city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //023: Exit Interview

Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to a data storage center, stacked floor-to-ceiling with magnetic tapes. Every single one of them contains a million blank images. At least, they LOOK blank.

There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—we’ve got streets which lead to dead ends, roads which criss-cross and loop back around, highways which go nowhere. Literally nowhere, as in "anybody going down that road is not coming back." This is not a good place to wander off unless you like wandering off forever…

Nobody knows where the city came from. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The city exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new people with it.

We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.

If we’re going to survive this, if we’re going to stay alive and thrive, we need to learn to live in the City of Angles.

…here’s an angle to consider…

In reality, there is no victory against a truly superior foe. When two sides line up against each other for traditional combat, on a long enough timeline the side with excessive manpower and weapons and determination will succeed. Resistance is useful in the short term, but ultimately futile; once the enemy decides to commit to total war and completely annihilate you rather than contain and control the situation, inevitability takes effect. In reality, evil tends to play to win.

But the City of Angles isn’t reality; it’s unreality. It embraces the impossible and comes at it from strange directions, achieving victory not through metrics of applied force but through lateral thinking. Even the laws of physics are mutable to those who see them as guidelines rather than rules.

This does pose a problem to historians, trying to make sense of the twisted paths that lead the City to any particular moment in time. For instance, Picasso Friday was indeed a thing that happened… but why it happened and how it stopped happening remain lost in time due to various hidden truths. The Memorial Stadium incident was indeed a thing that happened, but the particulars remain shrouded and unclear thanks to Department of Safety efforts. Anybody trying to make sense of this history will likely wish for a career change before long.

Fortunately, some documentarians are not bound by the constraints of reality…

//023: Exit Interview

---

…very uncomfortable. It’s strange, because it’s completely comfortable here; I’ve never felt more at home. But the fact that I feel at home makes me uncomfortable. No yelling and screaming, no rotting walls and stinkbugs, no scratching under my skin of addiction. It’s not a familiar feeling, having no gnawing problems with yourself or your surroundings…

Hello?

Is someone there? I can see… there’s this light, but…

Hi. I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of your time?

I… suppose? I don’t know. Where am I?

Let’s say you’re sitting in a room, on a comfortable chair. There’s a table between you and me, and a digital audio recorder in the middle. I’m sitting opposite you and asking questions. There is a door; if you’d like to leave, you can. You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to… but I’d like it if you did. I’m trying to make sense of what’s been going on lately and I think you can help.

…it’s a comfortable chair, yes. Not as comfortable as the bed I’m sleeping in, but it’ll do. Am I under arrest? You have to tell me if you’re actually a cop. It’s the law.

What? No, no. I’m not the police. I’m just trying to understand things.

Well… okay, then. …is there coffee? I could use coffee.

There could be coffee. In fact I bet there’s a coffee machine down the hallway, if you’d like to go get some. I’ll wait here. No hurry, we’ve got all night.

Change in my pocket, probably just enough for a cup. Money’s been tight, even after losing the primary drain on my finances a year ago. I exited the strange room and sure enough, there was a vending machine nearby… a bit grungy but no worse than the one at the community center. Ultimately you knew what you were getting into, when it came to vending machine coffee; gourmet roast it was not, but it would be brown and hot and keep you going. All that mattered.

I returned to the room armed with a cup of joe, and feeling quite a bit better about the situation. Felt familiar, now. The room was likewise a bit on the dingy side, but that’s my life, yes? Everything a little dirty, a little gross. It’d feel strange if it wasn’t dirty and gross. Uncomfortable…

Have a seat, and we’ll begin.

I’d left the door open, so I felt okay with having that seat. I could leave at any time. Could wake up at any time, really…

Could I have your full name and occupation, for the record?

Annabell Smith Jørgensen. …Annabell Marie Valentine, I guess. My husband died some time ago. I’ve waffled on whether I should keep his name or not. There’s a lot about him I don’t want to keep. Occupation… right now, I’m a waitress. I’ve been a homemaker and… I’ve done other things I’m not proud of.

I split my time these days between waitressing and working for my local Narcotics Anonymous chapter. I handle printing out flyers and doing some outreach. It’s part of my own healing process, after losing so many years to drug abuse. Losing my husband. Losing my daughter…

I don’t really want to talk about them.

That’s okay. Mostly, I’d like to hear about the day the Citadel came to your apartment.

Oh. Well… okay, I guess.

I’d seen the Citadel on the news, of course. I knew what they looked like. Honestly they felt like something far away, something that only existed on news streams. There was that week there where they were an idle curiosity, some strange new city that contacted ours, and it all looked very diplomatic. Rumors that something else was going on, okay, but I didn’t pay attention. I was too busy working with my sponsor and waiting tables…

Then they shot a bunch of protesters. I remember that because I was actually on shift when the news came up on the television at my restaurant. The entire wait staff huddled around it… customers, too. Everybody in quiet horror as soldiers opened fire into the protest group outside the embassy…

I’m getting off track, aren’t I?

Actually, that’s okay by me. I’d like to hear your side of the Citadel invasion as a whole. It’s important background material.

Well, the funny thing… I mean, funny-strange, not funny-haha… the funny thing is that even with that shooting, it was all still background material to me as well.

Work closed early that night. What happens when things go wrong in the City? You go home, you lock the door, you don’t set foot in daylight again. Wait for the disaster to blow past you. That’s how people reacted on Picasso Friday, and that’s how they were reacting now. You wouldn’t get shot if you were hiding under the bed sheets…

But we all watched the news. How couldn’t you? Mayor Keys declaring martial law, in response to "terrorist threats" to our Citadel allied forces. Tanks rolling through the streets. And then, the conscriptions…

Did you know anybody who was conscripted?

Personally? No. But plenty of people in my apartment building were conscripted. Dragged out of their homes and rounded up, sent off to the Citadel to join their army. It’s… it was crazy. Just crazy to think that this could happen, and nobody would do anything to stop it…

City Hall was a puppet, clearly. They’d ordered the shutdown of all Department of Safety services aside from emergency response units; there wasn’t much left of the D-o-S anyway, with their computers knocked out and Miranda Walker vanished into thin air. The Department of Resources was closing businesses left and right to gut them for valuables. Department of Orientation was putting new arrivals straight onto Citadel trucks…

A lot of government folks quit their jobs in protest. And were promptly conscripted. The rest went along with the changes, to avoid that.

City Hall still claimed this was all a matter of diplomacy; uniting against a common foe, the Citadel’s Enemy. But everybody knew what was really going on, the Citadel was completely taking over. I got to watch it all, live on television, or through that "http://ЯΕЅIЅт" website. Some days I’d be refreshing the site every hour, to see if someone had uploaded something new…

Did you take part in any resistance efforts?

I guess reading a website and posting comments doesn’t really count, does it. Internet outrage alone doesn’t fix anything.

But what else could you do, other than watch and hope for the best? I’d heard that anybody who pulled a weapon on the conscriptors was executed, right on the spot. They beat that journalist on live television who questioned the round-ups. Nobody was going to help us. Some Department of Safety defectors tried to fight back, and were killed. Salvager gangs tried to lock down their territory, and were killed. Most folks who somehow got word that they were next for conscription ran for it, sometimes even into the Sideways. And probably got killed.

