Reprisal," he spoke. "Sore losers. The bastards…"
"No. No, it’s more than that," Zero said… pulling his phone out of his jacket to show them. "I’ve been recording the news streams all the way up to the Sideways. Look, look. They… they’re everywhere, Gregory. Citadel forces. Thousands of soldiers, tanks even, streaming out of those new buildings they took over. They’re taking over the whole City! What the hell? I mean, like, what the hell? We closed the bleed, didn’t we?"
The understanding of it hit Penelope immediately.
"We closed a bleed," she realized. "Jack. Jack Hayes was on the other side of the bleed, he was using a machine to keep it open. …he must’ve found a way to open other bleeds. Secret bleeds…"
A hand raised, to motion for silence. Gregory leaned, to listen carefully…
Boots. Marching boots.
Zero stared at the barricaded door, in horror. "No, no way. I wasn’t followed! I KNOW I wasn’t followed. I even used the path that only I know about! How’d they find this place? They, they can’t possibly get out of here alive, it’s a trap, why would they come here…?!"
"Six, get my daughter into the back room and take cover," Gregory Yates ordered… while drawing his gun. "The Citadel’s coming. This is it."
"What?!" Penelope blurted. "Wait, no, Dad, wait—"
"I love you, and I’m proud of you. Go," he spoke, quietly.
Dragged away, still protesting, still screaming. The tiles beneath her feet a blur of black and white. Shifting, sliding, trying to keep her from moving… but it was no use.
The stockroom door slammed shut just before the firing began.
The Commander didn’t actually fire a gun that night. He didn’t need to, not with a full infantry unit at his command. They did the shooting for him, and in a few cases, the dying.
Had to give it to his counterpart, it was one hell of a siege. Brief, but intense. Commander Yates didn’t flinch an instant—not THAT big a deal, not after facing the Enemy in a field of battle—but it did take a minute and a half of expended ammo to finish up the operation. And four kills by the opposition in a twelve-on-two gunfight? An outstanding showing, all considered.
When the smoke cleared and the building was secure, the Commander strode right through the pooling blood. He wasn’t the sort to care about a little splatter on his boots. This was his decision, after all. He made the conscious choice to have his City counterpart taken care of this way. May as well own up to it.
There was one bit of unfinished business, sadly. One complication to deal with. Honestly, it’d be easiest to solve it with a bullet… but that was the sort of solution the idiots in his command would probably leap for. Gregory didn’t get where he was by taking the easy solutions.
The daughter was pulled out from her hiding place, underneath the body of the man who was protecting her. Not a scratch on her. Both lucky and unlucky for her, really…
On seeing the fallen bodies of her friend and her father, well. Screaming was perfectly understandable, and Commander Yates was okay with letting her get it all out. It was her right to yell until her lungs burst if that’s what she wanted to do.
Screaming and crying. Completely irrational. She’d be hugging the corpse if not for the soldiers holding her back.
"I did warn him not to take up arms against me," the Commander reminded her. "He knew the risk."
—and the building started to scream.
Which was nonsense. But his ears were telling him that yes, the screaming was now no longer only from the throat of a grief-stricken teenager, but from all around them. The glass windows rattled and shook, and started to crack from the pressure of it. The ceiling tiles rattled in their frames, some of them falling to the ground, the black and white surface starting to warp and bend…
A rifle butt smashed into Penelope’s jaw, and the screaming stopped.
Probably just a train passing overhead. This "Sideways" was underground, wasn’t it? Stood to reason. And the Commander was a very reasonable man.
So reasonable, in fact, that he decided mercy was called for in this situation. A mercy above and beyond any the daughter of his worst enemy probably deserved.
Penelope Yates awoke in chains.
For the longest while, she didn’t move. She just… lay there on the floor of her cell, crying. Nothing else.
Eventually she couldn’t keep her eyes open, which meant she got to enjoy the sight of her father lying dead on the floor of a grocery store being played back inside her eyelids.
Everything went right. Then everything went wrong. They hadn’t even considered the possibility of other bleeds; why would they? The Citadel made sure everybody knew that their access point was at the Greasemonkey. It was widely reported in the media, all eyes, all attention focused on it. All while that madman Hayes was opening other doors for them, for the eventual full-scale invasion…
She’d given them an excuse to make that invasion a reality.