All you could do was duck and cover, and hope they didn’t come for you next…

But you did resist, in the end. It’s why they came for you.

Not for me, not exactly. But yeah, they came to my door a few days after the crackdown started.

I was busy printing out flyers for the next NA meeting on the new inkjet my… son-in-law got me when they came. At first I assumed that knock at the door was the food delivery guy, because I’d had to order a whole bunch of stuff online this morning, but no.

You could tell he was in charge because he had a hat.

"Good day, ma’am," he spoke, through the crack of my door. (Always keep the chain on. Always. Even if it wouldn’t really stop anyone.) He was at least gentlemanly enough to remove his hat before greeting. "I’m Leftenant Kells, with Citadel Science Special Operations. May I come in?"

Two men with guns were behind him. They had helmets, not hats, and kept them on.

I couldn’t say no, could I? I had to say yes, and hope for the best. I even offered them coffee, in hopes of smoothing this over. Kells seemed a kind enough fellow, with a warm smile.

My husband had a warm smile, once.

"We’re wondering if you could help us with an issue we’re facing," Kells explained, the warm cup in his hands as he sat across from me in my living room. "It’s a matter of personnel. There are… certain tasks inside the Citadel which can only be done by certain gifted individuals. Building, specifically. Architecture. Laying the foundations for strong walls…"

"I wouldn’t know much of anything about architecture," I confessed. "Other than watching House Hunters reruns. I could maybe help you find a nice fifth-floor walk-up in a good District?"

Humor was my only weapon. In my lighter days, in my youth, I’d use it frequently. These days I had little to laugh about, but sometimes found a good opportunity all the same.

"If I needed residence in your City, ma’am, I’d happily take you up on that offer," the Leftenant replied, with a smirk. "No, my issue is with Citadel resources. Sadly, one of our Builders seems to have fled from her duties yesterday. We’d like to hire a replacement, and we think we know of a suitable one…"

"Who, me? I’m a waitress."

"No no, not you. But someone you know. Someone in your family…?"

He was testing for a reaction—but I’d failed before realizing that. Some resistance fighter I turned out to be. I knew I’d flinched at the suggestion, but tried to play it straight. Maybe I should’ve joked about it, but… family isn’t something I can easily joke about.

"I’ve only two family members, and they’re both gone," I spoke. "My husband was a gangster, and died a gangster’s death. My daughter became a pop musician and vanished in the Memorial Stadium Incident. I’m an only child, stranded here by the City, so no uncles or aunts or cousins of the sort. I’m afraid you may have me confused for someone else, Leftenant."

But you do have family, don’t you?

…yes.

It took me a long time to admit to that. At first, I couldn’t even think about the possibility; I was trying to pull my life together after a long bout with paranoia and drug abuse. I had to deal with the death of my husband and my daughter’s disappearance. I had to prioritize getting my life together before I could approach any of that…

I think the breaking point was when I became a grandmother.

He’s a nice young man. She’s a lovely young woman. Part of me knew, deep inside, that this was the family I wished I could have even if it didn’t really belong to me. Everything went wrong, the day I mistook Gustav for a good man. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if things went right? Even if I didn’t truly deserve that family…?

So… yes. I have a family, or rather, they let me have them. I’m still not entirely comfortable with it all, but I want to be comfortable with it. I want that bright young woman I used to be back in my life…

I had a family. And I had to lie to the Citadel, if I wanted to keep that family. Despite wanting to keep my head down like any good City dweller, I had to resist.

Problem was, Leftenant Kells saw right through the lie.

"Ohhh, no. I think we have the right home," he said. "Your maiden name is Valentine, but back on Earth, you married a man named Smith. Your indirect son, Dave Smith, is husband to one Kelsey Jones. I’ll admit it’s a bit of a convoluted family tree, but… she IS in your family tree. And I’d very much like to meet her."

"I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. Believe me, if I could help, I would—"

"Would you, really?" he asked, turning the cup of coffee in his hands. "Would you. Because it’s my experience that you Angles are hesitant to do your duty to the state. Compliant, but always with a little streak of defiance deep down inside that keeps you from fully helping people like me. A silly streak, given the consequences. Let me ask you one more time, ma’am. Where is your son? Where is his wife? Be honest, now."

They were hiding in my bedroom, not twenty feet away.

"I haven’t the faintest idea," I tried.

And then he threw the coffee in my face.

I remember screaming in pain. Falling from my chair, crawling on the ground. But what I remembered most of all was the fear, the terror that my son and his wife might come to my rescue. If they revealed themselves, if they were taken, I’d lose the good family I didn’t deserve to have…

My hand must’ve grasped the stack of paper by my new inkjet printer, as I tried to get to my feet. Even through the brown haze and the pain, I recognized the crumpled image in my hand.

"Search the apartment," Kells ordered his companions. "Flush them out."

The website said this would work. It seemed silly—crazy, even—but if it did what they claimed it would do…

I turned, uncrumpled the paper, and showed the single word printed upon it to the Leftenant.

That’s what haunts me. Not the pain from the scalding coffee, not the fear of what they’d do to my family. No. It’s the look in his eyes that will likely stick with me long past the point where this story fades.

Have you ever… how do I explain this… have you ever seen someone completely collapse? Everything they were, everything they thought they were, taken away from them. I knew the look, because I’d seen my own gradual decline to that state in the mirror.

…gradual. Nothing gradual about this; I’d destroyed this man in less than a second. I left him weeping on my floor as I led my new family to safety, to one of the only havens left in the City. With a single written word I’d ruined him.

I hope he recovered. Kells was a terrible man, yes. My husband was a terrible man as well, but I still held hope he’d see the light one day. He never did. Maybe Kells never did, either. I don’t know and it’s out of my hands. I’m in a safe haven now, with my family. Dave, Kelsey, Riley… and Annabell. Annabell Smith, I guess. It’s so comfortable here that it makes me uncomfortable…

That’s what you wanted to know about, right? The day they came for me.

Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate your help. One more question… do you know who wrote the word that saved you? The one you found on the website.

No idea. I’d heard rumors it was some graffiti artist, the one responsible for all the QR codes. But I’m no rebel, not really. All I did was save my family. I’m leaving this war to those who can actually fight.

For what it’s worth… I’d say you fought bravely that day. Thanks for your time. I think I know who I need to visit next. Sleep well, Miss Annabell.

I’ll try.

---

Red and floaty. A color and a sensation? A color is a sensation. It hits the eyes hard and makes an emotional connection. Red is passion and fire; soft like a rose but cruel like blood. Red and floaty. Red and floaty…

I can’t see you. I can feel you there, I can feel that light, but it’s hard to see you through all this red.

I can see you and I can hear you just fine.

Well, good for you, have a cookie. Me? I’m fading, and I can’t say I like it no matter how much I appreciate the color scheme.

I’m dying, aren’t I? I’ve been slowly dying for days. I would honestly not be surprised if this is my last gasp before kicking it. Figures that I’d go after doing so much for so many, but before I finally could be reunited with my sister…

Don’t honestly know. Everything’s a little vague up here for me, too. But I can see you and hear you, and if you feel you need to have last words, I’d be honored to remember them.