She’d given them an excuse to kill her father. He was obviously the ringleader in the Commander’s eyes, after all, not Penelope. Oh, no. Put a bullet in the head of Gregory Yates, the devil you know. Not the stupid, stupid little girl who ruined everything, who deserved it the most. She gets to live.
Father. Her father. Maybe not born of his blood, but he stood by her when he didn’t have to, he raised her and cared for her and protected her. They fought and argued, she strained under the weight of his stubbornness, but always understood where that pressure came from. It was love, after all. He loved her so deeply that he would do anything for her. Including dying…
He shouldn’t be dead. It wasn’t right. Nobody should be dead, not Milly and Lucas, not Gus Zero, not her father. Her father…
Eyes closed. Feeling the dream, feeling her memories of Gregory Yates. If nothing was real, if everything was real to her, she could, she had to, she needed to…
"When I open my eyes," Penelope decided, "He’ll be there."
And he was.
It was like holding soap in the bath. Any moment it could slip away…
The hazy image crossed its arms at her.
"Young lady, what do you think you’re doing?" it asked.
"I’m… I’m bringing you back to life," Penelope explained. "It’s my dream. I can do anything. I did it before…"
"Penny…" it said, with a sigh… crouching down on one knee, to offer a kindly look. "…no. This isn’t right. I’m too far gone this time. You can’t actually bring me back; all you can bring back is the idea of me, memories and shapes, like you did with Scarlett. I can’t live as Gregory Yates anymore. I died."
"No! No, you didn’t! You’re alive. You’re alive, you can’t, you can’t just die…"
"Penelope. Listen to me, and listen well," the image spoke. "People die. That’s just a fact, whether the world is a dream or not."
"No, nobody has to die! You’re here now, I did it, I brought you back…! You can live, you have to live, this has to work…"
"I’m not really me, though. Not all me. The rest of me is too far gone to exist like I used to, Penelope. Please… you have to let go. You don’t need me; you’re a grown woman, and ready to go on without your grumpy old dad. I’ve got faith in you, honey."
"But, but …!"
Her father’s ghost let out a tired sigh, from deep within his soul.
"Please, Penelope… let me be with Lizzie," he begged. "Let me rest. I love you."
And so Penelope Yates was alone once again.
The next morning, sunlight came in from the tiny window high above her cell. At the crack of dawn, her captor paid visit to his prisoner.
That poor excuse for a human being didn’t deserve to wear her father’s face.
"I’ll understand if you hate me. You’ve every right to hate me," Commander Yates agreed. "I’ve done a hateful, horrible thing. I did it in defense of my Citadel against an enemy that tried to ruin our only chance at survival, but that doesn’t make it any less horrible."
"You haven’t killed me yet," Penelope said. "Why?"
"Because you’re just a kid; your father was the criminal. I don’t believe in holding a child responsible for a parent’s misdeeds," the Commander stated. "I fully expect you want to pick up his flag and rebel against me, somehow tear my Citadel to the ground if you could. But you can’t. It’s impossible. You don’t need to waste your life trying to achieve the impossible. I’d like to think that any daughter of mine—"
"—don’t you dare call me your—"
"—that any daughter of ANY blood of mine would be clever and rational enough to understand that the real enemy here is the Enemy with a capital E," Commander Yates continued. "And that’s why you’re here. In my Citadel. I had you moved overnight."
…a different city. Yes. She could feel the cement of the cell, the reinforced concrete, but… it felt like something else. Like a twin brother, identifiable only by someone who knew the other so well. Not the City of Angles, but a city of similar make…
"So, this is my proposal," Yates spoke. "You’re here now. You’re not going back to that place; there’s nothing for you there. This means my problems are your problems. My Enemy wants you dead just as badly as it wants me dead. I suggest you work with the Citadel rather than against it. Against it, you’re just accelerating your own death in addition to mine."
Penelope stared him in the eyes, despite being chained to the wall, unable to rise any further than a sitting position.
"Maybe I’d be fine with that," she suggested.
"No, I don’t think so. He wouldn’t have raised you that way. I knew him like I knew myself; he was pragmatic. So are you. …I’m enrolling you in Command School. Congrats, kid. It’s the highest honor someone your age can achieve. There, you’ll learn advanced tactics with the best of the best. I’m going to make something positive of a very negative situation."