I had a last word, actually. Singular. One hell of a word, too.

It helped quite a few folks in need. I’d love to hear the story about that word, if you have time.

Time is a bit outside my control right now, but sure. Let’s do this.

Can I have your full name and occupation, for the record? It’s a bit formal, but I like to do things the right way.

Marcy Wei. I’m a graffiti writer; street name’s Ghostwriter. I’ve had odd jobs here and there, but I consider myself a writer first and foremost. And recently, a revolutionary.

So there I was, shaking signs and shouting into a megaphone, getting the City all riled up. We were one huge glorious distraction, which was very much the point. While we kept the bastards occupying the Greasemonkey occupied, little Penny was busy shutting down the Citadel war machine from within. With guns pointed at us, they weren’t pointed at her, yeah? Risky but worth it, if we could cut off their supply lines entirely.

Go on, ask me. Ask me how well that worked.

…how well did that work?

Perfectly. We closed the bleed. And it didn’t actually matter, because in the end they had bleeds all over the damn place. In thanks for this pointless gesture of rebellion, the Commander ordered his men to shoot at us.

I took a few bullets and blacked out. After that, it’s all quick images. Let’s see how many I can remember…

Gus dragged me off to a taxi, and sent it screaming into the night. Think one of Cass’s friends sat at the wheel. I ended up at a slightly shady free clinic in a tenth-floor walk-up at the edge of town, one that Hollister favored for secretive medical care needs. I’d actually been there before; after the romp at the Defined Tower, the real Gregory Yates had a bullet wound tended to here.

I remember waking up after impromptu and extremely dodgy surgery. The guy who ran the clinic, Doctor Hoshi, he explained how I’d suffered some organ damage. Then he explained it again, when I passed out and woke a few hours later.

He was honest with me, at least. Prognosis was terrible. If I could go to a proper hospital maybe more could be done, but the "Ghostwriter" was public enemy number… four or five, I guess, and would’ve been arrested on sight. Likely re-filled with bullets soon after.

He did his best to take care of me, for what that’s worth. Kept me going on some really sweet painkillers, provided an old laptop so I could read new content popping up on http://ЯΕЅIЅт.city. I saw the reports coming in, of the Citadel cracking down and pumping troops into the City through newly discovered bleeds. I saw how little our actions meant, that night…

Makes me angry enough to see red. We fought our hardest, we tried to be clever and cool, and it all backfired. It… it…

Easy, easy. Don’t fade yet. Hang in there, Marcy…

Not… dead. Not dead yet. Screw that noise, I’m not dying until I’m finished.

Hollister visited occasionally, but he’s a semi-wanted man. He’d made too many shady deals to help out TroubleSolver clients recently, crossed too many Citadel officials.

"There’s no truly organized resistance movement other than, well, me," he explained on one of these visits. "I’m running communication as best I can, but Kelsey dropped off the map recently, and… there’s just not enough people left, Marcy. I don’t have much to work with, and there’s nothing I can really do. Penelope’s gone, taken to the Citadel as far as I can tell. Gregory’s dead. Even Miranda Walker’s vanished…"

"Gotta be something we can do," I protested. "Gotta. Gotta…"

"You’ve gotta rest and recover, that’s what you’ve gotta do," he insisted. "We’re going to get your sister back. Someday, somehow. I want you there and ready to greet her when we do."

But you did more than rest and recover, didn’t you?

Hell yeah. Me, lying around like a useless sack of crap? That’s not Marcy Wei.

I spent any waking hours I could studying that website. Kelsey had put it together… but I developed the QR code, the means of access. An impossible glyph, dots and squares, which shouldn’t have been capable of accessing a Sideways Signal website. Yet, I did it, didn’t I…?

The vision came to me when I was lost and desperate in the Sideways, confronted with death and death as my only options. Now I was lying on a potential deathbed, feeling useless as I refreshed a website over and over. A strange site, made stranger by the cheap drugs being pumped into my I.V. by Doctor Hoshi…

Kelsey explained that Bedlam had designed the site with her. If a Citadel official or someone working on their orders looked at it, they’d vomit their guts out. Completely impossible for bits and wires and digital whatsits to accomplish, but a QR code to access a Sideways site was impossible too, right?

It was during one particularly awful blast of near-consciousness hallucinations that I wrote the word.

What IS the word? I’ve seen it through others, it’s up on the website and freely available for them to download and print, but… I can’t actually READ it…

That’s because you’re not the intended reader.

Graffiti is a method of encoding words into visuals that render the word difficult but not impossible to read. The style of it, that’s the key; you don’t slap words up on a wall in Helvetica. You want the right person to be able to read it. Normally, that’s someone open-minded enough to appreciate your work. I wanted to achieve the inverse of that.

I took all my love and all my hate and shaped it into a single word. It screams truth and freedom in the face of oppression, pounding them down with a righteous hammer. It’s an icon of pain. It’s the Yellow Sign. My pen was a weapon of war that day mightier than any sword; this machine kills fascists, as the good Guthrie put it…

During a lucid moment, I wrote the word in black marker on the back of one of Doctor Hoshi’s prescription pads. I ordered him to take a photo of it and upload it to the website. He was antsy, unsure if he should get involved, but I told him flat out that I would haunt him until the end of days if he screwed with me on this. I was the Ghostwriter, dammit, and I’d live up to that name if I had to.

And… then I passed out. Ka-wham, into the dark. I think it’s been days. I’m not sure.

…you’re in a coma, as far as I can tell.

Figures. Well. I guess it beats being actually dead. Or am I dying? Is this a slow elevator into Hell, or what?

I don’t know. That depends on you.

How you figure? It’s a matter of biology; either your body shuts down, or it doesn’t…

Nope. It’s… hard to explain, but… from my perspective, this new perspective I’ve found, I can see things differently. Life is but a dream, Marcy. And that dream can be what you want it to be.

Huh. Food for thought, I suppose.

Y’know, you don’t look so good there yourself, friend. You’re flickering a bit.

…it’s… tiring, speaking like this…

Well damn, kid, don’t let me keep you. Go take a nap. I’m not going anywhere myself.

I’m NOT going anywhere.

Not dead yet. Screw that noise, I’m not dying until I’m finished.

---

…tied way too many on, tonight. Just like the good old days, the bad old days. I’m an old man, not a young tiger. Not much other option but to drink away the pain when life kicks you as hard as it has lately…

Johnny?

…wish Karla was here. Wish Archie was here. Definitely wish Gregory was here. Who’s left? Damn few. Damn stupid thinking I could put the band back together; the sound’s never the same when your favorite group re-unites but has to replace the drummer and the guitarist…

Mr… uh. DeLeon? Johnathan DeLeon?

Huh. Haven’t been called by my straight name in some time. Whaddya want, kid? I’m soaking my miseries in hard liquor over here. It’s a Seventh Street tradition. …the hell’s going on, anyway?

You’re… in a bar. A young man walked up to you asking if he could talk about the fight for Seventh Street. He’s underage, but seems eager to learn all about the legend of Johnny the Icepick, of the Seventh Street Scavengers.

Legend. Fah. So I can take a few hits, maybe suck up a few bullets. So I put ten tiny holes in a guy with an icepick in some famous brawl. Those aren’t worth note. In the end you’re only noteworthy for the good you do, and honestly, I was just a punk back then. Still just a punk, even if I put on a penguin suit and show nice families to their table every night.

But you took back the Greasemonkey! You fought against the Citadel!

You want to know how that went down? Really went down? Let me give you the skinny.

I’ve got personal beef against the Citadel. Those bastards put lead slugs in me the day they showed up, and once I checked myself out of the hospital I was looking to get a little payback. Stupid thought, honestly. I was a freakin’ waiter these days, not a brawler ready for a fight. I’d settled down, got a real life. But… they’d struck at my old stomping ground, Seventh Street. That stuck in my craw.

And the night they shot up all those kids just for waving signs and chanting slogans… the same night they murdered my best friend in the world, Kegstand Greg… well. I put my fist through the wall of my apartment and decided waiting tables could wait. My new job was my old job.

Resisting the Citadel was your old job?

Gang warfare was my old job. It’s all gang warfare, in the end. Figured I’d get the crew back together and we’d bust some Citadel heads; no different than dealing with the Poison Pushers or the Macks or Jingo’s Hardcases or any of the old bastards. Bigger guns, yeah, but the same basic concept.

So, I got a few of the old crew together. Too few.

"Are you insane?" Karla suggested. (Kut-ya-up Karla. Karla Berkowitz.) "Of course I’m not joining you."

"Karla, c’mon. This is Seventh Street I’m talking about," I’d insisted, while pleading on the phone.

"Yeah, and we all moved away from Seventh Street for a reason. It was an awful place, and we were awful people. We’ve grown a hell of a lot since then, in case you haven’t noticed."

"Just because you got married and headed to the burbs doesn’t mean your heart doesn’t belong here."

"Cute, Johnny. Cute. But even if I DID have misplaced affection for that pit, why would I want to get into a knife fight with trained soldiers? No. I want nothing to do with this, and if you’re smart, you’ll feel the same way."

So yeah, she was out.

Archie was next on my list. He was our leader, back then… hard as nails despite being a heavyset bastard. Wise beyond his years and patient as hell. His sister was a looker too, but, uh, don’t tell Greg I said that. …not that you could tell Greg anything, now.

I stopped dialing the phone after the third digit, though.

See, Archie was… he was… broken, by whatever happened on Picasso Friday. I could probably convince him to come back, the Citadel were a very human threat compared to the craziness of the Sideways, but honestly? I didn’t want to bother him if I could avoid it. He’d earned his veteran stripes, by staring into the face of the City’s worst nightmare. That meant he’d earned his rest.

Of course, some of the hangers-on outside the core of the group were in for it. Clearly some mid-life crisis types looking for the glory days, but a few were stand-up guys. In the end, I got enough together for me to officially declare the Scavengers back in business, even if they weren’t at full power.

Existing gangs in the area, they were already fighting back. Mostly trying to deal with armed assaults on their strongholds, since the Citadel wasn’t bothering to play around like cops, they were playing to win. I spread word the Scavengers were looking to help, and we got involved. Ugly business. Bloody business. Good business…

But let’s talk about the Greasemonkey. Key to that was the word. There’s no better word for it than "the word," when you say that, folks know what you mean. The word.

The word went up on our website earlier that day. Buncha squiggles and strokes, sort of like if Martians invented the alphabet. I didn’t make much of it personally, but the accompanying note was interesting… supposedly, anybody in the Citadel’s camp would freak out if they took one look at the thing. We already knew they’d rigged the site to make any soldier boys crap their pants, some crazy Sideways Signal business, so I figure hey—maybe there’s some truth to it, yeah?

So, we grabbed a soldier boy off the street, dragged him to a basement, and showed him the word.

…let’s talk hindsight, kid. You ever done something you straight regret afterward?

Yeah. I think everybody has, sir.

Right. Well, I loved the effect the word had on that soldier boy. Broke him down immediately, had him weeping for Momma. Hindsight, though… he wasn’t some faceless enemy. He was a poor bastard yanked from his family and shoved into a uniform. I wrecked that guy and took great pride in wrecking him. Just as I took pride in liberating the Greasemonkey.

We loaded up on the word. Signs. Banners. Some entrepreneur made t-shirts, even. Got all the boys loaded with this thing, and straight marched on the Greasemonkey in the middle of broad daylight. Better to see the word we were carrying into battle, yeah?

You saw the news broadcasts, I’m guessing?

Actually… no. I’ve… seen them through eyewitness accounts. I don’t get much television these days. Or WiFi, for that matter.

Good for you. Ugly stuff. They just crumpled before us, falling apart. Most ran, but the ones who couldn’t run, they collapsed right on the spot. We didn’t have to fire a shot, we just walked right in the front door and started flushing the building clean of Citadel folks.

…some of the boys, well. They wanted payback. And they got it, by fist and boot, on the helpless soldiers. Energized the burgeoning resistance, those images of beating down soldiers in the public’s electric eye. Gave us all a morale boost, despite being—let’s be frank here—a cowardly and bullying act. Kicking a man while he’s down…

Anyway. In the end, we’d struck the first major blow for the City Resistance. We took the Citadel’s embassy and made it our new official headquarters. Folks started turning up to see what they could do to help, feeling safe beneath the banners we’d hung up all over the place. The word made Seventh Street free. Viva la revolution, and all that garbage.

You don’t seem happy about that.

It’s funny. I’ve done some downright despicable things in my day, all in the name of protecting our territory. I never felt bad about it back then. We had each other’s backs, and that meant supporting each other through moments of doubt.

Now… my friends are gone. The day’s adrenaline high is gone. I’m alone with my drink now, can’t hide behind righteous zealotry. Can’t say I’m doing the Lord’s work out here.

But it worked! The Citadel threw troops at the building and you pushed them back. The word is spreading: carved on doors, painted on walls, anywhere people wanted to drive off the Citadel…

That might be changing, if we can’t do anything about the helmets.

Helmets?

The Department of Safety’s hazmat helmets. Guess you wouldn’t know; we’re trying to avoid information leaks about them. We only told Hollister, figuring he might know something. Security holes are bad news, after all…

Kid?

Kid, you okay? You seem a little… were you sitting a moment ago? Or standing? …something’s wrong. You didn’t flash a fake I.D. to get in here and down a few, did you? Don’t be as stupid as I was at your age.

…it’s… okay. I’m holding it together.

No, you’re not. Go talk to the barkeep and get a taxi, sleep it off at home. Kids these days… just as bad as kids my days.

Nothing changes, I guess. Nothing amounts to anything, in the end. We’re all just stalling for time.

---

…all connected together, all these people. If I can trace the thread, I can put it all together … if I can … if…

Hey!

…there’s a story deep within the dream which is being told with every waking moment, I…

What do you think you’re doing?

What I was trying to do in the first place.

Look at you! You’re flickering out. You know you’re not supposed to be out like this. We’re not strong enough yet.

I have to grab the threads and tie them together before they fade. Memory’s a fragile thing. If I don’t… I have to…

If you do, you might fade along with them. You need to rest. Go back.