"You’re kidding. You gotta be. You murder my father and now you want me to play your good little protégée?"
The Commander shrugged. "You could just ignore the lessons, I suppose, but you’d only be hurting yourself. Helping the Enemy kill you through inattention. No… I suspect that in the long run, you’ll come around, if only to save your own neck. You’ll always hate me, and that’s perfectly fine. All I care about, the only thing I care about, is saving my Citadel from these monsters. …if one day you put a knife to my throat, that’s okay, as long as you put it to theirs first."
Penelope had an excellent finger-based gesture she felt like deploying in this situation, to suggest how cooperative she’d be with this craziness.
The hand paused in mid-raise.
She could tear down the Citadel to its foundations. He was wrong about that, it wasn’t impossible. They underestimated her, they always underestimated her, they had no idea what she could become. She could embrace her nature in full, shrug off the mortality she prized so highly, and become wrath. She could help the Enemy reduce this entire place to a blood-soaked pile of rubble…
Or she could save them all.
She could defeat the Enemy, give the Citadel no further reason to harass her City, and destroy this bastard by being the hero he was not.
Wasn’t that the plan, after all? Kick them out of the City… then come back here, save her friends, and save this dream from falling into pure nightmare. Show Echo that her vision of doom didn’t have to come to pass. Show them all what could be instead of what was…
Jack Hayes had a phrase for times like this, didn’t he?
"Why not?" Penelope spoke.
Hands tapping nervously at a control console.
At least, that’s what it looked like to the soldiers who watched over him, twenty-four-seven. Just another little nervous twitch in the good doctor, the one-eyed bandit who made them these wonderful bleed machines, capturing the Dreamcatcher’s sight to burn very specific holes in the fabric of reality. Anybody capable of that level of impossibility had to be a little touched in the head, yes?
It wasn’t untrue. He was touched. He didn’t want to be here, in this world. Or hanging to death in the dream of Patient 19, or likely chased down and killed by a Picasso in the dream of Patient 23. So many of him, all over the minds of his former patients, suffering and dying and screaming…
Or enslaved by a warmonger, as was the case in the dream of Patient 12.
The only thing that made life tolerable in the Citadel for Jack Hayes was his single ally. Assuming it was an ally. Hard to say with that guy, honestly.
Communication was difficult, of course, as the Commander certainly didn’t trust his captive neurologist. Hence, the tapping. Looked like nerves. Nerves which spoke Morse code.
Signals down the wire and across the length of the Bulwark, headquarters of the Citadel war machine. Running down deep, piggybacking off the existing electrical network, deeper and deeper towards the heart of it all…
…causing a light bulb to flicker on and off, in the office of a particular fellow.
The fellow who wore a scarf regardless of how warm it was lurked down in this bunker. The creepy man with the strangely shaped scar on his hand. Nobody really knew what to make of him; his transfer paperwork had been checked a few times over, everything verified, even if it wasn’t clear who hired him to this particular project. Perhaps it simply took a strange mind to work every day with the Madman and his Builders.
This particular strange mind decoded the flickering light with ease:
PATIENT 23 FOUGHT BLEED CLOSURE stop
MORTAL ASPECT OF 23 CAPTURED BY CMDR stop
SHE’S SOMEWHERE IN BULWARK NOW stop
"Curious," the fellow spoke aloud.
"Hmm?" his officemate asked.
"Oh, just pondering the potentiality of things," he mused. "Of self-realization and crossover effects. …oh, don’t worry, he doesn’t understand."
"Um. What? Are you talking to me?"
"Sure, let’s go with that," the doctor said, rising from his chair. He rested his branded hand on the back of his rickety old office chair, the number 31 having faded slightly over the years. "Now, then! Let’s return to work. There’s so much to do and increasingly little time to do it in."
"You really think the war’ll be over soon?" his companion asked, pulling on his standard issue lab coat. "I know the Commander keeps talking it up like it’ll solve everything, but even with new soldiers from that other City, I don’t know… the Radio says we need to stay vigilant."
"Oh, more soldiers won’t be any help at all. But the war may very well be over soon," the man who secretly bore the shame of being Patient 31 spoke, with a smile. "I find that hope turns up in the strangest of places."