…fine. On one condition.

---

It’s a comfortable four-poster bed, stacked high with pillows. The light is soft and pink and pleasant, coming from an end table lamp nearby. Your favorite music wafts through the air—

Really? Japanese folk music? Bit of a contrast to all the Western furniture.

—um, sure. The pillows are—

No, no, no. Let’s try this again.

I’m in my lab. Japanese folk music is playing through my earbuds, as I categorize samples from the latest outbreak of something horribly dangerous but completely undefinable which could very well wipe out this frail image of humanity entirely. I’m wearing protective goggles and gloves, knowing full well they offer no true protection against a disease which does not technically exist despite being incredibly lethal!

…okay. That’s kinda, uh, terrifying, but…

Ah, but I’m happiest when I’m working! Particularly on an impossible problem with intense risk to life, limb, and sanity. That is how you know you are alive; the struggle against the strongest forces that exist in opposition to life is key. Bright lights cast impressive shadows, and all…

One moment, please. I need to measure this vial precisely.

Um. Take your time. But when you’re done, I have some questions…

And… there! Yes, that’s one batch filtered and indexed. I’m certain I’m close to solving whatever this problem is, assuming it exists, which it likely does not.

I pull my earbuds out and offer a bright smile to my new visitor. Visitors to the lab are so rare, these days; top secrecy cloaking the Memorial Stadium Exclusion Zone, and all.

Right. So, I’ve got questions, but I was told I have to ask for your full name and occupation first. It’s silly, but he said the process was important.

I for one value a proper process. Doctor Kit Hearth, Department of Safety. Like ‘Health,’ so you know I’m good for you! I’m the lead researcher on impossible diseases and imaginary plagues. How may I assist you today? And do you have clearance to hear anything I have to say?

Let’s… assume I do?

Very well! Ask away.

I’m working with someone on a history project. He thinks people one day will need to know what happened here. We’re hoping you could tell us about the "hazmat safety helmets." That seems to be where the story is leading. Uh. Do you know what I’m talking about…?

Hmm. Yes. Yes. So many people keenly interested in those. A secret I intend to take to my grave, if needs be. Needs might be, if the Citadel continues to be so enthusiastic…

…funny random thoughts. I’m safe and happy in my little lab, aren’t I?

The helmets, the helmets. Fascinating devices, simply fascinating. I was involved in the original designs, you know. Not the actual electronic bits, no, that fell to our engineers; it was the idea itself which came from my head. I’d long theorized that memetic hazards might emerge, diseases which spread by sight or sound rather than biochemical means. Insane, but no more insane than anything else in the City. The helmets were designed to identify and block out possible hazards, so the wearer cannot perceive them.

Of course, why sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into a prototype augmented reality technology which only existed to stop a theoretical danger? No, no. Only way we could get funding was to suggest it could help anti-Picasso specialists cut through the visual chaos of cubism, to strike at the heart of the beast.

Really? Neat! Did it actually do that?

Oh, heavens no. We tried, don’t get me wrong, but in the end a flamethrower does a better job than trying to precisely target something you can’t entirely look at.

"I want a hundred of these made," Miranda Walker told me, all the same. "After the Blue-Eyed Plague I’m taking no chances when it comes to dealing with weirdness in my city. If a cognito-hazard pops up I want a strike team ready to eradicate it within a day, wearing your helmets."

"Sounds fun!" I told her, because it sounded like fun.

They did end up coming in handy, when dealing with the Memorial Stadium Exclusionary Zone. Reality was very mutable inside the zone… dreamlike, really. While Anomaly Three hadn’t proven hostile yet, we wanted to be ready in case she revolted against the measures controlling her captivity—

Grandma Scarlett? Hostile?!

Yes, well, that kindly old lady is a trans-reality metaphysical entity which has the memetic shape of a kindly old lady. And Bedlam and Echo are adorable little girls, by that standard. Miranda took no chances when it came to strange entities.

Anyway, the helmets weren’t entirely useless in the end. Whenever someone broke into the stadium, hearing of the paradise within its walls… filtered vision came in handy, to fish them out. Plus, it helped keep Anomaly One a secret to the outside world. Well. That and a database wipe…

Hmm. How well do you know our Miss Walker, young one? You know quite a bit you shouldn’t, so presumably you know her.

Um… I know OF her. I can’t say I know her personally.

…ohh, Miranda. Such a wonderful woman. So terrifyingly practical, yet open to the infinite possibilities of this City… and ready to stand directly in front of them, should they menace us all. What spirit of life! What tenacity! She scares me, child. She scares and excites me to no small degree…

The Citadel doesn’t scare me. They’re all terror and no soul. Can you imagine what a true living terror with the soul of a stalwart defender would be like, little Anomaly? Can you? That’s Miranda Walker. All this pain, all this blood, it’s nothing compared to… to…

Distracted. Hmm. What was my point? Ah, yes.

See, Miranda is quite secretive. Oddly enough, her predecessor—a literal monster in the shape of a man, scheming and plotting the destruction of our City—was far more open and generous with information than Miss Walker. Yes, he would’ve LOVED cognito-hazard blocking helmets, with those terrifying black visors and strange electronic innards. He’d have insisted the City know all about them, to bolster City pride and City fear, declaring how completely dangerous everything was and how only he had the means to save them. No, no. Walker isn’t like him at all, is she.

We conspired together, Walker and I. We hid the one hundred prototype helmets somewhere nice and safe. Never let your opponent see your cards, even if you haven’t started playing the game yet and don’t know who you’ll be facing. Leave the enemy nothing to use against you. Nothing at all.

I was also the one who wiped the Department of Safety’s database, by the way.

You did that? I know the D-o-S was in shambles afterwards…

Leave the enemy nothing to use against you, as I said. A fully armed and operational Department of Safety would become an extension of the Citadel’s fist, co-opted by the weasels of City Hall. I disrupted the war machine before it could spring to life.

It was a night quite like this one, alone in my lab. Well, alone with the exception of Citadel goons standing alongside Safety goons inside my research post. (It only resembles a repurposed pizza restaurant built into Memorial Stadium. It is in fact a highly scientific laboratory.)

For background noise, I had some video stream or another on while I was studying my latest experiments into the fragile nature of creation. When the emergency broadcast broke in about protesters being shot outside the Citadel Embassy, not five seconds later I got a phone call from our Miss Miranda Walker.

"Scorched Earth," she told me.

And so I gleefully fired up the computer virus I’d crafted using my research into impossible diseases, which made the City’s computing warehouses experience a prolaptic data purge. We’d agreed to "Scorched Earth" as the go-code for that inevitability, long before the Citadel’s arrival. Just in case something cataclysmic happened and we needed to scrub all our secrets to keep them from falling into the wrong hands.

Oh, the Citadel troops noticed me doing it, and moved to stop. So I nudged a vial off my table, letting it shatter on the floor.

"That was a highly unpleasant neurotoxin," I explained to them. "I’ve inoculated myself already, but you’re about to have a very fatal and embarrassing experience if you don’t get medical attention immediately."

Oh my god…!

Don’t worry. Good news is, I was bluffing!

Oh, good!

Bad news is, I was bluffing!

…oh.

And that brings us to today. Because I’m not really cheerfully working in my lab, am I?

You… you’re enjoying a quiet evening in your lab. Music continues to play on your earbuds—

Thank you, young lady, but I’m afraid that comfortable mistruth will not suffice. No, I’m in a very different struggle of life and death, one of a personal nature. Morning comes, and with it my awareness. I’m inside a prison cell, being repeatedly and painfully asked questions which I have no intent of answering.

I suspect my captors are tiring of me providing random medical trivia in response, because last night they started talking about electrocution torture and all sorts of other unhappy things.

It doesn’t matter. Walker trusts me not to leak any details. All they have is the two helmets once worn by my personal guards, and that’s not enough to defeat the mighty written word that’s crippled their efforts in this City. I trust that my sacrifice has paid off, and we are marching on the road to victory?

…I think so. I can only see things in aftermath, in the dreams of others. But there’s a haven in Seventh Street now, alongside other havens around the City. As long as they don’t get those helmets, we should be safe.

Good, good. Worth the pain, I feel. Personal results are irrelevant; the overall process is everything. If you’ll excuse me, I suspect I need to black out completely now. Time heals all wounds, they say, and I’ve only a few hours before new wounds accumulate.

If I should fall, perhaps I can join you wherever you are. You’re Anomaly Two, aren’t you? I can’t see you, but I can feel you there. I can feel the truth of you.

I… I don’t know. I don’t understand much of what’s happened to us. But… if you die, I’m afraid you won’t become like me. I’m so sorry. Our circumstances were strange. I wish I could do more to help you…

Ah, well. Just an idle musing. Don’t worry yourself silly about it; I do intend to survive this little experience.

But if you could somehow pass a suggestion to the others…? Winning the war sooner rather than later would be very much appreciated.

---

oh god oh god I’m falling I’m falling the ground keeps rushing up I’m never hitting it it’s just always rushing it’s—

—the wind moving past your cheek, as you’re driving safely along an open highway in your car. It’s nothing to worry about. No cars for miles, just endless signposts along an Outlands road. The radio plays your favorite summer jam, as you think about the day’s events.

I’d very much not like to think about today’s events. Sure, it all worked out in the end, but "stupid" does not even begin to define what I did. If I’d thought to record it I’d probably make a mint on CityTube ad impressions when it went viral… yes. Yes, driving horizontally beats the hell out of plummeting vertically, I would agree with that. …I still check the rear view mirror to make sure I don’t see nothing but open sky, to be sure. 

There’s a passenger sitting next to you. She’s young and friendly; you agreed to give her a ride home—

Oh god. This better not be one of THOSE dreams. I know I haven’t been getting any lately but I’d like to think I’m past the point of changing my sheets before Mom notices.

What? No, no! She’s like fifteen, okay? Just a kid.

Ahhh. Okay, good. Had me worried for a minute. So what’re you doing out in the middle of nowhere, anyway?

I was at a library, researching for a project. I’m studying the history of the City… about the Citadel invasion. It’s important that people know how it all happened.

Driving always soothes my nerves. I drive all over the place thanks to my job; handshakes don’t transmit digitally. And boy oh boy could those nerves be soothed a bit right now, thinking about that mess.

You mean the crazy stupid thing you did? What was it, exactly? Something about helmets, right…?

Those damn helmets. Ugh. 

I’d love to ask you some questions about that, if you’re okay with that. Ah, but first, can I have your name and occupation? 

Hmm. Guess it’s less skeevy to be picking up hitchhikers if I’m not some anonymous weirdo. Name’s Hollister Avenue, freelance social worker for the TroubleSolvers. I tend to find myself in the middle of all sorts of messes… like the one with the helmets.

One hand on the steering wheel, as I put my convertible’s top up. Hard to hold a conversation with all that wind rushing past and I do not want to be falling, no sir. No.

Better, better. Okay, see, here’s how it went down…

Some gangs had just knocked over the Greasemonkey. Who knew it was possible, right? A big splashy public display of triumph over the Citadel. Key was the word; Marcy made some weird squiggly word-thing which made Citadel folks get sick. Gregory’s old buddies took advantage of that to score a major symbolic victory over the bastards. Score one for the good guys, right?

Problem was, they spotted some rando wearing what looked like a motorcycle helmet, timidly approaching their newly captured turf. Weird, right? He refused to take the thing off when some rebels questioned him, so they yanked it off. Guy freaked and ran. 

Turned out the helmet was some kind of visual blocker, to let folks look at the building without seeing any of the signs, graffiti, banners, whatever. A way for the Citadel to beat their new defense.

Worst part? The Department of Safety inventory number etched on the back of it. The countermeasure for the City’s best defense had come from the City itself.

Johnny explained it all when I visited the impromptu resistance center at the Greasemonkey. Tricky to have a conversation in there, though; I kept getting jostled by burly dudes moving crates of gear in and out of the place, refitting it to serve as a rebel outpost instead of a military bunker.

"We’ve got no idea where this thing came from," Johnny the Icepick explained to me. "You’re the guy who knows a guy, right? Ask around, poke some D-o-S contacts, whatever it takes. We need to know if there’s more of these out there. If we can figure out where they’re stored, we can smash ’em to bits."

"Safety’s in shambles," I tried to explain. "Firemen and the like are still on the clock, but most safety officers got shipped off to the Citadel training camps, or went into hiding…"

"So find one that’s in hiding, and ask him. It’s not rocket science, Hollister."

Of course not. Rocket science would be easier.

Have you actually met any rocket scientists? I mean, has anybody? It’s such a weird phrase. I’ve used it myself but I can’t say I get what it means…

Eh, it’s an Earth thing. Their outer space is real, rockets don’t vanish after going up high enough. My point is, Department of Safety technology is a closely guarded secret; ever since Walker’s regime they’ve played it VERY quiet. Penelope once told me they were up to all sorts of weirdly shady science… all in the name of public safety, but kept nicely shady all the same. So, grabbing some random safety officer wouldn’t do. I needed a shady safety officer.

Two days of asking around got me nowhere. Get this: it was an offhand conversation with an old friend in the fashion industry which led me where I needed to go.  —you know Jasmine?

Jasmine who?

No no, just "Jasmine." One word. The TV star.

Oh! I LOVE "Are You Seriously Wearing That." I’ve watched every episode! …well, not the most recent ones, I mean. I don’t get much TV lately…

Right. So I’ve known Jasmine for years now. She plays at being a ditzy fashionista diva, but make no mistake, there’s a mind sharp as a tack in there. Rebellious, too; she’s benefited from her established celebrity, but likes to subvert it here and there. When we needed fake Citadel uniforms to pull a stunt, she provided. And much to my surprise, when I needed to know about Department of Safety secrets, she provided.

I was trying to take my mind off Marcy’s hospitalization and my failure to help the resistance movement, and figured lunch with an old friend would help. 

"Darling, you should’ve come to me first!" she protested, on hearing of my predicament. "You’re not the only girl who knows a girl. Or guy. Or what have you. I just so happen to know someone involved in secret Department of Safety sneakiness!"

"What, you know a cobbler who makes cop shoes or something?"

"Nothing of the sort. I know a famous television weatherman who became a data analyst for Miranda Walker herself," Jasmine explained. "And he just so happens to owe me a favor, which I’ll happy pass on to you."

I’d always wondered what happened to that guy, honestly. You remember Carl Matthews? The guy who predicted the weather? Everybody knows you can’t predict the weather any more than you can launch a rocket into space, but he’d managed it…

I remember that! Didn’t he have a nervous breakdown or something?

Yyyeah, apparently that was staged. Just a way to take himself out of the public eye, so Miranda Walker could tap him to be her personal spooky numbers guy. That meant he could tell me about the helmets… if I found him. Fortunately, I’m damn good at finding folks once I know who I’m looking for. Wasn’t rocket science anymore; some calls, some handshakes, a few sketchy deals… and bam, I had a face-to-face with Mr. Matthews.

Not that he was thrilled to see me. He agreed to meet in a public place in broad daylight, but showed up looking like he’d watched too many spy movies; overcoat, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses. Clearly an amateur at this whole covert ops business.

"How do I know this isn’t a trick?" he asked me, before I had a chance to say hello and how-do-you-do. "I don’t know where Miranda is, before you ask. I’m done with the Department; the Citadel’s got nothing to worry about from me…"

"Relax, I’m playing for the other team," I assured him. "I just want to know about the helmets."

"Don’t know what you’re talking about."

"Jasmine said you’d know. It’s for the rebels, okay? Not the Citadel."

"Sounds like something the Citadel would say."

"Listen, if I was the Citadel and I wanted information, I’d have you hanging upside down over a scorpion pit or something," I reasoned. "They aren’t big on subtlety, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m with the TroubleSolvers. We’re on the side of angels. …possibly in a literal sense, when it comes to this City’s saints…"

"You mean that kid and her nutjob friends? Hah. The TroubleSolvers are gone."

"Yeah, well, as long as I’m breathing, they’re around. And they need to know where those helmets are, so nobody can use them against us."

Finally, he turned to face me. (He’d been doing that "pretend to read a newspaper" thing, which made him twice as suspicious, but I didn’t feel it wise to point that out.) Peered over the top of his obvious-sketchy-dude shades.

"It wouldn’t matter even if you knew," Carl insisted. "You can’t get at them. …they’re on the top floor of the Department of Safety’s twenty-story central hub building on the Zag. Walker stashed them in her private office. Y’know, the building that’s largely empty and on complete lockdown by Citadel forces? That building. If the Citadel hasn’t found them yet, they will eventually. Just a matter of time…"

"So, break into an office on twenty, then smash the helmets. Sounds reasonable," I said, even if the solution that was building up in my head was far from reasonable.

"Really. How do you reckon that, Mr. TroubleSolver?"

"You used to do the weather report on TV, yeah?" I reasoned. "That means you know people back at the studio. Including the traffic guy… Chopper Marv."

Wait, Chopper Marv? "Your Eye in the Sky at Five"? THAT Chopper Marv?

That Chopper Marv.

…so… to get on top of a twenty story building…

I jumped out of a helicopter.

Um.

Yeah, I said it was stupid, didn’t I? Fantastically so. But really, what choice did I have? You can’t go in through the front door. Or the back door. Any door’s off limits, with the Citadel camping the place. But Chopper Marv passes over the building every day for the morning traffic report; he was the one who broke the news of the "Department of Bedlam" graffiti that the Ghostwriter put on their roof, years ago.

…wish she was awake, so I could’ve asked her how she pulled that off…

Without that option at my fingertips, I went for the next best thing; a low-flying pass by helicopter and a jump onto the roof.

Why not just tell the resistance fighters? Get them to do it. Or something. Anything else! That’s just so… so silly!

Look, Johnny the Icepick and company were itching for a fight. You saw on the news how they stomped those helpless soldiers, right? If I didn’t take care of this myself, they’d use this as an excuse for another big brawl. Me… I’m a TroubleSolver. I answer to a higher authority, namely a young girl who would not have approved of either a massive firefight or a one-sided beatdown. She always picked the indirect path, the clever one. Even when it also happened to be the stupidest path imaginable.

And honestly? If I’m ever gonna look my soulmate in the eyes again—and I hope I do, one day—I’d rather not give her a hug with bloody hands.

So, yes. I jumped out of a helicopter. Marv’s an expert pilot; he got me within ten feet and I dropped down onto the roof from there. Off he went after that, to continue his traffic survey… while I snuck in through an access door.

The Citadel guards were lower in the building. Everything up on twenty had been mothballed; they’d come and gone, ransacking the place as they went. The office of Miranda Walker was right there, door smashed open. If I was lucky, the helmets were hidden inside where Carl said they’d be. If not… well. I’d come all this way for nothing, hadn’t I?

I hope you found them, then.

Ohh, did I ever. Right where Carl said they’d be… in the Sideways.

Way he explained it, Seth Dougal had a secret opening to the Sideways behind a piece of abstract art on his wall. You wouldn’t know it was there unless, well, you knew it was there; otherwise who would think to walk straight into a painting? But lo and behold, there it was. Piles of creepy secret tech for the Department of Safety, hidden in plain sight… including four crates of helmets, waiting to be used by Citadel forces against us.

It’s best not to ask where I got the explosives. After repeatedly convincing myself I wasn’t an idiot for what I was about to do… I set the timer, ran back into the office, smashed an office window open, and jumped out.

What?!

With a parachute. I’m not COMPLETELY stupid. But if I wasn’t getting in the front door… I wasn’t getting out the front door, for that matter. Marv wasn’t going to be able to make another pass. So I screamed, jumped, screamed more, pulled the cord, and prayed the Citadel hadn’t brought anti-aircraft guns into our town.

Kid, let me say this right now. Extreme sports? You young people can have them. I’m not exactly an old fart but I’m waaay too old to be plummeting to my death with only a cloth tarp keeping me from certain doom. I suspect I’m going to continue having nightmares about that moment for some time.

In the end, though… it worked. The Citadel didn’t march on the Greasemonkey with a helmeted army of doom. I opted to lay low after that… hanging around Doctor Hoshi’s clinic, waiting for Marcy to wake up. She’s going to wake up. I don’t care what that quack says.

…you okay, there? You’re looking a bit pale. You need me to turn up the air conditioning?

No, I… I’m just tired. I’ve been all over the place lately, gathering stories. I had an… accident, recently. I’m still recovering.

I’d say you’ve done more than enough. We’ve all done more than enough; the TroubleSolvers have bled and suffered for this struggle. If I need to jump out another window, I will, but… I really hope I don’t have to. I’m tired. So completely tired…

Me too. Thanks for your time, Mr. Avenue. Enjoy the rest of your drive. You’ve earned it; your City is safe.

---

…all those threads, all burning away…

Okay… okay. I’m back. It’s done. We’ve got all the stories now.

No, we don’t. Something’s happened. Can you feel it? Nightmares, all over the City.

What?

Something’s going on. I don’t know what, but people who are just falling asleep are doing so in a bed of fear. We have to—

No. No, we don’t.

The story—!

The story can wait.

Then what about Penelope, at least? We need to find her. She has to know what you saw on the other side of the Metadream. I bet we could find her if we look hard enough. It’s all connected, after all, she has to understand that it’s all connected together—

Penelope will figure that out on her own, I’m sure of it. She’s already very close to the truth, closer than she’s ever been. We aren’t NEEDED here. I love you dearly, and I don’t want you throwing away what’s left of your life over this. It can wait.

But… but we need to do something. I can’t just sit around, not after all that’s happened.

You can, and you must. I don’t want you throwing away what’s left of your life over this. There’s nothing we can do really do in the end, not from here, except watch. We need to sleep; let the living take over from here.

…okay. Sorry to put you through all this, Milly.

No need to apologize, Lucas. I love you. I’ll warm you, keep your light going, and we’ll rest together until it’s our time again. You might even get to finish your movie, someday. But for now… let it go. It’s beyond us.

Roll credits, and exit.

---

Shortly before the people of the City laid their heads on their pillows that night, the decision was made.

The Commander called his puppet Mayor and his key collaborator Spinks in to watch the show, to make sure it was felt from the top of the City’s command chain right on down to the common citizen.

A live camera feed displayed the Citadel Embassy, once called the Greasemonkey, once the site of the original bleed between worlds. A large black box had been painted over the huge banner hung in front of it, with that irritating chicken scratch that had stymied their efforts so far.

So clever. So strange and clever. The City was high-fiving itself, no doubt, over how clever they were to have completely thwarted the Citadel. How could the Citadel possibly win, now?

"Proceed," the Commander spoke into his walkie talkie.

The mortar shelling took less than a minute, in total.

It wasn’t particularly accurate, since nobody could look directly at the target… but what did that matter? As long as the entire block was reduced to rubble, it would be considered a success.

When the dust finally cleared… what was once a bar for mechanics, a hangout for salvager gangs, a repurposed dive for hipsters, an art gallery, a diplomatic embassy, and finally a rebel stronghold… was now a hole in the ground. Every man, woman, and likely child taking shelter within was dead. Those who weren’t dead would likely be so by morning, as he had no intention of dispatching any ambulances.

"Gentlemen, here are your new talking points," Commander Yates explained. "The symbol known as the ‘word’ is now illegal. Any structures bearing it will be destroyed. Anyone caught displaying it openly will be executed. We’ll offer a single day’s grace period, for people to take down the signs they’ve been putting up everywhere. After that, it’s open season. Rest assured, we don’t have to look at someone to annihilate them from afar."

Mayor Keys was horrified, of course. Spinks from Resources was probably horrified, but he’d adopted a neutral expression lately, as he sank deeper and deeper into the Citadel’s pockets. And it honestly didn’t matter to Yates how they felt, as long as they stayed in line.

It wouldn’t completely work, of course. There were other pockets of resistance; even if they made a symbolic stand in his old embassy it wasn’t like Yates had purged them completely with that mortar salvo. The Word was still out there, and it would still be used, and he’d need to think of new ways around it. He’d smash and he’d shoot and he’d get some victories, but once an underground enemy dug in, they’d be impossible to kill.

Fortunately, it wouldn’t matter in the end. A long-term occupation for the resistance to scrap against wasn’t in the cards, after all. This was about short-term massive conscription, and even using crazy tools like the Word… by the time any populist uprising got its act together, the Commander would be long gone with his prizes.

The bleeds would be closing, soon. The miracle machines of Doctor Hayes were shaking themselves to bits; Yates had a war to win A.S.A.P., and that meant City recruits to harvest. "Safe havens" like the Greasemonkey or Memorial Stadium needed to fall, and quickly.

No time for these minor distractions. The end was approaching, and Yates intended to see that he was still standing by the end. That his Citadel was still standing, even if nothing else was.

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. ———————————–
    Everything below this comment represents feedback on earlier drafts of this chapter. As of today this chapter is now finalized. Thanks to all my readers!
    ———————————–

  2. I lost a pretyped rather large comment. Grrr. Good work on this. Exit Interview referred to the interviewers, not interviewees. It was a good way to develop character and sum up the war a bit. Also, entertaining.

  3. Shortly before the City lay their heads on their pillows that night, the decision was made. — Mixed tenses; use either “laid” or “is made.” And I might write, “…the people of the City…” I know why you’re using the City as a plural, but it still reads a bit awkwardly.

    …knowing fell well… Usually it’s “knowing FULL well.” But “fell” is an interesting word; one of its meanings is “deadly.” So, your call.

    I really like this short chapter, both because it brings us up to date on a lot of people, and because it reminds us that all of the realities meet in the metadream.

    I wonder what it is about the madman at the heart of the Citadel that makes it possible to break all his manifestations with a word?

    • Definitely a mix of all those. Symbol of Insanity was one of the inspirations behind it, the idea that a glyph can drive you bonkers just by looking at it is fascinating to me. But it’s not just “I’m crazy now!”, it’s definitely cutting away every self-delusion you have about who you are and what you’ve become. A total perspective vortex.

  4. Milly’s repeating herself in the last conversation – from “I don’t want you throwing away …” to “… let the living take over” appears twice.

    The Commander’s a cunning and ruthless man, but he doesn’t have much imagination. He ought to be worrying about City people popping up with symbols that kill any Citadel soldier who sees them, or make them attack each other. If they’ll die just for showing Marcy’s word, why not use something more lethal?

    For that matter, the word still lets any City resister take down Citadel soldiers at will. All the Commander’s order does is ensure that every soldier defeated by the word will die or disappear afterward, so they can’t say who showed it to them.

    • The word’s still dangerous, but by ratcheting up the punishment for using it, it discourages casual use. The Citadel WILL investigate missing soldiers, after all, and run down the culprits like dogs. Still, I might edit it so the Commander doesn’t bother putting down the edict; that shelling and destroying the Greasemonkey is statement enough about what the Citadel will do to you if you mess with them.

      The Milly thing is a result of some last-minute edits to drop in some foreshadowing of a major plot twist in the final chapter. (I might be adding in references to it elsewhere in the book, earlier on, as well.) I’ll fix.

  5. Seems like 31. Interviewer doesn’t talk like Echo at all — Or Lucid for that matter.

  6. Sounds to me like Echo.

    And I think I love Annabelle. Some of us prepare all our lives to do good things, and never do. And some of us just do them.

    • Don’t think it’s Echo – Marcy would have been surprised at her looking like Penelope.

      Well said, about doing the right thing.

      • “I can’t see you. I can feel you there, I can feel that blue color, but it’s hard to see you through all this red.”

        Echo’s color is blue, and she is in the meta-dream, where these meetings seem to be taking place. It could be Ellie, I suppose… or, perhaps, the Citadel’s version of Echo.

        • This is one case where strict color theming has kinda bitten me in the butt.

          I was actually going to reveal who the interviewer is in the next scene, but since the mystery seems to be fun, I may dangle it a bit longer. It’ll be clear by the end, though.

  7. 31 dreamhopping?

    So Marcy got what, an aspect of Cass’ Truenamer ability?

    I certainly did not expect to see Annabel again.

    Two minor mistakes:
    career chane -> career change
    if [you] feel you need to have last words

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